Northwestern Football Preview

The ugly truth; you’d be hard-pressed to find a Power-5 school in a worse position than the Wildcats going into the 2023 season. There’s a clear black eye on the program after the hazing allegations and the firing of Pat Fitzgerald this summer. That on top of a team that lost their final eleven games last season. They finished 1-11 and ended the season with a 41-3 loss at home to Illinois. As we sit here before the start of the 2023 season, we’re going to focus on the season to come, strengths, weaknesses and what to expect from the new campaign.

We first need to touch on the new man that will be leading the football program; David Braun. Braun was supposed to be the new defensive coordinator this season, but will now take over as head coach after the firing of Pat Fitzgerald. Braun was the 2021 FCS coordinator of the Year and defensive coordinator of two FCS Championships at North Dakota State. He’s never been a head coach before, but he’ll get a big-time opportunity this year.

On Defense

The Wildcats return their two leading tacklers at linebacker. Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller will have to lead the defensive turnaround. They’ll have a defensive-minded head coach, but it may take a bit for David Braun to implement what he wants with this defense.

On Offense

The offense will be a question mark. It was absolutely terrible last season, so the question marks may be a positive. The three biggest playmakers are all transfers: quarterback Ben Bryant, wide receiver Cam Johnson (Arizona State) and wide receiver AJ Henning (Michigan). Ben Bryant transfers in from a really solid program at Cincinnati. The La Grange, IL native started 11 games last season before an injury ended his season.


On Defense Northwestern had the worst run defense in the Big Ten last year. That’s the first place the Cats must address before hoping to improve in other areas. This will be a tall task as the Cats don’t have a ton of size.

Below we see all of the Big Ten defenses from last season. You’ll notice Northwestern in the bottom right in the purple. It’s made very clear on this plot how much worse the rush defense was than the pass. But it’s hard to say the pass defense was good because if you can run all over a team, why would you pass?

The Wildcats lose their top two cornerbacks from a year ago so there’s plenty of questions defending the pass too. But that won’t matter unless they can’t stop the run first.

On Offense

The offense will look completely different. The offensive line may be a work in progress early on. The loss of Peter Skoronski will hurt and protecting the quarterback will be essential if the Wildcats hope to throw the ball. Caleb Tiernan will be an important part of this line in 2023.

The Wildcats failed to score in double digits in each of the last four games last year. The constant in those is that they failed to reach 100 passing yards in those games too. Below we see the passing yards by game for Northwestern last year.

In order for the offense to put up points, Northwestern needs to be able to pass the ball. It was a huge weakness last year. With all the transfers on offense this year, it’s more of a question mark going into the season.

The Schedule
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Wrap Up and Keys

When Northwestern excels, they win close games, win the turnover battle and play smart. The Wildcats finished -18 in the turnover battle last season. They need to play smart and hold on to the ball to stay in games. We can hope the addition of one of the FCS’ best defensive coordinators can help create some turnovers, but the Cats’ offense will need to play their part as well.

Most projections have the Wildcats winning 2-3 games this season. What I’m hoping for is some life in the passing game and a restored defensive identity with new head coach David Braun. There will probably be some growing pains, but if the Cats can play much smarter than they did last year and stop the run a little bit, they should be able to hang in some games.

Published by Will McClaughry

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

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