Football: Scouting every game on Northwestern’s 2019 schedule

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Football: Scouting every game on Northwestern’s 2019 schedule

The Wildcats hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois in 2018.

The Wildcats hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois in 2018.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

The Wildcats hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois in 2018.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

The Wildcats hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois in 2018.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Summer Managing Editor

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Coming off a 9-5 season that featured the program’s first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, expectations have been understandably raised for Northwestern in 2019.

The Wildcats will be breaking in a new quarterback following the graduation of four-year starter Clayton Thorson. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is viewed as most likely to win the starting job, but coach Pat Fitzgerald has said the competition remains open. NU’s defense should be solid once again, anchored by senior lineman Joe Gaziano and junior linebacker Paddy Fisher.

A brutal first-half schedule will be sure to challenge the Cats, who have had to overcome slow starts in each of the past three seasons, but the second half should allow for opportunities to pick up some victories.

Aug. 31 at Stanford

2018 record: 9-4

Last meeting: 2015 (16-6 win)

The Cardinal has made 10 straight bowl appearances, including three Rose Bowls. Coach David Shaw has been a model of consistency, having presided over the tenure of a number of solid quarterbacks, including current star K.J. Costello. Costello threw for 272 yards per game last season with 29 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

Stanford is also historically a great defensive team, so it could pose problems to NU’s new-look offense — in addition to the change at quarterback, the Cats are also replacing three starting offensive linemen. The Cardinal was uncharacteristically susceptible against the run last year, however, so look for NU to utilize sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser heavily in the opener.

Sept. 14 vs. UNLV

2018 record: 4-8

Last meeting: 2001 (37-28 win)

The Rebels have struggled in recent years, having missed a bowl game every year since 2013. UNLV has no problem scoring points — it averaged nearly 29 per game a year ago — but defense has been a different story. The Rebels gave up 40 or more points six times last season.

Armani Rogers is UNLV’s quarterback, and he returns after missing most of last season with an injury. Rogers can make plays with both his arm and his feet, and the Cats tend to struggle against dual-threat quarterbacks. But even so, NU should put up some big offensive numbers against the Rebels’ defense, and will hopefully avoid the early-season trap game that has plagued the Cats in recent seasons.

Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State

2018 record: 7-6

Last meeting: 2018 (29-19 win)

Ah, the Spartans, NU’s annual crossover game. For whatever reason, the Cats thrive against Michigan State, having won this matchup three years in a row. What’s more amazing is that NU has put up plenty of points against the defensive-minded Spartans.

Michigan State’s offense was bad last season and was the main reason the Spartans finished a disappointing 7-6. Brian Lewerke returns for his fourth season as the quarterback, and he struggled last year after a breakout season in 2017. Joe Bachie is back as the leader of the Spartans’ defense, a group that held the Cats to just eight rushing yards a year ago. As it has done the past two seasons, NU will probably have to win this one through the air.

Sept. 28 at Wisconsin

2018 record: 8-5

Last meeting: 2018 (31-17 win)

The Cats had a statement victory against the Badgers last season, but that game probably said more about Wisconsin than it did about NU. After coming just one win short of the College Football Playoff in 2017, the Badgers stumbled to an 8-5 record last year. The main culprit was the quarterback play, as neither Alex Hornibrook — who battled injuries throughout the year — nor Jack Coan played particularly well.

Hornibrook is gone now, so Coan will battle highly touted prospect Graham Mertz for the starting job. But the true leader of this offense is running back Jonathan Taylor, who struggled against the Cats but ran for over 100 yards in every other game last season. Madison has been a historically tough place for NU to play, and this game could play a big role in determining the West Division winner.

Oct. 5 at Nebraska

2018 record: 4-8

Last meeting: 2018 (34-31 OT win)

When the Cats and Cornhuskers get together, you can be almost certain it will come down to the wire. Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, five of the teams’ eight meetings have been decided by three points or fewer, and one of the three that wasn’t went to overtime.

There is a lot of national hype around this year’s Cornhuskers team, which is led by dynamic sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez. Nebraska is expected to take a huge leap forward in Scott Frost’s second year at the helm. NU, though, has won three of its last four games in Lincoln, so another close contest is to be expected here.

Oct. 18 vs. Ohio State

2018 record: 13-1

Last meeting: 2018 Big Ten Championship Game (45-24 loss)

This is the most highly-anticipated game on the Cats’ schedule — a rematch of last year’s Big Ten title game on a Friday night under the lights at Ryan Field. The Buckeyes reload as well as anyone in the country, and will have a new coach this season in Ryan Day and a new quarterback in Georgia transfer Justin Fields.

