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Breaking Down The Wildcats: Northwestern Football Preview

On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will make their way to the Windy City of Chicago, Ill. to take on the Northwestern University Wildcats. The last time the two teams met up was over a year ago, and the result is still fresh in our minds. A great deal has changed since that game last year, and it has largely been improvements for the Nittany Lions. Where Penn State has gotten much better from last year, the Northwestern Wildcats have also improved a great deal. Headed by coach Pat Fitzgerald, this team is disciplined, physical, and intelligent with or without the ball.

Northwestern is currently ranked No. 21, and is coming in with a record of 6-2 (2-2 Big Ten). On the defensive side of the ball, the squad has a strong linebacking corps led by sophomore star Anthony Walker, and an impressive secondary. The offensive unit isn’t blazing like the Ohio State offense, but these guys can put up points if given the opportunity, in more than one way. The offense, defense, special teams, and the coaching are all-around solid, and most importantly consistent. It will prove to be an interesting showdown at Ryan Field against the Nittany Lions and their formidable defense. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each facet of the Northwestern Wildcats:


The mobile quarterback has proven to be one of the few weak spots for an incredible Nittany Lions defense, and the Wildcats have one. His name is Clayton Thorson, and this kid is pretty unique, because he is so old school. Often times the running quarterback will be associated with the likes of guys like Johnny Manziel, Michael Vick, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, and others, and often these guys set the image in people’s mind as how a running quarterback should play: crazy pass scrambles, leaps, jukes, and world-class athleticism. Clayton Thorson isn’t one of those guys. This kid is a hard-nosed runner. He often runs north and south with the ball, holds on to the ball tight, takes some hits, and gets solid yards each game. Against Nebraska, Thorson had 126 rushing yards on nine attempts, which is quite the stat-line. It didn’t get a ton of recognition because it lacks that ESPN top-10 highlight-reel style of play. Here’s an example of Thorson’s old-school running style:

Pat Fitzgerald, a Northwestern football alumnus himself, is an extremely intelligent coach. He game plans well, and it usually shows for the Wildcats. While Thorson is a great hard-nosed runner, the Wheaton, Illinois product isn’t as impressive through the air. With a completion rate around 52 percent and five picks, he lacks an elite pass game that will threaten the likes of the Penn State secondary. On the ground, the Wildcats season started out extremely strong with sophomore running back Justin Jackson posting four consecutive games with over 100 yards, and he was even named the B1G Freshman of the Week with plays like these:

The team has physical receivers, but none of the guys in that corps are complete game changers. They’ll catch some short route passes, a few slants, but nothing electrifying. The senior fullback, Dan Vitale, is leading the team in receiving with nearly 240 yards, and he is a physical matchup nightmare. He is a guy who might play on Sundays due to his unique skill set. The Wildcat offensive line is also a game changer, as this group of vets can really dominate with its quick feet and mental sharpness. As a whole, the Northwestern offense is a decent unit. While it is good, it may look better than it actually is on Saturday if Penn State hasn’t learned the art of containing the mobile quarterback. The Northwestern offense and Penn State defense matchup will certainly be interesting, and it will prove to be the most entertaining aspect of the game Saturday.


While Northwestern is an extremely strong overall team, it is led by an impressive defensive unit. The Big Ten is arguably the best defensive conference in the nation, and teams like Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Michigan are why. The Northwestern defense checks in at No. 17 overall, with a foundation laid down by its No. 7 pass defense.

Sophomore star linebacker Anthony Walker is one of the young leaders of this team, as he is leading the team with 67 tackles and 10.5 TFLs. The defensive line plays as a cohesive unit, but isn’t quite the Nassib-Zettel level defense. It started off the season on fire, as the first five weeks of the season saw the Wildcats allow an impressive 35 points across five games, and pitched two decisive shutouts. Since that time, the team has given up 108 points in three games, one of which was to a lackluster Nebraska team. The impressive Northwestern defense is coming in sliding off of two losses, and one alarmingly close win to Nebraska, as where the Penn State is bringing in a fiery momentum off of one of the best Penn State offensive performance in recent memory; 39 points in a single game. Even Coach Pat Fitzgerald praised Hackenberg’s play, saying “He is playing like a first-rounder” and recognizes the momentum the Nittany Lions are carrying. This part of game will make or break if the wins or loss column fills up for the Nittany Lions, which also affects its top-25 contention.

Special Teams

This is starting to feel like deja vu. Big Ten opponents always have solid special teams, and the Northwestern Wildcats hold mostly true to that. Kicking from Jake Mitchell on extra points is solid, but from 40 or more yards out he’s only two of five, but one of those two kicks was a clutch game-sealing one against Stanford. Punting is fairly average for the Wildcats (sigh), but they do struggle containing runners at times. The Nittany Lions don’t have a Devin Hester, but DeAndre Thompkins could or Koa Farmer could capitalize on some holes in their punt containment. On the return side of things they are slightly above average. Solomon Vault is the primary returner for the Wildcats, and is averaging around 24 yards per return. He is also capable of breaking out some bigger returns like this:

The Wildcats posess a good overall special teams, much like every other facet of their team.


What many people like about Northwestern is that it is an old-school football team, in the sense that it is well-coached, and goes out and makes very few mistakes. The Wildcats don’t have one special player that propels them to the next level on any side of the ball particularly, they just play smart football all the time. The consistency of the team proves to be a big challenge for opponents as you will hardly get these guys gassed in the fourth quarter, or have them make huge mental errors more than a few times.

Check out the game on ESPNU at noon to watch the showdown that could propel James Franklin’s Nittany Lions into their first top 25 ranking.

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About the Author

Tim Reams

Tim Reams is a senior majoring in labor employment relations.

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