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.
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?
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
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and the other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
1. Will Justin Jackson run for more than 100 yards?
Max Gelman (half-full): Jackson has an excellent chance to break the century mark against the Cornhuskers. Though he only tallied 40 rushing yards at Nebraska last season, Jackson is still the elite running back we all know him to be.
Last week against the Blue Devils, Jackson had nearly 70 rushing yards in the first quarter as the Wildcats opened the game with a near-perfect drive. That has been a common theme for NU throughout the first three games — good opening drives and then a faltering offense. I don’t believe the offensive line troubles will last the whole season and if the line improves, which should be the case going forward, then Jackson should reach 100 again this week.
Tim Balk (half-empty): With the exception of a three-game lull in the middle of the season, Justin Jackson was almost a lock to hit triple digit rushing yards each week in 2015. Through three games this year, those days seem to be over.
Jackson missed the mark for the second straight week against Duke in Week 3, as offensive line problems continued to dog NU. With those problems unresolved, and the Cats’ offense forced to lean pass-heavy, it’s hard to imagine Jackson putting up big numbers against Nebraska, particularly in light of the fact that the Cornhusker defense was one of three — along with Michigan and Iowa — that managed to shut down “The Ball Carrier” during his mid-season slump last fall.
Against a quality defense that will gameplan for the run, it’s unlikely Jackson will be a major factor.
2. Will the Cats out-possess Nebraska?
Balk (half-empty): This one is easy.
Nebraska has out-possessed all three of its opponents. NU has been out-possessed by two of its three. Nebraska managed to chew up clock against Oregon. The Wildcats’ offense struggled to stay on the field against an FCS team. You get the picture.
NU can beat Nebraska even without controlling possession if the defense bends more than it breaks, and the big offensive plays that materialized against Duke keep on coming. But, more than likely, Nebraska’s multidimensional offense will spend a majority of the night on the field.
Gelman (half-full): In order for NU to beat the Cornhuskers, it will need to sustain lengthy drives and keep the defense on the field. With the recent play of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, that will be entirely possible.
In the first three games of the season, Thorson has averaged 6.9 yards per attempt — not overwhelming by any standard but enough to get the job done. He spread the ball around beautifully, completing passes to eight different receivers, and has the deep ball working. It would be a shock if Thorson can’t move the Cats down the field against Nebraska.
Furthermore, NU currently has the second-best punter in the Big Ten in Hunter Niswander. Pinning the Cornhuskers within their own 20 repeatedly will be key to a Wildcat win.
3. Will Hunter Niswander punt like it’s the Western Michigan game…or the Duke game?
Gelman (half-full): I am all in on the Niswander for Heisman campaign.
After finishing 2015 with the most punts in the Big Ten but the lowest average yards, Niswander has vastly improved his game so far this year. NU and Nebraska always manage to play close games, and Niswander’s punting could play a huge role if this game turns into a battle of field position.
Against Western Michigan, Niswander averaged 51 yards per punt, easily the highest of his career. All he has to do to continue that progress is get a nice stretch before the game, and he should be golden.
Balk (half-empty): Max has taken to tweeting #Heiswander after punts from the junior punter. And, at least so far, it hasn’t been good luck. After kicking the leather off the ball on each of his three punts Week 1, Niswander has come back to earth. Against Duke he managed a respectable but unspectacular 42.9 yards per punt and lofted two into the end zone for touchbacks.
Which is not all that surprising, because Niswander appears to have developed into a respectable but unspectacular punter. That’s still good news for NU, which has struggled in the punting game in the past; Niswander will likely have to punt plenty this week. But it’s more likely he’ll be solid than Ray Guy worthy.
After opening the season with a pair of unexpected, narrow losses, NU rebounded under the lights Saturday against Duke, winning 24-13 at Ryan Field.
The Cats benefited from an improved performance from its offensive line, which opened up enough holes to allow junior running back Justin Jackson to carve out 94 rushing yards, and provided solid pass protection for sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who set a career-high with 320 passing yards.
