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Wisconsin football 2020 opponent preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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After a disappointing 2019 season, will a new offensive coordinator and starting quarterback be enough to give the Wildcats a chance against the Badgers?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the Big Ten football season should be a month old by now, we are still stuck in neutral waiting to kickoff. The Wisconsin Badgers and the rest of the conference don’t get going until October 24, but we can’t really wait that long to start talking about football. It is time to start previewing Wisconsin’s opponents now!

The Badgers will play eight games in the regular season, all six division opponents and two cross-division opponents, and then a ninth game on B1G Championship Sunday against their place-doppelgänger from the East.

Let’s continue out opponent previews with “Chicago’s Big Ten Team”...Northwestern.

Team name: Northwestern Wildcats

Location, stadium: Evanston, Ill., Ryan Field

Head coach (years with team): Pat Fitzgerald (15 years at Northwestern)

Coordinators (years with team): Mike Bajakian (first year as offensive coordinator), Mike Hankwitz (13 years as defensive coordinator)

2019 record, place in division: 3-9 overall (1-8 in Big Ten), No. 6 in West

2019 result vs. Wisconsin: L (24-15)

2020 game date vs. Wisconsin: Saturday, November 21, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

AP

Three key departing players: offensive tackle Rashawn Slater (opted out of the season, 37 career starts, honorable mention All-Big Ten 2019), defensive end Joe Gaziano (nine sacks, 17 tackles for loss, school’s all-time sack leader), defensive back Trae Williams (18 tackles, five passes defended in seven games played, team captain in 2019)

Three key returning players: linebacker Paddy Fisher (88 tackles, six tackles for loss, one INT), wide receiver Riley Lees (51 catches, 430 yards, two TDs), defensive back Greg Newsome II (36 tackles, 9 passes defended)

Overview of team: There’s nowhere to go but up for Northwestern this season. The Wildcats had their worst record in fourteen years under Pat Fitzgerald in 2019, going 3-9 with a 1-8 conference record and a last place finish in the Big Ten West. After the Wildcats finished No. 126 nationally in scoring (16.3 ppg) and No. 124 in total yards per game (297.2 ypg) last season, Fitzgerald made a much needed change at offensive coordinator in the offseason. Longtime OC Mick McCall (12 years at Northwestern) was replaced by Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. It’s hard to believe the offense can get much worse than it was a year ago and Bajakian will hope to rejuvenate a unit that has grown stale over the past couple of seasons.

Here’s what Eli Karp and Lia Assimakopoulos from Inside NU think of what we can expect from Bajakian and the offense in 2020:

Expect plenty of runs, but it won’t look like the boring, predictable offense of before. The offense will play with tempo and look to keep defenses off balance. The offensive line for once looks like it won’t limit the rest of the unit, even after star left tackle Rashawn Slater opted out of the season.

Joining Bajakian is quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana with 23 starts under his belt. Ramsey is a legit starter, has tons of experience in the Big Ten and is an absolute gamer who led Indiana to eight wins last season. With Ramsey under center, the Wildcats will at least have a competent, experienced decision maker and someone who can also make plays with his legs (seven rushing touchdowns in 2019).

Ramsey’s top target will be senior wide receiver Riley Lees, while tight end John Raine, a grad transfer from FAU, will also be involved in the passing game. The Wildcats also boast two impressive running backs. Junior Isaiah Bowser returns from injury after playing only five games last season, and will look to get back to the production he had as a true freshman (866 rushing yards in 2018). Redshirt sophomore Drake Anderson is a nice complimentary back to Bowser and is coming off a breakout season last year in which he ran for 634 yards and three touchdowns.

Northwestern has consistently been a solid defensive team in recent seasons under the leadership of longtime DC Mike Hankwitz. Once again, it looks like the defense will be the strength of the Wildcats in 2020.

Here’s what Karp and Assimakopoulos from Inside NU had to say about the Wildcats defense:

We (likely) know what we’ll get from the defense, which returns nine starters. Trae Williams and Joe Gaziano represent significant losses, but NU has been here before. With the seniority and familiarity this group has with each other and longtime coach Mike Hankwitz’s scheme, it should be a strong unit that could rank in the top 25 of scoring. Now with their time to shine, defensive ends Alex Miller and Earnest Brown IV will be tasked with generating pressure, something Northwestern has lacked the last couple of years despite fielding solid units.

Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern into a consistent winner since taking over in 2006, leading the Wildcats to nine bowl games and three 10 win seasons. I think it’s a good bet that Northwestern, with a new OC and quarterback, will be much improved from a year ago and be a tough out in the Big Ten.

Prediction for 2020 game vs. Wisconsin: Ryan Field has been a house of horrors for the Badgers over the years and Ramsey is a good enough quarterback to keep the Wildcats in it. However, I think the Badgers’ secondary is too good and I don’t think Northwestern will be able to score enough points to keep up. This matchup will likely be a low-scoring affair with plenty of punts to go around, but I like the Badgers to come out on top 27-13 behind a dominant performance from the defense.