Northwestern underwent quite a transformation last season, and it sure wasn’t the kind the Wildcats welcomed.
They became the first team to go from playing in the Big Ten championship game to finishing last in the division the following year. They’re looking for a quick turnaround in a pandemic-shortened season.
The Wildcats went 3-9 overall and tumbled to the bottom of the Big Ten West with a 1-8 mark in conference play. They hope to show it was nothing more than an aberration. And just being back on the field is a victory as far as coach Pat Fitzgerald is concerned.
“I kind of feel like we’re 1-0 from getting it back out to practice,” he said. “I was really concerned that might not happen, but just thankful for the diligent work of the conference, our presidents and chancellors and then the (athletic directors) and other coaches, collectively, as a group to get this accomplished.”
Northwestern has three 10-win seasons and nine bowl appearances since Fitzgerald took over in 2006 following Randy Walker’s unexpected death. With a 99-79 record, he has more than twice as many victories as any other Wildcats coach.
That just makes last season’s freefall all the more stunning.
With one of the nation’s most anemic offenses, the Wildcats matched their worst record since the 2002 team went 3-9. A season-ending victory over Illinois was all that prevented them from their first winless Big Ten mark since the 1998 team dropped all eight conference games in Gary Barnett’s final year.
After bottoming out, the question is whether Northwestern can pick itself up. The Wildcats play an eight-game schedule starting with Maryland at home on Oct. 24.
A big reason for the struggles on offense last season was the play of the quarterbacks.
Northwestern got help in March when Peyton Ramsey announced he was transferring from Indiana. Ramsey completed 67% of his passes for 6,581 yards and 42 touchdowns with 23 interceptions in three seasons with the Hoosiers.
He lost the starting job prior to last season to redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. But as Penix dealt with injuries throughout the year, Ramsey helped lead the Hoosiers to their first eight-win season since 1993 and their first winning record in Big Ten play since 1993. Indiana was 8-5 and lost to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
Northwestern also has T.J. Green back for a sixth year after he broke his foot in the opener against Stanford. Hunter Johnson, the highly touted Clemson transfer, gets another shot after struggling last season. And Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty are in the mix.
Northwestern will have a new coordinator — Boston College’s Mike Bajakian — after ranking 124th in total offense. He takes over after the Wildcats parted with longtime coordinator Mick McCall.
Bajakian’s offenses have averaged 424 yards and 31.3 points in his nine seasons as a college coordinator at B.C., Tennessee, Cincinnati and Central Michigan. He has also coached in the NFL with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While the offense struggled, the defense played at a respectable level. All-conference lineman Joe Gaziano is gone. But Paddy Fisher leads an experienced group of linebackers.
RUNNING (BOUNCE) BACK
Coming off a standout freshman season in 2018, Isaiah Bowser got injured in the opener and played in just five games. Now that he’s healthy, the Wildcats hope he can return to form and boost a solid run game. Bowser went from running for 866 yards and six touchdowns to carrying 59 times for 204 yards with no TDs.
Northwestern initially was supposed to open with a league game at Michigan State on Sept. 5. Then, it was going to be a trip to Penn State on that date to start the season after the Big Ten initially decided to eliminate nonconference games because of the coronavirus.
That plan got thrown out when the league announced in August it would not play this fall. Now, they start with Maryland at home.
Had everything gone as planned, Northwestern would have played Wisconsin at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7. There would have been nonconference games against Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State, too.
Northwestern had a false positive for the coronavirus lead to 37 players getting quarantined and workouts leading up to the start of camp on Aug. 7 getting paused. The Wildcats found out a few days later the player was not infected, nor was anyone else.
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