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2015 MAC Football non-conference previews: Northwestern Wildcats

Lost in another 5-7 year for the Northwestern Wildcats was the strong finish the team put together. Are they trending upwards, and what shot does Ball State have against them come week four?

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

When Northwestern comes up in college football discussions as of late, you can typically guess the context. The what was the the then looming decision from the National Labor Relations Board to decide on whether the Wildcats football players should be considered employees.

Now that we have that out of the way (you can learn more about that here) MAC fans can refocus on the team that the Ball State Cardinals will battle against on the gridiron this fall. Pete Lembo's squad will take a stab at Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats in week four.

Offense

After struggling to take off from the very beginning of the 2014 year, the Wildcats sputtered into South Bend after incurring four straight losses including an embarrassing 10-9 loss against Michigan. It was there that some life seemed to be pumped into the Wildcats, who struck gold, defeating the Fighting Irish 43-40. It was with a well-balanced attack that day, 263 yards on the ground and 284 in the air, that the 'Cats emerged victorious in front of the stunned Notre Dame crowd. That performance translated to respectable offensive games against the likes of Purdue (in a 38-14 win) and Illinois (in a 47-33 loss). There are tools that return that could prove to recreate similar results.

Returning to an offense that could be markedly improved is back Justin Jackson who galloped to the tune of 1,187 yards on 245 carries last year, and that was after coming off knee surgery. A nice stable of backs sits behind him ready to pick up any slack in the backfield.

Gone is Trevor Siemian to Denver, and in his place are several QBs ready to step in. It's just not known yet which fella it'll be. The quick Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and redshirt frosh Clayton Thorson are duking it out trying to score the starting spot as the team works later into camp. At this point, it might be a liability for the Wildcats to not have a starting QB getting enough first-team reps.

For a team that ranked 78th in the nation in rushing, 103rd in rushing and 101st in scoring, any consistency held over from last season will be greatly needed.

Back are receivers like Cameron Dickinson, Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, a former four-star receiver who sat out the last four games of 2014 with a hand injury.

Kevin Dukovic of Inside NU has this to say about Dickinson who is set to be the primary target.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds Dickerson has the size, strength and speed to flourish at the college level. But instead, thus far in his career, he's disappointed. Poor route-running and drops are Dickerson's biggest flaws. Last season he had one of the worst catch rates on the team at 52 percent. He has to raise that percentage to at least the mid 60's to be productive. While Dickerson was wildly inconsistent last season, he showed flashes, like his team-high six catch, 97 yard explosion against Notre Dame. Dickerson will undoubtedly play a bigger role in the offense this season and Northwestern needs him to contribute more consistently.

As far as the offensive line goes, NU returns Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier and Eric Olson. Right now, Mogus is being practiced at the tackle spot, and Brad North seems to have the beat as the anchor on the line at center. The line, which is down several starters, gave up 34 sacks a season ago, so look for Coach Lembo's staff to bring the house through blitzes and stunts.

Defense

An experienced defensive line gives Wildcat fans reason for hope, as Coach Fitzgerald needs his team to greatly improve in the trenches if it's going to put together a good season, and if they want to stop a young but talented BSU backfield. Dean Lowery at end and Greg Kuhar at DT will pace the D-Line while Anthony Walker and Drew Smith return to the linebacker position that, surprise!, lost starters.

During its three-game winning streak at the beginning of the 2014 season which included wins over Western Illinois, Penn State, and Wisconsin, what was at that time a stingy NU defense surrendered just 27 points while forcing four fumbles and six interceptions. Against the always impressive Northern Illinois squad (hey, we like those guys!), NU hung in with the Huskies, giving up 23 points in the loss.

The secondary returns second-team All-Big Ten corner Nick VanHoose among others. You might remember VanHoose as the guy who blocked the extra point and returned it for two points against the Fighting Irish. He, Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike will make up a respectable secondary that will pose problems for Jack Milas, Jordan Williams and crew.

General Thoughts

It's a positive that Ball State doesn't really have to prepare for this team right now, because despite question marks throughout the board being a worry to Wildcat fans, Coach Lembo and crew might not know how to attack them at this point in time.

After the Huskies beat them a year ago, the Cardinals have no reason doubt themselves coming into this one. This Northwestern squad has talent, but grumblings have become commonplace among some Evanston folks who worry about what some might see as complacency in the program. NU has two tough matchups against Stanford and Duke before playing BSU, imagine the discontent it would spark if the Cardinals beat them after the Wildcats could have prospectively started 1-2.