We asked Chicago Tribune college football reporter Teddy Greenstein for his take on Northwestern going into Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium:
What were your expectations for Northwestern this season?
I didn’t have NU winning the West. (Made an equally bad prediction of Nebraska.) But I thought the Cats would contend. They didn’t lose a ton off last year’s team, other than Clayton Thorson, of course. And he played last season on a surgically-repaired knee and produced numbers that were just OK (12th passer rating in the Big Ten). The expectation was that five-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson would slide in and excel. Nope.
What went wrong?
Johnson was totally unprepared to start the season. TJ Green was the better option coming out of camp, but he got hurt at Stanford. Since then, NU’s quarterback play has been dismal. Aidan Smith produced terrible numbers even against UMass, which has a historically bad defense. Losing top receiver Ben Skowronek to an injury stung, and top tailback Isaiah Bowser hasn’t been healthy all season. In the few Big Ten games the Cats have had a chance to win, they either got a tough call (refs missed a pass interference at Nebraska) or missed a key field-goal try (Charlie Kuhbander against Purdue). But big picture, there’s a lack of playmakers and execution on offense. This should be it for coordinator Mick McCall.
What would a win against Illinois mean for the Wildcats?
Whipped cream on a (blank) sandwich. It would be nice for seniors and fifth-year guys like Joe Gaziano to walk off with a win and avoid an 0-9 Big Ten season. NU hasn’t had one of those since 1981.
What would it take for Pat Fitzgerald to ever be on the hot seat?
Three (more) winless Big Ten seasons. At least. Everyone who matters at Northwestern loves him, as well they should.
Who is going to win?
The line has shrunk from 10 because of the quarterbacks. Andrew Marty has given the Wildcats a pulse while Brandon Peters might still be in concussion protocol. So unless you have inside information (precisely why college football needs an injury report), you should wait to bet until closer to kickoff. Me? I’ve got a deadline. And given that Northwestern doesn’t care enough about this result to burn tailback Evan Hull’s redshirt, I’m taking the Illini, 24-13.