Opponent Preview: Nebraska
Northwestern football aims to start its 2022 season on a high note with the Aer Lingus College Football Classic against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Aug. 27 in Dublin, Ireland.
By Ryan Choe
Coming off a disappointing 2021 season (3-9, 1-8 B1G), Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are looking for a bounceback year. A combination of both new and old faces make up the team, with defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil entering his second season with five returning defensive starters, along with a few immediate impact transfers. Third-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and the offense bring back eight starters, including standout left tackle Peter Skoronski and returning running back Cam Porter, who missed all of last year with a lower body injury.
The ‘Cats will try to avenge last year’s humiliation against the Cornhuskers in which the 49-point loss was Nebraska’s largest win ever against a Big Ten opponent. Here are a fast five facts to look out for as Northwestern looks for its first football victory since October 16, 2021:
1. QB Starter/Consistency
The more things change, the more they stay the same as yet another year brings major uncertainty around the most important position on the field.
Here’s what is known about the quarterback position this year: it’s down to a two-horse race between returning starter junior Ryan Hilinski and redshirt first-year Brendan Sullivan. The competition has been tightly-contested all throughout the spring and summer training camps, with Fitzgerald uncommitted to naming a starter as of August 22. Although reports from Fitzgerald and the coaching staff are that both made strong improvements, it remains to be seen what type of quarterback play the ‘Cats will be provided with this season.
After a decent start last season, Hilinski struggled down the closing stretch finishing with 54% completion rate (second-to-last in the B1G), 978 yards, 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Based on the lackluster performance, it’s understandable that fans and the coaching staff alike want to see what type of change Sullivan can bring. On top of strides in the passing department during the offseason, the three-star recruit from Davison, Michigan. brings a dual-threat profile that Hilinski hasn’t shown at Northwestern or his previous school South Carolina. However, Hilinski has the stronger arm and will have the benefit of having the same offensive coordinator in consecutive years for the first time in his college career.
No matter who starts the Nebraska contest or the rest of the season, odds are that the quarterback play will reflect the type of season Northwestern has. Clayton Thorson and Peyton Ramsey provided the model consistency in the past which never inhibited the team’s success during their respective tenures. The ‘Cats cannot afford to have a chaotic rotating act like last year with Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty and Hilinski. Hopefully, this game provides clarity and consistency at the quarterback spot and leads to the offense scoring more than the meager 16.6 points per game they averaged last year (125th out of 130 FBS teams).
2. The Northwestern Defense
Last year, Northwestern’s defense surrendered its highest average points per game since 2010 (29 points per game) and most average total yards allowed ever under Fitzgerald (429.5 yards per game). It was a far cry from the stout units led by former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired following the 2020 season. While Jim O’Neil received a lion’s share of the blame, the defense as a whole struggled while attempting to replace program stars such as Paddy Fischer, Blake Gallagher and Greg Newsome II, plus a wealth of starting experience.
Making things even more dire is the departure of former All-American safety Brandon Joseph, whose transfer to Notre Dame this offseason leaves a noticeable gap in the secondary. Luckily, the other spots bring back all of last season’s starters junior Cam Mitchell, senior A.J Hampton and junior Coco Azema. While the ‘Cats lost Joseph and a couple rotational defenders in the transfer portal, they also added potential immediate starters. Taishan Holmes (UMass), Henrik Barndt (Indiana State) and Ryan Johnson (Stanford) were brought in to help senior Adetomiwa Adebawore along the defensive line, while Wendell Davis Jr. (Pitt) looks to help solidify the linebacker corps alongside junior Bryce Gallagher in the wake of last year’s leading tackler Chris Bergin’s graduation.
The coaching staff also added Ryan Smith from Virginia Tech, who mentored 2021 Tennessee Titans first round draft pick Caleb Farley, as cornerbacks coach this offseason and are hoping his addition along with another year of experience in the Jim O’Neil system will return the ‘Cats defense to their tenacious ways. Expectations are that far fewer explosive plays will be given up this year to opposing offenses. The rushing defense in particular cannot afford to yield another absurd 427 yards on the ground to the Cornhuskers like last year, especially since it allowed the most rushing yards per game in the conference in 2021.
