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 Illinois State Redbirds.
1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?
Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.
Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.
2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?
Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.
Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.
3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?
Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.
Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.
Coming from a traditionally ground-and-pound conference, Northwestern fans would be forgiven for wondering which team on the field Saturday was the true representative from the Big Ten — because in a lot of ways, Western Michigan looked the part.
The Broncos held the ball for more than 39 minutes and ran more than 30 more plays than the Wildcats did. And while the Western Michigan offense wasn’t gashing the NU defense in its time on the field — the Broncos averaged just 5.0 yards per play on the game — the Cats’ inability to produce short-yardage stops allowed Western Michigan to control the flow of the game.
On third- and fourth-downs with less than two yards to go, the Broncos converted seven of eight attempts, all on the ground. In the process, they exposed a defensive weakness for NU that could become a bigger story against the bruising rushing offenses of the Big Ten.
The first play highlighted here happened in the second quarter, with Western Michigan sitting at its 44-yard line and in the midst of a 19-play, 10-minute drive that would end in a field goal. The Broncos went with a power look on the play, using a fullback and extra blockers on the line.
Redshirt freshman lineman Joe Gaziano (No. 97) is the strong-side defensive end on this play and gets stymied by a double team, while sophomore linebacker Nate Hall (No. 32) gets pushed several yards back by Western Michigan’s motioning tight end to open a hole for Jamauri Bogan to hit for the first down. With a few of his teammates beat at the line, All-American linebacker Anthony Walker (No. 1) gets caught in the fray around him and is unable to flow to the gap and make the play at the line of scrimmage.
This next play happened in the third quarter, with Western Michigan going with the power look again while sitting at the Cats’ 33-yard line and working on another long drive that would end in a field goal.
On the spot again as the strong-side end, Gaziano gets blown away from the point of attack by a double team right at the snap. Meanwhile, Walker has clean space in front of him but misreads the play as going outside, stepping out of his gap only to be sealed by a block from Western Michigan’s fullback. Bogan bursts through the ensuing crease to easily get the first down.
The Broncos went back to the same play on the goal line in the fourth quarter to score what would end up the game-winning touchdown.
This time, it was the big senior lineman C.J. Robbins (No. 90), who has a good 40 lbs. on Gaziano, lined up as the strong-side defensive end and getting pushed off the spot. Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike (No. 16) fills the gap and has a chance to make the stop at the line, but he whiffs in the hole. Senior linebacker Jaylen Prater (No. 51) and Walker then combine to hit Bogan past the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t able to keep Bogan from powering into the end zone.
The common thread was the Cats’ inability to win at the line of scrimmage in these short-yardage situations, a troubling sign for a team attempting to replace defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson from a season ago. Penetration from the defensive line is the key to stopping run plays before they start, and too often throughout the day NU got no push from its linemen at the point of attack. With physical power-running teams like Wisconsin and Iowa looming on the schedule, the Cats will need some players to emerge on the line as impact players if they want to hold up.
Without penetration up front, NU’s second level defenders needed to be perfect time and again to stop Western Michigan, and mistakes in the hole like the ones shown above from Walker and Igwebuike allowed the Broncos to convert on key short-yardage plays throughout the game. In particular, Walker often looked a beat slow in run defense, a far cry from the guy whose athleticism and instincts let him put up 20.5 tackles for loss last season.
The offense has the advantage on any one short-yardage play, of course, and even the vaunted Cats defense of last season struggled to stop opponents in those situations, allowing conversions on 78.0 percent of third- and fourth-down running plays with less than two yards to go — good for 116th out of 128 FBS teams. But with the potential for regression in other areas defensively, and in a close game where one timely short-yardage stop could have been the difference, the way mid-major Western Michigan pushed NU around has to make fans nervous for the season to come.
If Northwestern is to compete for a first place finish in the Big Ten West, it will need its linebacker unit to perform at an exceptional level.
The good news: the Wildcats’ linebackers are among the best in the conference, if not the nation.
Anchored by superstar Anthony Walker, NU’s linebackers were instrumental in leading a defense that allowed just 18.6 points per outing last fall. Walker, now a junior, finished the year with 122 tackles (20.5 for loss) and garnered All-America honors, while Drew Smith contributed double digit tackles for loss as well. Junior Jaylen Prater started nine before a season ending injury sidelined him for the Cats’ final four games. Sophomore Nate Hall filled in for Prater during that period and performed admirably as a redshirt freshman, making key plays in a critical win at Wisconsin and finishing the year with 56 tackles.
Smith graduated in the spring, and NU will miss his experience, but the nucleus of Walker, Prater and Hall should put the Cats in good stead going into this fall. The sensational Walker will prowl the middle of the field, while flanked by an experienced senior in Prater and a potential rising star in Hall.
The position features both star power in Walker — whom the program is promoting as “The Franchise” — and depth. Sophomore Cameron Queiro appeared in every game as a freshman, while another member of the unit, senior Joseph Jones, recorded 18 tackles and a pair for loss last fall. Jones has made 24 appearances in three seasons in Evanston, and earned the start at SAM linebacker for the Cats’ opening game against Western Michigan.
That said, it will be crucial for Prater, Hall and especially Walker to stay healthy. NU’s frontline in the middle could be a destructive and dominant force.
