Out of all the coverage payed to teams throughout the week of Big Ten media days, not a word was spoken about Pat Fitgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats. Fitzgerald took the little-to-no words spoken about his ball club in stride.
“We’re not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn’t real sexy,” “We’ll just earn it. That’s what’s so great about football. The West gets knocked. I enjoy it. That’s what I tell our players — enjoy it — and you’ve got to go out and earn it on the field. That’s what makes our game so great.”Pat Fitzgerald at Big Ten Media Days
Fitzgerald’s mindset is just perfect for a program like Northwestern’s. For decades, they have flown under the radar, and for good reason for most of it. But, coming off of a season that had the Wildcats appearing in their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, it’s definitely puzzling the lack of attention they’re getting.
Who They Lose
The Wildcats graduate a player who is arguably the best quarterback to ever don the Purple and White in Clayton Thorson. Thorson threw for over 10,700 yards as a Wildcat and 61 touchdowns from 2015 to 2018. The Wildcats also lose Thorson’s favorite target, receiver Flynn Nagel.
Defensively, the Wildcats lose a solid senior leader in linebacker Nate Hall, as well as cornerback Motre Hartage, and safety Jared McGee.
Who They Return/Gain
Offensively, the Wildcats return their top rushing leaders from 2018, in sophomore Isaiah Bowser and senior John Moten IV. The Wildcats also gain former 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, who sat out last season after transferring from Clemson, where he would’ve been backing up Trevor Lawrence and Kelly Bryant.
On defense, the Wildcats look absolutely frightening. Northwestern returns their top 5 tacklers from 2018, including the stud linebacking duo of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, as well as some key members of the secondary as well, including JR Pace and Travis Whillock.
The Big Ten West is going to be a wide open division in 2019, at least 5 teams are capable of winning the division crown. But the toughest test Northwestern will face this season is when the mighty Buckeyes of Ohio State visit Evanston on October 18th for a primetime showdown against Northwestern.
Hunter Johnson proves to be a new and improved version of Clayton Thorson and takes over the reigns at quarterback effortlessly. Isaiah Bowser rushes for well over 1,000 yards and Northwestern’s defense, on paper, is the best it’s been since the legendary 1995 season that saw the Wildcats end up in Pasadena. This team has the ability to end there as well.
Ceiling: 10-2, Big Ten Champions, Trip to the Rose Bowl
Hunter Johnson struggles in seeing game action for the first time in almost 3 years. Ineffective passing attack leads to issues in the run game as well. Defensively, lack of pressure by the defensive line causes the defense to be on the field a lot more than anticipated and wears them down.
Floor: 7-5, Trip to Nashville
The Bottom Line
This very well could be Northwestern’s most talented squad since Gary Barnett took them to the Rose Bowl in 1995. Their defense ranks up with Iowa’s as one of the best in all the Big Ten coming into 2019. But a lot of this season rests on the performance of Hunter Johnson at quarterback.
If Johnson comes in and is focused and prepared, this could be a magical season for Northwestern that could end up in Oz. If Johnson struggles and neuters the offense, Northwestern’s season could be blown away like a twister on the Kansas plains.