Three keys for Northwestern in 2015
It’s hard to believe that Pat Fitzgerald is the Big Ten’s second longest tenured coach. His five straight bowl appearances made him beloved in Evanston, but the Wildcats haven’t reached six wins in either of the last two seasons. Here’s what they need to do to get back on track.
Get mobile quarterback option
In order to be effective in Northwestern’s offense, a quarterback has to be able to function outside of the pocket. Fitzgerald relied on the likes of Trevor Siemian, Kain Coulter and Dan Persa to do so in years past. But this year, the Wildcats have three quarterbacks battling for the starting job entering the final month of summer camp. Zack Oliver is the only return with any starting experience, even though he only filled in for an injured Siemian in the season finale. Former four-star recruits Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson are also competing for the starting job, though none of whom emerged as the spring favorite, according to Fitzgerald. Whoever takes over will be responsible for turning around a passing attack that accounted for only 10 touchdowns a year ago.
Keep Justin Jackson healthy
Obviously keeping the team’s best skill player healthy is important. But Northwestern needs the Big Ten’s second most productive returning back to be the workhorse the whole way this year. The 5-11, 185-pound back burst on to the scene as a freshman with 1,187 rushing yards and 10 scores. He was also the source of Northwestern’s big plays, if and when they came. Fitzgerald spoke highly of his two most recent recruiting classes, both of which could have guys playing right away. Auston Anderson impressed Fitzgerald with his allusiveness and swagger. If he, along with returners Solomon Vault and Warren Long, can take on a bigger portion of the workload, the Wildcats would be able to better protect their best investment.
Northwestern struggled to move the line of scrimmage last year. Purdue was the only Big Ten team that had fewer tackles for loss than the Wildcats. They do, however, return some talented experience. Defensive end Dean Lowry is the veteran of a group that returns six who cracked the starting lineup. The NU secondary actually was the conference’s fifth ranked pass defense, which helped it pull off upsets against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. For the Wildcats to make a first step back in the direction of 10 wins, it’ll have to get back to its smash-mouth ways of three years ago.