NU Defensive Stats:
|Year||Points Allowed Per Game||National Scoring Defense Rank (out of 130 teams)||Passing Defense Rank (out of 130 teams)||Rushing Defense Rank (out of 130 teams)|
3. Cam Porter’s Return and the Running Back Room
After a lower body injury last August prematurely ended Porter’s sophomore season, Northwestern fans were anxious about who would fill the void at the running back position.However, Evan Hull turned in an impressive 1,009-yard rushing season, on the way to receiving All-Big Ten honorable mention by coaches and media.
Fast forward over a year, and the ‘Cats have one of the deepest running back rooms in the country. Porter and Hull were each named to the Doak Walker Award preseason watch lists, in 2021 and 2022 respectively, an honor given to the top running back in college football. Porter averaged over 100 rushing yards per game in his last three games from 2020 (Illinois, Ohio State, Auburn), Hull has a 3-year career average of 5.6 yards per carry and graduate student Andrew Clair returns boasting a 5.5 average yard per rush. This doesn’t even include sophomore Anthony Tyus III and 3-star recruit Joseph Himon II, with the former contributing 210 rushing yards last season.
Mike Bajakian is tasked with the positive problem of splitting up the carries among the backs. The ‘Cats have a formidable one-two punch with Porter and Hull, and the offense will be leaning on the rushing attack while the starting quarterback settles into the role. Look to see if Porter picks up where he left off, particularly against the Nebraska defense which held Northwestern to just 37 rushing yards last year.
Fitzgerald did not name who the starting runner will be during Monday’s press conference, saying carries will be split accordingly as the season goes along but that he feels confident about the team’s depth. Expect to see a 1A and 1B running back system with Porter and Hull. The two juniors should receive and split a majority of the carries if they remain healthy, but Clair and Tyus can also provide quality snaps at any notice. This should be one of the brightest and most dependable position groups during the season.
4. A new-look Special Teams Unit
Both the place kicker and punter positions will see new starters this year with the departures of Charlie Kuhbander and Derek Adams. In their places will be junior transfers Jack Olsen and Luke Akers. Olsen transferred from Michigan State in 2021 and sat behind Kuhbander last season. Many eyes are eager to see Olsen, a local Wheaton-Warrenville High School product, perform since he was a top five kicker in the country as a recruit. He should be a significant upgrade over Kuhbander, who struggled mightily last year and finished 2021 with the second-worst field goal percentage in the country (129th out of 130) at 46.2%.
On the other hand, Akers replaces a consistent and reliable Adams, who averaged 41.6 yards per punt during his two years at Northwestern. Akers has averaged 43.1 yards per punt in two seasons at UCLA so there should be no decline, or even a slight upgrade, in punter capabilities. Junior Will Halkyard replaces Peter Snodgrass at long snapper to complete a brand new special teams staff.
If Olsen in particular is a major improvement, it could make all the difference if this contest gets down to the wire.
5. LT Peter Skoronski
This greatly unglorified player comes from the trenches, but it must be emphasized that Skoronski is arguably a top-two most important player on the team this year (along with starting quarterback). He has been the starting blindside blocker since his true first-year, and the now-junior is receiving plenty of attention for his dependability. He was recently named to the Associated Press Preseason All-American First Team to go along with numerous other awards and accolades. Skoronski is also unanimously considered one of the top two tackles in the country by experts, coaches and analysts, with most giving him a first round projection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Skoronski is the key to any success the offense has. If all goes right, he will be out for every offensive snap to clear lanes for the running backs and pass protect long enough for Hilinski or Sullivan. By extension, the entire offensive line bears a lot of responsibility for an improved scoring attack, but Skoronski is undoubtedly the leader of the line with the most to gain. He has a tough test early with Nebraska, but this could be the start of another impeccable season.