Senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten roster by the media, the conference announced.
Odenigbo led the conference with 10 sacks in 2016, pushing him to second in program history with 23.5 career sacks. His season was punctuated by a four-sack performance against Iowa in October, a Northwestern single-game record.
The D-Lineman also picked up a Second-Team nomination by the conference’s coaches.
Four other Wildcats also earned All-Big Ten honors: junior safety Godwin Igwebuike, junior linebacker Anthony Walker, junior kick returner Solomon Vault and sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage.
Igwebuike and Walker were named Second-Team by coaches and Third-Team by media. Igwebuike led Big Ten defensive backs with 101 tackles, while Walker averaged 9.4 tackles over his last eight games after sustaining an injury during training camp.
Vault was named to the Third-Team by the media. The junior, who already holds the program record for kick/punt return touchdowns, recorded his fifth career return TD against Michigan State in October.
Hartage earned an honorable mention as selected by media. The sophomore led NU with five interceptions and nine pass breakups.
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.
Coming off a 10-win season marked by low scores and close games — and maybe some luck in Northwestern’s favor, depending on one’s perspective — expectations for the Wildcats are all over the board. And with some key pieces missing from last season’s defense and major room for improvement offensively, questions abound for NU in 2016. The Cats’ answers to these five, in particular, will go a long way toward determining how this season plays out.
1. Can Clayton Thorson be something at quarterback?
Quarterback is the most important position in football, and as such, this question is the most important one for NU heading into this season.
As a redshirt-freshman, Thorson was largely ineffective last season as the starting quarterback. He missed throws long and short, gave the ball away frequently and rarely could bail out the Cats’ offense when it got behind schedule. Although there was plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s struggles in 2015, from shaky pass protection and receivers to a running game that wasn’t explosive enough and questionable play-calling, Thorson deserved some scrutiny for his play as well.
The bright side, then, is that there’s plenty of room for improvement in Thorson’s game, and with some regression to be expected in other areas, a step up from the young quarterback could be the key to keeping NU competitive this year. Even if he doesn’t break out to the point of elevating the rest of the players on the offense, just average quarterback play from Thorson would give the Cats a new look offensively.
2. Where will big offensive plays come from?
Although Thorson’s play will likely be the most important storyline to watch this season, the reality is no matter how much its quarterback improves, NU doesn’t look like a team that will go on long drives without eventually making a mistake.
To make up for that, the Cats need to find ways to generate big plays at a higher clip than they did last season — just 22 running plays went for 20 or more yards and 12 passing plays went for 25 or more yards in 2015. The speedy junior Solomon Vault, transitioning from running back to receiver this offseason, could prove to be a playmaker after the catch, and a better rotation in the backfield could help keep junior running back Justin Jackson fresh enough to break some big runs. A more comfortable Thorson could look to air it out more often, and more successfully, than he did last season.
The Cats won’t become an efficient offensive machine in one offseason, but there are reasonable ways they can create a few more big plays than they did a season ago.
3. Who will pressure opposing quarterbacks?
Arguably the biggest single loss to graduation from last season is defensive end Dean Lowry, who only notched three sacks last season but was a constant presence in the backfield. His line-mate Deonte Gibson, who led the team with nine sacks last season, has graduated as well, leaving behind questions about where the pass rush will come from this season.
Rotational players on the edge last season like senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be counted on to perform in bigger roles in 2016, while interior players like junior Tyler Lancaster and sophomore Jordan Thompson could provide some pressure up the middle. NU’s pass rush wasn’t the most fearsome part of its defense last season, but the ability to create pressure without blitzes would be huge for a team looking to stay among the nation’s best on the defensive side.
4. Can the secondary keep it up with some new faces?
The Cats’ secondary was the most lauded unit on the team last season, and with good reason. The “Sky Team” put together a season for the ages, surrendering just five passing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per passing attempt.
Some major pieces in the secondary will be missing next season, as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Nick VanHoose have graduated, while an expected starter at cornerback, junior Keith Watkins II, has been ruled out for the year with a knee injury. Senior cornerback Matt Harris and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike are top-flight players, but the players around them could be a concern heading into the year.
5. Will the Cats offer any resistance on the big stage?
NU had a memorable 2015 and won a lot of games — but when it lost, it lost big in some of its biggest games of the season.
In a highly anticipated matchup after starting 5-0, the Cats were annihilated at Michigan, 38-0. The next week, they were run over by Iowa in their homecoming game in a 40-10 defeat. And in the Outback Bowl, NU was trampled by Tennessee, 45-6, to end the season on a sour note.
The Cats demonstrated an ability to edge out teams of comparable quality in close games last season, but were exposed in major ways by teams with more talent. With games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa this season, NU’s ability to keep those games competitive could go a long way to making the season feel successful even if the Cats can’t reach 2015’s heights.