Recent history in this series has not been kind to NU — Ohio State has won 31 of its last 32 matchups against the Cats. But you can be sure that the Ryan Field grass will be allowed to grow as thickly as possible in an attempt to slow down the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense. NU will be looking for any kind of edge, and a win in this game would be absolutely monumental for the program.

Oct. 26 vs. Iowa

2018 record: 9-4

Last meeting: 2018 (14-10 win)

Death, taxes and Northwestern and Iowa playing in a tight, low-scoring game. Last season’s edition was certainly a memorable one, with the Cats clinching the Big Ten West on the strength of receiver Bennett Skowronek’s incredible fourth-quarter touchdown catch and a superb defensive effort.

Nate Stanley returns for his third season as the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback, and he should put up big numbers despite losing two of his top tight-end targets. Iowa is always strong defensively, especially up front, and this year will likely be no different. Fitzgerald always gets his team excited to play Iowa, and this is NU’s homecoming game, so the Cats will be plenty motivated to pick up their fourth straight victory over the Hawkeyes.

Nov. 2 at Indiana

2018 record: 5-7

Last meeting: 2016 (24-14 win)

This is the Cats’ only road game between October 5 and November 30, and it will be their first trip to Bloomington since 2011. The Hoosiers have fallen on hard times for the past few decades — they have not had a winning record in conference play since 1991, which was also the last time they won a bowl game.

Peyton Ramsey is very accurate at the quarterback position, and he has the most passing yards of any returning quarterback in the Big Ten. Stevie Scott III averaged five yards per carry last year as Indiana’s primary running back. But although the Hoosiers’ defense showed the ability to force turnovers, they still gave up 30 points per game and were especially bad against the run. NU has been good about avoiding trap games on the road, so the Cats should be able to win this one.

Nov. 9 vs. Purdue

2018 record: 6-7

Last meeting: 2018 (31-27 win)

The Cats have won five straight against the Boilermakers, but Purdue has been steadily improving ever since coach Jeff Brohm took over in 2017. Quarterback Elijah Sindelar has a cannon for an arm, and do-it-all receiver Rondale Moore can score any time he touches the ball.

The Boilermakers’ defense is led by tackle Lorenzo Neal and linebacker Markus Bailey, but had an uneven year in 2018 — holding Ohio State to 20 points in an upset win but giving up 56 in the first half alone to Auburn in the Music City Bowl. In a division race that is expected to come down to the wire, this is a game that NU will probably have to have, especially at home.

Nov. 16 vs. Massachusetts

2018 record: 4-8

Last meeting: Never

The Cats will take a break from their conference schedule in mid-November to host the Minutemen, one of six independent FBS schools. Massachusetts was just 4-8 last year, averaging an impressive 32.8 points per game but allowing more than 50 points six times.

First-year coach Walt Bell has a great offensive track record, having previously been the offensive coordinator at Florida State. The defense is expected to struggle once again, especially a secondary that is replacing three starters. This game will probably mean little to nothing for NU, but it should be a relatively easy win nonetheless.

Nov. 23 vs. Minnesota

2018 record: 7-6

Last meeting: 2018 (24-14 win)

The Golden Gophers’ season is already off to a tough start, with quarterback Zach Annexstad out indefinitely with a foot injury. That said, Minnesota did just fine last year with Annexstad out and Tanner Morgan under center. Morgan is back, as is just about everyone from what was the youngest team in the country in 2018.

Mohamed Ibrahim had a great year as the Golden Gophers’ top running back, rushing for 5.7 yards per carry — 1,160 yards in all — and nine touchdowns. Tyler Johnson is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, and he returns after a monster year last season. But like many of the Cats’ opponents, Minnesota’s defense is suspect and inconsistent, and gave up big numbers last year to conference bottom-feeders Maryland and Illinois. P.J. Fleck’s team is expected to improve, and by this point in the season, the extent of that improvement should be clear.

Nov. 30 at Illinois

2018 record: 4-8

Last meeting: 2018 (24-16 win)

The Cats have won the Land of Lincoln Trophy four years running. The Fighting Illini keep saying they’re going to improve under Lovie Smith, but those improvements have been minimal so far. Illinois will have a new quarterback in 2019, but will have a pair of nice security blankets offensively in running back Reggie Corbin and receiver Ricky Smalling.

The Fighting Illini defense was bad, though, especially against the run, and while almost everybody is back, it’s hard to tell whether they will be better. While pretty much everybody else has at least an outside shot at the West title, Illinois figures to be at or near the bottom of the division yet again.

Email: benjaminrosenberg2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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