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Utah Opponent Preview: Northwestern’s Offense

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

While Utah’s Rose Bowl hopes were tragically dashed in the closing seconds of the PAC-12 championship, the Utes still have a chance to finish the season with ten wins when they match up against the Northwestern Wildcats on New Year’s Eve in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl.

Much like the Utes, the Wildcats opened the season with some tough losses, going 1-3 through the first five weeks of the season (including a bye week in week four), dropping games to Duke, Akron and a 20-17 loss to Michigan before rebounding to finish 7-1 with their only loss coming against Notre Dame in week ten during that stretch. Despite a ho-hum 8-5 record, the Wildcats easily navigated a fairly weak division, finishing 8-1 in conference play, eventually losing 45-24 to Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship.

Unlike the Utes however, Northwestern’s offense rarely impressed. The Wildcats highest scoring effort came by the way of an overtime thriller against a struggling Nebraska squad, eventually claiming victory 34-31 thanks to three touchdown passes from senior quarterback, Clayton Thorson.

Thorson’s heroics against the Cornhuskers possibly salvaged Northwestern’s season, giving the Wildcats their first back-to-back wins of the season and a much-needed momentum boost, but it would take over six quarters of football before the senior would pass for another touchdown, highlighting the inconsistency the veteran QB showcased throughout the season.

In total, Thorson managed 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions on the season, while completing 60.4% of his 460 attempted passes and gaining 2,942 yards. On the ground, Thorson is far from mobile, averaging -6.4 rushing yards per game and finding the end zone nine additional times on quarterback keepers deep inside the red zone. Thankfully for Thorson, a stable of running backs have taken control of the ground game in a big way.

Highlighted by freshman Isaiah Bowser, Northwestern’s running back core is as deep as it is impressive. With Bowser taking most of the snaps since week seven, the freshman stalwart amassed an impressive 796, averaging 113 yards per game in his seven starts. Outside of Bowser, the Utes will likely see a rotation of backups including junior John Moten IV, who has averaged 4.6 yards on his 44 carries and fifth year senior Chad Hanaoka who played a larger role late in the season as injuries began to pile up.

Downfield, the status of Northwestern’s top receiver, senior Flynn Nagel is still unclear. As one of the top receivers in the Big 10 in 2018, Nagel accounted for a team 759 receiving yards and two touchdowns but suffered a leg injury against Minnesota on his first (and only) catch of the game. The star receiver missed the final game of the season before returning in a limited capacity in the conference championship where he reeled in just two passes for 13 yards. In his absence, sophomore Kyric McGowan, junior Bennett Skowronek and freshman JJ Jefferson have stepped into larger roles. Without Nagel though, slot receiver Cameron Green becomes one of the more dangerous players on the field, averaging 8.7 yards per catch with team high four receiving touchdowns on the season.

The Wildcats are far from an offensive powerhouse, and Utah’s stout defense has certainly held better squads in check this season, but there’s certainly enough talent on the field to warrant some caution. If the Utes hope to close out 2018 with a win, the same defense that held Arizona and UCLA to just ten points will need to show up. If the defense decides to sleep on the Wildcats the same way they did the Sun Devils in week ten, things could get ugly for Utah.