What to Know: Northwestern Football Preview

Last season was really disappointing for Northwestern. A 3-9 record and only 1-8 in Big Ten play. Their only win came against Rutgers on October 16th. From that point, the Wildcats finished 0-6 and were outscored 205-68 over those final six games!

For a team that historically hangs their hat on defense, they didn’t have that defense last year. They finished dead last in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game (454.6), which was 113th out of the 130 FBS teams.

Offensively, the Wildcats were actually also 113th out of the 130 FBS teams in yards gained per game (326.7). That’s clearly not good, but in the low-scoring Big Ten that was actually more than Iowa, Rutgers and Indiana. On the graph below, we see where Northwestern ranked last year among other Big Ten teams in terms of yards per game.

We’ve established last year was terrible, so let’s move on to some hope for this season. Pat Fitzgerald has only had back-to-back losing seasons once in his tenure at Northwestern, but it will take a big effort this season. Most predictions have the Wildcats finishing last in the Big Ten West.


Northwestern has seen success when their defense is great. The Wildcats will need to generate more pressure against the pass for sure, but even before that they’ll need to show the ability to stop the run. Run heavy teams like Wisconsin and Illinois demolished the Cats when they matched up last year.

Bryce Gallagher is a star a linebacker, but he will need help. Adetomiwa Adebawore returns at defensive end, but the middle will be up to some transfers: Taishan Holmes (UMass), Henrik Barndt (Indiana State) and Ryan Johnson (Stanford). Coco Azema, Cameron Mitchell and AJ Hampton are all returning starters in the secondary. That looks to be the strength of this defense as of now.


The offense has never been a huge strength of Northwestern. But last year’s revolving door at the QB position didn’t help build any consistency in the Cats offense. This year it will likely be Ryan Hilinski’s job. Hilinski threw for 978 yds with 3 TDs and 4 INTs in parts of nine games last season. Redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan is the other option behind center.

Malik Washington is the biggest returning playmaker in the passing game. He caught 44 passes for 578 and two TDs last year. The running back tandem of Cam Porter and Evan Hull could be the best feature of this offense. Porter missed last year after a very strong finish to his freshman year in 2020. Hull is a threat to catch some passes out of the backfield. He will provide some different looks for opponents to prepare for.

Let’s take a look at the Wildcats’ schedule below. Opponent’s team ranking is included on the right side. The rankings are the averaged rankings from over 20 different pre-season rankings. For reference, Northwestern is ranked 85th.

Northwestern begins the year on Saturday in Dublin, Ireland in what should be a really cool game against Nebraska! The Wildcats should win their three non-conference games against Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). But with Miami (Ohio) ranking just three spots below the Cats, that could be a close one to look out for. In the Big Ten, Rutgers is the only team with a worse ranking. Without having the Scarlet Knights on the schedule this year, it could be tough for Northwestern to find a conference win.

Published by Will McClaughry

Sports fan, data enthusiast and former division 3 college basketball player

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