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MAILBAG: A very Scane summer

The glow of winning it all obscures deep-seated football questions.

NCAA Womens Lacrosse: Semifinals-Northwestern at Denver Jeffrey Camarati-USA TODAY Sports

With the slog of finals finishing and the academic year coming to a close, summer provides the perfect time to reflect on the year that was — and to look ahead to next seasons. With 78 days until Northwestern football begins its season in Piscataway, New Jersey, Iggy and Bradley answer all of your questions, from projecting top teams to analyzing the future of Wildcats on the gridiron.

@davidgoldINU: If you could pick one Northwestern athlete, current or former, to give a toast at your wedding, who would you choose?

Bradley: The original reply to this tweet gave an outstanding answer in the form of Joe Spivak (now the WWE’s Tank Ledger), but I’ll stick with a fellow football alum in A.J. Hampton Jr. Hampton — now with Tulane — was always fantastic in media sessions, even going so far as saying that Northwestern was not afraid of Marvin Harrison Jr. and Ohio State’s receivers. Plus, he’s a tremendous dancer and a high-energy guy. Tough to beat that combination of eloquence and moves.

Iggy: Fitz is technically an answer, right? Can’t go wrong with him. I recently watched a few episodes from past seasons of The Foundation (because it’s never too early to start missing football). Locker room Fitz makes you want to run through a brick wall, and wedding Fitz could take that to another level. Greg Newsome II is a close second.

@JayJayPost: Which non-Aaron Judge New York Yankee (Bradley) and non-Saquon Barkley New York Giant (Iggy) would you most want to see on the respective 23-24 Northwestern baseball and football teams?

Iggy: Honestly, even if Barkley were on the board, I’d probably go with Dexter Lawrence. It’s between him and Andrew Thomas, but Northwestern’s total lack of depth on the interior D-line is the tiebreaker for me. Throwing a 6-foot-4, 340-pound superstar run defender at nose tackle who probably has about 30 pounds on most of the guards in the Big Ten would just be hilarious to watch. I still don’t understand how Lawrence fell to No. 17 in the 2019 draft. Also, that guy seems way too fun not to have on a college campus.

Bradley: Northwestern baseball could realistically use almost any Yankee (okay, maybe not Nick Ramirez), but Gerrit Cole would be my pick. One of the best pitchers in the world on a rotation that will seemingly lose its two top arms in Sam Garewal and Michael Farinelli is an immediate solution. The lack of offensive production will still be alarming, but if Cole could shove every Friday, that basically ensures at least one win per weekend.

@FakeCoachFitz: What’s your go-to Al’s Deli order?

Iggy: Roast beef on croissant bread, easy. Maybe I’ll even double up if I’m hungry.

Bradley: It’s probably bad if I say this, but... I’ve actually never been to Al’s (*ducks*). I’ll have to add it to my list for this upcoming year!

@yyanli1: Where will Northwestern softball rank in the Big Ten in 2024?

Iggy: Jordy Bahl’s transfer to Nebraska — and the Huskers’ 18th-ranked recruiting class per Extra Inning Softball — definitely throws a wrench into Northwestern’s repeat plans. As does the fact that the ‘Cats are going to lose at least five starters. But Northwestern’s still going to be a good team, and Kate Drohan’s already made waves in the portal by adding former MSU pitcher Ashley Miller, who recorded a sub-two ERA in 2021 and 2022. With incoming top-35 recruits Renae Cunningham and Emma Raye offering positional versatility, the starting lineup could ideally look like this if Angela Zedak returns:

Northwestern Softball Potential 2024 Starters

Position Name
Position Name
P Lauren Boyd
C Emma Raye
1B Nikki Cuchran
2B Grace Nieto
SS Kansas Robinson
3B Hannah Cady
LF Angela Zedak
CF Kelsey Nader
RF Ayana Lindsey
DP Lauren Sciborski

That’s not bad, and the team is still going to be relatively deep in the infield. The thing is, a bunch of other teams are very young, particularly Indiana. Nine months is a long time for circumstances to change, but if I had to guess, I’d say NU finishes fifth behind Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan and the Hoosiers.

@JohnLOlsenII: What, if anything, does Fitz need to do to get the football team back on track to consistent winning? There are some (moronic in my view...) that think a change is needed at head coach. Thoughts?

