The defending Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats are a different team than a year ago. That is to say, uh, they aren’t as good this year. Northwestern lost a lot of talent off of last season’s defense, including their defensive coordinator, and it has taken them until the last few weeks to start to look like a competent unit.
We had a number of questions about the ‘Cats this season and thankfully our friends from Inside NU were able to answer them for us. Here is what they had to say!
Let’s cut right to the chase: Northwestern’s defense hasn’t been great this year. Why is that? Is it all Mike Hankwitz leaving or has there been a large personnel turnover too?
The cop out but also correct answer is that it’s both. Mike Hankwitz was one of the best coordinators in all of CFB, so you should regress the year after he retires. Northwestern’s 2020 defense was overflowing with experience and talent, most of whom departed, including a corner who is already one of the NFL’s best at his position as just a rookie. Thus, the defense should be worse.
And ultimately, the defense has rounded into form following the disastrous performances against Michigan State and Nebraska, looking more and more like the typical defense you see come out of Evanston. They’re still below their usual standard, with linebackers who often lose the race to the edge on any form of an outside run, and a defensive line who on occasion can get worked by the physical hog mollies across from them, but the line of competence has been reached at the very least.
Who is going to play quarterback on Saturday? Who would you play?
Andrew Marty is going to play because he is the only quarterback who offers true duel threat ability from the position. No matter who the ‘Cats put out there, the passing offense is going to be subpar. Thus, you might as well give yourself a chance with the one guy who might annoy the heck out of the Badgers with a few scrambles each game.
Ryan Hilinski is a low floor, low ceiling type option due to his pocket passing nature and infrequent turnovers, while Hunter Johnson is never seeing the field again for meaningful snaps after his meltdown at Duke.
Get ready for “Marty Party” this Saturday.
Evan Hull seems like a player that is really going to annoy me. What does he do well running the ball and will NU’s offensive line be able to open any holes for him?
Hull is annoying unlike the majority of NU’s starting players, he’s 100% proven that he is an acceptable starter for his position in the Big Ten. He’s not a game breaker in any sense, but he has enough speed to capitalize on huge mistakes from a defense, while also having enough girth bottled up inside to fall forward for three-yard gains in the trenches.
The offensive line has been up and down all season, sometimes pushing dudes around to create alleys wide enough that you could bowl through them, and other times getting mashed by Big Ten foes and allowing non-stop pressure on their quarterbacks.
Hull can be contained for sure, but he at least requires you to bring your A game when trying to tackle him. He’s perfectly capable of capitalizing on a lackadaisical defensive performance.
Graham Mertz has been known to toss an interception or two. Who, besides Brandon Joseph, should he be on the lookout for when he drops back to pass?
Joseph is always the guy to watch out for due to his breakneck speed, but the Northwestern secondary has improved mightily since the start of the season. Cornerback Rod Heard has gotten better and better each week at shadowing with his man down the field, while the safety across from B-Joe — Coco Azema — had a standout performance against Michigan and has been throwing heat ever since. The interceptions don’t happen as often as they used to, but this group forces quarterbacks over the middle portion of the field if they truly want to pick them apart for big yardage.
Mertz will also need to watch out for No. 99, Adetomiwa Adebawore, whenever he drops back. If Keeanu Benton is your big, beefy son, then ‘Tomi is my freakishly fast and productive one. He’s been the most consistent quality player on the team this entire season, good for three QB hurries and often a sack every single week the ‘Cats take the field.
So I don’t need an exact score prediction here, but what are you feeling for an outcome? What will make the difference in the game? Who has to play better than usual for Northwestern to win?
The difference is that Wisconsin is good, and Northwestern is bad (this is why I’m in Medill baby). The Badgers recaptured their usual formula to winning games following that loss to the Wolverines and have been rolling ever since, while Northwestern has been grasping for an identity all season and has yet to find it.
If NU has any chance at winning, it’ll have to because they came out of the gates clicking and ready to go, scoring the first touchdown of the game and controlling the game script from there. Thus, Andrew Marty needs to shake off his horrid, three-interception performance against the Hawkeyes and play the game of his career for the ‘Cats to move the ball early and have a chance at the upset.
I don’t think that’s happening, though. Wisconsin 28, Northwestern 10.