College football kind of snuck up on us. It feels like the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest was just last week, and now I’m already seeing pumpkin spice latte (PSL) ads on Twitter.com. A true sign that fall is here.
Northwestern had, by all accounts, a shit year in 2021. Coming off a Big Ten title berth in a COVID shortened 2020, people were unreasonably high on the ‘Cats last year. True fans saw the truth…we had QB uncertainty entering the fall, injuries, a new D coordinator and a serious lack of Talent. Hunter Johnson started our first game. It showed.
The ‘Cats weren’t competitive for most of the year, with two wins against D1 teams. The losses, of which there were many, weren’t particularly close.
In the course of my Northwestern fandom, the ‘Cats have been a zig-zag team. They tend to overperform against low expectations, and underperform against high expectations. So we should be in a perfect spot this year, with no one expecting the ‘Cats to do anything…right?
It’s hard to find reasons for optimism as we creep towards the last week of August. We lost Brandon Joseph, star safety, to the enemy. Ryan Hilinski is back – we saw what he can (and can’t) do last year. There was no coaching turnover (shocker). The 2022 schedule is much tougher than 2021.
Here are four things I think I know heading into the 2022 season:
1. We’ll have a run-first offense. Cam Porter is supposedly healthy, and Evan Hull was a surprise bright spot last year. Peter Skoronski is a star on the O line. The pieces are there to have a solid rushing attack. But if we can’t throw the ball whatsoever (we averaged a pitiful 177 yards / game through the air last year), the opposing defense can simply stack the box and shut down the ground game.
2. At least three QBs will start a game in 2022. Ryan Hilinski will be better than he was last year, but it’s a very low bar. My hope is that the coaching staff won’t hesitate to rotate QBs if we can’t get anything going through the air – we all know the definition of insanity. Each of the QBs on the roster is relatively new to the team, and there shouldn’t be any sort of loyalty to anyone based on longevity. My gut is we’ll see both Hilinski and Sullivan start at some point this year, and then I’d bet that Carl Richardson or Jack Lausch gets at least one start as well…assuming our passing offense is totally inept. Hilinski is as immobile as Sister Jean, and at least the other options on the roster give us another dimension with some speed. I’d expect some QB rotation within games as well.
3. Our defense will improve. Again, a low bar. We regressed on defense in 2021, but that’s not too surprising based on how good the D was in 2020 and following the loss of longtime beloved D coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Tackling was an issue. For the first half of the season, we seemed to give up a 50+ yards on every first play from scrimmage. Our linebackers were poor. This had to be a huge focus for Fitz during the offseason – it’s a stain on his reputation as a stellar linebacker during his playing days. He’s got too much pride to let the D slip again in 2022. We should still have a decent d line and secondary – our linebackers are the big question mark, and the hope is that we’ll see some improvement coming into this year.
4. We’ll win more games in 2022 than in 2021. With only three wins under our belt in 2021, this feels achievable. Looking at the schedule, I’ll be honest it is hard to find four wins. Games against the D3 Salukis, and Miami (OH) are certainly winnable…and then we’ll have to beat two of Duke, Illinois, Minnesota or Maryland. I think we get it done, but barely. Season prediction: 4-8.