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Reviewing the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats haven’t been good this season...but you know that will change at some point this season.

Northwestern v Wisconsin
This is what happens when you misspell your team’s name on the uniforms and helmets.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Sometimes the recruitniks get it wrong.

A funny thing happened at Northwestern this summer, where the expectations were that five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson would slide in as NW’s starting quarterback, and be an upgrade over four-year starter Clayton Thorson. Except as preseason practice unfolded, TJ Green’s name kept coming up... and in fact, got his name listed first in (with an “OR”) on the opening depth chart.

Johnson ended up starting the season opener against Stanford, but struggled. Green replaced Johnson and played better until suffering a season ending foot injury just after halftime. Johnson finished the 17-7 loss to the Tree, completing just six of 17 passes for 55 yards with two interceptions and a lost fumble.

After a week two bye, Johnson played slightly better, completing 12 of 25 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in a 30-14 victory over UNLV. Against Michigan State, Johnson arguably played his best game, completing 15 of 26 passes in a 31-10 loss. However, those 15 completions only gained 88 yards; only two of those passes gained more than seven yards. Last Saturday against Wisconsin, Johnson only completed 10 of 21 passes for 59 yards before leaving with a knee injury. Junior Aidan Smith (6’2” 215 lbs.) replaced Johnson and completed eight of 20 passes for 99 yards. After an inauspicious start, misfiring on his first three passes with an interception returned for a touchdown, Smith closed the game with two fourth quarter touchdown drives.

It’s unclear whether Johnson or Smith would be Northwestern’s starter this week, and frankly, Johnson’s knee may not be a major factor in the decision. Northwestern’s offense ranks 126th out of 130 teams in total offense (292.8 yards/game) and 128th in scoring offense (15.5 points/game). The Wildcats best offensive stat? NW ranks 77th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 151.3 yards per game. Isaiah Bowser injured a knee against Stanford, and has been limited ever since. Against Michigan State and Wisconsin combined, he’s carried the ball 19 times for 49 yards. Drake Anderson has been the primary ball carrier the last few weeks, rushing for 305 yards and three touchdowns this season and averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Northwestern’s anemic passing game took another hit when senior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek missed last week’s game and underwent surgery for an undisclosed injury this past week; head coach Pat Fitzgerald wouldn’t elaborate on the injury except to say that Skowronek would be out for “at least a month”. That leaves sophomore JJ Jefferson with six catches for 107 yards (but all two receiving touchdowns) and junior Riley Lees (6’0” 201 lbs.) with 12 catches for a whopping 91 yards as NW’s top two receivers.

Northwestern’s defense hasn’t been inept like their offense; they do rank in the middle of the Big Ten in most statistical categories. The Wildcats are best against the pass, where they rank fourth in the Big Ten, giving up 173 yards per game. Northwestern was particularly strong last week, holding the Badgers to just 243 yards and one offensive touchdown. (The Badgers scored twice on defense last week.)

Junior safety Travis Whillock (6’1” 200 lbs.) leads the NW defense with 37 tackles this season, followed by linebackers Chris Bergin, Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher with 33, 29 and 28 tackles respectively. Defensive lineman Alex Miller and Joe Gaziano each have 2.5 sacks this season to lead the Wildcats up front. Cornerback Trae Williams has been mostly out of the lineup this season due to an injury suffered against Stanford; redshirt freshman AJ Hampton has had a rough time filling in for Williams this season.

While Northwestern has struggled this season, it’s still a team that Nebraska needs to take seriously. At some point, their offense will get untracked, and last week, Wisconsin struggled to move the ball against the NW defense. With the memory of last year’s collapse in East Boulder still somewhat fresh, this should be a good week to clean up the mistakes in NU’s game, as the Wildcats are the type of team that capitalizes on the gifts their opponents give them. It’s also important to note that Northwestern has led in every game in Lincoln in the closing seconds since NU joined the Big Ten. (Que the RK3-to-1 Hail Mary highlights.)

After the jump, a look back at the preseason preview of the Northwestern Wildcats

Next up in CornNation’s preview of Nebraska football’s 2019 football opponent is the defending Big Ten west champion Northwestern Wildcats.

Wait. What?

Yep, it happened in 2018. Northwestern did their usual thing in playing pretty much smart football in division play. Non-conference play was a different matter entirely, losing at home 39-34 to Akron along with losses to Duke and Notre Dame. But against the Big Ten west? A perfect 6-0.

One could make the argument that Northwestern won the Big Ten west by default last season. Purdue committed a really stupid penalty to keep Northwestern’s game winning drive alive. Iowa fumbled the ball away on their final two drives of the game. Wisconsin had to start a true freshman quarterback who hadn’t played yet.

And Nebraska gave up a ten point lead, including a 99 yard game-tying touchdown drive with seconds left, finding yet another way to lose a game. All Northwestern had to do was not screw up when it mattered, because everybody else in the Big Ten west was doing it for them. That’s the hallmark of a Pat Fitzgerald team; Northwestern just plays a smarter brand of football than just about everybody else.