Bradley: Throughout 2022 (and probably 2021), it seemed that Fitzgerald’s leadership and messaging to his team didn’t wane in spite of major adversity. But, at some point, that communication has to translate on the field. If Fitzgerald cannot get results “in the arena,” as he would say, then his job would seem to be in real jeopardy. I think I’m in the minority when I say this, but I do think he could be fired at some point this year, even though he’s under contract through 2030.

Northwestern’s roster for the year ahead is very thin and unproven, so Fitz and his glut of new coaches will need to maximize talent and potential — something that’s been a challenge in recent years. One immediate fix, in my view, is to play young talent; names like Reggie Fleurima, Anto Saka and Mac Uihlein should really see the field this year. On top of that, I really think there needs to be better offensive creativity (and limiting of turnovers), plus using defensive players based on their skillsets (that means limiting linebackers in coverage, if at all). 2023 looks like yet another uphill climb, but if the Wildcats win three or fewer games yet again, I’m not sure how much longer Derrick Gragg and the Athletic Department can withstand this much consecutive futility.

@BrendanPreisman: Where is Izzy Scane going to rank in the pantheon of Northwestern athletics by the end of next season? Also, what’s Northwestern football’s record going to be before they head to Nebraska on October 21?

Bradley: Scane is arguably the best player in Wildcat lacrosse history, and that’s a very high bar considering names like Hannah Nielsen, Shannon Smith and Kristen Kjellman. If Scane has a similar caliber of season in 2023 as she did in 2022, she would almost unquestionably be on the Evanston athlete iteration of Mount Rushmore. Her level of dominance is sustained, historic and on a national scale, all three of which give her major considerations to be very high on the all-time NU athlete list. If another Tewaaraton is in store, I’d say Scane could finish No. 2 behind Otto Graham.

As for football, I’ll project 2-4 by the trek out west to Lincoln. You’ll get my full schedule breakdown in our full roundtable on that later this summer, but I expect the Big Ten, and especially Minnesota and Penn State, to be very good yet again — and for Northwestern to struggle in conference play yet again. In some ways, the UTEP and Howard games are must-win for Fitzgerald’s status; of course, anything is possible against any level of opponent (as we learned last year) but I think Ben Bryant and A.J. Henning will provide enough to win games against those caliber of teams.

Iggy: If she holds this pace, Scane has a really good shot at going down as the greatest player to play on Northwestern’s greatest team. If that’s not NU GOAT material, then I don’t know what is. She only needs 71 goals to break Charlotte North’s all-time career record of 358. We’re not just talking about one of the greatest players in school history, we’re talking about one of the best offensive players in the history of the game. You just can’t convince me that anyone is better than the best player to ever suit up for a program that’s won eight of Northwestern’s nine team national titles.

For football, I’m thinking 3-3. I’m going to cautiously slot UTEP and Howard in as wins, and I think the ‘Cats will start the season strong again by beating Rutgers. If Northwestern can force Gavin Wimsatt to make an early mistake or two and dictate the game flow from the first half onward, I think NU can come away with a win in Piscataway. Like Bradley, I also just don’t see how Fitz and Co. can keep up with PSU and Minnesota (those games are at home though so you never know), and Riley Leonard is only going to get better for Duke.

@Bklynmarketer: With NU undergrads coming from all over the country/globe, do students even care about NU football games at Wrigley? I’m still trying to figure out who the target audience is for football games played at a decrepit relic with legroom for Short Kings only.

Iggy: That last sentence is a bar and made me laugh, so thank you. Not a short king (very far from one), but I’ve got no issue with Wrigley. Even though Milton Wright absolutely torched Northwestern’s secondary when Purdue came to the Friendly Confines in 2021, I had a great time. It was a big enough deal where an op-ed by our own Ben Chasen and Mac Stone regarding the original $73 ticket cost generated enough publicity over a month before the game to help convince Northwestern to lower prices. Even for students who aren’t football fans, I think any opportunity for thousands of people to jump on the L and go into Chicago together is a fun one. At the very least, it’s a nice change of scenery from busing or walking to Ryan Field, and adds somewhat of a big-game feel.

laxpuck: What do you want to see from Coach Braun in the first half of the season, to make you feel comfortable with him moving forward? (Also, what is the over/under on touchdowns given up on the first play from scrimmage in Braun’s first season?)

