Next up in CornNation’s preview of Nebraska football’s 2019 football opponent is the defending Big Ten west champion Northwestern Wildcats.
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.
What happens when NW comes to Lincoln to play NU?
This poll is closed
Northwestern just keeps finding ways to win in Lincoln. Again.
It’s another typical close matchup between NU and NW, but this time, it’s Big Red getting the W.
Adrian Martinez is busy scoring touchdowns while Northwestern’s players and fans are busy trying to explain why they use a "U" to represent the "Western" part of their name.