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Northwestern Wildcats win Music City Bowl: The good, the bad and what it means for 2018

The Northwestern Wildcats survived a wild Music City Bowl with some big performances from some seniors and some questionable play calls from the coaches.

The Northwestern Wildcats were rolling on the ground against the Kentucky Wildcats, using a long Jeremy Larkin run to get all the way down inside the 20-yard line. NU pounded Kentucky on the ground over and over and over again. There was no stopping them.

Except for Northwestern. It was a bowl game so some fun playcalling was always in the cards, but this seemed too much. Not with the game on the line and a victory uncertain.

So at the two-yard line Northwestern ran an end-around pass for a wide receiver, their second non-quarterback throwing play of the game. It of course failed. A Kyle Queiro pick-six seemed to save things and give the Wildcats a comfortable 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

But things are never easy. And facing 4th and 1 at the 40-yard line with two and a half minutes left, Northwestern bafflingly went for it again. It was not that it was bad to be super aggressive, but the quarterback sneak was short again. The team did not give it to its best player — Justin Jackson, he of the 10th most rushing yards in NCAA history and 157 yards in this game alone.

Kentucky passed its way into the end zone behind senior quarterback Stephen Johnson, fighting off his own injuries and a relentless Northwestern pass rush. The team was one point away from tying the game.

The Wildcats defense stood tall, deflecting the pass away on the two-point conversion. And in a crazy game that saw Bennie Snell ejected for Kentucky on a controversial decision when he made contact with an official and Paddy Fisher ejected for a questionable targeting call, Northwestern prevailed 24-23 to secure a 10-win season and a second straight bowl win.

How the Wildcats got there was not clean. It was an ugly game made uglier by Clayton Thorson’s knee injury in the second quarter. And then it was made even uglier with the coaching staff’s questionable decisions late with the game still on the line. Northwestern did not need to leave this game as close as it was.

But let the record show, Northwestern won. And that bowl games do not have the meaning we might all give them.

Still some things to take away:

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The Good

Justin Jackson is the GOAT

There is not much more to say about Justin Jackson (the ball carrier) that has not been written by me at Lake The Posts, Wildcat Digest, Talking 10 or anywhere else. The guy was the picture of everything great about Northwestern and one of the best college running backs of all time. Quite possibly, he was on of the most underappreciated backs nationally, just quietly doing his work.

In all, Jackson will finish 10th overall in yards in NCAA FBS history. He will finish his career with two bowl wins and two 10-win seasons. He will have two bowl game MVP trophies in his trophy case. That is something no one in Northwestern history can say ever.

His whole career was unprecedented and he went out with a flourish. Jackson rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. He took up a larger load with Clayton Thorson leaving the game with a serious-looking knee injury. And he did it without complaint and with a smile on his face, planting his foot and cutting upfield.

It would have been nicer if the Wildcats put the ball in his hands to close it out — twice — but that is not how things go in a bowl game. Jackson probably did not complain either way.

Jackson deserves a standing ovation. This program will miss him.

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Front seven stepped up

Pat Fitzgerald put a lot of faith in his defense throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter with the play calling he made for the offense. It is easy to be fun with the offense, it is harder to be fun with the defense. They just have to get down and do their jobs.

And the Wildcats were already a bit shorthanded with Nate Hall a late scratch for the game and Paddy Fisher ejected on a targeting call late in the first half.

But the front seven, a group that had so many questions marks early in the season, stepped up time and time again. Joe Gaziano was a bull off the edge, getting after the quarterback. Senior Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson plugged up the inside. Even senior linebacker Warren Long, making his first career start, made some fantastic plays in the backfield.

This unit stepped up in a big way throughout the win streak and turned into a dominant defensive force against the run. There are some losses along that front seven heading into next year, but Northwestern continues to establish a reputation for building a dominant defense.

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Seniors making their mark

Justin Jackson and Tyler Lancaster obviously made their mark. But special consideration should go to some other seniors who unexpectedly made their mark.

Warren Long got his first start at linebacker after Nate Hall was a late scratch. Hall was one of Northwestern’s best overall defenders all season and a big-time playmaker. But Long was all over the field and made some big plays, including his first career sack in the fourth quarter.

Matt Alviti also stepped in. The former four-star high school prospect stepped in after Clayton Thorson’s injury and put in solid work. The Wildcats avoided passing the ball, but Alviti made good passes at several key moments. He was also a threat on the ground and a quick attacker. He finished with 50 yards on 4-for-11 passing and 54 yards on the ground on nine carries.

The Bad

The Playcalling

Playcalling has been a huge question mark for Northwestern for several years. The amount of fan frustration with the way Mick McCall calls plays are often puzzling. And they sometimes do not seem to take advantage of the players on Northwestern. Even in Friday’s game, it seemed like the team was going too away from Jackson too much.

