2016 Season
Review Page


Northwestern took a solid defense and an improving offense into 2016 and, by the end of the season, it strengthened both. The end of 2016 presented NU fans with a relatively deep, experienced team, one that won three of its last four games, including a sparkling performance in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl. However, the season did not begin with such quality: the Wildcats' early games were a grim patchwork of offensive ineptitude and defensive breakdowns. NU kept grinding and improving, and the season proved to be one of the greatest turnarounds for the team in its history: not since 1970 had NU started a season 1-3 and still achieved a winning year.

Northwestern opened the year by kicking off a four-game stand at Ryan Field, and it did so by falling to Western Michigan, 22 to 21. Justin Jackson notched all three of NU's touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to stop WMU, which marched 75 yards in the fourth quarter to score the winning touchdown. The 'Cats had a chance to retake the lead, but a Wildcat fumble at the goal line sent NU to a loss. Fans were initially shocked at the loss to a MAC team, but Western Michigan would proceed to dominate the regular season and finished in a New Years Six bowl.

Far less impressive was NU's second opponent in 2016, the FCS mid-tier fodder Illinois State. The Redbirds managed only a single touchdown (the point after try for which failed) and a 33-yard field goal, but it was enough to beat the Wildcats, which turned in one of the worst performances by the team in a decade. Steeped onto the previous week's loss, the Illinois State game seemed to point to a disaster of a season. NU began to dig itself out the following week, when it knocked off Duke. Clayton Thorson finally uncorked the 'Cat offense, throwing for 320 yards and three scores, including a TD strike to Austin Carr.

Carr began his trek to a stellar season with the Duke game. He would eventually record 90 catches for 1247 yards and 12 touchdowns, including a staggering performance at Iowa, in which Carr caught three touchdowns.

NU wrapped up its Ryan Field stretch with a loss to Nebraska, which took the team to 1-3 and made 2016 appear to be a rebuilding year. However, the trip to Iowa the following week was a pivot point: in addition to Carr's explosive output, Jackson contributed 171 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run, and both offensive and defensive lines showed marked improvement. But the real shocker came a week later, when NU tore into East Lansing and ripped Michigan State 54-40. It was the most points MSU has ever allowed at home, and it demonstrated just what NU's offense could do when the line, Thorson, and his targets worked as one.

While the newly-energized offense had grabbed much of the attention during NU's successful road trip, it was the Wildcat defense that stole the show-- and the ball-- during the team's homecoming. NU dropped Indiana 24-14, powered by Anthony Walker's 11 tackles and a pair of crazy one-handed interceptions-- one by Montre Hartage and another by Kyle Queiro (whose other hand was in a cast at the time). The win brought NU's record to 4-3, and the team appeared to be back on track.

That feeling did not dissipate, even with a loss to Ohio State in Columbus. The 'Cats played the #6 Buckeyes to the wire, looking far stronger than they did in September. But NU stumbled the following week in a lackluster loss to Wisconsin. A beatdown of rudderless Purdue was unfortunately followed by a weak loss to Minnesota. That left 5-7 Northwestern facing Illinois: even with a loss, the 'Cats could still make a bowl game, given their strong APR. A win, however, would possibly salvage the season.

Driven by outstanding performances by Jackson and John Moten IV-- the running backs combined for over 300 yards-- Northwestern jumped to a 21-0 lead against the Illini and cruised to a 42-21 win. NU's defense had an interception and forced three fumbles. During the game Jackson passed both Darnell Autry and Tyrell Sutton to take second place in NU's all-time rushing yards records.

The 6-6 finish to the regular season tied Maryland and Indiana, and it earned the 'Cats an invitation to play in the Pinstripe Bowl against 23rd-ranked Pitt. NU took Yankee Stadium and played its game of the year, featuring a solid performance by Thorson, an electric offering from Jackson, more heroics from Walker and Queiro, and great work by both lines. The win, just the third bowl victory in NU's history, gave the team a winning record for 2016 and provided a fantastic finish to a season with such a troubling start.

