The top half of the schedule countdown continues today, holiday weekend or not, as the Northwestern Wildcats clock in at No. 5 in our toughest matchups ranking. The 2020 Big Ten West Division champs, Northwestern’s second division title in the past three years, took a big upset loss in Spartan Stadium, and speaking personally that sure was a great game to have picked to sit in the press box for. Despite some talk during the offseason of NFL interest in head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats kept their alumnus at the helm. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how NU did last season and why the Wildcats clock in at No. 5 heading into the 2021 season.
2020 Record: 7-2
Northwestern came out of the gate in a big way in 2020 with a blowout 43-3 win over Maryland. Then NU pulled out a squeaker at Iowa, winning 21-20 before a 21-13 win over Nebraska. The Wildcats pulled out another one score win at Purdue, 27-20, before eviscerating Wisconsin at Ryan Field 17-7.
Riding the big upset win over the Badgers, NU proceeded to drop its only game of the regular season to MSU. Then a week off ensued as the Minnesota Golden Gophers had a COVID-19 outbreak that cancelled Northwestern’s following game. A beat down of Illinois for the Land of Lincoln Trophy offered a tune up before facing the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship. NU led 10-6 at halftime of that one, but the Buckeyes scored 16 unanswered points in the second half for the win and the conference crown. The Wildcats ended up with a trip to the Citrus Bowl and took out their frustration on the Auburn Tigers and interim head coach Kevin Steele in a 35-19 beatdown to end a successful 2020 season.
The Spartans would have a chance to double their lead in the overall series with a win in 2021 as MSU holds a 39-20 advantage over Northwestern. NU is a more competitive 7-9 against MSU since 2000, including a three-game win streak from 2016-2018, tying for the longest win streak ever by the Wildcats in the series with the other coming from 1905-1924. MSU’s best mark was eleven straight wins from 1959-1969. Michigan State currently owns the win streak in the series at two in a row heading into 2021.
2021 Offensive Outlook
I can honestly say I was caught a bit surprised when I sat down to put together who I thought should be ranked where when I saw Peyton Ramsey had decided not to use an extra year of eligibility and left Northwestern. It shouldn’t actually be that surprising, but why not use the extra year to finish a graduate degree from NU before moving on.
Regardless, also surprising is seeing Hunter Johnson currently listed first-string. The Clemson transfer had to sit out in 2018 before having a lackluster debut for the Wildcats in 2019. He played in just six games, initially starting before being benched late in September against Wisconsin. He later came back against Indiana, but left the game with a knee injury. Johnson threw for 432 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 64 yards and throwing four interceptions in the season. The former elite quarterback was highly rated out of high school and may still surprise. However, his performance thus far begs to question. Behind him on the depth chart are South Carolina transfer and junior Ryan Hilinski and redshirt senior Andrew Marty. It seems Hilinski may very well challenge Johnson for the starting role, but who is to know. You can find a more detailed breakdown at Inside NU of what each quarterback offers (while the article predates Hilinski’s actual commitment, it still features a section on what the transfer brings to the table for the Wildcats).
Northwestern has to replace its top three wide receivers from last season, Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan, and Riley Lees. Kansas transfer and fifth-year senior Stephon Robinson Jr. was likely the key transfer portal pickup for NU in efforts to replace lost production. Robinson was only able to play in three games due to injuries in 2020, but averaged 17.5 yards per catch on his two catches for the year. In 2019, he hauled in 45 catches for 727 yards, eight touchdowns, and an average of 16.2 yards per catch. Also listed first-team on the spring depth chart is junior Malik Washington and redshirt sophomore Bryce Kirtz. Neither has seen much production yet in their careers.
Gone for the Wildcats is would-be senior Isaiah Bowser who entered the transfer portal, but returning is rising sophomore Cam Porter who ended the 2020 season as the leading rusher for the Wildcats in his freshman season. Porter saw action in eight games with 83 rushing attempts for 358 total yards and an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Porter also managed five touchdowns.
NU’s offense in 2020 ranked just 10th in scoring in the league with 24.7 points per game. It was efficient enough to get the job done, clearly, but with a lot of unproven production, it probably needs to find a higher gear this season if the Wildcats want a chance for a second-straight trip to Indianapolis come December.
2021 Defensive Outlook
The Northwestern defensive line also has a lot of production to replace. Gone are defensive ends Earnest Brown (fifth-round pick to the L.A. Rams) and Eku Leota (Auburn transfer). Leota led the team in sacks and Brown led the line in tackles for loss. Back, however, is Adetomiwa Adebawore and Samdump Miller. Adebawore notched 11 tackles last season, 6.0 for loss. Miller took a year off due to COVID-19, but had 29 total tackles in 2019 as a junior, 2.5 tackles for loss (TFL), and 0.5 sacks while defending one pass.
Returning at linebacker at the SAM position will be Chris Bergin, who was third on the team in total tackles (78), third in solo tackles (40), third assisted tackles (38), had 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks, defended two passes, and forced a fumble he also recovered. Leaving a big hole in production in the linebacker corps, though, is Paddy Fischer and Blake Gallagher. Fisher was a multiple-time All-Big Ten selection, including first-team in 2020, while Gallagher garnered second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020 and finished the season leading NU in total tackles (87) and TFL (9.5). However, his younger brother Bryce, a three-star out of high school and rising junior, looks to be the new starter at the MIKE spot and is both taller and heavier than his brother.
Finally, Brandon Joseph returns for his redshirt-sophomore year in the secondary. The safety garnered unanimous AFCA All-America first-team honors, Associate Press first-team, Sporting News first-team, AP All-Big Ten first-team, and AP Big Ten Newcomer of the Year honors. Exhausted yet from the accolades? Joseph also became the first player in the Big Ten to notch three interceptions in the first three games of a season since 2016, and finished the season with six total. He notched 78 total tackles, 40 solo, 38 assisted, and defended two passes as well. Joseph is a menace in the secondary and will have some skilled players alongside him with Cameron Mitchell and AJ Hampton playing cornerbacks with Bryce Jackson at the other safety slot. All saw significant snaps in 2020, with Hampton leading the three in stats with 26 total tackles, 16 solo, 10 assisted, one interception, and five passes defended.
NU ranked No. 1 in scoring defense in the league in 2020, limiting opponents to just 15.9 points per game. While a lot of important production is gone, Fitzgerald is a defensive guru and looks to have plenty of key pieces back to work with. The offense will rely heavily on this group as usual, but especially early in the season including when the Spartans visit.
Why No. 5?
Overall, Northwestern has a lot of new pieces to figure out heading into the 2021 season that may have warranted moving the Wildcats further back in these rankings. However, NU is the first out of the gate for a Michigan State squad that also has a lot of pieces to figure out. Had NU returned more of its production, this game would have been even higher on the list of challenges. However, Northwestern is coached by a veteran and proven staff with homefield advantage in a 9 p.m. EDT kickoff to open the season. That alone gives Northwestern the edge over Michigan for the No. 5 spot.
The Spartans have struggled in late night kickoffs early in the season in past years. A 9 p.m. EDT kick seems no different. This one will be a tough one to predict a win, but the one redeeming grace is Northwestern often struggles in early season games under Fitzgerald the last few years. Combined with all the new influx of players, it is a toss-up with the edge probably leaning toward the home team.