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 continues as the season finally got going.
October: The ‘Cats start hot
After all of the controversy and talk surrounding whether or not the Big Ten would play a football season, it was officially announced in late September that Ryan Field would see action in 2020. All of a sudden, the ‘Cats, along with the rest of the conference, were hustling to prepare for their first game in late October.
While early October was somewhat quiet, we learned just eight days before Northwestern’s first game that four Wildcats, in addition to Rashawn Slater, would be opting out of the 2020 season. On October 16, it was announced that DL Samdup Miller, QB Aidan Smith, S Travis Whillock and QB/TE Jason Whittaker would not be on the roster.
Miller and Whillock opting out meant the ‘Cats would need to fill big holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. It wasn’t immediately clear who would be tasked to fill said gaps, but we would soon find out as Northwestern opened the season against Maryland on October 24.
Coming into the season, many weren’t sure what new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian would bring to Northwestern. Additionally, nobody knew how the Wildcats would fare after a 3-9 season in 2019. ESPN’s FPI model predicted that the ‘Cats would be the seventh-best team in the Big Ten and had them as the 25th best team in college football. Predictions were all over the place, but no one really saw the result against Maryland coming.
The Terrapins came into this year as projected bottom feeders of the Big Ten, and as such, the ‘Cats opened as 11-point favorites. They covered that line with ease as they pounded Maryland on the ground en route to a 43-3 victory.
The Terrapins got off to a quick start on their opening drive, but ultimately settled for a field goal after a good hold by the Wildcats. These were the Terps’ only points of the game. The ‘Cats responded with a beautiful 14-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in six points from Isaiah Bowser, demonstrating just what Bajakian was bringing to the coaching staff.
The run game was dominant throughout the night. Nine different players combined for 325 rushing yards on 53 carries, with Drake Anderson leading the charge, going for 103 yards on 10 carries. The run game also accounted for four of the Wildcats’ five touchdowns, with the only other one coming on a seven-yard pass from Peyton Ramsey to the aforementioned Bowser.
Speaking of Ramsey, the grad transfer from Indiana had a solid debut for the ‘Cats. He completed 23 of his 30 pass attempts for 212 yards and one touchdown. In addition to his impressive passing, Ramsey rushed for 47 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, proving that he could do it with his legs as well.
After their blowout victory over the Terrapins, Northwestern headed off to Iowa City for a date with the Hawkeyes. Iowa came into the game sitting at 0-1 after a loss to Purdue. Yet, just 15 minutes into this game, it was clear the Hawkeyes were a much tougher opponent than Maryland.
NU opened the game with a three-and-out, and Iowa followed suit with its own. However, Kyric McGowan muffed Iowa’s punt, setting the Hawkeyes up on Northwestern’s seven-yard line. From there, it took just one play for them to score, as Spencer Petras connected with Brandon Smith to make it a 7-0 ballgame.
From there, Iowa stayed hot. More sloppy play from the ‘Cats gave the ball right back to the Hawkeyes after Bowser fumbled on a run up the middle. The Hawkeyes capitalized again, as Tyler Goodson scampered into the endzone from 15 yards out. They ended the first quarter up 17-0, but after that, it was all Northwestern, and the ‘Cats were even able to close the score to 20-14 by halftime.
In the second quarter, the Wildcats scored two touchdowns, both of which came on 16- and 14-play drives that chewed 6:23 and 5:44 off the game clock, respectively. Offensively, senior Jesse Brown scored two of Northwestern’s three touchdowns.
Defensively, the ‘Cats didn’t allow a second-half point. As previously mentioned, someone had to step up and fill in the gap that Whillock left in the secondary. Against Iowa, we learned that player would be Brandon Joseph, as he picked off Petras not once, but twice, with one of them coming in the fourth quarter. Late in the fourth, Blake Gallagher sealed the deal with a pick of his own, locking up the win for the ‘Cats.
With the season just beginning, it was already clear that Northwestern was performing better than many expected. Through two games, the Wildcats were 2-0 and had already surpassed their conference win total from 2019. Things weren’t going to get easier for them, however, as they prepared to face Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State throughout November.