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Minnesota Football: Big Ten West Q&A - Northwestern Wildcats

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The Wildcats will look to defend their division crown without Clayton Thorson under center

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season opener on Thursday, Aug. 29, we are previewing each of the Gophers’ Big Ten West opponents by subjecting contributors from their respective SB Nation sites to an intense Q&A session.

Today, we turn our attention to Joe Weinberg from Inside NU as he shares with us everything we could want to know about the Northwestern Wildcats. Thanks, Joe!

Every team in the Big Ten West has question marks. But what are the areas of your team that have periods for punctuation or even exclamation points?

Joe Weinberg: The main “exclamation point” for this team comes on the defensive side of the ball, where Northwestern returns one of the best linebacking units in the Big Ten, if not the entire country. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher has earned Preseason First Team All-American honors, and junior Blake Gallagher led the Big Ten in tackles last season from the weak side. The two should continue to anchor the strong Northwestern run defense that led the Wildcats to the West division crown in 2018. Joe Gaziano also returns for his senior season as Northwestern’s top pass rusher.

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats return breakout freshman running back Isaiah Bowser. The downhill power back burst onto the scene midway through last year and turned out to be one of the conference’s best backs by the end of the season. He rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns against the Gophers last November.

Okay, now I have to ask about the question marks. What are they?

JW: After four years of Clayton Thorson starting every game for the Wildcats under center, NU will finally have a new face at the helm of their offense come August. All signs point to transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson assuming the role after being forced to sit out 2018 due to NCAA rules. The former five-star recruit and backup to Kelly Bryant/Trevor Lawrence has earned high praise from everyone who has seen him play, but has only had very limited action in college thus far. It remains to be seen how Johnson will fare in purple, but Wildcat fans’ expectations are certainly high.

Outside of quarterback, the biggest question mark for this NU team is in the trenches. The Wildcats will be without their top three defensive tackles from 2018 (who were a huge part of the success against the run), and also lose three key starters on the offensive line.

Is there a non-conference or early season game that will serve as a barometer for the rest of your season?

JW: Yep. Northwestern heads to Palo Alto for the first game of the season to take on an always tough Stanford team. One non-conference game obviously won’t make or break NU’s season (the Wildcats lost all three non-conference games and made the Big Ten Championship last year), but Pat Fitzgerald’s team will certainly be tested early. Northwestern has had a recent tendency towards starting slow, and we should know early on whether this team is prepared to defend their West division crown.

What game do you have circled on your calendar? It can be your most anticipated matchup or perhaps Northwestern’s toughest test (or both).

JW: I think it’s safe to say that almost every Northwestern fan has the Big Ten Title Game rematch in Evanston circled on their calendar. The Friday night primetime matchup with Ohio State will cap off the beginning of the Wildcats’ ridiculously front-loaded schedule, and it’s a shot at revenge against a Buckeye team they hung with for three quarters in Indianapolis last December. Northwestern students rarely fill the student section at Ryan Field for home games, but I’d say there’s a good chance they’ll show up for this one and make it an electric atmosphere the way they did against Notre Dame in 2018.

If you had to pinpoint a trap game on the schedule, what would it be?

JW: I’m legitimately most worried about Northwestern’s home games against UNLV and UMass. In the past three seasons, Northwestern has dropped home games to the likes of Illinois State, Western Michigan (PJ!), Northern Illinois, and Akron. For some inexplicable reason, the Wildcats just seem to play down to their competition when underwhelming non-conference opponents come to Ryan Field.

Make the case for why the Wildcats will win the West again.

JW: If Hunter Johnson lives up to/exceeds the five-star hype, I don’t see any reason why the Wildcats can’t get back to winning the division in 2019. Clayton Thorson’s leadership and late-game experience was monumental in NU’s success last season, but the ceiling for HJ as a player is simply much higher. We know what Johnson is capable of, and now it’s just a matter of what he will do on the field. His potential is probably the highest of any in the West division this year.

Okay, now make the case for why the Wildcats won’t win the West.

JW: The losses on the offensive and defensive line for Northwestern are going to prevent this Wildcat team from running through the West like they did last year. By the end of the season, Northwestern had solidified its identity of controlling the game in trenches, and it’s going to be harder for them to do that this time around with key guys gone on both sides of the ball.

On top of that, NU’s schedule (especially the first half of the season) is a gauntlet. The Wildcats play Stanford, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State in five of their first six games. If Northwestern drops those crucial West division games at Wisconsin and at Nebraska, its championship game hopes will likely be ended in the beginning of October.

I can’t let you go without an actual prediction on the record. Who wins the West?

JW: I guess I’ll buy into the Husker Hype for purely scheduling reasons. Somehow, Nebraska gets Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa all at home, and I think they’ll capitalize after an underwhelming year in 2018.

2019 West Division Predictions (Conference Records)

  1. Nebraska (7-2)
  2. Iowa (6-3)
  3. Northwestern (5-4)
  4. Wisconsin (5-4)
  5. Purdue (4-5)
  6. Minnesota (4-5)
  7. Illinois (1-8)