Northwestern sits at 6-2, and is currently enjoying a much-needed bye week after three straight difficult, physical games. Bumps and bruises are healing and players can get their heads ready for the stretch run of what has already been a pretty successful season.
While the team has been pretty solid, some individual players have stood out (for better or worse) thus far. Hence, we issue our bye-week, late-midterm, eight-games-in report card.
Clayton Thorson: B
107-for-203, 1119 yards, 6 tds, 5 ints; 64 carries, 297 yds, 5 tds
How to grade a freshman quarterback who's won six of his first eight games, beaten Stanford, Duke, Minnesota and Nebraska, and gotten blown out of the water in two nationally-televised conference games? I think he deserves a B. Thorson has added a completely new element to the offense with his legs, as exhibited against Nebraska, but he also has a tendency to turn the ball over, and can be really inaccurate. Overall, Thorson has won, played huge roles against both Ball State and Nebraska, and will be bowling as a freshman. Sure, he's far from perfect, but there is a ton to be excited about with him.
Justin Jackson: A-
174 carries, 731 yards, 1 td; 17 rec, 137 yards
If you think Jackson deserves lower than this, you're probably falling prey to the recency bias. Through five games this year, Jackson's grade was probably an A+, or pretty close to it. Yes, he's had three down weeks in a row, but that's partially because he hasn't gotten the carries, partially due to the failures of the offensive line, and thus only partially on Jackson himself. Even against Nebraska, Jackson proved his value, helping salt away the clock with an impressive, crucial catch-and-run on 3rd-and-3. He's the best skill player on this team, and in all likelihood, he'll get back in the swing of things against Penn State.
Christian Jones: C-
18 rec, 188 yards, 1 td
It hasn't exactly been the triumphant return from injury Christian Jones would have hoped for, as he's been plagued by drops recently. But Jones was huge against Stanford (5 rec, 52 yards) and is an emotional leader for this team. Hopefully he can get his hands back to what they were early in the year, because he's Northwestern's best route-runner and a valuable asset.
Austin Carr: B+
7 rec, 154 yards, 2 td
Carr, a former walk-on who received a scholarship this year, is more than a feel-good story. He has the best hands of all the receivers thus far. He only has seven catches, but they've been big catches — often for first downs or touchdowns (two of his seven catches have gone for scores). Although Mike McHugh has more catches, Carr has been more important to this team, and when healthy, he's the second-best player on the outside.
Dan Vitale: A-
23 rec, 276 yds, 3 tds.
Vitale is doing Vitale things: lining up all over the formation, blocking like a fullback, catching like a wide receiver and doing everything he can to help his team win. He was huge in the comeback win over Ball State, and of course this weekend against Nebraska. He's a great leader and his physical tools are really helpful for a passing attack that often struggles. He's Thorson's favorite target, safety blanket and best option. The only thing you can complain about, really, is him not getting the pigskin more.
Warren Long/Solomon Vault: B+
Long: 37 carries, 197 yards, 2 td; 2 rec, 23 yards
Vault: 41 carries, 150 yards; 5 rec, 26 yards; 16 returns, 420 yards, 1 td
Long and Vault made their biggest plays in the same game. Against Duke, Vault started the second half with a kickoff return touchdown, and Long took a handoff 55 yards to pay dirt later in the game to seal it. Long has been fantastic in punt coverage and Vault, while not outstanding thus far on offense, has been a really good kick returner. I'm still waiting for him to get more involved in the passing offense, though. Overall, both guys have played a crucial role for this team.
Offensive Line: C-
Remember when this unit appeared to hold some promise? After paving the way for 266 yards on the ground against Stanford, all while keeping Clayton Thorson upright, fears were allayed. But since, one word can describe NU's line: unstable. Whether it's injuries, position changes, or inconsistent play, this unit has seemingly regressed as the season has gone on.
Dean Lowry: A
36 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 int, 4 PBU
The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week has been an absolute beast, save for Michigan and Iowa, when he was double-teamed pretty much every play. And even then, he looked like the best player on NU's defense. Lowry is really good against the run and the pass, has the most pass breakups on the team outside of Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris. His JJ Watt-esque interception against Duke stands out as one of the plays of the season.
Deonte Gibson: B
22 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks
Gibson's sack total is so high because he picked up a couple of relatively meaningless ones against Michigan. However, he's still a strong, and at times overwhelming end opposite Lowry. One of his best plays this year came last week, when he blew up Nebraska's left tackle, pushing him back into Tommy Armstrong's lap. Armstrong lost his balance and tried to fling a desperation pass that wound up in the hands of Nick VanHoose, who took it to the VanHouse. Gibson was quietly really good early in the season, and although perhaps his physical limitations have come to the surface during Big Ten play, he's as solid as they come.
Anthony Walker: A
67 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries
Walker has been all over the field pretty much every week. Yes, he still has his struggles in the run game when offensive linemen get downfield, and he's still developing his play recognition, but overall, he's a violent, explosive linebacker who can run almost anyone down, and is a sure tackler. It's been a huge breakout year for the talented man in the middle of Northwestern's defense.
Jaylen Prater: B-
46 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU
Taking over for Chi Chi Ariguzo, Prater has done a decent job and is the team's third-leading tackler. He's not near the athlete some of his fellow linebackers are, and he often leaves the field on third-down passing plays, but Prater has been, for the most part, a decent tackler and a smart player.
Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris: A
VanHoose: 23 tackles, 1 int, 8 PBU
Harris: 25 tackles, 3 int, 7 PBU
These guys are as solid as they come. VanHoose had a couple troublesome plays in the run game against Iowa (who didn't?), and Harris has missed the past two contests after a scary-looking injury at Michigan, but they make a phenomenal duo. To prove Harris' value, see how the pass defense struggled against Nebraska when Keith Watkins and Marcus McShepard were pressed into service on the outside.
Godwin Igwebuike: B+
48 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 PBU
The second-leading tackler on the team, Igwebuike hasn't shown the ballhawking skills he showed last year against Wisconsin, but has been good in coverage nonetheless. Well, except for this time:
He's also been a very dependable open-field tackler and a strong presence in the secondary. His strip-and-scoop against Duke was an important play that helped get the Wildcats on the board.
Traveon Henry: B
44 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 int
Henry is a big hitter, no doubt, but sometimes he doesn't wrap up, rather lowering his shoulder instead of using his whole body. He had a great interception against Iowa, and has in general been pretty dependable in coverage, which is an improvement on last year. But he's far from perfect, and probably a step below Igwebuike, especially athletically.
Jack Mitchell: B
14-for-18 FG, 16-17 XP
Mitchell hit some huge kicks earlier in the year (namely against Stanford) and went 3-for-3 last week, but is still just 14-for-18, which isn't anything outstanding, and he missed a field goal in Ann Arbor that could have, at least momentarily, stopped the bleeding against the Wolverines.
Hunter Niswander: C+
Niswander has had some shanks, and he doesn't have a great leg, but he consistently gets good hang time, and his special teams coverage has been solid because of that. No, he's not the ideal punter, but he's been better than Chris Gradone and Brandon Williams.