The B1G 10: Reeling Northwestern needs to hit home run with transfer QB Ben Bryant
1. The B1G Story
The road constantly changes, an unpredictable journey that somehow landed an hour from where he grew up outside of Chicago.
Ben Bryant has been through everything else in a wild college career, why would this massive rebuild at Northwestern faze him?
A 3rd school, a 4th quarterback competition, and now a suddenly shaky program desperate for stability at the most important position on the field.
If ever there were an odd marriage that could work, this is it. And just in time.
Because for the first time in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 17 seasons at Northwestern, there is hesitation. A 4-year run has produced a Big Ten West Division title in the Covid season of 2020 — sandwiched by 3-win seasons in 2019 and 2021, and the rock bottom of last season.
Northwestern won its first game of 2022 — after Nebraska imploded in the 2nd half and blew an 11-point lead — and didn’t win again. That’s 11 straight losses, and a whole lot of questions heading into 2023.
A 1-win season isn’t exactly a shocking effort at Northwestern. In the long and mostly inglorious football history in Evanston, 1-win seasons are commonplace: 13 since the school began playing football in 1892, and 6 more winless seasons.
But this level of futility hadn’t reached Fitzgerald until last season. He’s the winningest coach in school history, and in his 17 seasons, he has won at least 7 games 10 times. He has 3 of the program’s 5 10-win seasons.
In other words, 1-11 doesn’t happen.
The lingering questions is, how did it?
How did a program so in sync with its head coach — tough, smart, athletic and overachieving — fall so far so fast? Fitzgerald spoke last season about penalties and mental mistakes, about losing the turnover battle and a lack of focus and all those things that are easily identifiable.
He never, however, pointed toward the indisputable reason: the lack of success at the quarterback spot. Fitzgerald doesn’t blame players; if they’re struggling, it’s because coaches aren’t doing their job and putting them in position to have success.
That changes this season with the signing of Bryant.
2. Talent is the reason
If Bryant hadn’t entered the spring transfer portal, Northwestern might have started a freshman quarterback in 2023.
Fitzgerald has raved about freshman signee Aidan Gray, who starred at North High School in Naperville, Ill., about 30 minutes southwest of where Bryant played high school ball in LaGrange.
Gray would’ve had an opportunity — and will still compete for the job — because what has happened the last 4 years at the quarterback spot has had a direct impact on the 14-31 record.
Northwestern has played 11 quarterbacks over the past 4 seasons, and only Peyton Ramsey in 2020 has had success (12 TDs, 8 INTs). In 2019, 2021 and 2022, the Northwestern quarterbacks combined to throw 29 TDs against 46 INTs.
That’s not a misprint.
I don’t care if your coach is Nick Saban, 29 TDs and 46 INTs will translate to a whole lot of ugly. So yeah, 14 wins is just about right.
It is here where Bryant enters the picture and changes the reality of the position. He’s not an All-America candidate, or a 1st-round draft pick.
But 3 NFL scouts I spoke to all say Bryant has the tools to be a late-round NFL selection. The last Northwestern quarterback with NFL potential (Clayton Thorson) led the most productive run under Fitzgerald in Northwestern history (36-17 from 2015-18).
Thorson was taken in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Eagles.
3. The long road home
Bryant was a backup early in his career at Cincinnati, and after 2 seasons playing that role, he lost the quarterback competition to Desmond Ritter in 2020.
The Bearcats went to the Playoff, and Bryant left after the season to play for Eastern Michigan, where he led the Eagles to a 7-6 record. He then returned to Cincinnati, and won the starting job last season.
The Bearcats were 9-2 with Bryant and in the hunt for the American Conference championship before he sustained a season-ending foot injury. Cincinnati lost its final 2 games.
Coach Luke Fickell took the Wisconsin job, Cincinnati hired Scott Satterfield, and Satterfield signed former Florida and Arizona State QB Emory Jones from the transfer portal. No starter was named at the end of spring ball, and Bryant entered the portal.
And here we are. A quarterback looking for a home, and a program looking for a quarterback with a track record of winning.
Bryant is 16-8 as a starter in 2 seasons, and has a career TD/INT ratio of 37/17. He has completed 66 percent of his passes, and has a career average of 7.7 yards per attempt.
The ball will go downfield, and new wide receiver additions JJ Henning (Michigan) and Cam Johnson (Arizona State) give the Wildcats 3 legitimate impact players from the portal.
And they give Northwestern the ability to throw the ball accurately — with receivers who can separate and run after the catch — like they haven’t since the halcyon days of Thorson.
That alone should stall worries about the direction of the program. What plays out in 2023 could end them.
4. Michigan’s big class
Back-to-back Playoff appearances are paying off for Michigan, which is closing in on its best recruiting class under coach Jim Harbaugh since 2017.
In the last week alone, the Wolverines have landed three 4-star players: LB Jeremiah Beasley, and Edges Dominic Nichols and Elias Rudolph.
Michigan has 25 players committed to the class, including 16 blue-chip recruits (4- or 5-star). The class is currently ranked No. 4 in the nation by the 247Sports composite with 263.74 points and an average recruit rating of 90.69.
Michigan’s previous best class under Harbaugh was the No. 5-ranked class in 2017, which had 21 blue-chip recruits. It finished with 296.03 points, and had an average player rating of 91.20.
5. The Weekly 5
The top 5 games that stress the Maryland win total (7.5):
1. Sept. 23, at Michigan State: An early desperation game, 2 teams trying to find their footing and not fall further behind the Big 3 in the East Division.
