The Northwestern Wildcats were the surprise of the Big Ten in 2020. After winning their first Big Ten West crown, and coming from behind to defeat Utah in the Holiday Bowl in 2018, it appeared that Northwestern had finally taken that next big step. But then an injury-plagued, mistake-filled '19 season hit NU with a huge dose of reality. After a slew of changes during the offseason (new quarterback, offensive coordinator, etc), the Wildcats were primed to reestablish themselves in '20.
This season, however, almost didn't happen. The COVID-19 pandemic brought spring football to a screeching halt in March. Then after a summer of sitting and waiting, the Big Ten initially announced a 10-game, conference-only schedule in July, only to reverse course in August with the intention of playing in the spring.
The league, however, would change its mind again in September, deciding on an eight-game, conference-only schedule as coronavirus testing became more widely available. Northwestern made the most of the opportunity, going 7-2, winning the Big Ten West, and making the school's second appearance in the conference title game. The Wildcats came up short against Ohio State but rebounded to beat Auburn in the Citrus Bowl and finished the season 10th in the AP poll. It was the program's first top-10 finish since 1995.
Pat Fitzgerald's team is set to undergo changes this offseason but for now, let's recap the 2020 campaign by handing out some hardware.
Offensive MVP: Peyton Ramsey, QB
While his numbers didn't jump off of the page, the Indiana transfer brought some much-needed stability to the quarterback position, which has been lacking since the Clayton Thorson era. Ramsey led the Big Ten in completions (172), finished third in passing yards (1,733), seventh in completion rate (61.0), fourth in touchdown passes (12), and had a passer rating of 121.0. He also finished sixth among signal-callers in rushing yards (263).
Ramsey was cool as a cucumber under center this season. He showed poise in the pocket, displayed accuracy, arm strength, made good decisions, and showcased mobility when needed. Wildcats fans were hopeful that Ramsey would take advantage of the NCAA's COVID-19 exception for eligibility and return for one more season. But as of now, he has announced his intention to enter the upcoming NFL draft, so he may be one-and-done in Evanston.
Defensive MVP(s): Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, LB
The Wildcats had multiple players stand out on the defensive side of the ball but Fisher and Gallagher have been the heart and soul of this defense from the moment they took the field. This past season both men combined for 170 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, four pass deflections, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries with Gallagher also chipping in with a pair of sacks. Both men are versatile defenders who can line up against any offense. Gallagher has already announced that he will be entering the draft and Fisher is expected to do the same. Replacing these two stalwarts will be easier said than done.
Best Newcomer: Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian
This choice is a no-brainer. Bajakian was a total difference-maker for this Northwestern team. In 2019 under then-offensive coordinator Mick McCall, the Wildcats not only ranked second-to-last or dead last in the Big Ten in three of the four major offensive categories, but they also ranked near the bottom of the entire FBS in total, scoring and passing offense. Fitzgerald then decided to move on from McCall and turned to Bajakian, who had been at Boston College.
Bajakian introduced a pro-style/hybrid scheme and even without the benefit of a full or normal offseason to install it, Northwestern successfully made the transition to a new system. The Wildcats didn't transform into an offensive juggernaut by any means, but the improvement was noticeable and they also became a little more difficult to game plan against because of an added degree of unpredictability. Northwestern finished ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (360.7 ypg), eighth in rushing offense (162.8 ypg), and 10th in scoring offense (24.7 ppg). After averaging 16.3 points per game in 2019, the Wildcats scored 20 or more points in seven of their nine games. Perhaps with a full offseason to fully implement Bajakian's playbook, Northwestern's offense may be able to take another step forward.
Best Play(s) of the Season: Defensive performance against Wisconsin
Before taking on the Badgers, Northwestern had defeated Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska, and Purdue. Both teams had posted a combined record of 7-7 to that point, and none were ranked. Then came a Nov. 21 date against No. 10 Wisconsin. If the Wildcats were legitimate contenders for the Big Ten West, they needed to bring their A-game against the Badgers. And that's exactly what Northwestern did.
The defense held Wisconsin to a single touchdown and 136 rushing yards. The Wildcats also forced five turnovers as they posted a second straight home win (2018) over the Badgers. This game was what put Northwestern on everyone's radar and what fueled the run to a Big Ten West title.
