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Northwestern Football: 2022 Wildcats Season Preview and Prediction

Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern Wildcats Football

Adetomiwa Adebawore and the Wildcats are ranked No. 83 in Athlon Sports' Top 131 for the 2022 college football season

From 2008 to 2017, Northwestern was one of college football's most consistently solid programs. The Wildcats averaged 7.7 wins during that stretch, peaking with three 10-win seasons and never falling below five victories. The Wildcats weren't an annual Big Ten title contender, but they were always a team to contend with in the West Division.

The past four seasons have alternated between the most notable achievements (two division titles, one top-10 finish) and poorest records (3–9) of head coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern truly bottomed out last fall, finishing last in the Big Ten in points scored and 12th in points allowed.

Northwestern is seeking stability again and needs significant upgrades in several areas, including quarterback play and run defense.

"We gave it away last year," Fitzgerald says. "When you watch our line-of-scrimmage play, or our inability to take care of the ball, take it away, that's when we've been consistently successful. Our theme for the offseason is, 'You've got to earn it.' We've got to earn what we value and who we are."

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2022

Previewing Northwestern's Offense for 2022

Coordinator Mike Bajakian desperately needs more explosiveness and fewer mistakes, especially at quarterback. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski enters his second season but has gone through his first winter program in Evanston. He will be pushed by sophomore Brendan Sullivan and junior Carl Richardson.

"Last year might as well have been a freshman year," Fitzgerald says of Hilinski. "You can definitely tell he's further along in the system, in his confidence. We've got a great competition going on right now."

The Wildcats need a major boost from their receivers. Getting both Bryce Kirtz and Malik Washington healthy will help, and Jacob Gill could emerge after showing flashes as a true freshman. Northwestern added Illinois transfer Donny Navarro III (52 career receptions) and will remain active in the portal. Charlie Mangieri and Marshall Lang will handle the tight end spot.

The run game will remain Northwestern's strength, especially with Cam Porter's return from an ACL injury. Porter and Evan Hull, who rushed for 1,009 yards as the 2021 starter, form an excellent backfield combination along with reserves Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III. They will operate behind a line featuring tackle Peter Skoronski, an All-America candidate, veterans Ethan Wiederkehr and Charlie Schmidt, Colorado State transfer Vince Picozzi and others. "That's a really special group of guys," Fitzgerald says of the running backs. "They're going to give us a chance to be highly competitive."

Previewing Northwestern's Defense for 2022

The unit backslid sharply under first-year coordinator Jim O'Neil, dropping from fifth nationally in points allowed in 2020 to 89th last year. Despite external criticism about the scheme, Fitzgerald says there wasn't a philosophical shift but more of a change in terminology. Several career backups didn't perform well when thrust into the lineup, and Northwestern was gashed from the first play of the season onward.

Northwestern's secondary projects well despite safety Brandon Joseph's transfer to Notre Dame. Cornerbacks Cameron Mitchell and A.J. Hampton Jr. and safety Coco Azema are experienced options, and Rod Heard II likely will see the field as a fifth defensive back. Northwestern also added Duke cornerback transfer Jeremiah Lewis. "We have high expectations for that group," Fitzgerald says.

Bryce Gallagher will lead the linebackers, who need other playmakers to emerge. Junior Xander Mueller and sophomore Mac Uihlein are both worth watching, along with Pittsburgh transfer Wendell Davis, although Northwestern might end up using only two linebackers.

Northwestern hit the transfer portal along the defensive line, adding Taishan Holmes (UMass), Ryan Johnson (Stanford) and Henrik Barndt (Indiana State). They join veteran returnees such as end Adetomiwa Adebawore and tackles Jordan Butler and Jason Gold Jr. The Wildcats should have enough pass-rushing help but must stop the run better this fall.

Related: Big Ten Football Predictions for 2022

Previewing Northwestern's Specialists for 2022

The offense's scoring struggles place a premium on better placekicking, where junior Jack Olsen will get the first chance to replace four-year starter Charlie Kuhbander. UCLA transfer Luke Akers, the son of NFL kicker David Akers, will handle the punting duties. Raymond Niro III and Azema likely will handle punt and kickoff returns, which could be a strength this fall.

Final Analysis

Northwestern has an important opener against Nebraska in Ireland, a navigable September and a very tough midseason stretch beginning Oct. 1 at Penn State.

Fitzgerald hopes that a roster with more game experience, both through returnees and transfers, will generate across-the-board improvement. Although Northwestern handled the 2020 COVID season extremely well, the critical in-house development that was lost that year took its toll on the 2021 team. A normal offseason could lead to more normalized results this fall, which means improvement along both lines, in the turnover margin and in the red zone. Northwestern also must get something out of its passing game.

"Where we got exposed the most is just in physicality with the way we typically play," Fitzgerald says. "That was a byproduct of not being [together].

"We're a totally different team today than we were at this time last year."

National Ranking: 83

Podcast: Complete Big Ten Preview for 2022 + Predictions and Rankings