Pat Fitzgerald's team returns plenty of key pieces as the Wildcats seek to defend their Big Ten West title
The 2018 college football season was a historic one for the Northwestern Wildcats. They won eight-plus games for the third time in the last four seasons (and just the 16th time in program history), won a third straight bowl game for the first time, and finally claimed their first Big Ten West Division championship. After their improbable come-from-behind win against Utah in the Holiday Bowl, the expectations have been elevated. Now the hope is that Northwestern can contend for its first Big Ten title since 2000.
With their stable of returning talent, combined with the fact that they are currently projected to have a top-50 recruiting class (11th in the Big Ten), and with head coach Pat Fitzgerald deciding to stay instead of taking a potential NFL opportunity, the “Cardiac Cats” have put themselves in position to collect that elusive championship next season. Having state-of-the-art practice and workout facilities also helps, and not to mention that the volatile Big Ten West appears to be fairly wide open. Here are three specific reasons why the Wildcats will have another successful year in 2019.
1. Stability on defense
Parting ways with veteran contributors such as defensive linemen Fred Wyatt and Jordan Thompson, linebacker Nate Hall, and defensive backs Montre Hartage and Jared McGee can set most programs back to some degree.
Thankfully, the Wildcats still have defensive end Joe Gaziano (team-high 7.5 sacks in 2018), linebackers Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, and Nathan Fox, and defensive backs J.R. Pace, Trae Williams, and Alonzo Mayo to build around on defense.
Northwestern also has done a good job in recent seasons of recruiting players that are able to develop and step into bigger roles when called upon. And for a team that finished sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense last year (23.2 ppg), finding new contributors to maintain this level of performance is vital.
2. The running game is still strong
When Jeremy Larkin retired early last season due to cervical stenosis, the Wildcats' world (and ground game) briefly stood still. Then came the revelation known as Isaiah Bowser, who as a freshman last season ran for 866 yards and six touchdowns. With the offseason to continue to improve his conditioning and learn the playbook, Bowser appears to be a safe bet to reach the 1,000-yard mark in 2019. He will have support in the backfield in the form of senior John Moten IV (599 rushing yards, 5 TDs in career) and redshirt freshman Drake Anderson (played in just two games in 2018).
The running back position has always been a staple of Northwestern football. The offensive line next year will be slightly inexperienced, but the presence of Bowser and offensive coordinator Mick McCall's game plans should compensate for that.
3. The passing attack won’t skip a beat
Fact: The Wildcats will have a new quarterback under center in 2019 as Clayton Thorson has moved onto the NFL. But whether it’s T.J. Green or Hunter Johnson, Pat Fitzgerald’s next signal-caller won’t be completely devoid of game experience. Green spent 2018 as Thorson’s backup and saw action in four games. And in those games he completed 20 of 36 passes (55.6 percent) for 169 yards with an interception.
As for Johnson, he had to sit out last season after transferring from Clemson. In 2017, Johnson saw action in seven games for the Tigers, completing 21 of 27 pass attempts (77.8 percent) for 234 yards and two touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 167.6. Granted that's a small sample size, but Johnson is the favorite to win the job. Whoever ends up getting the nod, he will have some solid targets to throw to.
While they may no longer have Flynn Nagel (team-high 68 receptions for 780 yards), Solomon Vault or Jelani Roberts on the roster, Bennett Skowronek, Cameron Green, and Riley Lees are still around and figure to be the top options. Those three combined for 124 catches that went for 1,259 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Lees came up big in the Holiday Bowl, while Skowronek will forever be known as the guy who caught the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa that clinched the Big Ten West title for Northwestern.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.