Players To Watch: Northwestern Wildcats

Story posted November 5, 2015 in Sports, CommRadio by George Stockburger

It’s been a fairly typical year for the Northwestern Wildcats. They started out the season with a 5-0 record, but have since lost two of their last three. They’ve also lost one of their key defensive backs Matthew Harris after the cornerback suffered bone fractures in his face against Michigan. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald raved about Christian Hackenberg saying he’s “one of the best, if not the best quarterback in the country.” He also highlighted Penn State’s defensive line, calling Carl Nassib a “nightmare” and referred to Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson as “first round picks” in the 2016 NFL draft. Northwestern relies immensely on their running game, which is something Penn State specializes in containing.

Here are some of the Northwestern Wildcats to watch out for this Saturday.

No. 18 Clayton Thorson, QB
Clayton Thorson is a very effective, dual threat quarterback. The freshman’s five rushing touchdowns lead the entire team and his nearly 300 rushing yards are second on the squad. Another interesting stat with Thorson is his turnover ratio, which is clearly something he needs to improve on. He’s thrown nearly an interception for every touchdown this season. Clearly not what Northwestern wants to see, but remember he’s a freshman. He will have plenty of time to develop over the next two or three years and will possible help Northwestern break the curse of midseason collapses.

No. 21 Justin Jackson, RB
Sophomore running back Justin Jackson was a key component to Northwestern’s undefeated start to the season. In four of their first five games, Jackson rushed for 120 or more yards. Since the Wildcat’s first loss, he’s only rushed for 95 yards. Teams have learned to stop him and that’s a big issue for Northwestern. While his vision is decent, you can tell he can try to do too much, leading to a loss of yards. He’ll certainly be facing a major test when the Nittany Lions defensive line goes after him.

No. 1 Deonte Gibson, DL
Deonte Gibson is Northwestern’s number pass rushing machine, producing five sacks and four quarterback hits in 2015. Gibson is patient, yet always relentless. Expect him to be all over the ball carrier no matter where they are on the field. While he won’t be the fastest guy on the field, his first step and initial quickness at the line of scrimmage do wonders to helping him win those one-on-one battles up front.

No. 40 Dan Vitale, WR
While he’d be better suited to play tight end, Dan Vitale is making the most out of being Northwestern’s leading receiver. A big-bodied, aggressive player, Vitale will line up across the football field and find the soft spots in the defense. While his route tree is fairly limited, he excellent hands and aggressiveness make up for the lack of versatility. He’s going to fight for every yard, which is a great thing to see from a young receiver. Right now he leads all Wildcats receivers with 276 receiving yards and three touchdowns. When Clayton Thorson needs to convert on a third-down attempt, look for him to find Vitale, whom the team refers to as a “superback”.

George Stockburger is a junior majoring in journalism with a focus in broadcasting. He can be reached at