Ben Pope

Advance Scouting: Indiana Hoosiers

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Advance Scouting: Indiana Hoosiers
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

On a week-by-week basis, Northwestern and Indiana have been complete opposites this season.

The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) have lost, lost, won, lost, won and won. The Hoosiers (3-3, 1-2) have won, won, lost, won, lost and lost.

But even polar opposite first halves of their respective regular seasons have brought the two Big Ten foes to the same point — 3 wins, 3 losses — with potential to break out as solid teams in the second half.

A mere 1.5-point spread separates the two teams entering this Saturday’s homecoming matchup in Evanston, when Indiana will seek to end a four-game losing streak against NU that dates back to 2009.

Indiana’s biggest strength: Its defense. Under the eye of new defensive coordinator Tom Allen, the Hoosiers’ defense has been one of the biggest surprises of the Big Ten this season, moving from 121st in the nation last season to 49th this season.

Although the team lost its last two games, both against elite opponents — 38-17 vs. No. 2 Ohio State, then 27-22 vs. No. 8 Nebraska this past weekend — its defense recorded arguably its best two performances yet. The unit allowed just 19 completions combined for Heisman Trophy candidates J.T. Barrett (9-for-21 for 93 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception vs. Indiana) and Tommy Armstrong (10-for-26, 208 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions).

Led by linebacker Tegray Scales, who ranks fifth in the country in solo tackles, and cornerback Rashard Fant, who ranks third in the country with 10 pass breakups, the Indiana defense is improving with each week and will pose a stiff challenge for Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Austin Carr.

Indiana’s biggest weakness: The offensive side of the ball, long the staple of Indiana football, has faded almost as quickly as its defense has risen.

The offensive line lost four starters from last season and has struggled in the big, physical trench battles of the Big Ten. That’s hurting the Hoosiers’ run game, as former 1,000-yard running back Devine Redding has begun to slow down (135 yards in the last two games vs. 245 in the first two) and the Hoosiers have sorted through a half-dozen other runners without finding anyone particularly effective.

Meanwhile, first-year starting quarterback Richard Lagow has proven interception-prone: he’s tossed nine picks in his last four games, including five in an ugly 33-28 home loss to Wake Forest on Sept. 24. Lagow does, however, still rank second in the conference in passing yards to date.

Indiana’s biggest question mark: Can the Hoosiers take advantage of their steady improvement and soft second-half schedule to jump into the Big Ten’s upper echelon?

A long, bleak period of Hoosier football — which includes just one winning season (a 7-6 campaign in 2007) in the last 21 years — appears to be on the verge of giving way to a much brighter era.

Indiana stands at .500 with just one more tough game (at Michigan), should-win games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue and could-win games against NU and Penn State comprising the rest of its remaining schedule. A strong closing stretch, starting with a win in what should be a well-matched showdown on Saturday against the Cats, could launch the Hoosiers into unprecedented realms of success.

But will Indiana be able to overcome its lack of experience and capitalize on the opportunity to change the reputation of the program moving forward?

Advance Scouting: Michigan State

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Advance Scouting: Michigan State
(Daily file photo by Jacob Morgan)

When Northwestern last traveled to East Lansing, Michigan — Nov. 17, 2012 — the Wildcats encountered a Michigan State team struggling due to poor play at the quarterback position.

Despite touting future NFL star Le’Veon Bell at running back, the Spartans were hampered by quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who completed just 22-of-46 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions that day as NU emerged with a 23-20 victory.

Two games later, Michigan State made the bold decision to switch to backup Connor Cook midway through their bowl game. They rallied to beat TCU and then rode Cook to a 13-1 record the following season, including a 30-6 romp over the Cats in Evanston — the two teams’ most recent overall meeting.

Now, with NU returning to East Lansing Saturday, the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) find themselves in a similar situation to 2012.

The defending conference champions have lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2009: a 30-6 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin, a 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana and then a demoralizing 31-14 defeat at home against BYU last week. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has faltered recently, and coach Mark Dantonio has hinted about upcoming personnel changes.