What follows are excerpts from a couple of my posts to this site during the course of the 2016 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.  Most of the articles on HailToPurple.com in 2016 came from other contributors.

NU Set to Sign 2016 Recruiting Class this Week
[posted Jan. 30, 2016]

With signing day just a few days away, Northwestern appears to have a class of 20 ready for 2016.

As with last year, this year's list of potential new players appears split nearly evenly between offense and defense, with eleven players on offense (four on the line) and nine players on defense (also four on the line) And, for the third year straight, NU will not sign any new kickers or punters, apparently relying on walkons for these critical positions.

NU has apparently lightened its recruiting emphasis on Pennsylvania, while renewing its focus on Ohio and Texas. The 'Cats have six recruits from Ohio, four from Texas, and a pair each from Illinois and Indiana. The two recruits from Indiana are both from Fort Wayne (hometown of former NU standout Trai Essex). Two of the Texas recruits are from Katy High School. Overall, NU has 13 recruits from the midwest, three from the east / southeast, and none from the plains or west coast.

Rivals has given four stars to defensive back Roderick Campbell, from St. Louis. Scout, meanwhile, has given a four-star rating to running back Jeremy Larkin, from Cincinnati. Most of the rest of NU's class have three stars from the major recruiting sites. CBS Sports' 247Sports site gave every one of NU's recruits three stars.

While the number of four-star recruits for NU is down vs. recent years, the team's ranking is roughly the same as last year. As of January 31, Scout ranks NU 38th in the country (up from #40 two weeks ago), just behind Miami, FL, and eighth in the B1G, just ahead of Minny. Rivals has NU at #43 nationally (down from #39 two weeks ago), just above NC State, and 8th in the B1G, now just behind Iowa. 247Sports is more downbeat on NU's class, ranking it 48th in the nation and 10th in the B1G

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 always a somewhat challenging topic for me to cover. I have no interest at all 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 the work at Scout and CBS' 247 Sports.

Jesse Brown
Snellville, GA
Scout and 247 3-Star. 17 offers, incl. Air Force, Army, BC, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Iowa, KS St., Yale
DB Brian Bullock Round Rock, TX
Rivals and 247 3-Star. Offer from Texas St.
DB Roderick Campbell
St. Louis, MO
Rivals 4-Star. Scout and 247 3-Star. Rivals 3rd in state; 17th at DB. Scout 1st in state. 13 offers, incl. AZ St., Cincy, Duke, Illinois, Iowa, Notre Dame, Vandy
Tommy Carnifax
Warren, OH
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 24th in state.  Scout 3rd in state. 8 offers, incl. Duke, Iowa, Wisc.
WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao- Bowman Minneapolis, MN
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 9th in state. 12 offers, incl. Harvard, Minny, Yale
TE Eric Eshoo Wilmette, IL
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 23rd in state. Scout 3rd in state. 11 offers, incl. Cornell, Illinois
LB Paddy Fisher Katy, TX
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Scout 10th in state. 11 offers, incl. Baylor, BC, Wash, Wisc.
LB Jango Glackin Bradenton, FL
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Scout 5th in state. 17 offers, incl. Harvard, Indy, Navy, WVA, Wisc., Yale
DE Mark Gooden
Reynoldsburg, OH
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Scout 6th in state. 14 offers, incl. Air Force, BC, Iowa, Vandy, Wake
OL Cameron Kolwich Orchard Lake, MI
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 32nd in state. Scout 3rd in state. 11 offers, incl. Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mizzou, Vandy
RB Jeremy Larkin
Cincinnati, OH
Scout 4-Star. Rivals and 247 3-Star. Rivals 14th in state; 8th at RB. Scout 3rd in state; 25th at RB. 7 offers, incl. BC, Cincy, Wake
WR Riley Lees
Libertyville, IL
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 24th in state. Scout 2nd in state. 9 offers, incl. Army, Iowa
OT Jesse Meyler
Alexandria, VA
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 24th in state. Scout 2nd in state. 17 offers, incl. BC, Harvard, Illinois, Pitt, Vandy, VA, Wake, WVA, Yale
DT Alex Miller
Houston, TX
247 3-Star. 13 offers, incl. Air Force, Army, Boise St., Houston, Rice, SMU, TX Tech
DT Jake Saunders
Loveland, OH
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Scout 2nd in state. 10 offers, incl. BC, Cincy, Illinois, Oregon St., Pitt, Vandy, Wake, Wisc.
WR Ben Skowronek
Fort Wayne, IN
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 15th in state. Scout 2nd in state. 15 offers, incl. BC, Cincy, Iowa, NC St., Indy, Purdue
QB Aidan Smith
Fort Wayne, IN
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 4th in state; 12th at QB. Scout 2nd in state. 7 offers, incl. BC, Toledo
OG Nik Urban
Willoughby, OH
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Scout 2nd in state. 10 offers, incl. Duke, Illinois, WVA
OT Gunnar Vogel
Westerville, OH
Rivals, 247 and Scout 3-Star. Rivals 29th in state. Scout 5th in state. 8 offers, incl. Air Force, Harvard
DB Travis Whillock
Katy, TX
Scout and 247 3-Star. Scout 10th in state. 12 offers, incl. BC, Houston, Iowa St., Wisc.

