With less than two weeks to go until the opening game of the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall have kept a lot of the details of the quarterback battle between senior TJ Green and sophomore Hunter Johnson under wraps.
Fitzgerald has said what he is hoping for in the starter: a guy who can execute, take care of the ball, inspires belief in his teammates and is someone the team believes can lead them to a championship.
The son of a former NFL quarterback and a former walk on, TJ Green saw extended time last season in a rotation with Clayton Thorson when Thorson had a “pitch count” that limited his time on the field. The Cats went 1-2 in those games, and the offense struggled to move the ball. Green was 20-for-36 with 169 yards for the full season.
After transferring from Clemson, Johnson sat out last season and was the scout team quarterback. Ranked as the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the Class of 2017 by ESPN, Johnson was 21-for-27 with 234 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in seven games for the TIgers in 2017 while serving as Kelly Bryant’s backup. The Indiana native may be the most influential quarterback transfer in NU history since College Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson came to the Purple and White in 1904.
While the old adage goes “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none,” Fitzgerald does not subscribe to that thinking. It is expected the team chooses one guy to start, McCall did not rule out a rotation, which the team has done previously. Even if there is no rotation, having a capable starter as a backup quarterback is invaluable.
“You're going to need more than one quarterback in college football,” Fitzgerald said.
Daily file photo by David Lee
The reign of Isaiah Bowser was never supposed to come this early. Last season, he was supposed to dip his feet in the water before using a redshirt. But with the medical retirement of Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern needed a running back to step up, and Bowser more than that.
He became a force for an offensive that struggled to score points. He carried the team in his first start against Rutgers with 108 rushing yards and two TDs. He followed that up with 34 carries and 117 yards against Wisconsin. And on a frigid day in Iowa City, Bowser put on a clinic – 31 carries, 165 yards on the ground and a touchdown. While Bennett Skronenek’s catch is the lasting memory from that game, Bowser’s performance was a main reason they won the game, and the Big Ten West.
In his second season, it will be interesting to see how the powerful running back grows. He was not a three-down back in his first season or a receiving threat. Become better at the latter will help him stay on the field more and become a three-down running back.
Behind Bowser, there are a lot of interesting options to be change-of-pace options and receiving threats. Senior John Moten dealt with injuries last season, but has been a serviceable backup for three seasons now, and his electric 77-year run in the Big Ten Championship Game showcased his potential as Bowser’s backup. Redshirt freshman Drake Anderson — son of former Cats great Damian Anderson — showed promise in two games last season and can provide a sharp contrast to Bowser’s power style. Junior Jesse Brown did not play last season, but he performed decently well in 2017.
Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs
While there is uncertainty about who will be behind center against Stanford, it isn’t a question that whoever starts will have a talented group of wide receivers to throw to. The position group is led by Bennett Skowronek, the lone senior on the roster, who was second on the team in touchdowns and receiving yards last season.
The senior wideout from Fort Wayne, Indiana will go down in NU history for making a diving, one-handed catch against Iowa last season that put the Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. He will also look to leave his legacy by imparting his wisdom on the incoming wideouts.
“I've played in every game since I've been a true freshman so I have a lot of experience on the field,” Skowronek said. “I'm really trying to prepare them as much as possible for games because when you're thrown in the fire, you learn a lot.”
Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz, the top two players in NU’s 2019 recruiting class, could contribute to the Cats’ receiving core immediately like Skowronek did as a freshman. But they will have to compete with a sea of returners who will be fighting for starting spots as well.
Of the returning players fighting for starting spots, juniors Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan all saw action last year and should be primed for more playing time at the beginning of the season. Sophomores Berkeley Holman and J.J. Jefferson showed flashes of excellence last season, as the former saw action in the Holiday Bowl and the latter reeled in clutch touchdowns last season against Nebraska and Michigan State.
Regardless of who starts alongside Skowronek, they will need to produce at a high level as last season, aside from Nagel and Skowronek, the remaining wideouts only had 1,104 receiving yards combined.
At superback, NU will have to replace Cam Green, who medically retired after last season. Sophomore Charlie Mangieri is listed as the starter on the two-deep, while converted lineman Trent Goens and last season's backup Trey Pugh figure to play a role as well.
Daily file photo by Christian Surtz
Northwestern’s line is in such a state of transition that one of the unit’s most experienced players was moved to a brand-new position to help fill in the gaps.
Aside from junior Rashawn Slater – who is switching from right to left tackle– senior center Jared Thomas is the only returning starter. With three first team spots up for grabs, Thomas said he sees himself taking a bigger leadership role this season.
The offensive line will be led by coach Kurt Anderson, who joined the staff in January.Anderson has already played a major role in recruiting a highly touted class of linemen for the Wildcats’ 2020 class, but he’ll be tested developing the new-look line.
