2015 Season
Review Page


For the first time since 2000, Northwestern produced a football unit that was truly among the top-ten elite in the nation. In 2000, it was the innovative, dazzling Wildcat offense that led NU to a Big Ten title; in 2015, NU's defense was among the best in the country, shutting down opponents entirely in the first half of the season, and keeping the 'Cats in games throughout the remainder of the 2015 campaign. Unfortunately, in both years Northwestern's fortunes and talents were somewhat lopsided, and in 2015 the Wildcat offense was a unit in transition, with mixed results. Together, the Northwestern offense and defense combined to produce only the fourth ten-win season in NU football history, a second-place finish in the Big Ten West, a January 1 bowl, and a foundation for the next several seasons. 2015 ended on a flat note, but the rest of the tune was masterful, a successful season by any reasonable measure.

Success started early-- in the season, and in the day. NU hosted #21 Stanford at 11:00 am to kick off 2015. Many people thought Stanford was seriously underrated at #21, and the Wildcats were underdogs. The Northwestern defense, however, flashed the first signs of brilliance, holding Stanford to just two field goals en route to a 16-6 Wildcat win. Stanford only managed three conversions in fifteen third downs, and tallied just 85 rushing yards. Wildcat linebacker Anthony Walker served notice that he would be a force of nature in 2015 by notching 10 tackles. And quarterback Clayton Thorson startled many in his debut by racing 42 yards for the game's sole touchdown.

Critics bemoaned the 11:00 Central start, claiming that Stanford wasn't "awake." However, the two-hour difference between California and Illinois likely meant little after a day or two of practice in the Land of Lincoln, and excuses withered faster than Stanford's CFP hopes. But Stanford recovered and had an outstanding year, and as it did, Stanford's success helped propel NU as well, at least in the views of the ranking pollsters.

During the rest of the non-conference slate, the Wildcats ran the table, easily handling Eastern Illinois, topping Duke (which would go on to be ranked) in a low-scoring game, and edging Ball State in what could have been a letdown game. By the end of those four games, NU was ranked 16th in the nation, and its defense was near the top of the FBS division. Walker and defensive lineman Dean Lowry were menacing opponents' backfields, and NU's defensive secondary appeared to be among the best the school had ever produced.

Northwestern's Big Ten opener, a Gothic-clad masterpiece vs. Minnesota at Ryan Field, cemented the Wildcat defense's position as one of the best in the country. The 'Cats routed Minny 27-0, their largest margin of victory against the Gophers since Otto Graham ran wild in Madison in 1943. The win was NU's  second shutout win of the year, a feat the team had not accomplished since 1965.

Despite NU's fabulous defense, the team still had points of weakness, and those soft spots led to a pair of mid-season losses. The Wildcat offense, under Thorson, was improving, and Thorson had moments of greatness mixed with freshman mistakes. But the offensive line had not yet become consistently strong, and the wide receivers continued to drop too many passes. The ground game, led by sophomore Justin Jackson, was good, but it was limited by the lack of a passing attack. Without offensive balance, the team was vulnerable, and a big point of vulnerability was the possibility of needing to come back from getting into a hole-- a circumstance that Wildcat teams of a decade ago could handle, but which would challenge the otherwise great 2015 squad.

And that circumstance is exactly what went down in Ann Arbor. NU gave up an opening-play score and couldn't find its way back into the game. A week later, against undefeated Iowa, NU seemed to make progress, making a game of it until late in the third quarter, when the wheels came off.

Dropping those two games took NU out of the rankings, and some fans considered NU's 5-0 start to 2015 a nice fluke. However, despite the blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa, NU was becoming something that all truly great Wildcat teams in the past were: the 2015 team was opportunistic, finding ways to win. The ways might not have been the most elegant paths to victory, but they led to winning nonetheless. Only later did fans realize how strong the team was, even during its midseason slump. Michigan was far stronger than most people acknowledged at the time, and the NU-Iowa game ultimately determined the conference's West title.

