A myriad of problems contributed to Northwestern struggling through its worst season under 14-year coach Pat Fitzgerald in 2019.
Much-hyped Clemson transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson never got on track for the Wildcats, passing for just 432 yards with more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (one). Star running back Isaiah Bowser suffered a knee injury in the season opener against Stanford and was shut down five games into the season.
Northwestern’s defense was good enough to keep things close, but the offense went through an anemic three-game Big Ten stretch against Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana in which it failed to reach the end zone and scored just six points.
The Wildcats scored 20 or more points in their final four games, including a 29-10 win over rival Illinois, but it wasn’t enough to avoid going 3-9 and 1-8 in conference play. As a result, Fitzgerald fired long-time offensive coordinator Mick McCall, replacing him with former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. At Boston College, Bajakian went with a run-heavy pro-set offense, utilizing standout running back A.J. Dillon.
“We need to get a sense for what our personnel is going to look like and who’s going to step up and make plays,” Bajakian told the Daily Northwestern before practices shut down last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve included some stuff from last year’s scheme, we’ve added a lot of new stuff and we’ve tweaked some stuff.”
Johnson will have more competition in the quarterback room with the addition of former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who joined the team as a graduate transfer. Former Fort Wayne Carroll standout Aidan Smith also is back for his senior year after passing for 768 yards with three TDs and nine interceptions
“I believe competition makes good players great, great players special,” Fitzgerald told the Chicago Sun Times. “And if you don’t like competition, then you don’t like expectations, and you probably shouldn’t be in college football.”
All-Big Ten senior linebacker Paddy Fisher (89 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception) is one of nine starters returning on a defense that projects to be strong again next season.
Here’s an early look at Northwestern heading into the 2020 season:
WHAT THEY LOST
Three-time, All-Big Ten defensive lineman Joe Gaziano was a standout in his Northwestern career, posting a school record 30 sacks, 48.5 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles. That production will be tough to replace.
Defensive tackle Alex Miller, who had 41 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season, is another outgoing starter who was disruptive up front for the Wildcats last season.
Jared Thomas, a former Indianapolis Cathedral standout, started 26 games over the last two seasons with the Wildcats and was a leader on the offensive line.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Ramsey will compete for the starting quarterback job after passing for 6,581 yards and 42 TDs in three seasons with the Hoosiers.
Another grad transfer, tight end John Raine from Florida Atlantic, adds pass-catching ability to a position that was unproductive for the Wildcats last season. Raine had 38 catches for 343 yards and six TDs last season at FAU.
Peter Skoronoski, a five-star recruit from Park Ridge, Illinois, will add depth to an already experienced offensive line.
PROSPECTS FOR 2020
Fitzgerald learned in 2019 that Northwestern couldn’t lean on its defense for wins.
Better quarterback play is a must, but an experienced offensive line and sound running game should help as the passing game progresses.
If Bajakian can get Northwestern’s offense to click and the defense can continue to make big plays, the Wildcats may be able to move back up the Big Ten West standings quicker than expected.