Opponent Spring Review: Northwestern
With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.
We continue today by taking a look at the defending Big Ten West Division champs, Northwestern, which will come to Lincoln on Oct. 5.
The Wildcats are coming off one of their best campaigns yet in their 13 seasons under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, finishing 9-5 overall and 8-1 in conference play for a trip to the Big Ten Championship and capping it off with a win over Utah in the Holiday Bowl.
We caught up with WildcatReport.com publisher Louie Vaccher to learn more about what the Huskers can expect from Northwestern this fall.
After turning the page on a surprising run to Indianapolis in 2018, Northwestern opened the spring searching for a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years.
With four-year starter Clayton Thorson moved on, the Wildcats thought they had a clear replacement in former five-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, who was rated the No. 2 QB prospect in the 2017 class. But after sitting out last season and working with the scout team, Johnson failed to officially lock up the starting job coming out of spring ball - at least according to Fitzgerald.
Instead, Northwestern rotated a whopping five quarterbacks in with the first-team offense this spring, and Fitzgerald said that competition would continue on into the start of fall camp. Vaccher said most people still assume Johnson is the obvious choice, but the spot is technically still open at this point.
The good news for the Wildcats is they return their leading rusher from last season in Isaiah Bowser, their second-leading receiver in Bennett Skowronek, and an experienced defense anchored by star linebacker Paddy Fisher.
Along with Thorson, Northwestern will have to replace its top receiver from last season in Flynn Nagel, who led the team in receptions (68) and receiving yards (780) and toasted Nebraska to the tune of 12 catches for 220 yards as a senior.
The Wildcats also lost three starters on the offensive line, a unit that has been considered the weak link of the team for the past few years. On top of that, the o-line also is also transitioning under a new position coach in Kurt Anderson, who joined the program this offseason via Arkansas.
Also gone is top defensive tackle Jordan Thompson, and former defensive end Trevor Kent moved inside this spring to try and fill his shoes. They'll have to replace three other key pieces on defense in No. 1 cornerback Montre Hartage, safety Jared McGee, and outside linebacker Nate Hall.
But the staff feels good about the defensive depth coming up the ranks, especially after a number of injuries last season forced a lot of young players to step up.
Offensive star: RB Isaiah Bowser
Northwestern was dealt a huge blow early on last season when starting running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football due to injury after just three games. Enter Bowser.
The true freshman took over the No. 1 job and ended up becoming the Wildcats' offensive workhorse, rushing 197 times for 866 yards and six touchdowns, the third-most rushing yards in a season by a true freshman in program history.
Northwestern gradually adapted its offense around the 6-foot-1, 216-pound native of Sidney, Ohio, over the final eight games of 2018, and he should once again be the focal point as a sophomore.
Defensive star: LB Paddy Fisher
Few defensive players in the Big Ten have been more productive over the past two seasons than Fisher.
A Freshman All-American and a second-team all-conference selection in 2017, Fisher posted his second straight 100-tackle season (116) and tied for the Big Ten lead with four forced fumbles last year as a true sophomore.
The 6-foot-4, 241-pound native of Katy, Texas, earned first-team all-league honors (coaches) for his efforts, and his 227 total tackles over the past two seasons are the most of any Big Ten player.
Fisher is the clear leader of the defense and will again be one of the faces of the program. Should his impressive production continue in 2019, he could potentially forego his senior year for an early jump to the NFL.
Biggest question: Who will handle the kicking game?
Rebuilding the offensive line will once again be the primary question mark for Northwestern to answer this offseason, but another issue that's come up is how the team is going to improve its kicking and punting units that struggled mightily last year.
Punter Jake Collins has moved on after one season in Evansville following his grad transfer year, and the two primary candidates for the job right now are walk-ons in sophomore and Lincoln (Neb.) Northeast grad Cody Gronewold and redshirt freshman Jake Genyk.
The kicking game is an even bigger concern. Junior Charlie Kuhbander is back after missing five games to injury last season, but he was only 5-of-9 on field goal attempts when he was healthy.
After Kuhbander got hurt, walk-on Drew Luckenbaugh stepped in and made three of his four field goals, including the game-winner in overtime to beat Nebraska. But then he got injured and the Wildcats had to turn to Collins to handle both the kicking and punting duties for a stretch.
Fitzgerald was already fairly aggressive on fourth downs, but it got to the point where he was going for it unless the ball was inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Northwestern needs that third element to drastically improve if it's going to repeat as West Division champs.
Early outlook on Northwestern vs. Nebraska
Vaccher: "I would predict that it's going to be an entertaining game, I'll tell you that. These two teams have played a lot of exciting football, and it always seems to go down to the wire. The last two have been in overtime.
"Nebraska, with Adrian Martinez in place, I think offensively they are going to be a handful, and they are only going to get better in Year 2 under Scott Frost. Their problem area is going to be defense. Can they stop people next season? They really struggled last year, so we'll have to see what happens there.
"Northwestern's kind of the opposite in that they struggle offensively a lot but their defense is solid and really the strength of the team. So it seems like that combination over the years has really produced some great games, and I would expect that to continue. It's been a crazy series."
Overall 2019 win-loss expectation
Vaccher: "I think Northwestern can be an eight to nine-win team again. Whether that's good enough to win the Big Ten West, I'm not sure. I think Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa will be the main competition, and I expect Northwestern to be right in the hunt.
"Last year was kind of a funny year in that they were 5-0 on the road and 3-4 at home, and then they went 0-3 in the non-conference and 8-1 in the Big Ten, so everything was kind of upsidedown. I expect them to end up with the same record, I just don't know if that's going to be enough to repeat as Big Ten West champs."