2018 season followed a pattern that has become both infuriating and
thrilling under Coach Fitzgerald: underperform early, against
non-conference opponents, and kick into Wildcat mode during the Big Ten
slate. The ‘Cats adhered to this script dutifully, dropping their
non-conference matches, but tearing through the West Division, taking
their first football title in nearly two decades.
NU’s senior quarterback, Clayton Thorson, began the season by being
named to the Johnny Unitas Trophy watch list. With the high
expectations, there was also worry—Thorson’s 2017 season ended with a
serious injury in the Music City Bowl. In the season opener, at Purdue,
Thorson looked to be on track, throwing for 172 yards in a 31 to 27
win. While the victory did not turn many heads in August, by the end of
the season it had become evident just how strong Purdue was, and fans
realized just how critical NU’s 2018 opener was. Jeremy Larkin led the
way for the ‘Cats in that first game, rushing for 143 yards and two
The ‘Cats then slid into the non-conference patch and fell into their
old pattern, dropping their home debut vs. Duke before losing in
spectacular fashion to Akron at Ryan Field. It was Northwestern’s worst
loss since at least the 2007 Duke game, and—if one is looking at
expectations coming into the game—it might be NU’s worst loss of all
time. The team had never before, in its entire history, lost a game in
which it was favored by over 20 points (NU was favored over Akron by
After that debacle, the team seemed to be in freefall. Just days later,
Larkin announced that he was retiring from football for medical
reasons. NU dropped its sold-out game to Michigan, and it faced #19
Michigan State on the road, sporting a 1-3 record, and without its
talented running back.
And so began the next phase of the Coach Fitz pattern: Wildcat mode
mid-season. Thorson tore into the Spartans for four touchdowns. It was
NU’s second road win—the team would go undefeated on the road during
the 2018 regular season. The highlight of the game was Thorson’s
77-yard touchdown bomb to Kyric McGowan.
NU returned to Ryan Field and took on Nebraska for homecoming. After
nursing a shaky lead at halftime, the ‘Cats suffered three ‘Husker
touchdowns, interrupted only by a crisp 61-yard TD pass from Thorson to
Flynn Nagel. With just over two and a half minutes left in the game, NU
was down by ten points. The Wildcats then staged one of the most
dramatic and wild finishes to a game in their crazy history, starting
with a 31-yard field goal by Wildcat kicker Drew Luckenbaugh. The
climax was a drive for the ages: two and a half feet from their own end
zone, the ‘Cats built a 99-yard masterwork that included a 32-yard pass
to Flynn, a 27-yard pass to Bennett Skowronek, and a 5-yard scoring
pass to Jefferson. In overtime, J.R. Pace picked off the ‘Huskers in
the endzone, Pace’s second interception of the day. Luckenbaugh
made a 37-yard field goal to end NU’s overtime session and take the
game. If Akron showcased the very worst that Northwestern can produce,
the team’s never-say-die performance at the end of the Nebraska game
displayed the team’s very best: a thrilling, relentless group that
played to win.
After a tepid victory over hapless Rutgers on the road, the ‘Cats came
back to Evanston and faced #20 Wisconsin, the division favorite, in a
game that showcased NU’s opportunistic defense and Thorson’s rushing
ability. The NU defense, led by Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Trae
Williams, and Montre Hartage, forced three fumbles and kept the Badgers
to just 4-14 on third and fourth down tries. Northwestern’s breakout
star, first-year running back Isaiah Bowser, racked up 117 yards and a
touchdown as the ‘Cats pulled off their fourth straight Big Ten win to
secure their lead in the West Division.
The team dropped their third nonconference game in the long-hyped
midseason faceoff against Notre Dame, the first trip by the Irish to
Evanston since 1976. The game was NU’s fourth sold out home game during
the season, tying the program’s record set during the Rose Bowl season
in 1948. For possibly the first time ever, NU did not even offer
individual tickets to the game: they had already been snatched up by
season ticket holders. 2018’s four sold out games brought NU’s average
attendance for the year to nearly 44,000, the highest since the
The week after the Notre Dame loss, NU traveled to Iowa to confront the
21st-ranked Hawkeyes. The ‘Cats were in the unlikely position of
conceivably claiming the division title in the second week of November.