Juniors Nik Urban and Gunnar Vogel and sophomore Sam Gerak are candidates to earn those spots despite having only ten combined games of experience. Urban contributed most of the group, playing in seven games last year and starting one at each guard spot. Vogel played three times last year but figures to be in the picture at right tackle as a result of his six-foot-six, 300 pound frame.
Daily file photo by David Lee
Once again, Northwestern's best unit will be its defensive line.
Senior Joe Gaziano has established himself as one of the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. The Scituate, Mass. native tallied 7.5 sacks a year ago while also racking up 44 tackles and forcing three fumbles. He's the man opposing defenses have to worry about most when they look at this group.
But what makes this group so dominant is its depth across all four spots. Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt are gone in the middle, but Alex Miller and Trevor Kent -- guys who have earned playing time in the past but are now ready for more significant roles -- are poised to replace him. Opposite Gaziano is Alex's brother Samdup Miller, a junior who started on the edge a season ago.
Behind the starters, there are plenty of good options for Pat Fitzgerald. Earnest Brown IV has been stuck behind Gaziano on the depth chart for his entire NU career, but he's shown flashes when he's been called on. Though he's behind him once again, he could push for more playing time in the defensive rotation.
Juniors Jake Saunders and Joe Spivak will provide depth at the defensive tackle positions. Redshirt freshman Devin O'Rourke -- NU's highest-rated recruit from a season ago -- will start the season behind Alex Miller.
Cats fans will be excited to see what O'Rourke brings to the table. Because the unit has so much depth, he chose to redshirt a year ago, but he figures to earn significant playing time as Fitzgerald tries to see what he has in the highly-touted freshman.
Daily file photo by David Lee
In 2017, it was Paddy Fisher who was stealing all the headlines. Last season, the spotlight turned to Blake Gallagher.
Gallagher led the Big Ten in tackles in his first season as a starter with 127, or just over nine per game. The junior had 11 in NU’s season-altering win at Michigan State and made an interception in the Cats’ Holiday Bowl victory over Utah.
And it wasn’t like Fisher had a sophomore slump, either. The Texas native was named to the all-Big Ten First Team and tied for the conference lead with four forced fumbles. Fisher finished the season strong — he had a game-sealing interception in the regular-season finale against Illinois, a team-high 11 tackles in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State and then 13 tackles and a forced fumble in the Holiday Bowl.
Gallagher and Fisher will likely be joined in the starting lineup by junior Chris Bergin, who started four games in 2018. Bergin recovered two fumbles last year and had 11 tackles in an overtime win over Nebraska.
NU does not have a ton of depth beyond those three, however, so if any of the starters miss extended time with an injury, it would not be surprising to see some struggles. Nathan Fox saw playing time each of the last three seasons, but he has transferred to play at Houston.
Of the backups currently on the Cats’ roster, junior Erik Mueller has the most experience, even though most of that experience has come on special teams. But if Gallagher, Fisher and Bergin stay healthy, NU’s linebacking corps should once again be one of the Big Ten’s best.
Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
No NU position group has been banged up the last two years quite like the secondary. Junior safety JR Pace was the only starter who stayed healthy all of last season, with now-graduated Montre Hartage and senior Trae Williams battling injuries throughout the year and the other cornerback slot in constant flux.
Pace and Williams will be the leaders this year, and junior Travis Whillock is likely to start opposite Pace at safety. Williams forced two fumbles and recovered another last season, Whillock appeared in 10 games in 2018 and had four pass breakups, and Pace broke up seven passes and had three interceptions.
The other starting cornerback is a question mark, but sophomore Greg Newsome appears to have the inside track. Newsome made four starts last year but battled injuries throughout the season, and the Cats tried several other options in his place. Alonzo Mayo is no longer with the team, but Cameron Ruiz made 12 appearances last year and performed admirably, even blocking a punt in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has said last season’s injuries could end up being a blessing in disguise, allowing younger players to get game experience earlier than they otherwise would have. At NU’s media day on August 7, Fitzgerald said he believes the Cats’ secondary is as deep as it’s been in his 14 years in charge of the program.
Williams reiterated that the group is healthy right now and has embraced the “next man up” mentality. With NU’s front seven expected to be strong again, a slight improvement in the defensive backfield could go a long way in helping the Cats to a second straight division title.
Daily file photo by David Lee
Charlie Kuhbander started and finished 2018 as NU's kicker, but Drew Luckenbaugh played a huge role as well.
In what has to be one of the stranger strokes of bad luck a football team could have, both Cats kickers were injured for significant periods of time last season. Some games, it wasn't clear if either of them were at 100 percent and punter Jake Collins even had to handle a few field goals.
