Good morning, and welcome to the first official article of B1G 2023, Off Tackle Empire’s week-by-week, team-by-team preview of the 2023 Big Ten football season. Going in reverse* order of finish from 2022, we devote one week to each Big Ten team, previewing the general vibe of the program, some coaching chances and position players, and generally what makes that program unique.
That means, in 2023, we start with the Northwestern Wildcats.
The premise used to be simple:
You were at the company cocktail party, hosted by the boss. They invited you for a cigar or taste of some really rare bourbon. As you stepped into their home office or lounge, you saw...
A Rose Bowl ticket stub, framed. A smiling photo with
Pat FitzgeraldKelly Amonte-Hiller. A Waa-Mu playbill signed by Seth Meyers or Zach Braff or David fucking Schwimmer, damnit.
Suddenly you notice the Northwestern helmet on a side shelf, gathering dust.
Your boss catches your eye: “I know what you’re thinking. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Thank God,” you think, “Because I have no clue what Northwestern football did wrong.”
Friend, that is what a Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview is for.
Champions of Ireland.
Do it right...
No. Northwestern was awful. 1-11. Losses to fucking Duke again, then Miami-Ohio and Southern goddamn Illinois.
Northwestern didn’t crack double digits in points scored in a single game in November. Its quarterbacks combined to throw 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions like it’s 1984* again and Sandy Schwab is throwing 2 TDs against 9 picks.
*I was going to say 1990, but even in 1990, Len Williams completed 57.3% of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. That’s how awful this offense is—I have to go back to the 80s to find a comparison. At Northwestern, that’s not a good sign!
Want to impress your boss? Crack a joke about being “Champions of Ireland”. Then leave it there.
Will they fix it?
I have absolutely no confidence that they will.
Take this spring preview of the Wildcats from OTE co-founder Jonathan Franz in 2009:
I’ve been a little fired up since Rivals.com’s Tom Dienhart ranked the Big Ten coaches and lobbed Pat Fitzgerald in behind Rich Rodriguez and Bret Bielema. This, naturally, is because you’d be hard pressed to find any coach in the country who is doing more, with less.
Sure, Fitzgerald bleeds purple — his youthful visage smeared with Evanston sweat and soil from his days as a Nagurski award winning linebacker. But his triumphant return to his alma mater — fast-forwarded by the tragic death of Randy Walker — has given the brains a little more brawn.
Fast forward fourteen years, and Fitzgerald still bleeds purple, but he bleeds it from the donors’ cocktail parties where he laughs with Pat Ryan over a little spilled milk on Dyche Stadium’s unmowed grass.
Or, rather, it’s the kind of referendum like you see in a developing world country or a Georgia district attorney race: at this point, every other candidate’s been disqualified so HERE WE GO AGAIN!
Talk about some positions
Technically, someone did hold Fitzgerald’s feet to the fire: after two catastrophic years, Fitzgerald finally fired completely in-over-his-head buddy Jim O’Neil as defensive coordinator. Despite having NFL Draft talent like Adetomiwa Adebawore and Cam Mitchell on the line and in the secondary, the ‘Cats looked lost, with an overmatched linebacking corps bearing the brunt of the blame.
The Good News: O’Neil has been replaced by former North Dakota State DC David Braun, We’re cautiously optimistic about that, I think.
The ‘Cats bring back some special players in the secondary, with Rod Heard II at cornerback and Coco Azema at free safety, but missing Adebawore—whose name I finally learned to spell from memory like M-I-E-N-T-K-I-E-W-I-C-Z—and Mitchell means there’s work to be done for Braun.
The Bad News: Everything else, basically? There’s been little upgrade at the linebacking corps; we’re left hoping Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller have matured. That’s what Northwestern football once was—developmental—so I guess it’s time to squint and hope and pray that it’s 2009 again. But the Irish Law Firm this is not.
Mike Bajakian is still leading the offense. I’m sure that’s fine.
The Bad News: Northwestern tried 15 quarterbacks in 2022, and almost all of them sucked. Don’t bother fact-checking that.
Also, do-it-all running back Evan Hull is gone to the Indianapolis Colts, and LT Peter Skoronski, having finished his beer and pizza, is off to the Tennessee Titans. Probably not great news for an offense line that already graded out below average in 2022.
The Good News: Brendan Sullivan, the one Northwestern quarterback to almost look competent before getting hurt in 2023, is back.
Even better news? Northwestern went out into the portal and picked up a damn credible alternative, with former Cincinnati Bearcats QB-turned-Eastern Michigan QB-turned Cincinnati QB again Ben Bryant:
In two seasons helming a very balanced offensive attack, Bryant thrived and led his teams to a bowl game.
The balance in Evanston is right there and waiting—Northwestern has come a long way at running back from the days Jonathan Franz previewed in 2009, where Tyrell Sutton gave way to a long litany of running backs who I only think about when I’m drunk: Arby Fields. Scott “Chili Con Carne” Concannon. Jacob Schmidt. Stephen Simmons. Mike Trumpy.
I’m fairly sure that’s just the 2009 backfield, and don’t fact-check this, but Mike Kafka might’ve had more rushing yards than any one of them.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Northwestern’s gone each of the last...eight?...seasons with a clear leader in the backfield: Justin Jackson. Jeremy Larkin. Isaiah Bowser, oft-injured as he was. Evan Hull.
This year, it’s Cam Porter’s turn. The bowling ball, joined by fellow bruiser Anthony Tyus III, should provide the balance that could help Bryant (or Sullivan, it’s an “open competition”, whatever) thrive.
The Bad News: Bryce Kirtz and Ray Niro III. Those are the only Northwestern wide receivers I can name off the top of my head at the moment (to be fair, it’s Finals Week), and I cover this team for fun* and profit**.
The Special Teams
The Bad News: Northwestern has not had a kicker I can count on since Jack Mitchell graduated. That was in 2016.
The Good News: Luke Akers is a pretty solid punter.
Read it and weep:
I mean, in theory that’s a 3-3 start to the season. Rutgers is Rutgers, UTEP is a mid-major coming off a 5-7 season, and Howard...good god, Northwestern, HOWARD?!
Schedule is favorable enough that thinking 5-7 or 6-6 shouldn’t be off the table.
But lately, no one’s done less with less than Pat Fitzgerald.
If you meet
your boss a Northwestern grad...
Don’t mention: Football, administration allegedly trying to suffocate Dillo Day, the city of Evanston.
Do mention: Softball and women’s lacrosse winning the Big Ten championship, a men’s basketball NCAA Tournament appearance, probably the fencing team, how weather’s finally getting nice on the Lakefill, maybe a new Ryan Field someday.