It is a down year for the Wildcats, so let’s learn more.
Apparently in odd-numbered year Northwestern is mortal, while in even-numbered years the Wildcats rise up and dominate the Big Ten West. Well, it is an odd-numbered year, so they enter this weekend’s game with Purdue at Wrigley Field out of bowl contention and playing out the string. I talked with Ben Chasen of SB Nation’s InsideNU to find out what happened.
T-Mill: It’s Wrigley Field! Even in a down year is there a lot of excitement around the program for this game?
Ben: There’s definitely some energy surrounding this game given the special venue, but I’d venture to say it’s more mild than you might expect. The game still isn’t sold out (something I’d chalk up to the expensive cost of attendance more than anything else), and much of the Northwestern sports world is more focused on NU’s field hockey team, which is competing in the Final Four on Friday in Ann Arbor with a chance to bring home a national title on Sunday.
Still, though, there’s more chatter surrounding this contest simply because it’s at Wrigley than there would’ve been had it been situated some miles north at Ryan Field. The 11 a.m. kickoff is a bit of a setback to what might have otherwise been an incredibly lively atmosphere in the Wrigleyville bars surrounding the stadium, but I imagine some watering holes will still open their doors bright and early to welcome in the football faithful. At the end of the day, it feels like there’s more artificial excitement from Northwestern’s athletics department than there is legitimate hype amongst Wildcat fans, but it’s still a special occasion and should still be a wonderful experience for all who attend.
T-Mill: Speaking of which, it is a “bad Northwestern” year. What on earth has happened to fall off so quickly?
Ben: This is the question we’ve been getting all year. To put it into a single word: departures. I could go on and on with a list of key pieces that left Evanston after the 2020 campaign, but just to give a few focus on:
- Greg Newsome II was a shutdown corner who the Cleveland Browns selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. He’s since been replaced by Cam Mitchell, who has been solid at times but has failed to reach the elite level of play of his predecessor. AJ Hampton has lined up opposite of Mitchell (as he did with Newsome) and has performed admirably, breaking up a Big Ten-leading 11 passes this season.
- Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher were two multi-year starters at linebacker and, together, had been the heart and soul of NU’s defense. The fall off at LB has probably been more significant than at any other position (save for maybe quarterback, which we’ll get to in a second), with Peter McIntyre, in particular, struggling during much of his time on field. One impact player who has emerged here, though, happens to be Blake’s brother, Bryce Gallagher, whose play has been more consistent and less mistake-laden than that of McIntyre.
- QB Peyton Ramsey was only at NU for a year, but it was, as most Big Ten fans know, quite a successful one. He’s gone now, though, and a number of candidates – all of whom have been unsuccessful to this point – have tried to fill his shoes. Hunter Johnson was the original starter, but he was benched after turning the ball over four times in one half at Duke. As of now, we still don’t know who will suit up at QB for the ‘Cats on Saturday, but it will very likely be either Andrew Marty, who has started the last two games for the ‘Cats but was benched in Madison after throwing three interceptions for the second consecutive game, or Ryan Hilinski, who started five consecutive games for NU after Johnson’s benching and Marty’s injury at Duke, but was himself benched during the ‘Cats’ blowout loss to Minnesota in favor of Marty. As you can see, the Wildcats are just teeming with promise under center (do y’all mind sending us one of those three QBs you’ve been stockpiling?).
- Perhaps most significantly, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who had coached for 51 years and had been DC at NU for the near-entirety of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, hung up his whistle after Northwestern’s Citrus Bowl win on New Year’s Day. He was replaced by former pro coach Jim O’Neil, whose defensive schemes have been routinely scorched – particularly against the run – in ways that Hankwitz’s rarely were.
T-Mill: The offense is struggling big time. Is there an identity at quarterback or will Purdue see multiple guys back there?
Ben: As I said in my answer to the last question, there has been absolutely no identity for Northwestern at quarterback this season. It seems like all three signal callers that have started this year for the ‘Cats are healthy and available to play on Saturday, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one will actually lead the offense out onto the field for NU’s first drive of the game. Northwestern’s latest team-released depth chart – which, I should add, needs to be taken with a grain of salt given the fact that these charts have been inaccurate in the past – fails to name a starter, instead featuring an “OR” right in between the first and second string tiers that bear Marty, Hilinski and Johnson’s names.
The offensive struggles haven’t been limited to the quarterback position, though. Last year’s NU offensive line was worlds more reliable than this one has been, and as a result, the quarterbacks have been frequently left with very little time to get throws off, while the running game has suffered from a lack of open gaps to generate yardage through.
T-Mill: I expected Northwestern to have a strong defense this year. Have their struggles come from the offensive struggles?
Ben: I’d say the defense’s struggles have been largely a product of the significant personnel departures that I indicated in my answer to the second question… believe it or not, there were three other key starters on the defensive side that left Northwestern after 2020 (either due to transfer or professional aspirations) that I didn’t even get to in that answer.
Schematically, there have been wide open gaps in Northwestern’s pass and run coverage that have been easily exploited by Power Five opponents all year long, and the team has struggled to wrap up opposing players numerous times each game, which has led to countless big plays after contact. The tackling problem has gotten so bad that Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen, who said after rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns against the ‘Cats last week that, during the game, he thought, “these guys aren’t really trying to tackle.” Not ideal for a team that had prided itself on defensive toughness and execution in past years.
T-Mill: Who should Purdue be afraid of on Saturday?
Ben: Offensively, Northwestern has had two big-time players all year long: its starting running back and leading wide receiver. I’ll start with the RB, Evan Hull, who wasn’t slotted to start until Cam Porter went down for the year with a lower-body injury during training camp. Hull has filled in admirably, rushing for 812 yards and five touchdowns while catching 25 passes for 216 yards and two scores. At wideout, graduate transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. has been a source of explosiveness for an NU team that has otherwise lacked it. His 80 receiving yards against Wisconsin made him the first Wildcat receiver to cross the 565-yard mark in a season since 2018.
On the defensive end, Adetomiwa Adebawore has been wreaking havoc on the defensive line in spite of poor performance around him, wracking up 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 33 total tackles, eight of which have gone for a loss. Adebawore (known by many ‘Cats fans as simply “Tomi”) left the Wisconsin game early due to injury, though, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll be good to go on Saturday. Behind him, the linebacking corps has been unspectacular, but there’s more talent in the secondary, where the aforementioned Hampton has been a leader alongside safety Brandon Joseph, who has taken a bit of a step back after leading the nation in interceptions in 2020 but still possesses pro potential.
T-Mill: What does Northwestern need to do in order to pull the upset?
Ben: For starters, the ‘Cats need to hold onto the ball. NU has turned it over 19 times, second most in the Big Ten West, and those giveaways have cost the team dearly, killing drives and handing opponents stellar field position. Defensively, the team will have to not only show a will to tackle that it apparently failed to display last week, but it will actually have to execute, nipping big plays in the bud with mechanically-sound takedowns. Against a particularly pass-heavy Purdue team, Northwestern will have to avoid missed defensive assignments and over-zealous, pick-seeking coverage that has cost them in the past. The Wildcats will also, simply put, need to execute better than they have, with the play of kicker Charlie Kuhbander (Purdue fans may remember him from his untimely, upright-shaking miss in the Boilermakers’ 2019 come-from-behind win against the ‘Cats) – who has hit on just six of his 12 attempts and is just 2-of-7 from beyond 30 yards deep – coming to mind, in particular. Upsetting Purdue will be a tall task for the Wildcats, but one that they’re capable of accomplishing if they play to their potential, something they’ve rarely done in 2021.