Northwestern’s disastrous football season came to a close last month with six consecutive losses, beginning a long offseason in which there appear to be more questions than answers.
The biggest question of them all, though, is where does Northwestern go from here?
The program was in this same position just two years ago following a 3-9 season with abysmal quarterback play, although many now realize the 2019 Northwestern team was just a capable game manager away from contending for a Big Ten title.
However, the Wildcats of 2021 were more than just a quarterback away.
While having to watch the atrocities of the Northwestern offense this season, many in the fanbase and community started to take a look forward at what the future under center might look like. With Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty graduating, only Ryan Hilinski returns to the quarterback room with meaningful experience. Even though the South Carolina transfer led the team in passing yards, Hilinski’s first year with the program was not all that it was anticipated to be. The sophomore threw just three touchdowns to four interceptions while showing major inconsistencies in his accuracy.
Although Hilinski has only spent one year with the team and could very well develop into a starting-caliber quarterback for the ‘Cats, a lot of talk among the Northwestern faithful has consisted of looking for the next starting quarterback via the transfer portal. Inside NU’s own Bradley Locker has written two fantastic pieces about the likelihoods of highly-touted passers in the portal coming to Evanston.
Even I’m guilty of this, having tweeted out a horribly-drawn jersey swap of Ohio State-to-Texas transfer and former five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers donning the purple and white, despite the incredibly unlikely odds of him doing so.
Even though the jersey swap was finger-drawn on Snapchat in about 15 minutes in a completely sarcastic sense, it echoed the feeling that a lot of us Northwestern supporters have come to adopt: we need a transfer quarterback to be successful.
Following Hilinski’s commitment in May, Inside NU published a piece written by then-solo Editor in Chief Dan Olinger that posed the question on whether or not transfer quarterbacks were the new way forward for Northwestern. After Ramsey led the ‘Cats to the Big Ten Championship game and a transfer commitment from a player who was highly-ranked in high school followed, it seemed like the future was bright, and the idea of hopping transfer-to-transfer seemed like a valid proposal.
The article essentially outlined an “if/then” scenario. Per Olinger:
“If Hilinski struggles and loses the starting spot and Northwestern only manages to be a .500 team that’s again defense-dependent, hitting the recruiting trail and looking for a long term solution for the program is the way to go. However, if Hilinski wins that job early on, keeps NU afloat with something around an 8-4 or 9-3 record and can return to Evanston as a senior to do it again, it begs the question — should the ‘Cats be a transfer quarterback oasis in the college football landscape?”
It’s important that we keep this in mind as we look towards the future. Sure, the 2019 team was 3-9, but it had the pieces to succeed. The defense was relatively average amongst its Big Ten competitors, and the season provided valuable experience to a unit that made the leap to one of the nation’s best in 2020. On the offensive side, the ‘Cats fielded the second worst total offense in the conference, but had a decent rushing attack than averaged 180.1 yards per game. The receivers were also solid, although they had no one that could accurately throw to them.
The 2021 Northwestern team, despite sporting the same record as its 2019 counterpart, is nothing like that team. The Wildcats of this season were absolutely atrocious, scoring a Big Ten-worst 16.6 points per game while allowing 29 per outing on defense, good for the second-worst average margin of victory/defeat in the conference. The passing game was as horrendous as it was two years ago, but this time, it didn’t have an above average — or even average — defense to bail it out. Instead, it had a defense that allowed 213.3 rushing yards every contest, often putting the game out of reach before the offense had even hit its third drive.
This team is more than a Peyton Ramsey away from contending. So what now?
That all depends on how Pat Fitzgerald feels about Hilinski. If Fitz is confident that the QB can make a leap in his second year in Mike Bajakian’s system, he’ll clearly be the guy for 2022 and possibly 2023. If he isn’t, the team should look to solve its woes behind center in-house.
While talk around the fanbase mostly revolves around finding a good passer out of the transfer portal, we often forget that there are already five quarterbacks that Northwestern has itself recruited on the Wildcats’ roster, as well as recent commit Jack Lausch, who will arrive ahead of the 2022 season. All five are either listed as first-years or sophomores, with only Carl Richardson having seen any time on the field.