Best Performance (Player): Rushing attack vs. Illinois
In beating Illinois 28-10 in the Dec. 12 regular-season finale, Northwestern ran over the Illini to the tune of 411 yards and three touchdowns on the ground alone. Even with 58 rushing attempts, the Wildcats averaged better than seven yards per carry as a team as running backs Evan Hull (149) and Cam Porter (142) both went over the century mark on the ground. Northwestern's dominating ground game produced a sixth straight win over Illinois, their longest winning streak over the Illini.
Best Performance (Team): 17-7 win over No. 10 Wisconsin
In addition to the aforementioned defensive performance, the offense did its part in beating the Badgers. Peyton Ramsey's 203 passing yards and two touchdowns overcame a sluggish ground game (24 rushing yards). Even though Northwestern was forced to be one-dimensional on offense, Ramsey and company made enough plays to secure the victory.
Defining Moment: Defeating No. 10 Wisconsin
Even though Northwestern started out 4-0, this was the game that set the tone for the rest of the season. It also signaled to the rest of the Big Ten as well the nation that the Wildcats are for real.
Biggest Surprise: Earnest Brown IV, Eku Leota and Joe Spivak, DL
Led by these three, Northwestern's defensive line certainly made its presence felt this season. The trio combined for 59 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, and six sacks with Brown also credited with four pass breakups. Spivak also lined up as a fullback in goal-line situations, helping pave the way for some of the Wildcats' 12 rushing touchdowns. Brown has already announced he's declaring for the draft, but returns by Leota and Spivak would at least give the defense some building blocks up front.
Biggest Disappointment: Losses to Michigan State and Ohio State
These are the obvious choices. Heading into the game in East Lansing, the Wildcats were in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings and had the chance to make history. They were in prime position to win four straight games at Spartan Stadium for the first time ever. Against Ohio State in Indianapolis, the Wildcats were not only seeking their first win over the Buckeyes under Pat Fitzgerald, but they also were in search of their first Big Ten title since 2000. None of these scenarios would come to fruition.
Uncharacteristic mistakes in the form of four turnovers, along with a couple of questionable play calls, sealed Northwestern's fate against Michigan State in an eventual 29-20 loss. In the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wildcats led 10-6 at halftime but were unable to slow down Ohio State, particularly running back Trey Sermon, in the second half. Northwestern didn't score in the final 30 minutes as the Buckeyes put up the final 16 points. Fitzgerald dropped to 0-8 in his tenure against Ohio State, who went on to the College Football Playoff and lost in the national championship game to Alabama.
The silver lining for the Wildcats was a trip to the Citrus Bowl to face Auburn. Northwestern dominated the Tigers 35-19 for their fourth straight bowl victory, the longest streak in program history.
Senior(s) That Will be Missed the Most: Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher
Since it seems unlikely that neither will choose to return for one more season, it's time to summarize their Northwestern careers. Their contributions both on defense and to the program as a whole are numerous. Whoever takes their spots in the starting lineup next season has some big shoes to fill.
Player(s) to Watch in 2021: Isaiah Bowser, Cam Porter and Evan Hull, RB
With Drake Anderson transferring, and Jesse Brown graduating, these three will get the bulk of the carries next season. Bowser first burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2018 when he ran for 866 and six touchdowns, but injuries limited him to just five games in '19. He played in seven games this past season, was more part of a rotation and averaged less than three yards per carry. Whether Bowser reclaims the lead back role remains to be seen but even if he does, he won't be the only one getting opportunities to run the ball.
Porter and Hull did their part as freshmen. Porter led the team with 333 rushing yards and five touchdowns while Hull averaged a robust 8.4 yards per carry and scored twice on the ground. With the possibility that Peyton Ramsey and his top two receivers — Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan — could all opt to enter the NFL draft instead of returning, Northwestern may have to lean even more on its running game this fall. Fortunately, it appears the backfield cupboard is well stocked.
Offseason Storyline: Who will run the defense?
After more than 50 years and 400 victories as an assistant coach, longtime Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is retiring. The 73-year-old has been with the Wildcats since 2008 and while it's entirely possible that Pat Fitzgerald will promote another defensive assistant to fill the role, Hankwitz' retirement marks the end of an era for the program. The transition coupled with the expected personnel losses on that side of the ball add plenty of intrigue when it comes to the future of the Northwestern defense.
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)