We laid out three major reasons why Northwestern could continue its momentum into the 2018 season and have another successful year. It’s time for the glass half-empty version. Here are three reasons, aside from Clayton Thorson’s knee, (or Nate Hall’s, even) to be pessimistic about Northwestern’s 2018 season.
The schedule isn’t friendly
Northwestern has been promoting its home schedule as the best in the country and it might be right. While NU gets seven home games this year, dates with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame will all be difficult. What’s more, NU opens the season with a conference road game, traveling to face Purdue on Thursday night.
NU hasn’t exactly started the season on the right foot the past two years, and the Wildcats can ill-afford to come out of the gate slow in West Lafayette. A stumble on Thursday night could stem any momentum NU carried over from its eight-game winning streak to end 2017.
NU gets a bye-week before back-to-back matchups against Michigan and Michigan State, which could both be top 10 teams. Three weeks later, it will face Wisconsin and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks, before traveling to Iowa City the following Saturday.
There’s not a lot of margin for error for Northwestern if it wants to replicate last season’s success. To get to nine regular season wins, it will have to beat one of the UM-MSU-UW-ND quartet without slipping up against a team like Purdue or Iowa. That’s a tall order.
We’ve belabored the point about Clayton Thorson — all signs indicate he will start on Thursday, but if he doesn’t, NU will need to reassess its expectations for the time Thorson is on the sidelines.
Still, if Thorson does play against Purdue, the offense faces some structural limitations that could inhibit its production. In 2017, NU finished 53rd in the country in points per game, which masked an S&P+ ranking of 82nd.
One critical shortcoming was a lack of explosiveness, a trend that could carry over to this year. NU finished 120th in the country in explosiveness, in large part because the Wildcats didn’t have a deep ball threat or a receiver that could consistently get open and tilt the field. That doesn’t figure to change much in 2018 — Northwestern’s wide receivers are mostly possession types. With the exception of speedsters like Solomon Vault and Jalen Brown, it’s hard to see a deep ball threat emerging either. Ben Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, and Cameron Green highlight a solid group of pass-catchers, but NU lacks a home-run threat, which could continue to cause trouble in passing downs, where Northwestern was terrible (113th) last season.
Another cause for concern is the offensive line. Justin Jackson capped off a record-setting career in 2017, but the stats didn’t like the big men up front. Football Outsiders pegged NU at 97th in adjusted line yards and 96th in power success rate. The Wildcats surrendered 31 sacks, 86th in the country.
Fitz will defend his lineman, and there is reason for hope — NU returns three senior starters as well as sophomore Rashawn Slater, who was excellent during his freshman campaign. It’s a make-it-or-break it year for Adam Cushing’s experienced group — another subpar season up front given the returning talent could call for a shake-up. The only question mark is at center, where junior Jared Thomas has earned the starting job after Brad North graduated.
At first glance, the biggest holes on the team are at the two safety spots. NU has to replace Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike, who moved on to the NFL. Jared McGee, JR Pace, and Bryce Jackson are the candidates to replace them. McGee is a senior with 30 career games under his belt, and Pace looked capable as a freshman, but neither is the playmaker Queiro and Igwebuike were. Plus, the depth — Jackson, Travis Whillock, and Jeremiah McDonald — has no collegiate experience.
NU can ill afford any injuries at cornerback as well. Montre Hartage is as good as they come, but behind No. 2 corner Trae Williams, experience is thin. Senior Alonzo Mayo has been inconsistent, and Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock have seen but a few college snaps.
Opponents will look to spread Northwestern out, especially if a defensive back or two goes down with an injury.