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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 27, Digital 6

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Page 106 of 117

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 27, ISSUE 6 107 Northwestern opens against the Badgers in Madison, Wis., which certainly makes the road to a title tougher, before coming home to face defending East champ Penn State. But the Wildcats don't have Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule, so if the offensive line shows sig- nificant improvement and the defense finds a consistent pass rush, Northwestern could surprise in the division. At least the O-line returns four starters, led by versa- tile Tommy Doles. And it is blocking for some elite-level talent. Few are better than Jackson, the durable, dynamic se- nior. Last season, he became the first running back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and he needs only 581 yards to be- come the school's all-time leader. "He can do everything," Vaccher said of Jackson, who rushed for 1,524 yards and a whopping 15 TDs last year. "He's not very big or very fast, but he's an absolute work- horse who can make tacklers miss in a phone booth, as Fitz likes to say, or put his head down and move the pile when necessary. He's also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. In my mind, he's the best all-around run- ning back I've seen (for Northwestern)." What could help Jackson's push to become only the second Big Ten back to have four 1,000-yard seasons — Wisconsin's Ron Dayne stands alone — is if Thorson is even better in Year 3 as a starter. Last season, Thorson made strides in about every area, Vaccher said, en route to throwing for 3,182 yards and a school-record 22 TDs. He had only nine interceptions. "This offseason he said he focused more on the finer points of his job, like poise in the pocket and leadership," Vaccher said. "Two things he will look to improve (in 2017): Selling his threat as a runner on the read-option and being more patient under pressure." The "pressure" part is relevant because Northwest- ern gave up 39 sacks last season, second-most in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald said the O-line was the team's big- gest issue last season, so he's hoping the four returning starters and the other pieces play much, much better. The defense has seven starters returning, but among the losses were its two best players (all-league MLB An- thony Walker and Big Ten sack leader Ifeadi Odenigbo). It'll be important for the experience — six starters are seniors — to show up. The strength will be in the secondary where hard-hit- ting safety Godwin Igwebuike is back after passing up the option of the NFL to return for a fifth year. He led the team with 108 tackles last season, while also batting down seven passes and snatching two INTs. "He may be the most gifted all-around athlete on the team," Vaccher said. "Igwebuike can do it all as a safety: He is a ball hawk who had three interceptions in his first career start in 2014 against Wisconsin, and he's also a heavy hitter who can come up and really lay the lumber on running backs in run support." — Stacy Clardie

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