Against Nebraska in Lincoln, NU showed its renewed ability to find a path to victory, taking a win in a see-saw game. Thorson again stunned with his rushing ability, and Lowry terrorized the 'Husker backfield, setting a school record for tackles for loss. The 'Cats followed the win by eking out a victory over Penn State at Ryan Field, lifted by a field goal with nine seconds remaining. NU's defense again held when necessary, and Justin Jackson rushed for 186 yards, a career best. The win sent NU back into the national rankings.

NU won a surprisingly close game against Purdue, again showing an uncanny ability to do just what is needed to get a win, and then traveled to Madison for a showdown with ranked Wisconsin, the preseason favorite to win the B1G West. The game proved to be an epic defensive struggle, and NU held on to win, 13 to 7, with one of the craziest finishes in the history of the program. Wisconsin appeared to have scored the winning touchdown twice in the final minutes of the game, only to have each play recalled. While the 'Cats survived another wildly close game for a win, there was nothing at all fluky about the Wildcat defense: NU held Wisconsin to negative 26 rushing yards, a team record on defense, and good enough to secure the 'Cats' first road win against the Badgers since 2000.

The Wildcats finished the regular season with a solid win against Illinois at Soldier Field, the team's first trip to the stadium since the 1997 Pigskin Classic. The victory repaid the Illini for the previous year's game, in which Illinois prevented NU from going to a bowl-- this time it was Illinois that lost a bowl shot. The win, NU's tenth, sent NU to 13th in the AP Poll (the 'Cats would eventually make it to 12th in the final regular season rankings, the team's highest regular season finish since 1996).

The Wildcats, with their second-place finish in the B1G West and with ten wins, achieved a spot in the Outback Bowl, but they were no match for Tennessee. While NU was a stunning overachiever, finding ways to win throughout the year, the 8-4 Volunteers were the opposite, having lost several very close games to elite competition. The Vols could have, with just a few breaks, finished the regular season with eleven wins. Instead, they wound up in Tampa and dismantled NU. The 'Cats just couldn't find the opportunities that had come to them so fortuitously during the season.

Even with the disappointing bowl appearance, 2015 was a possible turning point for NU. The defense is strong and able to carry much of that strength to next year. Thorson has his initial year at quarterback under his belt and can build on it. If the offensive line and the special teams can improve during the offseason, fans might end up remembering 2015 not as the program's fourth-ever ten-win season, but the first such season in a string of similar, successful campaigns.

What follows are excerpts from some of my posts to this site during the course of the 2015 season.  Please note that the comments posted below are only ones written by me, and this year I did not provide game previews or postgame commentary-- much of what would have been commentary on the site went instead to 'Cat Nips.  The bulk of articles on HailToPurple.com in 2015 came from other contributors.  For their commentary and analysis, please check out the pages for the Waterboy and the Lowes Line.

Attendance Section Expanded to Include Total Stadium History
[posted Jan. 4, 2015]

Along with the usual season-ending archives for HTP, the Lowes Line, and the Waterboy, HailToPurple has made some additional changes to the game-by-game section of NU history. We've tried to make the game history the most complete and accurate list of official NU games available. The HTP list differs from the school's official records primarily with several dates and game locations. We've tried to use multiple sources to confirm both.

The biggest change, however, to HTP's archives is the expansion of our attendance history. The page listing NU's average annual attendance had begun with the 1942 season. It now stretches back to 1920, when NU played at Northwestern Field, and it covers the entire history of Dyche Stadium / Ryan Field.

And NU's list of sold-out games, which had begun with 1974, now includes all sold-out home games since 1919, covering much of Northwestern Field's history, and including every sold-out game ever played at Dyche Ryan.

Thanks and Farewell, Lake The Posts [posted Jan. 5]

Like most NU fans, I was surprised today by the news that Jay at LakeThePosts.com has decided to close his site. Lake The Posts will cease updating on January 15, and will remain online as an archive. If there is a perfect example of going out on top, this, dear readers, is certainly it. Lake The Posts, in its seven years online-- and particularly in the last four-- has set a standard for independent fan sites. And I'm not referring just to Northwestern sports, but to fan sites of any topic.

