Northwestern University will represent the Big Ten in the Music City Bowl. The Wildcats are extremely well coached and finished 2017 with a 9-3 record. It is ranked 21st in the nation. The Wildcats are riding a seven game winning streak and is listed amongst the best in several conference statistical categories.
First let’s take a look at the schedule. Northwestern started the season 2-3 but recovered to finish strong. Its nine wins were against opponents that averaged 5.4 victories on the season. The Wildcats played seven home games and won three road contests against two, four-win teams: Maryland and Nebraska as well as two-win Illinois. Northwestern beat Iowa, Michigan State, and Nebraska in overtime. By doing so, it became the first FBS team to win three consecutive overtime football games.
Conversely, the average losing opponent vs. Kentucky averaged 5.8 wins on the season. The Cats recorded road wins against two, eight-win teams: Southern Miss and South Carolina as well as five-win Vanderbilt. Northwestern won two more games than UK. But, Kentucky’s wins came against opponents with slightly better winning records; but significantly grander on the road.
|Opponent (Record)||Final Score|
|Nevada (3-9)||W 31-20|
|@Duke (6-6)||L 17-41|
|Bowling Green (2-10)||W 49-7|
|@Wisconsin (12-1)||L 24-33|
|Penn State (10-2)||L 7-31|
|@Maryland (4-8)||W 37-21|
|Iowa (7-5)||W 17-10 (OT)|
|Michigan State (9-3)||W 39-31 (3 OT)|
|@Nebraska (4-8)||W 31-24 (OT)|
|Purdue (6-6)||W 23-13|
|Minnesota (5-7)||W 39-0|
|@Illinois (2-10)||W 42-7|
|Statistical Category||Result||Big 10 Rank|
|Red-Zone||90.74 (39 TD’s)||2nd, 21st nationally|
|Long Scrimmage Plays||180, 10+yds||4th|
|QB Sacks Allowed||29||9th|
|1st Downs||23.1 per game||2nd|
|Tackles for Loss Allowed||68||7th|
|Passing||QB Clayton Thorson||2809-yards, 60.6%, 15 TD, 12 INT|
|Rushing||RB Justin Jackson||1154 yards, 9 TD’s|
|Receiving||Bennett Skowronek||42 rec, 619-yds, 5 TD’s|
The Wildcats are led by 2nd Team All-Big Ten RB Justin Jackson. Incredibly, Jackson has been named to the league’s 2nd team in four consecutive years. He also surpassed 1000-yards in four straight seasons. Jackson’s rushed for 1154-yards and scored 9 touchdowns. Kentucky has faced an extraordinarily high number of historically significant running backs: Southern Miss’s Ito Smith, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb. Add Northwestern’s Jackson to the list as the senior is the program’s all-time leading rusher.
Northwestern’s passing attack is led by 3rd team all-conference Quarterback Clayton Thorson who finished 2017 by completing 60% of his passes for 2809-yards. After a slow start to the season, Thorson significantly improved throughout conference play. His performances in the Wildcat’s final three regular season games were highly efficient. The junior displayed next-level traits. 6’4, 300-pound guard Tommy Doles was named 3rd Team All-Big Ten and is the leader of the Wildcat’s offense line.
Much like the outstanding running backs that Kentucky has faced in 2017; Thorson is yet another upper-level passer that will put a tremendous amount of stress on a UK secondary that has struggled throughout the season. Thorson is not a runner and is in the mold of South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Eastern Michigan signal caller Brogan Roback, and Missouri’s Drew Lock.
The Wildcats average 23.1 first downs per game and has executed 921 plays. Comparatively, Louisville’s play total for the season was 889. Missouri ran 848 plays; Ole Miss 804.
Mark Stoops’ run on bowl opponents has been enormously more challenging than the last Wildcat teams that made back-to-back postseason appearances. Bowl opposition can be random, friendly, or cruel like that. Rich Brooks’ first bowl opponent was Clemson in the Music City. The Tigers were preseason favorites to win the ACC but faltered down the stretch by losing four of its last five games. The next Music City Bowl featured Florida State that was minus double digit players due to suspension and lost three of its last four games of the season.
Contrariwise; Stoops’ first bowl team was against Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer. The Yellow Jackets was 6-1 down the stretch including wins over Georgia and 18th ranked Virginia Tech. That triple option nightmare is now followed by the 21st ranked Northwestern Wildcats. The Big Ten representative is one of the hottest teams in the nation and riding a seven game winning streak.
Northwestern is not the complete matchup nightmare that the Yellow Jackets provided a year ago but it will present a significant challenge especially when Northwestern possesses the football.
We’ll have much, much more on Northwestern in the days leading up to the Music City Bowl.