Football: Breaking down every game on Northwestern’s 2021 schedule


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Ryan Field. Northwestern will play at its home stadium six times during the 2021 season.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


Expectations are high for Northwestern ahead of the 2021 season.

Coming off their second Big Ten Championship appearance in three seasons, the path back to Indianapolis for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is a 12-game slate that includes three straight non-conference matchups and a difficult six-game stretch of Big Ten play to conclude the regular season.

Sept. 3 vs. Michigan State

2020 record: 2-5

Last matchup: 2020 (Michigan State 29 — No. 8 Northwestern 20)

Northwestern will attempt to avenge last year’s loss to Michigan State in the season opener at Ryan Field.

The Spartans are looking to improve in year two of coach Mel Tucker’s tenure and return all five starting offensive lineman, as well as impact players including wide receiver Jalen Nailor. Like the Wildcats, Michigan State is holding a quarterback battle between redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo.

An early-season win against a Big Ten opponent could set the tone for NU’s 2021 season.

Sept. 11 vs. Indiana State

2020 record: No games due to COVID-19

Last matchup: Never

For the first time in program history, NU will face off against Indiana State.

The Sycamores, who opted out of the 2020 spring season, have not played since Nov. 23, 2019. Indiana State has struggled recently, last making the NCAA Division I Playoffs in 2014.

The Indiana State game will provide the Cats with an opportunity to implement adjustments from the week before ahead of their next non-conference test.

Sept. 18 at Duke

2020 record: 2-9

Last matchup: 2018 (Duke 21 — Northwestern 7)

When Northwestern last went to Durham in 2017, Duke defeated the Wildcats 41-17. The Blue Devils beat NU again at home the following year.

Returning to North Carolina for this season’s matchup, NU is coming off its best campaign since 1995. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils’ 2020 squad led college football with 39 turnovers. Duke is replacing starters at quarterback, offensive tackle and defensive end.

However, the Cats are in a similar position — returning 39 percent of production from 2020, the lowest number in the Football Bowl Subdivision — adding intrigue to the game.

Sept. 25 vs. Ohio

2020 record: 2-1

Last matchup: 2008 (Northwestern 16 — Ohio 8)

Northwestern rounds out its non-conference slate against Ohio, who played just three games in 2020. The Bobcats found the end zone often, averaging nearly 35 points per game.

This will be Ohio’s first season without coach Frank Solich since 2005, who retired after 16 years in Athens, Ohio.

To counter Ohio’s offense, the Wildcats’ defense will need to regain its 2020 form, in which it allowed under five yards per play and 15.89 points per game.

Oct. 2 at Nebraska

2020 record: 3-5

Last matchup: 2020 (Northwestern 21 — Nebraska 13)

The pressure will likely be on Nebraska when NU returns to Lincoln.

Coach Scott Frost has failed to go .500 and make a bowl game during his three seasons leading the Cornhuskers. Even though Nebraska returns dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez, players such as wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson departed Lincoln through the transfer portal.

One can infer that this Big Ten West clash will be a close one. Eight of NU’s last 10 matchups with the Cornhuskers have been one-score games.

Oct. 16 vs. Rutgers

2020 record: 3-6

Last matchup: 2018 (Northwestern 18 — Rutgers 15)

After five straight losing seasons, Rutgers hired Greg Schiano — who led the Scarlet Knights from 2001-11 — to bring success back to Piscataway.

Rutgers took steps to do so last season, averaging 27 points per game with a marquee win over Penn State.

However, Rutgers’ defense gave up 449 yards and 32 points per game in 2020. As a result, this Homecoming Weekend matchup for the Wildcats may be defined by their offense, which will likely have new starters at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line.

Oct. 23 at Michigan

2020 record: 2-4

Last matchup: 2018 (No. 14 Michigan 20 — Northwestern 17)

NU came into Ann Arbor on Oct. 10, 2015 ranked No. 13 in the country and left with its first loss of the season — a 38-0 blowout at the hands of No. 18 Michigan.

