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Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.

But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.

Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.

Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.

Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.

The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.

The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.

Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.

And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Women’s Soccer at James Madison: Key Matchup

After Northwestern squeaked out an overtime victory against VCU on Friday, the Wildcats are set to finish their first weekend of the season with a showdown with James Madison, an NCAA Tournament qualifier from last season. The game will kick off at 1 p.m.

Matchup to Watch: Dukes forward Ashley Herndon vs. NU’s defense

James Madison’s greatest offensive threat is its dynamic attacker Ashley Herndon, who netted 14 goals last season to lead the Dukes. She has the pedigree to make any team nervous, as the senior was named the CAA’s preseason player of the year and was invited to a U.S. Women’s National Team U-23 camp in May. Defenses can’t just play her purely as a threat to score, either — she notched six assists last season and was credited with an assist on James Madison’s opening goal of its first game this year, a 4-3 double overtime defeat to Arkansas.

Meanwhile, the Cats’ defense picked up where they left off last season in their opener, holding the Rams to just one shot on goal in a shutout victory. The back line has proven to have the talent and cohesion to stop star players in the past. NU needed extra time to break through with a goal against VCU, underscoring the importance of keeping a player like Herndon from putting the Cats behind early.

Wilimovsky begins Olympic program Friday

Wilimovsky begins Olympic program Friday
(Daily file photo by Brian Lee)

Northwestern’s Jordan Wilimovsky is expected to swim over eight competitive miles at the Olympics over the next few days. Here’s a breakdown of the rising senior’s races.

1500-meter freestyle

Preliminaries: Aug. 12, 11:40 a.m. CT

Final: Aug. 13, 8:11 p.m. CT

Wilimovsky qualified for this event by finishing second at the U.S. Trials in July. His 14:49.19 time at trials, a personal best, makes him the sixth fastest swimmer in the world this year. Defending world champion Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy has the fastest time this year at 14:34.o4. 

To advance to the final, Wilimovsky will need to swim one of the eight fastest times in the preliminary round. Considering his entry time and current form, he seems to be in a good position to advance. Only seven swimmers have bested 14:53 this year, and only 14:57 was needed to make the final at the most recent world championship and Olympics. Most swimmers do not swim a personal best in the heats, but Wilimovsky appears to have a large-enough cushion on the field to get it done.

Wilimovsky will swim in the fifth of six heats, so he will not know exactly how fast he will need to swim to advance as he swims. The first heat will begin at 11:40, so Wilimovsky’s race will likely not begin before 12:45 p.m.

The top medal contenders are Paltrinieri, defending Olympic champion and world record-holder Sun Yang of China and Australia’s Mack Horton, who has the second-fastest time in the world this year and won gold in the 400 free in Rio. Wilimovsky is not expected to be a factor in the medal picture.

10-kilometer open water

Aug. 16, 7 a.m. CT

Wilimovsky, who qualified in this event by winning the world championship last year, is the odds-on favorite to win. He decimated the field to win by over 12 seconds last summer in Russia, defeating a field that included defending Olympic champion Ous Mellouli of Tunisia and European champion Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands, who took second behind Wilimovsky.

According to the betting markets, Wilimovsky is a slight favorite. Betting website PaddyPower lists Wilimovsky with 7-2 odds to win, while Betfair installed Wilimovsky at 9-2. Both sites have China’s Zu Lijun as the second choice.

Because courses are different and conditions are variable, past times are relatively meaningless in this race compared to pool events. The strategy Wilimovsky used to take the world title last year—lurking in the middle of the pack early and building into the lead as the race goes on—is focused more on position than time.

Weertman is expected to challenge Wilimovsky; the London Olympic champion Mellouli could as well, though he finished 23rd at the world championships last year. Zu won a last-chance qualifier in June to make the Olympics, finishing four spots ahead of Mellouli.

NBC will air the 1500 free, and NBC Sports Network will show the 10k. All races will also stream live on NBCOlympics.com.

Analyzing the NFL homes of Northwestern’s latest draft picks and signees

Analyzing the NFL homes of Northwestern’s latest draft picks and signees
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale on Saturday became the latest Northwestern football players to be drafted, and joining them in the pro ranks as undrafted free agents are defensive end Deonte Gibson and safety Traveon Henry.

With the dust settled on the NFL’s rookie class, we can take a closer look at which Wildcats have a chance to be contributing performers for their new teams.

Lowry, selected in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers, seems to have landed in an ideal situation. The Packers are a stable organization, and as a fourth round pick Lowry is very likely to make the cut for the 53-man roster. Green Bay also only has two true defensive ends currently on the team, meaning Lowry should have an early chance at cracking the defensive line rotation and seeing some playing time outside of special teams.

