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Northwestern players confident Big Ten title is within reach

Northwestern senior linebacker Godwin Igwebuike paused for a moment before answering this question: What will define success for the team?

“Why am I here?” Igwebuike said. “I’m here to win a Big Ten championship. That’s why I came to Northwestern.”

Igwebuike, who was named to the Big Ten’s preseason top-player list Monday, is not the only player on the team who has lofty goals for a program that finished last season 7-6 (5-4 in the Big Ten) and has yet to even qualify for the Big Ten championship game. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson believes the Wildcats have a shot this year, too.

“Every year we got a shot at the Big Ten title,” Thorson said. “Last year we had a shot. We didn’t start the way we needed to, and a couple games down the stretch, [if] the ball bounces our way, we’re in Indianapolis. Every year we got a shot, but we’ve got a shot this year, as well.”

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is looking to get his team rolling early at heavy underdog Rutgers. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Northwestern returns 17 starters, including Igwebuike, Thorson and senior running back Justin Jackson. So is this the year the Wildcats make a championship run?

“We have so much potential,’’ Igwebuike said. “Just seeing the guys that are coming even since I’ve been here, my first year, we can match up with anybody in any position. It’s the strongest we’ve been, the fastest we’ve been, the most mature our team has been.”

If Northwestern is to reach that goal, Thorson likely will play a key role. He had a breakout season in 2016, passing for 3,182 yards, a sophomore record, and throwing 22 touchdown passes, a Northwestern season record.

He began to receive national attention as an NFL prospect and served as a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy this summer. But Thorson is not allowing the hype surrounding him to distract him from this -season.

“You can make it a pressure and a distraction if you want to,” Thorson said. “You can go read everything about yourself and pump yourself up. Or you can focus on what’s at hand and what film you’re going to watch today of college teams that you’re going to get better. So my focus is only on this season. NFL will come when it does.”

Jackson also is likely to play a key role. Jackson, who ranks second in career rushing yards at Northwestern, has a chance to become the all-time leading rusher for the Wildcats after this season. But, like Thorson, he is not allowing the attention to distract him.

“My job tomorrow is to work just as hard, to ready myself, ready my teammates, and it’s about doing that every single day,” Jackson said. “You can’t get caught up in records, [or] whatever. You just have to work every single day, and when it comes to Saturday, go out there and perform.”

Northwestern kicks off its season Sept. 2 at home against Nevada.

Follow me on Twitter @ElanKane15.

Email: ekane@suntimes.com

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