Over the past month, we've done our best to set the landscape for Northwestern football in 2015. We began with our list of top 10 most important players, than delved into positional previews, and this week, we've supplemented those with some breakout player predictions and freshmen to watch.
With the Summer Guide now drawing to a close, and with football season seemingly just around the corner, yet still so far away, it's time to take a look at some of the most pressing questions that will impact the Wildcats in the upcoming campaign. The answers to the following five questions will go a long way to determining how the season plays out:
1. Can Northwestern get consistent play out of whoever starts at QB?
Believe it or not, the quarterback position is pretty important to a football team. Trevor Siemian proved this time and time again last year, as the team's overall performance seemed to almost mirror his individual performance — which was, at best, inconsistent. Now that Siemian has moved on — he was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 7th round of the NFL Draft — Northwestern begins the search for its next signal-caller.
The three potential candidates are redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti — or as we like to call them (him?), Mackton Thorviter. The general sense is that Thorson is the leader in the clubhouse, and he brings much needed dual-threat skills to the table. Alviti is mobile as well, but it remains to be seen how well he can actually throw the ball. Oliver is the biggest of the three, and has a big arm, but didn't exactly play well in his one start last year.
Whoever it is though — or whichever combination of QBs it is — Northwestern must find some consistency at the position. That's a lot to ask of a first-year starter, but even if the level of play is merely average, it must be steady. Northwestern's defense will be strong, so in some cases, the offense might not have to be good enough to win games on its own; but it'll always have to be good enough to not lose them.
2. Where will the big plays come from?
The 2014 Wildcats were abysmal at connecting on long plays. Sure, there was the occasional long Justin Jackson run or a special team return touchdown, but on average, it was a 10-plus play drive into the red zone, or a three-and-out with little in between.
Explosiveness is hard to quantify, but the IsoPPP (isolated points per play) stat does a pretty good job. In 2014, Northwestern's IsoPPP was .68, which was 128th in the nation. That's... well... horrible. It was dead last in Division I FBS college football! Even a look at more traditional stats shows the lack of big plays: The longest offensive play of the year was only 68 yards, and that didn't come until November.
One of the main reasons for the lack of big plays is, interestingly, Justin Jackson. As good as he is, he's not a homerun threat. Jackson was obviously phenomenal last year, but up until the Notre Dame game, his longest run was only 27 yards. However, in the last three games of the year, Jackson had runs of 35, 44 and 68. He also averaged 6.1 yards per carry over that span. So back to the question at hand, Jackson is surely primed for another big year, and more big plays might be a part of that. Auston Anderson and, hopefully, a 100-percent-healthy Solomon Vault will also be able to deliver more explosiveness out of the backfield.
It's completely fair to remain pessimistic though. There is a chance that the offense still won't be able to get the ball to Anderson, Jackson and Vault in space. There's been some turnover on the offense, but Northwestern's inability to tailor its offense to its playmakers' abilities the past two years has been frustrating. Part of it will depend on how comfortable offensive coordinator Mick McCall is with whoever is playing quarterback, and how the offense takes shape this year.
3. Will Northwestern improve in the trenches?
"Games are won and lost in the trenches." This common football saying rang true for Northwestern last year, as line play was average at best and the team suffered for it. The defensive line managed just 17 sacks, and at times had a hard time even pressuring the passer. The offensive line was 83rd in the nation in adjusted line yards (essentially run blocking success) and also gave up 34 sacks. A team who can't rush the QB while also being unable to protect its own is in deep, deep trouble.
There is hope for this year though. The defensive line brings back pretty much everybody, and should get better with experience. The offensive line loses three starters, but getting some new blood in there can help improve what's been a mediocre group the last few years.
Both units could be aided by the players around them too. Trevor Siemian was not the most mobile QB, especially as he struggled to overcome an ankle injury, and took a lot of hits because of that. He also was forced to hang onto the ball by subpar receiver play. Thorson (or Alviti/Oliver) should be able to avoid at least some of the opponent's rush, which in turn could help the offensive line. And it'd be difficult for the receivers to be worse.
The defensive line will once again have a very good secondary behind it, which should give the likes of Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo more than enough time to get to the QB.
4. Can Northwestern find stability in the kicking game?
In keeping with the theme of necessary improvement, special teams in 2014 was lackluster to say the least. Outside of Jack Mitchell's late season renaissance and Chris Gradone's coffin corner punting clinic against Wisconsin, special teams consistently hurt the team as a whole. The stats are not pretty: Northwestern's special teams F/+ was 110th in the nation, Chris Gradone averaged 37.9 yards per punt, and Jack Mitchell only had 19 touchbacks on 54 kickoffs. This led Northwestern to be 124th and 114th in punt and kickoff efficiency respectively. Also, there was the fourth quarter of the Minnesota game...
Jack Mitchell will likely return as the starting kicker this season, and played well enough at the end of last season to deserve it. Hunter Niswander replaces Chris Gradone as the punter. The Wildcats will need better performances from those two in 2015.
5. Is the defense good enough to win games on its own?
During the three game winning streak last year, the defense was incredible. Against Western Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin, the defense gave up a combined total of 27 points while forcing 4 fumbles and 6 interceptions. After that stretch however, injuries hit and the offense's inability to move the ball (e.g. the Michigan game) began to wear on the defense.
Despite losing stalwarts Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ibraheim Campbell, the defense should still be quite good this year. If the offense is still quite bad though, the defense might have to win some games on their own, as they did against Wisconsin, and as they nearly did against Michigan. Will they be good enough to do that? We'll have to wait and see. Generating turnovers could play a big part.