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Around the B1G West: Northwestern

To call Northwestern's 2019 season a disappointment is like saying the coronavirus has slowed the growth of the stock market.

The defending Big Ten West champions experienced a free fall last season, going from nine wins to nine losses and dropping from first to last in the Big Ten West. The Wildcats finished 3-9 overall and just 1-8 in the Big Ten, the worst mark in head coach Pat Fitzgerald's 14 years and the lowest win total for the program since 2002.

Northwestern is looking to prove this year that 2019 was an aberration and not the start of a trend. Here's a look at what's going on this offseason as the Wildcats look to bounce back from a season they'd like to forget.

Three prominent storylines

Hunter Johnson didn't live up to expectations in his first year at Northwestern.
Hunter Johnson didn't live up to expectations in his first year at Northwestern. (Getty Images)

Installing a new offense

The biggest news of the offseason was Fitzgerald finally parting ways with 12-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall at the end of the season in a move many saw coming and still more thought was overdue. Fitzgerald brought in Mike Bajakian, the offensive coordinator at Boston College, to direct a flat-lining Wildcat offense that finished 124th in the nation in yards (297.1) and 126th in points (16.3) per game. Bajakian isn't married to any particular offensive system and says he doesn't know whether NU will run its trademark spread attack next season. His offense is more of a philosophy: find out who your playmakers are and then figure out ways to get the ball in their hands. One significant change has already taken place: Northwestern's superbacks will once again be called tight ends, as they are every place else in the country.

Finding a quarterback

Five quarterbacks took snaps for Northwestern last season, and all five are coming back this season. The bad news is that those five QBs combined to complete just 50% of their passes, with six touchdowns and 15 interceptions, as the Wildcats finished 127th in the country in passing and 130th (dead-last) in passing efficiency. The good news is that the QB play really can't get much worse. The returnees battling for the job are Hunter Johnson, the former five-star Clemson transfer who struggled in his first year as the starter; Andrew Marty, the running QB who led Northwestern to its lone Big Ten win over Illinois in the season finale; and possibly TJ Green, the sixth-year vet who was lost for the year in the opener against Stanford and hopes to be ready by fall camp. The odds-on favorite, though, is likely Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey (more on him later).

Getting the program back on track

Northwestern won 36 games, three bowls and a Big Ten West title over the previous four years, only to see it all go down the tubes in a season that brought back visions of the Dark Ages. But Fitzgerald said last fall that he was "one-million percent" confident that his team would rebound from its disastrous campaign and get back to playing football "the Wildcat Way." He's got a point. Northwestern's defense was solid all season, and he said that he was relatively happy with the offensive line and the ground game. He just needs to get the quarterback position fixed. Off the field, things are going well: the program has a palatial, state-of-the-art practice facility, Fitzgerald is locked up until 2026 and has said that he hopes to stay at NU for the rest of his career, and the administration supports the program like never before. All the pieces are in place, but Northwestern can ill afford another season like 2019.

Three biggest departures

Joe Gaziano became Northwestern's all-time sack leader last season.
Joe Gaziano became Northwestern's all-time sack leader last season. (AP Images)

Joe Gaziano, defensive end

Gaziano was a three-year starter and a stalwart for the Wildcats. He set Northwestern's all-time sack record last season when he registered a takedown of Tanner Morgan against Minnesota in November, and he wrapped up his career with 30 sacks, third-most all-time in the Big Ten. Gaziano was much more than a pass rusher, though; the 275-pounder was a three-down player who could also anchor down and hold the edge against the run. Northwestern is deep at defensive end and have a host of talented players, like Earnest Brown and Devin O'Rourke, ready to see more playing time. But there's no question that the Wildcats will miss big No. 97, the leader of what has been a strong defensive line.

Jared Thomas, center

Northwestern is only losing one starting offensive linemen this year, but he was the Wildcats' bell cow. Thomas not only started 25 straight games for the Wildcats at center, and 28 overall, but he was also the leader of the unit the last two seasons and a team captain in 2019. An articulate and cerebral sort, Thomas was the mouthpiece for the O-line. First-year coach Kurt Anderson could rely on his fifth-year senior center to make the right calls on the line last season. He won't have that luxury this year, and a new leader will have to emerge in the offensive line room.

Bennett Skowronek, wide receiver

Skowronek played in just three games last season due to injury, so you could argue that he won't be missed this season. But Skowronek is on this list because he was a team captain who decided to leave the program as a graduate transfer. That's something you don't see very often. Northwestern has had plenty of guys transfer over the years for more playing time elsewhere, but Skowronek would have been a starter and top target again this season. What's more, he chose to transfer to Notre Dame, the school that Wildcat fans love to hate. Northwestern could have used a big, physical possession receiver like Skowronek to get its floundering passing game back on track.

