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 played spoiler again on Saturday, this time with a 54-40 upset victory over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium. The team report card reflects the monumental nature of the win:
Stats: 27/35, 281 yards, three touchdowns, one interception; five carries, nine yards, one touchdown
Truthfully, I hate to not be able to give Thorson a higher grade than an A-, but the pick-six he threw in the first quarter was absolutely deplorable. Thorson was the first one to admit fault post-game, and he was also the fastest to bounce back during the game. The redshirt sophomore was near perfect following the interception; he set a new career high for completion percentage in a game (77.1 percent) and came up with a number of key throws down the stretch to keep Michigan State out of shouting distance. Thank the offensive line, thank Justin Jackson, thank the Northwestern coaching staff for this Thorson performance (possibly the best of his career), but, above all, thank the resiliency and maturity of Thorson for allowing him to put the Wildcat offense’s shaky start behind him and drop 54 points on a team that, lest we forget, participated in the College Football Playoff in 2015.
Stats: 34 carries, 188 yards, two touchdowns; four receptions, ten yards
We knew Northwestern would be able to run the ball on Michigan State, but Jackson was included in the group of Wildcats who got off to a sluggish start in this one. He eventually righted the ship, finishing the day with a whopping 38 total touches, nearly 200 total yards and two scores. As important as Thorson’s development has been for Northwestern’s offense, this team still very much goes as Justin Jackson (and the offensive line) goes. If he’s going to put up performances like the ones he had against Iowa and Michigan State every week, Northwestern might just make some noise down the stretch in 2016.
Stats: 11 receptions, 130 yards, two touchdowns
Austin Carr is simply ridiculous. He’s the best wide receiver in the Big Ten and with each passing week, this point is getting more difficult to debate. He has scored in five straight games for Northwestern and he’s easily Clayton Thorson’s favorite and most reliable target: he had more than double the receptions of the next highest total on the team today and is leading the team in every major statistical receiving category by a mile. He’s a bonafide security blanket on third down, regardless of the down and distance, and his 29-yard score with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter was the final dagger in the Spartan faithful’s hearts. There’s a legitimate argument to be made for Northwestern having both the best wide receiver and running back in the Big Ten, and if you see any truth in this claim, it’s no wonder the offense has seen such a dramatic resurgence over the past two games.
Stats: Five receptions, 81 yards, one touchdown; one kickoff return, 24 yards
Entering the season, I’m not sure anyone saw Nagel’s role within this team expanding this much — remember, it was Matt Harris who was listed as the primary punt returner — and at least not in the foreseeable future. But, oh, how wrong this sentiment turned out to be. Nagel has turned into a reliable second option for Thorson in the passing game by virtue of plays like his 57-yard touchdown reception today (the first score of his career). This was a day of career bests for a number of Northwestern players and Nagel was certainly one of them. Under the tutelage of Carr, Nagel could turn into a legitimate weapon for NU if he continues to build off of performances like this one.
This unit has really turned things around since the beginning of the season, and it’s reflected in the numbers of all the guys listed above. Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Austin Carr are all playing the best football of their respective careers, and you don’t get this kind of play out of skill-position guys on offense unless you’re winning the battle up front. On Saturday, they did that, even without the on-field leadership of captain Connor Mahoney. As a unit, they probably deserve the most credit for Northwestern’s 54-point explosion, if only for the impact they had on every aspect of the Wildcat’s offense.
Stats: Four total tackles (three solo), two sacks, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hurry, one forced fumble
I don’t even feel remotely bad about all the A’s I’m giving out here, and if you watched this game, you understand why. The defense as a whole wasn’t necessarily a point of strength for Northwestern today, but Odenigbo certainly was. Coming off a career four-sack day against Iowa, Odenigbo came into this one determined to wreck another side’s homecoming weekend. He was able to do just that with two sacks and a key strip-sack to halt Michigan State’s momentum in the third quarter. The secondary had its lapses, but the defensive line was disruptive all day, and that all starts with Odenigbo.
Stats: Four total tackles (three solo), one sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hurry, one fumble recovery
Talk about opportunistic. Gaziano’s impact was felt on two crucial plays in this one: his crushing sack of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke for a safety in the first half (Odenigbo said he thought there was “a dead body” on the field after the hit) and pouncing on Odenigbo’s forced fumble late in the third quarter. Pat Fitzgerald was incredibly high on Gaziano post-game, so we may expect to see more out of the Massachusetts product in the coming weeks.
Stats: Seven total tackles (four solo), one sack, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hurries
It’s usually difficult to discuss Northwestern’s defense at all without Anthony Walker dominating the conversation, but his number wasn’t called overly often today. He had a few disruptive plays in the backfield, but Northwestern’s second and third levels of defense struggled all day with both coverage and tackling. Walker was solid, but not quite “The Franchise” level guy we expect week in and week out.
The one blemish on an otherwise glorious day for Northwestern football. Fitzgerald lamented miscommunications and a lack of focus in the secondary in the post-game press conference and it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. Northwestern led 33-17 midway through the third quarter and appeared completely in control of the game when two long R.J. Shelton touchdowns, one a juggling grab tipped up in the air by Godwin Igwebuike and the other a busted coverage by Alonzo Mayo, allowed Michigan State to fight back into within two points. Northwestern would, of course, stave the Spartans off and a late Jared McGee interception added some respectability to the unit’s stat line, but it was overall a disappointing performance for a unit plagued by both injuries and inexperience.
Stats: Two receptions, eight yards; one kickoff return, 95 yards, one touchdown
Solomon Vault may have singlehandedly saved Northwestern from a catastrophic collapse in this game when he took a Michigan State kickoff 95 yards to the house after the Spartans had scored 14 straight to climb back within two points of the visitors. Vault’s explosiveness has yet to truly be showcased in the passing game, but he continues to find ways to make an impact in other phases of the game.
He’s really turned it around. Mitchell now hasn’t missed a kick in three weeks (sure, one of those was a bye, sue me) and suddenly looks, dare I say, reliable as a kicker. Maybe he just needed the scare of competition to drive him to consistency. It also helps when your offense puts up 38 and 54 in consecutive weeks. It’s a lot easier to consistently convert kicks when you’re attempting mostly extra points. He’s now fifth all-time in the NU scoring books.