Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Northwestern Wildcats.
Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers
TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
November 19, 2016, TBA kickoff
Northwestern head coach: Pat Fitzgerald (11th season)
Coordinators: Mick McCall (Offensive coordinator; 9th season) and Mike Hankwitz (defensive coordinator; 9th season)
Northwestern 2015 record – 10-3 (6-2 B1G): The 2015 season was giant success for Northwestern as the Wildcats won ten games on the season including victories over Stanford, Duke and Wisconsin en route to an Outback Bowl berth.
2015 offensive stats: 115th nationally in total offense (327.1 YPG), 114th in scoring offense (19.5 PPG), 119th in passing offense (138.5 YPG), 42nd in rushing offense (188.5 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 13th nationally in total defense (318.9 YPG), 12th in scoring defense (18.6 PPG), 23rd in passing defense (192.8 YPG), 21st in rushing defense (126.2 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Clayton Thorson (1522 yards, 7 TD, 9 INT on 150-of-295 passing): The Wildcats struggled to move the ball through the air last season behind their freshman quarterback ranking 119th in passing per game last season.
Returning leading rusher – RB Justin Jackson (1418 yards, 5 TD on 312 carries): A huge reason that Northwestern was so successful last season was because of their star running back Justin Jackson, and the junior running back is among the best in the Big Ten.
Returning leading receiver – WR Austin Carr (302 yards, 2 TD on 16 catches): The Wildcats spread it around on offense last season as eight different receivers had double digit catches.
Returning leading tackler – LB Anthony Walker (122 tackles): Junior Anthony Walker is already among the best in the Big Ten at his position after accounting for 120+ total tackles last fall to go with 20 tackles for loss.
Returning leader in interceptions – DB Matthew Harris (Four picks): Harris lead the Wildcats in interceptions last fall with four, and comes back looking to improve on that 2015 total.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY ZACH PERELES OF THE INSIDE NU
What was the biggest thing about this Northwestern team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
ZP: The progress shown by Clayton Thorson is the biggest thing I noticed, and of course that's what everyone will be looking to once the season starts. There's no way around it: Thorson was really bad last year, as were his receivers. This offseason — Thorson's first as the undisputed starter — he looked more confident in the pocket going through reads, and he gave his receivers chances to make plays. His accuracy looked much better, as did his decision making. It also helps that the coaches moved former running back Solomon Vault and former cornerback Marcus McShepard to wide receiver. They are two of the best athletes on the team, and they'll both be expected to produce this season.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
ZP: The biggest storyline is Thorson's development. Last year, he didn't look comfortable, he struggled mightily against the blitz, and he had accuracy and decision-making issues. The result was one of the worst passing attacks in the nation. But now he's had a full offseason of first-team reps to develop chemistry and confidence. Next would be the play of the defensive ends. The Wildcats lose two of the best defensive linemen in school history this season, with bookends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson both having moved on to the Packers and Lions, respectively. Replacing them are two athletically-gifted experienced guys, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington. But neither has been able to put it all together to make a solid on-field product. Behind that, there's basically no experience, so Odenigbo and Washington are very important this season. The third big storyline would be the wide receiver play, which goes hand-in-hand with the quarterback play, somewhat. Part of the reason Thorson was so bad was his wide receivers' play. Vault and McShepard should help, but it will be interesting to see who else steps up. Austin Carr is back as a fifth-year senior, and he was solid last year. True freshman slot guy Flynn Nagel looked to be settling in before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Minnesota in Evanston. There are quite a few guys, but none that really stand out as a true No. 1.
What are Northwestern's greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
ZP: The defense should once again be very, very good, especially on the back end. Matthew Harris is an outstanding corner, and Keith Watkins looked good in the considerable time he got last year as the nickel corner and as a starter in a few games. Godwin Igwebuike is just about as athletic as they come at safety, and he finished second on the team in tackles last year. Kyle Queiro takes over for Traveon Henry at the other safety spot, and he's rangier and more athletically-gifted than Henry, a linebacker-turned-safety, was for the Wildcats. The linebackers, led by All-American Anthony Walker, should be one of the nation's best groups. The running backs should once again be very good, too. Justin Jackson is one of the best backs in the nation even if he doesn't get recognized as such. He's on his way to becoming Northwestern's all-time leading rusher. The depth behind him is also exceptional: Warren Long ran for about 5.5 yards per carry and scored five times last year.
What are the Wildcats’ greatest weaknesses?
ZP: Until proven otherwise, the passing game will be the biggest weakness. If the Wildcats can figure that out, they'll be tough to stop, but it's unlikely to be that way at this point. Improved play from Thorson and his receivers is absolutely necessary, but it can't be counted on.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Northwestern and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Gophers?
ZP: The offense should be better, but the defense may regress a bit due to the losses up front. The Wildcats also face a ridiculously hard conference schedule that includes crossover games at Michigan St. and at Ohio St. That alone is enough reason to expect a worse record. If I had to make a record prediction right now, I'd go with 7-5. Minnesota should be much better than it was last year, so this will be a good one. Still, I'll take the Wildcats in a tight, low-scoring affair, 20-13.
You can follow Zach Pereles on Twitter @Zach_Pereles.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin