Nebraska was picked to win the Big Ten West division in a media poll conducted by cleveland.com leading up to Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Should Nebraska be the team picked to win the West?
I love these sorts of questions, so to answer it I need to look in detail at the other teams in the West: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. When I’m through breaking down all of them, I’ll pick a team and explain why they’re my selection to win the West.
I’ve already covered Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Purdue in my previous breakdowns.
This week: Northwestern
Next week, the last one: Minnesota.
The Northwestern Wildcats were an enigma last season.
Why? Because the Wildcats’ offense ranked 12th in both total offense (354.4 yards per game) and in scoring offense (24.2 points per game) while still managing to win the West and earn the first trip to the Big Ten championship in school history.
So, with an offense that struggled in 2018, how did Northwestern end up 9-5? Simple: It won the turnover battle and stopped the run on defense, which helped it win a bunch of close games.
Northwestern was plus-9 in the turnover margin and fourth in the Big Ten in stopping the run, holding opponents to just 129.6 yards per game — which was 26th in the nation, too.
I think the Northwestern defense will replicate what it was able to do last season. The defense returns its top six tacklers — Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, JR Pace, Travis Whillock, Samdup Miller and Chris Bergin — as well as its leading sack artists on the defensive line in Joe Gaziano (12.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) and Earnest Brown (7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks).
The only question I have with the defense is the defensive backs. Northwestern finished last in the conference in pass defense, giving up 261.2 yards per game, but that obviously didn’t matter all that much, because the Wildcats were the ultimate bend-but-don’t-break unit of the Big Ten. When opponents got inside the red zone, Northwestern’s defense was pretty good at keeping them out of the end zone.
Offensively, there’s going to be a shakeup and it starts at the quarterback position.
Four-year starter Clayton Thorson isn’t there anymore. The job is between two guys in former Clemson quarterback and five-star recruit, Hunter Johnson, and senior TJ Green.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn’t come out and tabbed Johnson as the starter yet, but Fitzgerald is just doing what head coaches do and saying it’s an open competition in camp. I think it’s safe to say that Johnson will get the nod Week One on the road at Stanford.
The Wildcats bring back bulldozing running back Isaiah Bowser (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and speedy backup John Moten. So you’d like to think Northwestern would be able to do better than the 114.9 rushing yards per game from last year, but the offensive line loses three starters from 2018. I don’t see the rushing attack getting much better.
Which means Northwestern will likely have to rely on its passing again this season. Will Johnson or Green replicate what the solid Thorson was able to do? That remains to be seen.
That leads me to the receiving corps. Northwestern loses its top two pass catchers from last season in Flynn Nagel (remember that name, Husker fans?) and Cameron Green, who played the famed superback position but retired earlier this season because of concussions. Although Nagel’s loss really hurts, I like who’s coming back in 6-4, 215-pound Bennett Skowronek (45 catches, 562 yards, three TDs), Riley Lees (22 catches, 214 yards, three TDs) and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (20 catches, 237 yards). There’s some experience there, and I think the big-bodied Skowronek will have a solid year.
I like the Wildcats’ schedule. They get some of the tougher teams in the conference at home, including Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. I know you can make all the jokes you want about how Northwestern never really has a home-field advantage because their fans rarely show up, but the kids would much rather play at home then have to travel.
So, what have we learned about Northwestern?
We know that its defense returns a ton of production. I think that unit will be really good at stopping the run again, and if you stop the run you at least can put your team in position to hang around in games.
I don’t see the rushing game getting much better that what it did last season with a remade O-line, so a lot of the pressure will be put on the arm of Johnson or Green (probably Johnson).
If the highly-touted transfer quarterback can shine, I can absolutely see Northwestern making a return trip to Indianapolis. That defense led the Wildcats there last year and dragged its offense along. I bet it can do the same in 2019.