Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.
Northwestern reclaimed the LOLHat and won their tenth game on the season, something that only three other Northwestern teams have ever done. The offense submitted another inconsistent effort while the defense continued to dominate their opponents, and the Wildcats managed to hold on for the victory. Let's get to the grades:
12/25, 146 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 6 carries, 7 yards
This grade falls firmly at average because it's the combination of first half Thorson (good) and second half Thorson (bad). Thorson played great for much of the first half, throwing for 133 yards and a touchdown as he led Northwestern on three touchdown drives. He made a couple of great throws up the seam and the offense was firing on all cylinders. However in the second half, Thorson only had 13 yards and a pick six. The interception wasn't entirely his fault--the ball was tipped--but 13 yards passing is not good. Combine the two halves and you've got a net average performance.
37 carries, 172 yards, 1 TD
For the second consecutive week, Justin Jackson received 35 plus carries and for the second consecutive week, Jackson receives an A+. Even if the Illinois run defense isn't as good as Wisconsin's, Jackson still put on a spectacular show, once again showing off his vision and patience to keep the offense moving forward. He dragged the team almost single-handedly down the field for a field goal in the fourth quarter. This was Jackson's eighth game with more than 100 yards on the season and his third straight with a touchdown. Just another day at the office for the sophomore running back.
Yesterday was one of the best days all year for the wide receivers, which might say more about how this unit has played all year than how well they played against Illinois. The performance in the second half brings this grade down into the C range, but Austin Carr's big play up early in the first along with Miles Shuler's catch and run over the middle help boost the grade. Even Garrett Kidd and Stephen Buckley made key contributions, each netting one catch that went for a first down. That being said, there still wasn't a lot provided from a group that hasn't been great all year.
The line blocked for Justin Jackson and got him 172 yards, but Jackson also has fantastic vision and can hide some of the mistakes made up front. Not hidden was Northwestern's pass offense. Clayton Thorson was sacked three times by a team that had 13 sacks on the season coming into the game. Thorson also spent much of the game under pressure or rolling out to avoid the rush. It's easy to look past this unit when other parts of the offense aren't executing, but it all starts up front.
14 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack
Similar to Justin Jackson, this is just another day at the office for Anthony Walker. He was all over the field (as he always is), blowing up running backs in the backfield, and making tackles out in the flat. Probably his most impressive play was his sack where he timed the Illinois snap count perfectly and ran untouched towards Wes Lunt. The only thing keeping Walker from an A+ is the defenses' play on third down which could have been better.
The defensive line was overall fine on the day. It's hard to put on the type of performance they had against Wisconsin two weeks in a row, but they certainly weren't bad. Deonte Gibson, Tyler Lancaster and C.J. Robbins all had three tackles and Ifeadi Odenigbo had a sack. The line got pressure throughout the game, but not nearly enough, as Lunt had a decent amount of time to throw. The line made some plays when it was necessary, but there was some room for improvement.
10 tackles, 2 PBU
Godwin played very well this week, making tackles and breaking up passes all over the field. However, you don't necessarily want your safety to be your second leading tackler, because that means that teams are completing some passes. Igwebuike played well, but Illinois also had 241 passing yards on the day, which, while not terrible, drops Igwebuike to an A-.
5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU
You can pretty much copy paste the explanation for Igewbuike's grade here. It's never great from a team standpoint when your cornerback has to make five tackles, but Harris played great, especially after Nick VanHoose was injured. He also made the biggest play of the game for Northwestern, intercepting an errant Wes Lunt pass in the redzone when it looked like Illinois had all the momentum.
The special teams were fine for a unit that was called upon to punt eight times throughout the course of the game. Hunter Niswander averaged 38 yards per punt and had two punts inside the 20. Jack Mitchell hit his only field goal attempt and all three extra points. Where the grade takes a hit is in the return game. Or the lack of a return game. Illinois punted 7 times and Northwestern did not have a single punt return. There was also a punt which wasn't fair caught and wound up bouncing for a net of 62 yards. The special teams didn't hurt the team, but they also didn't help either.
The Wildcats had some good clean American fun, went 1-0 for the tenth time this season, and Fitz threw some shade at the College Football Playoff selection committee after the game.