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B1G 2020: Northwestern Football Cocktail Party Preview

Pat Fitzgerald returns most of his starters, and even if those starters went 3-9 in 2019, there’s reason for optimism, should 2020 happen. Here’s what to expect.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Northwestern Week!

Continuing the tradition of B1G 2020—thank you for following along, and welcome! In our second week of previews (and first week of actual Big Ten teams), we shift our focus to the Big Ten West and the team that followed up a 2018 Big Ten West title with a 2019 disaster:

The Northwestern Wildcats.

In lieu of the traditional Cocktail Party Preview, an OTE tradition that I’m pretty sure only I bother to resurrect anymore, we’re going to replace it with a socially-distanced cocktail party.

Tired of buttoned-up Northwestern cocktail parties? You’re in luck! Take off your pants, kick your feet up, and let’s all buttchug some Malört to take in the world of Northwestern football.

2019: What...uh...what happened?

Oh, you mean that smoking wreckage of a football season? What happened there?

Well, there was no quarterback, no running back, and things just fell apart.

Starting the year in the blazing heat of Stanford Stadium, the ‘Cats started 5* Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson as part of a two-QB tryout with fifth-year senior TJ Green, who promptly had his foot shattered and got taken to a Palo Alto hospital. Bowling ball RB Isaiah Bowser took a knock against the Cardinal and wasn’t the same for the four Big Ten games he appeared in before being shut down on just 204 rushing yards and no touchdowns.

Turns out that “Next Man Up” mantra that Pat Fitzgerald constantly intones only works if you have a capable next man up.

Johnson (46.3%, 1 TD, 4 INT) struggled with the spotlight, injuries, and family health, giving way to Aidan Smith, who threw it back to 1984 with a 3 TD, 9 INT, stat line that would’ve made Sandy Schwab proud. With Bowser out, the Northwestern backfield cycled through legacy RB Drake Anderson, Evan Hull, Jesse Brown, John Moten IV, and finally CB-turned-RB-turned-CB-again Coco Azema.

Effectively, games became QBs Smith, Johnson, and eventually something called Andrew Marty running for their lives, absent a go-to pass-catching option after Riley Lees with 2018 hero Ben Skowronek injured and now gone to Notre Dame and dead to me forever.

It did not go well.

Northwestern beat UNLV, Massachusetts, and Illinois, because even in a bad season, Pat Fitzgerald beats Illinois. That’s it. Let’s not squint too hard at the Nebraska loss or the Purdue choke job; at best, this was a 5-win team. Pat Fitzgerald’s luck ran out, and the ‘Cats spent the entire season racking up the bad karma. 3-9 (1-8), ‘nuff said.

Maybe, just maybe, Bill Connelly’s favorite and most baffling program can rebound in 2020, because [reasons not found and probably just kind of made up as we go].

Assuming 2020 happens, let’s see why.

The Personnel

ESPN made a great deal in February out of the revelation, if you can call it that, that 2020 Northwestern would return the most production in all of college football (84%), with 88% of its offensive and 80% of its defensive production coming back. Gone are Moten and the aforementioned Skowronek on offense, gone are DE Joe Gaziano and DT Alex Miller on defense, along with a bevy of DBs whose most notable name was #2 CB Trae Williams.

That’s it. There’s a lot coming back, so we don’t need to rehash too much of what NU has.

Of course, that returning production went 3-9 (1-8), so, uh...

So who’s throwing the ball?

Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? (Ask your parents.)

Johnson is back. Smith is back. Marty is back. Hell, TJ Green even got a sixth year of eligibility.

And then Peyton Ramsey transferred in from the Indiana Hoosiers.

The long story short—we don’t know. Probably Ramsey, but Fitz has shown a willingness to experiment. Couple that with a backfield of Bowser and Anderson, and if the ‘Cats can hit on a quarterback, Northwestern could be competent enough to turn a “worst in the country” offense into a “not a total liability!” offense.

But what about Mick McCa—

Don’t. Stop it.

The former Bowling Green innovator is now coaching Iowa State running backs, far away in a cornfield where he can’t hurt me anymore. In his place is former Boston College OC Mike Bajakian, who has proven adaptable at past stops with Central Michigan, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Boston College.

