Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer
The 2020 Northwestern football campaign was destined to be a one for the history books. From being postponed for over a month, to a second Big Ten West championship in three years, to an impressive Citrus Bowl performance, the 2020 season had more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel.
With the season at a close, The Daily’s five beat reporters reflect on a fall filled with magnificent highlights, outstanding performances, fun quotes and more.
1. Where does this season rank among Pat Fitzgerald’s best seasons?
Drew Schott: In Pat Fitzgerald’s 15-year career as Northwestern’s head coach, 2020 marked his top season. He became the first Wildcats head coach to win 100 career games after the season-opener against Maryland. He led NU to its sixth-straight victory over Illinois and fourth-straight bowl win. Most of all, he guided his alma mater to its second Big Ten West title in three years. It is clear that after a decade-and-a-half at the helm, Fitzgerald has placed the Cats closer to winning a Big Ten title than they’ve been in two decades. He’s turning Evanston into a tantalizing destination for top coaches and players, epitomized by the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and the emergence of true freshman left tackle Peter Skoronski and redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph. Completing the best season of his career — amid a pandemic no less — allows Fitzgerald to continue setting the foundation for future success on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Ella Brockway: I think the answer’s yes. This 2020 team will enter the NU record books with a division title and a Big Ten Championship Game performance that — as Ohio State looks better and better — looks better and better by the day, likely the highest finish in an AP Poll since the 1995 season and a dominant win in the most prestigious bowl outside of the New Year’s Six.
That’s about as great a season you can have without winning the Big Ten or a New Year’s Six bowl. You could probably make the argument that some of Fitzgerald’s previous teams were more talented, even if it wasn’t reflected by its record or a postseason finish (see: 2014 and 2015), but this group produced the finest top-to-bottom season in the modern era of NU football.
Andrew Golden: This is Fitzgerald’s best, especially when you consider the circumstances and what the team was still able to accomplish despite them. Amid a pandemic, the Cats reportedly only had two positive tests the whole season, and they came before the bowl game. NU still managed to win seven games, another Big Ten West title and, of course, kept the Hat in Evanston. To cap off the season with a Citrus Bowl victory, the best bowl game the Cats have won in Fitzgerald’s tenure, makes it pretty clear to me that this was his best coaching job.
Peter Warren: When someone writes the biography of Pat Fitzgerald, this 2020 season should get its own chapter. 2006 may have been the most difficult. 2018 may have been the season that earned him Big Ten Coach of the Year. But 2020 was the most complete coaching job Fitzgerald has ever done. We all know about the incredible success on the gridiron, but this is his best job because of what happened off the field. There were plenty of factors that helped NU stay COVID free, but having zero positive tests in the Big Ten season is a remarkable accomplishment. Yet it goes beyond just testing. Spring practices were cut short. Offseason workouts were as different as they ever have been. For a full month, players had no idea if they were going to play a season. But when the season started, NU looked like it was playing in any normal season. That is a direct reflection of the commitment and buy-in Fitzgerald got from the players in the offseason.
Greg Svirnovskiy: Everyone else is saying this season is Fitzgerald’s best. I mostly agree. But let’s not overlook 2018. After starting the year with losses to Duke and Akron, NU went 8-1 in Big Ten play, reeling off impressive wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Resilient comebacks for the ages abounded, the Cats erased a 10-point deficit against Nebraska in the last five minutes of regulation before winning in overtime. In the Holiday Bowl against Utah, they scored 28 straight points in the third quarter in a come from behind victory over Kyle Whittingham’s squad. The man who simply doesn’t lose bowl games — frayed by the Cardiac Cats.
Who am I kidding, it was this year. For all the reasons above and below.
2. What was the best quote of the season?
Golden: It has to be Blake Gallagher in the pre-season saying, “Bring Your Own Juice.” This was the mantra for the Cats in 2020 and set the precedent for the energy and style of play that guided their defense throughout the season. NU finished the season ranked first in points per game allowed and fourth in total defense and turnovers per game.
Warren: Just three days before the season began, JR Pace released a video urging fans to support Black players not just on the field, but off it as well. After a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests and college athletes using their platform for social justice, Pace’s video was a reminder that even though the games were returning, it wasn’t going to be about just football. “If you cheer us, hear us,” will remain an important statement in the NU athletics community for years to come.
