Northwestern tries to sustain roll after 10-win season

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) There is at least one big question hanging over Northwestern coming off a rebound season.

Can the Wildcats sustain it?

Northwestern used a dominant defense to carry a struggling offense on the way to a 10-3 record last season.

While the Wildcats re-established themselves as a threat in the Big Ten after going 5-7 each of the previous two years, there was certainly room for improvement. After all, the offense finished last in the conference in scoring and yards per game. Good thing for Northwestern, the defense came up big - particularly linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.

He's back, and the Wildcats want to show that they are, too.

They come into their 11th season under coach Pat Fitzgerald eyeing another big run like the one that led to bowl games five straight years before the recent struggles.

Here are some things to look for this season:

IT'S A BIRD! ... IT'S A PLANE!

It's ''The Franchise,'' Anthony Walker Jr.

The star linebacker coming off a breakout sophomore season is at the center of a promotional blitz the likes of which Northwestern has not launched since touting quarterback Dan Persa as a Heisman Trophy candidate five years ago.

''The Franchise'' campaign plays off the nickname teammates gave Walker. It also adds in a superhero twist complete with a logo, comic strip and lunch box as well as videos - one featuring coach Pat Fitzgerald in a so-called news report about his powers.

It all comes on the heels of a season that saw Walker lead the Wildcats in tackles (122) by more than 30, finish fourth in the nation with 20 1/2 tackles for loss and earn third-team, All-America honors.

''You definitely have to be humble with it and know what got you there,'' Walker said. ''It's a blessing. Everything happens for a reason. I love it.''

CLOSE LOOK

Northwestern went 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less, including a 30-28 victory at Nebraska and a 13-7 win at Wisconsin.

Credit the Wildcats for pulling out tight victories. The narrow margin also underscores just how thin that line between 10 wins and a .500 record or even a losing mark was for them. And when then they lost, did they ever do it in grand style.

They got blasted at Michigan 38-0 and dominated at home by Iowa 40-10 the following week. And they wrapped up the season by getting pounded 45-6 by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

''When you talk about motivation in the offseason you don't have to look any further than those three games and a lot of specifics that we'll talk about internally in areas that we need to improve on in all three phases for us to win those games,'' Fitzgerald said.

ARMED AND READY?

Whether Northwestern builds on a big season could hinge on its ability to score more points, and that begins with the man behind center.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson did not have to carry a heavy load last year. But now that he has a season behind him, things could change. His development could go a long way toward determining how successful the Wildcats are this season.

GROUND GAINS

Another big key for the Wildcats will be Justin Jackson. He comes into his junior season as the Big Ten's top returning rusher after finishing second to Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott last season with 1,418 yards. As impressive as that sounds, there was plenty of room for improvement.

He shouldered a huge load with 312 attempts but averaged 4.5 yards per carry and ran for five touchdowns. In the losses to Michigan and Iowa, Jackson combined to run for 55 yards.

''I feel like when we're able to run the ball, our team is successful,'' Jackson said. ''It takes some pressure off the passing game, some pressure off our defense - it gives them a rest. In those games, that didn't happen.''

ABOUT THAT `D'

While Walker returns, the defense will be missing four starters from last season. Defensive ends Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry all played important roles. The Wildcats are counting on Ifeadi Odenigbo (15 career sacks) and Xavier Washington to take over for Gibson and Lowry.

SEASON OPENER

The Wildcats open at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 3. The Broncos are one of the better teams in the MAC, coming off an 8-5 season capped by its first bowl win (45-31 over Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas).

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.