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Reviewing the 2020 Northwestern Wildcats

A huge upgrade at quarterback plus a salty defense are the reason the NW Wildcats can contend again the West division.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Nebraska at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You could certainly blame 2020 when you notice that Northwestern is now tied for first place in the Big Ten’s West division along with Purdue. But that’s not necessarily a 2020 fluke with Northwestern returning 19 starters plus upgrading the talent at quarterback with Patrick Ramsey transferring from Indiana. Clearly miffed that the Big Ten’s cross-division scheduling meant that he would only face the Huskers once, Ramsey took a graduate transfer opportunity to join the Wildcats. He’s completing nearly 71% of his passes for 342 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Ramsey has also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown, averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Six different Wildcats in total have scored a rushing touchdown this season. Running backs Isaiah Bowser has rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown this season. Drake Anderson followed up a 103 yard day against Maryland with a seven carry, one yard performance against Iowa last Saturday. Against Iowa, senior Jesse Brown (5’11” 200 lbs.) scored two touchdowns on ten carries, gaining 21 yards.

Riley Lees, last year’s leading receiver has been injured, with NW head coach Pat Fitzgerald declining to comment on his availability for this Saturday’s game. Lees caught three passes for 28 yards against Maryland. Kyric McGowan picked up the slack in Lees’ absence, catching five passes for 64 yards against Iowa. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowen leads the Wildcats with eight catches for 83 yards.

Those offensive numbers don’t really explain why Northwestern has already won twice as many conference games as last year. Six interceptions by the NW defense does. That ranks 21st nationally, which may not sound impressive until you note that every team above Northwestern on that list has played five to eight games. On an interceptions-per-game average, Northwestern is a full interception a game ahead of second-place Arkansas, who has ten in five games.

Redshirt freshman safety Bryce Jackson (6’1” 185 lbs.) intercepted two second half passes against Iowa to earn Big Ten co-freshman of the week honors. Jackson took over the starting safety spot vacated when Travis Whillock opted out of playing this season. Jackson is fourth on the team with 11 tackles. Joining Whillock in opting out in 2020 is defensive end Samdup Miller. Senior linebackers Chris Bergin (SAM), Paddy Fisher (MIKE) and Blake Gallagher (WILL) lead the Wildcats in tackles with 16, 15 and 15 respectively.

It looks like Northwestern is back to playing Northwestern-like football again, and that’s been an issue for Nebraska at times. The Wildcats play smart, disciplined football that really forces the opponent to make mistakes. Nebraska has the talent to win this game convincingly, but that’s only if Northwestern doesn’t outplay the Huskers.

Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Northwestern Wildcats.

If there’s a team in the Big Ten that’s been akin to Nebraska like kryptonite is to Superman, it’s probably Northwestern. Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, seven of the nine games between these schools have been one score affairs, with four of them won on the final play of regulation or in overtime. I dare say that while Nebraska holds a 5-4 advantage in Big Ten games, money wagered on Northwestern has probably paid off seven times.

Nobody is going to accuse Northwestern of being the most talented team on the field; the Wildcats’ recruiting rankings have been in the bottom half of the Big Ten for 18 straight seasons dating back to 2001. What Northwestern does is out execute you and wait for you to make a mistake that they can capitalize on.

Or at least that was the case up until last season.

The expectation last spring and summer was that five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson (6’2” 216 lbs.) would take over as the starting quarterback and take Northwestern to an even higher level. That, however, did not happen. Reports all preseason indicated that senior walk-on T.J. Green (6’2” 210 lbs.) was neck-and-neck with Johnson, and once the season began, you could see why. Johnson struggled in the season opener against Stanford, and gave way to Green until Greeen suffered a season-ending foot injury in the first half. Johnson returned, but never really fell into any sort of groove. Add in injuries that limited him to just six games, and Johnson’s sophomore season ended up in mediocre fashion. Johnson completed just 46% of his passes with just one touchdown and four interceptions, and rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown. Senior Aidan Smith (6’2” 215 lbs.) ended up taking most of the snaps at quarterback last season, completing 50% of his passes for three touchdowns and NINE interceptions. Junior Andrew Marty (6’3” 227 lbs.) ended up starting against Illinois, completing 14 of 22 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. With T.J. Green receiving an NCAA hardship waiver, the entire quarterback room returns which would seem like a bad thing until you realize that offensive coordinator Mick McCall was replaced after last season by former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. The quarterback room also received a huge addition with the arrival of graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey (6’2” 216 lbs.) from Indiana. Last season, Ramsey completed 68% of his passes for 2,454 yards, 18 touchdowns with just five interceptions. It’s safe to assume that Ramsey (or perhaps T.J. Green) will probably start the season on top of the depth chart.

