In 1995, Pat Fitzgerald and his teammates fast-tracked Northwestern from historic futility to the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl. Although Fitzgerald has yet to coach his alma mater to either destination, the program looks more secure than ever: 36 wins since 2015, three consecutive bowl victories, its first division title last season and a facility that is the envy of college football.
Northwestern's next step is clear — its first league championship since 2000 — but it doesn't intend to cut corners.
"Our plan works," Fitzgerald says. "What we do and how we do things works to get to a championship level. To become consistent at that level... is now the challenge."
Previewing Northwestern's Offense for 2019
Northwestern has defied analytics by winning a lot lately despite one of the feeblest offenses in the FBS. Since 2015, the Wildcats rank 123rd in average yards per play (4.95) and 121st in percentage of offensive plays of 10 yards or longer (17.2). It's simply not sustainable to expect more victories without more big plays.
Enter quarterback Hunter Johnson. A five-star recruit in the 2016 class, Johnson is eligible after transferring from Clemson and sitting out last season. He's by far the most decorated recruit in Fitzgerald's tenure and has the arm to boost a passing game that since 2015 has averaged just 6.24 yards per attempt, ranking 122nd nationally. Although four-year starter Clayton Thorson won games and set records, it's possible for Johnson to represent an upgrade, especially if he provides the running ability the offense lacked in 2018. Senior TJ Green pushed Johnson throughout spring practice and could be a factor here.
Coaches expect the receiving corps to be deeper and more explosive. Ben Skowronek, whose heroic TD catch at Iowa propelled Northwestern to a division title, leads the group after consecutive 45-catch seasons. Riley Lees should be a reliable option in the slot, but a key question is whether Kyric McGowan, JJ Jefferson, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and perhaps incoming freshmen Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz can stretch the field.
Isaiah Bowser averaged 108.0 yards rushing in the final eight games after becoming the Cats' primary back following the surprise medical retirement of Jeremy Larkin. Northwestern expects more depth alongside Bowser with John Moten IV, Jesse Brown and Drake Anderson, son of Northwestern's single-season rushing leader Damien Anderson. The offensive line will be a big story line as assistant coach Kurt Anderson takes over a group that has underachieved for parts of Northwestern’s recent surge.
Previewing Northwestern's Defense for 2019
The competitive depth Fitzgerald craves on offense largely shows up on the defense. All-Big Ten end Joe Gaziano leads a line that should have no shortage of pass-rushing options (Earnest Brown IV, Samdup Miller, perhaps redshirt freshmen Eku Leota and Devin O'Rourke). The key will be finding a space-eating interior lineman to stop the run, just as Jordan Thompson did last year, and as Tyler Lancaster did the season before. Senior Alex Miller is the likeliest choice there.
Linebacker should be the strength of the unit with national awards candidate Paddy Fisher, who has eclipsed 110 tackles and has four forced fumbles and an interception in each of his first two seasons. Blake Gallagher joins Fisher after a breakout sophomore season, and Chris Bergin should fill the third starting spot.
The secondary should see the benefits of an injury-plagued 2018 season. Although top cover man Montre Hartage is a significant loss, Northwestern will go two-deep with experienced options at most spots. Safety looks especially promising with JR Pace (four interceptions in 2018) and Travis Whillock. Hopes are high for sophomore Greg Newsome II to fill Hartage's role.
Previewing Northwestern's Specialists for 2019
Injuries made placekicking an adventure in 2018, and Northwestern needs Charlie Kuhbander or Drew Luckenbaugh to stay healthy and start extending their range — the Cats had only one made field goal longer than 37 yards last fall. Cody Gronewold should move into the top punter role vacated by Jake Collins. Northwestern's return game ranked in the middle of the Big Ten last fall and likely will remain there, as Lees and McGowan are expected to handle punts and kickoffs, respectively.
To contend again in the improving Big Ten West, the Wildcats must supplement their signature defense with a more dynamic offense, likely built around the type of quarterback they rarely have at their disposal. It's hard to envision another division title without a big season from Johnson.
Other areas to watch include the offensive line under Anderson's direction, and defensive tackle, an underappreciated position during the recent run of success. Northwestern also must start stronger after opening the previous two seasons 1–3 and 2–3. The schedule is front-loaded with an opener at Stanford and matchups with Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa — all within the first seven games.
“We need to be more consistent,” Fitzgerald says. “It starts with how we come out of camp health-wise, how we come out execution-wise. We’ve got a huge challenge out the gate, probably as hard of a challenge as anybody in the Big Ten, and we need to get ourselves prepared.”
National Ranking: 35
(Top photo courtesy of nusports.com)