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Twelve Days of NU Football

Merry Christmas!

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In the spirit of the holidays, we have decided to count down the 12 days of Christmas with 12 important stat lines from Northwestern football’s 2019 season. If you’d like, feel free to sing along to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas” as you go through.

Happy Holidays!

On the first day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

One conference victory

The best gift of all was Northwestern’s 29-10 conference victory over Illinois, reclaiming the HAT for the fifth year in a row — the ‘Cats’ longest win streak over Illinois since the rivalry began in 1892.

The NU offense was unrecognizable. It dominated every stat category that had burned the unit for most of the season, putting up 433 total yards of offense compared to its season average of 297. The ‘Cats won the turnover battle, which had plagued them all year, and the offense managed to stay on the field for a whopping 41 minutes of play by accumulating 22 first downs.

The win also left some positives for seasons to come. Andrew Marty led the team to a much-needed victory despite his little playing experience. He finished the day going 6-for-10 for 55 yards with a touchdown and an interception; however, his greatest accomplishment was his 30 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Freshman Coco Azema, who started his career on defense, had a standout offensive debut as well. He averaged 17.5 yards a carry and finished with 123 total yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshmen Drake Anderson and Ray Niro added a combined 143 yards to the 378-yard rushing total. Overall, the youngsters’ performances bode well for the hopeful future of this offense.

Finally, the win made the dismal conference performance this season hurt a little bit less. While Northwestern still holds the last-place spot in the West, the team managed to climb the ranks overall to pass Rutgers and tie Maryland. While the season’s outcome still wasn’t ideal, they’re at least better than the Scarlet Knights, and isn’t that all that really matters in the end?

On the second day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Two onside kicks/safeties

Two minor but rare stat lines that Northwestern championed this season were its two safeties and two onside kicks on two attempts. As we saw this season, plays like these are major momentum shifters and some of the most memorable moments from the season.

Northwestern’s onside kicks came from Trey Finison against Wisconsin and Drew Luckenbaugh against UMass. The recoveries were the Wildcats’ first since 2006. Kyric McGowan recovered Finison’s kick in the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin matchup, putting the ball back in NU’s hands at a crucial moment in a tight game. Chris Bergin recovered Luckenbaugh’s (accidental) kick against UMass to set up Ray Niro’s first career score and extend Northwestern’s lead to a whopping 39 points.

Both of this season’s safeties were credited to Joe Gaziano on intentional groundings in the endzone. His pair of safeties were the first NU safeties since 2016, when Gaziano, then a freshman picked up another by decelerating Brian Lewerke at his own goal line.

His first of 2019 was in the second quarter against Purdue. Gaziano forced grounding in the end zone on Aidan O’Connell, resulting in the safety and giving Northwestern the 16-7 lead at half — its first halftime lead since the win over UNLV weeks before. Two weeks later, Gaziano forced grounding in the end zone yet again on Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, which resulted in his second safety of the year and broke the all-time program sack record with 28.5.

On the third day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Three times in which they beat the spread

Coming into this year, Northwestern knew its schedule would be extremely demanding, with six preseason-ranked opponents looming in the first seven weeks of play. Throughout its difficult matchups, Northwestern was able to defy the odds and beat the spread on just three separate accounts this season.

In the Wisconsin matchup, the Badgers were the 24.5-point favorites as the eighth ranked team in the nation. NU was able to keep it close throughout the first half, trailing by just four points at the midway point. They battled throughout the remaining two quarters to only fall by nine to a CFB playoff contender at the time.

Coming off the valiant effort, Northwestern took on Nebraska one week later as a 7.5-point underdog. In a heartbreaking loss, the ‘Cats fell after a last-second field goal by the Huskers, despite keeping the game tied for the majority of the second half. For two weeks in a row, Northwestern had at least proven that they could put up a fight against tough conference opponents.

After a challenging October and early November, Northwestern seemed defeated heading into rivalry weekend against the 8.5-point favorite Illinois. However, the Wildcats dominated the spread and beat the Illini by a 19-point margin. It was a tough year both straight-up and against the spread, but at least NU had their moments.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Four yards per rushing attempt

With a struggling passing game, the offense had to rely on its run game for yardage, first downs and point production throughout the season. Northwestern averaged 4.1 yards per rushing attempt this season, improving from its 3.1 yards-per-rush mark from last year. Additionally, the running back group accounted for 109 first downs, 17 of the 23 touchdowns, outran its opponents 2161 yards to 1643 and had 100 more attempts.

However, rather than relying on a single frontrunner like the past few seasons, Northwestern split the time between eight different players this season — primarily freshman and sophomores.

After Isaiah Bowser sustained an early-season injury, Anderson took over as the starter. Aided by an impressive performance against UNLV and consistent contributions throughout the season, he finished with 154 attempts for 634 yards and three touchdowns on the year. McGowan also contributed throughout the middle of the season and added a standout 79-yard touchdown run against Purdue before sustaining a season-ending injury.

By the end of the season, Evan Hull, Niro and Azema shared a large majority of the stats, all having breakout days of their own. Against UMass, Hull had a career day with 24 attempts for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Niro also had solid performances against both the Minutemen and the Illini where he recorded a combined 101 yards on 11 attempts and a touchdown. Finally, Azema looked great in his 123-yard, one touchdown performance against the Illini. The youth of this group certainly bodes well for the future, as they will continue to improve as they mature.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Five specialists used

Northwestern’s specialists had a significant role at various points this season in the team’s successes and struggles. Five different players contributed to the mix — two punters and three kickers.

For the punters, Daniel Kubiuk led the way early in the year. He averaged 38.31 yards per punt with four punts traveling over 50 yards. He was one of the high points early in the year. However, as the season progressed Andrew David began to appear more and replace Kubiuk. He averaged 36.34 yards per punt including a 66-yard bomb.

The three kickers each had important roles of their own this season. As expected, Charlie Kuhbander attempted all 14 field goals and all 18 extra points, making 10 and 17 respectively. While he struggled at times, he improved his made field goal percentage by 20 percent from last season. First-year Trey Finison played a consistent role on special teams, taking the bulk of the kickoffs. Finally, Drew Luckenbaugh pitched in with a few kickoffs of his own and an onside kick late in the season.

Ultimately, the special teams unit as a whole had its ups and downs but played a crucial role throughout the season.

On the sixth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Six different quarterbacks

The uncertainty at quarterback was the most important and memorable storyline for the Wildcats this season, with TJ Green, Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith, Andrew Marty, Jason Whittaker and Zac Krause all having an opportunity to state their case as Northwestern’s future under center.

Marty was the most accurate and effective quarterback in his five games. He posted a passer rating of 132.73, completed 63.34 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns on the year. However, Marty only threw the ball a total 14 times on the season — only garnering eight more completions than Green had in his incomplete game against Stanford. It was ultimately his success on foot that was most effective for Northwestern. His 52 rushes for 201 yards led to four rushing touchdowns that were crucial in games like the Illinois victory.

Marty did not start to dominate the playing time until late in the season because Smith took the bulk of the snaps in the heart of conference play. He played in eight games, led the team in total yards by a longshot with 760, and threw three passing touchdowns, but also recorded nine interceptions, which became a major setback in his campaign to keep the starting job.

Ultimately, each quarterback faced setbacks in their play this season, and none could define themselves as the clear starter in 2019.

On the seventh day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Seven interceptions/fumble recoveries

The NU defense remains the primary bright spot in an unsatisfactory season as it often carried the offense throughout the season. The defense came up with 14 takeaways on the year — seven in each category.

Blake Gallagher was the leader in the air with three interceptions. He made these crucial plays in three consecutive games against Purdue, UMass and Minnesota, when Northwestern needed it most. The three picks were a career-high for the junior linebacker, as he had only recorded one career interception before this season. The other four came from Paddy Fisher, Cam Ruiz, JR Pace and AJ Hampton.

