The Michigan State Spartans open the 2021 season in Evanston against the Northwestern Wildcats on Friday. As such, our opponent preview series now takes a look at Northwestern — the reigning Big Ten West champions. The Spartans stunned the Wildcats last season. Can it happen again?
To help us learn more about Northwestern is Ben Chasen, co-managing editor of Inside NU — SB Nation’s quintessential website for all things Northwestern. Ben has provided his thoughts, analysis and opinions about what the Wildcats bring to the table in 2021.
Here is what to know about Northwestern, according to Ben:
List your team’s key departures:
- Eku Leota, defensive end, main disrupter on the defensive line in 2020 (transferred to Auburn)
- Greg Newsome II, cornerback, was an All-American in 2020, drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Browns
- Paddy Fisher, linebacker, three-year captain and major defensive contributor
- Blake Gallagher, linebacker, Fisher’s right-hand man and multi-year starter
- Peyton Ramsey, quarterback, former grad-transfer from Indiana who rejuvenated offense and led team to Big Ten West and Citrus Bowl titles
- Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, wide receiver, 2020 receiving leader
- Riley Lees, wide receiver, 2019 receiving leader and kick returner
- JR Pace, safety, multi-year starter and leader of the defensive backfield
- Gunnar Vogel, offensive lineman, multi-year starter at various positions on the line
- Earnest Brown IV, defensive end, multi-year starter on defensive line, drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Rams
List your team’s key returnees:
- Brandon Joseph, safety, FBS co-leader in INTs in 2020 and first-team All-American
- Chris Bergin, linebacker, last remaining piece of “Irish Law Firm” linebacking corps that has been the heart and soul of NU’s defense in recent years
- Hunter Johnson, quarterback, former five-star recruit who, after transferring from Clemson, started in 2019 to disastrous results before injury, served as backup in 2020, was named starter for season opener
- Peter Skoronski, offensive tackle, former five-star recruit who filled Rashawn Slater’s shoes admirably and anchored the line in 2020, big expectations for the remainder of his NU career
- Adetomiwa Adebawore, defensive end, showed flashes of greatness in 2020 and has apparently performed very well in camp
- Evan Hull, running back, has contributed significantly on occasion during his first two years in Evanston, but never has been a major piece of the offense, forced into prominent role due to the season-ending injury Cam Porter suffered in camp
- AJ Hampton, cornerback, most experienced cornerback who will bear the weight of replacing Newsome
- Samdup Miller, defensive end, multi-year starter who opted out of the 2020 season but is returning for one last year with the Wildcats
List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact:
- Andrew Clair, running back, transfer from Bowling Green, speediest guy in a backfield that will likely operate by committee
- Anthony Tyus, running back, true freshman who is more of a power back than anyone in the aforementioned backfield
- Stephon Robinson Jr., wide receiver, transfer from Kansas who will likely be one of NU’s primary targets
Brief overview of 2021 team:
If you’d have asked me what the expectations for Northwestern’s season were a week ago, I’d likely have answered completely differently than I would now, but the main thing that remains the same is that there will be plenty of new faces for NU this year. As my answer to the first question indicates, a *ton* of really solid players left Northwestern after its landmark 2020 campaign. With those departures come a ton of open jobs that will be given to players who have seen limited field time in their college careers thus far.
One position that was not expected to be a question mark was running back. The expectation there was that Cam Porter — who finished the 2020 as the lead back for Northwestern, performed encouragingly despite being a true freshman and chased the next two running backs on the depth chart out of town – would be the starter, and that he’d play a major role in NU’s offense, potentially as a breakout star.
Of course, a lot of things don’t go according to plan in football, and that’s just what happened in this scenario. Porter suffered a season-ending lower body injury during training camp, throwing a roster that already was returning only a measly 34 percent of its 2020 production into further disarray. To add to the chaos, at the same time as the Porter injury was revealed, Hunter Johnson was announced as Northwestern’s starting quarterback for Week One, a job that most expected to go to South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski.
