For the past three seasons, it’s taken the Wildcats a good four-to-five weeks into the season to wake up and start playing their best football. In 2016, they started 1-3 before reeling off three straight conference victories in October. The year after, NU started 2-3 only to end the season with eight straight victories including the bowl win over Kentucky. In 2018, the same team that got embarrassed by Duke and Akron at home in September made the Big Ten Championship Game. That was a thing that happened.
If Northwestern wants to recreate last season’s magic and seriously compete for another B1G West title, it can’t afford to start slow like it often tends to do. NU will arguably face five of its toughest opponents in its first six games (at Stanford/Michigan St/at Wisconsin/at Nebraska/Ohio St), and if Fitzgerald doesn’t have his team ready to go as has been the case in past season, this team is simply going to get exposed in an ugly way.
Northwestern’s 2019 schedule is a gauntlet. The two game’s that will most likely affect the Wildcats’ fate in the West division come in back-to-back weeks, and both of them are on the road in tough places to play in Lincoln and Madison. The beginning of the season should make for some marquee and exciting matchups, but there is a very realistic chance of Northwestern starting the season with a 1-5 record if the team doesn’t come out of the gates ready to play in August.
Punter? Is there one?
By far the biggest gap the Wildcats have is the lack of a punter. After graduate transfer Jake Collins exhausted his eligibility last season, Northwestern failed to have a clear replacement named. Punting is a massive part of Big Ten football and especially important to Northwestern, and the lack of a clear starter worries me. While the Wildcats do have Freshman walk-on Trey Finison who is listed as a kicker/punter, and as much as I’d like to see Joe Gaziano punt, I’m nervous this weakness could be exposed early and often.
It may seem like I’m beating a dead horse here, but this season’s success will hinge on whether the offensive line can protect whoever is playing quarterback, and I’m not sure that’ll happen. The line loses three starters in Blake Hance, Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, and, while new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson is killing it on the recruiting trail, he’s still somewhat of an unknown as the line coach in 2019. For what it’s worth, I expect Anderson to be better than Adam Cushing in that role, but it’s not the best situation for him in year one given the turnover on the line. The Wildcats allowed more sacks than any other Big Ten team last season, and now three of their best linemen are gone.
Whether it’s Hunter Johnson or TJ Green taking snaps at quarterback, I think it’s a fair assumption that the offense will be a tad more conservative and limited schematically than past years (at least early on) because of the inexperience at quarterback. This puts even more responsibility on the line to hold up its end of the bargain and make things easier on a first-year starter, even if it’s Johnson with his above-average speed.
Football is a game won and lost in the trenches, and Pat Fitzgerald often says as much, frequently mentioning the offensive line as the biggest individual determining factor in his team’s success. There’s a lot we don’t know about Northwestern’s offense heading into the season, and the O-line is at the top of the list. That seems like it should be concerning.
Hunter Johnson’s adjustment and schematic fit into Mick McCall’s offense
This is a big one, folks. Big enough that we did an entire roundtable about it. Coaches need to be able to set their players up for success, and Hunter Johnson is a rare specimen for offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
Clayton Thorson averaged fewer than 120 passing yards per game and tossed only eight touchdowns during his rookie campaign, per NUSports.com. Of course, Thorson made things happen with his legs, but McCall kept the chains on the then-freshman and made his job little more than game manager.
The question is if McCall, entering his 11th year on staff, will rev up the engine and throw in some kinks with Johnson at the helm and Bowser beside him. While it might seen like this is his chance to do so, the play caller likes to be conservative, and with three new offensive lineman; a new superback; and a new wide receiver, it seems unlikely that the air raid will descend upon Ryan Field this fall.
This is still a defense-first team, and though there are question marks on both sides of the ball, I have more confidence in the defense to figure things out than I do in the offense. We have seen McCall get creative before in the instances when he implemented the two-quarterback system with duos Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian and Colter/Dan Persa. We’ve also seen some wildcat formations and the occasional trick play work, but the play calling is overwhelmingly conservative. So with so many new offensive pieces and the monotonous playcalling, how much will Johnson be allowed to do?
How does NU follow up a historic season?
This isn’t necessarily my biggest question, but I figured I would pose a more big picture question than the rest of our staff. Northwestern is in uncharted territory after winning its first Big Ten West title. In previous seasons, the question for the Wildcats has been how can they overcome Wisconsin and Iowa to win its first division title. Last year, the team answered that question, and now there are bigger expectations for Northwestern.
The ‘Cats have broken a barrier that fans have eyed for years, and now Northwestern will have to prove that it wasn’t a one-time occasion. This will be a significant season to determine whether NU will be able to build on its success. Northwestern has a tough schedule and a new quarterback, but the former didn’t stop them last year. If Fitz’s team is able to have similar success to the year prior, Wildcats fans should be licking their chops with the recruiting classes that are coming in, knowing the team is built for success.
Will the ‘Cats have a run game?
In the weeks after Jeremy Larkin’s injury, Northwestern’s leading rushers posted yardage totals as followed: 36, 12, and 23. To say that these were rough outings would be a severe understatement. However, after this brutal stretch, Northwestern seemingly found their answer in the form of freshman running back Isaiah Bowser. The true freshman went on a dominant 6 game stretch to close the season averaging 122 yards per game. Two stats the make it seem like these were two completely different teams during the season - hence forcing the question, which team will we see come fall?
Will it be the offense that controlled the clock and ran efficiently? Or will it be the team that lost the battle at the line of scrimmage consistently? With highly touted recruits on the offensive line, Bowser and the rest of the backs should have an easier time dictating the flow of the game. The success of the offensive line in addition to that of the running back group will have mirroring effects on Hunter Johnson. It is of the utmost importance that the run-game makes life easier on the new quarterback. Forcing Johnson into obvious passing situations as compared to easy third-and-shorts will make a world of difference for the offense. Northwestern’s success lives and dies at the young feet of Isaiah Bowser and the presence of the O-line.
Will the run defense continue to impress?
In 2018, Northwestern was a solid all-around team that relied on late-game execution, general luck, and the slim advantages that they did hold over opponents to succeed in a variety of close-game scenarios. The most potent of those advantages stemmed from a run defense that was elite both in terms of getting important stops and limiting big plays. The Wildcat defense, for the most part (excluding Devine Ozigbo and Nebraska’s impressive performance), owned the trenches defensively, and that often set the tone.
This season, though they return two leading tacklers in linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, NU loses experience in Nate Hall and the cornerstones of their run defense in Jordan Thompson, Fred Wyatt, and Ben Oxley, their three top defensive tackles against the run.
It seems unlikely that the Wildcats, with their heavy losses, will match the dominance of 2018. But the jobs of the potential replacements, namely the Miller brothers, against the run are still of significant import. If run defense flips from a strength to the weakness, it will be tough for Northwestern to make up for the difference in other areas and have success commensurate to their ability level.