Northwestern football: Reassessing the Wildcats after a 1-2 start
Well, this certainly wasn’t the start Northwestern had in mind.
The Wildcats have already doubled last season’s loss total through 3 games, including a loss to Duke in Week 3. They’ve also seen a defensive regression, allowing 30 points twice in their first 3 games. It’s not what you want to see from a team that rode its defense to the B1G title game.
But we’re at that point in the season. We need to look back at preseason expectations. Where do the Wildcats stand?
Let’s talk about it.
Should we revise those preseason expectations?
We’ll start with what the preseason expectations were.
Northwestern was picked to finish third in the B1G West after winning the division a year ago. The offense was projected for a big leap while the defense became a wild card of sorts with a new coordinator taking over.
Then the Wildcats’ star running back got hurt. Then the defense gave up 38 points to Michigan State in Week 1.
Outside of Wisconsin and Iowa, it’s hard to say where anyone is in the B1G West right now. Third place could be in play for Pat Fitzgerald’s group, especially since Minnesota is without its top running back.
For right now — which is an important disclaimer — we’ll keep expectations the same as they were heading into the season. But given what we’ve seen so far, things could change in a blink.
Who has emerged?
When Cam Porter suffered a season-ending injury in August, Evan Hull was seen as the next man up.
He has definitely risen to the occasion.
Hull ranks 8th in the B1G with 87.3 rushing yards per game and has taken on Porter’s role as the face of Northwestern’s run game. To give you an idea, he averages 48.3 more yards per game than the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher.
Hunter Johnson has looked solid at quarterback in his second stint as the starter, which shouldn’t go unnoticed. But Hull is the one to watch as Northwestern heads into B1G play in a couple weeks.
Who has disappointed?
It feels weird to say it, but the Northwestern defense has disappointed.
Some important players left — notably cornerback Greg Newsome II — but there were still some key pieces on the roster. Brandon Joseph put his name on the map as a freshman last year and looked poised for a breakout campaign in 2021. But he hasn’t jumped off the page the same way he did in 2020.
It’s still early, but giving up 30-plus points twice isn’t reassuring for a defense that kept every team it faced — including Ohio State — below that mark last season.
Are they who we thought they were?
Maybe they’re not exactly who we thought they were, but this is a tough question to answer.
On one hand, the offense has been doing alright despite Porter’s injury. Hull has made sure of that. But on the other hand, the defense hasn’t been as sharp, which is troublesome considering Fitzgerald’s defense-first approach. New defensive coordinator Mike O’Neil has brought some NFL elements into the scheme, but it hasn’t been enough to stop Michigan State and Duke.
Northwestern has to bounce back from the Week 3 loss to Duke and look sharper going into conference play. So going back to the original question: Are the Wildcats who we thought they were? They can be. Let’s see how the next couple weeks go.
They’ll enter November with a 4-3 record
Maybe I’m delusional, but Northwestern has a good chance to win 3 straight games through October.
It starts with a, frankly, not very good Ohio team next week in a final tuneup before conference play starts. Then the conference slate starts with Nebraska and even though it’s on the road, Fitz is going to want to win that one. Considering how the Cornhuskers played against Illinois, Northwestern will win that one.
After that, Rutgers comes to Evanston for the Homecoming game after the bye week, which gives the Wildcats a good chance to pick up another W. But then, they have to go to Ann Arbor and face Michigan. It’s hard to win at The Big House, and the Wildcats haven’t really given us a reason to think they can do it.
Still, 4-3 wouldn’t be bad considering where things stand after Week 3.