Brockway: There were many contenders, but I think my personal favorite quote came from the broadcasters during the Illinois game, right after Cam Porter capped off a 17-play, 64-yard, seven-minute drive with a two-yard touchdown run: “That was the Northwesterniest drive that ever Northwesterned.” That drive was the perfect encapsulation of the Cats’ offensive success in 2020. It didn’t have a ton of huge, explosive moments — on that drive, only one play was for more than 5 yards — but it chugged along and got the job done. That drive, and that win over the Fighting Illini introduced Cam Porter the Ball Porter as NU’s back of the future, and after a season of rushing struggles, harkened back to the early days of Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier. The only thing even Northwesternier would have been if the broadcast followed up with a clip of Porter speaking French, but hey, there’s still time.
Schott: ESPN College Football analyst Joey Galloway calling NU “a bunch of Rece Davises.” The Cats embraced the moniker, using it as motivation in practice ahead of their matchup against then-No. 10 Wisconsin. It also led to the creation of the nickname: the Fighting Rece Davises. The comparison surely inspired the Cats — then ranked No. 19 — to upset the Badgers at Ryan Field and provided the squad with increased motivation for the rest of the 2020 campaign.
Svirnovskiy: “We woke up the country now, and we need our damn respect.” Greg Newsome II’s comments after NU’s surprise victory over Wisconsin were indicative of a frustration that had been building in the locker room for weeks. This team, with wins over Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue, was fundamentally different from the previous season’s 3-9 squad. The national media just didn’t see it that way.
3. Who was the team’s most valuable player?
Svirnovskiy: Paddy Fisher. I spent the whole season reporting on the Irish Law Firm, and it only makes sense that I chose the best of them to highlight here. Fisher is a grown man. He’ll play in the NFL next season — and probably dominate. He’s college football’s king of the forced fumble, bringing down an astounding 86 total tackles this season and keying one of the nation’s top run defenses. He finished his career with over 400 tackles in an NU uniform.
Schott: Brandon Joseph. Not many athletes starting their first year of college football make the impact that Joseph did. He finished the season with six interceptions — tied for the most in college football — and became NU’s first consensus All-American since 2000. Joseph also earned a consensus spot on the All-Big Ten First Team and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award. He made plays all over the field and was a catalyst of a Cats’ secondary that led the country in defensive pass efficiency. On an NU squad that usually has a fierce defense, Joseph took the unit to a whole new level.
Brockway: It’s a basic answer, but Peyton Ramsey was by far the biggest reason the Cats were able to go from 3-9 to 7-2 and two trophies this season. Fitzgerald echoed the same sentiment in nearly every press conference: Ramsey had the experience it took to lead a team to the Big Ten Championship Game. He knew what it was like to play in the Big Ten. He wasn’t the flashiest of players, but he was consistent and able to make the plays when NU needed them. It was clear after 2019 that the Cats needed some new energy in the quarterback room, and in Ramsey they found the perfect fit — even if only for one year — to help the program find its place again.
Warren: The three starting linebackers of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin will go down as one of the strongest position groups of the Pat Fitzgerald era. All three are tackle machines with high motors and excellent football IQs. It feels wrong to separate one as more valuable than another — each fit his role so well. But when you win Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and serve as a three-year captain, it is tough to argue against the impact Paddy Fisher had on this team.
Golden: Peyton Ramsey. NU fans sat through a miserable 2019 season in part because the team didn’t have an answer at quarterback. They shuffled guys in and out, but the Cats couldn’t find one signal-caller who they could rely on. Ramsey brought the consistency this year that NU lacked the year before and should be considered a major reason for the Cats’ success. The grad transfer finished the season with 12 passing touchdowns to just eight interceptions and added some athleticism with his legs.
4. Other than Brandon Joseph, who was the breakout player of the season?
Warren: It’s crazy to think that the offense lost its most talented player in Rashawn Slater — who may become only the seventh NU player to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — and there was no drop in production. But Peter Skoronski was that good. He did have the help of having an extremely experienced offensive line next to him and a great coach in Kurt Anderson, but that doesn’t account for how dominant he was at left tackle. It might not have been surprising to see Skoronski’s success due to his high pedigree coming into the program. But to step into Slater’s Ronald McDonald-sized shoes and have them fit like a glove was a breathtaking thing to watch.
Svirnovskiy: Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. The senior wide receiver has been on the roster a long time. Finally at the top of the depth chart after a long career spent waiting for the opportunity, RCB lit it up with Peyton Ramsey under center. He caught 41 passes for 508 yards and five touchdowns this season, all career highs. Before this year rolled around, Chiaokhiao-Bowman had caught just one career touchdown pass — all the way back in his freshman year. In 2019, he reeled in only 17 passes. RCB flashed in the postseason, accounting for 103 yards of total offense in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State and hitting scoring on a blistering 35-yard TD pass in the Citrus Bowl.
