The literal answer to “Where are we Wednesday?” is Ireland, as Pat Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats prepare to take part in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic in Dublin this Saturday. The joy of traveling across the Atlantic to play college football cannot be overstated. For many players, as Fitz said in his game-week presser, this will be their first time out of the country. And while Ireland isn’t exactly the first place with which one would connect Northwestern football, it’s a far better place to be than where the ‘Cats were nine months ago — rock bottom.
The 2021 season, following a second Big Ten West title in three years and a fourth bowl game win in five years, was one of the worst seasons the team has had since Fitz took over before the 2006 season. The team went 3-9, with the lowlights including a blowout loss to a Nebraska team that didn’t win another Big Ten game all season, a 41-14 home defeat at the hands of Minnesota and a season-ending six-game losing streak that included losses to Purdue and Illinois by a combined margin of 79-28.
If the ‘Cats are going to once again find the pot of gold (i.e. a Big Ten title game berth) at the end of the rainbow (i.e. the season) for the third straight even year, there are things that will certainly need to change from last season. The defense performed well below average, giving up 30 or more points in eight of its 12 games. The offense, too, was often limited, scoring more than 24 points in a game just once. A complete overhaul isn’t needed, but a lot of things should look different this year for Northwestern.
One thing that shouldn’t be altered, though, is junior running back Evan Hull, who took his 196 carries last year for 1,009 yards and seven trips to the end zone, as well as garnering four games over the century mark in rushing yards. The offense will also benefit from the return of wide receiver Malik Washington (578 yards last year), and Bryce Kirtz and Jacob Gill should be able to step into bigger roles. Cam Porter coming back after missing all of 2021 following a 2020 season in which he emerged as a star will also certainly bolster the offense.
The losses of Chris Bergin (132 tackles), Brandon Joseph (79 tackles, three interceptions) and Pete McIntyre (68 tackles) will certainly hurt the defense, but returning Bryce Gallagher, Coco Azema and Adetomiwa Adebawore should help improve a defense that finished ninth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year. While the defense probably won’t dominate the world this season, getting back into the range of average would certainly help improve the team.
Another facet that needs to get back into the range of average is the quarterback play. Ryan Hilinski was serviceable to start last season but ended the year with more interceptions than touchdowns. If Hilinski once again plays like he did last year, sophomore Brendan Sullivan or first-year Jack Lausch could take over under center. However, both Sullivan and Lausch are unproven, and handing them the keys to a Big Ten team right away probably isn’t in the cards.
So where are we? It honestly depends on how much stock you put in the legend that is even-year Northwestern. The Wildcats have to deal with Nebraska on the Emerald Isle this Saturday, the same team that handed them a 56-7 walloping last year. The schedule doesn’t get too much easier after that, with Northwestern facing four more teams that defeated it last year, not to mention Ohio State and Wisconsin. However, the last time NU came off a 3-9 season, it beat Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin and then triumphed over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
So, we know that Northwestern football is in Ireland, but other than that, we don’t know much. Then again, college football has always been built off of chaos and surprises. Most Northwestern fans won’t be able to watch the Wildcats open the 2022 season in person, but they will be able to once again watch even-year Northwestern football, and that in and of itself is a blessing. And if the Wildcats are able to get the luck of a leprechaun while they’re across the Atlantic, then who knows… Maybe they’ll get another trip to Indianapolis.