The Cats set the tone for the win with a quick 10-play, 75 yard drive to open the game. Thorson ended the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to junior superback Garrett Dickerson. After the first drive, though, the Cats’ offense stalled for the remainder of the half, with a late drive ending in a missed 34-yard field goal. The Cats headed to the locker room locked in a 7-7 tie.
Duke threatened to score on its opening drive of the second half, but an Anthony Walker forced fumble snuffed out the drive at NU’s 21 yard line.
Later in the quarter, a botched punt snap gave the Cats offense the ball at the 44-yard line. NU struck on one play as Clayton Thorson connected with junior Solomon Vault for a 44-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cats a 14-7 lead they would not surrender.
NU extended its lead to 17-7 with a 40-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
Clayton Thorson connected with senior Austin Carr for a 58-yard touchdown pass with 4:56 left in the contest, further padding the Cats’ lead. Carr finished with six catches for a career-high 135 yards.
Duke would add a touchdown in garbage time on a one-yard run from Shaun Wilson, but the Blue Devils missed the extra point, giving the game its final score.
NU finishes its three game non-conference having won just one of its three contests before Big Ten play.
Northwestern stats to know:
Justin Jackson: 28 carries for 94 rushing yards; 3.4 yards per carry.
Clayton Thorson: 18-of-39, career-high 320 passing yards. Tied a career-high with three passing TDs. Threw two interceptions.
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Duke Blue Devils.
1. Will NU reach double-digit points?
Tim Balk (Half-full): Duke’s defense is respectable. And NU’s offense is scuffling beyond belief. But I still cannot see the Cats failing to reach 10 points again after scoring just seven against Illinois State.
For one, NU is due to get some points out of its defense and special teams. The Cats were often able to make up for poor offensive production with defensive scores and big plays in the return game last year. In their 19-10 win at Duke, Solomon Vault returned a kickoff for a touchdown and a Godwin Igwebuike fumble recovery set up the offense for an easy field goal. NU’s 19 points came in spite of one of the worst starts of Clayton Thorson’s career. It was a familiar theme throughout the 2015 season. This fall, the Cats’ defense has yet find the end zone and has made few big plays. It’s about time that changes.
Plus, NU’s offense is equally due to find something resembling a rhythm. After the ill-advised air attack backfired against Illinois State, look for NU to find some success with its bread and butter — the run game — against a Duke team that surrendered 239 yards on the ground last week against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons managed to score 24 against Duke. It’s not too much to expect NU to at least reach 10.
Max Gelman (Half-empty): The Wildcats are coming off a week in which they scored just seven points against an FCS defense and have only scored 28 points through their first two weeks. I find it hard to foresee a situation where NU manages to score more than 10 points.
While the special teams unit may be “due” to score some points, let’s not forget it also seems to hurt the Cats’ chances at scoring quite regularly. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed another field goal against the Redbirds last week and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed extremely reluctant to try another field goal following the miss. If the Cats can’t kick, their drives will continue to stall around their opponents’ 35-40 yard lines.
But the biggest problem is NU’s offensive line — it’s a mess. Thorson was forced to throw 41 times against Illinois State, a career high, because the line couldn’t open any lanes for running back Justin Jackson (who is battling an injury). Until the O-Line improves, it will be extremely difficult for the Cats to put up 10 points.
2. Will the Cats keep Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to under 250 passing yards?
Gelman (Half-empty): Right now, the Cats’ secondary is a major concern. Starting cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are out, as well as safety Kyle Queiro, whose name popped up on the injury report out of nowhere.
Igwebuike is the only starter still healthy at this point. That leaves the rest of the secondary to be comprised of sophomore corner Montre Hartage, whose only two starts came in the first two weeks of this season filling in for Watkins II, redshirt freshman corner Trae Williams, who has never started a game before, and sophomore safety Jared McGee. The situation is so dire, that third-string quarterback and baseball pitcher Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at corner in practice this week.