Walker has already proven himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, and a Bronko Nagurski-winning type of season from the junior, a la coach Pat Fitzgerald who twice won the award given to the nation’s best defensive player, could allow the program to rise to new heights following its 10-win 2015 season.
Fresh off a campaign in which the athletic Florida native wowed with a 19-tackle performance at Duke, a 14-tackle show against Purdue and a stellar performance against Illinois featuring 3.5 tackles for loss, a further improved Walker is a scary prospect for the rest of the Big Ten.
But Walker will not be expected to do it alone. Expectations are far from modest for Hall and Prater. And the emergence of other young members of the unit such as redshirt freshman Nathan Fox could boost an already strong unit.
Razor sharp performances from Walker and the whole unit will be a weekly must for a team with numerous offensive weaknesses, a reshuffled defensive secondary and a defensive line that may take some time to recover from the losses of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.
Fortunately for NU, the unit appears to have the personnel to smooth over some of the squad’s other weak points.
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.
Anytime an opposing ball carrier got dragged down in his own backfield during the 2015 season, there was a 30 percent chance Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson made the tackle.
That’s how dominant Northwestern’s defensive end pairing was last year. With the duo off to the NFL — Lowry was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and Gibson signed with the Detroit Lions — the Wildcats face an uphill challenge in replacing the production that powered a stout defense. NU’s solution for the 2016 campaign rests on spreading the workload as much as possible.
“I have full confidence in anybody who enters the game,” junior defensive end Xavier Washington said when asked about the position group’s depth. “We have enough people who know what they’re doing and are prepared to go in at any moment and change the game.”
Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are the nominal stars of the unit. Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, has toiled as a reserve and situational substitute the past three seasons, racking up 14.5 tackles for loss over his career. Now thrust into the starting role, Odenigbo — listed at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, the same as Gibson — must prove he can be more than a pass rusher and also stand up to the Big Ten’s punishing running attacks.
The same goes for Washington, who has spent the last two seasons as a rotational player but now will be called upon more than ever. And listed at a scant 243 pounds, he’s out to prove he can battle, play after play, with offensive linemen who may have as many as 80 pounds on him.
“I would define my game as ‘surprising,'” Washington said, shedding the undersized pass rusher stereotype. “A lot of people do look at my size and think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pass rusher,’ and I believe that’s what helps me in the end because if you’re not ready for me in the run game, if you’re thinking I’m going to be light, then that just gives me an element of surprise.”
Countering the Cats’ slight composure on the edges is some serious bulk and talent in the middle. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster might be the lynchpin of the entire unit, and is looking to improve upon a breakout 2015 campaign. The 310-pound Lancaster is joined by 305-pound senior C.J. Robbins, a veteran in his sixth year with the program thanks to two medical redshirts, and burly reserve senior Greg Kuhar, listed at 309 pounds.
A key player at both the tackle and end positions figures to be sophomore Jordan Thompson. One of a handful of true freshman to play last year,Thompson notched 15 tackles while appearing in every game as a rotation player along the line. His ability and willingness to play any position will be critical for the defense’s ability to handle varied offensive looks.
“I played outside in high school, and I played inside when I’m here,” Thompson said. “Every D-lineman needs to know inside and out. … Inside’s fun, outside’s fun, just being on the field is fun.”
Versatile players like Thompson are what will facilitate NU’s strategy for replacing the production of Lowry and Gibson — rotating the defensive line as much as possible. Washington said the plan is more about getting fresh legs onto the field rather than leveraging specific skill sets, and with the Cats’ bench as deep as it is that plan seems poised for success.
NU has six capable veterans jockeying for playing time, and joining the mix are redshirt freshmen Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano and sophomore Fred Wyatt.
Everyone among those nine is in line to receive at least a little bit of playing time. Given that formula — even with the impressive individual talents present — the output of the defensive line figures to be greater than the sum of its parts.
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.
In Northwestern’s anemic passing offense last season, Shuler caught just 13 passes for 132 yards, but the Panthers saw something they liked in the tryout and inked him to a deal. His potential as a returner likely helped him — as the team’s primary punt returner last year, Shuler averaged 10 yards per return on 11 returns.
Shuler is one of four Cats who are currently on NFL rosters for next season, joining Green Bay draftee Dean Lowry, Tampa Bay draft pick Dan Vitale, and Lions undrafted free agent Deonte Gibson. Safety Traveon Henry signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent as well, but was reportedly cut recently.
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.
Northwestern sports had a busy weekend. Let’s catch you up to speed…
Two Wildcats were drafted by NFL teams on Saturday. Dean Lowry was taken by the Green Bay Packers and Dan Vitale was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Additionally, Deonte Gibson and Traveon Henry each signed as undrafted free agents, Gibson with the Detroit Lions and Henry with the Buccaneers.
Per coach Pat Fitzgerald on Twitter, wide receiver Miles Shuler and quarterback Zack Oliver were each invited to tryouts with NFL teams as well. Shuler will work out with the New York Giants while Oliver will get a shot with Washington.
Dan Waldman recapped a crucial win for the lacrosse, keeping the team eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
Benjy Apelbaum reviews a disappointing Big Ten Tournament loss for the men’s tennis team.
Mike Marut discusses the women’s tennis team falling in the Big Ten Tournament as well.