Northwestern Wildcats
The Northwestern Wildcats heading to the locker room before a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

2020 Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

On August 11th, the Big Ten announced that it would postpone its 2020 football campaign amid player safety concerns due to the developing situation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming the first Power Five conference to cancel football season, followed by the Pac-12.

In a somewhat stunning decision, however, the league announced that it would, in fact, move forward with the season after all. The announcement, which came on September 16th, stated that all teams would play a conference-only schedule, starting October 24.

The conference’s reversal came after a massive outcry by players and coaches, most notably, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who released an open letter advocating for football to be played. In the letter, he outlined how well Michigan’s program had been able to contain the virus, stating that out of 893 tests administered (in the eight weeks before the August 10 letter), they had had only 11 positive tests, nine of which were in the first 476 tests. Harbaugh also stated that the Wolverines had been meticulously following CDC guidelines and required zero stoppages in their training schedule due to these positive tests.

It’s time to breakdown the upcoming Northwestern Wildcats season.

The 2019 Northwestern squad left much to be desired, to put it nicely. The Wildcats finished the season 3-9 (1-8 in Big Ten play). Their only conference win came against a wildly inconsistent Illinois team in Northwestern’s last season game. Small victories, right?

Defensively, the Northwestern Wildcats were okay, but an average of 336 yards a game was not enough to carry an offense that could not move the ball to save their life. The Wildcats will need to rely on senior linebackers Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, and Chris Bergin in 2020, who combined for a total of 263 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and four interceptions in 2019.

Offensively, the Wildcats look to bounce back after a relatively stagnant 2019 campaign. Last year, the passing game was awful, managing only 1,404 yards, six touchdowns (against 15 interceptions), and a 50% completion rate across five quarterbacks. Without a clear number one pass catcher, it isn’t easy to know whether this situation will improve much unless Riley Lees builds on his 438-yard 2019 campaign.

Northwestern’s only hope in the passing game is Hunter Johnson, a blue-chip quarterback recruit who had previously played for Clemson before transferring. Rushing wise, the Wildcats leaned mostly on Drake Anderson, who had a total of 662 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. There were also healthy contributions in the run game by quarterbacks Aidan Smith, Isaiah Bower, Andrew Marty and Evan Hull. Anderson will return in 2020, and could likely be one of the lone bright spots on the offence.

Northwestern is a developing program, attempting to combine strict academics with athletics. Stanford is an outlier in this case, but even they have challenges finding blue-chip recruits that are able to handle the academic rigor of going to such a difficult school.

As of right now, the Wildcats cannot hold a candle to any other Big Ten team. Their schedule does not have much room to squeeze out a win, except for Illinois, a long shot on December 12. The Wildcats 2020 outlook would be better had they played any out of conference teams, but with a schedule made up solely of Big Ten teams, a win may not be in sight.

2020 Record Prediction: 0-8

Check in later for more Big Ten previews!

Up next: the Purdue Boilermakers.