All of that in mind, the Cats will seek to exploit a historically strong program that finds itself at its weakest point in years.

Michigan State’s biggest strengths: In the standard Big Ten mold, Michigan State is effective running the ball and stingy against the run. 

The Spartans have allowed just 3.6 yards per carry this season, good for 32nd in the nation — nothing new for a team that has finished each of the past five seasons ranked in the top 25 in the category. They’ve managed only 16 tackles for loss this season, excluding sacks, but have also surrendered few lengthy runs, keeping opponent running backs consistently near the line of scrimmage.

On the offensive side of the ball, running back L.J. Scott proved a reliable, smashmouth runner during his 2015 freshman campaign, which he finished with a career-high 22 carries in the Big Ten Championship Game. Gerald Holmes also had his share of big performances, including a 117-yard explosion against Nebraska.

This fall, Scott racked up 203 total yards in Michigan State’s season-opening wins against Furman and Notre Dame combined, but he has struggled since and was out-touched 15-3 by Holmes against BYU. The Spartans will likely hit NU with a steady dose of the two runners.

Michigan State’s biggest weakness: Michigan State’s vaunted defensive line, featuring projected first-round pick Malik McDowell, has produced a mere five sacks in five games (the Cats, by comparison, have 12) — and zero in the last two games.

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill not only avoided sacks but also scrambled for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Third downs have been an issue on both sides of the ball, as well.

Indiana and BYU were both above 50 percent on third-down conversion rate against the Spartans’ defense — 9-for-16 and 10-for-16, respectively. Meanwhile, Michigan State has converted only 33 percent of its own third down situations in the last three games; that would rank 112th in the country on its own and has dropped the team’s season average (38.6 percent) to 73rd.

Michigan State’s biggest question mark: The team’s quarterback controversy has dominated storylines in East Lansing over the past several days.

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor first showed cracks against Wisconsin, completing only 18-of-38 passes for zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and then was benched in favor of junior Damion Terry during the BYU loss. Freshman and former highly-touted recruit Brian Lewerke — who has only four career pass attempts — is also in the mix.

Dantonio has avoided commenting on the situation and no starter has yet been announced for this coming weekend. Inexperienced NU cornerbacks Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo could have an easier-than-usual matchup against whichever signal caller they face.

Advance Scouting: Iowa

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Advance Scouting: Iowa
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern will hit the road on Saturday for the first time this season against an Iowa team that hammered the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) each of the last two meetings.

The Hawkeyes throttled NU 48-7 in Iowa City in 2014 before spoiling Evanston’s 2015 homecoming with a 40-10 win last year en route to an undefeated regular season.

Iowa (3-1, 1-0) has shown more signs of weakness this fall, however, falling to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 23-21 two weeks ago — the Hawkeyes’ first home loss since November 2014 — before narrowly edging Big Ten bottom-dweller Rutgers 14-7 last week.

The running game on both sides of the ball generally tends to determine the course of Iowa’s games, and this week’s matchup against the Cats — despite offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s newfound affinity for passing plays — is likely to be more of the game.

Iowa’s biggest strength: Iowa running back Akrum Wadley always comes to play against Northwestern.

Wadley rumbled for 106 yards and a touchdown in his first 15 career touches against NU in 2014, then replaced star rusher Jordan Canzeri, who was injured early on in the 2015 meeting, and ripped off 26 carries for 204 yards and four touchdowns.

Wadley is still working in a time-share with fellow running back LeShun Daniels this season — Daniels has 52 carries to Wadley’s 37 to date — but Wadley is more involved in the passing game, has been more efficient with his touches (7.4 vs. 5.8 yards per carry) and was the team’s leading rusher on Saturday against Rutgers.

If history is any indication, the junior from New Jersey could pose a massive threat to the Cats this weekend.

Iowa’s biggest weakness: The rushing defense has struggled almost as much as the rushing offense has excelled for the Hawkeyes.

North Dakota State relied almost exclusively on the run in their upset win, rushing 49 times to 19 pass attempts and racking up 239 yards on the ground, before Rutgers pounded out an additional 193 yards on the ground the following week. Iowa now ranks 86th in the nation in rush defense.

