Record: 7-6 (5-4 B1G)
Northwestern’s year got off to a rocky start, opening with home losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch was able to turn things around, though, becoming bowl eligible for the second-straight season and building some momentum heading into the offseason after knocking off Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl.
High point of the season: Upsetting No. 23 Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl
Potential upset bids against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin fell short for Pat Fitzgerald and company, leaving the Wildcats without that key win at the end of the regular season.
The Wildcats finally nabbed that marquee victory in the Pinstripe Bowl, taking down No. 23 Pitt 31-24 at Yankee Stadium. Justin Jackson went crazy, rushing for 224 yards and three TDs in the victory, a career day for the junior:
Against a Pitt team that had wins over Clemson and Penn State, Northwestern wasn’t given much of a chance in the contest.
Northwestern proved that it was probably better than the record indicated and Jackson showed he’s not only one of the B1G’s top backs, but one of the best ball-carriers in the country.
Low point of the season: Offensive performance in 9-7 loss to Illinois State at home
Does it get any worse than losing to an FCS opponent on your home field?
No. It does not.
Especially when the defense forces two turnovers and held Illinois State to just nine points.
The offense was anemic, earning just 277 yards and reaching the end zone only once. Jackson was limited to 42 yards and Clayton Thorson completed 17-of-41 passes in the loss. Fortunately, the Wildcats didn’t let that game define their season, but it was an ugly, ugly blemish on the season.
Most meaningful play: Justin Jackson hits 1,000 yards for third-straight year on 14-yard TD
Every year he’s been in Evanston, Jackson has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.
In Northwestern’s 10th game of the season, the running back hit the mark again on this 14-yard TD scamper against Purdue:
Jackson became the first player in the program’s history to hit 1,000 yards in three-straight seasons. Several school and potential B1G rushing records will be in serious jeopardy in 2017.
Team MVP: Austin Carr, WR
A lot of different guys could be mentioned in this category. Jackson, Thorson, maybe even Ifaedi Odenigbo would have legitimate arguments. But Carr’s emergence as a top receiver and his reliability is the difference.
He broke the single-season receiving record at Northwestern, racking up 1,247 yards and tied another single-season mark with 12 TDs for the year. But what set him apart was his ability to make plays on third down.
Of Carr’s 90 receptions, 26 came on third down. 22 of those catches resulted either a first down or a touchdown. That’s pretty dependable.
Plus, he made plays like this that made you think “what? How?”
Overall grade: C+
Northwestern was a bit of an enigma heading into the 2016 season. The Wildcats were still a bit of a mystery at the end of the year, but at least they’re trending in the right direction.
Winning three of the final four games after a sloppy start really salvaged the season in Evanston.