With Northwestern’s bounce-back season, we have some extra time to write about how the team exceeded expectations in 2020, taking an in-depth look at how everything unfolded for the ‘Cats. From the supposed-to-be first game in Happy Valley to the Citrus Bowl victory, we examine Northwestern’s unprecedented 2020 season.
We’re going to have a piece on each month of the year, detailing the circumstances surrounding the team. The series begins with a deflating start when Northwestern’s season was initially canceled.
August and September: The lowest of the lows
Can you imagine if Peyton Ramsey never had an opportunity to don the purple and white this past fall?
On August 5, 2020, already several months into the pandemic with endless debate on whether college sports should be played, it seemed Ramsey and Northwestern were in the clear as the Big Ten released an alternative 10-game conference slate schedule.
As such, the Wildcats were scheduled to face Penn State on the road in the first week of the season and would finish in a matchup at home against the Michigan Wolverines.
Still, even in releasing the schedule, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren stated, “This epitomizes fluid situation...Just because we release a schedule doesn’t mean we are going to play.”
Sensing the decision-makers’ general uneasiness and non-commitment to a season, college football players around the country rallied to avoid a canceled season on August 10.
Trevor Lawrence, the star quarterback for Clemson, tweeted #WeWantToPlay with an accompanying list of demands relating to player empowerment and COVID-19 protocols that needed to be met by the NCAA in order for the players to return to action.
Lawrence’s message gained steam across the country, but just one day later, on August 11, the Big Ten officially announced that the conference would postpone all fall athletic events.
Many of the powerhouse Big Ten schools were furious. Nebraska spearheaded the movement to play fall football as head coach Scott Frost committed to “play no matter what.” Ohio State followed the Huskers lead by stating the program was “exploring all options,” and Penn State head coach James Franklin echoed a similar sentiment by saying that he has a responsibility to his “players and their families to exhaust every opportunity and option that’s out there.”
Kevin Warren, of course, shot down the rumors and said that Big Ten schools could not play football in the fall and remain a member of the Big Ten conference.
While many worked on bringing back the 2020 season, Northwestern reverted back to the basics. According to WNUR’s Kevin Sweeney, once the season was officially canceled, new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian made lemonade out of lemons. Bajakian felt players on the team had a tremendous opportunity to refine their fundamentals with the installation of the new offense already being finished.
Northwestern backup QB Andrew Marty compared the period of time, where it appeared there would not be a 2020 season, to recruiting camps when he was in high school stating “there were little things that we really got to take advantage of with that time.”
As time progressed, the Big Ten dealt with a plethora of criticism as other Power 5 conferences such as the SEC, ACC and Big 12 all decided to play a 2020 season. The situation escalated, as President Donald Trump took to Twitter on September first to advocate for the Big Ten playing a season.
He tweeted that he “had a very productive conversation with Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, about immediately starting up Big Ten football. Would be good (great!) for everyone - Players, Fans, Country. On the one yard line!”
Trump’s motives were as clear as day. In a few months, voters would elect the next president of the United States, and he wanted to gain support from the Big Ten’s swing-state voters.
Regardless of the president’s actions in the movement to bring back Big Ten football, conference officials finally caved just 36 days after the initial postponement of the season on September 16.
Citing new medical protocols including access to “daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition,” the Big Ten unanimously decided to bring back Big Ten football for the 2020 season. The start date of the 2020 season would be October 24, weeks after other conferences were slated to play, but still early enough to allow Big Ten schools to compete in the College Football Playoff and bowl games.
Northwestern football players rejoiced. Star CB Greg Newsome II said that “as soon as we got that news — I live with a few players on the team — we were so excited. We had in our mind that maybe we’ll play in January or even later than that, so when I got the news, I was so excited.”
Nearly all members of the team shared Newsome’s enthusiasm, but the Wildcats would be without senior OL Rashawn Slater who had already announced he would forgo his senior season and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft after the Big Ten initially postponed.
His decision opened the door for many Wildcat teammates to follow his lead which subsequently opened holes in NU’s roster. With star freshman OL Peter Skoronski joining the program, Slater’s absence felt maskable. But, with more departures on the horizon, the Wildcats 2020 season outlook appeared grim.
Fortunately for NU, Pat Fitzgerald had a few more young student-athletes waiting on their opportunities to impress in the season opener against Maryland.