2019 College Football Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

(Photo: Justin Jackson, 2015 Northwestern Football)

Northwestern Wildcats

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald

2018 Record: 9-5, 8-1 Conference

Bowl: 31-20 Win over Utah at Holiday Bowl

Season Win Prop: 6.5 wins (O +115, U -145)

Make 4 Team Playoff: +25000

Northwestern has seemingly been gearing up and building towards making a major Big Ten convention leap, and last year has to be deemed quite a success after faring 8-1 in Big Ten play. A third-straight Bowl win was another nice accent. But the likes of Ohio State and Michigan are hardly going to hand the Wildcats a thing. Becoming a consistent threat and winning its early non-conference games are the next step towards becoming an elite program, something that head coach Pat Fitzgerald has coveted and refuses to settle for less than.

Offense

Northwestern won last season in spite of its offense, not because of it: The Wildcats have ranked near the bottom of the FBS sine 2015 in many key offensive categories: 4.95 yards per play (No. 123), Percentage of 10-plus yard plays (No. 121, just 17 percent). Without substantial offensive improvement, this team stagnates. To prevent that the Wildcats are placing its hopes and expectations on quarterback Hunter Johnson.

Johnson comes from five-star recruiting caliber, and he is eligible after sitting out last season (coming from Clemson). A fortunate transfer occurrence to say the least, he is the best QB talent Fitzgerald has had the chance to coach at Northwestern. The Wildcats truly need it after ranking just No. 122 nationally with 6.24 yards-per-reception. While Clayton Thorson was not outright horrible, Johnson has several attributes Thorson fully lacked, most notably a steady ground game and reliable threat as a rusher. He also has a better and deeper cast of wide receivers. Ben Skowronek has put together back-to-back 45 reception seasons, highlighted by a show-stopping catch at Iowa that enabled Northwestern to win the division. Riley Lees is a good slot receiver. Kyric McGowan, JJ Jefferson, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, and incoming freshman Genson Hooper-Price are all a talented group, and Northwestern is hoping they can vastly increase last year’s paltry reception average.

Isaiah Bowser was a pleasant and season-saving surprise after the Cats lost its No. 1 back Jeremy Larkin due to medical retirement. Bowser rushed for 108 yards per game over the final eight contests, and Northwestern is pleased with the secondary and tertiary backs behind him on the depth chart. John Moten IV and Jesse Brown are strong. Drake Anderson has the pedigree of being leading-rusher and alumnus son, in his father Damien Anderson. There is plenty of reasons to expect the rushing game to be vital as the passing game improves.

The biggest source of concern, and it is a big one, is the offensive line. Kurt Anderson takes over as the line coach, and despite Northwestern having improved in most aspects over the past few seasons, the OL was disappointing in 2018.

Defense

The defense is deep and talented. All-Big Ten end Joe Gaziano headlines it and he is surrounded by a host of other good pass rushers. Earnest Brown IV, Samdup Miller, Eku Leota, and Devin O’Rourke are all going to be big blitz threats. Losing Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster on the interior of the line is a loss, though. Alex Miller is the hope to replace their production.

Paddy Fisher is another star of the defense at linebacker. He had 110-plus tackles and four forced fumbles, along with one INT each of his first two seasons in the NCAA. Blake Gallagher lines up on the opposite end, with Chris Bergin serving as a third starter in the rotation. The secondary lost its top player in Montre Hartage, but there is sufficient depth to make up for that top-end loss. Safety should be especially strong with JR Pace (four INTs last year), and Travis Whitlock. Sophomore Greg Newsome should be ready to contribute and help replace Hartage, as well.

Special Teams

Northwestern did not get great placekicking last year, and it is counting on the always dubious internal improvements of both Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh. Northwestern had no field goals from further than 37-yards last season with that pair. Cody Gronewold takes over for Jake Collins at punter. Northwestern has about average return talents, with Lees and McGowan serving as the two return men.

Final Word

The offense really has to catch up to the defense, which of course sounds a good bit simpler than the actual reality of it. Thorson was not incredibly good, but he was experienced. Johnson’s increase in talent with has to come with a great learning curve if Northwestern is to contend for a conference title this year. The offensive line and defensive tackle spots are still concerns, as well. Starting the season better is imperative. There are just a lot of improvements still to be made to take the next leap into OSU and Michigan territory, obviously.

Prediction: 7 wins (over)

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