Vitale, drafted in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is much more likely to make an impact on special teams than he is on the offensive side of the ball. The Buccaneers list him at fullback, and being able to play special teams is a big part of the job description for the few fullbacks left in the NFL. Special teams play was also a big part of Vitale’s pitch to teams during the pre-draft process. If he does see the field on offense, it will most likely be whenever Tampa Bay decides it needs an extra blocker out of the backfield.

Gibson and Henry have much more tenuous futures in the NFL as undrafted free agents, as making the 53-man cut is far from guaranteed.

The Detroit Lions, who signed Gibson, drafted two other defensive linemen this year and currently list another 11 on their roster. It simply isn’t likely there will be a spot left for Gibson come the end of August. The same goes for Henry, who will have to climb past four safeties and eight cornerbacks on the Buccaneers’ roster.

It’s possible, but Gibson and Henry will each need a very impressive training camp — along the willingness to play special teams — in order to stick around.

To qualify runner for outdoor track NCAA Regionals, Northwestern has work to do

To qualify runner for outdoor track NCAA Regionals, Northwestern has work to do
(Source: Northwestern Athletics)

Northwestern’s cross country team is now roughly a month away from the end of its second outdoor track season since gaining NCAA sponsorship for track — a move that opened up huge new opportunities for the team. The track seasons in the winter and spring were once merely a chance for the Wildcats to stay sharp in the offseason, but NCAA sponsorship allowed the team to travel to run in high-profile meets and turned track into a main event after fall’s cross country season ended.

The sponsorship also allowed NU runners to qualify for the NCAA Championships at the end of the season. Last year, then-sophomore Andrea Ostenso qualified to run the 10,000m in the NCAA West Preliminary Championships after achieving a season-best of 34 minutes and 46 seconds during the outdoor season.

But this season, the now-junior Ostenso and fellow junior Jena Pianin, NU’s top two runners from last year, have battled injuries, jeopardizing the chances of sending a runner to the NCAA Regionals in coach ‘A Havahla Haynes’ first season at the helm of the team. And with the outdoor track schedule nearing its end, the Cats have a lot of work to do if they want to change that.

NU’s best hope for a regional qualifier is senior Elena Barham, who currently owns the 59th-best season-best in the 10,000m in the West region at 35 minutes and 52 seconds. While only the runners with the top 48 times in each event from a region receive an initial invitation to the NCAA Regionals, runners who qualify in multiple events often choose to focus on one event, opening spots for other runners. For example, Ostenso received her invitation last year after posting the 52nd-best 10,000m time in the West region.

But even with the potential of moving forward as runners turn down invitations, Barham might still be too far back to qualify. Last year’s final qualifier for the West Regional’s 10,000m race was Colorado State’s Rachael Rudel, who owned the 55th-best time in the region.

And historically, Barham’s time in the 10,000m would not put her near qualification for the NCAA Regionals. Her current time would have been the 87th-best in the West last year and the 88th-best in 2014. As the season comes to a close, it is likely that Barham’s current season-best time will fall back in the pack.

Ostenso is a dark horse to make a run for NCAA Regionals qualification, as she nearly broke 17 minutes in a 5,000m race this weekend and has personal-bests in both the 5,000m and 10,000m that would have given her a good chance to qualify this season. But after missing the entirety of fall’s cross country season with injury and with not much time left to get back to the heights of last year, the task might be too much to ask of her.

It seems that if Barham, Ostenso, or any other NU runner wants to make the NCAA West Regionals, they will need to improve their times before the end of the season. But with only two meets left on the schedule, it might be too late to stretch the Cats’ regional-qualifier streak to two years.

A look at the top of Chris Collins’ past non-conference schedules

A look at the top of Chris Collins’ past non-conference schedules
(Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang)

After setting a school record for regular-season wins last season but failing to be selected for the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern’s men’s basketball team had one thing to blame: its non-conference schedule.

By RPI, the Wildcats ranked 334th in non-conference strength of schedule. There are 351 teams in Division I.

NU’s problem was clear going into the season: the Cats lacked opportunities for signature victories (outside of a non-conference tournament matchup in Kansas City with eventual national runner-up North Carolina), leaving a 20-win NU sitting at home in March.

Non-conference scheduling is an ongoing process — last season’s finalized non-conference slate was officially announced on June 24 — but news of the higher-profile games on the docket for the Cats has been trickling out. And if those games are any indication, coach Chris Collins might finally have the resume-boosting opponents out of conference to push NU into the first postseason appearance of his tenure.