The onus to fix those problems falls most squarely on star linebacker Josey Jewell, whose tackling production has stayed about even with last year, and defensive end Parker Hesse, who has been very quiet. Keeping Jewell and Hesse blocked consistently will be crucial for NU.

Biggest question: Which team will have more success on critical third downs?

Neither the Cats nor the Hawkeyes have done well in third-down situations this season: Iowa ranks 83rd with a 37.2 percent efficiency rate, while NU is just behind in 89th at 36.1 percent.

The two foes’ similar struggles in that regard have led, as would be expected, to issues in controlling the ball: both teams have recorded over 30 minutes of possession just once in four games each.

Whichever offense can keep drives moving and control the clock seems likely to prevail come Saturday.

Advance Scouting: Nebraska

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Advance Scouting: Nebraska
(Daily file photo by Bobby Pillote)

Four of the last five meetings between Northwestern (1-2) and No. 20 Nebraska (3-0) have been decided by three points or less, including a 30-28 triumph by the Wildcats on the road last year.

But the Cornhusker team that NU will face in this year’s Big Ten-opening game is significantly more experienced and confident than the one that struggled mightily in close games en route to a 6-7 season in 2015.

Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive weapons — including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., running backs Devine Ozigbo and Terrell Newby and receiver Jordan Westerkamp — are back this season and helped the Cornhuskers upset then-No. 22 Oregon 35-32 last week to vault to No. 20 in the national rankings.

The “Big Red” will ride that momentum into Evanston this Saturday in the two Big Ten West foes’ conference opener.

Nebraska’s biggest strength: Dual-threat quarterback Armstrong has been dangerous both on the ground and through the air throughout his career.

Armstrong threw for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and added an additional 529 yards (excluding sacks) and seven touchdowns rushing in 2015, after posting similar stats in 2014. He threw it 48 times against the Cats but completed only half of those attempts for 291 yards.

Now entering his third and final season at the helm for Nebraska, Armstrong has been much more mistake-free in his passing — he’s thrown only one interception in three games after 16 last year — and had one of the best rushing games of his career against Oregon with 95 yards.

Armstrong is complemented by a pair of excellent receivers: longtime No. 1 wideout Westerkamp and emerging deep threat Alonzo Moore (26.4 yards per catch so far).

Nebraska’s biggest weakness: The pass rush struggled to generate pressure and the secondary showed holes in 2015, giving opposing quarterbacks the time to find open receivers and opposing receivers the time to get downfield.

That equated to the 121st-ranked pass defense (out of 127 teams) and 60 opponent completions of 20 or more yards, the fourth-most allowed in the nation.

Those major issues have yet to show themselves so far this season, but Oregon tried to pass just 23 times against them — the Cornhuskers’ coverage hasn’t been tested much.

Only one defensive lineman, end Ross Dzuris, has recorded a sack, and the rest of the line has been largely quiet on the stat sheet. The secondary also lost two of its four starters from a year ago.

Nebraska’s biggest question: Can the Cornhuskers stay focused after upsetting Oregon?

Nebraska coach Mike Riley said at his team’s press conference Monday that it would be the last time he would talk about the Oregon game, and Westerkamp said he was confident he and his teammates would be able to focus solely forward on Northwestern.

But the Cornhuskers haven’t picked up a win as big as Saturday’s triumph over the Ducks in years, and a matchup against the 1-2 Cats might not inspire the same intensity. Nebraska lost at home to NU last year the week after a big 23-point road win over Minnesota.

Advance Scouting: Duke

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Advance Scouting: Duke
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

A week after a heartbreaking 9-7 loss to Illinois State, Northwestern will host their first night game of the season against Duke, another Power-5 conference team that was upset at home Saturday.

The Blue Devils dropped a 24-14 decision to Wake Forest in Durham after taking a 7-0 lead early, their first loss in the annual matchup since 2011. The game was largely decided on the ground, where Wake Forest out-rushed Duke 239-37.