Iggy: First play is one thing (I’ll set the over-under at 1.5), but I just realized that Northwestern has given up points on the year’s first drive in each of the last three seasons now. That’s impressive, and should also be an over-under.

Anyway, I wouldn’t call myself a scheme expert by any means, but I would really like to see Braun try and take pressure off the inside linebackers in intermediate coverage as best he can. Catering to their strengths is crucial, and Jim O’Neil mightily struggled to do that in 2021 and 2022 (look no further than the Southern Illinois game).

The most experienced position group on the team can make a serious impact against the run if the defense can limit throws inside the numbers early and force offenses to adjust. The ‘Cats are going to face Minnesota’s Brevyn Spann-Ford in September. NU may not have the personnel to stop him, or even slow down someone like Penn State’s Theo Johnson. However, if Braun can slow opponents’ intermediate passing games and start faster, I’ll be satisfied even if it doesn’t translate to wins.

JWoodNU: What are you most looking forward to during the fall 2023 sports season? Could be a player, a team, or a specific match/event.

Iggy: Last year, cross country qualified for the NCAA Championships — which is nearly unprecedented for a school without a track program to buoy recruiting — for the first time in 20 years. But Rachel McCardell, the best runner in program history, is going to leave. The team should slightly regress, but it is still very talented. Its rising junior class could go down as the best in school history. If you’ve looked at my Twitter or my coverage on this team, you know I’m biased when it comes to this choice, but I really am curious to see if the program can show signs of sustaining long-term success throughout the season.

Bradley: Northwestern women’s soccer was a definite bright spot last year, finishing 16-5-2, second in the Big Ten and earning a spot in the Sweet 16 against eventual National Champion UCLA. The Wildcats return three veteran stars in Aurea del Carmen, Danika Austin and Lily Gilbertson, plus Big Ten Freshman of the Year Caterina Regazzoni and All-Big Ten selections Josie Aulicino, Meg Boade and Emma Phillips. NU ended the season ranked 11th in the United Soccer Coaches poll and should be must-see again in 2023. For football, I’ll say A.J. Henning’s punt return ability.

NU’06er: Settle some more commenter debates:

1. Is it “very hard” to make an argument that NUMBB will be as good in ‘23-’24 as it was in ‘22-’23?

Iggy: Very hard might be pushing it, but I’d say hard is fair. Now, this doesn’t mean there’s going to be a fall off a cliff. But “as good” means clinching an NCAA Tournament berth in the middle of February and going into March Madness as the definitive third or fourth-best team in the Big Ten. This is a defensive-oriented team whose turnover margin last year (+4.3) dwarfed everyone else’s in the conference. While bringing in Ryan Langborg and Justin Mullins to replace Chase Audige’s production should help the shooting improve, I think Northwestern’s going to have a tougher time dictating the pace.

Plus, unless Luke Hunger takes a significant jump (which is a real possibility, by the way), I’m a little concerned about Northwestern’s depth at the four as things stand. That would make it more difficult for Chris Collins to deploy a set of mid-game lineups that are as versatile (i.e. throwing Robbie Beran at the five and Brooks Barnhizer at the four against perimeter-happy teams vs. going bigger and slower against teams that play through their centers). Throwing out so many different looks when it came to post-trapping made it difficult for opponents to adjust down the stretch of games.

That said, is replicating last year’s success impossible? Absolutely not. But in regular season play, the top end of the conference should get much better. Nearly every team — particularly Illinois and Purdue — improved on May 31, while the Wildcats lost their defensive engine. Additionally, Northwestern has to play both of those schools, Maryland and Michigan State twice next year; I’d argue those are the four best teams in the Big Ten right now. I still think NU’s a tournament team that can make noise, but the ‘Cats could linger around the bubble a little longer than they did in 2022-23.

2. Would a future men’s lacrosse, track, or volleyball program be more financially, academically, and geographically suited for Northwestern than baseball? (What’s the budget for the baseball team, anyway? — And is that high/low/normal for B1G baseball programs?)

Bradley: The paradoxical nature of Northwestern baseball is that NU’s resources — from Rocky and Berenice Miller Park to its technology to its practice facilities — are terrific, yet it has effectively never yielded actual success. It’s clear that the school cares deeply about investing in its baseball program, and I don’t see that changing any time soon, especially with the number of baseball fans in Chicagoland.

