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2020 Big Ten Opponent Preview: Northwestern

Michigan State-Northwestern is set for Spartan Stadium Nov. 28. Here is what to know about the Wildcats.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As the 2020 Big Ten football season gets closer and closer, we continue our Michigan State Spartans’ opponent previews with the Northwestern Wildcats. The Spartans and Wildcats battle in East Lansing on Nov. 28, in what would be considered Week Six of the conference schedule.

To help paint the pictures of what NU looks like heading into the regular season, Eli Karp and Lia Assimakopoulos of Inside NU — the quintessential site for all things Wildcats — gives great insights and analysis into the Big Ten foe.

Here is what we need to know about Northwestern:

List your team’s key departures:

  • Rashawn Slater - LT, opted out after the season was originally postponed to the spring, declared for 2021 NFL Draft
  • Jared Thomas - C, graduated
  • Joe Gaziano - DE, graduated, school all-time sack leader, UDFA for the Chargers, now on practice squad

List your team’s key returnees:

  • Greg Newsome - DB, star DB
  • Kyric McGowan - WR who was used as a running back at times last year, could continue to do so
  • Riley Lees - WR, led team in receiving, needs to step up this year
  • Paddy Fisher - LB, draft-bound linebacker, star defender since arriving on campus but needs a rebound after a mediocre 2019
  • Earnest Brown - DE, major shoes to fill at DE after Gaziano’s departure, battled injury in the past - has good size and talent but needs to show production
  • Travis Whillock & JR Pace - senior starting safety tandem
  • Isaiah Bowser - RB, starting running back, missed most of last year with injuries but burst onto the scene in 2018 as true freshman - bruising, old-school back

List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact:

  • Peyton Ramsey - grad transfer QB, will likely step into the starting role after grad transfering from Indiana
  • John Raine - grad transfer TE, will fill a major void at TE after grad transferring from FAU
  • Derek Adams - grad transfer P, one of the MAC’s best punters continues NU’s cycle of recruiting grad transfers at the position
  • Peter Skoronski - OL, Northwestern’s highest rated OL recruit in program history - unclear if he’ll play as true frosh, but he could

Brief overview of 2020 team:

We (likely) know what we’ll get from the defense, which returns nine starters. Trae Williams and Joe Gaziano represent significant losses, but NU has been here before. With the seniority and familiarity this group has with each other and longtime coach Mike Hankwitz’s scheme, it should be a strong unit that could rank in the top 25 of scoring. Now with their time to shine, defensive ends Alex Miller and Earnest Brown IV will be tasked with generating pressure, something Northwestern has lacked the last couple of years despite fielding solid units. Across from Greg Newsome, the team’s undisputed number one corner, is the secondary’s question mark. Will it be Cam Ruiz, AJ Hampton or someone else who earns the starting slot?

The offense is another story. After a downright putrid 2019 that led to 12-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s departure, much of the core talent remains, and there’s a chance to be competent. And remember, Northwestern has won plenty of games with merely a partially functioning offense before - with this year’s schedule, they could do the same. Quarterback was a nightmare last year following Clayton Thorson’s graduation, and five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson struggled. Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey, who’s track record indicates he can hold his own in the Big Ten, should be the starter under new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Expect plenty of runs, but it won’t look like the boring, predictable offense of before. The offense will play with tempo and look to keep defenses off balance. The offensive line for once looks like it won’t limit the rest of the unit, even after star left tackle Rashawn Slater opted out of the season. But can the wide receivers get open, and will tight ends factor into the passing game? If the answer is yes to either of those questions, NU could finally play the complementary football its head coach loves to talk about.

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

Defense, specifically its linebackers, has kept the team in close battles even when its offense struggles. The combination of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher has been consistently reliable and a force to be reckoned with. On numerous occasions last season, the offense barely spent any time on the field but the defense kept things within striking distance. The core of Fisher, Galllagher and Chris Bergin will now be together for three years, so there’s plenty of comfort with one another.

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

Northwestern’s biggest weakness overall is the pass game. It is still uncertain who will play under center and how they will perform, despite having plenty of options. It appears Peyton Ramsey will hold that role but is still uncertain. To make matters worse, the receiving unit struggled greatly last season, and without a real star receiver, it could struggle again in 2020.

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

Our fan base loves Fitz. As an NU alum, star linebacker and member of the 1995 Rose Bowl team, as well as one of the best coaches in Northwestern history, he has secured a spot in the hearts of all NU fans. Do his mannerisms and lack of change sometimes irk fans? Yes, but his staff is now thought of better after the departure of longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall, whom many fans did not like. With new OC Mike Bajakian, people are hopeful.

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

It’s either Ramsey or Fisher, neither of which are surprise choices. If Fisher can regain 2017 or 2018 form, the defense as a whole will elevate and make the impact plays it so lacked last year. Furthermore, he needs a good season to help out his draft stock. With Ramsey, Northwestern literally just needs a guy who is confident in the offense and brings the scoring unit up to average. After last year, fans realized how much they missed Clayton Thorson, even if he was maddening at times. If Ramsey can replicate his production from Indiana, things will be fine in Evanston.

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss:

Let’s say 5-3. NU has a favorable schedule, and this would be a solid bounce back year after going 1-8 in the Big Ten last year. Best win is at Minnesota with a potential surprise loss (are there really any surprises in the Big Ten West?) to Purdue.

What else should we know about your team this year?

The kicking game is still very mediocre! (since we hadn’t gotten to that yet) Aside from that, the program feels embarrassed from last year and is highly motivated to avoid a repeat of that disaster.


Thank you to Eli and Lia for the in-depth analysis regarding Northwestern. You can catch Eli and catch Lia on Twitter at their respective handles, and to keep up with news about the Wildcats, definitely follow Inside NU as well.