To have a site, updated daily, with such rich content, so independent, so thoughtful, and so well-executed, is a rarity, and we will all be poorer for its loss.

Jay's reasons for stepping aside are the right ones, and I congratulate him for his decision and for the seven years of great online information and entertainment he provided our little and passionate corner of the world of college athletics.

Thanks, Lake The Posts. Farewell.

NU Welcomes 20 New 'Cats in 2015 Recruiting Class [posted Feb. 4]

Northwestern on Wednesday formally announced its 2015 recruiting class, welcoming 20 new Wildcats to the program.

As with last year, this year's list of potential new players appears split nearly evenly between offense and defense, with nine players on offense and eleven on defense. And, like last year, NU will not sign any new kickers or punters, apparently leaving this vital set of positions to the fate of walkons.

This year's class has five players from Illinois-- all from the Chicago area-- one more than last year's. The Midwest provided a total of nine recruits, leading all regions. Five players come from the East, two from California, two from Texas, and-- somewhat surprisingly-- two players come from Georgia.

Scout has given four stars to defensive end Jordan Thompson from Cincinnati. Most of the rest of NU's class have three stars from the major recruiting sites.

While the team's recruiting ranking hovered in the low 40s for much of January (up from last year, when the 'Cats took 47th place nationally), the rankings dropped due to a few last-minute decommits. As of signing day, Scout ranks NU 48th in the country and ninth in the B1G, just behind Maryland. Rivals has NU at #56 nationally (down from 42nd in January), also just behind Maryland. 247Sports puts the 'Cats at #52 nationally, just behind Indiana. The sites rank Ohio State first in the conference, as the rich continue to get richer. With Coach Harbaugh's last-minute poach spree, Michigan rocketed from dead last in the B1G to eighth.

In addition to the 20 current recruits, the 'Cats will have a handful of walkon players.

The following table shows the list of recruits who have committed to Northwestern.  The comments are compiled from material taken from Rivals.com, Scout.com, and 247Sports

Recruiting is a somewhat challenging topic for me to cover. I have no interest in college recruiting. Yet, I recognize that success in recruiting is critical to Northwestern's program.

For more detailed info and analysis, be sure to check out Lou V.'s reporting at Rivals and Chris Emma's work at 247Sports.

Charles Fessler
Erie, PA
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 26th, Scout 3rd. 20 offers, incl. BC, Harvard, Nebraska, and Yale.
LB Nathan Fox Houston, TX
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. Position rank: Rivals 29th, Scout 26th. Scout state rank: 4th. Miss. St., Oregon, Utah, and Wake Forest offered.
DE Joe Gaziano
Scituate, MA
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star.  Rivals and Scout state rank: 1st. Rivals position rank: 33rd. BC, UMass, Rutgers offered.
Trent Goens
Chino Hills, CA
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. Rivals position rank: 35th. Scout state rank: 4th. 11 offers, incl. 'Zona, Boise St., Cal, Miami FL, Wash., and Yale.
WR Cameron Green Buffalo Grove, IL
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star.  State rank: Rivals 20th, Scout 4th.  Offers from 12 schools, incl. BC, Cincy, Illinois, Iowa, Minny, and Nebraska.
DB Montre Hartage
Cordele, GA
Georgia Southern offered.
OL Adam Lemke-Bell Oak Park, IL
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star.  State rank: Rivals 17th, Scout 5th. 17 offers, incl. Harvard, Minny, Miss. St., NC St., 'Cuse, and Yale. 
DB Alonzo Mayo Baltimore, MD
247 3-Star. 9 offers, incl. Army and Columbia.
RB John   Moten IV St. Louis, MO
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 11th, Scout 3rd. BC, Illinois, Mizzou, Purdue, 'Cuse, Wake offered.
DB Jacob Murray
Coppell, TX
Offers incl. Air Force, Navy, and NIU.
WR Flynn Nagel
Lemont, IL
247, Scout & Rivals 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 8th. 13 offers, incl. BC, Cincy, Duke, Illinois, Indy, NIU, and Purdue.
OL Andrew Otterman Morristown, NJ
247 & Scout 3-Star. 'Cuse offered. 
DB Steven Reese
Buford, GA
247 3-Star. 8 offers, incl. Virginia.
WR Jelani Roberts
Owings Mills, MD
247 & Rivals 3-Star. Rivals state rank: 27th. 8 offers, incl. BC, Harvard, Navy, and Yale.
LB Simba Short
Concord, CA
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star.  Scout state rank 8th. Offers from AZ St. and Yale.
OL Jared Thomas
Indianapolis, IN
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 8th, Scout 1st. Rivals position rank: 35th. 11 offers, incl. BC, Cincy, Duke, Illinois, Indy, and 'Cuse.
DE Jordan Thompson
Cincinnati, OH
Scout 4-Star. Rivals & 247 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 29th, Scout 2nd. Position rank: Rivals 38th, Scout 21st. 15 offers, incl. Alabama, BC, Cincy, Duke, Illinois, Iowa, MSU, Minny, Notre Dame, and WV.
LB Tommy Vitale
Wheaton, IL
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. State rank: Rivals 19th, Scout 2nd. 5 offers, incl. NIU & 'Cuse.
DB Trae Williams
The Plains, Ohio
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. Scout state rank: 7. 4 offers.
QB Lloyd Yates
Oak Park, IL
247, Rivals & Scout 3-Star. Scout state rank 4th. 6 offers, incl. NIU.

