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2022 football season preview: Northwestern Wildcats

The ‘Cats were, uh, not good last year but they always seem to bounce back and shock people following a down year.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

It is time for the 2022 Wisconsin Badgers football season preview extravaganza to begin! Over the next (almost) two months we will be preparing you for the upcoming football season. We’ve got previews of every team on Wisconsin’s schedule, we’ve got positional breakdowns of each group at UW, we’ll have predictions for the full conference, rankings of the top units in the Big Ten as well as a couple of larger features that we think are interesting.

Next up we take a look at Chicago’s seventh or eighth favorite Big Ten team!

Team: Northwestern Wildcats
Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald, eighteenth season, 109-90
2021 record: 3-9 overall, 1-8 Big Ten Conference
Game info: Saturday, October 8th, TBD, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

Top returning players

  • Junior, OT, Peter Skoronski, there aren’t really any individual stats that are usable for offensive linemen but he’s a first round NFL Draft pick candidate
  • Senior, DL, Adetomiwa Adebawore, 36 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 total TFL, 12 QB hurries
  • Junior, RB, Evan Hull, 1,009 yards rushing in 2021 averaging just over five yards per rush and seven touchdowns
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Indiana State at Northwestern
Adetomiwa Adebawore is a problem for opposing QBs.
Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Top newcomers

  • WR Reggie Fleurima, the highest ranked player in NU’s 2022 recruiting class, a 4-star out of Naperville, Ill.
  • QB Brendan Sullivan isn’t technically a newcomer but he redshirted last season, and now is making an apparent push for the starting QB job after a shaky 2021 by Ryan Hilinski

2021 season review

There’s no easy way to slice it: Northwestern’s 2021 was terrible. Coming off a banner 2020 season that included a New Years Day bowl win and a Big Ten West title, the Wildcats had to rely on youth in 2021 as they rebuilt their roster. And that inexperience cost them dearly.

First year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was unable to recreate the stingy, steady defenses that had become a hallmark of the team under former DC Mike Hankwitz, and an anemic offense scored more than 14 points just three times against Power Five opponents.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Purdue at Northwestern
Tailback Evan Hull was one of the few bright spots on offense for the ‘Cats last season.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The season started out mostly alright for the ‘Cats. NU hung in with what would prove to be a very good Michigan State squad for most of their opener, picked up a sleepy win against Indiana State, lost a cagey but close affair to Duke, and made short work of Ohio. Then they traveled to Lincoln and a Nebraska team that wouldn’t win another game for the rest of the year ran riot to the tune of a 56-7 drubbing.

To their credit, the Wildcats would respond with a homecoming win over Rutgers. But after that bounce-back win, things got ugly. Northwestern ended the season with a six game losing streak, with an average margin of defeat of 22.8 points.

The worst loss of those six was the final, as rival Illinois amassed a dominant lead at home that at one point ballooned to 40 points. You’d be hard pressed to find a more sour way for the season to have ended.

Key stat: Just six Power Five teams, four of whom are in the Big Ten including Wisconsin, passed for fewer yards than Northwestern did in 2021.

2022 season preview

On the surface, there isn’t a ton to look forward to for Northwestern in terms of direct improvements from 2021 to 2022. The roster is largely the same- the incoming recruiting class isn’t stockpiled with game breakers and NU’s unique academic rigor makes use of the transfer portal different than at other schools. In fact, the Wildcats lost one of their best players to the portal in safety Brandon Joseph.

But there are a few positive points to look forward to. Most notably, the team gained a good deal of experience in 2021, a fact Fitzgerald has consistently reiterated as a strong point for his 2022 squad. Key starters in just about every area of the field return, on both offense and defense.

Northwestern v Wisconsin
Ryan Hilinksi will need to be vastly improved for NU’s offense to score more points.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Secondly, the 2022 schedule is far from a gauntlet. The Wildcats kick off the college football season in Ireland against a Nebraska team playing their first game since Scott Frost restructured…well, pretty much everything.

A non-threatening non-conference slate features a visit from a beatable Duke squad and a pair of mid-major teams in Southern Illinois and Miami, Ohio. Aside from the usual Big Ten West foes the ‘Cats will face Penn State, Ohio State, and Maryland from the East, a rough but not hopeless trio (hey, the OSU game is at home!) It’s a big jump for a squad that went 3-9 last season, but it’s not hard to carve out a path to a bowl for Fitzgerald and co. if they take care of business in non-conference.


Distinct improvement is needed on both sides of the ball for Northwestern to make a bowl or perhaps even re-enter the pantheon of Big Ten West champs dark horses (it is an even year after all). Whether it’s Hilinski or Sullivan, someone needs to step up at quarterback and take some pressure off the run game.

And the defense as a whole needs to step forward and rediscover its identity as one of the toughest units in the Big Ten to play against. All and all, it’s a tall order. But more important than any metric or analysis is this is Even Year Northwestern. And you should never count out Even Year Northwestern.