What’s surprising about Duke is that Jones, as their backup quarterback, threw for 332 passing yards last week. Although that was against a bad Wake Forest team, it’s still cause for concern. The Cats’ secondary is at DEFCON 1 with all the injuries.
Balk (Half-full): Yes, with three out of its four projected opening week defensive back starters sidelined by injuries, the NU defensive secondary has to be a cause for concern at the moment. But, there’s plenty of reason to think NU will keep Duke to fewer than 250 passing yards. NU is giving up just a touch over 250 passing yards per game through two contests, but those numbers are inflated due to the fact that opponents have had far too many opportunities to sling it.
Opponents have dominated possession because of NU’s offensive trials and the lack of big defensive plays. So, naturally, they’ve picked up tons of yards. But the Cats’ front seven seemed to be finding its legs last week, even as the offense struggled through a nightmare. The progress is likely to continue against a Duke team with a subpar offensive line and a freshman quarterback.
Look for a strong performance from NU’s defensive line to keep Duke’s pass attack in check.
3. Over/Under 4.5 freshmen will trip while running onto the field?
Balk (Half-full): Obviously, you have to go under on this one. As far as I can recall, not a single freshmen tripped last year. The Class of 2019 was smooth and poised under pressure. And each class is supposed to be better, brighter (more athletic?) than the last, right?
Gelman (Half-empty): Almost everything else has gone wrong so far this year for the Cats, so why wouldn’t that extend to the Wildcat Welcome Dash? Under the bright lights of primetime, there will definitely be some jitters Saturday night. I can see about a dozen unlucky new students taking a fall while the Ryan Field crowd tries to hold in its laughter.
Northwestern found itself in a slugfest with Western Michigan, as a retooled NU defense struggled to keep one of the MAC’s most dynamic offenses off the field, and a late goal line fumble from NU sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson sealed the Cats’ fate in a 22-21 home loss.
Western Michigan controlled the ball for much of the day, finishing with 39:04 time of possession. The Broncos held the ball for most of the second quarter during a 19-play, 10:08 drive that ended in a field goal, and later seemed to break the back of the NU defense with a quick six play, 72-yard touchdown drive that gave Western Michigan a 13-7 to start the second half.
But, after the two teams traded three-and-outs, Justin Jackson raced 46 yards a few minutes later to push NU back into the lead. Western Michigan responded with another long drive, covering 63 yards on 16 plays before kicking a field goal in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Again, Jackson and the Cats’ offense responded. With a drive highlighted by a 37 pitch-and-catch from Thorson to Jackson and punctuated by a one-yard touchdown run from Jackson, the Cats took a 21-16 lead.
Once more, Western Michigan responded with a long scoring drive. The Broncos went 75 yards on 12 plays, eventually arriving in the end zone to take a 22-21 lead with 5:38 left in the game.
NU looked poised to respond minutes later, as the Cats slung their way to the goal line, but Thorson’s fumble on the goal line was recovered by Western Michigan in the end zone.
Western Michigan ran out the clock to win the game, continuing to show an ability to stay on the field with third down conversions with 2:45 and 1:13 left on the clock.
A big day from Justin Jackson was wasted in the defeat. Jackson scored a career high three touchdowns.
It was Western Michigan’s first win over a Big Ten team since 2008.
Northwestern stats to know:
Justin Jackson: 23 carries for 129 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns; 2 receptions for 47 yards
Clayton Thorson: 15-for-22 with 196 passing yards, 5 carries for -8 yards
Brett Walsh: First career sack
Warren Long: OUT with an upper body injury
Hunter Niswander: 3 punts for an average of 51 yards
Western Michigan stats to know:
Zach Terrell: 26-for-36 with 218 yards passing and one touchdown
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Western Michigan Broncos.
1. Clayton Thorson’s rushing touchdown in last year’s season opener against Stanford put him on the map. How will he perform in this year’s season opener?
