As we did last year, Inside NU will be publishing a weekly “Where Are We Wednesday” column, which will take a broader look at where the team stands in the context of the season. This time, Will Ragatz set the stage.
At long last, it’s game week.
We’ve gone over nine months without Northwestern football, and I for one am rather excited to have it back. After a long summer of previewing, speculating, and predicting, there is going to be real game action to watch, react to, and analyze. As a fan, and especially as someone who covers this team, Saturday can’t get here soon enough.
Of course, the players and coaches are undoubtedly raring to go too. They’ve spent the summer training and preparing for a season that they know has the potential to be special. For the players, it’s their first chance in what must feel like ages to go against and hit people other than their teammates. For the coaching staff, it’s a chance to make meaningful calls and see if all of their offseason work has paid off.
The 2017 season has no shortage of storylines, but one stands out as we head into Week 1: Can Northwestern avoid a second straight September letdown? A 1-2 non-conference performance, including a loss in the opener, let the air out of the balloon early in a 2016 campaign that had just as much summer hype leading into it as this one does. This entire offseason, we’ve heard Pat Fitzgerald, Clayton Thorson and others stress the importance of not letting that happen again. Winning the Big Ten West is the ultimate goal, but that starts in the non-con slate. Taking care of business early is crucial for tiebreakers, bowl positioning, and overall momentum. These first three games count, and this team knows that better than maybe any other team in the country because of what it went through last year. The players have been preparing accordingly.
“We changed up how we worked out [this offseason],” senior captain Tyler Lancaster said at Monday’s press conference. “There was a lot of adversity that came at us in practice lately, making us run at random times. We weren’t ready for that last year. We just thought that we were gonna walk in and take it away. Now we gotta play [every game] like it’s our Super Bowl. And we understand that with the way we’ve been working.”
First up on the schedule is a Nevada team that has made drastic changes but was still downright abysmal in 2016. The Wolfpack were 124th in S&P+ a season ago (reminder: there are only 128 FBS teams) and while they should take a significant step forward in coach Jay Norvell’s first year, this is still a game that Northwestern needs to win. Nevada returns only four starters on offense and no longer has its best weapon from last season, running back James Butler, who transferred to Iowa. Former four-star QB David Cornwell, an Alabama transfer, is the likely starter, but apparently returnee Ty Gangi could take some snaps as well. Receivers Wyatt Demps and Andrew Celis won’t inspire much fear in Northwestern’s experienced, top-notch secondary, and sophomore running back Jaxson Kincaide hasn’t proven much at this level yet. New defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was a strong hire (the whole staff has been overhauled), but it will take him plenty of time to turn around a dreadful defense. Tristan Jung summed that unit up pretty well in his opponent preview (which is a good piece to re-read this week):
If Nevada can get to 100th in defensive S&P, it would be a huge improvement. That’s really what you need to know.
Yes, the Wolfpack are an unknown commodity because of all the changes they’ve made since January, a point Fitzgerald has made several times. Yes, they’ve had all summer to game-plan for Northwestern. But under no circumstances should that theoretical advantage be enough to swing the contest in their favor. Justin Jackson is a near lock for a big day against what was far and away the worst rushing defense in the FBS last season (Nevada allowed 297 rushing yards allowed per game; no other team allowed 280). His quest for the all-time Northwestern rushing record should get a big boost. Northwestern is a 24-point favorite in this game, and S&P+ gives the Wildcats a 90 percent chance to win.
Then again, NU had a 91 percent chance to beat Illinois State last season.
However, I believe something feels different about this group. Every time I was around the team in the spring, there was a new, refreshing level of focus and intensity. By all accounts — and I’m sure our writers who were in Evanston this summer would tell you this — that flame has continued to burn all the way into this week.
“This group, they’ve shown a lot of focus,” Fitzgerald said on Monday. “I’ve liked their discipline in practice. I can’t think to one day this camp where I’ve had to be a leader. They’ve handled that, and I think it’s a product of their experiences.”
Every team has question marks and Northwestern is no exception. But there is far too much talent on both sides of the ball and there are far too many experienced leaders at key positions for the Wildcats to allow a repeat of last September. This weekly column is designed to look at the season from a broader perspective, but really, there’s no reason to get ahead of ourselves just yet. We can worry about Wisconsin and Penn State in a few weeks. For now, only one thing matters: Beat Nevada.
I know that sounds intense, but we should all try our hardest not to worry about this game. Instead, let’s get pumped to watch this 2017 squad for the first time. Let’s appreciate the nationwide return of the beautiful spectacle that is college football. I’m going to head to TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night to watch the PJ Fleck era begin at Minnesota. There are plenty of intriguing early games on Saturday, and in case you haven’t heard, Alabama and Florida State play that night.
And most importantly, at 2:30 p.m. CST, we get to watch our favorite team in action. If you’re not cheering at Ryan Field, kick back and trust that the players and coaches are ready to do whatever it takes to get to 1-0 this week.