Know your opponent: Six questions answered by a Northwestern reporter

Before every game, I’ll ask a reporter who covers the Gophers upcoming opponent to give us a view from the opponent’s perspective.

I asked John Riker from The Daily Northwestern six questions about the Northwestern Wildcats.

Minnesota takes on Northwestern this Saturday in Minneapolis at 2:30 pm local time. 

Huge thanks to John for giving us his thoughts!

Follow John on Twitter: @JhnRiker

Follow Noel on Twitter: @n0elthompson

1. Since 2018, it has been the definition of a roller coaster for Northwestern football. Let’s start with their overall season records in 2018…9-5, 3-9, 7-2, 3-9, and they are now 1-8 in 2022. What’s your take on why there hasn’t been much consistency in the last few years? 

Let’s go back to 7-2 in 2020, when the Cats rolled through the Big Ten West, reached the Big Ten Championship and won the Citrus Bowl. That team finished in the AP Top 10 and had one of the best defenses in the country, along with more than capable quarterback play from transfer Peyton Ramsey. That team lost a great deal of talent, but the departures of Ramsey and longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz after that monumental victory have been devastating.

The Cats have rotated between four quarterbacks the past two seasons and have struggled on offense, but the biggest concern is on the defensive end. Northwestern has been known for its stingy defense, but in the past two years, the Wildcats haven’t lived up to their standard under defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. NU has given up 30 or more points to Southern Illinois, Duke, Wisconsin, Iowa and Maryland. The Cats are hoping for more of a roller coaster now, because the recent results have been brutally consistent — an eight-game losing streak.

2. After a 3-9 record last year, what were the expectations for the Wildcats heading into this season? What has gone right and wrong this year? 

Expectations for Northwestern were not high, but I believed that a 6-6 record and return to bowl eligibility was manageable. Remember, the Wildcats had not recorded back-to-back losing seasons since 2013-14, and top performers like offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, running back Evan Hull and defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore returned to this year’s squad. NU validated all optimism in a 31-28 season-opening victory in Ireland: quarterback Ryan Hilinski had a career day, the defense shut down Nebraska in the second half and the Cats didn’t let an early deficit scare them.

Since then, Northwestern has endured a nightmare of the season. The Wildcats lost all three of their non-conference games on their home turf, including one to FCS opponent Southern Illinois. The most frustrating part for Cats fans is that pretty much every unit is to blame. Poor quarterback play and an inconsistent running game has stalled the offense, while one-on-one breakdowns have plagued each level of the defense. NU’s special teams unit also ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten. From the stars to the middle of the roster to the coaching staff to Fitzgerald himself, the Cats have fallen well short of expectations and will need to spring a major upset in their final weeks to enter 2023 with some momentum.

3. Northwestern has the lowest scoring offense and the second worst scoring defense in the Big Ten West division. Their remaining games aren’t easy, after the Minnesota game, they go to Purdue, and then they close out the season by hosting Illinois. A 1-11 season is definitely possible. For me personally, it would take a few more seasons like this for Pat Fitzgerald to be on the hot seat. Can you give us a glimpse of what the fanbase currently thinks of Pat Fitzgerald? What’s your take on people saying Pat Fitzgerald is on the hot seat? 

Two straight seasons with at least nine losses are enough to put any coach on the hot seat, but I don’t feel like there is much pressure on Pat Fitzgerald from Northwestern or from the fanbase. After helping lead the Wildcats to Pasadena as a player in the 90’s, Fitzgerald has ushered in a golden era in Evanston as a coach, including two Big Ten West titles. The state-of-the-art Ryan Fieldhouse, the Cats’ indoor practice facility, and the upcoming $800 million Ryan Field rebuild that NU announced would not happen without him. Donors still believe in his vision, and his 10-year contract would likely have a hefty buyout. Fitzgerald is committed to the program, and the Wildcats know how fortunate they are to still have him around.

What will be more interesting to watch this offseason is the coordinator roles. Fitzgerald has seen two seasons of defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and three seasons of Mike Bajakian — both are known commodities and the regression under O’Neil is a long-term concern for this program. Fitzgerald has been loyal to his coaches, but he holds the program to a standard and wants to be competitive every year for the Big Ten West title.

4. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski started the season behind center, but it was sophomore Brendan Sullivan who started last week against Ohio State. How would you grade the quarterback’s play this season for Northwestern? Can you give us a scouting report on Brendan, who will be the presumed starter against Minnesota? 

Hilinski seemed to have a firm grasp on the starting quarterback role after the Cats’ win over Nebraska, but his play declined steadily over the next four weeks, culminating in his benching for the unproven Brendan Sullivan. Four games in, Sullivan has had two strong performances (Maryland, Ohio State) and two uninspiring outings (Wisconsin, Iowa). Overall, I’d grade Sullivan’s season in the B-minus/C-plus range. He has added a spark in the ground game and made up for the Cats’ roster shortcomings with breathtaking plays, but has lost all four of his appearances, cost Northwestern with two turnovers against Maryland and hasn’t definitively proven he’s a better passer than Hilinski.

Minnesota’s gameplan for Sullivan will prioritize containing the speedy sophomore. Sullivan is a much faster quarterback than Hilinski and has eclipsed 50 rushing yards in two of his three starts, while showing an ability to scramble and complete passes. Poise and decision-making have been issues so far, and given the experience disparity between Saturday’s presumed starters, the Golden Gophers should look to pressure and confuse Sullivan into crucial mistakes.

5. Can you give us a few players on offense and defense that Minnesota fans should know about? 

On offense, offensive tackle Peter Skoronski and running back Evan Hull are the players to watch. Skoronski seems destined to follow in Rashawn Slater’s footsteps and hear his name called early on in the NFL Draft. Despite the Cats’ struggles, Skoronski has been one of the best players in college football this season and one of few bright spots. Hull recorded more than 1,000 rushing yards last season and could replicate the feat with a strong November, and his 213 receiving yards against Duke was a transcendent performance for the Maple Grove, Minn. native.

Defensively, lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore is rising up NFL draft boards and has elevated his production the past couple weeks. Against Maryland, he forced a fumble and recorded two sacks, including one that led to a Terrapin missed field goal. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher is tied for the Big Ten lead in tackles, while defensive back Cam Mitchell knocked down three C.J. Stroud passes last week.

6. This will be the Wildcats’ first game in Minnesota since 2018. The Gophers have won two straight against Northwestern. The Wildcats enter this game as 17 point underdogs. What does Northwestern need to do to escape Minnesota with a victory? What is your prediction for the game, and why?

Northwestern’s game plan against Ohio State kept them in contention with the Buckeyes into the fourth quarter, and similar execution could lead to a massive upset in Minneapolis. The Wildcats’ rushing attack had one of its best games, led by 122 yards and a touchdown from Hull. The Cats didn’t turn the ball over and kept the Buckeyes from breaking big plays until the fourth quarter, when Ohio State finally pulled away. That formula, coupled with more production from the passing game, would make Saturday’s contest more entertaining than most spectators anticipate.

I don’t think that will happen — my final score prediction is Minnesota 28, Northwestern 9. The inclement weather had as much to do with the Buckeyes’ offensive struggles as the Cats’ secondary, and I don’t trust the Northwestern defense to post back-to-back standout performances. The Cats will drop their ninth straight game and will next look to Purdue for a chance to end the losing skid. 

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