The fumble recoveries were more even across the board with Joe Gaziano and Travis Whillock as the slight frontrunners with two apiece. Gaziano’s two came in the first two contests of the season and also served as a career high for the senior captain. Whillock’s also came early on against UNLV and Michigan State and tied his career high from 2018. Greg Newsome II, Bryce Jackson and Kyric McGowan all picked up one of their own this season as well.

On the eighth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Eight Lees receptions (in a single game)

Riley Lees took over as the leading receiver for Northwestern down the stretch in 2019. He led all pass-catchers this season with a career-high 51 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns — doubling every other player’s total yardage and tripling their receptions. He holds the season-high for receptions in a game with eight against Purdue that went for 62 yards and a crucial touchdown in a tight matchup — a career high for Lees in single-game receptions.

The struggling receiving corps and passing game relied on Lees in many games this season. In the UMass matchup, he was the only receiver to catch a pass, finishing with seven receptions for 76 yards, and in the win over Illinois, he caught five balls for 47 yards including a 34-yard touchdown from Marty.

Not only was he an instrumental member of the receiving unit, but he also became a crucial asset on special teams with a career-high combined 426 yards on kick and punt returns, including a 50-yard long against Nebraska.

On the ninth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Nine Gaziano QB takedowns

Gaz was the star of Northwestern football this season, consistently looking like the best player on NU’s roster. In 2019, the senior captain led the team, recording nine total sacks for a loss of 56 yards — doubling any other player’s total. He finished the season tied for 20th in the nation in total sacks as the center-point of NU’s stellar defense.

His performance this year completed his collegiate career with 30 total sacks and the all-time program sack record. To add to his outstanding 2019 campaign, Gaziano also charted 49 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two safeties.

On the tenth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

Ten forced fumbles

Northwestern’s defense continued to add to its impressive resume this season with 10 forced fumbles. The defensive line was a persistent force across the course of the season, terrorizing its opponents and providing opportunities for the offense.

Seven players contributed to the fumble total this season. Again, Gaziano was the leader with three. Fisher added two of his own in a category he excels in. Whillock, Ruiz, Trent Goens, Leota and Azema all charted one apiece as well.

The efforts from the defense were crucial in negating the nine lost fumbles from the offense this season. The defense set the offense up for success when it needed it most and even saved it in an occasional game-deciding situation.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

11 Newsome pass breakups

Greg Newsome II was by far Northwestern’s most consistent cornerback this season, finishing with a team-high 11 pass breakups in an incomplete campaign. After barely avoiding a redshirt his freshman year, Newsome appeared in nine games as a sophomore before sustaining a season-ending injury. The loss was a crucial one to a secondary that needed the young cornerback desperately.

However, his short 2019 season was a strong one. He was the only Wildcat to record double digit pass breakups, almost tripling his total from the season before. Newsome recorded a career-high four breakups in a single game against Michigan State, and had a standout performance against Iowa, where he charted nine tackles and two passes defended.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Northwestern football gave to me…

12 players with sacks

Northwestern’s powerhouse defensive line this year not only showed incredible poise against top Big Ten competition but displayed impressive depth, especially down the stretch of the season. Twelve different Wildcats recorded a sack this season, the most since 2015. The 12 players accounted for 24 sacks, which resulted in 134 yards lost.

The list includes, of course, some of the standout leaders of the NU defense this year. Gaziano leads the way with nine, followed by Alex Miller with four. Fisher, Chris Bergin, Whillock, Sam Miller, Earnest Brown IV, Jake Saunders, Goens and Joe Spivak all added to the total. First-years Eku Leota and Adetomiwa Adebawore also stepped up nicely, especially towards the end of the season, and contributed to the team’s impressive feat.

After missing out on the action in his true freshman season, Leota appeared in ten games this year. He was the third-leading player in the category with 2.5 sacks for a loss of 13 yards on the season, including a strip sack against Purdue.

Adebawore appeared in eight games in his true freshman season, primarily as a backup DE once Brown IV sustained his mid-season injury. He recorded his first career sack against Indiana, a much-needed play that resulted in a six-yard loss. Ultimately, with the bulk of this strong Northwestern defensive line graduating this year or the next, the performances from Leota and Adebawore certainly bode well for the future.