If NU were to beat Iowa, and if both Wisconsin and Purdue were to lose
during the day, Northwestern would have an unbreakable hold on first
place. As the game with Iowa progressed, Wisconsin indeed lost, and
Minnesota upset Purdue. The Wildcat players, however, remained unaware
of what was happening elsewhere in the division—they were too busy
orchestrating one of the most thrilling, memorable games in NU history.
The ‘Cats, missing both of their kickers and a wide swath of their
defense to injury, still pulled off a 14-10 upset to win the Big Ten
West. The game began as a punting duel: Jake Collins and Iowa punted
seven times apiece. Collins also handled all kicking duties throughout
the game. The second half, however, provided a spectacle for NU fans as
the team’s beleaguered defense, running on fumes, limited Iowa to a
single post-halftime touchdown. Bowser notched 165 yards and a
touchdown, and the Thorson to Skowronek touchdown pass will forever be
marked as one of the all-time greatest plays in the history of the team:
The Catch that Won the West
After handling Minneapolis and Illinois, the ‘Cats stood undefeated in
the West and took on #6 Ohio State in Indianapolis for the conference
title. A valiant effort by the team fell short, and Northwestern
prepared for the Holiday Bowl rather than Pasadena. The ‘Cats were
again underdogs, facing #17 Utah in San Diego. NU looked the part in
the first half, trailing the Utes 20 to 3 by the break. However,
Northwestern returned from the locker room and delivered one of the
most powerful single quarters of football in decades, stunning Utah 28
to 0 in the third. In the span of nine minutes, NU took advantage of
three Utah turnovers and enjoyed a short TD pass, Jared McGee’s 82-yard
fumble recovery touchdown run, an insane TD pass from Thorson to Trey
Klock, and a touchdown run by Lees. The win by Northwestern, its third
straight bowl victory, propelled the team back into the AP rankings at
#21 and set the team up for a strong preseason in 2019.
from a couple of my posts to this site during the course of
2018 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. Most of the articles on
in 2018 came from other contributors.
NU Signs '18 Recruiting Class
[posted Feb. 7, 2018]
has welcomed a new class of 18 scholarship recruits as part of signing
day 2018, a class that includes 16 new 'Cats who signed their letters
of intent back in December and two students who signed today.
This year the class leans to the offense, with 10 students on offense
(plus 2 walk-ons, both on offense) and 8 on defense, balancing last
year's defense-heavy recruiting class.
'Cats followed up last year's relatively light state representation by
going heavy in the home state, recruiting seven players from Illinois,
including one from Chicago itself.
recruiting analyst crowd thinned a bit this year: Scout.com has now
folded into the CBS-247 group and no longer does independent recruiting
analysis or rankings. Both of the remaining recruiting sites, Rivals
and 247, rank NU's 2018 class 14th in the Big Ten and 59th in the
nation, one of the lowest rankings for the Wildcats in the last two
decades. This is despite the fact that CBS-247 gives every NU recruit
at least three stars. If misery loves company, note that Stanford-- one
of NU's key recruiting rivals-- ranked 70th nationally this year.
The following table shows the
list of recruits who have committed to Northwestern. The comments are compiled
material taken from Rivals.com and CBS's 247Sports.
