Northwestern football: 3 differences between last year's debacle and this year's success
Several teams around college football have seen impressive turnarounds from last season, but you could argue the Northwestern Wildcats are No. 1 in that category. Northwestern went from incredibly difficult to watch with their futility in 2019 to where they are this season — the representatives from the B1G West in the conference title game, which is just 2 weeks away.
It has been an interesting 3-year stretch for the program. The Wildcats finally broke through and won the West for the first time in 2018 after going 8-1 in B1G play. They lost to Ohio State in the conference title game but finished the year 9-5 overall. The next season, Northwestern completely fell apart, winning just 1 conference game en route to a 3-9 overall record.
Those who follow Northwestern closely — whether that’s their own fans, B1G backers or college football viewers in general — likely viewed 2019’s debacle as the outlier in the team’s consistent success under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who took over the program in 2006. The 3 victories were the fewest since he has been head coach.
As you see with consistently solid programs like Northwestern, the Wildcats bounced back in a big way, which wasn’t a huge surprise considering they rattled off 9 or more wins 3 of the 4 years prior to 2019. In what has been an adventurous season for the B1G, Northwestern is 5-1, and they clinched the West in the most 2020 way possible. Northwestern punched their ticket for the conference title game by having their road matchup with Minnesota canceled this weekend due to the Gophers’ COVID-19 outbreak. The Wildcats will be in Indianapolis competing for the conference championship for the 2nd time in 3 years on Dec. 19, potentially against Ohio State once again depending on what happens in the final weekend of what has been a mess of a season.
While a lot of attention has gone to teams like LSU and Penn State that have fallen apart, a lot of eyes should be on what Northwestern has accomplished after a brutal season.
So how did they do it? How did the Wildcats go from last place in the B1G West all the way to 1st the next year?
Here are 3 differences we’ve seen from Northwestern’s team this year compared to last.
New offensive coordinator
Last year: Under offensive coordinator Mick McCall, the 2019 version of the Northwestern offense was about as bad as it gets in college football. The Wildcats ranked 2nd-to-last in the B1G in points per game at 16.3 in their 12 games, ahead of only Rutgers. Northwestern’s scoring offense ranked No. 124 across all of college football, which includes 130 FBS teams.
This year: McCall was fired after last season, and Fitzgerald brought in Mike Bajakian to replace him after a successful season in the same position at Boston College. The Wildcats still do not have an explosive offense by any means, but they do enough to win games, which cannot have been said of last year. Through 6 games, Northwestern ranks 10th in the B1G in scoring offense with 24.8 points per game. That is 91st among the 127 FBS teams competing in 2020.
Last year: The quarterback play in 2019 certainly made for a difficult watch. Four quarterbacks saw action for the Wildcats — TJ Green, Andrew Marty, Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith — and none of them found any success. Northwestern quarterbacks completed 50 percent of their passes for 1,404 yards with 15 interceptions and just 6 touchdowns. Yikes.
This year: Northwestern went to the graduate transfer market and signed a player with years of experience who proved he could produce as a solid quarterback in the B1G. The Wildcats brought in Peyton Ramsey, who started 3 years for Indiana. The numbers won’t jump off the page, but Northwestern was in desperate need of a quarterback who could keep them in games, and that’s what the Wildcats got. Through 6 games, Ramsey has completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards with 8 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
Defense better than ever
Last year: You could definitely call the 2019 Northwestern defense a fairly strong unit, but it had its flaws. This group was not given any favors by the other side of the ball, which has likely played a large factor in the improvement from last year. The Wildcats ranked 38th in all of college football by allowing 23.6 points per game, which came in 8th in the conference. Northwestern allowed 30 or more points 4 times, including 52 in a loss to Ohio State.
This year: Again, this likely has a lot to do with the offense being competent, but the Wildcats are putting together as impressive of a defense as you’ll see. Northwestern allows an average of 15.3 points per game, which is 7th in the country and 2nd in the B1G behind only Wisconsin, which has played only 4 games. Until their 1st loss, 29-20 to Michigan State last week, Northwestern hadn’t allowed more than 20 points all season.