Half-full (Tim Balk): If Trevor Siemian’s meteoric rise to starting QB of the Denver Broncos means Wildcats fans might have underappreciated Touchdown Trevor in his time in Evanston, Clayton Thorson certainly went undervalued as a redshirt freshman last fall. Sure, Thorson’s passing numbers were spotty, but with a weak receiving corps and a perpetually banged up offensive line, it’s hard to fault Thorson for NU’s oft-anemic pass offense. The fact remains, Thorson was a FRESHMAN, and he still led NU to 10 wins while showing flashes of brilliance on the ground and through the air. Expect a big leap from Thorson this year — the experience will pay dividends and an improved, healthy front will allow Thorson more time in the pocket. Expect it to start against Western Michigan, a team which gave up 250 or more passing yards nine times last year.
Half-empty (Max Gelman): Thorson was not a great quarterback last season, there’s no way around it. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes, and while he was a redshirt freshman, he would need to improve a lot in order to be considered good. His receivers, aside from Dan Vitale, did him almost no favors and this year the Cats’ No. 1 receiver — senior Austin Carr — is basically at the top of the depth chart by default. I also don’t totally buy the “10 wins” argument because the Cats only outscored their opponents by 12 points all season. In its three losses, NU was outscored 123-16 — that’s over 100 points! Western Michigan’s run defense isn’t very good, so if Thorson can make plays with his legs I think he’ll be OK in the opener, but regardless I don’t think he’ll throw for more than 150 yards through the air.
2. Will the Wildcats play well enough against a non-conference opponent that they can rest their starters in the fourth quarter?
Half-empty (MG): The formula for the Cats in 2015 was to win low-scoring games with their defense. Last year, NU scored more than 30 just once — an easy, 41-0 blowout of Eastern Illinois. Other than that, the Cats never really got a chance to rest their starters. Even late in the season when his team went up 21-7 against Illinois in the second quarter, coach Pat Fitzgerald took his foot off the gas pedal after halftime. Justin Jackson was still toting the rock, Thorson was still throwing the ball and NU only won the game 24-14. Western Michigan is also too good of a team for the Cats’ offense to run up the score, so I think we’ll still see all the starters right until the clock reaches zero.
Half-full (TB): NU is going to put up some points on the Broncos. Western Michigan’s spotty defensive front will receive a gnashing early from Jackson, and Thorson should have a fun day going over the top of of one of the MAC’s worst secondaries. The Broncos will try to keep pace with their dynamic offense, but it won’t be easy against a stellar NU defense which brings back some key pieces from a group that shut down Stanford a year ago. NU has tended to come out of the gate fresh and ready under Fitzgerald (the 2014 trainwreck against Cal notwithstanding), and there’s little reason to expect anything different in 2016. Western Michigan is not terrible, and won’t go down without a fight, but come the fourth quarter NU will have a lead wide enough to give its first units a late game break.
3. How full will Ryan Field be with classes not scheduled to start until Sept. 20?
Half-full (TB): I’m supposed to be good cop here, but it gets harder with this question. Ryan Field tends to be a graveyard in September and crowds in excess of 30,000 represent relative successes before Big Ten play kicks off. There’s reason to think the turnout could clear that benchmark against Western Michigan. Fresh off a top 25 finish, excitement is up a bit in Evanston, and the weather Saturday afternoon is expected to be beautiful. Perfect weather and some good, clean, American fun! Why not?
Half-empty (MG): Fitzgerald has lamented in the past about the atmosphere at Ryan Field before students show up, and I think he’ll have good reason to do so again Saturday. NU struggles to draw large crowds before conference play starts, and it’s not just because of the student section. A home stadium that seats fewer fans than any other Big Ten program and a smaller alumni base than the large, public Big Ten schools are just a couple reasons why I believe Ryan Field will only be about 50 to 60 percent full for Week 1. (And even when the Big Ten schedule rolls around it doesn’t get much better — the Cats are basically playing a road game whenever Nebraska visits Evanston.)