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Know Your Foe, Week 6: Northwestern Wildcats

This week, it's north by northwest to Northwestern

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern University

Location: Evanston, Illinois
Enrollment: 21,208 (Undergraduates and post graduates)
Home Stadium: Ryan Field
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 12th year, 78-63 (.553)
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Series History

First Game: November 20, 1993 (Penn State won, 43-21)
Last Game: November 7, 2015 (Northwestern won, 23-21)
Overall: Penn State leads 13-5
Current Win Streak: 2, Northwestern

Last Season (7-6 overall, 5-4 Big Ten Conference)

The Northwestern Wildcats started off the season with a pair of close losses to Western Michigan and No 10 Illinois State, but quickly rebounded to defeat Duke. Northwestern lost their next game, their Big Ten opener against No. 20 Nebraska, but won their next three games against conference teams Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. The Wildcats then lost to two ranked teams – No. 6 Ohio State and No. 8 Wisconsin. Following an easy defeat of Purdue then a loss to Minnesota, Northwestern won their final regular game of the season against Illinois, earning them a berth in the Pinstripe Bowl. In a close matchup, Northwestern defeated the Pitt Panthers 31-24 in their bowl game.

Last Week

Northwestern is 2-2 this season with wins over Nevada and Bowling Green, and losses to Duke and No. 10 Wisconsin, who defeated them this past Saturday 33-24 in their Big Ten opener. It was close throughout the first half of the game, with Northwestern leading Wisconsin by three at the half, 10-7. The Wildcats scored 14 late fourth quarter points, but after quarterback Clayton Thorson was sacked for a safety on the last drive, Northwestern’s loss was sealed.

Thorson completed 29 of 45 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Brett Walsh snagged a team high 11 tackles for the defense.

Offseason and Recruiting

Northwestern’s 2017 class ranked as the nation’s 50th recruiting class (11th in the Big Ten) as compared to Penn State’s 2017 class ranked at 15th in the nation and third in the Big10.

Northwestern, 75th this year in FBS total offense at 1,621 yards, has greatly improved over the past several years, going from 115th in total offense in 2015 — in large part due to their quarterback and runningback positions.

This game will be a tale of two quarterbacks (Trace McSorley and Clayton Thorson) and two runningbacks (Saquon Barkley and Justin Jackson).

Northwestern’s junior quarterback, Thorson, is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and leads the conference with 22.8 completions per game, and is second in the conference (behind McSorley) in passing yard per game at 265.3. So far this year, Thorson has completed 64.1% of passes (second in the Big Ten behind McSorley) for 1,061 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Thorson’s led the Wildcats to third in the conference and 30th in FBS in passing offense.

Senior runningback Jackson is a powerhouse who led the Big 10 in rushing yards a year ago at 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jackson and Barkley are the leading active rushers in the conference. Jackson has a total of 4,402 career rushing yards, and for 2017 has an average of 104.8 rushing yards per game. He’s racked up a total of 273 rushing yards in 2017 and four touchdowns, making him 11th in the Big Ten among rushing yard leaders. If Barkley wasn’t around, he’d be making a serious run at conference running back of the year.

Runningback Jeremy Larkin will also see some play time when Jackson needs a break, and has had 23 carries for 102 yards this year.

Wide receiver Jalen Brown, who transferred to Northwestern earlier this year from Oregon, looked to be injured in the Bowling Green game and is questionable for this week. Thorson will look to one of his top targets in 6’4” wide receiver Bennett Skowronek, who’s had 17 receptions for 256 yards (15.1 yards average) this year – putting him at 11th in the Big Ten.

Tight end Garrett Dickerson has been a top target, with 18 receptions for 214 yards (11.9 yards average) this season. Also keep an eye on Flynn Nagel who’s had 15 receptions for 149 yards and was a breakout player for the Wildcats last year.

Oh, and if you happen to see a sophomore wide receiver by the name of Charlie Fessler and think his name looks familiar, that’s because his brother is Penn State junior quarterback Billy Fessler.


Although Northwestern is returning seven starters on defense, they’re 11th in the conference (and 72nd in FBS) in total defense. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have some bright spots – they’re 25th in FBS (3rd in the conference) in fumbles recovered, and tenth in FBS in kickoff return defense (first in the Big Ten).

And their linebacker unit is strong, even with the departure of Anthony Walker Jr. to the NFL. Linebacker Paddy Fisher has stepped up, and as one of the top linebackers in the conference, ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 37 total tackles and 9.3 tackles per game for 2017.

Watch out for SAM linebacker Nate Hall who had 73 tackles in just eight games last year, and this year has 22 tackles in just four games.

Safety Godwin Igwebuike is legitimately one of the best safeties in the conference and college football. Last year Igwebuike led Northwestern with 108 tackles and 78 solo stops, and was ranked ninth in the country with six solo tackles per game. This year he’s racked up 22 tackles in three games and shows no signs of stopping.

Special Teams

With kick returner Solomon Vault out for the year with an injury, Northwestern has had big shoes to fill. Vault was a key player for Northwestern last year, topping the Big Ten (and eighth in FBS) in kickoff return touchdowns, and held an average of 24.3 yards per return in 2016 (third in the conference).

Several players have taken his place this year, including John Moten (nine returns for 151 yards), Auston Anderson (one return for 15 yards) and with Riley Lees and Jeremy Larkin listed on the depth chart for this week’s game.

Punter Hunter Niswander is back for another season as the best punters in the conference, with 49.5 yards per punt. On the kicking side, the Wildcats have gone with true freshman kicker Charlie Huhbander, who’s done well this year, making three of four field goals and 15 of 15 extra points.

Oh, and if you spy a familiar name on the back of Northwestern’s long snapper jersey, you’re not seeing things. That’s Tyler Gillikin, Penn State punter Blake Gillikin’s twin brother.

Talk about sibling rivaly! Penn State and Northwestern are believed to be the only teams to have two pairs of brothers on the same opposing teams in college football.


Check out more on Northwestern football at their SB Nation blog Inside NU.