While many are hopeful Northwestern football will improve upon its dismal 2019 campaign, the uncertain nature of this upcoming season leaves NU fans worried they may witness another forgettable below-.500 year. Here’s a look at three reasons why Northwestern football may not be able to replicate its 2018 success and instead find itself repeating 2019.
The offensive line lost key pieces this offseason
Back in August, expectations were high for the offensive line, which returned the bulk of its key contributors after a solid 2019 performance. The line was arguably the strongest unit of Mick McCall’s offense, and with one of the best recruiting classes in Northwestern O-line history, it was set for another strong year in 2020, even without starting center Jared Thomas who graduated last spring.
However, then COVID hit, and the Big Ten’s season was postponed to the spring, which prompted preseason All-American left tackle Rashawn Slater to conclude his time with the program and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. While the Big Ten eventually reverted to a later fall start, Slater stayed true to his initial decision, and the ‘Cats will be without one of the nation’s best offensive linemen for 2020.
The loss of Slater and Thomas leave major voids that younger, less experienced linemen will have to fill. Sam Stovall’s medical retirement only puts more pressure on the position. Sam Gerak, Nik Urban, Gunnar Vogel and Charlie Schmidt will anchor the line this year with Ethan Weiderkehr and others filling in and pieces sure to shuffle throughout the season. With star recruits like Peter Skoronski coming in, they could see some time as well, but it is uncertain how much they will contribute.
Ultimately, every player on the O-line will be forced into a larger role this season to fill the gaps left by their star players, and with likely a new quarterback under center, it will be crucial they create enough holes and clean pockets. However, the lack of experience in starting roles and the departure of key leaders could cause significant challenges for Kurt Anderson’s crew.
The passing game could look a lot like it did in 2019
Northwestern’s passing game was about as bad as it gets last season, with a 50 percent completion rate, an average of 117 passing yards per game, 15 interceptions and just six touchdowns. The weak performance ultimately placed Northwestern 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in offensive S&P+. Entering 2020, the Wildcats desperately need to improve upon their 2019 performance but may not have the necessary weapons to do so.
While the quarterback room is bound to be better this year with the addition of Peyton Ramsey, it’s still largely uncertain whether or not he will live up to expectations. A week before the season last year, expectations were through the roof for Hunter Johnson, who ultimately fell flat last year — a similar story could befall Ramsey.
But even more notable than the quarterbacks, the receiving corps has not changed much since last year and must make significant strides in 2020 if the ‘Cats want to avoid another disaster. The loss of Bennett Skowronek was detrimental last season, and then he transferred to Notre Dame. Riley Lees was the group’s bright spot but only totaled 51 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns — far from what the Wildcats need from their leading receiver. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, JJ Jefferson and Kyric McGowan will be expected to produce in significant ways this fall.
While offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian noted sophomore wideout Malik Washington has impressed in camp, it is still uncertain whether his performance along with those of the other returners will be enough to jumpstart the offense.
The elephant in the room
Without a doubt, the biggest concern facing Northwestern and every college football team this season is the ongoing pandemic and how COVID-19 could disrupt or derail the season. While Northwestern seems to have successfully contained the virus through effective testing and distancing measures thus far, things become tougher with more contact and then traveling to play games.
The Big Ten is able to homogenize testing for the teams, which is good, but the athletes are part of greater college communities, each of which appear to be handling the virus differently. Northwestern has recorded under 100 total cases since students returned in September, while other schools like Wisconsin, which has totaled over 3,000 cases, have seen major outbreaks. If players aren’t careful they could be exposed to community spread, and as the Big Ten noted, if campuses reached a certain level of cases, the entire operation could be shut down.
Now having watched the SEC slowly begin to crumble with tests coming back positive left and right, Big Ten fans have every right to worry that this season could end almost as quickly as it began.