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B1G 2021: Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview

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A lot new, but it’s still Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern. Whatever that means.

Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

You enter your boss’s corner office. Instantly, you smell the rich mahogany. You see the autographed #51 jersey and the framed 1996 Rose Bowl ticket. This is no Medill grad’s windowless hovel, you’re in a Kellogg Man’s chambers, and you realize that instead of posting lazy memes about Northwestern football, you’d better come correct.

But oh no! What do you actually know about Northwestern football? What could you possibly say to get yourself put on the Flenderson account?


Good morning, and welcome to Northwestern Week.

By now, reader, you know the drill from our B1G 2021 preview series: In ascending order, worst-to-first, we devote a week to previewing each Big Ten football team in sometimes excruciating, often completely batshit-random fashion.

There are just two preview weeks left, including this one, and you know that that means: the 2020 Northwestern Wildcats were Big Ten West Division champions.

Again.

Can they repeat? (Probably not.) Does anything ever change at Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern? (Kind of.) Will MNW write this poorly all week? (Absolutely.)

A note to the Medill grad who stumbles upon this: I do not give a shit about conventions of journalism, nor am I a journalist. You will read swears in this, and so too will you read cynicism toward the Northwestern Footballing ‘Cats. If your clutching pearls are elsewhere, mayhaps might I suggest you fetch them posthaste?

For the rest of us, dispense with the laziness right away:

2021 is an odd-numbered year.

If you are the kind of person who says “HORP DERP FLORP NORTHWESTERN IS BAD IN ODD YEARS,”* feel free to skip to the comments. I’ll see ya there. You’ve already clicked on the article, so I get a couple pennies because I wasn’t smart enough to sign onto a class-action lawsuit, and we move on with our lives.
*10-3 in 2015 and 2017. But whatever. Memes are memes.

For the rest, we march on.

2020 Season in Review

It was...good?

Indiana QB transfer Peyton Ramsey showed what a passable-to-good quarterback can make Northwestern’s offense under now second-year OC Mike Bajakian: a modest 12:8 TD:INT ratio marred by some horrific picks but excellent scrambling, that aforementioned running ability buying time behind an improved-but-middling offensive line, and a ball-control offense that spreads it around and sucks the fun out of everything.

No doubt failing most S&P+ metrics, Northwestern jumped out to a 5-0 start by pasting Maryland 43-3, coming back from 17-0 down to win just another one in Iowa City—Fitz is now 9-6 against Kirk Ferentz and 6-3 in legendary, historic Kinnick Stadium, which lolololololol you black and gold idiots—sneaking out one-score wins against Nebraska and Purdue that I’ve purged from my memory, and beating hapless five-turnover Wisconsin and October Heisman candidate Graham Mertz in a game that could charitably be described as “a war crime”.

That gave everyone JUST enough time to take “Northwestern to the College Football Playoff” quasi-seriously, spewing out statistics takes and getting excited like idiots and leaning into Joey Galloway’s “Fighting Rece Davises” comment which, shut up, how dare you insinuate that I drunkenly dropped $25 on a black-and-purple shirt that I am now too ashamed to ever wear?

And then water found its level.

Mind you, that was still a pretty high level, but Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State was about as stupid as you’d except a loss this side of a banked-in walk-off field goal by Illinois State to be.

A canceled game with Minnesota and another HAT from Illinois set up 6-1 Northwestern steaming into Indianapolis for a date with Ohio State. You can fill in those blanks, save for marveling at bowling ball RB Cam Porter or the one-handed, highlight-reel, not-quite-a-Gusgasm-inducing end zone INT* by All-American frosh safety Brandon Joseph.
*He had to build to the incredulity, since most of the game was dominated by the “Northwestern can’t actually do this, stop delaying the coronation of Ohio State” narrative. They weren’t wrong.

Northwestern won the Citrus Bowl over Auburn, who was of course in varying states of “who gives a fuck?” depending on if you are trying to validate (they were trying hard for Bryan Harsin! Bo Nix clearly cared!) or invalidate (Gus Malzahn was fired! Their best player was out!) that victory.