Golden: Cam Porter. The running back room was crowded coming into the season with halfbacks who had already made an impact in the program: senior Jesse Brown, junior Isaiah Bowser, sophomore Drake Anderson and redshirt freshman Evan Hull. Porter was a highly-touted recruit out of Cincinnati, but found himself at the back of the depth chart as the start of the season. But, after two fumbles from Bowser and one from Anderson during the season, Porter became the featured back by the Illinois game. He rushed for 301 yards and five touchdowns over his final four games. With Bowser and Anderson transferring, Porter will be the lead runner heading into 2021.
Schott: Peter Skoronski. The four-star offensive lineman was expected to spend 2020 learning behind left tackle Rashawn Slater. However, when Slater opted out of the season, the true freshman stepped into his role. Rarely do first-year players earn starting roles, much less in one of the hardest — if not the hardest — position on the gridiron. But the Park Ridge native turned heads early on and eventually started every game of the season as a strong security blanket of Peyton Ramsey’s blind side. He was named to the Associated Press All-Big Ten Second Team and The Athletic’s Freshman All-America First Team for his play.
Brockway: I thought sophomore defensive end Tommy Adebawore had a really impressive season. He saw time in eight games as the Cats struggled through 2019, and then amid a bunch of revolving doors on the defensive line this summer — with the graduation of Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller and the opt-out of Samdup Miller — claimed a full-time starting spot from the opener onward. He finished the season with six tackles for loss, two sacks and seven quarterback hurries. There’ll be a lot of change on NU’s defense next year as it loses at least five starters, but I think Adebawore will follow up this season’s performance with another solid showing.
5. What was an under-the-radar moment that should be remembered?
Schott: Peyton Ramsey’s touchdown run against Maryland. NU’s season opener marked the Indiana transfer’s first game as a Wildcat, and it was a good one. He threw for 212 yards, rushed for 47 and scored three times. His most memorable moment was a 12-yard touchdown run in the first quarter when he shed tackles and raced down the left sideline to the end zone. Ramsey’s athletic play showed he was not just a pocket-passer, but a dual-threat signal-caller who could make dynamic plays in the air and on the ground.
Brockway: The final two defensive possessions at Iowa. The Cats first forced Spencer Petras and the Hawkeyes to throw three straight incompletions and turn the ball over on downs with less than two minutes to play, rendering Iowa’s 11-play, 41-yard march down the field useless. The Hawkeyes got the ball back less than 30 seconds later, but once again NU’s back seven was there to save the day, as Blake Gallagher made a clutch interception just three plays into Iowa’s last-ditch attempt. It took until the Wisconsin game for the rest of the country to really see and understand just how dominant the Cats’ 2020 defense was, but as retrospect has shown that the Hawkeyes finished as one of the better teams in the Big Ten — many an Iowa homer will remind you — that game-closing performance looks even better.
Golden: Chris Bergin’s interception against Nebraska. The Cats’ defense didn’t put up its best performance against the Cornhuskers and allowed their two quarterbacks to have field days both in the air and on the ground. In the fourth quarter, Luke McCaffrey had Nebraska on the doorstep of the endzone with a chance to bring the Cornhuskers within two points. But Bergin’s crucial interception in the red zone to give the Cats some breathing room and allowed them to run out the clock late. NU could’ve still had a great season, but a loss to Scott Frost’s team wouldn’t have looked great on the resume.
Svirnovskiy: ESPN’s win probability index gave Iowa an 86.7 percent chance to beat NU after the Hawkeyes had gone up by 17 late in the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium. No one on the Cats’ sideline seemed to be looking, and NU responded to a mistake-filled first quarter with a nearly-flawless second, outsourcing Iowa 14-3 leading into halftime. It’d score again in the third quarter, salting away a game that at one point looked like a blowout win for the other side. It’s a contest the Cats would likely have lost in 2019, when deficits only grew as games continued and touchdowns were in short supply. But they won this one, perhaps proving to themselves that this team was different, special even.
Warren: Its importance and relevance got slighted due to the fumble that followed it, but Riley Lees’ picture-perfect missile to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman in the first quarter of the Wisconsin game was remarkable. NU was already up 7-0 and Blake Gallagher had just recovered a forced fumble. The Cats were in the perfect position to go up two scores on the No. 10 team in the country, and had a chance to turn the game into a rout. And then Mike Bajakian dialed up this play. Isaiah Bowser took the handoff and pitched it back to Lees, who ran towards the near sideline as Wisconsin’s defense circled around him. And then, he slowed and delivered the dime to Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who stepped out at the 1-yard line. At that moment, it felt like NU was on top of the world, and there was nothing that could stop it.
