Unless discussing Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, do not describe the Nov. 3 trip to Northwestern as a “revenge game.” He is the only remaining Irish roster piece that saw action back in 2014 when the Wildcats pulled off a 43-40 overtime victory against No. 15 Notre Dame, arguably in part because of simple arithmetic mistakes.
In his second career start, Tranquill made seven tackles and recovered one fumble that afternoon.
Northwestern finished last season on an eight-game winning streak, one that survived three consecutive overtimes and culminated with a 24-23 win against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, ending the year ranked No. 17 at 10-3.
A defense that gave up only 20.1 points and 357 yards per game was actually overshadowed much of the year by an offense reaching highs not seen in at least five seasons. The Wildcats averaged 29.2 points per game (best since 2012) and 408 yards (best since 2011), led by third-year starter Clayton Thorson at quarterback.
Though all of that added up to finishing second in the Big Ten West division, Northwestern was never genuinely in the running for the conference title. It lost at Wisconsin before the end of September, and the Badgers never slipped up until the conference championship game.
WHAT NORTHWESTERN LOST
Most notably, all-time school rushing leader Justin Jackson and his 5,440 career yards. Offensively, the only other pieces warranting mention are center Brad North and Thorson’s offseason. He tore his ACL in the bowl game.
Even if Thorson had been healthy, he would not have been seen in the Wildcats’ spring game … since it was cancelled by a mid-April snowstorm.
Defensively, Northwestern will need to replace defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster and his 40 tackles with 9.5 behind the line of scrimmage as well as both of its starting safeties.
The Wildcats return all their linebackers, notable this season and in this category because position coach Randy Bates moved eastward to handle defensive coordinator duties at Pittsburgh,
WHAT NORTHWESTERN GAINED
Much has been made of the state-of-the-art, lakeshore practice facility Northwestern is finishing up. It catches the program up to the modern facilities arms race after lagging behind for, to put it charitably, awhile.
Come September, more may be made of four-star defensive end Devin O’Rourke. The defensive line may not inherently need him to contribute right away, but that does not mean he will not crack the rotation in due time. Holding offers from eight other Big Ten schools, Notre Dame and Ole Miss, O’Rourke chose the campus only an hour from his hometown of Frankfort, Ill.
At this point, it feels safe to figure Pat Fitzgerald will spend his entire career coaching the Wildcats, entering his 13th season now. His career record of 87-65 is by no means unimpeachable, but his cache at the school likely insures his job until the program swoons to uncharacteristic lows or he reaches a third decade.
Fitzgerald does not jump to mind when discussing the longest-tenured college football coaches, but he should. More than that, he is one whose name is rarely tied to openings. Only five coaches have been at their gigs longer, starting with Kirk Ferentz entering his 20th year at Iowa and TCU’s Gary Patterson reaching his 19th. The next trio were all hired just a year before Fitzgerald. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy heard his name mentioned alongside this offseason’s Tennessee vacancy; at age 73, Frank Solich is presumably nearing the end of his term at Ohio; and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham flies below the radar just as Fitzgerald does.
The obvious concerns tie to Thorson’s knee. With 39 career starts to date, he will retake the starting quarterback duties even if he is not cleared for the Aug. 30 season opener at Purdue. (Hey, that is only eight days away!) Even considering him for that evening is a credit to modern medicine. ACL tears used to require 12 months, minimum. Thorson tore his exactly nine months and one day before the trip to West Lafayette. (By the way, he completed 60.4 percent of his passes last year for 2,844 yards and 15 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.)
Without Jackson, the Wildcats will rely on sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin. Even with Jackson running for 1,311 yards on 287 attempts last year, Larkin made his presence known. As a true freshman, he took 84 carries for 503 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per rush. Four offensive line starters, with 101 career starts between them, will return to clear his path.
Both of Thorson’s top targets also come back, led by 6-foot-4 junior receiver Bennett Skowronek (45 receptions for 644 yards and five scores).
Northwestern enjoyed its best offense in half a decade last year. Those numbers should only rise this year, provided Thorson is as healthy as reports indicate.
However, this remains a program driven by Fitzgerald’s defense, and that defense should also improve this season, returning seven starters and nearly its entire defensive line rotation. That line combined with then-freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher (second-team All-Big Ten and the team’s No. 1 tackler with 113) to hold opponents to 107.7 rushing yards per game.
Fisher was aided by then-junior Nate Hall, who finished with 79 tackles, 16.5 of which were for loss.
Northwestern drew the short straw in terms of 2018 conference divisional crossover opponents. Rather than, ohhh, Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers, the Wildcats host Michigan and travel to Michigan State and Rutgers. If not for those first two, Northwestern would seem a sure-thing to top the bookmakers’ win total over/under of 6.5.
As is, there are six quite winnable games on its schedule. Unfortunately, they begin at Purdue and then against Duke a week later. Not many programs open with two Power-Five opponents. If Thorson is not full-go, those two close ones could easily tilt the other way.
Winning the close ones is how Fitzgerald & Co. found success last year, finishing 4-0 in one-possession games, including those three straight overtimes against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Notching one or two against the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Iowa should set up the Wildcats to cruise past that over/under metric and into another bowl game. Outdoing Wisconsin for the division title may be even more improbable than usual, but a successful season may be on the horizon, anyway.