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.
detailed info and analysis, be sure to check out Lou V.'s reporting at
Rivals and the work at CBS's 247 Sports.
|CBS 3-Star. Illinois, Nevada, and NM St. offered.
|Crystal Lake, IL
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 14 offers, incl. Boston Col., Duke, Indy, Minny, Mizzou, Vandy, and 'Cuse.
|Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 10 offers, incl. Cincy, Harvard, Navy, and Yale.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 10 offers, incl. Columbia, Neb., Penn.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 6 offers, incl. K. St., Rice.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. New Mexico, Rice offered.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 14 offers, incl. Duke, Indy, M'Land, Minny, Miss., NC St., TN, Wake, Wisky, and Yale.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 10 offers, incl. Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Princeton.
|Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 9 offers, incl. Ark., Duke, NC, Purdue, R'gers, TN, VA Tech.
|Rivals and CBS 3-Star. Indy, Miss., NIU offered.
|Fort Worth, TX
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 10 offers, incl. Air Force, Harvard, Indy, Neb., Rice.
|Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 8 offers, incl. Miss., Navy, Vandy.
||Greg Newsome II
and CBS 3-Star. 23 offers, incl. Ark., Boston Col., Cornell, Harvard,
Illinois, Iowa, Minny, Princeton, Purdue, R'gers, 'Cuse, Vandy, VA
|Rivals and CBS 4-Star. 14 offers, incl. Illinois, Indy, Iowa, Minny, Neb. Notre Dame, PSU, Princeton, R'gers, Wisky.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 21 offers, incl. L'ville, UMass, Miss., Navy, R'gers, 'Cuse, Yale.
Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 7 offers, incl. 'Cuse, Vandy.
|CBS 3-Star. 14 offers, incl. App. St. and Tulane.
|Rivals and CBS 3-Star. 6 offers, incl. Indy.
In addition to the recruits listed above, NU announced the following walkon players:
- Willy Boatman, OL
- Raymond Niro III, WR
Media 2018 Previews and Predictions: Breaking from the Heinz Line
Summer is nearing its end, and the annual college football magazines have appeared at the
offering their picks and predictions. The slate of previews
begins with Athlon and Lindy's and concludes
the Big Ten's August media event, when the conference announces its
[posted Aug. 19]
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 used gravitate toward 57th place, until recently.
year the media turned in their third highest preseason predictions for
NU since 2000, but they still fell well short of the 'Cats' #17
national finish. Since 2000 the media have underestimated NU twice as
many times as they have overestimated NU's season performance. Compare
this to the constant overestimation of teams such as Notre Dame or
The 2018 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 2018
- Let's begin with CollegeFootballNews.com.
The staff at CFN predict a 41st place finish for NU, citing the
Wildcats' defensive line and coaching as strengths and the secondary
and skill players as concerns. As with every single other media source,
CFN pins the Wildcats' fate on the health of quarterback Clayton
Thorson: if Thorson is nearly 100% this season, NU will do fine; if he
is not, then the team will struggle. CFN seems to think that NU will do
just fine, predicting a third-position finish for NU in the B1G West,
behind Wisconsin and Iowa. CFN predicts that NU will land in the
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, facing Florida.
- Moving on to the print picks, Athlon takes
a lower view of NU's potential, expecting that Thorson won't be quite
at 100% and the offensive line might struggle. Athlon slots NU at 46th
nationally and fourth in the B1G West (behind Wisconsin, Iowa, and
Purdue). Athlon predicts that the 'Cats will coast to a 6-6 finish, 4-5
in the conference, good enough for a trip to San Francisco to take on
- The second major national preview magazine is Lindy's,
which has a nearly identical take as Athlon this year, also placing NU
third in the West, behind the Badgers and Hawkeyes. Lindy's ranks NU
40th in the country, two spots above Purdue.
- In his preseason mag Phil Steele
is aligned with most of the other print sources, also putting NU third
in the West. As with CollegeFootballNews.com, Steele predicts that the
'Cats will land in the Gator to play the Gators.
- Wrapping up the print pieces, Street & Smith's
predicts that NU finish a disappointing fifth in the West, behind
Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, and Nebraska. S&S also notes the
importance that Thorson's recovery holds for the team, and predicts
that NU will finish with just enough wins to earn a trip to the Quick
- Internet statistician and ranking mogul James Howell has
been offering his rankings and game predictions for many years.
