Northwestern has had a weird season so far.
The Wildcats handled Nevada and blew out Bowling Green as expected, but lost at Duke by 24 as a three-point underdog and rallied with 14 fourth-quarter points to fall in a 33-24 close one at Wisconsin.
Justin Jackson had 43 total rushing yards in those two losses, quarterback Clayton Thorson has been sacked 15 times through four games, and the defense allowed only three scores in Madison.
To help break down Northwestern’s up-and-down start to 2017, we spoke to the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein for this week’s “Ask the Beat Writer.”
Q: Northwestern was a preseason darkhorse to win the Big Ten West. But after a 2-2 start — with a blowout loss to Duke and a close one against Wisconsin — what are reasonable expectations for the Wildcats moving forward?
A: Well, I think if this team doesn’t shock Penn State then the mode is, ‘Let’s try to win seven games and get to a decent bowl game.’ I think that would be realistic. It would be similar to last year; they started 1-3, things looked like they were going in the tank, and then they rebounded decently and ended up in a nice bowl game in the Pinstripe Bowl after beating Iowa and Michigan State in back-to-back games. Northwestern fans kind of have to hope for the exact same thing this year. ... The O-line is struggling. Clayton Thorson looks uncomfortable when pressure comes; eight sacks against Wisconsin is certainly proof of that. Justin Jackson has been dinged up, so he’s been ineffective in two of the four games. Northwestern needs a big turnaround in its offense to have a successful season.
Q: Have the Wildcats missed Anthony Walker at linebacker? How has that unit held up without him?
A: I don’t think they’ve missed him a ton. You want as many playmakers as you can, but the defense was awful at Duke. Everything was awful at Duke. But against Wisconsin, yeah 33 points, but one was a safety and one was a pick six. So you’re really talking about giving up 21 points to Wisconsin. I think the defense played well, probably B or B-plus level in Madison, and the linebacking corps is pretty good. The problem with the defense is the complete lack of pass rush. In the past, Northwestern had guys like Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Ifeadi Odenigbo, these really good pass-rushers you could count on to generate pressure. This year, they’ve got a couple decent guys; one has been Joe Gaziano. But they really are not getting the pass-rush they need unless they blitz.
Q: You mentioned earlier that Jackson is a little dinged up. A lot of people thought before the season that he was the second-best running back in the Big Ten. Is it just him getting healthy that’ll help him get back on track? And if he’s not operating at 100 percent, who’s a guy or two who can pick up the slack in the running game?
A: It’s not clear with Justin because I asked him the other day, and he said it was something that happened in the Bowling Green game. But Fitz had also said after the Duke game that Justin wasn’t close to 100 percent. So, it’s kind of hard to know if this has been a lingering thing or something that happened late in fall camp. I believe it’s a quad injury. ... It’s more so the offensive line, not doing a very good job run blocking, except for that Bowling Green game. But they do have another kid named Jeremy Larkin — a cousin of the Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin — and he looked pretty good at Wisconsin. The numbers are not very exciting: seven carries for 37 yards. But it seemed like he was being even more effective than that. If Justin can’t really go, Larkin is quite good.
Q: Who’s been an unsung hero through four games for Northwestern? Maybe someone that Penn State fans in particular really haven’t heard a lot about that’s made a difference.
A: Fitz pointed to a linebacker named Paddy Fisher as a guy who’s played really well. They’re really happy with him. He did seem to be all over the field Saturday at Wisconsin, and he had 18 tackles at Duke. That’s a pretty good day. And I’ll also point to a cornerback, his name is Trae Williams. On the first play from scrimmage last week, he swiped the ball from Jazz Peavy, the Wisconsin wide receiver, and fell on it. Those two guys have been exceeding expectations.
Q: Last one here. I might know the answer, but I’ll ask it anyway: From your perspective, is there really any advantage that Northwestern has over Penn State?
A: I mean, I think it might just be that Fitz is 3-0 against James Franklin. I’m sure the players don’t care about that or even know about that. But maybe that gives Fitz and his staff some kind of an edge, kind of a confidence going in. Or maybe it gives James Franklin and his staff even more motivation. You don’t want to be 0-4 against anybody. There’s that, and then I look at Penn State and see a team that generally doesn’t play well on the road. But in terms of personnel, I can’t really think of one.