After possibly the best statistical season by a receiver in school history, senior wideout Austin Carr won the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year award, the conference announced Wednesday.
The former walk-on put up massive numbers in his final year at Northwestern, showing an impressive rapport with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson that formed the backbone of the team’s offense. Carr led the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, finishing with a final line of 84 catches for 1196 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is also one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s top receiver.
From Sept. 10 against Illinois State to Oct. 22 against Indiana, Carr caught a touchdown in six straight games to set a program record. With the Wildcats’ bowl game still remaining, Carr currently is tied for NU’s single-season record in touchdowns and is second in school history in single-season receptions and yards.
Carr was joined on the media’s All-Big Ten first team by junior running back Justin Jackson. Jackson, who was also named to the coaches’ all-conference second team, led the Big Ten in rushing with 1300 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground this season.
Thorson, sophomore guard Tommy Doles and junior superback Garrett Dickerson all received all-conference honorable-mention nods from the Cats’ offense as well. In total, ten NU players were named to All-Big Ten teams or were given honorable mentions.
During Saturday’s game at Iowa, junior linebacker Brett Walsh was carted off the field after an injury suffered during a kickoff return in the third quarter.
Walsh was laying motionless on the field following the play, and trainers removed his jersey and pads before lifting him onto the cart. He gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he was carted off the field following a lengthy delay.
UPDATE (1:36 p.m.): Walsh was taken to a hospital across the street from Kinnick Stadium. He was fully conscious and moving all extremities, according to the team’s official Twitter.
UPDATE (3:00 p.m.): Coach Pat Fitzgerald concluded his post-game press conference saying that all of Walsh’s tests were negative and he will likely be returning to Evanston tonight, though not with the team.
One Northwestern team has found a home during renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, as the athletic department announced in a release Tuesday that the men’s basketball team will play its home games in the 2017-2018 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
The arena, which is a half-hour or more drive from the Wildcats’ Evanston campus, is the current host of DePaul’s basketball teams. With the Blue Demons planning to move into a new downtown arena in the fall of 2017, NU will temporarily take their place as Allstate Arena’s college basketball tenant.
Athletic department spokesman Paul Kennedy said venue size and proximity to Evanston were major factors in the decision to move 2017-2018 home games to Allstate Arena, which seats roughly 18,500. Additionally, he said that the arena’s past experience hosting college basketball games and its ability to commit to a number of necessary open dates played a part in the decision.
Tuesday’s announcement did not discuss arrangements for game-day transportation for students to the arena. Kennedy said providing transportation from Evanston for students is a priority, but a plan to do so isn’t in place yet.
Additionally, Kennedy said that details about plans for the other teams displaced by the renovations, the women’s basketball, volleyball and wrestling teams, will be made public soon.
In June, the athletic department announced plans for a “complete renovation” of Welsh-Ryan Arena, slated to cost roughly $110 million and take place from the end of the 2016-2017 basketball season until the fall of 2018.
This post has been updated with comment from Paul Kennedy.
Northwestern just didn’t have enough on Saturday night.
Its offense struggled with efficiency, its defense struggled to get off the field, and No. 20 Nebraska’s offense, led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., put up 556 total yards in a 24-13 Wildcats defeat.
The game started with a strange play on the Cornhuskers’ first drive, as Nebraska running back Terrell Newby broke free for a 49-yard run but fumbled the ball as he dove untouched for a touchdown. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and NU possession.
The Cornhuskers eventually drew first blood, however, after nailing a 23-yard field goal to take a 3-0 opening lead early in the second. The Cats struck back, though, when Thorson got to the edge on a designed quarterback run and turned on the afterburners on a 42-yard touchdown to give NU a 7-3 lead.
That lead stood briefly after a goal-line stand ended with junior safety Godwin Igwebuike ripping the ball away from Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo and the Cats recovering the fumble. But on the ensuing drive, the Cornhuskers finally broke through for a touchdown after a 59-yard reception by receiver Alonzo Moore set up a short Newby run for six. NU had a chance to tie with a 40-yard field goal at the end of the half but instead chose to attempt a fake, which was unsuccessful.
The Cats got the ball to start the second half, but a Thorson interception on a throw to the end zone stopped a promising drive. Nebraska marched back down the field on the next drive, and Armstrong hit on a four-yard touchdown pass to Cethan Carter on third down to take a 17-7 lead.
NU responded quickly, with Thorson hitting senior wideout Austin Carr for a 24-yard touchdown, but senior kicker Jack Mitchell missed the extra point, leaving the score at 17-13. Mitchell continued his nightmare start to the season after a missed field goal in the first quarter.
From there, Nebraska controlled the game, constantly finding holes in the Cats’ defense through the air and wearing it down on the ground. An end-around touchdown by receiver Jordan Westerkamp late in the third quarter gave Nebraska an insurmountable lead, as NU’s offense couldn’t find a way to score for the rest of the game.
Stats to know
Thorson: 24-for-37, one touchdown, two interceptions; 10 carries for 43 yards and one touchdown.