The loss is a worrisome sign for a Duke team that has become a perennially strong team under coach David Cutcliffe after decades of mediocrity. The Blue Devils have gone to a bowl game four years in a row and went 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana in 2015, despite losing 19-10 to Northwestern early in the season.

The Cats will square off against Duke this year at perhaps a critical moment for both teams — NU attempting to right the ship after a disastrous start to the season, and Duke seeking to avoid a similar situation as the Cats.

Duke’s biggest strength: The pass defense that essentially shut down NU last season returns almost all of its key players — except for star safety Jeremy Cash, gone to the NFL — and has gotten off to a great start to 2016.

Duke held Clayton Thorson to just 70 yards and two interceptions on 9-of-23 passing last September, and only a Solomon Vault kick return touchdown and 55-yard Warren Long run got the Cats into the end zone.

The unit ultimately didn’t have the best of seasons — they ranked 81st in opponent pass efficiency — but they’ve looked much-improved through the first two weeks this autumn.

A group of four seniors (cornerbacks DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders and safeties Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton) held FCS team N.C. Central to 7-of-25 passing for 74 yards and an interception, then Wake Forest to 9-of-16 passing for 150 yards and another interception.

Duke’s biggest weakness: The offensive and defensive lines have been an issue for Duke, as they have for NU.

The Blue Devils’ defensive front was destined for a rebuilding year: four of the top five tacklers from 2015 graduated, with only tackle A.J. Wolf returning. Wake Forest gashed the defense for 239 total yards, including a huge performance by running back Cade Carney, who carried 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.

Of even greater concern has been the offensive line.

Duke managed only 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest, and quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked five times. New starters Zach Baker and Austin Davis are struggling to develop chemistry with the rest of the unit.

This could be exactly the matchup that the Cats need to regain some confidence in their own lines, which senior guard Connor Mahoney said “got (their) butts kicked” against Illinois State.

Duke’s biggest question: Can redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones replace injured senior Thomas Sirk’s production and leadership?

The Blue Devils were dealt a tremendous blow before the season even started when Sirk, a senior, tore his Achilles for the third time in his collegiate career in practice and was ruled out for the season. Sirk lead the team in both passing and running last season.

Jones was sheltered in the opener against N.C. Central before being forced to throw it 48 times against Wake Forest, with some but not a ton of success. He also ran it 19 times for only a net of six yards, including sacks.

Duke isn’t a team with a robust crop of dangerous running backs, so multidimensional effectiveness from the quarterback position is necessary for their offense to function. The jury is still out on whether or not Jones can provide that.

Advance Scouting: Illinois State

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Advance Scouting: Illinois State
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

After a heartbreaking loss to up-and-coming Western Michigan, Northwestern must now look ahead to a matchup against another team that may well be the best in their conference.

Fortunately for the Cats, this time the conference in question is the FCS-level Missouri Valley Football Conference and not the FBS-level Mid-American Conference.

Illinois State (1-0) will roll into Evanston after a 10-3 campaign in 2015, tying for the MVFC regular-season title with a 7-1 conference record and ultimately advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs, as well as a dominant season-opening win over Valparaiso on Saturday.

It’s still a likely win for NU, no doubt. FBS teams were 43-4 against FCS foes in college football’s opening weekend and the Cats won 41-0 last year against an Eastern Illinois team that Illinois State then beat only 34-31 the following week. (Illinois State did lose to Iowa by only a 31-14 score, however.)

Still, this matchup will likely be more difficult than coach Pat Fitzgerald expected when it was scheduled several years ago.

Last time out: Illinois State hammered Valparaiso 50-13 at home on Saturday to begin their season.

Valparaiso’s football program is perennially weak — they’re 9-69 dating back to 2009 and went 1-9 last year — but the Redbirds still had an impressive showing in the game, using seven different runners to rack up 271 rushing yards (compared to Valparaiso’s mere 22).

Biggest Strength: The offensive and defensive lines for Illinois State return a lot of experience from last year’s excellent squads.

The entire five-man offensive line unit started all 13 games last year and is back again in its entirety this season. Center Mark Spelman earned all-MVFC honors, while left guard Kyle Avaloy was second-team all-MVFC.

