Welcome to the 2021 Big Ten Football Performance Reviews, Northwestern. Why don’t you take a seat in that chair right there, and we’ll get started?
Today we’ll review the 2021 Northwestern Wildcats, who—you may recall—finished 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten) in what the casual OTE observer may have chalked up to a new phenomenon (as much as a sample size of “two” can be a “phenomenon”) called “Odd Year Northwestern”.
I know. You’re very excited to read this.
I. Surely it wasn’t that bad...
After an in-retrospect-respectable 38-21 loss to Michigan State, the ‘Cats dug a 30-7 halftime hole to Duke only to fall just short in a 30-23 loss, sandwiched between non-conference wins over FCS Indiana State and moribund Ohio.
And then the wheels fell off.
The 56-7 loss to Nebraska should have been a sign for anyone that this iteration of Northwestern was just plain bad—the ‘Cats could not physically keep up with the Huskers. Nebraska WRs and RBs ran past, around, and through Wildcat defenders at every turn. This was not a Division I defensive outfit: the losses of LBs Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, two-thirds of the Irish Law Firm with returning LB Chris Bergin, proved decisive. What is usually Northwestern’s most disciplined defensive unit, now featuring mostly Bryce Gallagher and Peter McIntyre in place of the departed Fisher and Gallagher the Elder, looked undisciplined in reading gaps and plays, struggled to make solo tackles, and was simply too slow to play Big Ten football.
Too slow. For Big Ten football. In the West Division.
A win over bowl-eligible Rutgers (don’t bother fact-checking that, if you read this at some point in the future) in the only game I could attend in-person was nice, and it happened to be the only game where Northwestern got even passable play out of its quarterback room, a unit so awful I unironically wished we would’ve just become a triple-option or Wildcat-only team mid-season.
Former 5-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson started the season at QB for the Wildcats, having beat out South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski. Johnson was actually pretty damn OK, which let me to give this laughable recap in an appropriately horseshit SMCD:
Northwestern tried to establish the run, could not, and unless you can keep a clean pocket for Hunter Johnson while he’s staring down his first read, you’re not going to have a good time. This is the offense we knew we would be getting after Cam Porter went down with injury, and ultimately it’s not their fault the ‘Cats lost last night. It’s disappointing to see the defense play such a sloppy game and REALLY disappointing that our fifth year kicker can still not consistently hit a straight on 28 yd field goal. But such as life in a rebuilding year without all that production. The schedule is wide open, with Indiana State, Duke (who lost to Charlotte last night), and Ohio ahead. Northwestern is likely a bad football team with “mediocre” as a ceiling, but 6-6 gets you Detroit. Here’s hoping.
Hunter Johnson, it turned out, was not OK! After a 66-yard (on 9/16 passing!) performance against Indiana State, Johnson threw three picks against Duke and got pulled for Andrew Marty, who hurt himself while leading a furious rally from 23 down. More on him in a moment.
That meant the Ryan Hilinski Era had officially begun in Evanston. And OH BOY.
Hilinski never had a prayer playing from behind against Nebraska (25/39 for 256 and 1 TD) and was decent in the win over bowl-eligible Rutgers (don’t fact-check it, just know he was 18/33 for 267 and 2 TDs).
At this point the ‘Cats were 3-4.
Hilinski would not throw another touchdown pass.
The whole season.
After the ‘Cats were choked out on national TV by the Michigan defense—less shame in that—an early scoop-and-score set them down 10-0 to Minnesota before the offense got on the field in any appreciable fashion, Hilinski was pulled mid-drive for Andrew Marty, who threw two touchdown passes in a blowout loss where at one point I’m pretty sure Minnesota subbed in a kid who had been wearing the Goldy Gopher costume, who then ran for a touchdown.
Pat Fitzgerald—to this point a minor player in a story that really ought to focus on how his fucking boneheaded hire of his old coaching buddy, the woefully unqualified NFL failure Jim O’Neil, got Northwestern into this mess of “always being down 7-0” in the first place—opted, that game, to rotate between Ryan Hilinski and Andrew Marty until it was too late.
