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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Two years removed from a Big Ten Championship appearance, can the Wildcats bounce back after a disastrous 2019?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem more and more unlikely by the day, there are still games on the schedule as of this moment, so we’re previewing the teams, even if we don’t know when the season might start anymore after the Big Ten cancelled all fall non-conference games in every sport, instead slating only conference opponents for all seasons.

But we’ll keep on going until we have nothing to write about, and then we’ll just write about other random stuff. Our sixth and latest entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s Week 8 (maybe?) opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats who, two years removed from an appearance in the Big Ten Championship followed up with a 3-9 campaign they’re eager to forget about.


Northwestern Wildcats

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8), 7th in Big Ten West

Pat Fitzgerald and his Northwestern Wildcats football program followed up what was probably the most successful year in program history — an 8-1 conference record, an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game and a comeback victory over Utah in the Holiday Bowl for a 9-5 overall record — with one of, if not the, worst in Fitzgerald’s tenure: a 3-9 disaster. Those three wins came against UNLV, UMass and Illinois in the season finale.

Obviously, Fitzgerald is looking to move on from that and recreate some of the magic from the 2018 season. With new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian (hired away from Boston College) in tow and a decent number of returning starters on defense, improvement should be in the cards for the Wildcats in 2020, shortened season or no.

Then again, it’s Northwestern football...who knows what can happen.

Key Departures

The biggest, most important departure for this program was probably offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who was shown the door after a season in which his offense ranked 128th in the nation in passing touchdowns with six (!!), 126th in scoring at 16.3 and dead last in yards per pass attempt at 4.5, according to Athlon Sports.

OUCH.

The point of this section is usually departures for people that will be missed, but this is a key departure in that the offense can truly only go up from there with new OC Bajakian. He’s got his work cut out for him, however, but should have some help under center (more on that later).

Player wise, the biggest departure was probably wideout Bennett Skowronek, who headed for greener pastures as a graduate transfer to Notre Dame. He’s really the main loss for the offense. Sure, the Wildcats will most likely be having a new quarterback, but honestly, that’s probably not a bad thing.

Defensively, it’s a bit of a different story, but again, a lot of talent returns. The biggest loss comes on the defensive side of the ball. Joe Gaziano highlights that group after leading the unit last season with nine sacks and tallying the most sacks in program history over his career. Three of four total starters from last season are gone from the defensive line.

The other key defensive departure comes with Blake Gallagher, who tallied 91 tackles and 3 interceptions last year, a team best in both. However, the defense has been a strong point over the last few seasons, and should continue to be with the amount of returning talent...

Key Returners

Offensively, there’s a lot of experience returning, even if the performances were undewherming last season (at least partially due to 4 quarterbacks getting play time at varying points). Receiver Riley Lees is poised for success in his senior season after tallying 430 yards on 51 catches and bringing in two of Northwestern’s six (!!) passing touchdowns. Presumed No. 2 receiver, senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, caught 17 passes for 188 yards and no touchdowns. But in all, seven receivers who caught passes return, including Berkeley Holman, who averaged 14 yards per catch last season, albeit with limited targets.

The run game should also be a positive thanks to running backs Isaiah Bowser (returning from injury) and Drake Anderson, who tallied nearly 650 yards and three touchdowns in his freshman season.

Running the show will be a “returning” player with plenty of starting experience, just on a different team: graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey from Indiana, who logged over 5000 yards in two seasons and started 23 games.

The defense is highlighted by linebacker Paddy Fisher, a two-time All-Big Ten selection who has tallied 315 tackles and 9 fumbles in his career. He’ll be joined by fellow senior linebacker Chris Bergin, who will be a starter for the second straight year.

Joining them will be safeties JR Pace and Travis whillock, who bring plenty of experience and conference recognitions, along with cornerback Cameron Ruiz. Earnest Brown IV brings experienced talent to the defensive line, but has struggled to stay healthy in previous years.

And finishing out the returners will be kicker Charlie Kuhbander, returning for his fourth year as the starter. He’ll be joined by Kent State graduate transfer punter Derek Adams.

2020 Preview

It’s tough to think things could be worse for Northwestern after the dumpster fire of 2019. Things will definitely improve, but whether that translates into wins is a different story.

If the conference games stay in the current order scheduled, the Wildcats open the season on the road against Michigan State, followed by a road trip to Penn State, and then two home games against Maryland and Nebraska before traveling to Iowa City.

Again, we don’t know what will happen with the season and schedule, but that’s a brutal start. With other games currently on the schedule against Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, there’s certainly no guarantee that this will be a repeat of 2019, but the season will most likely be an improvement.

But then again, literally anything would be an improvement over last season, so...yeah.

Iowa/Northwestern Prediction

I think Iowa takes this one, but it’s Iowa vs. Northwestern. Weird things always happen. Close games usually happen, and blowouts are rare. Fans or no fans (season or no season), I think the comforts of Kinnick make all the difference here and Iowa pulls off a win.

Iowa 21, Northwestern 17