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Big Ten preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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Northwestern then-redshirt freshman 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. Courtesy of TNS

Northwestern then-redshirt freshman 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. Courtesy of TNS

Location: Evanston, Illinois  

2015 record: 10-3, (6-3 Big Ten)

2016 record so far: 0-2

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald (11 seasons, 70-57)

Record vs. OSU since 2016: 0-4

What’s happened so far in 2016: Northwestern has not been the luckiest team in its first two weeks of the season. The Wildcats dropped their season opener against Western Michigan, 22-21. Northwestern had a chance to win the game in its final possession, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled the ball and the Broncos recovered it to walk away with the victory. In the second week of the season, Northwestern faced Illinois State at home, suffering an embarrassing 9-7 defeat to the Redbirds on a 33-yard field goal as the clock expired.

Key offensive player: The Wildcats have one weapon in particular: junior running back Justin Jackson. During the 2015 season, Jackson rushed for a total of 1,418 yards, making him the fifth player in program history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Carol Stream, Illinois native dominated in Northwestern’s season opener against Western Michigan, scoring all three of the team’s touchdowns against the Broncos. He recorded a total of 124 rushing yards in Week 1, making it his 14th career 100-yard game. Jackson slid into the fourth spot for all-time rushing for the Wildcats.

Key defensive players: Junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. is the solidified leader on the defensive front in 2016. By the end of the 2015 season, the Miami native recorded a total of 122 tackles, and ranked fourth in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss. Walker has a total of 14 tackles so far this season.

Weaknesses: Northwestern could use some help in a lot of areas, but the team struggles most at the wide receiver position. The consistency of dropped passes and failure to get open is not the ideal situation for a quarterback. The Wildcats do not contain much of a deep threat, forcing it to rely mostly on the run game. Senior wide receiver Austin Carr is probably the Wildcats best bet at wide receiver, but he cannot do it all alone. Junior wide receiver Solomon Vault has a chance to become an asset for Northwestern, but has limited time as a leading wide receiver for Northwestern. Vault had just 17 receptions in his career with the Wildcats coming into 2016, so his development into a primary target will have to be quick for Northwestern to produce at a high level.

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