Illinois Moves Home Games Vs. 'Cats to Soldier Field [posted Mar. 30]

The University of Illinois announced on February 9 that Downstate Illinois' Big Ten team will move its next three-- three!-- home games with Northwestern to Soldier Field. Illinois and the 'Cats will meet on the lakefront this fall and in 2017 and 2019. Many sports columnists and 'Cat fans immediately argued that NU stands to benefit the most from this arrangement, and I agree. The move could benefit both teams, but NU should come out with more upside.

Just a few years ago, Illinois' athletic director, when discussing Northwestern's 2010 home game shift to Wrigley Field, stated that the Illini would not follow suit and would not sacrifice any of its games in Champaign. That, however, was before the program began its perplexing behavior of following NU at anything it does and targeting the 'Cats as its aspirational competitor. NU is Chicago's Big Ten Team? Then we'll be the state's school! (but really we're also just targeting Chicago). Once NU moved its home game with Illinois to Wrigley, it wasn't long before Illinois began hosting other teams occasionally at Soldier Field, in order to tie in with area alumni and keep NU from gaining media and recruiting shares in the region.

And this new move will likely help Illinois do just that. It will probably boost Illlinois coverage by Chicago media. However, I doubt that the Illini will get the national coverage that they would like. While Illini's program seems on better footing than NU's right now, both don't seem likely they'll be strong enough next season to grab the attention of anyone outside the confines of the conference.

For NU, the benefits are likely greater. Illinois' move seems defensive, which makes NU appear to have the upper hand, or at least a threatening one, in the recruiting and media chess game. It also means that the 'Cats don't have to travel to Champaign for the rest of the decade, keeping the team in the area for its season-finale rivalry game and-- as Coach Fitzgerald pointed out-- keeping them in the area for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Historical Perspective

This fall will mark the first time that NU has played at Soldier Field since 1997, but that was technically a home game for the 'Cats. The last time NU has entered Soldier Field as a true visitor was back in 1931. Here is a list of every time Northwestern has played at Soldier Field, and the team's status: home team, visiting team, or neutral.