The issue with something like track is that an entire complex would have to be built. On the other hand, men’s lacrosse could theoretically operate out of Ryan Fieldhouse/Martin Stadium, and men’s volleyball would play in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Regarding lacrosse, there are only six real teams, and the conference is effectively dominated by Johns Hopkins and Maryland. Of course, the ‘Cats are a premier women’s lacrosse program and could leverage that ability in recruiting, but jumping in and expecting to take over seems unlikely. Men’s volleyball would also be daunting, because there are just 23 Division I schools with a program, and only three (Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue) in the Big Ten. Current Wildcat women’s volleyball coach Shane Davis did win two straight titles with Loyola Chicago, but the sport has tended to have been dominated by west-coast teams.

Ultimately, while we don’t know the exact financial details for the profitability of Northwestern baseball, the program has produced MLB talent, draws fans and provides a chance to consistently play Big Ten teams. Men’s track, volleyball and lacrosse would not necessarily check all three boxes.

3. What are your Top-5 all-time alternate uniforms ever worn by a Northwestern athletic program?

Bradley: Definitely inspired by recency, and hard to narrow this to only five, but my top five looks like: 1. men’s basketball 2020 “For The Players”; 2. men’s basketball 2022-23 “For The Players” (always a sucker for Chicago-colored jerseys); 3. football 2019 throwback alternates (particularly a big fan of the helmet), 4. softball icy white gothics, 5. baseball gothics (had to get the “original” gothics in here somewhere).

Iggy: Northwestern men’s basketball’s “Chicago’s Own” jersey is an easy number one. It’ll probably be remembered most for creating a white-out in Welsh-Ryan Arena when NU beat Illinois, but the fact that the ‘Cats rocked those jerseys while destroying DePaul last December is hilarious. At two, women’s basketball’s unis in hot pink are both very awesome and fit really well with the team’s defensive identity. When you think of Veronica Burton, Sydney Wood and Lindsey Pulliam flying around a backcourt on defense, how can you not think of a streak of pink shooting across your TV screen?

From there, I’ll go with this year’s City Edition jerseys for softball and the black gothics (iconic for multiple sports, so that’s a bonus — if you want to be especially particular, I’ll pick these) at three and four. Finally, while it’s not technically an alternate jersey, I am a huge cat-on-the-helmet proponent and it needs to come back ASAP with the white jerseys. It could even be a good luck charm!

AyanKB: For NUFB, what is your high/medium/low expectations? Are there any results that would make you advocate that Fitzgerald should be fired after the 2023 season

Bradley: My high expectation is 6-6 or 7-5 with squeaking into a bowl game. I feel like my medium and low are fairly similar: three wins or fewer. If Northwestern goes winless in conference play yet again and finishes with three or fewer wins, it would grow increasingly difficult to continue lobbying for Fitzgerald to remain head coach.

Iggy: My high expectation would be a bowl appearance, medium would be winning four games (taking two in the Big Ten) and the floor would be, well, 1-11. The roster still just doesn’t seem well-rounded enough to improve significantly, but going 1-11 again without much competitive football down the stretch would at least warrant a Collins-esque letter from Derrick Gragg in my book. With the buyout still being so large, I doubt Fitz goes anywhere as long as the team wins a game, but a loss to Howard on Homecoming... I know I’d be mad, but I’d be more worried about our comment section getting incinerated and crashing the site.

AyanKB: Also, thoughts on the divisionless B1G, and 2024 & 2025 schedule NUFB B1G schedule?

Bradley: Being totally honest, it will be incredibly weird to watch a sport with no divisions, because it’s something I’ve grown accustomed to in every league my entire life. But, I do think the model will allow for some very enjoyable — and much more competitive — Big Ten Championship games. Even if it’s Ohio State-Michigan every year, that would still be must-see TV.

In terms of Northwestern’s schedule, 2024 is an absolute gauntlet with both of the PAC-12 newcomers and road trips to Columbus and Happy Valley. Likewise, it will be very strange to not play Wisconsin or Iowa that year. 2025 will start with some fun at Tulane (assuming that game remains untouched) but doesn’t have as much Big Ten flare, with only a trip to the Big House as a super formidable location, plus none of USC or UCLA.