The Wildcats’ receiving corps has lost a vital component.
Former superback Dan Vitale graduated in the spring and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving a gap in the passcatchers’ lineup that will be difficult to fill. Northwestern’s receivers struggled last year, ranking 115th in receptions and 120th in receiving yards in the FBS, making his loss that much more crucial. Vitale led the team by comfortable margins in both those categories last season.
With Vitale out of the picture, senior Austin Carr, who had the second most receiving yards last season and the highest average yards per reception, is pretty much guaranteed the top spot on the depth chart. Carr started in four games last season and saw playing time in nearly every contest. He also has had time to develop a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, which will squarely position him as the leader of the receiving pack this fall.
The ensemble cast, however, proves a bit trickier to trace, especially with the graduation of former starting receivers Christian Jones and Miles Shuler.
It seems likely that junior Garrett Dickerson will find a home at superback, a position devised by NU coaching that combines the roles of a fullback and tight end into one all-purpose offensive powerhouse. Dickerson is largely untested on the field, although he appeared in flashes in nearly every game last season and caught at least one pass in nine of those games. Senior Andrew Scanlan, who appeared in nine games last season, also seems a likely contender for one of the three starting wide receiver slots.
In February, Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced some position changes that brought in juniors Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard, and redshirt-freshman Steven Reese, at the wide receiver position in attempt to shore up depth.
Vault, formerly a running back, has had some experience with Cats passing plays and could prove an interesting asset. His speed earned him two touchdowns on kickoff returns last season — the most return touchdowns any NU player has had in a single season. His three career touchdown returns also make him the all-time program leader in the category. Considering the talent he’s already displayed, and that Vault saw playing time at the wide receiver position during the Outback Bowl, it seems likely Vault will be tapped to start this fall. He’ll fit in well out of the slot as the Z-receiver as a speedy and evasive route-runner.
McShepard and Reese, formerly defensive players, face a steeper learning curve and are unlikely to make much of an impact, at least immediately, on the offense.
Without Vitale, and to a lesser extent Jones and Shuler, the Cats’ receiving corps is pretty thin. Look to Carr for reliability and a glimmer of receivers’ past, and watch Vault for an explosive play or two, but generally, Wildcats fans should expect to hear a lot of “Justin Jackson the ball carrier!” this fall.
During a 2015 season defined by close wins, Northwestern’s performance often came down to the play of the special teams units.
The Wildcats’ conservative ground-and-pound offense led to an abundance of three things: punts, field goals and a desperate need to squeeze points out of the return game. Despite a 10-3 record last year, NU has plenty of room to improve on all three fronts coming into this season.
The biggest bright spot, of course, was the play of then-sophomore running back Solomon Vault. The speedster returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015, and saved each for a big moment.
The first came against Duke, when Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half to flip a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 lead. The Cats didn’t trail for the remainder of the game. The second came against Penn State, when NU needed every point it could get after starting quarterback Clayton Thorson left the game with an injury. The Cats went on to win on a last second field goal.
Vault, now a wide receiver, will still be the guy on kickoff returns, and there’s every reason to believe he can muster a repeat performance. Fans should hope that he does, because the rest of the special teams lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence.
The speedy Vault will not be returning punts, leaving a position of glaring need wide-open heading into NU’s opening week contest against Western Michigan. Then-senior receiver Miles Shuler fulfilled the role for much of last season, but chose to run back only 11 punts in 12 games.
Sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel is the presumptive favorite to win the job, having returned two punts in 2015 before suffering an injury. Diminutive sophomore wideout Jelani Roberts would also be a good option. As long as the Cats put somebody back deep who actually tries to catch the ball, they should see improvement.
In the kicking game, senior kicker Jack Mitchell and junior punter Hunter Niswander both return to their respective roles this season. Though Mitchell earned a reputation for being clutch after his game-winning boot against Penn State, his overall performance ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.
He attempted 27 kicks, tied for second in the conference, but finished tied for ninth among 12 qualifying kickers with a 67 percent success rate. Even more frustratingly, he missed three of his 28 point-after attempts.
The dismal offense that may have hindered Mitchell should have helped Niswander, who instead turned in the worst punting performance in the Big Ten. Niswander led the conference with 85 punts — 11 more than any other punter — and finished dead last among qualifying players with an average of 38 yards per punt.
NU will still be a team reliant on a steady run game and a dominant defense, meaning Niswander will have to be better.
At the very least he’ll have the consistency of senior long snapper Chris Fitzpatrick in front of him. Fitzpatrick, entering his third season as the starter, is remarkably unremarkable – a perfect quality for a long snapper.