  • November 22, 1924: 13-6 loss to Notre Dame. NU was the home team, having moved the game from Northwestern Field to accommodate the expected crowd.
  • November 7, 1925: 3-2 win vs. Michigan. NU was again the home team. Northwestern Field had already been abandoned (making way for Dyche Stadium's construction the following spring) when NU hosted Michigan in Chicago.
  • October 10, 1931: 0-0 tie vs. Notre Dame. Until this year, the 1931 Notre Dame game was the only time that NU came to Soldier Field as the visitor. The Irish moved their home game vs. NU to Soldier Field in order to boost attendance and provide funds for charity relief.
  • November 28, 1931: 7-0 loss to Purdue. The only game NU has ever played at Soldier Field for which the field was truly considered neutral. The game was a postseason addition, also for depression charity relief.
  • October 7 and 14, 1933: a loss to Iowa (7-0) and a tie vs. Stanford (0-0), both hosted by NU, and both moved by NU from Dyche Stadium to Soldier Field as part of the World's Fair celebrations.
  • September 5, 1992 and September 3, 1994: losses to Notre Dame (42-7 and 42-15) during which NU was the home team. The 'Cats moved their home games with the Irish to Soldier Field at Notre Dame's request.
  • August 23, 1997: 24-0 win vs. Oklahoma. A game that most assume was a neutral field. However, there were two preseason classics played by Division I during the 1990s: the Kickoff Classic was typically played on a neutral field. The Pigskin Classic, however, including NU's victory over Oklahoma, was played typically on the home field of one of the teams. NU agreed to host the game at Soldier Field when it negotiated the team's participation.

Media 2015 Previews and Predictions for the 'Cats:
Is This the Season that the 'Cats "Catch Up"? [Aug. 20]

We're wrapping up summer and the annual college football magazines have appeared at the newsstands, offering their picks and predictions.  The slate of previews typically begins with Athlon and Lindy's and concludes with the Big Ten's August media event, when the conference announces its official front runner.

HailToPurple has tracked the media previews and predictions since the 2000 preseason, and regular readers might be familiar with the HTP "Heinz Line": most media attempts to rank NU nationally in the preseason will gravitate toward 57th place.

Time for another swig.

Since it's the 15th anniversary of HTP, it might be a good time to review the last 15 seasons of NU predictions. How has the average media prediction of NU's football fortunes changed? How accurate has the media hive mind been?

Here is how media picks for NU have played out since summer 2000:

(Based on average preseason national rankings by Lindy's, Athlon, Phil Steele, ESPN bloggers,
The Sporting News, and several other media sources)

The media consistently failed to predict any of NU's best seasons in the last 15 years, but they have typically overcorrected by overrating NU the year after a great season (e.g., 2001, 2013).

So after two losing seasons-- one a surprise disappointment, the next somewhat expected by the media-- what are the predictions for NU in 2015? Most of the national media so far are hedging their bets, keeping the 'Cats close to the Heinz Line and looking at a .500 record.

The Recap of the 2014 Predictions

For 2014, the media split on its NU predictions.  For the second straight year Lindy's had the most accurate prediction that NU would scrape near the bottom in the B1G West.

In most years, the "dog" pick from the media usually comes from the site that ranks NU the lowest-- the 'Cats have typically overperformed.  However, last year's dog went to Phil Steele and his too-optimistic view of NU.

