Better or worse? Previewing Northwestern’s offense in 2020
Coming off an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, it would have been hard for Northwestern to have a more uninspiring 2019 season. And that was largely due to the offense.
Northwestern at times looked like it was setting offense back decades. Quite simply, the Wildcats couldn’t pass. So they finally decided for the final 3 games, they wouldn’t even try, attempting only 35 total passes during that time. And it surprisingly worked pretty well, with Northwestern going 2-1, including a win over rival Illinois.
Expectations were high with former 5-star recruit Hunter Johnson transferring in from Clemson, but he never got comfortable in Evanston. TJ Green, a former walk-on, outplayed him in the opener at Stanford. When Green went down with a season-ending injury, Johnson still failed to deliver. Aidan Smith, who was nowhere on anyone’s radar to open the season, wound up starting 6 games with Johnson struggling.
Former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian takes over in 2020 for Mick McCall, a move that was hardly a surprise considering Northwestern ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in points per game, passing yards per game and total offense.
There is renewed optimism with Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey as the overwhelming favorite to take over as the starter. He should inject some much-needed life into an offense that had just 27 plays of 20-plus yards — the lowest number in the country. LSU, on the other hand, had 113 such plays.
With a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, will the Northwestern offense be better in 2020?
Passing game: (Much) Better
Ramsey should provide a huge boost. His play off the bench in 2019 was a huge factor in Indiana winning 8 games, but the presence of Michael Penix Jr. made his path to playing time shaky at best. There’s a reason he was available in the transfer market, but at a minimum, he is a competent quarterback with 23 career starts and appearances in 31 games.
Ramsey will be without Bennett Skowronek, who transferred to Notre Dame, but the rest of the Wildcats’ top 7 receivers from 2019 are back. That includes Riley Lees, who somehow managed to haul in 51 receptions despite Northwestern quarterbacks combining for just 6 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Northwestern averaged an embarrassing 4.5 yards per pass attempt, which is the lowest mark since New Mexico State averaged 4.2 yards per attempt in 2009. The good news is that Ramsey was one of the better downfield passers in the country last season, so Wildcat fans shouldn’t have to avert their eyes when their quarterback drops back to pass this season.
Running game: Better
Bajakian oversaw an offense that heavily featured AJ Dillon, who has been one of the top running backs in the country the past 3 years. While Northwestern doesn’t have a back with Dillon’s ability, it does bode well for a stable of backs that should rotate in.
Isaiah Bowser, who led Northwestern in rushing in 2018, is back after playing in only 5 games in 2019 due to injury. His numbers significantly dropped from his freshman year to sophomore year (866 rushing yards and 6 TDs to 204 and 0, respectively), so it’s reasonable to expect him to return to form — as long as he’s healthy. He should combine with Drake Anderson, last season’s leading rusher, to form a decent 1-2 punch.
For all of Northwestern’s offensive struggles, the offensive line wasn’t all that bad. Rashawn Slater is one of the best tackles in the country.
Special teams: Even
Charlie Kuhbander was average enough in 2019, converting 71% on only 14 chances. It’s usually a good thing when your kicker doesn’t have to attempt too many field goals, like Ohio State only attempted 15, but Kuhbander didn’t have the chances because Northwestern couldn’t move the ball. Maybe he will get more chances this season and replicate his freshman season, when he was honorable mention All-B1G.
Northwestern was actually 2nd in the Big Ten in averaging over 8 yards per punt return, so it probably is due for some regression in that category.
This is an easy answer because, how could Northwestern not be better? If it is worse, yikes.
That said, there still could be some growing pains. The lack of practice time is not ideal with a transfer quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. And with no nonconference games this season, Northwestern doesn’t get any cupcakes like UConn or UMass to build confidence.
But there is a lot to like for Northwestern. It’s hard to imagine Pat Fitzgerald’s program not rebounding, but it comes down to solving the quarterback position. That will determine whether Northwestern is one of the country’s most improved teams or suffers through a second consecutive dreadful campaign. In an ideal world, Johnson regains his 5-star form and pushes Ramsey in preseason camp.
The other pieces are in place as Northwestern has the most returning production of any team in the country, according to Bill Connelly’s annual rankings. A new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator should mean better days area ahead.