By Kevin Sweeney
I’ve been assigned the task of recapping the 2019 Northwestern football season. I can’t imagine I’m the only person that doesn’t have a ton of interest in reliving that months-long fiasco in painstaking detail.
In short, it was bad. The offense was historically bad in every facet: poor play-calling, poor quarterback play and injuries at the skill positions all led to a seemingly-incompetent unit. The magic the ‘Cats had for multiple years in winning close games seemed to vanish. It wasn’t fun to be a Northwestern football fan!
Rather than simply recapping what happened this season, I’ll instead frame this article from a slightly different perspective. Essentially, I’ll explore the reasons for optimism about the program as well as some of the reasons for pessimism.
Reasons I’m Optimistic:
Mike Bajakian’s Offensive System Should be an Improvement:
Pat Fitzgerald moved aggressively to improve the offense this winter by replacing longtime OC Mick McCall with the well-traveled Mike Bajakian. Bajakian most recently coordinated the Boston College offense, which ranked in the top 40 nationally in his first year at the helm. My favorite part of his system is how he has consistently adapted his play-calling to fit his personnel: at Boston College, he established a power running scheme around star RB AJ Dillon, but at Central Michigan he ran an air-it-out attack to maximize the exploits of Antonio Brown. I’d expect this year’s NU offense to look more like the former than the latter given the depth of the running back room and the return of four starters along the offensive line. The offensive line was one of the few bright spots of 2019, including a strong finish against Illinois in the season finale during which the ‘Cats ran for nearly 400 yards.
The Addition of Peyton Ramsey Increases the Floor Substantially:
McCall was an easy target of criticism all season, but the QB room was far from blameless. Hunter Johnson looked lost running the offense, Aidan Smith was in over his head in the Big Ten, and I’m skeptical that Andrew Marty’s “JT Barrett reincarnated” act can actually work for a full season. TJ Green’s return for year six provided some insurance, but I was always of the belief that Northwestern needed a grad transfer in case Johnson couldn’t tap into the talent that made him a 5-star recruit out of high school. Enter Ramsey, who has acquitted himself well in three years under center at Indiana. He completed 68% of his passes, averaged over 8 yards per attempt, and threw for 13 touchdowns compared to just 5 INTs last season. I’d like nothing more for Johnson to win the job and star at QB for the ‘Cats this fall (or whenever the season gets played). That said, having a proven starting-caliber Big Ten QB in the fold gives the offense a stability that just wasn’t there last year. If I were a betting man, I’d say Ramsey takes the first snap of the season.
Northwestern was a sneaky-young team in 2019, and that was before injuries forced several young players into action earlier than expected. Eight of the team’s top ten tacklers return on the defensive side of ball, and young players like Tommy Adebawore and Jason Gold were effective late in the season on the defensive line — good news as the ‘Cats look to replace Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller up front. Greg Newsome looked like one of the better corners in the Big Ten when healthy, and the JR Pace/Travis Whillock pairing at safety is one of the best in the Big Ten. The Northwestern defense struggled at times last season, but should be in for a major bounceback in 2020.
Reasons I’m Pessimistic:
Skill Level Still Lacking On Offense:
While conservative playcalling and QB woes were the primary criticisms of the Wildcat offense in 2019, the skill players didn’t step up as hoped. Northwestern lost Ben Skowronek early in the season and spent the rest of the season looking for answers at the WR spot. Kyric McGowan suffered a season-ending injury as soon as he started to turn it on. JJ Jefferson struggled with drops. That left Riley Lees and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman: steady, but not stars. The WR issues, combined with a hole at superback created by Cam Green, left NU without reliable targets on the outside. Some combo of returners like McGowan and Lees along with young talent like Malik Washington and Bryce Kirtz could lead to some improvement at WR, and perhaps Thomas Gordon jumps in at the newly-rebranded tight end position. Still, are you taking that receiver room over any above-average Big Ten team’s? I doubt it.
Northwestern’s schedule may not look overly daunting on paper given the relative lack of big names, but the slate still presents a number of challenges. A road trip to Michigan State to open the year is winnable, but facing a team in their first game with a new coach and emotions running high is a challenge. NU likely SHOULD beat Tulane and Central Michigan at home in weeks two and three, but neither are gimme games against strong Group of 5 programs. I’d argue Northwestern’s four toughest Big Ten games are all away from home, with trips to Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota looking daunting in addition to what will ostensibly be a neutral-site game against Wisconsin at Wrigley Field. That makes the path to bowl eligibility a difficult one, and the path to contending for a West division championship incredibly challenging.
Time Not On Our Side:
Every team in the country faces a strange preseason outlook given the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, but teams attempting to put in new schemes will be in worse shape than the rest. Northwestern has a new offensive coordinator and potentially a new quarterback. Even in a world with Zoom team meetings and downloadable playbooks, it’s going to take some time to get accustomed to Mike Bajakian’s new style. Without knowing what the preseason will look like, it’s hard to say how much of an impact this will have. Still, I’d be prepared for even more growing pains than normal as all these new faces in the offensive room feel each other out.