Football: Northwestern seeks third Big Ten Championship appearance in four years

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Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

Northwestern walks out of the tunnel onto Ryan Field. In 2021, the Wildcats are looking to return to the Big Ten Championship Game for the third time in four years.

Drew Schott, Senior Staffer


Football


Last year, Northwestern put together its best season since 1995. By making the Big Ten Championship Game for the second time in three years and winning the 2021 Citrus Bowl, the Wildcats proved their run to Indianapolis in 2018 was not an anomaly.

Instead, NU’s seven-win season — which included a fourth-consecutive bowl victory — showcased its status as a yearly contender for the Big Ten West title.

Following the campaign, coach Pat Fitzgerald once again spurned interest from the National Football League and signed a 10-year contract extension, keeping him in Evanston until 2030. His team, coming off a No. 10 finish in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll, returns veteran talent, as well as new players who look to make an impact on the field.

On offense, the Cats may be breaking in a transfer quarterback for the third time in as many seasons with former South Carolina signal caller Ryan Hilinski, who threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Gamecocks in 2019. Hilinski joins an offense with sophomore offensive lineman Peter Skoronski — a Second Team All-Big Ten honoree last season — and sophomore running back Cam Porter.

Defensively, the unit brings back players including All-American sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, who earned the 2020 Big Ten Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year Award, graduate linebacker Chris Bergin and junior cornerback A.J. Hampton. To replace defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired after coaching college football for 51 seasons, Fitzgerald brought in Jim O’Neil — the former defensive backs coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

Fitzgerald also gained commitments from the transfer portal such as former Kansas wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. to add experience to the roster. Additionally, athletes who opted out last season, like defensive lineman Samdup Miller, return.

The Cats’ 2021 schedule contains nine Big Ten games, including a matchup against Purdue at Wrigley Field. If NU continues its conference success from 2020, the purple and white could have a ticket back to Lucas Oil Stadium.

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Twitter: @dschott328

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