Northwestern wideout Malik Washington cuts up the field during a 2021 game against Ohio. After a season in which the 'Cats struggled a bit offensively, what can the Northwestern faithful expect in the team's first game in Ireland? Photos by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

The 2021 season for the Northwestern Wildcats was not what you would call “ideal”. They dug themselves into a 3-9 record, and now fans are hoping the pattern of previous years continues. After a dismal 2019 season, the Wildcats went 7-2 and were Big Ten West champions for the second time in three years. Now, they look for redemption once again, but in order to find it, they need offensive firepower– or at least moderately adequate play.

A game-managing quarterback, stellar running backs, and a defense. That’s all the ’Cats need to win. They were missing the first and last parts of that equation in 2021, so the first order of business is sorting out the quarterback situation.

The Field General

The elephant in the room: the quarterback battle between last year’s starter redshirt junior Ryan Hilinski and redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan.

“We’ve got a great battle going on… Both guys have done pretty well” said Coach Pat Fitzgerald of his quarterbacks.

Hilinski has the experience, having started five games for the Wildcats and an additional 11 when he played for the South Carolina Gamecocks. The jury is still out on whether this benefits him or not, as he didn’t exactly play well when called upon last season. Four total touchdowns (three passing) and four interceptions does not scream confidence, but Hilinski hasn’t wavered, giving the more mobile Sullivan good competition.

“Coming off of last year, y’know, they put their hard hat on and they went to work, and they got a lot of confidence. They displayed it really well in [spring practice],” said junior cornerback Cam Mitchell during Big Ten Media Days.

Regardless of who starts, Northwestern will need stable quarterback play to be successful. When they won the Big Ten West in 2018 and 2020, they had that in program legend Clayton Thorson and transfer Peyton Ramsey. In 2019 and 2021, they rotated through quarterbacks almost weekly and finished 3-9.

The Cavalry

Northwestern will be without last year’s leading wide receiver with the graduation of Stephon Robinson Junior. Senior Malik Washington and junior Bryce Kirtz will be the prime targets for whoever is taking snaps from under center. Washington finished with numbers comparable to Robinson, and both he and Kirtz will enter this season healthy and ready to stretch the field.

In addition to the seasoned veterans, there’s some new youth in the rotation. Four-star first-year Reggie Fleurima will look to boost the offense on both a receiving end and in the running game. The All-Area First Team wideout from nearby Naperville is a deep threat, a run after catch magician and a blocking menace.

Graduate tight end Charlie Mangieri was the more efficient of the two tight ends and more reliable blocker, but junior Marshall Lang reeled in a team-leading three receiving touchdowns. Lang will fill the role of receiving tight end, though the Wildcats will turn to the ground attack in times of need.

Redshirt junior Evan Hull was the offensive’s lone bright spot with over 1000 yards on the ground. He will for a powerful duo with 2020 bell cow junior Cam Porter who missed all of last year with a season-ending non-contact injury in camp. Porter ran for 301 yards in the final three games of 2020 and was primed for a breakout season. Graduate Andrew Clair and redshirt freshman Anthony Tyus III round out a running back room that many say is the team’s best position group.

The Front Line

Junior Peter Skoronski is the anchor that gives the running backs room to work. The 2021 All-Big Ten First Team (Media) and 2022 Preseason All-American First Team (Walter Camp, PFF College) lineman is on the Outland Trophy watch list for best lineman in the nation and a prospective first round draft pick. Despite the hype, Skoronski knows that doing his job comes first.

“[I’m] just not really worried about the outside noise, just trying to focus day in and day out here…I’m just trying to improve as a player everyday…My expectation is to just still do what a Northwestern left tackle still has to do,” said Skoronski when asked about his accomplishments.

Graduate lineman Ethan Wiederkehr is first in a list of names that gives the Wildcats depth on the line. He has plenty of  experience having played in 39 games, including starting all 12 from last season. One man doth not a line maketh, so Wiederkehr and his linemen brethren were also crucial in Evan Hull’s 1000 yard season and they’ll be needed again this year.

The Reserve Team

Senior kick return man and wideout Ray Niro III earned the prestigious number 1 jersey this season. Niro is the player who most embodies what it means to be a Wildcat. He led the ’Cats in return yards last season, and has made a living as a special teams leader.

Junior transfer punter Luke Akers has the leg to compete for both the open punting and kicking spots. At UCLA, Akers averaged 43.1 yards/punt in two seasons, with a long of 66 yards last year. He also happens to be the son of longtime NFL All-Pro kicker David Akers, so kicking is in his blood.

Junior kicker Jack Olsen connected on his lone extra point attempt last year, and his two kickoffs averaged 61 yards. He doesn’t need to be perfect. He just needs to be better than the now-graduated Charlie Kuhbander who was an abysmal 6-13 on field goals. Kuhbander was, however, perfect on extra points, so Olsen can emulate that as he pleases.

The Verdict

For Northwestern, there’s nowhere to go but up. They have the running game to be successful– they simply need the stable quarterback play to pair with it.

Will even-year Northwestern make its return? Or is 3-9 the new normal? With this team, you never know, but only time will tell.

All eyes on Dublin.