California Dreamin’

Image result for pat fitzgerald dreaming

Football is almost back. The ‘Cats are almost back. The Warriors are back.

Specifically, Dr. Michael Roche has rejoined the gang in Chicago after a stint in Central Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of enemy Penn State territory. As a resident at PSU for the past few years, Doc Roche led the Nittany Lions to a B1G title and a Rose Bowl berth – we’re hoping he can bring that spark back to Evanston and our beloved Wildcats.

The ‘Cats are obviously focused on Pasadena as well, with our three featured players at B1G media days all rocking Rose Bowl pins. 2019/2020 is another year where the playoff/championship games will not be held in Pasadena so it’s another opportunity for the ‘Cats to smell the roses should we win the B1G Championship Game. The loss in last year’s Champ game has been a big talking point for Fitz and the squad this year, leveraging that as motivation to get back to Indy for another opportunity to win and take NU to another level.

It will not be an easy task, as Northwestern has lost a good number of key players going into 2019, starting with QB Clayton Thorson. Thorson has not been the most highly praised quarterback, even amongst the Warrior crew, however you can’t balk at his 36-17 record in college – winning the most ever games for an NU QB. No matter how pedestrian Clayton looked at times, his leadership and ability to win games will be missed and there will be a turnover in leadership to transfer Hunter Johnson.

Hunter comes in as a five star recruit out of Clemson, who transferred away from last year’s National Championship team after realizing he was not going to get playing time behind Trevor “Sunshine” Lawrence. Clemson’s loss is our gain as he is the highest rated recruit to EVER come to Northwestern. However, reports out of camp have been mixed about Hunter’s progress and play in practice…there are rumblings that he hasn’t looked great and hasn’t yet won the starting QB job from returnee TJ Green. I say phooey to these reports – Fitz is someone who notoriously keeps QB updates close to the vest and I don’t believe all that I’ve heard. Hunter very may well not look great but I’ll reserve my judgement until he steps on the field against the Cardinal on Aug 31 (and no doubt he will be named the starting QB). I do believe that we can’t expect Hunter will come in right away and look like the second coming of Dan Persa – it will take time for him to adjust and get used to playing in full speed games. The kid’s only played in one actual college game. Everyone’s thinking about Hunter’s arm but I’ve got a feeling he’s more of a runner than people think – he was a track star in high school and I’ll look for him to tuck it and run a good amount.

So what’s Hunter working with? Our offense under Mick McCall has been quite poor the past few years, to put it mildly. This year there is more depth at WR than we’ve had in recent memory, and our starting RB Bowser is quite simply my favorite player to ever don the NU purple. At WR, look out for freshmen Bryce Kirtz to make an immediate impact – Kirtz played with Hunter in high school and there’s got to be some familiarity that will help off the bat. We’ll get solid production from Skowronek, Lees and Bowman – in particular I think Lees will play a huge role in the offense this year and step into that Flynn Nagel / Austin Carr type role. We essentially have no superbacks to speak of so that is a huge question mark heading into this year – Cam Green’s retirement at the end of the last year was an enormous loss that can’t be understated. Cam was a security blanket for Thorson last year and our most reliable receiver – certainly happy that he made the decision that he did to preserve his health, but he will be sorely missed.

At running back, my boy Bowser is back after a stellar freshman effort. The ‘Cats lost Jeremy Larkin to retirement early in the year – a brutal setback for the kid given the career he’d had up until that point. Larkin looked on track to be the next Justin Jackson and was forced to retire after just three games last year. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been to stomach – essentially overnight your college experience and potential career path is turned upside down. Larkin did not hang his head but instead became an assistant coach for the team and was there on the sideline for every game, pumping his teammates up and contributing however he could. From everything I’ve seen he seems just like a solid all-around guy, and we send him a Warrior salute.

Back to our running backs this year – Bowser stepped up big time once he got his opportunity in 2018, and injected life into our running game. This year I’m looking for him to take another step forward as he continues to mature and get fit for the college game. He’s spelled by senior John Moten, who is a pretty solid second back and took it 80 yards to the house against OSU last year. We’re going to need more balance between the running and passing game this year if we want to take a step forward.

On defense, we should be solid in most spots. Our linebackers are studs, our safeties our studs, our D ends are studs. Where I’m most nervous is at the cornerback position – without Montre Hartage we’ll need Greg Newsome to step up and serve as our lockdown corner. There were too many games last year (Purdue, Duke, Nebraska, OSU come to mind) where we simply could not stop the other team’s passing attack and they marched up and down the field at will. Our run defense will be great again this year but we certainly have our weaknesses through the air. The good news is we’re in the B1G, where not too many teams will exploit that weakness. We’re more a “ground and pound” conference then “air it out”.

So where will that leave us for this year – what can we expect? I like to say that the ‘Cats like to zig when we think they’ll zag – whatever we expect from them, they’ll do the opposite. It’s probably why they went 8-1 ATS last year when underdogs, and 2-4 when favored. Signs this year point to an upgrade from last year, but it all depends on Hunter “Gatherer” Johnson. If he steps in right away and takes command of the offense, the sky is the limit for this team. We could barely move the ball last year so any spark of life on offense would be a significant upgrade. Our team last year made the B1G championship with simply mediocre stats. We were really only good at three things – limiting penalties, getting off the field on third down, and turnover margin. That in my mind is all about coaching – no doubt that Fitz has entered the conversation for “Who is the B1G’s best coach?” With Fitz at the helm, and more talent than we’ve had in recent years, it feels like we’ve got a chance for great things. I think we’ll struggle against up-tempo, pass-first teams (e.g. Nebraska)  but we match up well against most of our B1G West opponents (as well as Stanford). The ultimate goal is Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, but we’ll need to get through a tough slate to do so and take our program to new heights.

We start the season in California, and let’s hope we can end it there too.

 

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