Rivals state ranks include all positions. Scout state ranks are position-specific.

Media 2016 Previews and Predictions for the 'Cats:
Breaking from the Heinz Line
[posted Aug. 7]

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.

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)

Last year the media actually put NU below the Heinz Line in the preseason, and their predictions significantly missed the mark when the 'Cats finished 2015 ranked. In fact, the media consistently failed to predict any of NU's best seasons in the last 16 years, but they have typically overcorrected by overrating NU the year after a great season (e.g., 2001, 2013).

So is the 2016 preseason assessment of NU also an overreaction? Or have the media underestimated the team again? Or... will they nail their NU prediction, something they've only achieved twice in the last nine seasons?

The Recap of the 2015 Predictions

For 2015, the media took a downbeat view of NU's prospects, uniformly underestimating NU's potential. In fact, there was no truly accurate prediction last year among the large media outlets. 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 for 2015, hands down, went to USA Today's Paul Myerberg, who ranked NU #82 in the preseason, below Ball State, Georgia Southern, and New Mexico.

The 2016 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
2016 Wildcat predictions so far.
  • Since it holds the crown for most accurate prediction last year, let's begin with CollegeFootballNews.com. CFN and Pete Fiutak ranks NU #40 nationally (just ahead of Nebraska), seventh in the B1G, and third in the B1G West, behind Wisconsin and Iowa. CFN lists running back, linebackers, and secondary as program positives, and quarterback, receivers, and D-line as watchouts. #40 sounds fairly strong for a media prediction, right? Not so fast: CFN ranks by talent. However, in its list of how it thinks teams will finish 2016, CFN ranks NU at a Heinz-esque #54, predicting that, with its tough schedule, NU will end the season at 6-6. CFN actually lists NU as an underdog to Western Michigan at home...
  • Moving on to the print picks, Lindy's is one of the most overreactive when it comes to NU: after a bad season, the mag will expect similarly awful results from NU the next season, and it will be just as bullish after a good year. In the wake of Northwestern's ten-win season, Lindy's has offered up one of the highest predictions for 2016. It ranks NU #28 in the nation. That translates to a fifth spot in the B1G and second in the West, behind Iowa. Lindy's tabs Anthony Walker as a first-team All American and Justin Jackson as first-team All Big Ten. It hedges, however, on results: "NU will be improved in 2016, but ten wins will be a stretch."
  • The second major national preview magazine is Athlon, and it also ranks the 'Cats higher than it did last year (#44, up from #58). But it has the B1G improving across the board, and ranks NU only eighth in the conference and fourth in the West. Athlon also puts Walker in its first-team All American squad, but it predicts just seven wins, and only four wins in the B1G. The magazine predicts that NU will meet USC in the Foster Farms Bowl.
  • In his preseason power poll Phil Steele ranks NU #42, which is eighth in the Big Ten, just behind Penn State and ahead of Minnesota. He slots the 'Cats at #4 in the West. Given NU's ten wins in 2015, Steele lists NU in his "bear market" of teams on the decline, but also lists the 'Cats #4 in the teams that should have the most improved passing game. Additionally, Steele is very high on NU's defense: "The Wildcats may have the best back 7 on defense in the league and a top 5 defense overall  plus RB Jackson and an improved QB Thorson." He predicts NU will meet Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
