Know Your Penn State Football Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 26: Clayton Thorson
EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 26: Clayton Thorson /

Coming off a 7-6 season that saw them win the Pinstripe Bowl, the Northwestern Wildcats seem to be the sexy pick in the Big Ten West this season. Can they live up to the preseason hype?

An October 7th trip to Evanston, Illinois, could be the biggest under-the-radar hurdle between the 2017 Penn State football team and a trip to the college football playoff. Under Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern Wildcats have always been a tough out and Evanston has never been an easy place to play. If the Nittany Lions look past the Wildcats, an upset is very possible.

Year in and year out the Northwestern Wildcats are one of the most underrated football programs in the Big Ten. Under now 12th-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald the Wildcats have experienced the most successful run in program history. Under his guidance, the Wildcats are 139-77, they have gone to seven bowls, and have finished the season ranked twice.

Pat Fitzgerald owns a pair of victories over Penn State, they came in James Franklin’s first two seasons in 2014 and 2015. Dating back to his time at Vanderbilt Franklin is 0-3 against Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. This 2017 Penn State team is much, much different than any James Franklin-coached team that Pat Fitzgerald has seen in the past though.

In 2017 Northwestern’s offense will be led by redshirt junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 58.6 percent of his passes last season for 3,182 yards, 22 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He is also a threat with his legs, having rushed for five touchdowns last season. Very quietly, Thorson is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

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Joining Thorson in the backfield is senior running back Justin Jackson. Thorson and Jackson give the Wildcats one of the best quarterback/running back combinations in the Big Ten. Jackson is coming off an All-Big Ten season a year ago when he rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The Wildcats will need to improve their offensive efficiency in 2017. Last season they ranked 98th in FBS with an efficiency rating of just 38.4 percent. They averaged just 4.4 points per scoring opportunity — defined as any drive reaching the opponent’s 40 yard line — in 2016, which was 82nd in the FBS.

They finished the season 73rd in the FBS in total offense (398.2 yards per game) and 87th in scoring offense (26.0 points per game).

The biggest question mark for their offense will be the line. While they return four starters up front, the unit was far from consistent in 2016. If the offensive line improves Northwestern’s offense could be dangerous. If not, the Wildcats will rely on defense in 2017.

Speaking of defense, Northwestern returns seven starters. Very quietly, the Wildcats had a strong defense in 2016 and they will look to repeat this in 2017.

Last season the Wildcats allowed just 3.3 points per scoring opportunity, which ranked 8th in the FBS. They also ranked 8th in the FBS in average points allowed per defensive possession. They finished the year in the top-30 in the FBS in rushing defense (139.2 yards per game) and scoring defense (22.2 points per game).

Northwestern’s defensive line is arguably the best Pat Fitzgerald has ever had. Three of four starters return up front. The Wildcat secondary also returns three starters and is anchored by one of the best safeties in the Big Ten in Godwin Igwebuike.

If their defense has a weakness, it is at linebacker. Due to lack of numbers at linebacker the Wildcats ran a good bit of 4-2-5 last season. Do not be shocked to see that again in 2017.

One area Northwestern needs to improve in 2017 is special teams.

Their average starting field position on offense was their own 28 yard line in 2016, while their opponents averaging start position was their own 30 yard line. Both of these ranked 87th in the FBS. With Justin Jackson and the electric Solomon Vault returning kicks, poor starting field position should not be an issue for the Wildcats.

Next: Recruiting Roundup: August 11, 2017

Penn State will almost assuredly enter this game with a 5-0 record and a top-five ranking. Northwestern will be coming off of a showdown with defending Big Ten West champion Wisconsin. If they can upset the Badgers, then the Wildcats should enter this game undefeated and ranked in the top-25.

This game has all the makings of an early October showdown in Evanston.