Unless Hilinski makes that huge leap, the Wildcats are better off developing the talent that they already have in the building. The team — while not ready for contention right now — has loads of talent among its underclassmen, building blocks that could potentially get the team right for 2023.
Under Pat Fitzgerald, the program has largely seen more success with quarterbacks who have had several years to start. To prove this, I point to the most successful stretches under the longtime head coach, where several of the quarterbacks developed not just into capable starters, but NFL draft picks.
In Fitz’s first year as head coach in 2006, the Wildcats struggled to a 4-8 record with the combination of redshirt sophomore C.J. Bachér and redshirt first-year Mike Kafka under center. Bachér spent the next two years starting, leading the ‘Cats to a .500 record in 2007 and an 8-3 record in 2008. Kafka then earned the job in '09 following Bachér's graduation, but he had already appeared in 14 games over his career prior to that. Kafka’s first full year as a starter brought an 8-5 record to Evanston, while playing his way into a fourth-round draft pick.
Whether you attribute the increase in wins to Fitz growing and learning as a first-time head coach or to the growth of the quarterbacks, its undeniable that the passers improved significantly (along with the record) from the first two years of Fitz’s tenure. Bachér and Kafka were both allowed to struggle early in their careers, and the experience they gained from it made them that much better. Kafka, in particular, made a great leap switching from reserve to starter, turning in a senior campaign of 3,754 total yards and 25 touchdowns.
A few years later, 3-star recruit Trevor Siemian was similarly allowed to spend two years in the program learning the system and eventually developed into a seventh-round pick. Siemian’s numbers were never particularly fantastic given that snaps were often split between him and Kain Colter, but he was able to improve his passing yardage each year of his career, even with a knee injury ending his senior year slightly early.
As far as the team record, 2012 was certainly the best of the Siemian era, but the fall from 10-3 to consecutive years of 5-7 did not reflect the play under center. The Wildcat defense went from allowing 22.5 points per game to 27.1 points per game from 2012 to 2013, dropping them from the fifth-best scoring defense in the Big Ten to sixth-worst. The defensive regression, combined with subpar playcalling and a decent but not spectacular receiving core became the recipe for the two down years. Nonetheless, Northwestern had stable quarterback play for three years by allowing an in-house recruit to grow and develop, regardless of if the team peaked at the same time.
Then came the perfect storm: the combination of quarterback Clayton Thorson (who was already able to start after redshirting his freshman year), Justin Jackson, solid receiver depth and a defense that made the leap to join the nation’s best. Thorson had a solid year in 2015 — his first year starting — as the team went 10-3, then spent three years rewriting the record books while becoming Northwestern’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and completions. However, the most important stat Thorson became the leader in was wins, as he accrued 35 victories over his four seasons as a starter. With consistency under center, the ‘Cats were able to have their best four-season stretch ever, one that included two 10-win seasons and their first ever Big Ten West title.
It’s easy to say the transfer rules were different back then, but even in recent years, the odds of a transfer quarterback successfully helping your team aren’t as great as you’d think they are. You can point at Joe Burrow, Justin Fields and Kyler Murray as examples of transfer success stories, but, according to my research, in any given transfer class, there have been just three quarterbacks on average that have become capable starters, let alone stars, since the portal was introduced in 2018.
It’s important also to recognize that Northwestern itself has only experienced a 1⁄3 success rate from transfer portal passers (depending on your opinion of Hilinski’s future potential), with Ramsey being the lone transfer to work out for the team thus far.
Historically, Northwestern has succeeded as a team most when it has recruited a quarterback and allowed him to develop his talent, work through problems and start in the system for multiple years. The Wildcats are not a program like Ohio State that can simply reload its prospects and continue to compete for a title year in and year out, and they have to realize that this year is likely not going to be a contending one. While it would be nice to have a shiny new quarterback from the transfer portal, it’s clear from the woes of this past season that this team is far from just a quarterback away. Rather than a one year rental, Northwestern should look towards 2023, when its young stars will be older, its underclassmen will have more experience under their belts, and, hopefully, a developed prospect can step in as the final piece of the puzzle.