Hilinski, Marty, and Johnson, on the season, combined over their 12 games to complete 57% of their passes for 2109 yards, 13 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a 110.3 passer rating.
For comparison, in 1982, Northwestern QB Sandy Schwab was 234/416 (56.3%) for 2735, 14 TDs, and 20 INTs for a QB rating of 113.0.
That’s not fair to Schwab and the late 1982 Big Ten Coach of the Year Dennis Green, though, because at least those Wildcats won two fucking conference games. THAT must be why Fitz didn’t win COTY.
Anyway, now we can just pile the losses one after the other, right?
- 17-12 to the second-most fraudulent Iowa team of the last decade.
- A 35-7 strangling by wisconsin where Marty threw three picks and was pulled for Hilinski, who threw another INT.
- Whatever the hell that 32-14 abortion was at Wrigley Field in a game attended by mostly Purdue fans and a few Northwestern fans dumb enough to continue shelling out money to watch football in a dump of a baseball stadium that didn’t have football-ready turf, all sponsored by an athletics department that spent the year emailing season ticket-holders to ask if they’d pay $2000 for a cabana in an updated version of Ryan Field.
- I dunno, they lost HAT, too.
This was the worst Northwestern team I’ve ever laid eyes on, a statement I can make because, happily, I am only 31 years old and, while I appreciate just how bad the Dark Ages were, old timer, you didn’t graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and probably have a decent-paying job now. At least Paul Volcker cured inflation while you were in school—sure those policies worked out in the long run, too.
II. ...OK, it was bad. Anything good happen?
RBs Evan Hull and Andrew Clair were fine.
III. Not even a punter?
I don’t want to talk about the worst special teams until in the Big Ten. Derek Adams was a volume punter and Charlie Kuhbander couldn’t make a fucking 30-yard field goal in what I think is his 10th year of Big Ten eligibility.
Oh, and STC Jeff Genyk is one of Fitz’s buddies, too.
At least they cover punts well.
IV. So will things get better in 2022?
2019 3-star DB Brandon Joseph has entered the transfer portal after totaling 125 tackles, 9 INT and 6 PD during his last two seasons with Northwestern @WildcatReport @rivalsmike https://t.co/cACzwRYZwX— NCAA Transfer Portal (@RivalsPortal) December 30, 2021
Northwestern sophomore S Brandon Joseph, a 2020 All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, announced he was entering the transfer portal and made it rather clear in a follow-up tweet that he was not just testing the waters—he has left Northwestern.
Oh, and he was a captain in 2021.
He’s now at Notre Dame.
Northwestern fans are clearly processing this in their own super-special ways. Some at InsideNU have opted for the understandable (but overstated) idea that no one in the national media caring about Joseph’s transfer is an indication of how far the program has fallen—the national media also thinks Ohio State being good at football is “good for football” and willingly lets Kirk Herbstreit say stupid shit about players not loving the game, so I could give a rat’s ass what their takes are.
There are, I think, a few reasonable takes here outside “He wants to play for a winner,” most of which echo various comments in the linked InsideNU thread above:
- Joseph can boost his NFL Draft stock at Notre Dame. Probably true, though Greg Newsome II and Rashawn Slater just went in the first round 2021 and are balling out for the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers of Anaheim, respectively.
- In the Big Ten, Joseph spends more time stopping the run and less being a ball-hawking safety. Probably true, though a couple dropped interceptions this year—one bad one that cost NU at Nebraska—and the chance to return punts showed Northwestern trying to give him spots to contribute.
- There’s NIL money to be made. While I first rolled my eyes at this...I mean, yeah? It’s likely not the #1 factor influencing someone to transfer out of Northwestern, but absent Pat Ryan sponsoring endorsements for Northwestern athletes, all things being equal it’s tough to fault someone for going where the money is. (That said, those same fist-shakers and also Kirk Herbstreit will find reasons to fault him.)
