Football: Riker: Everything we needed to know about the 2022 Wildcats, we learned on their home field.


Claudia Arriaga/The Daily Northwestern

Wildcat defenders tackle an Illinois player. NU suffered its most lopsided loss in the season finale, a 41-3 rout at the hands of the Fighting Illini.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Northwestern’s 2022 season was supposed to be about all of the places the team would go: Ireland, historic stadiums like Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, maybe even a bowl game.

But everything we needed to know about the Wildcats in 2022, we learned on their home field.

NU (1-11, 1-8 Big Ten) lost all six of its home games this season, its first time winning fewer than two home games in the 21st century. The Cats’ play at home also encapsulated the trends that paved the way for an 11-game losing streak, from playing down to Group of Five and FCS competition in the September homestand to blowout losses to its biggest rivals.

Let’s start at the beginning. No, not the season-opening 31-28 win over Nebraska in Ireland that had many NU fans thinking ahead to bowl season, but the first quarter of the first home game. 

A near mirror image of the 2021 contest between the Cats and the Duke Blue Devils, this game started with three straight Duke touchdown drives, exposing NU’s defense and inability to stop explosive plays, before the Cats rallied to make it close. Though a last-minute battle, NU looked more similar to its 3-9 version from 2021 than the 2020 Citrus Bowl champions.

The season started to get off the rails over the next two weeks. Considerable favorites entering both games, the Cats lost to FCS opponent Southern Illinois and middling MAC matchup Miami (Ohio) in one-possession games to fall to 1-3. Instead of gaining traction with comfortable wins heading into Big Ten play as it had in 2021, NU regressed and finished September going in the wrong direction.

“You look at a team that came out of the opener with a lot of confidence, and we lost that at a certain point and couldn’t get that thing flipped back over,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The Cats’ three Big Ten home games sandwiched the closest thing NU had to a moral victory between two roughest losses. Against its two biggest rivals — Wisconsin on homecoming weekend and Illinois in the series finale — the Cats fell flat, losing 42-7 and 41-3, respectively. Just as NU showed some fight during its losing skid, the Cats riled up home fans and took No. 2 Ohio State to the fourth quarter in a 21-7 defeat, yet lost all the same.

The six-game sample of home games underscored the factors that decided the Cats’ fate as NU’s first 11-loss team since 1989. NU received diminishing returns from the quarterback position and didn’t score more than seven points in any of its Big Ten home games, while getting crushed by turnover differential. The Cats turned the ball over 18 times to their opponents’ two and did not win the turnover battle in any of the contests.

“We have to be where we’ve been in the past, and that’s to win the turnover battle,” Fitzgerald said. “Where we’re at right now this season is a recipe for why this season is the way it is. That’s an area that needs to get fixed in a hurry.”

Even NU’s most significant news focused on plans for its home of the future. The Cats released plans for a rebuild of the 97-year-old Ryan Field, with a planned opening date of the 2026 season and a price tag of $800 million.

So now the questions turn to the offseason, and to the team NU will field for its 2023 home opener on Sept. 9 against University of Texas-El Paso. 

Junior left tackle Peter Skoronski seems destined for the top 10 of the NFL Draft, while senior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore will be shifting his focus to preparation for the Senior Bowl to boost his NFL chances. Junior running back Evan Hull, who eclipsed 1,250 yards from scrimmage in 2021 and 2022, confirmed that Saturday’s loss to Illinois was his final game with the Cats. That’s the best three players — and three of the five captains — leaving from a 1-11 team. Both the roster and the coaching staff could see sweeping changes as Fitzgerald evaluates what NU needs to get back to contender status in the Big Ten West. 

The Cats’ start at home, that disastrous first quarter against the Duke offense, tipped fans off that NU’s winning ways in Ireland might not last through November. But it’s the Cats’ epilogue, the minutes after the 41-3 loss to their archrivals when the tears started to settle in, that gives a glimpse into their approach to the future.

On one sideline, Fighting Illini players rushed over to their families brandishing the Land of Lincoln trophy under the bright, temporary lights of Ryan Field. 

At midfield, it was a different story — NU silently filing across the field toward the team tunnel. In the center of the north end zone, one of the Cats’ staffers held up the sign with the program’s “Trust Yourself” mantra, and before stepping off the Ryan Field grass, each player gave the sign one last slap. From graduating seniors like Adebawore to newer names such as starting sophomore quarterback Cole Freeman, each player set aside the result to honor NU’s tradition, one last time.

Where does a team that ended the season with an 11-game losing streak go from here? According to its head coach, the answer requires playing sound fundamental football on game days and leaning into its identity and core belief.

“I don’t think we need to flip a culture, I think the culture’s strong,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to flip winning and [do] what winners do.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker