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2019 Northwestern Wildcats Cocktail Party Preview

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The ‘Cats pulled off the high-wire act of the season in 2018. Can they smooth things out behind a highly-touted QB and return to Indianapolis?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Holiday Bowl - Northwestern v Utah Photo by Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Northwestern Week!

Continuing the tradition of B1G 2019—thank you for following along, and welcome! if it’s your first time at OTE—we come to our penultimate week of team previews, following the Big Ten East runners-up Michigan with a team you might have forgotten won the Big Ten West:

The Northwestern Wildcats.

True to OTE tradition, we’re throwing it back today to the style of our Monday piece’s namesake, the Cocktail Party Preview.

Your boss send you to a swanky cocktail party at a home in southern Minneapolis, where you’re expected to bag the business of the Accumulated Widgets Company for the firm. Dodging canape trays of barely-cooked meats with odd sauce garnishes, trying to keep yourself to that two-drink limit and failing within the first half-hour, you accidentally make the acquaintance and wind up in the good graces of the host, who invites you to his study for a cigar he was gifted from the Michigan 93rd District Representative.

You step into his study.

A framed ticket stub from the 1996 Rose Bowl hangs on the wall. A “2000 Big Ten Champions” banner hangs below it, and a framed picture of the exec and his family in Lucas Oil Stadium sits on his desk aside a football signed by Pat Fitzgerald.

“Wow, so you’re a Northwestern fan?” you ask, lighting the cigar.

“Yeah, season tickets for thirty years! You a fan?” he replies.

“So you’re the one!” you think to yourself, before repressing that thought. No need to lose the big account before you even make your pitch. If only you had a handy preview of Northwestern Wildcats football to rely on for small talk...

2018: An Alliterative Appraisal

Disappointment

After a thrilling road win over Purdue marked by Jeremy Larkin rushing touchdowns and one half of not figuring out how to cover Rondale Moore, the ‘Cats proceeded to shit the bed of goodwill in predictably Northwestern fashion: With a snoozefest of a loss to Duke, an inexplicable home upset at the hands of Akron marked by three Zips defensive touchdowns, and an irritating come-from-ahead loss to Michigan in which Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines sat on the ‘Cats until they said uncle.

Even the road win at Purdue saw Pat Fitzgerald employ the arrogance of a coach several Big Ten West titles his senior by putting his starting quarterback, Clayton Thorson, on a “pitch count” with untested backup T.J. Green that lacked all rhyme or reason.

Quarterback-by-random number generator is no way to win football games.

Drama

Of course, random number generator-everything-else is OK, it turns out.

After Larkin’s medical retirement from football, the ‘Cats scuffled running the ball.

So what? They somehow stumbled ass-backwards into wins at Michigan State, home in a ridiculous, stupid, and improbable comeback over Nebraska, and on the road against Rutgers in an 18-15 that was only redeemed by the emergence of freshman battering ram RB Isaiah Bowser. Let us never speak of that last game again.

A win over wisconsin in which Jack Coan proved unable to hand the ball off and Jonathan Taylor bolstered his September Heisman credentials by doing nothing of note ran Northwestern’s Big Ten account to a concerningly positive 5-1.

There was a game with Notre Dame. It was weird, bad, fun, and ultimately meaningless, except to set up the humorous and, to the best I could verify, historic scenario of a Power 5 conference team winning its division or appearing in its conference championship game without winning a non-conference game.

We learned of a scenario, then, by which the Wildcats could, hypothetically, win the Big Ten on November 10:

  • A wisconsin loss to Penn State. Check.
  • A Minnesota win over Purdue. Check.
  • A Northwestern win over Iowa. GULP.

Delirium

Northwestern responded to these positive turns of events by playing perhaps the most atrocious half of football I have ever seen. Thorson had nowhere to run. Bowser plowed, over and over, into a wall of black and gold. Jake Collins punted repeatedly. It was hell.

Iowa took a 3-0 halftime lead. And then the dam broke:

Iowa responded with a deep touchdown pass. Collins, the punter-turned-third-string kicker, missed a 38-yard field goal.

Short.

Now, time running low and taking over in Iowa territory after a poor punt and strong Flynn Nagel return, OC Mick McCall dialed up two plays that, had they not worked, may have led me to actually carry out threats of leaving a flaming pile of dogshit on a doorstep:

He ran a draw, on 3rd and 9 at the Iowa 45, with a walk-on running back in Chad Hanaoka who stood something like 5’6”, 180# soaking wet and in high heels. He ran a fucking draw, into the teeth of the Iowa defense, which all day had harassed and abused Northwestern rushers. HE RAN A DRAW ON 3RD AND 9, DOWN 3, WITH 9 MINUTES LEFT.

Hanaoka gets 13 yards. First down. I take back everything I have ever said about McCall. Maybe.

Then Thorson dropped back.

History. Immortality. Champions.

Denouement

A couple wins over some crap Big Ten teams. HAT stayed home yet another year. 8-1, Big Ten West champions. Off to Indianapolis. Bring on Ohio State.

If ever a game could be defined by “playing with house money,” it’s a Big Ten Championship where you’re two-and-a-half score dogs. The Buckeyes covered, but John Moten IV sprang a run I’m still picking my jaw off the ground from. Thorson pirouetted his gimpy knee to a rushing touchdown. Now-retired Cameron Green caught another touchdown pass and left me wondering in the off-season what could’ve been.

And a bowl win. A third straight bowl win, for a program that went from New Year’s Day 1949 to 1996 without appearing in a bowl game, and New Year’s Day 1949 to 2013 without winning a bowl game.

Northwestern finished 9-5 (8-1) in the weirdest, most baffling, dumbest way possible. It is completely your fault, and it is completely to our bewildered joy. I love this school, I hate that I love this school this much, and I am in desperate need of a liver transplant.

Looking Ahead

Your boss wipes a single tear from his eye. “Sorry, but I get a little misty just thinking about it. I was gutted when they carted Thorson off in the Music City Bowl. And now here we are.”

“Yeah, dude,” you think, “but calm down. It’s just the Big Ten West.”

Thinking better of it, you nod politely, then wish that some good-looking and not-at-all degenerate amateur Northwestern blogger had written a piece previewing the Wildcats’ fortunes in 2019.

The Personnel

Thorson is gone. In steps Clemson Tigers transfer QB Hunter Johnson, perhaps the most highly-touted quarterback recruit ever—or at least since Zak Kustok. Bowser returns, along with Damien Anderson in the backfield, and the wide receiving corps loses its leading receiver in Flynn Nagel, but returns virtually everyone else, save superback Cameron Green.

Things should—should—be business as usual for the ‘Cats, who will rely on an uncreative offense and bend-don’t-break defense to keep defying S&P+ whatever made-up SBNation metric is suddenly my new favorite.

Not much should change on the defense, with the linebacking depth of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and Chris Bergin making up for the departure of Nate Hall. Joe Gaziano will still be destroying worlds on the defensive line.

Go ahead, call any of them “gritty” or “high motor.” He’s a CEO of a company in Minnesota—odds are he’ll get off on that shit.

Sure, there are some questions: Can a makeshift secondary—which loses Montre Hartage and will have to rely on ball-hawking JR Pace and DB Trae Williams—continue to be juuuust enough of a not-liability to work? Can an offensive line that loses a great deal of depth rebound under new OL coach Kurt Anderson?

A bevy of new coaches, including Louis Ayeni and Tim McGarigle, helped inject life into the Northwestern position players in 2018, and the hope is that the luster hasn’t worn off the Walter Athletics Center. Anderson, though, is a special addition, with his 1980s WWF-style approach to leading the offensive line and creating a new, more road-grading attitude among Northwestern’s most-consistently maligned position.

“Those aren’t questions I have to worry about,” you remember, taking another long puff. “He couldn’t believe I knew who Zak Kustok was and he wants to get us box seats for the Minnesota Golden Gophers game this fall. Keeps saying something about ‘Haven’t scored at Ryan Field since 2013.’ Time to seal the deal.”

The Schedule

“Not a bad schedule, though!” you say. You have no idea where that came from. At this point he’s already pledged his business, offered to put you in contact with a couple other local companies, and given you a plush basketball signed by Bill Carmody.

At wisconsin. At Nebraska. And, to open the season, at Stanford.

Other than that? It’s manageable. Surely owing to their fatigued body clocks after the Stanford game, a bye gives way to a home game with UNLV. Then it’s off to Big Ten conference play, with the ‘Cats playing host to Michigan State and heading to the Ol’ POW Camp before September’s even out.

You might be thinking—”but MNW, that’s only two non-conference games!”

Don’t worry, it gets dumber.

A tough road game at Nebraska follows the road game at wisconsin, and a second bye—in early October—will come at the right time for Northwestern, as the ‘Cats gear up for a Friday night showdown with Ohio State under the lights at Ryan Field. Things went fine the last time the Buckeyes visited, I responded normally, and there is nothing to see here.

Assuming the ‘Cats survive that at anything better than 1-5, a favorable stretch run could see Northwestern jockeying for position in the Big Ten West again. Playing host to Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota, with trips to the noted daunting environs of Indiana and Illinois.

Oh, there’s a November home game against UMass Minutemen. I don’t want to talk about it.

All told, it’s shaping up to be a weird and wild run—and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me how it’s going to go. By the end of the week, though, I’ll have staked a completely ironclad position of why Northwestern is going 10-2, likely because WSR will have said something so impossibly stupid that I’ll have no choice.

Sorry.

When talking to a Northwestern fan...

Do mention:

The Big Ten West Championship, the bowl winning streak, Walter Athletics Center, HAT, Jim Phillips staying at Northwestern for the foreseeable future, how Northwestern decided to field a basketball team in 2016-17, the current Eastern Illinois Panthers’ coaching staff, the softball team, the women’s tennis team, the field hockey team, fucksaws [in impolite company only], the wonderful Medill School of Journalism [Medill grads only], how much Medill grads suck [all other Northwestern grads].

Don’t mention:

Your astonishment at his/her mere existence, tarps and general attendance issues, college basketball since March 2017, future November home games against UMass and Morgan State, an inability to win against Michigan, an inability to win against Ohio State, how Chris Collins might be a pretty problematic coach, how much Evanston actually sucks.

You got the account. You’ve got box seats to every Northwestern sporting event you could ever want. And you realize you owe it all to that Cocktail Party Preview written by MNWildcat. “As a small token of my gratitude,” you resolve, “I’ll mail MNW that basketball signed by Bill Carmody.”

Thank you.