A football season is always full of surprises, and Northwestern received contributions from up and down the roster, even from players the coaching staff may have never envisioned on the field. In 2018, several players made names for themselves. Here are five breakout players from Northwestern’s Big Ten West championship season:
As we’ve already chronicled, Bowser was never supposed to play this season. Forced into action after the ground stop following Jeremy Larkin’s retirement, he burst onto the scene in glamorous East Piscataway when NU rode him to a comeback win over Rutgers. The freshman doesn’t have game-changing speed, but he showed shiftiness and power, and gained maturity as the season went on. He averaged 78.7 yards per game and scored six touchdowns, coming up with huge, 100-yard games versus Wisconsin and at Iowa, helping this offense make timely plays to help capture the Big Ten West crown. Bowser, just a sophomore next season, will have plenty of big-game experience and has plenty of potential to achieve over the next three years with Hunter Johnson beside him in the backfield.
Paddy Fisher received All-Big Ten Honors this season, but he wasn’t the guy who cleaned up the most in the middle of the defense. Gallagher led the entire conference in tackles, with 127, earning himself Third Team All-Big Ten Honors from the media. He made double-digit tackles in six games with a career-high 13 tackles in games against Duke and Illinois. His performance this season was a huge step up from last season, when he played limited snaps as a freshman and made 33 tackles. He put an exclamation point on his breakout year with an interception in the Holiday Bowl that keyed the Wildcats’ crazy 28-point third quarter.
It was a long-awaited debut for Whillock, a high school teammate of Paddy Fisher, who sustained a season-ending injury his redshirt freshman year and didn’t play a snap his first two years on campus. It took him a few games to be healthy this season, but once on the field he was a reliable stalwart for Pat Fitzgerald and played a critical role as safety in the bend-don’t-break defense. In his first-career start at Iowa, he recovered a fumble, and while his solid play festered underneath the headlines, he took over the front page at Minnesota when he made 15 tackles, 11 of them solo, as the ‘Cats defense stifled the Gophers. He also recovered a fumble during the magical stretch of the third quarter of the Big Ten Championship.
The junior superback certainly wasn’t the flashiest player on offense, but the local product was one of Clayton Thorson’s most trusted targets when he wasn’t blocking. Sporting some of the most reliable hands on the team, his 483 receiving yards represents an uptick from 170 a year ago. He was also the recipient of one of Thorson’s best throws of the season, a 21-yard dime touchdown at Michigan State. But more than any of these stats indicate, he was the safety blanket and gained situational yards. On third down, or when the offense was backed up and needed to just gain back a few yards to set up a manageable next down and distance, Cam Green was the short-to-intermediate go-to guy. Also, he made one of the biggest plays of the season to bring the ‘Cats within three in the aforementioned magical third quarter of the Big Ten Championship. He’ll be back for one more season, and Hunter Johnson will likely be finding number 84 when he needs help.
This list would not be complete without Chad. The video assistant-turned walk-on made headlines this season when he saw his first career action and then made a highlight block at Rutgers. Aside from just making the team and earning the honorable No. 1 jersey before the season, he played a key role as a running back in 2018. The senior made timely plays in the Nebraska game to keep Northwestern’s season alive, and he picked up a critical third down against Iowa to seal the Big Ten West title. His size — or lack thereof — and story made him a fan favorite from symbolic player to on-field contributor. Hanaoka will likely continue onto medical school and eventually become Pat Fitzgerald’s doctor, once joking that he wants to go into geriatrics.