New Year's Eve matchup in San Diego against Utah could offer a glimpse of what to expect from the Wildcats next season
After a successful regular season that saw Northwestern win its first Big Ten West title, the No. 22-ranked Wildcats will wrap up the campaign on Dec. 31 in the Holiday Bowl against No. 17 Utah. Northwestern (8-5, 8-1 Big Ten) will be making its fourth straight bowl appearance under head coach Pat Fitzgerald and as memorable a season as it has been it's never too early to start thinking ahead.
In San Diego, seniors such as quarterback Clayton Thorson, wide receiver Flynn Nagel, linebacker Nate Hall, and cornerback Montre Hartage will be playing their final game in a Wildcats uniform, but that doesn't mean the cupboard in Evanston, Illinois, will be bare. Instead, there are several players who emerged as key contributors this season and with the experience that comes from winning a division title and playing in the Big Ten Championship Game now under their belt; they will take on even bigger roles next season.
Here are five Northwestern players to keep an eye on during FS1's broadcast of the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl on New Year's Eve as you will probably be seeing plenty of them in 2019.
Isaiah Bowser, RB
Just a freshman, Bowser has already solidified himself as the next great Northwestern running back. Largely an afterthought entering the season, Bowser took over the starting job after Jeremy Larkin retired due to injury just three games into the season. Bowser enters the bowl game with 796 rushing yards and six touchdowns, numbers he has accumulated over the past seven games. Bowser is a hard runner with some size (6-1, 216) whose combination of speed and power should give defenses fits for the next couple of seasons. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Utah, who leads the Pac-12 and is fifth in the nation against the run (101.8 ypg).
Bennett Skowronek, WR
While Flynn Nagel has gotten the majority of the attention in Northwestern’s passing game, Skowronek has made his presence felt. He’s second on the team in receiving yards this season (556), third in receptions (44) and averaging nearly 13 yards per catch. And while he only had three touchdown receptions this season, one of those was arguably the most important in program history. It was his 32-yard diving catch against Iowa that secured the Big Ten West title for the Wildcats.
With Nagel set to move on, Skowronek will become the top target in Northwestern's passing game. Perhaps he can signify that transition with another big catch or two in the Holiday Bowl.
Joe Gaziano, DE
Over the last two seasons, Gaziano has turned himself into a consistent pass rusher. Since becoming a starter in 2017, Gaziano has racked up 15.5 sacks, 76 tackles, five forced fumbles, and five pass breakups. This season, Gaziano was one of six Wildcat defenders to earn All-Big Ten recognition. If he continues to improve, he could find himself on some watch lists for national accolades entering next season. His more pressing concern, however, will be taking on a Utah offense that averages around 30 points per game.
Trae Williams, DB
Depth has not been a problem for Northwestern's secondary, not with cornerback Montre Hartage anchoring the back end along with fellow senior Jared McGee at one of the safety spots. But sophomore JR Pace and Williams, a junior, have also distinguished themselves. While dealing with some injuries, Williams has played in 11 games (seven starts) and has collected 24 tackles with a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to this point. He certainly made his presence felt in the overtime win against Nebraska where he registered a career-high 10 tackles. With Hartage and McGee departing, Williams will be the secondary's senior leader next season as the Wildcats try and maintain their strong play on defense.
Drew Luckenbaugh and Charlie Kuhbander, PKs
The two sophomores have shared kicking duties this season, combining to go 7-for-12 on field goals and 30-for-31 on extra points. Punter Jake Collins also got his chances (2-for-3 on FGs), but he's a graduate student, meaning the placekicking duties should belong to either Luckenbaugh or Kuhbander, or both will share them again. Both will need to improve their accuracy, particularly Kuhbander (4-for-8), but he also has shown a strong leg with a long of 45 yards. Whoever gets the call on game day, he will need to come through considering four of the Northwestern's eight victories have come by four points or less.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of nusports.com)