In 2019, Northwestern must replace a four-year starting quarterback who didn’t miss a single game in his career. But as Nebraska learned last year, it’s entirely possible to upgrade quarterback play when replacing an NFL draft pick. In Northwestern’s case, Clayton Thorson is off to join the Philadelphia Eagles, setting the stage for sophomore Hunter Johnson (6’2” 210 lbs.) to take over. Johnson transferred from Clemson a year ago after watching Trevor Lawrence shoot past him in spring practice on the quarterback depth chart. (Months later, Lawrence zoomed past established starter Kelly Bryant, who’ll finish his career at Missouri.) Johnson, a five-star recruit in the 2017 recruiting class, completed 78% of his passes in mop-up duty at Clemson. Senior T.J. Green (6’2” 215 lbs.), son of former Kansas City Chief Trent Green, appeared in nine games last season, completing 56% of his passes.

After a neck condition forced Jeremy Larkin to retire early last season, the Wildcats went through an ineffective running back-by-committee approach before finally pulling the redshirt off of Isaiah Bowser (6’1” 216 lbs.). In the second half of the season, Bowser rushed for 734 yards in 6 games after the committee combined for just 64 yards in the three previous games. Senior John Moten IV (6’0” 209 lbs.) rushed for 204 yards and three touchdowns, but was most effective as a backup. Redshirt freshman Drake Anderson (5’11” 180 lbs.) should see some touches this season; his father Damien ranks second on NW’s all-time rushing charts.

Five of last season’s top seven receivers return this season, with senior Bennett Skowronek (6’4” 211 lbs.) taking over as the featured receiver. Skowronek, who’s started the last 27 games for the Wildcats, caught 45 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns last season. Junior KYric McGowan (5’10” 198 lbs.) caught 16 passes for 283 yards and two scores, one of which was a 77 yard bomb against Michigan State. Sophomore JJ Jefferson (5’10” 165 lbs.), who caught the game-tying touchdown against the Huskers, is certainly due for more playing time after catching 10 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman. The hole at Northwestern’s “superback” position, which everyone else calls a tight end, could be tougher to fill in 2019. Cameron Green, who caught 57 passes last season had to take a medical retirement this spring, throwing the depth chart into a big unknown. Junior Trey Pugh (6’4” 235 lbs.) is presumed to be the next in line, but he missed spring practice due to injury.

Only two starters return from an underperforming offensive line in 2018. Junior tackle Rashwan Slater (6’3” 314 lbs.) has started every game in his career; he’ll move from right tackle, where he was a third team all-Big Ten honoree last season to the right side. Senior center Jared Thomas (6’4” 294 lbs.) has started 18 games in his Northwestern career. Redshirt freshman Sam Stovall (6’4” 285 lbs.) has been penciled into the depth chart as a presumed starter at right guard; the other presumed starters in junior left guard Nik Urban (6’3” 293 lbs.) and junior right tackle Gunnar Vogel (6’6” 285 lbs.) have only appeared in 13 games combined thus far. This line will definitely be a work in progress this season.

While Northwestern will have to replace five starters, the Wildcats do return most of their top contributors on defense with their top five tacklers in 2018 all back. Up front, senior defensive end Joe Gaziano (6’4” 275 lbs.) returns after earning second team all-Big Ten honors for the second year in a row. Gaziano’s 7.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries led the Wildcats. At the other end, junior Samdup Miller (6’3” 260 lbs.) has started every game in his Northwestern career; his 53 tackles led the defensive line last season. The Wildcats do have to replace both defensive tackles, but unless juniors Jake Saunders (6’2” 296 lbs.) or Joe Spivak (6’0” 294 lbs.) make a charge for a starting spot, Northwestern will have to depend on athleticism instead of physicality on the interior.

Junior linebackers Paddy Fisher (6’4” 245 lbs.) and Blake Gallagher (6’1” 224 lbs.) return to anchor the Wildcats defense. Fisher, the middle linebacker, earned third-team all-American honors last season; he’s at 229 tackles in his career with two years of eligibility left. Gallagher led the Wildcats last year with 127 tackles last season at weakside linebacker, earning himself a spot on the third team of the all-Big Ten list. Junior strongside linebacker Chris Bergin (5’11” 213 lbs.) played extensively as a reserve last season with 51 tackles in four starts.

The biggest loss on the defense from last season is all-Big Ten cornerback Montrae Hartage. Sophomore Greg Newsome (6’1” 182 lbs.) filled in late in the season when Hartage was injured. He showed flashes of promise as a true freshman with four pass breakups; a full offseason should do wonders for resolving the mental mistakes that sometimes plagued him. Senior Trae Williams (6’0” 212 lbs.) has been a three year starter; last year, he was off and on the field due to injuries. Junior safety JR Pace (6’1” 200 lbs.) was Northwestern’s more productive defensive back last season; he led the secondary with 82 tackles, seven pass breakups and four interceptions.

Northwestern won’t be anyone’s pick to win the Big Ten west ; in fact, with an opening schedule of road games at Stanford and Wisconsin along with home games against UNLV and Michigan State, it’s not out of the question that Northwestern arrives in Lincoln with three losses. But if quarterback Hunter Johnson lives up to his recruiting evaluations, Northwestern should be a bowl eligible team. And if nobody else wants to win the Big Ten west again in 2019, Northwestern will be more than happy to return to Indianapolis.