Justin Jackson: 20 carries for 79 yards
Austin Carr: Career-high eight catches for 109 yards and one touchdown; 392 yards for the season is more than any NU receiver had in 2015
Igwebuike: 15 tackles, forced fumble
Mitchell: 0-for-1 on field goals, 1-for-2 on extra points; now 1-for-4 on field goals for the season.
Armstrong: 246 yards passing with one touchdown, 132 yards rushing
Last year’s Northwestern offense was undeniably punchless, something that needed to change coming into 2016.
In particular, big plays in the passing game were particularly hard to come by last season. The Wildcats’ offense, led by then-first-year quarterback starter Clayton Thorson, rarely put together explosive plays through the air. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has mentioned in multiple press conferences this season that taking more shots downfield is a big part of the team’s plan in 2016.
It took a few weeks for that vision to materialize, but Saturday’s game against Duke might have marked the arrival of the big-play passing attack Fitzgerald is looking for. NU had just 12 pass plays go for 25 yards or more last season. It had five such plays against Duke, including all three of the Cats’ touchdowns.
A lot of pieces need to come together to make a big play happen. The offensive line needs to hold the pocket together long enough for the play to develop, the receiver on the other end needs to get open and the quarterback needs to throw the ball accurately and on-time down the field. Too often last season, one of those components failed, but on NU’s first touchdown of the night against the Blue Devils, everything went according to plan.
The Cats’ offensive line, much maligned following the loss to Illinois State, keeps a clean pocket for Thorson (No. 18) on the play. Junior superback Garrett Dickerson (No. 9) uses a nice burst to get open in the seam, and Thorson hits on the throw for a 26-yard score.
Duke frequently sent blitzers from all over the field to get after Thorson, leaving its secondary stretched thin on some plays. Last season, against heavy pressure, Thorson rarely looked to make the defense pay downfield. But on this play, he stands tall in the pocket and delivers a 44-yard strike with a free rusher bearing down on him.
Junior wideout Solomon Vault (No. 4) is on the receiving end of this touchdown after beating the Blue Devils’ coverage over the top. The kick return specialist adds a speed element on the outside that NU was missing last season, and on this play he demonstrates his potential as a vertical threat taking the top off the defense.
Sometimes, a good design for the defense you face can manufacture a big play, like on the Cats’ final touchdown play in the fourth quarter.
Duke brought the house, rushing seven men and leaving only four back in coverage. NU counters by running crossing routes with senior receiver Austin Carr (No. 80) and sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel (No. 2) from the slot at the top of the screen, hoping to confuse the few defenders left to cover on the play and create an opening. The Blue Devils oblige, as two defenders move towards Nagel, leaving Carr wide open for an easy 58-yard touchdown.
These plays demonstrate a big-play ability through the air that was simply lacking last season. For a few plays Saturday night, the offensive line held up just long enough. Receivers, either through personal talent or smart play design, got open. And Thorson embraced Duke’s pressure and stood tall to make throws down the field.
The passing offense wasn’t perfect by any means, and neither was Thorson, who went just 18-for-39 and threw two picks on the night. But hitting on big plays gives the Cats a margin for error they didn’t have a year ago, and with the defense appearing to be rounding into form, that might be enough to surprise the rest of the way.
Northwestern’s 0-0 double overtime tie against then-No. 3 Indiana was certainly surprising, given the Wildcats’ difficult start to the season, and the goalkeeper who oversaw the shutout received some conference recognition as a result.
Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Robbie White was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after making six saves in Sunday’s game against the Hoosiers, the Big Ten announced Tuesday.
In his first career start for NU, White faced 28 shots and constant pressure from a strong Indiana attack, but he managed to stand tall and make the saves needed when called upon to break the Cats’ five-game losing streak. White is the first NU player to win Defensive Player of the Week since now-graduated goalkeeper Zak Allen won the award in Oct. 2015.
It’s bittersweet news for the young keeper, as the Cats announced today that White will undergo surgery for a lower extremity injury he suffered in the late stages of the game and is expected to miss eight to ten weeks as a result. Nevertheless, White’s auspicious start leaves hope that he can solidify NU’s goalkeeper position in the future.
Despite sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson’s 41 passing attempts in the loss against Illinois State on Saturday, Northwestern is a run-first team.
The offense’s best player is junior running back Justin Jackson, and the Wildcats are right to try to build their offense around his abilities. But a runner can only be as good as the guys in front of him, and Saturday’s game against the Redbirds exposed serious issues along the offensive line that brought NU’s offense to its knees in the defeat.
A major staple of the Cats’ rushing attack is the outside zone play, a wide run where the offensive linemen, rather than blocking a specific player at the snap, move laterally and look for players to block in the zone around them as the play develops. Meanwhile, the running back runs outside until he sees a hole form, makes a cut upfield and accelerates through the crease. The keys to a good outside zone team are an athletic offensive line comfortable making blocks in space and a runner who has the vision and decisiveness to take advantage of the holes in front of him.
When it works, it can look brilliant — like Jackson’s 46-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan in Week 1.
