In 2021, Northwestern will play just one more football game: the newest rendition of the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy — affectionately referred to as the HAT — in Champaign, Illinois this Saturday.
After the Wildcats’ most recent loss to the Purdue Boilermakers at Wrigley Field dropped NU to 3-8, Pat Fitzgerald’s team was eliminated entirely from bowl game contention, marking just the second time in seven years that Fitz & Co. won’t play a postseason game at a neutral site.
In terms of moral victories, there is a considerable amount on the line on Saturday. With a win over the Illini, Northwestern would even the all-time rivalry record at 55 wins (notwithstanding five ties). Moreover, the ‘Cats could proliferate their win streak over U of I, which currently sits at six-straight victories.
Since 2015, NU hasn’t struggled much with Illinois. Even in 2019 — a year where the ‘Cats had, possibly, less continuity at quarterback than they currently do — Northwestern emerged victorious over the 6-5 Illini courtesy of 123 rushing yards from Coco Azema — yes, you read that right, the Wildcats’ current starting safety — 111 more from Andrew Marty and 56 from Ray Niro III. Quite the fever dream indeed.
However, the tenor to this year’s HAT matchup might not be so similar.
This Northwestern team appears lifeless week in and week out — truthfully, the Wildcats get dominated in every single facet of the game, punched in the mouth over and over until they slowly fade into a slumber. Frankly, I’m not sure if this team is good at anything. Any time something appears promising, an ill-advised interception or a wholly improbable play puts an end to any and all momentum, gone for the remaining 55 minutes of action.
The scariest part for Fitzgerald and fans worldwide? Northwestern could be just as bad, if not worse, in 2022.
One positive element of Saturday’s clash in Champaign is that it should foreshadow a sizeable chunk of how Northwestern will appear on the gridiron next season. Down Sam Gerak, typical right guard Charlie Schmidt gets his second opportunity to start at center, and Ben Wrather will get the nod at right guard, positions that each could occupy next season. Further, without Samdup Miller, sophomore Sean McLaughlin is poised to see lots of playing time at defensive end.
It is a net positive that Schmidt, Wrather and McLaughlin can assume their presumptive 2022 roles a game or two early. But that just scratches the surface in terms of Wildcats that will depart.
Next season, the only quarterbacks left on Northwestern’s roster will be Ryan Hilinski, who has severely underwhelmed in his first year in Evanston, Carl Richardson, who has seldom seen playing time outside of garbage-time situations, sophomore Zac Krause and freshmen Cole Freeman, Jasper Stratton and Brendan Sullivan. Hilinski would, theoretically, be the favorite to start, but that is far from an awe-inspiring QB room, to say the least.
Moreover, the 2022 ‘Cats will presumably be without Stephon Robinson, Jr., who is tenth in the Big Ten in receiving yards, alongside fellow receivers J.J. Jefferson and Berkeley Holman, right tackle Ethan Wiederkehr, defensive linemen Joe Spivak, Jeremy Meiser, Jeffery Pooler, Jr. and Trevor Kent, linebackers Chris Bergin and Peter McIntyre, and specialists Charlie Kuhbander, Derek Adams and Peter Snodgrass.
In other words, Northwestern is very likely losing its best wide receiver, two of its five starting offensive linemen, five of its top eight defensive linemen, two of its starting linebackers and all of its starting specialists.
On top of that, umpteen Wildcats are returning from what appear to be significant injuries. Josh Priebe and Bryce Kirtz were both wounded late in the year. How ready will each be for NU’s first game on August 27? Also, Cam Porter and Zach Franks have seemingly been rehabbing for substantial periods of time, but it’s unclear how much Fitzgerald will deploy them early on as they return to game action.
It doesn’t end there: the ‘Cats could also lose defensive backs Brandon Joseph and A.J. Hampton to the NFL Draft. Both of those declarations seem unlikely given their individual struggles in 2021, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.
There definitely are silver linings. For one, Fitzgerald will return the likes of Peter Skoronski and Evan Hull, both of whom have been staples of NU’s offense this season. Additionally, some could argue that “addition by subtraction” could occur given the subpar performances of players such as McIntyre and Kuhbander.
The larger issue, though, is that Northwestern will be down many of its elder leaders and, frankly, program faces. Take the lovable former walk-on Spivak as an example. Who will be there to energize the ‘Cats when he departs? Fitzgerald will have to rely upon youngsters like arguably never before.
In 2021, Northwestern was among the teams returning the lowest percent of its production from the prior year in the entire country. Even then, the ‘Cats still did boast a number of seniors and graduate students. In 2022, this team will be significantly more inexperienced. Good luck throwing redshirt freshmen and sophomores to the wolves against vaunted Big Ten opponents.
Whenever I engage in conversation with classmates about the future of Northwestern football, students say, Oh, we’ll be good next year. It’s an even year.
Yes, Fitzgerald has traditionally performed better in years ending with even numbers — see 2020, 2018 and 2016. But this roster is nowhere near those talent levels entering next season — not, at least, without considerable transfer acquisitions.
I don’t say all of this to dissuade you from buying tickets to the Aer Lingus College Football Classic or donning a No. 51 jersey every Saturday. Rather, it’s a thought I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time that I feel Northwestern fans must be adequately prepared for.
Maybe the Wildcats, buoyed by a confident Ryan Hilinski, powerful Evan Hull and sprawling Blake Gallagher, upset the 4-7 Illini in Memorial Stadium, momentarily putting these anxieties to bed.
What’s far more likely, however, is a game previewing what could be an even more arduous season ahead.