Big Ten Spring Review: Northwestern

Our look at the Big Ten schools and how things went in spring continues with Northwestern, which looks to bounce back after a pair of disappointing seasons.

Our review of spring football across the Big Ten concludes with Northwestern, another one of the Big Ten West teams Ohio State will only face if both teams make the Big Ten Championship Game.

Quick 2014 review: The Wildcats dropped their first two games before running off three straight, including a surprising 20-14 home victory over Wisconsin. Then they lost their next four, including a 48-7 rout at Iowa and a 10-9 snoozefest against struggling Michigan. After a rousing overtime win against Notre Dame, Northwestern beat hapless Purdue before seeing bowl hopes dashed by a 47-33 loss to Illinois to close the season.

The Northwestern offense really had nothing it could hang its hat on, finishing 104th nationally in total offense and 100th in rushing yards per game. The passing game wasn’t much better, particularly in terms of pushing the ball downfield. Only one team in the Big Ten was worse than Northwestern in average yards per completion, and the ‘Cats ranked 121st nationally. The defense posted average numbers across the board with notable high points pass efficiency (29th nationally, fifth in the Big Ten) and in the red zone (No. 1 in the Big Ten after being a weakness in 2013).

The Football Outsiders advanced stats do not provide much reason for optimism. The Wildcats had the worst offensive S&P+ in the Big Ten (103 nationally) with a bad run game and worse passing game. They were fairly equally poor on standard and passing downs, ranking 113th and 101st respectively in the nation. The root of the problem? A very poor success rate… and a worse ability to create big plays. Per advanced metrics, the defense was a little bit above average, rankings 47th against the run and 60th against the pass in defensive S&P+. Overall the numbers were fairly strong with a couple of red flags: defensive backs ranked 80th nationally in havoc rate and the defensive line struggled all around on passing downs.

Spring game recap: The Wildcats closed spring ball with a public practice.

Issues addressed: In his appearance on the Big Ten spring teleconference, head coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted he was happy to be able to focus solely on football this spring after the 2014 team worked amid the discussion about whether or not players should have the right to unionize.

Fitzgerald, whose team missed the postseason for the past two seasons after putting together the longest bowl streak in school history, also admitted the Wildcats had a lot of issues to deal with on the field.

He identified offensive line and wide receiver as the top areas of concern, saying improvement at both spots would be critical and neither was close to a finished product.

The Wildcats also don’t know who their starting quarterback will be, and the battle involving fifth-year senior Zach Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson figures to continue during preseason practice.

On the bright side, Northwestern anticipates having a deep backfield that includes Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,187 yards last season as a true freshman, as well as Warren Long, Solomon Vault and Auston Anderson. “Superback” Dan Vitale also returns along with experienced receivers Cam Dickerson, Miles Shuler and Christian Jones, but Fitzgerald emphasized the staff is more than willing to get creative when it comes to finding roles for the running backs.

“We reserve the right to find the best 11 players every play and find ways to get them the ball and help us move the ball down the field and score points,” he said.

As for the defense, eight starters return. However, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, the team’s leading tackler, graduated and long-time starter Ibraheim Campbell is gone from the safeties room, too. On the bright side, the entire defensive line and both starting cornerbacks return. Cornerback Nick VanHoose led the Big Ten in passes defended per game (1.2), but no Wildcats finished in the top 20 in the conference in sacks or tackles for loss.

All in all, Fitzgerald sounded like a coach ready to embrace change in 2015, wherever that might lead.

“Maybe when you look back a couple years ago, we had some experienced guys and they weren't going to get beat out — that wasn't going to happen,” he said on the last day of spring ball. “Well, you know what? There wasn't anybody who was out on that field that was first team All-Big Ten last year. There wasn't a coach that was an assistant coach of the year or head coach of the year out on that field. So we've got a lot of work to do, and I think if you embrace that and don't hide from it, own why we've had mistakes in the past, you can get better. That's what I've seen the guys do.”

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