Junior Isaiah Bowser (6’1” 215 lbs.) should bounce back from an injury-riddled sophomore season where he only managed to play in five games. As a freshman, Bowser rushed for 866 yards and six touchdowns in helping to lead the Wildcats to the Big Ten championship game. He topped the century mark in rushing yards three times as a freshman against Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Sophomore Drake Anderson (5’11” 190 lbs.) played well in early season games against UNLV (141 yards) and Michigan State (91 yards, mostly in garbage time), but saw his playing time and contributions dwindle as the season progressed until getting 23 carries against Illinois in the season finale. gaining 87 yards. If healthy, presume Bowser will be the main ball carrier in 2020.

When Bennett Skowronek’s leg injury ended his season in week three, many probably assumed he’d take his medical redshirt and return in 2020, not expecting him to transfer to Notre Dame. That leaves senior Riley Lees (6’1” 200 lbs.) as the primary returning receiving weapon in 2020. Lees caught 51 passes (three times more than anybody else on the NW roster) for 430 yards and two touchdowns last season. Senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (6’2” 203 lbs.) caught 17 passes for 188 yards. Obviously, the receivers will be the beneficiary of improved quarterback play, though you do have to wonder how much of the responsibility for the poor passing offense should actually fall on the receiver corps.

The strongest position on Northwestern’s offense is the line, where senior Rashawn Slater (6’4” 315 lbs.) returns to preseason All-American acclaim. Slater started at right tackle as a freshman and sophomore before switching to left tackle last season. Senior right guard Nik Urban (6’3” 305 lbs.), senior right tackle Gunnar Vogel (6’6” 300 lbs.) and junior left guard Sam Gerak (6’3” 291 lbs.) also return.

Northwestern’s defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in both total and scoring defense in 2019. With nine returning starters, the expectation should be that the Wildcats will be better. But up front, replacing three year starter Joe Gaziano, NW’s all-time sacks leader, at defensive end will be a big question. Senior Earnest Brown IV (6’5” 270 lbs.) might be that guy. Brown’s 2019 season ended after six games due to injury, but as a sophomore, he was second on the NW defense with four sacks and 7.5 total tackles for loss. Senior Samdup Miller (6’3” 270 lbs.) is a three year starter who also had his 2019 season cut short by injury. As a sophomore, Miller was fourth on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5; he totaled a career high 14 tackles against the Huskers.

The entire linebacking corps returns for Northwestern, led by senior middle linebacker Paddy Fisher (6’4’ 246 lbs.) who has started every game in his career. A three-time honoree on various all-Big Ten lists, Fisher totaled 89 tackles last season. Senior weakside linebacker Blake Gallagher (6’1” 235 lbs.) is a two-year starter that led the Wildcats last season with 91 tackles. Senior strongside linebacker Chris Bergin (5’11” 215 lbs.) added 86 tackles.

Northwestern returns a mostly-intact secondary from last season, with senior safeties Travis Whillock (6’1” 200 lbs.) and J.R. Pace (6’1” 205 lbs.) leading the way. Pace has started 26 straight games for the Wildcats while Whillock earned third team all-Big Ten honors with 78 tackles last season. Junior cornerbacks Cameron Ruiz (5’11’ 180 lbs.) and Greg Newsome (6’1” 180 lbs.) have started part-time throughout their NW careers.

If you assume dramatic improvement on offense based on competent quarterback play and a better running game, it’s easy to see improvement with 19 returning starters. Perhaps that’s why Phil Steele picks Northwestern to bounce back from last place last season to finish the 2020 season in third place in the Big Ten’s west division based on the currently announced schedule. When a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team has an abnormally awful season, it’s probably a safe bet that they’ll bounce back in a big way.