After winning its fifth consecutive game of the season, this time over Wisconsin, the Wildcats are now the odds-on heavy favorite to represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship. The Big Ten defensive showdown was Northwestern’s most impressive victory of the season. Here are five takeaways from Northwestern’s huge win over Wisconsin.
Mike Hankwitz’s defense is the best in the Big Ten and maybe the country
Aside from Fitz scolding of Joey Galloway in his post-game interview with Molly McGrath, he also praised longtime defensive coordinator and Broyles Award favorite Mike Hankwitz. Fitz said, “Mike is the coach’s coach. There’s so many other names that get talked about about great defensive coordinators in the country. Mike Hankwitz never gets mentioned, and I hope he becomes a household name.”
Hankwitz’s unit was rocking on Saturday night. Remove Cam Ruiz being burned by Chimere Dike for the Badgers’ first touchdown, and the Wildcat defense played a flawless football game. The unit gave up seven points, held Wisconsin to 3-of-16 on third down efficiency and took away the ball five times with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The defensive line pitched in its best performance of the season with Eku Leota notching another sack in his quest to become the Wildcats’ premier pass rusher while Earnest Brown IV built off of one of his best games of the season against Purdue with another solid game. Adetomiwa Adebawore was also a standout with five quarterback hurries. The linebacking core was spectacular yet again, as Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin combined for 34 tackles, one sack, four TFL, a QB hurry, a pass deflection, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Lastly, the secondary was lights out. Greg Newsome finally notched an interception while Rod Heard, Cam Ruiz and A.J. Hampton all did their job as well. But the star of the game was Brandon Joseph who had two crucial interceptions and did his best impersonation of Godwin Igwebuike’s three-pick performance against the Badgers in 2014.
Peyton Ramsey gets it done when Northwestern needs it most
For the second consecutive week, Peyton Ramsey connected with Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman on a touchdown drive before halftime giving Northwestern a seven point lead. However, this one was even more impressive than last week’s, as Ramsey finished the drive by dotting a perfect pass over RCB’s outside shoulder for a 25-yard touchdown.
The grad transfer quarterback did not play a perfect game by any means, but he did exactly what Northwestern needed from him to win the game. He did not turn the football over. He fed the ball to Northwestern’s playmakers at receiver. He made the throws when Northwestern needed them most. And he finished with over 200 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Although he had a lackluster game rushing the football, he is capable of picking up yards with his legs as well. But most importantly, he is yet to lose a single game as Northwestern’s starting signal caller.
Northwestern’s holes entering the season have been resolved
Entering the 2020 football season, Northwestern’s primary holes were its secondary, defensive line and wide receivers.
As stated above, the secondary and defensive line have been fantastic. While most knew Newsome as one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten entering this season, no one knew he would play at this caliber of lights-out defense. More importantly, Newsome’s teammates have been outstanding. Ruiz, Hampton and Rod Heard have all dramatically improved from last year, thus not allowing opposing quarterbacks to pick on NU’s cornerback opposite Newsome. Lastly, Joseph, who replaced Travis Whillock, has far exceeded any preseason expectations playing like one of the best safeties’ in the country.
The defensive line has been equally impressive. Adebawore and Leota are cornerstones of the defensive line going forward, paving a seamless transition from Joe Gaziano’s graduation and Samdup Miller’s decision to opt out.
Finally, it appears the wide receiver room finally has its first true number one receiver since Austin Carr. RCB has been outstanding the past few games while Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan are more than capable secondary receivers. And there is plenty of optimism going forward with underclassmen Bryce Kirtz and Malik Washington waiting in the wings.
Northwestern still hasn’t played its best game
Fitz and many players harped on this point during press conferences leading up to the game. Northwestern was going to need its first complete game of the season to beat Wisconsin. While the ‘Cats played a near flawless game defensively, both facets of the offense still were not clicking.
Peyton Ramsey made enough throws for the Wildcats to win in lieu of the run game not working well. Isaiah Bowser did not receive a carry after fumbling on the goal line early in the game, and the Wildcats finished the contest with 23 carries for just 24 rushing yards. If anything, this should instill hope and confidence going forward because the ‘Cats best football is still ahead.
Northwestern will not need perfect games to beat the remaining opponents on its schedule like Michigan state, Minnesota and Illinois but will need one to hang with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.
Northwestern controls its own destiny, which is a testament to Fitz
The fact that Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern at 5-0 and on the verge of the program’s second Big Ten Championship appearance in the past three years is nothing short of remarkable.
There is not a single college football coach in the country that could run this program better than Fitz. He truly is the perfect person for the job and is on the brink of turning Northwestern into what many felt Jim Harbaugh had turned Stanford into.
Going forward, Northwestern simply needs to win two of its final three games to secure a berth in the Big Ten Championship, presumably against Ohio State.
The ‘Cats have the weakest part of their schedule remaining in Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, three teams that are a combined 5-9 in 2020. While Fitz will surely be focusing on simply going 1-0 each week the rest of the way, the ‘Cats have a legitimate shot at finishing the 2020 regular season undefeated for the first time in program history.