Sophomore guard Tommy Doles (No. 71) moves well to his right on the play and gets enough of a Broncos linebacker to keep him out of the hole, while Western Michigan’s safety to that side of the field overpursues to the outside, leaving a big crease that Jackson exploits. It’s the quintessential outside zone run— using finesse and patience, waiting for the hole to emerge and cutting hard upfield when the opportunity arises.
On paper, NU’s offensive line seemed to have a major advantage against the undersized defensive front of Illinois State. But on the same outside zone plays that worked against Western Michigan, the Redbirds’ quickness seemed to be too much for the Cats’ bigger offensive line, who looked a step slow repeatedly and failed to establish this key weapon in NU’s arsenal.
Here’s an example early in the game of a missed block leading to penetration that killed the play before it started.
Sophomore left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) is slow off the line and whiffs on a block of an Illinois State lineman at the line of scrimmage, leaving the pulling junior center Brad North (No. 69) to clean up the mess in the backfield. North can’t do much about it, forcing Jackson to hesitate and resulting in a loss on the play, but it was Hance’s inability to connect at the line that led to the stop.
Sometimes, the Cats’ linemen just weren’t quick enough to make the blocks they needed to, like the pulling Doles on this play.
Doles is unable to move quickly enough to his left to make the block on a Redbirds’ linebacker, who penetrates and picks up the stop at the line. That play put NU behind the sticks on the drive, and the Cats ultimately went three-and-out.
NU’s version of the outside zone play frequently asks its linemen to pull and act as lead blockers for the running back, as in the plays above. Even when the blocks are solid, that can leave the Cats susceptible to backside pursuit, like on this play.
A quick burst off the line from an Illinois State defensive tackle right into the space vacated by the pulling Doles gave that play no chance from the start.
The outside zone asks a lot of offensive linemen athletically and forces them to make some difficult decisions and blocks on the move, and against the Redbirds, NU’s offensive line wasn’t up to the task. With the Cats unable to find success with one of their bread-and-butter plays on early downs, they were forced to rely on the arm of Thorson, with predictably inconsistent results. And if the team struggled this much to establish the outside zone against an FCS opponent, doing so against Big Ten defenses could be an insurmountable task.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald hinted that some personnel changes could be in the works, although the starting offensive line was unchanged in Monday’s official depth chart. Beyond that, NU might be wise to consider changing up their game plan running the ball, mixing in some simple downhill plays to make the line’s job easier or some zone read carries by Thorson to slow down defensive pursuit.
Whatever the remedy, the Cats can’t keep going back to the outside zone if they can’t run it effectively. A run-first team that can’t run the ball generally loses, and NU found that out the hard way Saturday.
Senior cornerback Matthew Harris is expected to miss Saturday’s game against Duke, coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Monday’s press conference.
Harris suffered an upper-body injury while covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Illinois State. He walked off the field and into the locker room with the help of trainers and was ruled out for the remainder of the game shortly afterwards
Losing Harris for any amount of time is a big blow for Northwestern, as the captain is a major part of a banged-up Wildcats’ secondary and was named to the All-Big Ten third team after his work last season. Redshirt freshman cornerback Trae Williams took over after Harris’ injury Saturday and will likely be asked to fill in until he returns.
Williams and sophomore Montre Hartage are listed on the Week 3 depth chart as NU’s starters, and true freshmen Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are backups. Redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo, who saw some playing time against Illinois State but also left with an injury, did not appear on the Week 3 two-deep.
After losing their opening game against the MAC’s Western Michigan, the Wildcats managed to hit a new low by losing on a last-second field goal at home to FCS team Illinois State, 9-7.
Redbirds quarterback Jake Kolbe threw for 287 yards and the Illinois State offense did just enough to hold off NU, who falls to 0-2 on the season.
The Cats opted to lean on sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson offensively, as Thorson threw a career-high 41 times while junior running back Justin Jackson got just 11 carries before exiting the game in the fourth quarter. But the offense never truly got into gear, giving the Redbirds a chance to pull the upset.
Meanwhile, NU’s defense gave up 369 yards to the Redbirds but came up with some timely big plays to keep the game within reach throughout, including an interception in the end zone by sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage in the second quarter and another pick by sophomore safety Jared McGee in the third.
The first half was a struggle for both teams, but after taking over with 5:49 left in the second quarter, the Redbirds marched down the field in 11 plays and punctuated the drive with a six-yard touchdown run from running back George Moreira late in the half, breaking the deadlock and giving Illinois State a 6-0 lead at halftime.
The second half looked a lot like the first for NU, until a 12-play, 55-yard drive by the Cats ended with a fourth-down touchdown throw from Thorson to senior receiver Austin Carr that ended up deciding the game. After senior kicker Jack Mitchell hit the extra point, NU took a one point lead that it wouldn’t relinquish until the game-ending kick.
Northwestern stats to know
Clayton Thorson: 17-for-41 with 191 yards and one touchdown
Justin Jackson: 11 carries for 39 yards, did not play for much of the fourth quarter
Austin Carr: Career-high seven catches for 73 yards