The group paved the way for the Redbirds to rank tied for fifth in the FCS in yards-per-rush attempt last year and could pose a major obstacle for the Cats, which struggled mightily to penetrate Western Michigan’s O-line and get pressure on quarterback Zach Terrell on Saturday.

On the other side of the ball, Illinois State also returns three defensive line starters from a defense that allowed only 21.2 points per game last year. Nose guard Dalton Keene and tackle Matt McCown are the leaders of a unit that isn’t particularly aggressive (not many sacks) but is hard to push downfield.

Biggest Weakness: The passing game remains a huge uncertainty for Illinois State after the graduation of two-time All-MVFC quarterback Tre Roberson.

Sophomore Jake Kolbe, a Naperville Central product, started for the first time in his career against Valparaiso and wasn’t tested much, completing 11 of 19 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Kolbe has a solid cast of receivers to work with — headliner Anthony Warrum’s 1,290 yards a year ago ranked third in school history and he was one of just four FCS receivers named to the CFPA National Performer of the Year Watch List for 2016 — but the passing attack will soon be facing an NU secondary unlike any they’ve seen before.

Biggest Question: Can Illinois State contain Justin Jackson?

Even in the Western Michigan loss, Jackson appeared to be in prime mid-season form, mixing his standard up-the-middle rushes with some explosive long plays that haven’t always been a big part of his game.

Against an FCS foe like Illinois State, Fitzgerald will likely look to keep the ball on the ground even more often, and Jackson will be a tough assignment for a Redbirds linebacking corps that the team’s own media guide describes as the “most thin” positional group.

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, The Daily will take an early look at Northwestern’s opponent, breaking down the biggest facets of the game. Up first is the Wildcats’ Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan.

The last (and only) time Western Michigan traveled to Northwestern — Sept. 14, 2013 — coach P.J. Fleck had just inherited a basement-of-the-MAC team that was no match for the Wildcats, losing 38-17, and eventually went 1-11 on the season.

The Broncos’ trip to Evanston this Saturday has a much different feel.

Since that rough 2013 campaign, Fleck has led Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and returns all of the weapons in an offense that was one of the most explosive in the country last season. Senior receiver Corey Davis is projected to be the first WR off the board in next spring’s NFL draft and the Broncos enter the season as the favorite to win their first-ever MAC title.

The Cats will have their hands full with upset-minded Western Michigan in this weekend’s season opener. Below is a more detailed scouting report on the Broncos’ most pressing strength, weakness and question mark.

Biggest Strength: Entire offense

The combination of senior quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis forms the backbone of the Broncos’ offense and will provide a big test for NU’s “Sky Team” secondary.

Terrell completed 67 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions last season, ranking 8th in FBS in yards per attempt (Clayton Thorson, by comparison, was 118th).

And although he loses his top volume receiver in Daniel Braverman, he’ll still have Davis, and that could be all he and the Broncos need.

The 6’3”, 215-pound receiver has reportedly bulked up in the offseason after a 1,436-yard season in 2015, averaging more than 10 yards each time he was targeted and more than 130 yards per game over the latter half of the season.

While NU cornerbacks Matthew Harris and thrust-into-action Montre Hartage are challenged by Terrell and Davis, the Broncos could be able to take advantage of the relatively sparse box with a multi-headed rushing attack.

Western Michigan was actually nearly as good of a running team (30th in the nation) as a passing team (27th) last season and did so with a three-speared attack composed of a sophomore and two freshman, all of whom return. They can attack NU’s rush defense in every way with 6’1, 228-pound wrecking ball Jarvion Franklin charging up the middle and undersized scatbacks Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 touchdowns last year) and LeVante Bellamy racing for the edges.

Biggest weakness: Rush defense

Western Michigan’s most gaping hole just happens to align perfectly with NU’s most definite strength, which will provide a much-needed target for the Cats to exploit Saturday.

