The Wildcats will have 19 games on the Big Ten Network over the course of the season. In addition, NU will have 3 games covered by ESPN. The Cats’ two match-ups against Rutgers on Jan. 12 and Feb. 18 will both be on ESPNU, while their game at Penn State on Dec. 27 will feature on ESPN2.
The schedule this year poses some different challenges for NU this season. After taking out Wisconsin at home in arguable their strongest win of the season, the Cats will have to travel to Madison to play the Badgers on the road this year. In addition, NU will lose its home-court advantage that it had against Michigan State last season, as the Cats will travel to play the Spartans on Dec. 30.
However, Northwestern does have some home games that may play to its advantage. In changes from last season, Iowa comes to Evanston to play at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Jan. 15, and NU will get Michigan at home this year late in the season on Mar. 1.
Until then, the Cats will look to tip things off in their home opener against Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 11 at 7:00 p.m.
After taking out Purdue 2-0 for their ninth-straight victory on Sunday, the Wildcats jumped to No. 21 in the NSCAA Coaches Poll released Tuesday.
This is the highest Northwestern has been ranked all season, as the team ranked 24th on Sept. 6 before dropping out of the rankings last week. The Cats joined Minnesota, Penn State and Rutgers as Big Ten teams among the Top 25.
NU has been on a tear recently and hasn’t allowed a goal in the month of September. The only goal the Cats have allowed all season was in a 2-1 win over DePaul on Aug. 25 in their third match.
As it begins to enter the heart of Big Ten play, competition should heat up for NU. On Friday, the Cats will take on No. 22 Rutgers, their first ranked opponent of the year. NU managed to take out Rutgers 1-0 at home last year, but the Scarlet Knights have already proven their might this year, as they topped No. 23 Connecticut 2-0 on Aug. 28, and are coming off a national semifinals appearance last season.
After finishing up a six-match home-stand with the win over the Boilermakers, NU will be on the road for the next two weeks as it look to keep up the momentum from its perfect start to the season.
Despite Northwestern’s strong 10-win season in 2015, there’s still a great deal of improvement to be made at offensive line. The Wildcats were plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season. However, if NU can solidify a starting five that works consistently and cooperatively all season, the Cats’ offense will take a massive step forward.
With a lineup composed largely of upperclassmen, NU’s offensive line struggled to develop any continuity, as 10 different Cats players started at line throughout last season. In addition, NU had significant trouble with pass protection. They ranked No. 101 out of 128 schools in adjusted sack rate, a metric that modifies sack rate based on strength of schedule.
In addition to the problems the offensive line had with protecting then-redshirt-freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson last season, statistics surprisingly show that the Cats’ run-blocking was also poor. Although running back Justin Jackson ran for more than 1,400 yards last season during his sophomore campaign, it was more a result of Jackson’s volume and talent than the line’s run-blocking.
NU ranked No. 110 in the country in power success rate, or the conversion rate of runs that are two yards or less. On top of this, the Cats found themselves at below-average in six other run-blocking statistics. The offensive line certainly has room to grow in 2016, but if the Cats can establish stability, their entire offense has potential to thrive.
The Cats’ offensive line is mostly veterans. Senior Eric Olson was a staple at right tackle for NU last year, and he should continue to do so in his final year. In addition, coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated that senior Connor Mahoney will start at left guard.
The youngest projected starter on the line is sophomore Blake Hance, who ended up starting eight games for the Cats as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
The position that remains up in the air for NU is center. Senior Ian Park and junior Brad North both spent time at center last season. In addition, whoever loses the position battle may be able to challenge 6th-year-senior Shane Mertz for his job at right guard.
The Cats also have young talent in sophomores Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, as well as redshirt-freshmen Jared Thomas, Adam Lemke-Bell, and Andrew Otterman. However, unless the injury bug strikes NU’s starters again, these players likely won’t see much playing time this season.
NU needs a balanced offense this year, and that means an offensive line that gives Thorson more time to throw. With three to four seniors projected to start at offensive line for the Cats, they have the potential to use their experience to create a steady, high-chemistry offensive line that allows NU’s offense to take huge strides forward.