2. Oct. 14, Illinois: How do you respond a week after traveling to Ohio State? Can Terps trade blows with physical Illini lines of scrimmage?
3. Nov. 11, at Nebraska: They’ve played twice since both joined the Big Ten, and Huskers won both by at least 3 touchdowns.
4. Oct. 28, at Northwestern: 2 weeks to prepare for a sleepy game in Evanston that can’t be overlooked.
5. Nov. 25, at Rutgers: Maryland has the better roster, and has won 6 of the last 8 in the rivalry. But Rutgers could be playing for bowl eligibility.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Penn State DE Chop Robinson.
“He’s still really raw, especially as a pass rusher. He just needs reps. He has played just over 600 snaps in 2 seasons. Explosive off the edge, and has good hands and instincts. He needs to find and refine pass rush moves. He’s not a long guy, so he’s going to rely on his speed and hands to prevent (offensive tackles) from getting into his chest.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: ranking the wide receiver rooms.
1. Ohio State: The best receiver room in college football, and why Kyle McCord’s transition won’t be difficult. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka are top 5 in the nation, and Julian Fleming would start on 90 percent of FBS teams.
2. Wisconsin: Overlooked in the rebuilt room: Badgers have 2 strong receivers returning: Chimera Dike and Skyler Bell. The addition of transfers CJ Williams (USC), Bryson Green (Oklahoma State) and Will Pauling (Cincinnati) makes the Badgers 5-deep.
3. Penn State: KeAndre Lambert-Smith averaged 16.2 ypc last season and got hot late in 2022. Dante Cephas (Kent State) and Malik McClain (Florida State) were 2 high value signings from the portal.
4. Minnesota: Chris Autman-Bell was primed for a breakout season in 2022 before an ACL injury in Week 3. He’s back and healthy. Daniel Jackson averaged 15 yards a catch in 2002, and transfers Corey Crooms Jr. (Western Michigan) and Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) give the Gophers a deep 4.
5. Michigan: Seniors Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson know how to get open, and run well after the catch. Peyton O’Leary was a big surprise (again) in spring practice, as was the emergence of former bluechip recruit Darrius Clemons.
6. Iowa: Diante Vines and Nico Ragaini are at the top of the depth chart, but don’t be shocked when transfers Kaleb Brown (Ohio State) and Seth Anderson (Charleston Southern) take over.
7. Nebraska: The wide receiver room (like many others on the team) has been rebuilt. Marcus Washington is a big, fast target, but transfers Billy Kemp (Virginia) and Josh Fleeks (Baylor) must make an impact.
8. Michigan State: A bunch of questions remain after Jayden Reed left for the NFL and Keon Coleman for Florida State. Tre Mosley has the most experience, but Spartans need Christian Fitzpatrick to develop quickly after injury-shortened 2022.
9. Maryland: QB Taulia Tagovailoa’s final season comes with transfer help: Kaden Prather (WVU) and Tyrese Chambers (FIU), who combined for 103 catches and 7 TDs in 2022.
10. Rutgers: Projected starters Christian Dremel and Chris Long combined for 16 catches in 2022, but there’s hope: FCS transfer Naseim Brantley (Western Illinois) is tall (6-4, 205) and long and can stretch the field.
11. Indiana: Cam Camper and Donaven McCulley are dependable, but Hoosiers need transfers Dequence Carter (Fordham) and EJ Williams (Clemson) to stretch the field.
12. Illinois: Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant and Casey Washington are a solid trio. Freshman Kenari Wilcher could be the needed deep threat.
13. Purdue: New QB Hudson Card has a solid duo in Mershawn Rice and TJ Sheffield (combined for 69 catches, 5 TDs), and transfer Jahmal Edrine (FAU) can stretch the field.
14. Northwestern: The numbers may not show it, but this is a much stronger room than in previous seasons. Cam Johnson (Arizona State) had productive seasons in the Pac-12. AJ Henning couldn’t consistently get on the field at Michigan, but has talent.
8. Ask and you shall receive
I feel like this could be a breakout season for the Big Ten. When was the last time a major conference had 3 legit Playoff contenders? — Gary Kruger, Louisville.
The last time was last season, when the SEC had Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. And before LSU lost to Texas A&M in the last week of the regular season (and before the SEC Championship Game with Georgia), it had the ability to reach the Playoff, too.
That said, your point of the breakout season for the Big Ten will come from more than just the Big 3 of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The Lions were a legit Playoff contender last year; they just lost the 2 games that mattered most.
The jump from the Big Ten this season will be linked to 3 teams in the West Division: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. All 3 have enough to not only win the West, but be playing games of Playoff significance in November.
The key to all 3 is the development of a new quarterback: Athan Kaliakmanis (Minnesota), Tanner Mordecai (Wisconsin) and Cade McNamara (Iowa). That’s 3 teams that will play elite defense, and need production from the most important position on the field to reach double-digit wins.
10. The Illinois defense has been the foundation of coach Bret Bielema’s quick buildout in Champaign. And just when the Illini need the offense to emerge, there are significant questions.
Illinois scored only 36 TDs last season (33 on offense), and return just 10 of those this season: WR Isaiah Williams (5), WR Pat Bryant (2), RB Reggie Love III (2), TE Tip Reiman (1).
That means new QB and Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer must grow a passing game that, while accurate last season (70 percent of passes completed), didn’t get the ball downfield enough.
Minnesota coach PJ Fleck: “We’ve got to keep transitioning over to a player-led team. I told the guys at the beginning in January, with the inexperience we have, we are probably a little more coach led. And now we’re kind of in between coach and player.”