  • Internet statistician and ranking mogul James Howell has been offering his rankings and game predictions for many years.  For the 2016 pre-season his power rankings slot NU at 41st, good for seventh in the B1G and fourth in the West, just behind Nebraska. Most prognosticators for 2016 consistently have Wisconsin and Iowa ahead of NU in the West and disagree about Nebraska's place, which is virtually tied with NU in many of these power polls.
  • Internet source The Power Rank builds a predictive model for all Div. I teams. For 2016, The Power Rank ranks NU 58th, which makes it one of the few prognosticators in 2016 that actually ranks NU lower than it did in 2015's preseason (when it put NU at #55). The Power Rank is actually down on the Big Ten in general. Michigan, its top-ranked conference team, comes in at #9. NU is eighth in the B1G, behind Penn State.
  • But The Power Rank's 58th place rank looks positively generous compared to Sports Formulator, another model-based Internet source. Sports Formulator ranks NU 64th in the preseason (up just one spot from its 65th pick in '15). That's good for ninth in the B1G, behind Indiana.
  • Another Internet prognosticator is Mike DeSimone, who has NU in 43rd, just above Virginia Tech.
  • Among newspapers, the Orlando Sentinel is one that provides a preseason rank of all teams. The Sentinel ranks NU a lofty 24th, noting that the 'Cats need "to make strides on offense in order...to post back-to-back double-digit win seasons." It is one of the few media sources to rank NU over Penn State and Georgia.
  • Bill Connelly posts on SB Nation, and his preseason B1G power rankings placed NU in ninth, behind Minnesota and Iowa, and just ahead of Indiana. Overall, Connelly ranks NU 46th, with odds of winning 6.2 games (that 0.2 had better not be against the Illini). His colleague at SB Nation, Jason Kirk, predicts that NU will make it to an at-large bowl (the Independence) to face Miss St.
  • The Sporting News has its bowl projections up for the preseason, and it picks NU for the Foster Farms Bowl, to face UCLA.
  • CBS Sports released its national preseason ranking on August 9, and the Tiffany network placed NU at a relatively high 38th, good for sixth in the conference and third in the West, behind Iowa and Wisconsin. CBS's Jerry Palm projects that NU will face USC in the Foster Farms Bowl.
  • The Coaches Poll has been released for the preseason, and NU is unranked. The 'Cats pulled in 31 points, putting them in the middle of the unranked also-rans.
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 2016, the media came very close to predicting NU's performance. Most sources actually had a nearly spot-on assessment. The closest, for the second year running, was CollegeFootballNews.com, which called the 6-6 regular season record, and a loss to WMU.

There is no "dog" pick this year, although the Orlando Sentinel was perhaps too optimistic in its predictions.

'Cats Take Pinstripe Bowl 31-24
[posted Dec. 31]

Northwestern's trip to New York was, apparently, a journey for vengeance.

Fans were mostly unaware of just how angry the Wildcats were, angry at being underestimated, at the assumption that the team would repeat its January bowl flop when it entered Yankee Stadium and faced #23 Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. Northwestern took that desire for vengeance and transmuted it into a sterling postseason performance, leading Pitt for much of the game and winning, 31 to 24.