Heading into 2021, coach Jim Harbaugh is under pressure. With a revamped coaching staff and returning players such as defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and running back Hassan Haskins, NU will be facing a squad with a win-now mandate.

Playing in front of more than 100,000 fans at the Big House adds an additional challenge for the Wildcats. A win against Michigan — a team full of four-and-five-star talent — would give the Cats a huge morale boost ahead of five straight division contests.

Oct. 30 vs. Minnesota

2020 record: 3-4

Last matchup: 2019 (No. 10 Minnesota 38 — Northwestern 22)

In 2020, the game between NU and Minnesota was cancelled due to COVID-19 issus within the Golden Gophers’ program.

Despite its struggles last season, Minnesota returns an experienced roster including quarterback Tanner Morgan, 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention defensive end Boye Mafe.

Last time the Wildcats faced Minnesota at Ryan Field, the Golden Gophers torched NU’s defensive backs with 211 yards and four touchdowns. The Cats’ defense shutting down Minnesota’s offense will likely determine this matchup.

Nov. 6 vs. Iowa

2020 record: 6-2

Last matchup: 2020 (Northwestern 21 — Iowa 20)

NU’s one-point win over Iowa marked the Hawkeyes’ second straight loss to start the 2020 season. The Wildcats’ Big Ten West rival then rattled off six straight wins to end the season.

The Hawkeyes return sufficient depth on offense such as junior quarterback Spencer Petras and junior center Tyler Linderbaum. Defensively, Iowa has some players to replace on a unit that allowed 16 points per game in 2020.

At Ryan Field, Iowa has won two of the last three matchups. Yet the Cats have won four of the last five against their division rival. ​​This game will likely have a massive impact on the race for a Big Ten West championship.

Nov. 13 at Wisconsin

2020 record: 4-3

Last matchup: 2020 (No. 19 Northwestern 17 — No. 10 Wisconsin 7)

Despite NU’s upset victory over Wisconsin in 2020, the Badgers are still projected to win the Big Ten West, according to the 2021 Big Ten Preseason Poll.

Wisconsin will be led by quarterback Graham Mertz, linebacker Jack Sanborn and tight end Jake Ferguson. Wisconsin should not be underestimated, as it has made the Big Ten Championship six times since 2011.

With fans back in the stands at Camp Randall Stadium in 2021, the Wildcats will face one of their toughest opponents of the season at one of the most energetic venues in college football in a game that may decide the Big Ten West.

Nov. 20 vs. Purdue (at Wrigley Field)

2020 record: 2-4

Last matchup: 2020 (No. 23 Northwestern 27 — Purdue 20)

For the first time since 2010, NU is headed back to the Friendly Confines.

The Wildcats’ opponent at Major League Baseball’s second-oldest stadium is Purdue, who NU has beaten in six of its last seven matchups. The Boilermakers have one of the best quarterback-wide receiver duos in the Big Ten with Aidan O’Connell and David Bell.

Slowing Bell and finding gaps in the Boilermakers’ secondary were NU’s keys to victory last season. Achieving these things once again will be crucial to a win in front of a passionate crowd on Chicago’s North Side.

Nov. 27 at Illinois

2020 record: 2-6

Last matchup: 2020 (No. 14 Northwestern 28 — Illinois 10)

Recently, everything’s been coming up Cats in the Land of Lincoln rivalry.

The Wildcats have beaten their in-state rival six times in a row and eight of the last 10 years. The Fighting Illini have struggled recently, leading to the firing of Lovie Smith and hiring of Bret Bielema — a Prairie State native and former head coach of Wisconsin and Arkansas.

He has a lot of ground to make up, as the Fighting Illini in 2020 allowed the second-most points per game in the Big Ten and averaged 20.1 points per game. Since NU and Illinois are in vastly different places as programs, the Cats’ seventh-straight victory in the rivalry seems very feasible.

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Twitter: @dschott328

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