Football: Price: It’s time for change — reasons behind Northwestern’s downward spiral since 2020

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Alyce Brown

Northwestern offense goes on the attack against No.2 Ohio State. Since then, the offense has scored a total of 12 points in two games.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

For the first time since 1993 — nearly three decades — Northwestern will not reach three wins on the season. The Wildcats dropped their (1-10, 1-7 Big Ten) their 10th straight contest to Purdue (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten), 17-9 on Saturday, marking the first time in 33 years that NU  finished with double-digit losses on the season. Not to mention, the last time the Cats won a game in the United States was last year1 against Rutgers, an even sadder sight.

But what’s the worst part of this all? Two years ago, NU ringed in the New Years as Citrus Bowl and Big Ten West champions to cap off a 7-2 season. The football program was on top of the world. 

Yet, with the Cats nowhere near this peak two years later, and changing its focus to ‘sending the seniors out right,’ one wonders the reasons behind this downward spiral. Here are a few of them.

  • Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz retirement; Jim O’Neil takes over

Since coming to Northwestern in 2008, Hankwitz put together multiple masterclass-defensive groups in college football. Everyone remembers his 2020 squad that allowed the five lowest points per game in the country (15.9), but we can look back at other past seasons and recognize how the program’s success has lived and died by the defense.

In 2018, where the Cats went 9-5, the defense finished top 20 in the nation in points per game (23.5), whereas the offense didn’t make the top 50. In 2017 and 2015, where a 10-3 record was secured in both seasons, NU’s defense carried the weight again, collecting a 19th and seventh place finish respectively in that category, while the offense finished nowhere near the top — displaying the importance of the defense’s success over the past decade.

However, Hankwitz’ defensive prowess and ability to sharpen his groups to a ‘T’ left with him after his last season of coaching in 2020, leading to the hire of coach Jim O’Neil as the new defensive coordinator. Under coach O’Neil, the Cats didn’t even reach the top-75 in points per game allowed (29.0) last season, where opponents scored over 30 points in eight out of the 12 contests, and nothing much different this time around — six out of 11.

Of course, you can’t compare Hankwitz, who’s had a life’s worth of college coaching experience to O’Neil, but the one thing the former was able to do at such a high-level — making his players, and the overall defense, better as the season continued. With this clearly not happening under O’Neil, as the records show, the program hasn’t seen success on the defensive side of the ball consistently. 

  • Quarterback Consistency hasn’t been there

During the 2020 season, quarterback Peyton Ramsey was the sole quarterback under center all year. Since then, the Cats have started six different players to lead the offense, seven if you add junior quarterback Carl Richardson into the mix. 

This struggle for consistency has been a kryptonite for NU on the offensive end, hurting the team’s ability to find its groove with the most important position, arguably, in the game of football. Although this suggests a problem in the quarterback room, as none have been able to hold their job, fault has to be placed on offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Bajakian.

Each of the Cats’ losses haven’t all been due to quarterback play, but with losses piling up, a huge finger must be pointed in that direction. And if each of these quarterbacks, that NU recruited, aren’t able to get the job done, a bigger question must be asked on whether they are being put in the best position to win.

  • Roster Turnover

Although the conclusion of the 2020 season amounted to many highs, 2021’s roster delivered many lows that left the program in dire need of some immediate changes. Out of all Big Ten teams, the Cats had only eight returning starters – the lowest number of returning starters in 202. And this clearly played a factor: NU was picked apart on defense due to their lack of experience and the offense had issues as well.

Despite the Cats filling in these holes with veteran players, their lack of in-game experience was exposed on a consistent basis.

It got even worse for the defensive unit in 2022 when linebacker Chris Bergin graduated and safety Brandon Joseph departed the program to enter the transfer portal.. The offense faced similar hard times, losing captain center Sam Gerak and leading wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. to graduation. 

Without young players and veterans with in-game experience under the belt ready to take over, it has proven to be difficult for the Cats to keep up with the opposition.

  • Injuries, injuries, and more injuries.

An uncontrollable and gut-wrenching part of the game, injuries have been another piece of the disappointing pie for the program.

Last season, NU saw multiple players on the offensive end go down. With offensive line players hitting the injury list every week, the Cats added its leader in receiving yards wideout Bryce Kirtz to the list.  Even though quarterback Andrew Marty returned later in the season, the then-senior’s injury versus Duke was another wrench thrown into the offensive gameplan. Additionally, the team’s 2020 leader in rushing, now-junior Cam Porter, was out the entire season due to injury. 

Fast forward to 2022, the defense saw the worst of it. Senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr.’s injury in the first contest against Nebraska sidelined him for nearly two months. To add insult to injury junior defensive Cameron Mitchell missed the Southern Illinois game — arguably the beginning of NU’s 2022 down fall. Meanwhile Sky Room players Coco Azema and Jaheem Joseph are out for the season with injuries as well. The units core pieces fell one after the other, making it harder for the squad to catch a break this year against top-tier offenses.

With so many setbacks on both sides of the ball, NU hasn’t had many opportunities to play with their best lineup on the field.

***

As the Cats reach the ‘Land of Lincoln showdown’ time of the season, using the word ‘disappointing’ wouldn’t truly describe their 2022 campaign. I know I’m not the only person sick and tired of seeing, watching and writing about this team’s losses. And hopefully, the program feels the same way too.

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Twitter: @LPIII_TRES

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