Leading NU's charge was The Ball Carrier, Justin Jackson, who purple-fisted his way to 224 net yards (down from 226 yards in the initial stats) rushing and three touchdowns. Jackson's effort was a stunner: he slashed, juked, bullied, and seemingly flew past baffled Pitt defenders to a Pinstripe Bowl rushing record.

JJTBC came just 13 yards from NU's bowl rushing record (set by Jason Wright in Detroit). Jackson received the bowl MVP honors, and he set up-- one hopes-- the groundwork for a 2017 Heisman campaign.

The Pinstripe Bowl was fought on the ground. Jackson's 32 rushing plays tied another NU bowl record and equaled Pitt's rushing plays, spread across nine players. However, the unsung Wildcat is Clayton Thorson, whose touchdown pass to Garrett Dickerson gave Thorson the NU single-season touchdown passing record, a surprising feat considering how little hype Thorson received during 2016. If scores were to be settled and cases were to be made during the Pinstripe bowl, consider them settled and made. Thorson's offensive line, while shaky at times, turned in a fantastic effort, a substantial improvement vs. the beginning of the season. For NU's most maligned squad, the win over Pitt must be particularly satisfying.

One singularly satisfying thing about the Wildcat offense was the play calling. Coach McCall mixed it up, calling throws on first down, misdirection, well-timed running plays, and a great use of Jackson, John Moton, Austin Carr, and Garrett Dickerson. Coach Fitzgerald and McCall put on an aggressive game, and the 'Cats delivered, going 4 for 4 on fourth downs, using a different mix of tactics for each.

The Wildcat defense also came out pissed off and fired up, and it blasted the Panthers, holding them to their lowest point production for all of 2016. The team that knocked off Penn State, upended Clemson, and hung 76 points on Syracuse was befuddled for much of the game. Pitt notched just 18 first downs, going 6 for 13 on third downs and-- crucially-- 0 for 2 on fourth downs. One of those fourth downs concluded a first quarter, four-down goal line stand by Northwestern. That drive rivals NU's 1962 goal line stand against #6 Ohio State as the greatest-ever defensive effort by the team.

The NU defense followed up the phenomenal stand at Pitt's goal with three interceptions during the game, each at a critical moment, each helping to break Pitt's will. Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro, and Jared McGee each picked Pitt and helped NU dominate time of possession. The 'Cats had over 35 minutes TOP, a stat they needed to hit if they were to win the game.

Trae Williams led the defense with five solo tackles, and Anthony Walker was not far behind, racking up four solo tackles. Walker had a solid game, for what has turned out to be his final appearance in an NU uniform.

Next to the offensive line, Northwestern's kicker, Jack Mitchell, had received perhaps the greatest amount of criticism during the season. Mitchell, however, performed flawlessly at Yankee Stadium, provoking memories of his performance at Notre Dame Stadium. Mitchell's four extra points ties an NU bowl record, and his 37-yard field goal gave NU the assurance of at least overtime, if not a regulation win.

The players and coaches are to be commended for defying expectations and turning in a great win against a very skilled opponent. The win comes at a key moment for the program, and it helps reset expectations for fans and non-fans alike. Now, Northwestern fans are not just hoping for success; they will once again expect victory.

Anthony Walker, Jr. Will Enter NFL Draft [posted Dec. 31]

After days of speculation, Anthony Walker made his announcement: NU's celebrated linebacker will enter the 2017 draft. Walker will receive his Northwestern degree this spring and will not return for a fifth year in Evanston. Walker announced his decition on Twitter:

According to the Chicago Tribune, Walker is not the only NU player that has thought about entering the NFL draft early: Godwin Igwebuike has also contacted the NFL draft advisory board.

Coach Fitzgerald, also on Twitter, responded to Walker's announcement: "We're so proud of Anthony, and thrilled for the Walker family. He's cemented a spot as one of the best players in Northwestern football history, will earn his degree this spring and has the opportunity to pursue his dream. That's what Wildcats football is all about. I can't wait to see him on Sundays proudly representing Northwestern and his family!"

Best of luck to Anthony, and congratulations on a terrific legacy at Northwestern!