Kuhbander had his ups and downs but will again enter the season as the presumptive starter. Luckenbaugh proved he can play when he hit the game-winning field goal in overtime to give NU a wild win over Nebraska, but was inconistent throughout the season.
For the second straight year, the Cats will need a new punter. Jake Collins was solid throughout 2018, and the former Western Kentucky standout also handled kickoffs. Senior Dan Kubiuk is listed as the starter on the two-deep and appears to have won the competition. Fitzgerald spoke very highly of the former quarterback in the lead-up to NU's season opener.
“I’m fired up for Kubs. He's been here a long time and he's had to battle through some injuries,” Fitzgerald said. “He's had a great camp.”
NU did not list a kickoff specalist on its depth chart.
The holder spot on the depth chart could provide rare insight into NU's quarterback competition, or it could mean nothing. Senior T.J. Green is listed as the starter with Kubiuk behind him.
Collins handled the holding last season, with Green as his backup. Starting quarterbacks typically don't typically handle holding duties, but there is precedent across college football. We're now left to wonder if Green will really trot out there with the field goal unit against Stanford (and more importantly, if he'll be out there with the starting offense).
Junior Riley Lees figures to get a lot of work in the return game. He'll be the punt returner and is also listed as the starting kick returner. Kyric McGowan, who handled kick returns a year ago, is not currently listed on the depth chart. Sophomore Berkely Holman is listed as the backup at both spots.
Daily file photo by Allie Goulding
Fourth verse, same as the last three. Once again, NU will start slow and finish strong. This season, the Cats face one of the most daunting early-season stretches in the country, opening with a tough game at Stanford and then playing Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State in the first half. But if NU can win even two of those five games, it will be well-positioned for a second-half surge.
The second-half schedule appears more forgiving, with four of six games at home and no opponents ranked in the preseason coaches poll after the seventh game against Iowa. The Cats are breaking in a new starting quarterback and replacing three starters on the offensive line, though, so more early struggles would not be surprising.
The tough first half could well set NU back in the Big Ten West race and cost the Cats the division title, but with a strong late October and November, NU will be well-positioned to make another respectable bowl game. Some will view that as a disappointment, but with another eight-plus win regular season, the Cats will continue to prove their consistency as a program.
The Wildcats made it to the Big Ten Championship Game last year despite losing all of their nonconference games and having one of the country’s least efficient offenses. Expect this season to be more normal — fewer upset losses, more high scoring games and not as many consecutive overtime wins.
After beating Stanford and UNLV, NU loses three times in its four game stretch against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State. The schedule lightens up down the stretch like it usually does, but Wisconsin pulls ahead of the Cats in the standings after beating NU in Madison in September.
While Hunter Johnson comes in with a higher pedigree than Clayton Thorson, he’ll have to replicate the four-year starter’s track record in close games. Johnson has the talent to make a 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter look easier than Thorson’s against Nebraska, but his command of the offense and comfort down the stretch will dictate the team’s overall success this season.
This Northwestern team is experienced.
Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano told The Daily earlier this month about how the team has a better understanding of what it takes to win the Big Ten West and make it to Indianapolis. In previous years, the team did know how to reach that level. “But now,” Gaziano said, “it's no surprise for us if we get that opportunity.”
That mindset can be game-changing for the Wildcats. They have been excellent in close games for the last few years, but they have had two Achilles heels in recent seasons — top-ranked programs and teams NU should theoretically blowout by halftime. This type of mindset turns those losses into wins.
If Northwestern can get to November with one loss on their schedule — which is something the team can definitely achieve — they will be sitting pretty for a second consecutive Division Title.
Northwestern is known for not getting off to great starts to begin the year, and the opening schedule won’t get any easier this season.
Despite playing two preseason top-25 opponents in Stanford and Michigan State, NU gets off to a stronger start this time around, winning two of its first three games, with a loss to Michigan State because of new pieces on the offensive line against a strong Michigan State front seven.
The defense will carry them at the start and I believe the offense will struggle against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State as the offensive line tries to mesh together, but they will beat Nebraska on the road.
By the end of the season, Hunter Johnson will find his rhythm and the Cats will begin to fire on all cylinders to end the season, just like normal. Will 6-3 be good enough to make a trip back to the Big Ten Championship? I’m not sure, but NU will be in the thick of the race.
Can the Wildcats continue to win almost every close game they're in?
That's the question heading into every season, but so far the answer has been a resounding "yes." The Cardiac Cats might not make it easy on their fans, but they get the job done in the end.
Still: the schedule is frontloaded, and NU notoriously doesn't play well at the start of the season. The Cats have to play Wisconin and Nebraska (both on the road) early in the season, and losses in those games would effectively end their Big Ten West title hopes.
If NU can get through the beginning of its season unscathed, it could be smooth sailing through November. But their incredible success in close games has to end at some point.
Daily file photo by Colin Boyle