2014 Recap: It was a roller-coaster year for the Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch a year ago with a few more plummeting drops than there were peak performances. The Wildcats finished the season 5-7 with a 3-5 mark in conference play and missed out on the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Having said that, Northwestern may have had one of the more impressive five-win seasons of any team in the country. Three of its wins this season came away from Ryan Field, taking down Notre Dame, Penn State and Purdue in road games. The Wildcats also stunned a really good Wisconsin team, winning 20-14 in front of a home crowd.
The biggest issue for the Wildcats in 2014 was the lack of offense. They averaged just 23 points per game on the season, ranking 101st in that department in all of college football. Trevor Siemian wasn’t much of a threat throwing the football, and it wasn’t until midway through the season that freshman running back Justin Jackson started to emerge as a quality back in the conference. The defense wasn’t spectacular by any means, but it played well enough to win. Of Northwestern’s seven losses on the season, four of those came by 8 points or fewer and none of those opponents scored more than 31 points.
A stretch from October 11th through November 8th when the Wildcats lost all four games severely hindered Northwestern’s chances of reaching bowl eligibility. Northwestern won two of its final three games of the year but came up short against Illinois in the final game of the season, leaving them one win short of the .500 mark.
High Point: Most will look at the win over Wisconsin as the clear peak for Northwestern this season. But not in this article. For the Wildcats, a 43-40 overtime win against Notre Dame in South Bend to keep bowl hopes alive was a game that won’t be soon forgotten by the Northwestern faithful. It was the highest-scoring game the Wildcats had all season, and they were able to rack up 547 yards in the victory. Jackson put together one of his top performances of the year, running for 149 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries for a 6.5 yards per carry average, his highest of the season.
Even if Northwestern played horribly and found a way to win, a victory inside Notre Dame Stadium isn’t an easy task. It was a great victory for Fitzgerald and his team.
Low Point: The Wildcats didn’t have a worse performance than the 48-7 loss against Iowa in the middle of a four-game losing stretch. Northwestern was miffed on both sides of the football throughout the game, gaining just 180 yards of offense and converting just four of its 15 third downs in the game. The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, were firing on all cylinders. They scored all but 10 points in the first half of the contest, allowing them to coast for a win in the second half. Quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 239 and a touchdown while Mark Weisman ran for 94 yards and reached pay dirt three times.
For a defense that allowed just 25.2 points per game on the season, it was an embarrassing performance against an Iowa team that had its own struggles offensively.
Best Player: This title is going to be held by two freshmen for the Wildcats. Both Justin Jackson (RB) and Anthony Walker (LB) put together strong seasons after becoming acclimated to the college game.
Jackson finished the season as one of the top backs in the Big Ten, running for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns on the year. In the final three games of the 2014 slate, Jackson ran for more than 130 yards in every game and scored a total of five touchdowns to round out his freshman season.
Defensively, Walker recorded some solid totals in several statistical categories. He led his team in the tackles for loss area with nine on the year. He also had two interceptions for 114 return yards. He returned one for a touchdown against Penn State and took the other 65 yards to set up a Wildcats score against Notre Dame. He finished the season with several pass break ups and a total of 51 tackles.
It was too difficult to choose between the two newcomers at Northwestern, so they will share the title as the top player for the Wildcats in 2014.
2015 Outlook: Northwestern will return plenty of talent defensively with guys like Walker, defensive end Dean Lowry and Nick VanHoose at corner back but will miss Chi Chi Ariguzo, the team’s leading tackler. The Wildcats should see improvement defensively and should be as competitive on that end of the field as they were last season.
Offensively, Justin Jackson appears to be the only legitimate threat the Wildcats return for 2015. They lose two of their top three wide receivers in Kyle Prater and Tony Jones, with Dan Vitale the biggest name to return next year.
Northwestern has to find a way to get to the end zone more frequently in 2015 if they want a shot at a bowl berth in a conference that is becoming more high-powered offensively. Northwestern ranked in the middle-of-the-pack in nearly every defensive category in the Big Ten last year but was found at the bottom of almost every offensive statistical column. As the Wildcats discovered, you have to score points to win games.
There were some flashes of offensive power, but those came against weak defenses like Illinois, Notre Dame and Purdue. It will have to happen more consistently against better competition next year. Jackson should provide a spark offensively, but who will be there to help him out?