May 21, 2024

Iowa's Nick Easley (84) leaps for loose ball over Northwestern's Paddy Fisher (42) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Evanston, Ill. Looking on is Northwestern's Sam Miller (91) and Jared McGee (41) and Iowa's Akrum Wadley (25). (AP Photo/Jim Young)

The Wildcats are coming off a 10-win season, their starting quarterback is back healthy, the teams’ leading tackler returns and they enter 2018 with the nations’ longest win-streak at eight games. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald keeps his team tough, competitive and scrappy and Northwestern will need every bit of it with a 2018 schedule that could bring chills to even the best of teams across the country. Luck was on the Wildcats side in 2017, winning straight overtime games but they can’t expect the same this fall. Senior signal-caller Thorson is recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in the Wildcats’ bowl game and who’s to say he’s 100 percent. The offense lost four-time 1,000 yard rusher Justin Jackson and the defensive secondary will feature multiple new faces. Still, Fitzgerald remains optimistic about his team chances this year.

Team strengths: The defensive front seven. The Wildcats were No. 9 nationally last season at stopping the run and return five starters in the front seven. The defensive linemen can penetrate opposing offenses’ backfield and the linebackers are very active and can fly from sideline to sideline. The defense will have to carry the team early on while the offense gets adjusted.

Team weaknesses: Depth at running back, defensive secondary. The departure of Justin Jackson leaves a huge void in Northwestern’s ground attack. Sophomore Jeremy Larkin has experience and had over 500 rush yards and five touchdowns last season. All the other backs on the roster are green at best. Northwestern ranked 101st nationally in pass defense, giving up nearly 250 yards per game last season. and the secondary lost stud safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. The cornerbacks are pretty much inexperienced besides Montre Hartage and there is no depth. That’s not a good look for this fall because the Wildcats will face some teams that can throw the ball.

Players to watch: Quarterback Thorson, wide receiver Flynn Nagel, defensive end Joe Gaziano and linebacker Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall. Thorson should be the starter for Thursdays’ opener at Purdue if his knee is fully-healed, but his mobility may be limited. The signal-caller has received some high grades from NFL scouts and is one of the best quarterbacks in the league when healthy. Nagel is more of a possession-type of wideout, but he’s the teams’ returning leader in receptions and will need to improve those numbers this fall for the Northwestern to be successful. Gaziano had 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and led the team with nine sacks. Fisher led the team in tackles last season and Hall added five sacks. Both linebackers combined for 192 tackles, including 26.5 behind the line of scrimmage.

The schedule: Very challenging. Opening up the season on the road against a divisional foe means Northwestern can’t afford a slow start. It helps that the Wildcats get Duke, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame at home. Traveling to Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa, teams who’ll be looking for revenge on Northwestern, will be tough.

My take: Northwestern will take a step back this season. Losing Justin Jackson will definitely be felt in the running game. Although the defense is strong in the front seven, the back four is very vulnerable. We’ll find out a lot about Thorson’s knee this Thursday against Purdue. The schedule is too difficult to think the Wildcats can follow-up with another 10-win campaign. It’s looking more like a 7-5 regular season at best, with hopes of a win in the bowl game.