2018 Northwestern wildcats football season review, recap – off tackle empire

What about a team that took all those setbacks, many of them self-inflicted, and reeled off eight (8) consecutive Big Ten wins, something it has done just one other time in program history? One that beat three ranked teams while doing that, and threw in a 10-point comeback in the final 2:27 to stun Nebraska to boot? How about a team that matched the Big Ten bullies Ohio State punch-for-punch over three quarters in the Big Ten Championship, before fading in the face of superior athleticism? Would that do it?

Be it those losses to Duke and Akron, blowing a 17-0 lead to Michigan, playing TJ Green far longer than he was ready for, or losing Jeremy Larkin to retirement; Northwestern persevered and crammed five seasons’ worth of stories into one rollercoaster of a year that had me swearing them off in September, laughing at their absurdity in October, and white-knuckling with them through November and December.

But this year, Dear Reader, it behooves you to support Northwestern as more than just a passive second team. No, this season you need Northwestern to end the disappointing run of worthless badger squads doing jack shit in the national consciousness, building up stories of walk-on and three-star tight ends turning into 325-pound All- American OLs while huffing mediocre fast-casual fries only to falter when the lights are brightest.

If you are a Northwestern fan who still bitches about Clayton Thorson after all his contributions to the program, I would like to meet you in a bar, so that I can buy you a beer, make you beholden to me, and then unleash upon you a 30-minute tirade about why you are a complete moron. Clayton Thorson was, for four years, the architect of the New Northwestern Football—gritty, not-at-all pretty, but winning football.

Whether it was running over Rutgers Scarlet Knights or faithfully plunging into opposing defensive lines, Bowser did everything asked of him, and he did it as a freshman. Is he the future of this offense? No one knows! But he exemplifies the hard-nosed, next-man-up platitudes Pat Fitzgerald has been force-feeding us for years. He’s not making me forget Jeremy Larkin anytime soon, but damn if he’s not a fun guy to root for. If Hunter Johnson can spread defenses out in 2019, watch out for this moose barreling through wider gaps. DE, Destroyer of Worlds Joe Gaziano

Gaziano’s role as a disrupter on defense didn’t get any easier as a patchwork secondary forced the DL to get more pressure quicker, but he rose to the task, posting career highs in tackles (44) and forced fumbles (3), including the fumble that spurred a Jared McGee scoop-six in the Holiday Bowl. Oh, and there were the 7.5 sacks despite drawing chips and double-teams off the snap. He was the motor for a quietly-competent defensive line.

But Jake Collins, in an unenviable role—flipping a field that, for much of the season, involved an offense behind chains or backed up in its own end—for everyone except a punter, led the Big Ten in total punts (seventy-freakin’-nine) and averaged 40.5 ypp while forcing 39% fair catches, putting 28 inside the 20, and yielding just 4 touchbacks.

We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder if anyone can ever match Northwestern’s ignominious mark of losing all its regular-season non-conference games, then making the conference championship. We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder just how Isaiah Bowser and Hunter Johnson will lead the ‘Cats into 2019. We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder whether it was all a mirage and no, this is really a 7-5 program with a really good publicist.

So much of what I wrote above feels unfair. I didn’t tell you about Nate Hall, the senior anchor of the linebacking corps who picked off three passes, allowing batterymates Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher to rack up eye-popping numbers, getting into the backfield and forcing fumbles. I didn’t give a deserved shoutout to S JR Pace, the one constant in a secondary (14 GP) who picked off four passes and racked up dozens of tackles while anchoring a makeshift secondary. I didn’t shout out Montre Hartage’s 11 passes defended, John Moten IV’s ridiculous TD run in the Big Ten Championship, Chad Hanaoka—a 5’6” Hawaiian video guy-turned-walkon running back, because holy shit, that’s a thing— on 3rd and 9 in Kinnick somehow turning a draw into a first down and a massive fuck-you to those black-and-gold ingrates. There’s just not enough time to appreciate everything that made this Northwestern Wildcats team so stupidly fun.

It forced you to learn ridiculously-stupid facts about college football; sent sportswriters scurrying for long-since-past schedules to prove points about Northwestern’s lazaritic comeback; defied all odds and logic and common decency, unless you’re someone who happens to enjoy seeing wisconsin and Iowa and Nebraska fans sputtering for words as some nerds in purple won the division that was supposed to be their playground.