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Northwestern football report card through the bye week: Offense

The offense has been hit-or-miss through 5 games.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

After every Northwestern football game, we hand out player grades as a way to assess the performances of individual members of the team. Now, with the bye week upon us, it’s time to take a step back and give out report cards that evaluate players and coaches over the first five weeks.

This is Part 1, the offense. (We’ll have the defense for you tomorrow and the coaching staff on Friday). Northwestern’s offensive unit has been wildly inconsistent in the opening month of the 2016 season, ranging from spectacular in a 38-point explosion against Iowa to downright dreadful against Illinois State. Some players have been far better than others, though. Let’s take a look at the performances and hand out some grades.

QB Clayton Thorson

Grade: C+

Passing stats: 92/169 (54.4%), 1,120 yards (224/game), 6.63 YPA, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, passing efficiency 121.0

Rushing stats: 43 att., 134 pos yds, 82 neg yds (inc sacks), 52 net yds, 2 TDs (long 42), 1 fum lost

This offense starts and ends with Clayton Thorson. He has been up and down thus far, and the rest of the unit has followed suit. Thorson’s stats don’t look that impressive, but it’s important to remember how bad they were last season. He’s averaging 100 yards more per game this year, with slight improvements in yards per attempt and completion percentage. There have undeniably been signs of progress and potential from Thorson as a passer; when given time to step into throws, he’s been able to deliver accurate strikes to his receivers.

The speed he exhibited in his first collegiate game is still there as well, with the big touchdown run against Nebraska as the best 2016 example. With that said, Thorson is a long way from being a great quarterback. He still makes several head-scratching throws every game and could easily have more than four picks. He also tends to default to handing the ball to Jackson on the read option even when he should keep it, and the fumble against Western Michigan cost Northwestern a win.

His dreadful performance against Illinois State was a big reason why Northwestern lost. Thorson gets a C+ for the first five games but is trending upwards, having recorded either 240 yards or three touchdown passes in three straight games and completing at least 60 percent of his passes in both Big Ten contests. His play over the next seven games will go a long way in determining whether or not the Wildcats will be going bowling this winter.

RB Justin Jackson

Grade: A-

Rushing stats: 109 carries, 510 yards, 4.7 yds/carry, 102.0 yds/gm, 4 TDs (long 58), 1 fum lost

Receiving stats: 10 catches, 80 yards (long 37)

For a third straight year, Jackson has been one of the best running backs in the conference and one of the most durable in the country. After finishing third in the FBS in carries last season, he’s fourth in 2016. With backfield-mate Warren Long going down early in the opener, Jackson has had even less rest than usual.

What has been most impressive about Jackson this season is that he has continued to produce despite extremely shaky offensive line play (more on that later). He’s had two huge games (23 carries, 124 yards, 3 touchdowns against WMU and 26 carries, 171 yards, 1 touchdown at Iowa) and three relatively quiet ones in which he hasn’t had much help from his line. When given running room, Jackson has looked as patient and shifty as ever. He’s also on pace to set a new career high in receptions. Jackson would be at an A if not for the fumble against Iowa and some brief stretches of sub-standard running. Still, he’s a true workhorse back.

RBs John Moten IV and Auston Anderson

Grade: N/A

Rushing stats: Moten: 6 carries, 26 yds, 4.3 yds/carry; Anderson: 5 carries, 17 yds, 3.4 yds/carry

Receiving stats: Moten: 2 catches, 24 yards; Anderson: N/A

With no Long, Northwestern has had to turn to sophomores Moten and Anderson as change-of-pace options. Moten has been first in line for those extra touches and has been the better of the two in limited usage. He has shown some nice quickness but still hasn’t gotten the ball enough to warrant a grade.

WR Austin Carr

Grade: A+

Receiving stats: 32 catches, 465 yards, 14.5 yds/catch, 93.0 yds/gm, 6 TDs (long 58)

Here are our grades on Carr for each of Northwestern’s five games: A-, A, A, A, A+. He is unquestionably the most valuable player of the Wildcats’ offense right now. Carr has at least five catches and 73 yards in every game, and has gotten better and better as the season has progressed.

Over the last three games, two of them wins, he’s averaging 6.7 catches for 105.7 yards and 1.7 touchdowns. Those are elite numbers. As you have probably heard, the guy is leading the Big Ten in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns.

How is this happening? Well, for starters, Carr and Thorson have shown a ton of chemistry. Thorson knows when Carr is going to make his breaks on routes and trusts him to make plays when the ball gets there and with good reason. Carr is an excellent route runner and has incredible hands, frequently pulling in passes that aren’t right where they should be. It’s in the best interest of Thorson and this offense as a whole to keep peppering No. 80 with targets, especially in the red zone.