The Broncos’ rush defense allowed 5.3 yards per carry in 2015, ranking 117th among 128 FBS teams. Their linebacking corps fluctuated wildly week to week last season, as no combination seemed able to consistently stop the run. Additionally, five of the top eight tacklers (excluding the secondary) graduated in the offseason.

Indeed, in their losses last year, it was opponent’s rush games that most frequently burned them.

Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 124 yards on 16 carries in a 38-12 rout; Georgia Southern racked up a whopping 413 team rush yards in their 43-17 win; Northern Illinois’ Jordan Huff ripped off 159 yards on just eight carries against the Broncos; even Eastern Michigan, which ranked 85th in rushing offense for the season, recorded 226 yards on the ground against the Broncos.

Justin Jackson, Warren Long and even scrambling-minded Clayton Thorson should be excited for this matchup.

Biggest question: Can Broncos handle Big Ten-level play?

Western Michigan is no stranger to Big Ten teams — it faced two great ones last year (Michigan State and Ohio State) and has played 14 games against the Big Ten over the past seven years, including bowl games  — but the team is a stranger to success in those matchups: Western Michigan lost all 14 of those games.

Since beating Illinois 23-17 in late 2008, the Broncos have been occasionally competitive, but never the victors, against their “big brother” Midwest conference. If this year’s loaded team is to prove it’s a different Western Michigan than in the past, it will need to break that slump by beating Northwestern.

The national ESPNU cameras will be there, the media has jumped on board their bandwagon and even the betting lines (NU minus-5) are remarkably close — but can the Broncos live up to the hype?

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson has said he’ll try to diversify the rushing attack more this season, but that doesn’t mean junior Justin Jackson won’t remain the centerpiece of the unit — and the entire offense.

Jackson was, indisputably, the most reliable and talented aspect of the Wildcats’ attack last season, but he was by no means explosive. Despite ranking third in the nation with 312 carries, he managed just 25 runs of longer than 10 yards, or about 1.9 such runs per game.

However, Jackson’s ability to pound the ball for medium-distance gains proved invaluable for the Cats’ conservative offense, and his durability and even improvement as the carries piled up was a major reason why the team ended the regular season with five straight close victories.

The “Ball Carrier” ran for at least 116 yards in each of the final four regular season games and tallied three of his five total touchdowns during that stretch, as well. As the days grew colder and Jackson’s workload increased from 14 carries per game in October to 31 carries per game in November, he actually said he felt better physically than he did earlier in the season.

MacPherson, coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff — as well as Jackson himself — certainly know that inexplicable trend isn’t sustainable, though, and will need to take greater action to preserve their best offensive player in 2016.

Other units should be able to help the cause. A more seasoned Clayton Thorson should be expected to throw the ball more. A speedier receiving group should be able to force opposing linebackers and defensive backs farther downfield from the line of scrimmage.

And a healthier offensive line should be able to closer emulate its performance against Stanford last year, when it steadily pushed back the Cardinal’s bigger defense, rather than its performance for the 2015 season as a whole: 89th in stuff rate (carries for zero or negative yards), 116th in sack rate.

Nevertheless, the most critical step will be to spread the carries around more liberally.

Senior Warren Long was a solid change-of-pace back in 2015, finding the endzone just as often as Jackson (five times) and actually averaging a full yard more per carry (5.5 vs. 4.5). Yet he touched the ball only 63 times to Jackson’s 333 — ideally, 60 to 80 more of those touches should be in Long’s hands in 2016.

Long, who is one inch taller and 17 pounds bigger than Jackson and hasn’t fumbled since 2013, could be used for the majority of up-the-middle runs — always a favorite of offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

A pair of speedsters, sophomore Auston Anderson and redshirt freshman John Moten IV, will also compete for occasional carries (and for heavy playing time late in routs).

MacPherson told the Daily in April the competition within the unit should motivate all of the backs to improve, but the team has struggled to get them all healthy and competing at the same time this offseason. Long missed spring camp recovering from surgery and Anderson has been absent for the team’s last two scrimmages this August.

Somehow, Jackson — throughout all of the bruising he’s taken over the past two seasons and even back in high school — has been the one staying injury-free, and that is a good sign. For all of the talk about balancing the workload, there’s no question that Jackson remains the most dangerous playmaker on NU’s roster.

