Better or worse? Previewing Northwestern's offense in 2022
Pat Fitzgerald is the most successful head coach in Northwestern football history. He is the school’s all-time winningest coach (109-90, 64-68 Big Ten), has guided the Wildcats to 10 bowl games, won the past 4 (most recently the Citrus Bowl at the conclusion of the 202o season), captured division titles in 2018 and 2020 and pulled in Top 50 recruiting classes in each of the past 3 years.
But his Wildcats certainly didn’t live up to that résumé in 2021.
The key losses from the 2020 team, as well as injuries, took their toll. But the biggest issue was their inconsistency across the board. Just take a look at the numbers:
After finishing 9th in the Big Ten in total offense (360.7 ypg), 8th in rushing (162.8 ypg), and 10th in scoring (24.7 ppg) in 2020, those conference rankings last year dropped to 11th in total offense (322.3 ypg) and 14th in scoring (16.6 ppg). The rushing offense finished 8th again but with less yardage (145.0 ypg).
It’s hard to win when you can’t move the ball or find the end zone.
And with some new faces set to take the field this fall, that makes the challenge two-fold for offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. He needs to get this unit moving again, while also acclimating the new blood to his playbook in an effort to make the offense a threat in 2022.
Coach Fitz and his staff have proven that they can bounce back. But with the need to add new players to the mix and give more reps to veterans waiting their turn, there’s always that bit of uncertainty. So what can we expect from Northwestern’s offense in 2022? This edition of better or worse will have the answer.
Key losses: Andrew Marty, QB; Hunter Johnson, QB; J.J. Jefferson, WR; Stephon Robinson Jr., WR; Trey Pugh, TE; Sam Gerak, OL.
Key Returnees: Ryan Hilinski, QB; Evan Hull, RB; Cam Porter, RB; Malik Washington, WR; Bryce Kirtz, WR; Charlie Mangieri, TE; Peter Skoronski, OL; Ethan Wiederkehr, OL.
Potential breakout players: Jack Lausch, QB; Anthony Tyus III, RB; Andrew Clair, RB; Calvin Johnson II, WR.
The Wildcats lost a handful of key players but have plenty of talent waiting their turn. That’s usually the case, but it takes on a bigger meaning for 2022 as Northwestern looks to return to bowl eligibility. Many of these players have game experience. The question is: Can they handle expanded snaps, roles and responsibilities?
The answer to that largely will determine the offense’s fate in 2022. As for what to expect relative to 2021, let’s break it down.
Passing offense: Worse (for now)
There are a variety of factors to consider. For starters, except for Peyton Ramsey in 2020, NW’s quarterback position has been a revolving door since Clayton Thorson.
Ryan Hilinski brings the most experience. He finished 2021 by completing 54% of his passes (95-of-176) for 978 yards. But he threw 3 touchdown passes compared to 4 interceptions and was sacked 9 times. The South Carolina transfer hasn’t always looked comfortable when dropping back. He’s also made some erratic throws and questionable decisions. All of those factors contributed to why Bajakian resorted to using multiple QBs, although Marty and Johnson are now gone.
But it must be noted that Hilinski, Marty and Johnson all popped up on the injury report at various times last season.
The only other QB with game experience is junior Carl Richardson, but he only appeared in 3 games last season (19 passing yards). Sophomores Cole Freeman, Brendan Sullivan, and Jasper Stratton have not played. But there’s been plenty of hype surrounding dual-threat Jack Lausch. The incoming freshman is a 3-star recruit from Brother Rice High School in suburban Chicago, where he posted 2,447 passing yards, 1,084 rushing yards and accounted for 41 total touchdowns.
With the departures of Jefferson, Robinson and Mangieri, the “Cardiac Cats” are losing 169 catches, 2,256 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns worth of production. Washington, Kirtz and Pugh are expected to fill those voids. They showed flashes last year, combing for 70 catches for 815 yards and 4 touchdowns. The only other returning receivers who caught passes last year are Jacob Gill (8 for 85 yards and a touchdown), Wayne Dennis Jr. (2 for 16 yards), Genson Hooper Price (2 for 15 yards) and Raymond Niro III (3 for 15 yards). NW added former Illinois receiver Donny Navarro III through the transfer portal. He has 600 career receiving yards.
All of these players will be looking to take advantage of extra reps. But the one pass catcher that everyone will be eager to see is Calvin Johnson II — no relation to the Hall of Famer. While he’ll play wide receiver, he also played quarterback, running back and returned kicks for French Camp High School in Mississippi. He accounted for 4,051 all-purpose yards and 64 combined touchdowns. His versatility will lend a huge assist to special teams and can be used for trick plays.
The running backs also need to contribute more to the passing attack. Evan Hull led all backs in receiving last year (33 receptions, 264 yards, 8.0 ypa, 2 TDs), but Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III combined for just 13 catches. Cam Porter returns (he caught 9 passes in 2020, more on him shortly), so the backs should be more involved.
Finally, the o-line has to better protect the QB. NW allowed 29 sacks last season — 3rd-most in the B1G.
Rushing offense: Better
We already know what Evan Hull, who finished 6th in the Big Ten with 1,009 rushing yards last year, is capable of. More intriguing is how much damage Hull and Cam Porter can do together. After posting 390 yards from scrimmage with 5 rushing touchdowns in 2020, Porter suffered a season-ending injury during training camp last year. But before the injury, Porter proved that his skills are valuable as part of NU’s rotation.
Even during down seasons, the Wildcats have been able to run the ball. And until the passing game proves to be viable, expect the Wildcats to keep running. Hull is more of a hard, downhill runner, while Porter is more of the speed back. Johnson II also could get chances in the run game, and we should also expect to see more of Tyus and Clair. Tyus ran 50 times last season for 210 yards and a touchdown.
Clair added 349 rushing yards. Both contributed as part of the RB rotation. And let’s not forget that Bajakian also designed QB runs. Expect the ground attack to be the strength of this offense again this year.
Special teams: Slightly worse
The big concern is the lack of experience at kicker. Charlie Kuhbander (43 FGs, 136 extra-points) has graduated. Jack Olsen takes the reins, and he only has 1 extra-point attempt. He has some lofty expectations to live up to.
Thankfully, Northwestern has options to return kicks. Raymond Niro III led this team last year in kick return yards (159, 15.9 ypa) and punt return yards (103, 20.6 ypa). Andrew Clair (2 kick returns for 14 yards) and Bryce Kirtz (2 punt returns for 26 yards) also have experience. Johnson II will get a chance to return. Defensive back Coco Azema returned 3 kicks for 62 yards in 2021. Even Hull got in on the act with a 3-yard punt return of his own. Let’s hope whoever gets these opportunities can find the end zone at some point. NW’s most recent kickoff return for a TD came in 2016. It hasn’t returned a punt for a TD since 2014.
Northwestern averaged 16.6 points per game last season.
They have to be better than that in 2022, right?
History doesn’t win games, but it’s worth noting that, under Fitz, the Cats haven’t suffered through back-to-back years in which the offense failed to score at least 20 per game.
In 2006, Fitzgerald’s rookie season, the Cats averaged 16.5 points per game. His 2007 team improved to 25.8.
In 2015, NW averaged 19.5 points per game. In 2016, they improved to 26.0.
In 2019, they averaged 16.3 points per game — the fewest in the Fitz era. In 2020, they rebounded to average 24.7.
The ingredients are there for another modest bump in 2022.