6. How should we remember this team?
Brockway: As the Team That Won the West During the Covid Season is the obvious answer, but from a deeper perspective, I honestly think people will look back on this 2020 season as the closing of one era-within-the-modern-Northwestern-football-era and the start of another. It isn’t just the departures of longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and athletic director Jim Phillips. The 2017 class will probably go down as one of the best in program history — it featured a first-round draft pick in Rashawn Slater and a host of other NFL hopefuls in Kyric McGowan, JR Pace, Samdup Miller, Earnest Brown and Blake Gallagher. This group still had a number of players from that 2016 recruiting class, too, with the likes of Paddy Fisher, Riley Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao Brown, Travis Whillock, and now-Notre Dame star Ben Skorownek.
Those players were all recruited to and sold on a Northwestern that hadn’t yet truly proven itself as the consistent contender that it has since become. This next generation of players — one that includes not only next year’s sophomores and freshmen, but also the crop of talent NU will recruit as it gets more active in the transfer portal (watch that space) in the cycles to come — will see a program that has the facilities, has the trophies and pretty clearly has the potential to take the next step and challenge for a Big Ten title.
Svirnovskiy: Fitzgerald’s vision for a senior class — actualized. This team was great because of its seniors. Earnest Brown IV, Paddy Fisher, Blake Galllagher and JR Pace all made the most of their last seasons at NU. And the team played great — maybe the best season we’ve ever witnessed of the purple and black.
Fitz talked about the 3-9 2019 season a lot during press conferences this year. It was difficult and embarrassing for the staff, but the players took it even more personally. They learned a lot about themselves, bonded in a shared hatred for losing football games, and came out stronger. A new class of leaders steps in their place, but they’ve lost an anchor at quarterback. No one knows who will be throwing passes in Evanston next season and how that will change its postseason outlook. We’ll always have this year, though. A season when everything went right, when Mike Hankwitz made the most of his last year calling plays and Peyton Ramsey carried an NU offense towards something close to stability.
Schott: The 2020 season marked the highest spot -— as of now — of NU’s climb into the national spotlight in the Fitzgerald era. Numerous questions arose after 2019, which Fitzgerald answered in a powerful way in 2020. There is no question the Cats racked up some impressive wins, but a key takeaway from this season is how well NU is able to find and develop talent. Seniors Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Chris Bergin and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, to name a few, had great seasons, in part thanks to their experience and growth throughout their time in Evanston. Underclassmen like Joseph, Skoronski and true freshman running back Cam Porter showcased themselves as the future of the Cats’ program.
Ahead of next season, there will be key questions for NU to answer, like who will be the next starting quarterback and the replacement for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired with 400 career wins. But those are for later. There is no question that the Cats’ 2020 squad will go down as one of the best teams in program history. Most importantly, it may be the team that sets up NU to achieve things it hasn’t seen since 1995 — and possibly even more.
Warren: This season will forever be framed as the COVID season — and rightfully so. It is impossible to look at anything that happened this year and not have that same lens. And because of that, this team will forever be remembered for how it handled an adverse situation and thrived. How it won a second Big Ten West Division title and fourth straight bowl game behind a dominant defense and revived offense.
But in a year that also featured so much loss, it is tough not to look at this season and have remorse about the what ifs. The lost games due to a shortened season. The lost memories from fans unable to attend. The lost moments from players who opted out of games. The lost chance for NU to further make a name for itself in the national picture. The Cats had an outstanding 2020 campaign, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have been if a few things went differently.
Golden: We should remember this team as one that represents how far NU’s football program has come and one that presents an image for the future. In 2014, the Cats’ roster had 14 future NFL players but couldn’t put together six wins. However, the freshmen on that roster — Blake Hance, Tommy Doles, Nate Hall and Clayton Thorson — grew up, and many of them eventually helped NU to its first Big Ten Championship Game.
The Cats’ 2017 recruiting class was highly-touted, like the one in 2014, and lived up to the expectations. The underclassmen watched the upperclassmen lead them to the Big Ten title game in 2018 and then those same underclassmen — Earnest Brown IV, Blake Gallagher, Kyric McGowan, JR Pace and Ethan Wiederkehr — became leaders and brought NU back as a stronger team. With those guys done, new leaders will have to step up and lead the program. With Brandon Joseph, Cam Porter and Peter Skoronski on the roster among others, the underclassmen have the potential to build on the program’s success from the past few seasons.