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Northwestern Wildcats preview

5/18/2015
Pat Fitzgerald says the Wildcats have to get faster on offense. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

To avoid spending a third straight postseason at home, the Wildcats must recapture their offensive efficiency—and magic in one-score games (25–12 from 2007 to 2012, 3–8 since). With a new QB, noncon tilts against Stanford and Duke and trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska, the Cats need to make their own luck.

Offense

How the Wildcats beat you: There were few bright spots on the stat sheet last season—No. 12 in the Big Ten in ppg (23), No. 11 in rush ypg (136.6) and No. 8 in pass ypg (216.5)—but RB Justin Jackson’s true freshman campaign is something to build on. He was fourth among Power 5 frosh with 98.9 ypg, and his 10 TDs equaled what the Wildcats managed through the air. The new QB (spring ended with sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson out in front) will benefit from an elite back, veteran WR Cameron Dickerson and two-time leading WR Christian Jones, back from an August ACL injury and cartilage surgery in March. The 6-3 Jones can attack the middle, as can big-body superbacks Dan Vitale (6-2, 235) and Garrett Dickerson (6-3, 250).

How you beat the Wildcats: The offense hurt itself on long-distance downs (No. 122 in the FBS, with just 34 plays of 20-plus yards), so defenses should stack the box and press receivers, especially with an unproven QB. “We have to get faster, be more explosive and create more separation,” coach Pat Fitzgerald says. “We had too many drops last year.” More mobility at QB (Alviti or Thorson) could help, but the line is still searching for the right combination (34 sacks allowed, 11th in the Big Ten).

Defense

How the Wildcats beat you: This unit relied on takeaways (27 turnovers, fourth most in the Big Ten) and returns four players who had multiple interceptions— three DBs and a linebacker. “Things are moving in a positive direction, no question,” Fitzgerald says. The Wildcats were 5–2 in games in which they forced multiple TOs and 0–5 when they had one or fewer. A speed-based recruiting approach has created more ball-hawking and allows younger players to shine, like safety Godwin Igwebuike (3 INTs) and LB Anthony Walker (9 tackles for loss), who both topped those statistical categories as redshirt freshmen.

How you beat the Wildcats: Northwestern was vulnerable against the run, allowing more than 200 rush yards six times, and the front seven generated little pressure (17 sacks, fewest in the Big Ten). The Wildcats desperately need DTs Sean McEvilly (foot) and Greg Kuhar (knee) to return at full strength because the unit is dangerously thin in the interior line, and DE Dean Lowry must build on his 4-sack season. Walker showed promise at MLB but is still relatively inexperienced (seven starts) and can no longer rely on support from the team’s departed run-stuffing SS Ibraheim Campbell (316 career tackles).