Gone are the superbacks, in are boring tight ends. Up goes the tempo, up goes the size, up goes the speed; Bajakian has vowed to bring pace and heft to the Northwestern offense. He got a lot out of AJ Dillon in Chestnut Hill—the hope is that he can mold an offense around whichever quarterback emerges, rely on road-graders like OT Rashawn Slater, get the most out of Bowser and Anderson, and find a couple pass-catchers to go with Lees. Let’s go with someone like speedy Kyric McGowan.

Any basic competence on offense allows Fitz to focus on things he actually cares about:

Is there a defense?

Yes. It will bend and, hopefully, not break. It is run by Mike Hankwitz, a 72-year old defensive coordinator who does a mean Walter White and might punch coronavirus in the face if it tried to fuck with him.

I trust him completely.

Each position group comes with its share of Northwestern defensive players who do, annoyingly for some, very Northwestern things like play smart, disciplined, positional football. This year we’re counting on the back seven—CB Greg Newsome II and S JR Pace should anchor a capable secondary, while Fitz’s one true love, linebackers, are loaded again with potential NFL Draft talent in Paddy Fisher and the quietly efficient Blake Gallagher.

The questions, for me, come up front.

Northwestern was inefficient getting to the quarterback, but that’s nothing new—even with Joe Gaziano, the emphasis has been on a solid pass rush and stopping the run, and that will continue with another year of Samdup Miller at LDE and the potentially-exciting Earnest Brown IV on the right. It’s a front four of upperclassmen, and someone emerging as a playmaker would be great.

Failing that, though, we expect the ‘Cats to do what they always do: Bend, don’t break.

Also, I see the Baltimore Oriole logo.



They play anyone?

Yeah! And minus the whole “global pandemic-turned-national pandemic because [redacted]” bit (wear your fucking mask), the Big Ten’s decision to cancel non-conference games couldn’t come at a better time. Northwestern was slated to play home games with a tricky out in the Tulane Green Wave and a “who knows?” in Shark Humper’s Central Michigan Chippewas, along with a November home game against FCS Morgan State that is the epitome of [/yawn].

So here’s what we know about the schedule, given that rumors have it the Big Ten will play divisional games first:

Home Games

Pretty manageable, though Nebraska-Northwestern has kind of a reverse split thing going on.

Away Games

Uh...rougher. The first three are not places you want to play road games ever—even if Northwestern’s won their last appearances at each—and the other two are Big Ten West teams who can conceivably move the ball effectively with athletic playmakers.

Rumored Fifth Home Game

Sometimes, being shitty has its perks.

Anything more important going on?

Two things!

1. Pandemic.

Football’s probably not happening. Coronavirus. You already know that.

Wear a mask.

2. Black Lives Matter.

Take it from Northwestern WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman—a guy who, if you thought he couldn’t get any cooler, is also a Minnesotan:

There’s your overview! By now the Malört is hopefully kicking in, you’ve forgotten the disaster that was 2019, and you can see a path to 5-5 just like I can. I mean, it’s not like 2020’s been going poorly or anything, has it?

Honestly, should a 2020 football season happen, we’re going to be looking at the same questions for Northwestern that skeptics had in 2019—can the offense be a not-liability? can the defense continue to just kind of exist and stop people as a result? will Northwestern get off to another slow start? GRADUATE TRANSFER PUNTER?

If there’s anything we’ve learned about Pat Fitzgerald over the last thirteen seasons, it’s that his programs don’t stay down for long.

Over the course of the week, we’ll be deep-diving a few of those questions—Mike Bajakian as OC in particular, with a few looks at precisely how Northwestern has gotten to this point as a program—and maybe even taking your calls. We exist, of course, In These Uncertain Times, but if there’s anything we can count on, it’s the general indifference bordering on derision of fellow Big Ten West fans and maddening mediocrity of Northwestern football.

Let’s just hope we get a taste of that in 2020.

Welcome to Northwestern Week.

If you’re talking to a Northwestern fan, do mention:

The Big Ten West Championship, the bowl winning streak, Walter Athletics Center, HAT, how Northwestern decided to field a basketball team in 2016-17, YOUR Big Ten Women’s Basketball Champions, women’s lacrosse, the softball 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].

If you’re talking to a Northwestern fan, don’t mention:

Your astonishment at his/her mere existence, sports in 2019, faculty/staff layoffs, tarps, Wrigley Field games, college basketball since March 2017, how Chris Collins might not be a great basketball coach, how much Evanston actually sucks.


What is your Chicago drink of choice?

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