With dominance on the ground and against the run, Northwestern (3-9, 1-8) overcame a bevy of injuries to smash their downstate rivals 29-10 and reclaim the HAT.
After a long season full of disappointments, Wildcat fans, especially those dedicated enough to make the trek to Champaign-Urbana, finally had something positive to hold onto. But what can we learn from it?
As I argued on Twitter, if Northwestern was only going to win one conference game this season, this was the one to take. Does a single victory in a 3-9 season really matter with regards to the future of the program? No, but the seniors (and the rest of the players, of course) deserved it, and to get that win in the final game of the season (and against your rivals, for the fifth time in a row, no less) makes it all the sweeter.
Positive momentum into the offseason is never a bad thing, and when it comes thanks to an absolute whooping of Illinois, driving their fans/writers to takes like this:
If Lovie Smith cannot defeat THIS northwestern team, he will NEVER defeat Pat Fitzgerald as the head coach of the Illini.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) November 30, 2019
No other way to say it:— Robert (@ALionEye) November 30, 2019
They own us.
It really gives fans something to hold onto headed into what promises to be a long and arduous offseason.
Seniors get the job done
Northwestern owned the trenches on both sides of the field in today’s game, and though plenty of younger players made contributions, a few seniors were especially able to make things happen in their final game donning the purple and white.
Offensively, Jared Thomas, the lone member of the Northwestern graduating class who started Saturday on that side of the ball, cleared the way for a powerful rushing attack. As the center and quarterback of the offensive line, the captain kept himself and everybody around him at a high intensity level for 65 carries, paving the way for 378 yards and failing to give up a sack in the few drop backs that Andrew Marty ended up having.
Joe Bergin had three special teams tackles and Trae Williams was solid on the back end in their final games, but the story for the seniors defensively was the tandem of Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens. The duo of best friends, who reunited at opposite ends of the defensive line just a few weeks ago, combined for a whopping five TFLs and wreaked havoc in the backfield all day long.
Goens, specifically, had a career day in his final outing as a Wildcat, adding a pass breakup, a QB hit, and a forced fumble to his already impressive total. Northwestern just beat what had been a relatively impressive Illinois offensive line up front, and it robbed the Illini of the ability to do anything on the ground. That effort was led by two departing linemen, who can forever remember the way they walked off the fields with their heads held high even after a down senior season.
Positive momentum from a clearly improved offensive line
There were some difficulties in pass protection at the beginning of the 2019 season, but once Kurt Anderson’s inaugural group got things figured out in terms of communications breakdowns, the sacks quickly started to disappear. Meanwhile, all season long, even with limited personnel, the run game trudged ahead, with the line getting 100-yard games out of recent wide receiver convert Kyric McGowan, true first year DB convert Coco Azema, and fourth-string (to start the season) QB Andrew Marty.
Illinois’ run defense is bad, but the Wildcats gashed it repeatedly and to a remarkable extent all the same, managing to average 5.8 yards per carry on 65 totes (while also getting into the end zone three times) thanks largely to a general lack of lost yardage and the consistent clearance of the second level.
On the season, Northwestern averaged 4.1 yards per carry to 2018’s 3.1 (4.6/3.9 if sack-adjusted) despite getting neither a few early games from Jeremy Larkin nor a fully-healthy Isaiah Bowser. That’s impressive, and with four out of the five members of the season-ending starting group returning (right tackle seems to be up in the air between Ethan Wiederkehr and Sam Stovall, both of whom saw time after Gunnar Vogel’s injury) things are looking up in the offensive trenches.
Defense gets back to its roots
Excluding the walkover against UMass, and for all of the offensive struggles, Northwestern’s defense had been starting to look like a mediocre unit over the past month-plus. Whether it was a big back or just a relentless running game battering them and medium-deep routes torching the secondary against Minnesota and Indiana, or a fourth-string walk-on QB doing enough to beat them thanks to his young possession receivers (Purdue), the ‘Cats looked like mortals on that side of the ball.
Against Illinois, that changed. The front seven relentlessly attacked downwards on a zone running scheme, with linebackers shooting gaps and not allowing Dre Brown or Reggie Corbin to get to the edge. Mike Hankwitz dialed up pressure at just the right times, getting a few key hits on Matt Robinson, and the secondary, though it looked less than dominant, allowed only 146 yards, forced a completion rate below 50%, and tacked on a pick by A.J. Hampton on the final play.
Though Gaziano and Goens led the way up front and Williams helped anchor the secondary, the other eight starters and just about every contributor off the bench will return next season. A dominant performance like this, shutting one of the stronger units in the Big Ten down completely on the ground and not having to pay for it through the air, will be huge for a young group’s confidence, especially when guys like Greg Newsome II and Samdup Miller get back on the field.
Offensive options continue to emerge
Whoever the new offensive coordinator ends up being, he will have a decision to make under center. If TJ Green decides to try to earn a medical redshirt and return for a sixth year of eligibility, he would have to be the favorite to win the job, but Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith, of course, remain options, and Andrew Marty has now established himself as a contender.
The Wildcats could always look to a graduate transfer as well, but Marty’s emergence as a run-first QB gives the new entrant to the job another option to mull over, at least. Meanwhile, when all of Northwestern’s scholarship RBs are at full strength, they may have more choices than they know what to do with in the backfield if Kyric McGowan remains with that position group.
Superbacks (tight ends now, I guess) are a bit thinner, but receiver has plenty of options as well, even if just about all of them except Lees didn’t do much this season. Regardless, despite an awful offensive season, the cupboard is far from bare for Mick McCall’s replacement, and that is a good thing.