Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Northwestern is without a large majority of the team’s 2020 production. The ‘Cats ranked 126th in the FBS in returning production even before losing Cam Porter to a season ending injury, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
Despite that fact, many (myself included) projected Northwestern to produce a seven or eight win season. The 2021 squad is inexperienced, but the team from that Citrus Bowl season featured enough depth to leave some fans feeling hopeful.
That was until Friday night. Evanston was left on fire when the Wildcats were blown out of the water by a Michigan State squad that was projected to be a lower-echelon side. The 38 points let up reminded fans just how special the 2020 defense was, and, even in a more stalwart performance, the offense showed a number of holes left by the heroes of last year.
Here are the five 2020 ‘Cats Northwestern missed most against the Spartans, ranked:
1. Paddy Fisher/Blake Gallagher
I’m clumping together Fisher and Gallagher because my reasoning is nearly the same. The two were the heart and soul of the 2020 squad. They were leaders, the epitome of what it means to be a Northwestern Wildcat. Most of all, they were absolute tackling machines.
The duo’s importance to success was never more clear than against Michigan State. Chris Bergin, the remaining member of the Irish Law Firm, put together his usual 10 tackles. Beyond that, starters Peter McIntyre and Khalid Jones combined for a mere six total tackles.
The lack of consistent tackling was much of the reason behind the 264 rushing yard breakout performance from Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III. Fisher and Gallagher were expected to exceed eight tackles each in a game. That consistent presence in the middle dared opposing teams to run between the tackles, a place where NU felt reliable.
2. JR Pace
Among the many areas Northwestern excelled in defensively in 2020, one was in preventing big runs. The ‘Cats allowed only one run of 25+ yards by anyone not named Trey Sermon (Sermon had five such runs), and much of that is due to Pace’s ability as a tackler in the open field.
The safety did a great job at containing the opposition’s run game from breaking off chunks of yardage. For the first time in 33 Northwestern games, Pace was not the starter at safety against Michigan State. Instantly, Walker broke off a 75-yard run. He would finish with two more gains of 25+ yards. With Pace, Northwestern was able to trust that no rusher would burst by the secondary. Without him, one-on-ones favored the offense.
3. Earnest Brown IV
The front four is the defensive positional group for Northwestern that returned the most production. Even with the experience at the defensive line, though, it was clear that Brown’s presence was missed against the Spartans. The current Los Angeles Rams practice squad member heard his name called on draft day because of his run containment abilities.
Brown’s 8.5 TFL last season are hard to replace. His quickness off the edge and ability to hold the run were things that Jim O’Neil’s defense looked desperate for against Michigan State. Walker scorched Northwestern all night with runs to the outside where no defender could get in front of him. A solid run defender such as Brown would have mightily helped the cause.
4. Greg Newsome II
Do you see a pattern? It’s no secret that the defense struggled, and while the cornerback trio of AJ Hampton, Rod Heard II and Cam Mitchell did not play as terribly as many of the ‘Cats’ run stoppers, the presence of a true CB1 such as Newsome can never be understated. With Newsome in a lineup, O’Neil wouldn’t have had to worry about one half of the field in coverage and could’ve afforded to send more rushers from the edge.
MSU quarterback Payton Thorne threw limited pass attempts not because the Spartans were having trouble moving the ball through the air, but because the run game was so dominant. Newsome creates an island, eliminating half of the field from the pass attack, and making opposing offenses one-dimensional in doing so. Michigan State was going to run the ball regardless, but when a team has a great corner like Newsome, it allows coaches to scheme a system that is better equipped to stop the ground game.
5. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
It wasn’t just the defense that was hurting on Friday. The Wildcat offense showed explosiveness in its play, but also inconsistencies. Northwestern rolled out three new starters at receiver in a group that is, overall, incredibly inexperienced. The young receivers had trouble at times creating consistent separation for Hunter Johnson, which left the offense stagnant at times.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman would’ve brought size and leadership to this receiving core. In a group that is as undersized as Northwestern’s, a veteran receiver who can catch a jump ball down the field would offer great value. Chiaokhiao-Bowman spreads the field and his excellent route running was missed in the ‘Cats pursuit to find a go-to guy.