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B1G 2022 // Northwestern Wildcats Football Cocktail Party Preview

Did I mention Pat Fitzgerald’s best days were behind him? Probably?

NCAA Football: Ohio at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Northwestern Week.

Just a year after a Big Ten West title-winning season, your favorite club, the Northwestern Wildcats—and this is a technical, Medill School of Journalism-approved term—shat the bed, going 3-9 (1-8) in 2021.

It wasn’t great! It wasn’t fun! I kind of hope we can talk about more optimistic things at some point in 2022, but I don’t feel good about that, either!

So what happened in 2021?

Honestly—and I don’t say this just because I want to forget or because it’s 2:30 in the morning and I’ve been reading student essays for 6 hours straight—I barely remember. I wanna say, at some point, I watched the first four games...but that might be a lie?

There was a new defensive coordinator, Jim O’Neil. We were unsure about it, because he hadn’t coordinated a college defense since 2005 (and that one was fucking Towson!) and also wasn’t very good in the pros as a DC! GUESS WHAT HAPPENED TO THE NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE!

There was another transfer quarterback, Ryan Hilinski. We were unsure about it, because relying on another new face behind an average-at-best offensive line seemed...dicey.

Thump and Green Akers warned on the podcast that we were due for a “down year” for Northwestern. And yet only one writer picked them below .500—and only 26 of 228 voters picked the ‘Cats to go 5-7 or worse in 2022! We openly talked about how Northwestern would have to “ugly up games” in 2021 to repeat as Big Ten West champions.

And oh boy, did they ugly shit up.

Season hadn’t even started yet and the ‘Cats were down RB Cam Porter, almost-hero of the Big Ten Championship Game, out with a knee. Hunter Johnson would be the starting quarterback. Yet we felt OK!

Kenneth Walker III ran all over the ‘Cats in the curtain-raiser, but turns out he was pretty good at football. Slight worries about O’Neil’s defense, but hey, maybe OC Mike Bajakian really had Hunter Johnson rounding into form!

Beat Indiana State. Whatever.

Lose to Duke in Durham. At this point, it’d be weirder if they didn’t. Sure, Hunter Johnson threw approximately 14 interceptions that game and Andrew Marty nearly stumbled and bumbled his way into an effective relief appearance before getting injured and giving way to Hilinski. But that’s just September Northwestern, right?

Beat Ohio. Evan Hull ran for approximately 285 yards. Don’t fact-check it, we’re in a post-truth economy. Or out of baby formula. One of the two. Maybe both.

And then Nebraska. OH BOY NEBRASKA. This is the first game I recall really watching: I sat in the basement, beer in hand, wife knowing “He cares about this one, I’ll leave him alone.”

It was over by the end of the first quarter. Another long first play allowed by O’Neil’s defense, another clueless linebacking corps that seemingly wore cement shoes, another offense hamstrung by a 21-0 deficit but hardly lighting shit up itself.

I watched the dead ‘Cat bounce at Homecoming the following weekend when the ‘Cats manhandled a pathetic Rutgers squad. (Yes, Rutgers fans, if you’re reading this, no one gives a shit about your feel-good bowl. You were the second-worst team in the Big Ten after Indiana, and I stand by voting Northwestern 12th in the Power Poll.)

And then the wheels feel off: 33-7 at Michigan where the ‘Cats were close at halftime until the Wolverines took the gun off their foot. Another titanic hole to Minnesota because why NOT fumble deep in your own territory right off the bat? A 17-12 loss to Iowa because Pat Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz have a gentlemen’s agreement to play close games and harbor disdain for organized labor. 35-7 to wisconsin. 32-14 to Purdue at Wrigley Field in a fucking joke of a game played on a shit field.

Fuck the Chicago Cubs and their fanbase and their stadium with a pony keg of warm Old Style, which is how every glass of it ever has been served.

What was I saying?

Oh yes, a 47-14 loss to BERT and the Fighting Illini, because of course.

———be right back, gonna go grade 4-5 essays now that I’m in a reaaaaal shitty mood———

Alright. That MNW is gone. Super-sorry to the students who just failed my class, but I have more important stuff to do, like give 184 internet strangers something to argue about in an ineffective commenting platform.

Evan Hull was great running the ball until he wasn’t, but damn if he didn’t give it his all every time he touched the rock. Ditto for Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III. Stefon Robinson was a fun one-year rental at WR; if only someone could’ve gotten him the ball with consistency.

There were no defensive standouts save Adetomiwa Adebawore, he of 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. I guess Brandon Joseph was one, but he transferred to Notre Dame and also mentioned he doesn’t blame O’Neil but it wasn’t a good fit, so—

Thankfully, things should be better in 2022.

RIGHT?

2022: A Referendum on Pat Fitzgerald

This header is a lie. No such referendum is currently possibly, because Pat Ryan or Dan Ryan or whichever Ryan owns a company and is not an expressway in Chicagoland likes Pat Fitzgerald and will continue cutting checks for him to be the football coach.

But if we were to treat 2022 as a referendum on “Can Pat Fitzgerald turn this shit around?”, a major factor in that calculation should be whether he can keep up with the game of college football and adapt his team and his coaching to the current standar—

Cool.

So where do we go from here? The landscape of college football is changing, and a coach whose program lives on a knife’s edge—owing to academic and programmatic standards we Northwestern fans are very proud of!—is not willing to keep up with the times.

And while, at an institutionally conservative place like Northwestern, “keeping up with the times” might not seem like something baked into the expectations of the program, it is something each of Fitzgerald’s two predecessors managed to do! Gary Barnett brought black jerseys, “Expect Victory”, and a whole lot of motivational tactics along with a red-assed defensive coordinator named Ron Vanderlinden and a “no-star” linebacker from the South Side named Pat Fitzgerald to Evanston. Randy Walker brought “basketball on grass” to the Big Ten and, yes, lucked his way through some of 2000 but also changed the way Northwestern, for the next 15 years, approached the offensive side of the ball.

Pat Fitzgerald inherited that, harnessed it, and briefly put his own spin on it that allowed at least me—and probably, Northwestern fans reading this, many of you!—to roll your eyes at the anti-union posturing or media antagonism because he does care deeply about Northwestern University and is one of us and wants to make the University proud and builds on that past success.

And he’s done that! Look at this table!

Northwestern Football Coaches in the Semi-Modern Era

Coach Years W-L B1G W-L B1G Titles Bowl W-L
Coach Years W-L B1G W-L B1G Titles Bowl W-L
Ara Parseghian 1956-1963 36-35-1 22-31-1 0 0-0
Alex Agase 1964-1972 32-58-1 26-40-1 0 0-0
John Pont 1973-1977 12-43 10-31 0 0-0
Rick Venturi 1978-1980 1-31-1 0-26-1 0 0-0
Dennis Green, 1982 Big Ten Coach of the Year 1981-1985 10-45 7-37 0 0-0
Francis Peay 1986-1991 13-51-2 9-38-1 0 0-0
Gary Barnett 1992-1998 35-45-1 23-33 2 0-2
Randy Walker 1999-2005 37-46 24-32 1 0-3
Pat Fitzgerald 2006-Present 109-90 64-68 0 5-5

Do you know what to do with that information?

I’m seriously asking.

Because I don’t.

I have graduate degrees and the ability to reason and logic my way out of many a tight spot, and yet present me with Northwestern football and my brain turns to absolute Jell-O.

Pat Fitzgerald will simultaneously continue bringing this program to new heights and also crashing it into the ground. It’s a paradox that might not actually make sense, but it’s where we’re at in Evanston.

So...uh...players?

Yeah, probably! Hilinski’s back at QB, most likely—more on who could replace him later this week, but both Marty Party and Hunter Johnson are gone—with a full complement of running backs, from Hull and Clair to Tyus and the triumphant return, I think, of Cam Porter. There’s a question of who Hilinski will throw the ball to, but I have never had a reason to doubt Bryce Kirtz before, mostly because we’ve never talked. Genson Hooper-Price has a fun name, too. There are no superbacks still, meaning I will continue my Harold Stassen-esque question for the firing of Mike Bajakian on grounds so flimsy not even three teens could make a meme presidential campaign out of them.

I would prefer not to think about the defense, as it continues to make me sad. Brandon Joseph is gone, but there’s a victory, friends! After a whole month of not listing ANYONE at nose or defensive tackle, the OurLads depth chart for Northwestern football finally acknowledges the three heftyboi transfers on the defensive line—from UMass, Stanford, and Indiana State. I feel better already. There’ll be changes to the linebacking corps, of course, with Bryce Gallagher needing to make a BIG jump at the MIKE spot and folks like redshirt frosh Mac Uihlein a source of optimism for the DJiest among us.

The strength of the defense, once again, should be in a secondary that is experienced! The ‘Cats return both CBs, Cam Mitchell and AJ Hampton, along with S Coco Azema. That’s good! I feel better already.

Even better? TRANSFER PUNTER. TRANSFER KICKER. It’s P/K Luke Akers, formerly of UCLA and yes, the son of that Akers, plus K Jack Olsen, who transferred from Michigan State. Odds are at least one of them is decent, which would be great if Northwestern could at least get in field goal range.

The expectation is 3-9 (1-8) but I wouldn’t put money on it just yet.

Let me show you why:

Schedule

May God have mercy on our souls.

Welcome to Northwestern Week.