Northwestern Wildcats are Big Ten contenders

Powered by an impressive defense, Pat Fitzgerald's team poses a dangerous threat in the conference.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Matt Marton)

(AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Northwestern Wildcats are Big Ten contenders

Northwestern shocked the college football world with their opening day victory over Stanford. Much of the fallout focused on Stanford’s failings, but it turns out Northwestern is actually pretty good — particularly on defense. The Wildcats have allowed just seven points and 247 yards per game through the first five weeks, and have standout performers at each level of the defense.

On the defensive line DE Deonte Gibson has led the Wildcats with three sacks and 22 total pressures earning him a +12 grade and a 12.8 pass rush productivity score. DE/DT Dean Lowry (+9.6) leads the line with 13 defensive stops and a 12.0 run stop percentage. At linebacker Anthony Walker has starred, grading positively in ever game so far.  He boasts a +9.4 overall grade and leads the team with 38 tackles and 25 defensive stops. All four starters in the secondary have earned positive grades — corners Matthew Harris (+8.7), Nick VanHoose (+8.3), and safeties Godwin Igwebuike (+8.2) and Traveon Henry (+3.8).

The Wildcats weaknesses have been on offense, where mobile redshirt freshman QB Clayton Thorson (-14.1) is enduring some growing pains, but had his best game as a passer with a +2.2 passing grade against Minnesota. With the passing game stuttering the Wildcats have leaned heavily on the run, but that predictability is making it difficult for RB Justin Jackson whose -6.4 rushing grade compares unfavorably with the impressive +14.6 grade he posted as a freshman in 2014.

As far as the Big Ten West goes, Northwestern’s schedule sets up well. They host both Iowa and Illinois, the other two teams in the West with a conference win. The Hawkeyes and the Wildcats look like the division’s best teams right now, making their Week 7 clash crucial for both sides. Before they get to that however, the Wildcats must travel to Ann Arbor for what promises to be a defensive slug fest against Michigan, as the Wolverines are allowing just 6.2 points per game.

Ultimately the Wildcats will go as far as a stout defense can take them, and along with their grind-it-out ground attack, that could be all the way to the Big Ten Championship game.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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