But the play call decisions in the fourth quarter are all on the head coach. He has the final OK on these decisions. And even if they work, no one is likely to call him a genius (as Pat Fitzgerald might defend himself).

It is fair to say that this is a bowl game — and not a particularly big one — so the point of having fun is fine. Teams take more risks in bowl games. That is fine. There was not even a huge issue going for it on fourth down at midfield with 2.5 minutes left. The issue was not giving it to Justin Jackson.

And the wide receiver pass on the goal line? Sure the team installed that play and why not try it. But a touchdown there likely puts the game away — the team was lucky to get the pick-six from Kyle Queiro. It was just unnecessary stress. And it is hard to argue to your fans and to the team that the point of the game was to win it with absurd play calls like that.

Anyways, the Wildcats already hit on a trick play with Jeremy Larkins’ 24-yard pass to Clayton Thorson to set up Northwestern’s second score.

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The secondary

The secondary was a problem all season long. They would have their moments and be opportunistic, but they also gave up a ton of yards. Kentucky figured to be a team that the team could contain with the relatively weak passing game from Stephen Johnson.

That was not the case. Johnson carved up Northwestern from the first drive of the game, making a couple of dangerous throws that fell perfectly into receiver’s hands. And he led the Wildcats down the field easily to score the potential go-ahead score.

He finished with 257 yards on 19-for-36 passing. And he got himself going to lead the comeback that feel just a two-point conversion short of completion.

This was a veteran secondary too. It will lose Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro next year. That does not bode well for the team. And it will have new leadership with Jerry Brown stepping down after 25 years.

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The officiating

Pac-12 referees have a bad reputation and they proved why it was deserved.

There were a ton of questionable calls and the first half was spent talking about the officiating decisions that had a clear effect on the game. That is never a good sign.

It started with star Kentucky running back Bennie Snell Jr. getting ejected for allegedly making contact with an official. The referee had extended his hand to help Snell up, he refused it and then appeared to shove the official. But the flag did not immediately come out. Maybe he said something afterward. Either way, Kentucky’s best player was out of the game before it really got going.

Then at the end of the first quarter, Paddy Fisher laid a hit on a receiver that appeared clean. Hard, but clean, with contact to the chest. It seemed pretty innocuous. Even the broadcasters were surprised to learn it was reviewed for targeting.

And they were incredulous when Fisher was ejected. Northwestern was then without its top defender for the rest of the game.

Who knows what either of these questionable decisions had on either the quality or outcome of the game. Both coaches were left frustrated with the officiating. And it is never a good thing to have to point out officiating in either direction.

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What this means for 2018

Clayton Thorson’s injury

Clayton Thorson went down in the second quarter holding his knee after making a catch on a 24-yard trick play. It was a brilliant play call (see a compliment for the coaches!) and it was executed perfectly, helping shift momentum to give Northwestern a lead. But Thorson’s injury sucked all the air out of the room essentially.

Concern immediately went to Thorson’s future. And the injury seemed pretty serious, even though Thorson crutched back out to the field to be with his teammates in the second half.

There was no official diagnosis during the game. But it seems serious enough that he could miss the beginning of next season. That would be a major loss.

Northwestern turned to senior Matt Alviti as the team’s backup quarterback. But with him running, everyone began asking, who is the third-string quarterback? And that is a really good question.

At this point, it seems very likely true freshman Jason Whittaker could be in the mix to start next year if Thorson is out to start his senior year.

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Jeremy Larkin is coming . . .

Justin Jackson said after the game coach Pat Fitzgerald told him he needed to get all the yards he could in Friday’s bowl game because the freshman behind him might be coming for some of his records. And it is hard to argue that. Northwestern’s backfield is in good hands with Jeremy Larkin.

Larkin finished with 112 yards on nine carries, including a 64-yard run. All year, Larkin put in solid numbers all year long too. He showed a lot more burst too as he was able to get huge chunks of yards.

He finished the season with 503 yards on 84 carries. That load will increase a lot next year as he becomes the featured back.

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Expectations will not change

Northwestern will bring back a lot of the key players from this tea. And while the team may not have the right pieces to make a serious challenge for the Big Ten West title, another bowl win and another 10-win season are going to keep expectations high around Evanston.

The Wildcat shave reached this comfortable level where they are able to put together some very nice seasons like this one. But they ultimately do not come with meaningful late-season games. The Wildcats are never a serious threat to win the division.

Both 10-win seasons the last three years did not come with the attendant trip to Indianapolis. And that has to eat at the team and the program. This is their next step. And the one that continues to elude them.

Next year’s schedule is much more difficult overall. A 10-win season will be tough to accomplish. But with the returning talent, the goal should still remain the same. And the fact the team did not accomplish that Big Ten division goal should eat at the team throughout the offseason.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.


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