To be honest, I have no earthly idea how this team is going to perform. At the very most, I can see them contending for another Big Ten West title. I can also see them winning one or two total Big Ten games. There’s simply no real way to know whether the guys who need to step up for the team to succeed will or won’t do so, so it’s really impossible to have any sort of solidified idea of how the team will perform.
What’s your team’s biggest strength?
The defensive line should be really solid for Northwestern once again. Despite losing Leota to transfer and Brown to the NFL Draft, Northwestern returns Adetomiwa Adebawore, who showed amazing promise as a major disrupter in 2020, and Samdup Miller, who started for years at the defensive end and was regularly among the team’s leaders in tackles and sacks before opting out of the 2020 season. At defensive tackle, the team returns its two opening night starters from 2020. While pretty much everywhere else on the depth chart there is chaos for the ‘Cats, the defensive line looks very likely to remain a sturdy and frightening force for opposing teams to face.
What’s your team’s biggest weakness?
As a whole, Northwestern lacks a lot of the experience that has helped generate its recent success. While an uptick in recruiting over the last several years means that there’s more talent to replace what’s been lost than there has been before, there’s simply a lot of guys who will be seeing their first starts in 2021. As such, across the board, there are likely to be some rookie mistakes, and, if enough of the new starters don’t play to their potential, the season could get downright ugly.
How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?
Pat Fitzgerald is probably the single most beloved person at Northwestern University. He’s brought the program to a level of success over the last decade that it hadn’t really seen in the modern era before. He was a star linebacker at Northwestern back in his playing days, leading the team to its first Rose Bowl in decades then, so he already had the goodwill of the Wildcat faithful before he walked in the door. But, predispositions aside, he’s become one of the premier coaches in all of college football throughout the 15 years he’s been Northwestern’s head coach. He’s built a brand out of an NU program that had, at many times, been a joke prior to his arrival. Northwestern could lose every single game it plays this season, and the likelihood is that Fitz’s seat wouldn’t get remotely warm. If that doesn’t tell you how the fanbase and school feels about him, I don’t know what will.
As for his staff, feelings are largely positive, albeit with an uncertain twist this season. Mike Bajakian came in for the 2020 season and revamped what was previously one of the most lethargic offenses in the country, which earned him a lot of credibility, and the hope among many in Evanston is that the offense will stay productive under his leadership despite the loss of every single skill position starter on the 2020 roster. The position coaches are widely regarded as knowledgeable and capable of developing players from under-the-radar recruits into stars.
Defensive coordinator is where fans might not be so optimistic. After a lengthy coaching career that spanned over five decades long, Mike Hankwitz, who had been NU’s DC since 2008, decided to call it a career after 2020. In his place, Northwestern brought in Jim O’Neil, who has held a variety of NFL coaching gigs in recent years, none of which were particularly successful. In press conferences this offseason, NU defenders have mentioned how they like many of the pro-style concepts O’Neil has brought into the fold, but the majority of fans are going to be skeptical of the newcomer until he proves he can trot out defenses that line up with those of Hankwitz.
Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?
If the Wildcats are going to be successful in 2021, their most valuable player is going to have to be Hunter Johnson. With the injury to Cam Porter, the running back room can’t be heavily relied upon anymore, and the receiving corps will be comprised entirely of first-time starters. While Brandon Joseph stands out as the best player on Northwestern’s roster, Johnson will have to be the most valuable to the team in order for it to succeed.
Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss:
I’ll go 7-6 (with a bowl win) with a victory over Iowa and a surprise losses to Rutgers and Duke. But as my previous answers have probably made clear, that’s basically all guesswork.
Much like Michigan State, Northwestern is a much different looking team in 2021 compared to its 2020 roster. It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats perform this season. Thank you to Ben for providing great insights into Northwestern. You can follow him on Twitter, and for more on Northwestern, follow Inside NU.