Coming off of a 10-3 season, the barometer of success for Northwestern is now even higher. Suddenly, this is a program with 27 wins and two bowl wins in the last three seasons. Ever since the Wildcats earned a thrilling Music City Bowl victory, the program has a lot of momentum going for it.
As the 2018 season creeps ever so close, let’s look at three reasons why that positive momentum could turn into a massive season for NU.
1. Clayton Thorson’s recovery seems to have gone smoothly
The only reason the celebrations surrounding the Music City Bowl were a tad muted was due to the situation surrounding Clayton Thorson. The QB left the game with a knee injury, later to be diagnosed as a torn ACL. It wasn’t hard to envision a future where Northwestern would be without Thorson for a large portion of the 2018 season.
However, in the months that followed, the reports of Thorson’s recovery kept getting better and better. At Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, it really became time to get excited about Thorson’s chances of featuring in the opener against Purdue. Speaking to media, Thorson seemed genuinely optimistic about the reality of that scenario.
“My goal has always been to play on August 30 and our doctors are doing a great job of putting me in the best chance to do that. I’m setting myself up in a good spot to do that, sometimes things are out of my control but I’m starting to feel like myself again. I’ve been cleared for everything in camp.”
Pat Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment, claiming that Thorson was “night and day” from the spring, and that August 30. is the goal for Thorson’s return. Thorson even looks good in practice videos.
If Thorson is 100 percent when the Purdue matchup rolls around, the sky is the limit for the senior captain. Projected as a first to a third round pick, he has the potential to be a difference-making quarterback for NU, something NU needs to surpass Wisconsin as B1G West champions. If all goes to plan, Northwestern fans will be thanking Dr. James Andrews at the end of the season.
2. The new facilities are game changers
The new Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center represented monumental steps towards making Northwestern competitive with the blue bloods of the college football world in areas like recruiting and resources. However, the facilities also could be a major edge in producing results on the field.
Nate Hall, Montre Hartage and Pat Fitzgerald have all commented on how impactful, but I think the most crucial quote came from Thorson.
“It does a lot for us, it’s cool to see guys want to come in and do extra work, watch extra film, I think it’s going to make us a better football team in the end.”
Thorson is right, and this will give Northwestern a benefit that it has never had before. Whether it come in the form of extra hours of sleep for players, or help stuff a run on second-and-10 in Week 4, the facilities will provide an immediate tangible benefit to the team.
3. This defense has the talent to be a force
Despite the losses of Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, the 2018 NU defense has the potential to be special.
Up front, NU returns five of seven starters. Starting in the middle, Paddy Fisher is one of the premier linebackers in the country. Coming off of a year in which he was named second team All-B1G, Fisher earned a spot as a team captain, as a sophomore. That should show you the level of respect his teammates have for him, and if he can build on the previous season, Northwestern actually has a chance of losing him to the draft. He’s that good.
The anchor of the defensive line this year is Jordan Thompson, who will slot into the role left by Tyler Lancaster. Thompson is a stout run defender, and if he can improve his pass rushing ability, has the capability to be an elite player.
On the outside of the line is Joe Gaziano, among a bunch of other talented ends. Returning after a campaign that netted nine sacks and four forced fumbles, he will remain a disruptive force to be reckoned with for opposing offensive lines. Much like Paddy Fisher, Gaziano is poised for a big season.
Rounding off the front seven is Nate Hall. Hall is a bit of a wild card this year due to his knee injury, but if he can return healthy, much like Thorson, he has the potential to be a skillful all around player for the Wildcats. Hall provides the insurance for players like Fisher and Gaziano to be aggressive, and could hold the key to a balanced but destructive Northwestern defense.
In the secondary, replacing two excellent starting safeties is no easy task, but this summer has shown me nothing to believe that JR Pace and Jared McGee can’t adequately fill that void, at least to a degree. Montre Hartage’s coverage ability should allow Mike Hankwitz to afford more resources towards protecting Pace and Mcgee if need be.
All things considered, this defense can be one of the best in the B1G.
Bring on the season.