By John Beers
This Saturday, Northwestern will unveil their newest alternate jerseys on the field against Iowa, throwbacks honoring the 1995 Wildcats team that went to the Rose Bowl.
Before Saturday’s disastrous performance in Ann Arbor, the current version of the Wildcats—the one twenty years removed from that Rose Bowl team—was drawing a lot of comparisons to that famous bunch of Wildcats.
They have game changers on defense and a bell-cow in the backfield. They started out the season with a dominant defensive performance to upset a nationally ranked team and they rose into the top 15 teams into the country.
But as last week made clear, Northwestern is not an elite team. They’re good, perhaps even really good, but there are pieces missing from the puzzle. While they may be built very similarly to that great team from 1995, there are important differences that made that Northwestern team more than just a good team with a great defense.
Lack of a go to target:
In 1995 Northwestern welcomed to campus a freshman QB from Augusta, GA by the name of D’Wayne Bates. For many Northwestern fans of this generation, Bates may not be remembered as the transcendental player that he was. He’s overshadowed by Pat Fitzgerald and Darnell Autry.
Bates transitioned to wide receiver almost immediately after he stepped on campus; at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he was then an immediate difference maker and the Wildcats’ go-to guy from day one. Bates scored the game-winning touchdown in the Northwestern’s season-opening upset of #8 Notre Dame and would lead the Wildcats with 49 receptions, 889 yards and 5 touchdowns in 1995. He still holds the school’s career records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
The current Wildcats may not have Bates’ level of talent in all of their wide receivers combined. The return of Christian Jones was a much-needed addition, giving another experienced target to a freshman quarterback. But Jones is currently on pace 358 yards—not even half of Bates’ total.
Dan Vitale is the team leader with 207 yards receiving, but take away the 108 yards he had against a 2-4 Ball State team, and he’s averaging less than 20 yards per game.
Many fans might say that these numbers are a result of a team that runs the ball a staggering 68 percent of the time, and they may have a point. The truth still remains that against a good a defense like Michigan, Clayton Thorson too many times found himself desperately chucking the ball downfield or taking sacks because no one could get open. Hard to imagine that being the case if D’Wayne Bates was still suiting up in purple and black.
Justin Jackson is not Darnell Autry (yet)
Justin Jackson is by far Northwestern’s best offensive player, and like Autry was in 1995, he is being asked to put the Wildcats’ offense on his shoulders with close to 30 carries per game.
While Jackson has been solid, he doesn’t provide the big bruising presence that Autry had. The fact that Jackson checks in at a full 25 pounds lighter than Autry certainly doesn’t help his cause around the goal line. But in recent weeks, Jackson hasn’t found the open spaces he’s found earlier in the year. Throughout his three seasons in Evanston, Autry never averaged less than 4.6 yards per carry. Jackson bested that his freshman year averaging 4.8 yards per touch, but is now down to 4.4 this year. Multiply those .4 yards per carry by the amount of touches he’s being asked to take and that dip isn’t insignificant.
The offensive line hasn’t helped Jackson get loose, but there’s obviously going to be a step down when you compare a Heisman candidate to a fringe All-Big Ten running back.
This Team Lacks Balance, Even More than in ‘95
While both versions of the Wildcats have been described as good defensive teams with average offenses, the teams are far from the same in terms of offensive and defensive balance.
Neither Steve Schnur, the team’s signal caller in ‘95, nor current Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson would be considered as true game changers. While Thorson most likely won’t eclipse the nearly 1800 yards passing that Schnur put up in leading the Wildcats to a Big Ten title, he’s already on pace to best the 12 touchdowns Schnur was responsible for 20 years ago. However, while Schnur only threw 6 interceptions in his junior season, Thorson already has that many turnovers through half of a season. The extra year of experience that Schnur had in the program, compared to where Thorson is now, could certainly prove to be a big difference should the Wildcats fall short of their goal of winning a Big Ten title this year
These differences in talent and experience at quarterback and running back create a big gap between where this Wildcats team is and where the 1995 team was offensively. While the offense two decades ago did have its deficiencies, they always put up points. The Rose Bowl team averaged close to 26 points per game and their lowest scoring outputs that season were the 17 points they put up on the road against Notre Dame and Illinois—both wins.
The 2015 Wildcats are only averaging a little more than 21 points a game, but 17% of their points on the season have come from their defense. While many may consider that a validation of how good this defense is—and the defense is certainly elite—but is also an indictment of the struggle the offense is going through just to be a middle of the road unit.
Most fans and many observers have tried to point out similarities in style of play. The 1995 team had an average offense to back up its good defense, however, while the 2015 Wildcats are an elite defense that is keeping the team above water, as the offense tries to find itself.
The game against Iowa represents a turning point for this team if they truly are going to reincarnate the team that they are honoring Saturday. Twenty years ago, the Wildcats lost one game during the regular season, a two point home loss to MAC team Miami of Ohio. Those Wildcats went on to win 9 games in a row before falling to USC in the Rose Bowl. While these Wildcats may not need to go undefeated the rest of the regular season in order to make it to Pasadena, a loss against Iowa could dash all those hopes.
Neither of the two preseason Big Ten West favorites look like great teams. Nebraska lost to Illinois. Wisconsin still looks lost without Corey Clement. Unless the Wildcats have a slip-up down the road—something not foreign to them over the past couple years—the game against Iowa could turn out to be a de facto Big Ten West championship game. It will also serve as the Wildcats greatest remaining test and the best sign of what the true potential of this team is.
Northwestern isn’t a top level team just yet. But their goal of a Big Ten West championship is still out and front of them and totally reachable. A win on Saturday would put Northwestern in commanding position.