Three key returnees

Paddy Fisher has 318 tackles over three seasons.
Paddy Fisher has 318 tackles over three seasons.

Paddy Fisher, linebacker

A three-time All-Big Ten honoree with 318 career tackles, Fisher has been the leader of Northwestern's defense since he slipped into the starting middle linebacker role as a redshirt freshman in 2017. There was some talk last summer that Fisher, who will be a fifth-year senior this season, could opt to enter the NFL Draft a year early, but there was no way that No. 42 was going to end his career with a disaster like the 2019 season. At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, Fisher is a rock between the tackles, and while he isn't the fastest linebacker in the league, his instincts and technique always seem to have him at the right place at the right time, a big reason he has 10 forced fumbles in his career.

Riley Lees, wide receiver/returner

Northwestern's quarterbacks didn't do very much right last season, but they did learn how to look for Lees, who still managed to have a productive season while the passing game scuffled. Lees accounted for about a third of Northwestern's passing game last year: he had 51 of 156 completions, 430 of 1,404 yards and two of six TDs. What's more, Lees averaged 22.0 yards on kick returns and 7.4 yards on punt returns and came close to breaking a couple big ones. If Northwestern resurrects its passing game in 2020, the redshirt senior and former high school quarterback will be a big part of its success.

Four starting offensive lineman

Fitzgerald often lauded the play of the offensive line last year, OL coach Anderson's first in Evanston. The Cats front displayed a physicality that had been absent in the recent past and showed some promise for the future after years as the weakest link on the team. This year, four starters come back: on the left side, tackle Rashaun Slater and guard Nik Urban; and on the right, tackle Gunnar Vogel or Ethan Wiederkehr (they each started games last year), and guard Sam Gerak. Gerak could move to center this season and no one would be surprised if four-star incoming freshman Peter Skoronski comes in and competes for a starting job on the interior.

Three big additions

Peyton Ramsey will transfer from Indiana to Northwestern for his fifth year.
Peyton Ramsey will transfer from Indiana to Northwestern for his fifth year. (AP)

QB Peyton Ramsey

Landing Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, was a huge boost for the program. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder seems to have all the qualities that Bajakian is looking for in a QB: he can run, he doesn't make a lot of mistakes and he's a coach's son who should be able to pick up the offense quickly. Ramsey's career passing numbers dwarf the combined stats of all five Northwestern quarterbacks who took snaps last season. A starter for IU in 2017 and 2018, Ramsey has thrown for 6,581 yards in his career, with 42 TDs and 23 interceptions. Last year, playing part-time in place of oft-injured starter Michael Penix Jr., he still completed 68% of his passes for 2,454 yards, with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. That's a thousand more yards and seven more touchdowns than NU's five QBs threw in a dozen full games last year.

Mike Bajakian, offensive coordinator

Simply put, Bajakian, or "Coach Jake" as he is called, has his work cut out for him. Not only is the first-year offensive coordinator installing a completely new system, but he also has to figure out who his quarterback will be. This winter Bajakian said that his system will use tempo and be flexible and easy-to-learn. Beyond that, we don't know what it will look like, and Bajakian's track record doesn't give us many clues. At Central Michigan, he built his offense around a passing game featuring wide receiver Antonio Brown; at Cincinnati, he heavily utilized his tight ends, including Travis Kelce; and at Boston College, he employed a power running game spearheaded by A.J. Dillon. Bajakian's plan is to identify his playmakers and then get them the ball.

Injured offensive players

Northwestern's primary culprit on offense last season was poor quarterback play, but it didn't help that they were hit hard by injuries to numerous key players on that side of the ball. Virtually all of them should be back in the lineup this fall. Quarterback TJ Green, who likely would have won the starting job last season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his foot in the first half of the season opener. Leading rusher Isaiah Bowser, who missed seven games with injuries, and backup Jesse Brown, who was sidelined for eight, will both return. Northwestern will also welcome back wide receivers Kyric McGowan (three games missed due to injury), Jace James (three) and J.J. Jefferson (five), as well as tight end Trey Pugh (eight).

Expectations for 2020

Optimism for 2020 rose when the Wildcats landed Ramsey earlier this month. The quarterback play was abysmal last season. If Ramsey is merely average, the Wildcats should be able to get six wins; if he is above average, they could win a couple more and at least make some noise in the West. The defense should again be the strength of the team, and they have a lot of experienced veterans coming back.

The schedule is also in the Wildcats' favor. Their three non-conference games are against Tulane, Central Michigan and FCS Morgan State, and they avoid both Michigan and Ohio State in crossover games. If the Wildcats take care of business in their non-conference matchups, a bowl game seems like a realistic expectation for a team anxious to get the bitter taste of 2019 out of their mouths.