This is Part 2 of our football season preview. Click here to check out Part 1!
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern looks to continue a stifling tradition of a stingy run defense and decent pass coverage.
To bring newcomers up to speed, in recent years Northwestern has been known for their mediocre offense but astounding defensive play, with the latter keeping the ’Cats in numerous close games against ranked programs. Although the offense was abysmal in 2019, the defense actually held their own in a number of important games, finishing 43 out of 130 in total defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, returning for his 13th season, will look to help the ’Cats hold their own against the Big Ten’s best offenses, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Unfortunately, there are a few significant departures. Joe Gaziano, who graduated last year as the all-time program sack leader, will no longer anchor the defensive line, leaving a large hole to be filled. In addition to the usual graduates, both defensive lineman Samdup Miller and safety Travis Whillock have opted out of this upcoming season due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Whillock and Miller were core performers during the ’Cats division run in 2018.
All this said, the ’Cats might be looking at a shaky year up front, as the defensive line begins to readjust to a “post-Gaziano” scheme. All eyes should be on senior defensive end Earnest Brown, who has quietly put together a solid stat sheet over his three years: six sacks, ten tackles for loss in a regular non-starting role. The rest of the line is interesting, as there’s not much Big Ten experience. Junior tackle Trevor Kent will work from the inside, while sophomores Adetomiwa Adebawore and Jason Gold fill in the rest.
Negatives aside, the core up the middle remains strong as ever, thanks in part to senior middle linebacker Paddy Fisher. Fisher, who made the Big Ten Preseason Honors list, is garnering attention across the country as one of the best linebackers in the NCAA, and will be hungry to finish his Northwestern career with postseason success. Flanking him will be a dynamic duo of seniors in Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher, both of whom have led Northwestern's linebacker core to becoming one of the best in the Big Ten.
Covering the wideouts will be juniors Greg Newsome II and Cam Ruiz, both steady options for the ’Cats. Newsome was a bright spot for the ’Cats last year, ranking second in the Big Ten in pass breakups (11) and making 36 tackles to boot. Ruiz also put up decent stats, with seven breakups and 44 tackles of his own. They will look to solidify a defensive core that will keep the pass defense riding high.
And backing them up will be one of the more interesting safety cores in the Big Ten: senior JR Pace, and redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph. Pace is another returning star for the core; he notched an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten list, and continued to show flash in 2019 with 42 tackles and an interception. Joseph is someone to watch out for after appearing in just four games last year; a three star recruit out of high school, Joseph beat out returning junior Bryce Jackson for the spot, perhaps a testament to his work in practice.
All in all, this might be a rare year for the ’Cats in which the offense might outshine the defense (knock on wood). Don’t lose faith, however; with an experienced DC and returning all-stars at linebacker, something tells me that the ’Cats might still hold their own yet. Three takeaways:
-Watch up front for holes; this team will miss Gaziano’s presence on the edge
-While the safety situation is worrying, Pace, Newsome and Ruiz will look to lock up the wideouts
-That linebacker core is deeper and hotter than Lou Malnati’s
We can’t finish this preview without talking about some of the other stories going through training camp.
First, the ever important position of the kicker: Charlie Kuhbander is returning for his senior season, and will make the start Saturday night. While he did make 10 field goals and 17 extra points in 2019, fans might be quick to remember when he doinked a 32 yarder against Purdue, dooming the ’Cats to lose. Kuhbander, however, will be the starter for his second straight year, beating out sophomore Trey Finson, and will be looking to cement his legacy as the best kicker in Chicago (which arguably, is not hard to accomplish).
Second on our list is the QB room. The ’Cats will be dressing FOUR quarterbacks for the first game, with Ramsey getting the start and Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson fighting for the backup spot, and TJ Green squeaking onto the depth chart as a placeholder. The last thing the ’Cats want is to go through five QBs like last year, but it’s always fun to watch former fourth-string Andrew Marty get a start.
Finally, the ever-looming question: what will the team accomplish this year? Head coach Pat Fitzgerald will pick up his 100th career win as a coach with any win at all this year, so the team will look to celebrate him there. Also on the list for NU is the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Rose Bowl team, which the team might look to celebrate with a Big Ten win of their own.
Of course, it would be a lot more fun with the students, band and even DJ Commando around to watch.