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2021 opponent preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Can Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats keep the momentum going despite returning just eight starters?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After a bit of a delay due to work travel and then a baby waking up with a 104 fever then coming down with hand, foot, and mouth disease for a week, the 2021 preview rolls on. Frankly, it’s for the best as the Northwestern Wildcats are deserving of the Friday news dump treatment because they will always scare me as an opponent even when they aren’t so scary!

They beat the Hawkeyes last season after yielding a 17-0 lead and then jedi-mind-tricking Brian Ferentz into calling 50 Spencer Petras’ passes en route to a suffocating 21-20 win and the low point of Iowa’s 2020 season. We’ll get to some even sadder stats later in the write-up. There are plenty of them. :(

As for what they return...Phil Steele has them with just 8 returning starters and 118th in his returning experience metric. They’ve allowed 23 points or less/game each of the last six seasons with only 2017’s offense (29.2 PPG) scoring more than 25 points/game over the same time period. In other words, nobody has mastered winning close games like Pat Fitzgerald. They’re 18-6 over that time span in one-score games. Oh, and Pat Fitzgerald has a .500-or-better record against every team in the West since its inception (they beat Wisconsin after this tweet).

A departure of note, is that their 13-year defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, has retired.

Northwestern schedule ahead of Iowa

9/3: v. Michigan State (Friday)
9/11: v. Indiana St.
9/18: @ Duke
9/25: Ohio
10/2: @ Nebraska
10/9: BYE
10/16: v. Rutgers
10/23: @ Michigan
10/30: v. Minnesota

I was optimistic the ‘cats would slide but their schedule ahead of Iowa seems...easy? It is at least totally manageable. How they fare on the road will probably dictate whether they’re ranked and/or in the Big Ten race but the slow ramp up to the Hawkeyes allows for them to find their footing.

Three guys

Peter Skoronski (LT, 6’4”, 294 lbs, So): Our first offensive lineman of the writeups is Skoronski because while they don’t return all that much on offense, his meteoric rise anchors an offensive line which could be much improved. They’ll need it, as they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry despite running the ball 43 times a game!

He immediately started (all 9 games & second team all-Big Ten) after entering the program as one of Northwestern’s highest rated recruits ever. They return 2 additional starters along the line and allowed just 1.3 sacks/game (3rd fewest in the conference).

Ryan Hilinski (QB, 6’3”, 225 lbs, So): Despite starting 11 games his freshman year at South Carolina (they went 4-7), he returned to a backup role in 2020. With coaching upheaval, he left Columbia and landed in Evanston. While there are no guarantees he’s the starter (Hunter Johnson is still around), he’s got pole position.

His freshman year, he posted a 58% completion percentage with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He doesn’t look to have the scrambling ability of past Wildcat QBs - looks to have some happy feet - who have utterly torched the Hawks. He does look to have solid arm strength and a willingness/ability to hit tight windows.

Brandon Joseph (S, 6’1”, 192 lbs, So): During his freshman season, he led the NCAA with 6 interceptions en route to Big Ten Freshman of the year. He was also a consensus All-American. In his highlights, Joseph displays excellent ball skills, as well as a knack for being where he needs to be.

If there’s reason to believe the Wildcats can maintain their defensive prowess, Joseph is the case and point. He can clean up plenty of messes and will very likely have a say in how the game turns out if it ends up being a close one.

Assorted Commentary

Can Northwestern keep it close enough to let the coaching advantage trump Iowa’s talent?

Make no mistake, Northwestern is becoming increasingly talented under Pat Fitzgerald and the young guns returning are a large reason why. However, experience is typically what defines great Wildcat squads and this team lacks that returning production.

Yet it never seems to matter when they take the field against Iowa. Fitz is a master in close games (see above stat) but it becomes even more stark when he faces Iowa. In nine single-possession games, the ‘cats have come out on top in 8 of them. It’s utterly perplexing just how much a hold Fitz has on Iowa in such games but it’s there.



Simply put, it’ll come down to whether if Iowa can put enough distance between themselves and Northwestern. The 2019 game, as ugly as it was, is a fair template. Iowa gained just 302 yards, but 196 came from guys currently on the roster (Tyler Goodson, Tyrone Tracy, and Sam LaPorta). They’ll still need to win the field position battle and swing it with a couple big plays (Tracy had just two receptions) considering Iowa has scored more than 20 points against Fitz’s Wildcats in just 6 of 16 meetings.

The stats are clear though, Kirk simply can’t afford to get into a phone booth with Fitz, as Iowa’s 5-2 in games decided by 8 points or more. The two losses were in maybe the worst seasons of Kirk’s tenure outside the very start (2006 & 2012).

Is Iowa still in the West race?

If Iowa is successful in a couple of the games against Indiana, Penn State, and Wisconsin, the importance on this game ramps up considering they face Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska in the following three weeks. Considering Iowa hasn’t played a divisionally-relevant football game since 2015, the pressure could be immense.