WR Flynn Nagel

Grade: A

Receiving stats: 11 catches, 131 yards, 11.9 yds/catch, 26.2 yds/gm

Return stats: 8 punt returns, 94 yards (long 47), 11.75 avg; 1 kick return, 27 yards

Nagel has had a fantastic and surprising start to 2016, perhaps becoming Thorson’s best secondary receiver and proving to be a great punt returner. His long catch on the sideline against Duke and near-TD punt return last Saturday were big plays that helped Northwestern win both of those games. Beyond those highlights, Nagel has simply been very solid, exceeding expectations and earning a definitive A.

WR Macan Wilson

Grade: B-

Receiving stats: 7 catches, 129 yards (long 35), 18.43 yds/catch, 25.8 yds/gm

Leading the Wildcats in yards per reception, Wilson has proven to be excellent at gaining yards after the catch. He is used mainly on short routes in which Thorson can get him the ball and give him a chance to make things happen with his speed. Some would say he’s pretty good at...Macan plays (*beats self with laptop*).

However, Wilson has struggled on downfield routes. Against Nebraska, Pat Fitzgerald blamed him for not cutting in front of the safety on an interception in the end zone which was an inflection point in the game. He needs to improve in that regard and become more involved in the offense to receive a better grade than a B-.

WR Solomon Vault

Grade: C

Receiving stats: 8 catches, 91 yards, 11.38 yds/catch, 1 TD (44 yds), 18.2 yds/gm

Rushing stats: 8 carries, 23 yards (2.9 yds/carry)

Return stats: 9 kick returns, 228 yards (long 37), 25.3 avg

Vault, Northwestern’s dynamic all-purpose speedster, has been disappointing in his first five games as a receiver. The long touchdown against Duke showcased his potential as a deep threat, but the former running back has mostly been unable to get open in the passing game.

None of his eight carries have gone for more than five yards and he has yet to post a long kickoff return. Yes, Mick McCall and the offensive line are somewhat to blame, but Vault just hasn’t met expectations. The potential is there; we’ll see if he can get it going down the stretch.

WRs Andrew Scanlan, Bennett Skowronek

Grade: N/A

Receiving stats: Scanlan: 6 catches, 58 yards (9.7 avg), Skowronek: 4 catches, 26 yards (6.5 avg)

Rounding out the receiving corps are one senior and one true freshman, neither of whom have gotten involved enough to be graded.

SB Garrett Dickerson

Grade: B

Receiving stats: 10 catches, 104 yards, 10.4 yds/catch, 1 TD (26 yds), 20.8 yds/gm

Dickerson is Northwestern’s biggest option in the passing game and has looked good when targeted, so it’s a bit surprising that he has just 10 catches. One place he was expected to play a big role is in the red zone, but some Carr guy seems to be snatching up all of those targets. Dickerson did get the Duke game going with a nice touchdown catch, so maybe we’ll see more of that after the bye week. The superback has been inconsistent as a blocker, which is what keeps him from A territory.

Offensive line

Grade: D

This unit received D’s through the first four games, but bounced back with a big A- against Iowa. It was an encouraging performance in Iowa City but not nearly enough to overshadow the line’s woeful play in Northwestern’s 1-3 start. Thorson has been sacked 16 times, worst in the Big Ten, and hurried on many other dropbacks. If you need reminders, take a look here and here.

  • LT Blake Hance started terribly, routinely getting beat while barely touching the pass rusher, but has looked a little better of late. Grade: D-
  • LG Connor Mahoney has had some penalty issues and was part of the Wildcats’ run blocking struggles in Weeks 2-4. Grade: C-
  • C Brad North has made some nice blocks on big runs by Jackson, but has struggled overall. Grade: D+
  • RG Tommy Doles has, in my opinion, been Northwestern’s best lineman this season. That’s not a high bar, but Doles has been solid. Grade: B-
  • RT Eric Olson has been the better of the two tackles but nothing special. Grade: C

Everyone on the line gets a boost after the Iowa game. If I were writing this a week ago, they’re probably looking at an F as a group. Adam Cushing needs to get more performances like that one out of these players if Northwestern wants to keep winning.

PK Jack Mitchell

Grade: D-

Stats: 2 FGM, 5 FGA (40%), long 40, 13/14 XPs (93%), 12 touchbacks on 21 kickoffs

Mitchell’s struggles have been well-documented, and for good reason. He has been so bad that a kicking competition occurred in practice last week, but Mitchell was able to beat out Matt Micucci for the job and was perfect against the Hawkeyes, albeit without any challenging attempts. Still, it’s been a bad season. He has missed kicks from 27, 33 and 34 yards, as well as an extra point. That’s 10 easy points left on the table. Like the offensive line, a promising showing against Iowa keeps him from an F.

P Hunter Niswander

Grade: A-

Stats: 31 punts, 1,363 yards, 44 yds/punt, long 62, 9 inside opposing 20, 6 50+ yds

Last but not least, Hunter the Punter has been outstanding. His 44-yard average is second in the Big Ten and he has regularly pinned opponents deep in their own territory. Niswander and Nagel have been the lone bright spots on an otherwise bad special teams unit.