10 bold predictions for Northwestern in 2020
Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats suffered through the rare off year in 2019.
Northwestern, at 3-9, finished below .500 for only the fourth season in Fitzgerald’s 14 years at the helm. Now, they’ll look for a bounce-back behind a grad transfer quarterback from a rival Big Ten school and a veteran defense.
Here are 10 bold predictions for the Wildcats in 2020:
1. Peyton Ramsey will stabilize the QB position
Well first, the Indiana graduate transfer has to win the job, but that seems like a foregone conclusion, doesn’t it? Northwestern was atrocious at quarterback last season, a reason why it sunk to 3-9. Sure, injuries didn’t help — Day 1 starter T.J. Green, who is back for his sixth year, was hurt in the season-opener — but there was more to the story, also. Hunter Johnson, the former 5-star Clemson recruit, struggled to catch on, in part due to the understandable distraction caused by his mother’s ailing health. Ramsey likely wins the job; he was solid at Indiana last year, with nearly 2,500 yards, 13 TDs and 5 picks, and that stability automatically makes Northwestern greatly improved.
2. Pat Fitzgerald will bless us with another viral quote
Frustrated with the lack of output by his offense last year — and from fans suggesting changes via Twitter and on internet message boards — Fitzgerald wanted to make sure the masses knew his email address was, “Hashtag, I don’t care.” Never mind that the veteran coach and former Wildcats standout mixed his technological platforms, it was still coach-speak gold. And we can only hope Fitzgerald will bless us with such verbal greatness again in 2020.
3. NU will take advantage of the easiest schedule in the Big Ten
Perhaps the schedule is not the easiest, but it is among them. For the East Division crossovers, the Wildcats get Maryland in the season-opener at Ryan Field, then at Michigan State in Week 6. No Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State. Clearly, not every week is a gimme, with games at Iowa and at Minnesota, but all things considered Northwestern has to be happy with how Schedule Version 3 worked out. If the Wildcats can’t bounce back to at least a 5-win season, then the issues run deeper than anticipated.
4. Paddy Fisher bounces back
Although it’s only Fisher’s fourth year, it feels like the former All-America linebacker has been around for an eternity. Perhaps because he was so productive since Day 1 in Evanston. In his first two years, Fisher totaled 229 tackles and 8 forced fumbles. He was a Freshman All-American in 2017, then a 3rd-teamer in ’18. But as Northwestern slumped in 2019, so did Fisher, totaling only 89 tackles, which was still good for second on the Wildcats, and a forced fumble. Look for the preseason All-American to make his impact felt once again in his final season.
5. New OC equals new life
During the offseason, Fitzgerald brought coordinator Mike Bajakian in to help breathe life into the Wildcats’ dormant offense. It’ll work. Last season at Boston College, not exactly an ACC powerhouse, Bajakian helped the Eagles finish No. 3 in all of the Power 5 in rushing yards per game. Before that, he helped NFL rookie quarterback Jameis Winston have a solid debut in Tampa Bay, throwing for franchise rookie records in yards, touchdowns and passer rating. He’s got a big reclamation project in Northwestern, which was 13th in the B1G in scoring (16.3) and yardage (297.1) — its only positive claim being that it wasn’t as awful as Rutgers.
6. Despite departure, O-Line still a strength
Yes, Rashawn Slater’s decision not to opt back in to the 2020 season following the Big Ten’s October restart hurts the Wildcats. But while it leaves them without their best lineman — the senior tackle is preparing for the NFL — it doesn’t leave the unit barren, either. Senior Gunnar Vogel, senior Nik Urban and junior Sam Gerak return to anchor the line — perhaps the only bright spot offensively for Northwestern in 2019 — with a combined 50 starts.
7. Isaiah Bowser will rise again
As a freshman in 2018, the powerful 6-1, 220-pounder opened eyes, rushing for 866 yards, the 3rd-most by a 1st-year Wildcat. But injuries derailed his progression, holding the Ohio native to only 204 yards as a sophomore. But the junior will flourish in the new offensive system installed by Bajakian, who will want to run the ball efficiently to set up Ramsey in the play-action.
8. Northwestern wins the Land of Lincoln Trophy yet again
Last season looked like it would be Illinois’ year, finally a chance for the Illini to take home the trophy in its in-state rivalry with Northwestern. Illinois was already bowl eligible and favored at home, yet the Wildcats dominated in nearly every facet, outscoring the Illini 12-0 in the final quarter to take home the victory, their fifth consecutive in the series. It’s been all Northwestern recently, with the Wildcats winning 7 of the last 8 meetings, the only blemish coming in 2014. Northwestern will make it 6 in a row on Dec. 12.
9. Fans will talk about Fitzgerald being on the hot seat. And they’re crazy.
In his 14 years at the helm of Northwestern, Fitzgerald has done more than many could have predicted. Yes, 2019 was a disappointment. But only a year earlier, Fitz was the Big Ten Coach of the Year, having taken Northwestern to the conference title game after winning the West. He was due a little leeway. And it’s likely he’ll get the Wildcats turned back around quickly.
10. Northwestern will have double-digit picks
The Wildcats’ defense, with 8 starters returning including two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten in Fisher and senior Blake Gallager, will perform better than a year ago. It must. In 2019, the Wildcats generated only 7 interceptions — Gallager had 3 — the second-worse total in the Big Ten. But a better, more consistent offense will help keep the Wildcats in games and give the defense more opportunities.