The Cats have been announced as a participant in the Legends Classic, a four-team non-conference tournament in Brooklyn that will also feature three NCAA Tournament teams from last season: Texas, Colorado and Notre Dame, who made the Elite Eight. NU will play two of the three schools as a part of the tournament, with exact matchups to be announced at a later date.

Additionally, the Cats are reportedly slated to travel to Butler as part of the Gavitt Games, a series pitting Big Ten and Big East opponents against each other, and will take on Dayton in the United Center on December 17, according to a report from CBSSports’ Jon Rothstein. Both teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament last season.

Although much is still up in the air, NU is in line to take on at least four NCAA Tournament teams from 2016. But how does this compare with past non-conference schedules under Collins, based on performance in the previous season?

2015-2016

Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: North Carolina (No. 11), DePaul (No. 167), Columbia (No. 175), Virginia Tech (No. 184)

NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 1 (North Carolina)

The game against North Carolina was a big opportunity for NU to break out, but ended in a predictable defeat. Columbia was a trendy choice in the Ivy League before the season, and a road win at Virginia Tech looked better for the Cats as the Hokies snagged a spot in the NIT. But any schedule with DePaul as its second-best team from the prior season has limited upside.

2014-2015

Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: Northern Iowa (No. 94), Butler (No. 104), Georgia Tech (No. 109), Western Michigan (No. 127)

NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 1 (Western Michigan)

Northern Iowa and Butler turned out to be two of the better teams in the country in 2014-2015, but weren’t as impressive the season before they appeared on NU’s schedule. The sole NCAA Tournament team on the non-conference docket going into the year was MAC champion Western Michigan. Overall, this year’s non-conference schedule ended up having several solid chances at signature wins, but it wasn’t as obvious before the season.

2013-2014

Top four opponents, by KenPom rankings from prior season: Missouri (No. 31), North Carolina State (No. 34), Stanford (No. 44), UCLA (No. 45)

NCAA Tournament qualifiers from prior season: 3 (Missouri, North Carolina State, UCLA)

Collins’ first year as coach featured what appeared to be a tremendously difficult non-conference schedule at the top, with the Cats taking on NC State and Stanford on the road and Missouri and UCLA at a neutral site. Unfortunately for NU, the team wasn’t up for the challenge; the Cats lost all four of these games by a combined 61 points.


From what we know now, the Cats’ 2016-2017 non-conference schedule is shaping up similarly to their schedule for 2013-2014, where NU played a host of quality teams from the previous season.

But Collins’ first squad serves as a reminder that scheduling big games is not the same as winning them, as the Cats went 14-19 that season. With four NCAA Tournament qualifiers scheduled and the potential for another solid non-conference opponent out of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, NU will certainly have the chances for a signature win that it lacked last year. But to return to the postseason, the Cats will need to win some of those games, a feat easier said than done.

Lacrosse Roundtable: Writers discuss Northwestern’s postseason chances

Lacrosse Roundtable: Writers discuss Northwestern’s postseason chances
(Daily file photo by Maddy Fisher)

As the regular season heads into the final stretch, Northwestern finds itself at 7-7 with two regular season games remaining. The Daily’s lacrosse reporters convened to discuss the team as it prepares for the postseason and looks to win its 8th NCAA Tournament since 2005. This story was originally published on April 20, 2016.

1. What needs to be the team’s main focus heading into postseason play?

Dan Waldman: If this team wants to a make a run in the postseason, then its defense has to improve. In the Cats’ 14-11 loss to USC last week, the Trojans scored 11 of their 14 goals off of assists, and a majority came from dumping the ball to an open shooter right on top of the crease. NU’s defense struggled to rotate to open attackers, especially in transition. The Cats’ slow rotations have been a recurring problem throughout the season, and NU needs to shore up its defensive slides to eliminate goals coming from one-on-one opportunities with the goalie.The team can improve on this by either winning even more draw controls or limiting turnovers that result in fastbreaks.

Claire Hansen: You’ll hear Kelly Amonte Hiller and the players say it all the time: They just need to play their game. There’s no question that the Cats have some of the best talent in the country. Their major losses this year have come from a kind of sloppiness that is uncharacteristic of NU. If the Cats can tighten up their fundamentals — limiting turnovers, sharpening their passes, taking care of the ball — they’re going to have no problem finding success in both the Big Ten and, if they make it, the NCAA.

To find out what else our writers had to say, click here for the full analysis.