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Big Ten preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass in the first half of a game against Stanford at Ryan Field on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern won 16-6. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass in the first half of a game against Stanford at Ryan Field on Sept. 5 in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern won 16-6. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Location: Evanston, Illinois

2014 record: 5-7

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald (10th year, 60-53)

2015 record so far: 4-0

Record vs. OSU since 2005: 0-5

What’s happened so far in 2015: The Wildcats upset Stanford in Week 1, 16-6, to give the team momentum. They followed that up by blowing out Eastern Illinois 41-0. In Week 3, Northwestern went on the road and topped Duke 19-10. The Wildcats survived a little scare from Ball State in Week 4 to head into Big Ten play undefeated.

Key offensive player: The Wildcats’ offense is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. Thorson, a four-star recruit from Wheaton, Illinois, has been a vital component to Northwestern’s early success this season. He has completed 50 of 94 passes for a total of 583 yards and four touchdowns. His breakout game was last weekend in the Wildcats’ close 24-19 victory over Ball State. Thorson threw for a career high of 256 yards and three touchdowns. The young quarterback has been steadily improving each week, and now all eyes are on him as the Wildcats host Minnesota, their first conference opponent, on Saturday.

Key defensive player: Northwestern’s defense is arguably the strongest in the West Division this season. It is off to an impressive start, as it held Stanford to only two field goals and shut out Eastern Illinois. Leading the pack is sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker. Walker has already been named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice, with his best game coming against Duke when he had a career high of 19 tackles. He has a total of 41 tackles this season, seven of which were for a loss. Walker becomes more of a threat to opposing offenses every week and is definitely one of the top defensive players to watch in the Big Ten.

Weaknesses: Northwestern’s biggest weakness is and always has been consistency. Last year, the Wildcats were all over the place, losing to Northern Illinois one week and defeating ranked Wisconsin the next. If Northwestern wants to compete for the West division crown, it will need to continue the pattern it is on now. The Wildcats are a young team, led by a young, inexperienced quarterback, which can lead to simple mistakes on the field. Northwestern has talent on every side of the ball. It just needs to be developed in order for the Wildcats to be a threat this season.

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