In terms of notables and quotables in 2020?

  • Northwestern had the best defense (#1 in FEI!) in the country.
  • Northwestern had the 76th-est offense in the country.
  • Cam Porter is the RB of the future: the frosh seized the job from error-prone Drake Anderson—since transferred to Arizona—and scored 5 TDs at 4.1 ypc, which is so Fitzgeraldian it hurts.
  • It started with the Irish Law Firm of the linebacking corps, but when needed, the Wildcats’ secondary was also otherworldly with Brandon Joseph and JR Pace forming a formidable Sky Team of safety play to back up the elite Greg Newsome II.
  • There is never anything quotable about Northwestern football. Pat Fitzgerald has beaten that out of the program. Long live Pat Fitzgerald.

Thankfully, though, all that should make for a great 2021, right?

Personnel

Northwestern returns the 2nd-lowest amount of production in FBS. That’s what I’m told, in journalism speak, is “bad”. To wit:

  • QB Ramsey graduated.
  • RBs Isaiah Bowser (UCF) and Drake Anderson (Arizona) transferred.
  • WRs Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees, plus TE John Raine, graduated; Kyric McGowan transferred to Georgia Tech.
  • Though he sat out 2020, LT Rashawn Slater went #12 in the NFL Draft.
  • The two leading tacklers—Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher—of the Irish Law Firm have moved on, leaving only Chris Bergin.
  • In the secondary, Pace is with the Atlanta Falcons, Newsome went to the Cleveland Browns, and Cam Ruiz transferred to Temple.
  • Legendary DC Mike Hankwitz rode off into the sunset after his 400th victory in the Outback Bowl, replaced by Jim O’Neil—more on him later this week—whose record as a DC is...spotty.

So. Uh. Talking points!

Offense

What to Know: They’ll run the ball into the line over and over and over again, and you hate it, too, but you have to accept it because Fitz knows best. But can a new QB get the job done?

What could go wrong with a transfer quarterback from the state of South Carolina?

This time it’s Ryan Hilinski, brother of the late Washington State quarterback Tyler, who will likely be under center for the ‘Cats, unless Hunter Johnson or Andrew Marty took some leaps forward that no one’s telling us about. He appears to maybe, possibly be good!

Cam Porter will be his running back. We are confident in Porter. That is probably a mistake—through no fault of Cam’s own.

Anyone who tells you “I watched a lot of Bryce Kirtz tape, and he’s gonna be GOOD!” is a flat-out liar or so optimistic that they oughta be ludovicoed to a 2019 Northwestern receiving corps highlight reel. At WR Northwestern has Kirtz, Kansas transfer WR Stephen Robinson Jr., 2020 opt-out and speedster JJ Jefferson, and the little-used options of Malik Washington, Berkeley Holman, and Wayne Dennis Jr. Together, at Northwestern, those WRs in 2020 caught 15 passes for 171 yards and 0 TDs. Again, anyone saying “They’ll be good and here’s why!” should be held down and told ugly things about the world.

The only tight end production returning is Charlie Mangieri, who can generously be described as a “blocking tight end” (though he had 2 TDs in 2020). Their job is to block as Porter is run into the line over and over and over in the name of taking pressure off Hilinski as Northwestern trails Ohio 6-3 at halftime of the non-conference.

Thankfully, the line...well, the line is experienced at the tackles. Peter Skoronski is the name to know here at LT, filling in for Slater with aplomb, while redshirt senior Ethan Wiederkehr has been serviceable bouncing between RG and RT. C Sam Gerak is also good enough, though we’ll need NWO enthusiast OL coach Kurt Anderson to work magic with new LG Josh Priebe and RG Charlie Schmidt.

This is all an awful rundown of the Northwestern depth chart. I’m so sorry, but I don’t know if we’ll actually get any potlucks out this week, so you might be stuck with it.

Defense

What to Know: A new coordinator and a lot of big shoes to fill, but with Brandon Joseph, nothing can go wrong. Can it? After all, defense is Fitz’s calling card.

