All is not well in Evanston, Illinois. The Northwestern Wildcats entered the 2019 season with plenty of expectations after last year's success. But after a 1-1 start, Northwestern (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten) has since lost three straight to Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska by a combined score of 68-35. The team is dealing with injuries at crucial positions, the offense is struggling to move the ball, which has resulted in the defense becoming worn down from being on the field for too long. The Wildcats were on a bye last week (second of the season), which means they will be playing seven straight weeks from here out.
That means there are still plenty of opportunities to rack up some wins, but this is a team with plenty to correct as well. Northwestern has No. 3 Ohio State (6-0, 3-0) and No. 17 Iowa (4-1, 1-1) coming to Ryan Field in back-to-back weeks. If the Wildcats want to replicate their 7-1 finish last season that propelled them to the Big Ten West title, they will have to play much better, starting Friday night against the Buckeyes.
Pat Fitzgerald's team has its work cut out for it as the remaining schedule is tougher than last year and injuries have certainly made their impact. Here are five other areas that must improve if Northwestern wants to turn this season around and at least get to a bowl game.
1. Get healthy
The Wildcats don't have a ton of injuries but the ones they do have leave quite the void on this team. Quarterback TJ Green suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener against Stanford, which is what thrust Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson into the starter role. Johnson himself has been playing through a knee injury from all of the hits and sacks (7) he's taken this season. Wide receiver Bennett Skowronek is out indefinitely after having surgery to address an unspecified injury, and even though he has missed the past two games, he still leads the team in receiving yards (141). Running back Isaiah Bowser, last year's leading rusher, also has been slowed by a knee injury, as he has just 103 yards on 29 carries (3.6 ypc) thus far.
The hope is that last week's bye gave Johnson the time he needed to get healthy as quarterback depth is already an issue with Green's loss. Getting Skowronek back could be a big boost as well, as his height (6-4), length, and ability to stretch the field are sorely needed. And if Bowser can get back on track then he'd provide a nice one-two punch with current leading rusher, Drake Anderson.
2. Ride the Drake Anderson train
With Bowser limited and Johnson struggling, perhaps Fitzgerald should make Anderson more of the focus of the offense. The redshirt freshman leads the team with 366 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 74 attempts. He's averaging close to five yards per carry and has been the only consistent playmaker on offense the last couple of games. Giving Anderson the ball more will take pressure off of the rest of this offense.
3. Do they need to rethink the quarterback position?
This is a valid question to ask as the aforementioned Johnson has struggled all season even before he injured his knee. He's only completing 48 percent of his passes for 367 yards with four interceptions and just one TD. He's averaging a mere 4.1 yards per attempt and simply put, just doesn't look comfortable out there. Perhaps Fitzgerald should consider giving Aidan Smith a start to give Johnson more time to heal and a chance to watch from the sidelines. In limited action, Smith has been a spark at times for this offense, as he's completing 49 percent of his attempts, albeit with the same 1:4 TD-to-INT ratio.
Both Johnson and Smith possess mobility and have totaled 161 rushing yards between them, but the reality is that whoever is at quarterback has been running an offense that's only better than Rutgers in the Big Ten when it comes to points and yards per game.
4. Offensive line needs improvement
The quarterbacks aren't the only ones to blame for Northwestern's offensive struggles. The Wildcats have given up 12 sacks over five games and are averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Ohio State and Iowa, Northwestern's next two opponents, have totaled 38 sacks thus far (six games each), with the Buckeyes leading the nation (28). These two teams also are in the top 20 in rushing defense. So even though the offensive line needs to do a better job with pass protection, it's not like trying to run the ball is going to be an easy task. One way or the other, the Wildcats need to find a way to improve upon the 292.8 yards per game they are averaging, which ranks them 125th out of 130 FBS teams.
5. They need a better effort from the defense
Northwestern ranks 11th in the Big Ten in sacks (11), seventh in pass deflections (17), is tied for last in interceptions (2), but ranks second in both tackles (356) and fumble recoveries (6). The Wildcats are doing a good job of limiting the damage on the scoreboard (19.8 ppg, seventh in conference), but that's going to be tested these next two games, especially on Friday against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are first in the Big Ten and top seven in the nation in both scoring (49.3 ppg) and total (534.5 ypg) offense. Consider that Northwestern has scored 72 points in its first five games total while Ohio State has put up 82 in its last two contests (wins over Michigan State and Nebraska) alone.
The Wildcats need to significantly improve their pass rush and downfield coverage. But at the same time, more consistency and production from the offense can relieve some of the pressure on a defense that has been on the field on average for more than half of each game.
— 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.