X’s and O’s or Jimmies and Joes? I’ve always been a contrarian in that debate because I’ve long felt that coaching is much more important than talent. Nebraska has led the Big Ten’s west division in recruiting nearly every year...but has only had one winning season since Bo Pelini was let go.
Then there’s the counter-example: Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t finished better than 10th in the Big Ten in recruiting rankings going back to 2011, yet NW has played in the Big Ten championship game two out of the last four seasons. Northwestern doesn’t out-talent their opponents, they just out-play their opponents because Pat Fitzgerald out-develops and out-coaches them. It’s why NFL teams keep inquiring about Fitzgerald’s interest in risking a “coach-for-life” position in Evanston and taking a risk for big money in the NFL.
Multiple NFL teams have inquired about Northwestern HC Pat Fitzgerald and, to date, as of right now, he has not agreed to any of the interviews, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 12, 2021
Development isn’t a one year thing, and in 2021, Northwestern only had eight returning starters, meaning that a lot of inexperience players took the field...and unsurprisingly, NW fell to 3-9. (Yes, that’s the same record as NU, but the Huskers did thump NW 56-7, for what it’s worth.)
This year on offense, Northwestern returns eight starters that finished 2021 116th in total offense and 125th (out of 130 teams) in scoring offense. A big reason for that was the inability to replace Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey at quarterback. Five star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson struggled yet again leading to another revolving door at quarterback. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski (6’3” 235 lbs.) started five games, completing 54% of his passes for 978 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions before being replaced by senior walk-on Andrew Marty for most of the rest of the season. Only Hilinski returns, though redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan (6’3” 212 lbs.) is reportedly in the mix despite having not taken a snap in college.
At receiver, junior Malik Washington (5’9 192 lbs.) returns after catching 44 passes for 578 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sophomore Bryce Kirtz (6’0” 180 lbs.) only played five games but caught 19 passes for 203 yards. Sophomore tight end Marshall Lang (6’4” 235 lbs.) caught 11 passes for 68 yards and three touchdowns last season. Illinois transfer Donny Navarro (5’11” 185 lbs.) caught 52 passes for 600 yards in his three-year Illini career.
If Northwestern is going to succeed offensively in 2022, it’ll probably be led by the running backs. Sophomore Evan Hull (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. In limited action in 2019 and 2020, Hull rushed for nearly 495 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry. Redshirt freshman Cam Porter (5’10” 220 lbs.) returns after missing last season; he rushed for 358 yards and five touchdowns late in the 2020 COVID season. Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair (5’11” 202 lbs.) rushed for 349 yards and a touchdown backing up Hull last season.
Up front, Northwestern returns four starters and added graduate transfer guard VIncent Picozzi, who has seen time in 42 games at Temple and Colorado State. Sophomore left tackle Peter Skoronski (6’4” 315 lbs.) earned second team all-Big Ten honors last season. Junior Charlie Schmidt (6’4” 305 lbs.) slides over from right guard to center.
When Northwestern has been good, it’s been the defense that’s led the way, but that wasn’t the case in 2021, as NW finished 12th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (29.0 pts./game) and 13th in total defense (429.5 yards/game). And with only five returning starters on defense, expecting major improvement on defense probably is a reach. Up front, junior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore (6’2” 280 lbs.) totaled 36 tackles including team leading 4.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss in 2021, earning him honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. But the Wildcats will need to replace three other starters, which sent NW into the transfer portal to find replacements. Stanford transfer defensive end Ryan Johnson (6’4” 275 lbs.) started four games in four seasons with 26 career tackles, while junior UMass transfer defensive tackle Taishan Holmes (6’3” 310 lbs.) had 6 starts with 18 tackles the last two seasons.
Likewise, only one linebacker returns from last season: sophomore middle linebacker Bryce Gallagher (6’2” 235 lbs.) who was second on the Wildcats with 89 tackles. NW will need to replace their leading tackler again as well as their fifth, leaving a gap of 209 tackles. Pitt graduate transfer Wendell Davis (6’2” 240 lbs.) might be part of the answer; Davis started five games during his Panther career with 44 career tackles.
Three starters return in the secondary, but the hole left behind by All-American safety Brandon Joseph’s transfer to Notre Dame is huge. Sophomore cornerbacks Cameron Mitchell (6’0” 195 lbs.) and AJ Hampton (5’11” 180 lbs.) were honorable mention All-Big Ten honorees last season. Mitchell had 48 tackles and six pass breakups while Hampton had 40 tackles and 13 pass breakups. Sophomore safety Coco Azema (5’11” 185 lbs.) added 72 tackles and four pass breakups. Northwestern’s pass defense was their strong suit last season, finishing 8th in the Big Ten in pass defense and 10th in pass efficiency defense. With the loss of Joseph, it’s hard to anticipate much of an improvement from that — especially if the new defensive linemen aren’t able to generate more pressure.
Will Northwestern be better in 2022? Probably...but from my perspective, the Wildcats have too much of a gap to make up this season. Improvement in 2022 might mean bowl eligibility. Never count out a Pat Fitzgerald-coached Northwestern team, though.
And never EVER overlook one.
What happens in Dublin?
There’s not nearly enough Guiness to wipe out Husker fans’ pain from a loss to NW.
It’s close, but the Big Red wins a close one.
Irish eyes are smiling on Nebraska’s season opening victory.