Jackson has a tendency to find a rhythm when he’s heavily involved in the offense: in games where he’s carried 20 times or more, he’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry, versus 3.4 yards per carry in game with fewer than 20 carries.

With that in mind, the Cats could try to aim for that 20-carry marker while limiting or eliminating his 30-or-more-carry games (of which he had four last season).

One way or another, though, Jackson needs to be toting the rock frequently for the Cats.

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Soccer: Northwestern looks for rebound season

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Soccer: Northwestern looks for rebound season
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Back in Evanston after playing last year’s home games at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, Northwestern will attempt to recover from a disappointing 2015 campaign without a few key departed stars.

Midfielder Cole Missimo and forward Joey Calistri, the second-leading scorer in NU history, have both moved on to the professional ranks and goalkeeper Zak Allen, who led the Big Ten in saves last season, has also graduated.

But the Wildcats do return five of their top seven scorers from last year’s team, including senior forward Mike Roberge and sophomore midfielder Camden Buescher — one of the team’s most reliable starters as a freshman a year ago. On the back end, a foursome of freshman defenders will be tasked with replacing departed seniors Henry Herrill and Nati Schnitman, and junior Francisco Tomasino will be the eldest goalkeeper on the roster in Allen’s absence.

This new-look roster will be tasked with restarting the program’s 12-year streak of .500-or-better seasons that was snapped last fall.

Despite being outshot by a massive 308-158 margin over the course of the season, a number of dramatic late victories gave NU an outside shot at the 2015 Big Ten regular-season title entering the final game of the regular season. However, a road loss to bottom-dweller Wisconsin, followed by another defeat in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, doomed the team’s opportunity for an improbable conference championship and for an NCAA Tournament bid.  

Fortunately, the nomadic schedule of a year ago — the Cats played six home games in the Chicago Fire’s stadium in Bridgeview and two others at the homes of Loyola and Illinois-Chicago — won’t be a problem this season.

Coach Tim Lenahan’s team will play its first game at Lakeside Field in more than 21 months on Aug. 26, hosting Florida Gulf Coast in the season opener. Non-conference dates with Santa Clara, Denver and Marquette then lead up to the Big Ten opener Sept. 9 at Ohio State.

NU will host matches against three of its Chicago-area rivals (DePaul, UIC and Loyola) later in the season and also make a return to Toyota Park when the Cats face Notre Dame on Oct. 18. The 17-game regular season slate will conclude Oct. 30 against Penn State, with the conference tournament scheduled the following week.

With a more travel-friendly schedule and another year of experience under the belts of most of the starters, the Cats could be poised for a bounce-back season.

Cornerback Keith Watkins II to miss 2016 season with knee injury

Cornerback Keith Watkins II to miss 2016 season with knee injury
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

In a major blow to Northwestern’s secondary, junior cornerback Keith Watkins II will miss the 2016 season with a knee injury, the program announced Tuesday.

As the No. 3 cornerback on the roster last year, Watkins II was a valuable fill-in player in the secondary. He tied for ninth on the team with 41 tackles and tied for third with six passes broken up.

“I’m really disappointed for him, he’s worked so hard, but we’ve got great depth at that position (and I’m) excited about the guys that now get that opportunity from somebody else’s tough situation,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said via a video on the team’s Twitter account.

Watkins II said via the video that he twisted his left knee in practice last week but played through it until it swelled up after practice. He will have surgery next week.

He had nine tackles, including eight solo tackles, in a breakout performance against Iowa before following it up with eight tackles the following week against Nebraska. With cornerback Nick VanHoose injured for the Outback Bowl against Tennessee, Watkins II recorded a career-high three pass break-ups.

The injury will leave NU more shorthanded than expected at cornerback after VanHoose’s graduation and junior Marcus McShepard’s spring position transfer to wide receiver. Fitzgerald named sophomore Montre Hartage, redshirt freshman Trae Williams and redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo as possible replacements for the cornerback spot opposite returning starter senior Matthew Harris.