For the 2018 pre-season his power rankings slot NU at a strong 24th, good for another third-place pick in the B1G West.
- Internet source The Power Rank
builds a predictive model for all Div. I teams. For 2018, The Power
Rank ranks NU 32nd, exactly where it ranked the 'Cats before last season.
The Power Rank is still high on Iowa, placing the Hawkeyes (and, of course,
the Badgers) above NU, slotting NU third in the West and sixth in the
B1G overall-- just like last season.
- The Sports Formulator,
another model-based Internet source, sheds the optimism it had for NU
last year and ranks the 'Cats 56th nationally, the lowest prediction
for NU this year, and the only one that comes close to the old "Heinz
Line." Sports Formulator tabs NU for fourth in the West, just behind
Purdue and above Minnesota and (66th-ranked!) Nebraska. The site does
predict a West Coast bowl for NU, a trip to San Francisco to play Utah.
- Another Internet prognosticator is Mike DeSimone, who has NU in 37th nationally and second in the West, ahead of Iowa.
- Among newspapers, the Orlando Sentinel is
one that provides a detailed preseason rank of all teams. The Sentinel
is one of the few media sources that puts NU in its top 25, ranking the
Wildcats 19th. Orlando Sentinel writer Matt Murschel cites Thorson's
potential, along with strong possible performances by backup QB T.J.
Green, defensive end Joe Gaziano, and linebacker Paddy Fisher.
- Bill Connelly posts on SB Nation,
and his preseason B1G power rankings placed NU at 38th nationally, the same as last year. Connelly's preview is packed with detail,
and he is cautiously optimistic about NU's chances, noting that the
team will need to avoid its typical slow start in September if it is to
contend for something beyond a bowl game this year..
- CBS Sports
released its national preseason ranking on August 19, and the Tiffany
network placed NU at 42nd, third in the West. Jerry Palm predicts that NU will play in the San Fran Bowl vs. Utah.
- USA Today's Paul
Myerberg offered his Big Ten power rankings during the summer, and he
put the 'Cats in sixth place, good for second in the West, just ahead
of Iowa. "...the Wildcats [are] Wisconsin's biggest threat in the
West." Myerberg also pins this potential success to Thorson's recovery.
- Bill Bender at TheSportingNews.com
is not high on the Wildcats' chances in 2018, placing NU fifth in the
West, behind Nebraska and Purdue. Despite the low ranking, Bender oddly
provides one of the highest bowl predictions for NU, projecting the
'Cats in the Holiday Bowl to play USC.
- The major polls have been released for the preseason, and NU is
unranked. The 'Cats pulled in 67 votes in the Coaches Poll.
note: At the end of every year, we go back to the preseason media
predictions and call out the most and least accurate. After two years
of relative accuracy, the media regressed in 2018 and seriously
underestimated NU's performance. The best prediction, by far, came from
the Orlando Sentinel, which nailed NU's #19 ranking.
There were several candidates for the "dog" pick in 2018. The biggest loser was Street & Smith's, with its fifth-place West finish and bowl showing in Detroit.
Attendance History Expanded to Include All of Central Era
[posted Oct. 7]
HailToPurple has tried to maintain as accurate and complete a history of NU's football home sites
as possible. Part of our research is the team's home attendance through
the years. Until recently, our attendance research went back to 1920,
covering a few years during the Northwestern Field period, and the
entire Dyche Stadium / Ryan Field period.
We've now expanded our attendance research to cover the entire time
that NU has played its home games on Central Street, beginning with the
opening of Northwestern Field in 1905. This is as far back as we can
accurately go: it would be impossible to get good information about
attendance when NU played on Sheppard Field or, before that, Campus
You can find the expanded annual info here: NU's average annual attendance. And NU's list of sold-out games, also now includes all sold-out home games since the team moved its field to Central Street.