- The coaching staff lost him. New DC Jim O’Neil—and perhaps Fitz himself—did not mesh with Joseph, particularly in a losing season, and there’s no sign it’ll get better any time soon.
If I were betting, the simplest solution(s) fit(s) best here: Northwestern is bad and will be bad for the foreseeable future, the defense in front of Joseph—who, admittedly, didn’t have a great 2021!—was putrid and will remain putrid under the direction of O’Neil/Fitzgerald, and players can and will make money, now and in the future, much easier at schools that are not Northwestern!
It sucks, but that’s the only reality that Joseph’s transfer exposed. This program is broken, and once again it falls to Pat Fitzgerald to fix it.
V. So...uh...can he?
I had planned for my write-up—”So when do the firings begin?”—in the wake of the loss to Illinois to be my last word on Northwestern until spring:
Losing one HAT is not a catastrophic occurrence — it is losing HAT in such a fashion that reminds you Northwestern is undergoing a HARD reset.
Or at least it needs to.
Where shall we start with the changes?
Should it be OC Mike Bajakian, the offensive coordinator touted as an innovator who looks more and more dependent on an above average quarterback, seemingly unable to dial up a pass beyond the sticks in 3rd and, well, any distance?
Should it be ST coordinator Jeff Genyk? He was Fitz’s LB coach when he played at NU who eventually became a colleague when Fitz got into coaching. Genyk was a failure as HC at EMU and came back to NU as a special teams coordinator, having failed to help kicker Charlie Kuhbander maintain his competence while offering the program...his son, the backup punter who mustered one 32-yard punt today?
Or should it be DC Jim O’Neil, an abject failure at his job who got it in the first place because in 2003-04 he served as a graduate assistant alongside then-LB coach Pat Fitzgerald on a Motor City Bowl-losing Northwestern team?
I have my ideas (doors number 2 and 3!), but the very nature of and reasoning for their hirings (Fitz knows, likes, and will not be told “No” by either) suggests that it’s Bajakian or nothing.
With all credit to good-looking thinker and longtime commenter vaudvillain, there was nary a lead change in a single Northwestern football game this year.
The 2021 ‘Cats sat there and took it.
I don’t know that Fitzgerald is capable of adapting. This man fancies himself Kirk Ferentz minus the quite-so-flagrant nepotism.
I want to give him time to respond, but the cynic in me—I know, you can’t believe it—says it’ll be a combination of social media and NIL. But we haven’t heard from Fitzgerald on Joseph’s because outside the students at the Daily Northwestern and InsideNU, there’s no one in the sports media left to cover Northwestern, and certainly no one chummy enough with Fitz to get a quote out of him. People give a shit when Fitz wins, and next to no one cares when he loses.
And that’s the way he likes it.
I don’t expect a single change in the offseason—maybe another transfer or two of ephemeral significance, plus the return of RB Cam Porter, should inspire optimism that this could be a 4-8 team in 2022. But that’s about it.
Worth noting, for the mouth-breathing Northwestern fans mining this to say “OK, we agree, Fitz should be fired”: no he shouldn’t, you goddamn morons!
But the little bit of pressure new AD Derrick Gragg can leverage on Fitz should now be brought home: losing high-profile transfers and missing bowls in back-to-back seasons—which they’ll likely do in 2022—is unacceptable. There needs to be the whiff of change within the Northwestern program.
There won’t be, though, and it’ll just embolden the stupidest among us.
And by “stupidest among us,” I mean those who (1) want Pat Fitzgerald fired or (2) would pay $2000 for a cabana at a Northwestern football game.
VI. You OK?
And so the rot continues. Here lies Northwestern football, 2021 edition, who lived as they died, in the same mediocre fashion that showed nothing but contempt for the little fanbase that continues to give a shit.
See you all in Dublin for a 45-point loss to Nebraska.
Family obligations now prevent me from going to Dublin. Somehow I think I’ll get over it.
If O’Neil is DC, though, the ‘Cats will still lose by 45. Get ready for 2021, Pt. II. Go ‘Cats.