The 2015 List

During every summer since 2000, HailToPurple.com has posted a recap page of what the larger 'Net and print publications predict for NU.  Here are the
2015 Wildcat predictions so far.
  • Since it holds the crown for most accurate NU prediction for the last two years, let's begin with Lindy's. The magazine ranked NU 71st before the 2014 season, and it doesn't expect much improvement from NU, slotting the 'Cats in the 69th spot for 2015. LIndy's predicts a sixth place finish in the B1G West, just ahead of hapless Purdue, with Wisconsin taking the division title. Lindy's seems particularly down on the Wildcat program in general, suggesting that Coach Fitzgerald should "get out [of NU] while the getting's good."
  • The second major national preview magazine is Athlon, and it skirts the Heinz Line with a #58 prediction, putting the 'Cats fifth in the West, ahead of Illinois and Purdue. "Fitzgerald has arguably his most talented defense, and if the special teams meet his expectations, the season once again could hinge on reigniting the offense." Athlon singles out Godwin Igwebuike and the NU defensive secondary as team strengths. Athlon predicts a Quick Lane Bowl invitation.
  • The Sporting News has a mixed prediction for the Wildcats. Like Athlon, TSN tabs NU in fifth place in the West, ahead of Illinois and Purdue, and TSN also predicts NU will land in the Quick Lane Bowl (vs. Boston College), but it also thinks NU is the conference's most overrated team (just who is overrating them is not made clear).
  • The always-anticipated Phil Steele appears to have a rising opinion of Northwestern's chances. At the beginning of spring, he placed NU at 5th in the West, ahead of Illinois. However, by the time of his magazine's publication, Steele put the 'Cats in a three-way tie for third in the West, along with Iowa and Minny. Wisky and Nebraska lead the devision; Illinois and Purdue are at the bottom. Steele put NU at #8 on his list of 2015's most improved teams, and he predicts that the 'Cats will finally make it back to a bowl, facing Pitt in Detroit. Steele has NU unranked in his preseason rankings but tabs the 'Cats at #54 in his power poll.
  • Several college football magazines either discontinued or severely scaled back distribution in the wake of the Great Recession, and Harris was one of them. However, Harris is back on most newsstands this year. Harris has a dim view of NU's prospects. The magazine puts NU in sixth in the West, behind only Purdue. Harris' staff think that it's "very likely" that the 'Cats will have a losing season, and they predict that the 'Cats will be double-digit underdogs in all three of their B1G away games (not counting the game vs. Illinois at Soldier Field).
  • Internet statistician and ranking mogul James Howell has been offering his rankings and game predictions for many years.  For the 2015 pre-season his power rankings slot NU at... you guessed it: fifth in the West, ahead of Illinois and Purdue. Howell, however, is somewhat down on the B1G, and NU's fifth spot in the west is good for a meager 70th spot nationally.
  • Internet source The Power Rank builds a predictive model for all Div. I teams. For 2015, The Power Rank ranks NU 55th in the nation, and fifth in the West. However, the site puts Purdue over Illinois; in fact, Purdue comes in 11th in the conference overall, ahead of the Illini, Indy, and Maryland.
  • Another model-based Internet source is Sports Formulator, which ranks NU 65th in the preseason.
  • The fourth Internet-based index is from Brian Fremeau, who crafts an annual "Fremeau Efficiency Index." The FEI ranks Northwestern at #56.
  • Bill Connelly posts on SB Nation, and his S&P+ Ratings tabs NU at #62.
  • Paul Myerberg, USA Today's college football writer, just might sink NU to well below the Heinz Line for the 2015 average. Myerberg ranks NU at #82 nationally, by far the lowest of any major media source. To put this into perspective, Myerberg ranks the 2015 'Cats lower than Louisiana Tech, Georgia Southern, Western Michigan, Ball State (!), Appalachian State, and New Mexico, among (75) others. He still, however, slots NU at fifth in the West-- Illinois is ranked #102; Purdue slides into the #112 spot nationally. NU's season-opening opponent, Stanford, is in Myerberg's top ten.
  • ESPN, The Magazine also has a somewhat dim view of NU's chances this year, but not nearly as pessimistic as USA Today. ESPN consigns NU to dead last in the West, but a relatively high #68 in its power poll. The Magazine sees another five-win campaign for the 'Cats, and no bowl. It gives the team a 2% chance of a B1G title (it gives Rutgers and Indy a perfect 0.0% chance of a championship-- apparently these two teams no longer play in the conference).
  • The staff at CollegeFootballNews.com see Northwestern's season opener against Stanford as the Wildcats' key game of the year: "It's the type of win a team that wants to be good needs to have." Overall, CFN is rather optimistic about NU, predicting that the Wildcats go bowling after a 7-5 season, with wins including Duke, Penn State, and Illinois. CFN has a bleak view of the Illini, picking Team Beckman in just three of its games. CFN ranks NU #50 in the preseason, tenth in the B1G, and fifth in the West.

Ed. note: At the end of every year, we go back to the preseason media predictions and call out the most and least accurate. For 2015, the media uniformly underestimated NU's performance. There was no truly accurate prediction this year. The closest, technically, was CollegeFootballNews.com, with its #50 ranking for NU (way off the mark, but still closer than anyone else).

The "dog" pick this year, hands down, goes to USA Today's Paul Myerberg, who ranked NU below Ball State, Georgia Southern, and New Mexico with an #82 spot.