We mentioned longtime DC Mike Hankwitz retired and NFL retread Jim O’Neil took over. I’m sure that won’t be an issue.

Big boy Samdup Miller is back on the edge after a 2020 opt-out, but sack leader Eku Leota transferred to Auburn and Earnest Brown IV is now a Los Angeles Ram. Joe Spivak is still holding down the DT spot and is as glorious as ever. The D-line could be a spot of bother, but with Spivak will be DT Adetomiwa Adebawore, who has been so capable that InsideNU’s Daniel Olinger would like you to join him on Adetomiwa Adebawore Island. NU also picked up West Virginia DE Jeffrey Pooler Jr. in the portal, and that can’t be bad, can it?

More questions? Try linebacker. Bergin returns and is a strong coverage LB as well as a good run-stuffer (even at 5’11”!), but everyone else is gone. Northwestern might be adding speed at the position with OLB Peter McIntyre, and I like junior Khalid Jones to sneak some starting action, though Blake Gallagher’s younger brother Bryce could slot in nicely, too. There’s also a freshman, Mac Uihlein, who the recruiting nuts like.

Almost there, I promise.

Secondary! Brandon Joseph back. Need we say more?

OK, fine. AJ Hampton and one of Cam Mitchell and Rod Heard should be passable CBs, with Coco Azema—who, to remind you, basically single-handedly beat Illinois as a converted running back in 2019—probably in line for the other safety job.

Special Teams!

What to Know: Our punting sucks. Our kicking sucks. But Riverboat Fitz will save us all.

Northwestern does not return punts or kicks well. Or at all.

Charlie Kuhbander is an average kicker.

Derek Adams, Kent State transfer punter, was better—or more consistent—than I personally recalled him being. Decent YPP, great fair catch rate (almost 50%), not a liability.

Pat Fitzgerald likes to go for it on fourth down.

Schedule/What to Expect

What to Know: The guys at the Charlotte office want to wager a steak dinner on the Duke-Northwestern game, but really we’re all just going to pretend we watched it.

So all this means Northwestern should be...bad in 2021, right? Or...good?

You can take this schedule and make of it what you wish.

I, for one, would prefer never to see the Duke fucking Blue Devils on a goddamn football schedule ever fucking again.

If there’s one thing—OK, a second thing—that now-gone AD Jim Phillips deserves to be pilloried for during his tenure at Northwestern, it’s his stupid fucking fascination with Wrigley Field, as if playing a game there would FINALLY convince Chicagoland to put down their Jameson and rosary and really believe that Northwestern was their Big Ten team.

Now season ticket holders can pay a little extra to watch Northwestern play Purdue while a bunch of drunks guzzle skunked pisswater (Old Style) and give it all back to God in those troughs as Wrigley Field probably crumbles around them. Stupid dilapidated piece of shit.

We honestly may not know anything about this Northwestern team until November. They play two of their three crossovers against East also-rans (I’ll let you figure out which is which), host Minnesota—whose fans have counted Northwestern as a win already while reassuring themselves “NORTHWESTERN FANS DO IT TOO!” and stroking their P.J. Fleck commemorative doll where you pull his johnson and a speaker squeaks “ROW THE BOAT!”—and provide Iowa a no-revenue home game, then close with wisconsin, a November Purdue game in which a quarterback will inevitably get hurt, and HAT.

Of those games, I get to attend Homecoming against Rutgers and likely the November date at the POW Camp. (You don’t care about that fact, but it shows my levels of enthusiasm for this whole shitshow.)

When Meeting a Northwestern Fan...

Provide them Malort. The real ones will love you forever.

Do Mention: Women’s lacrosse, women’s basketball, Northwestern’s many Olympians, field hockey’s been pretty good, fencing, maybe Quiz Bowl, how Liz Tisdahl is the absolute worst, memories from 1800 or The Keg or the Deuce.

Don’t Mention: Men’s basketball. At all. Just don’t do it, because I’m furious thinking about it already.


Thus begins Northwestern Week. Long live Northwestern Week.