Northwestern hopes rebound starts Saturday against Maryland
With an offense that ranked among the nation’s most anemic last season, the Wildcats matched their worst overall record since 2002 at 3-9. They finished 1-8 in Big Ten play, their lone win coming in the season finale against Illinois.
Peyton Ramsey already has one big victory for Northwestern.
A graduate transfer from Indiana, he won the quarterback competition and will try to give the Wildcats the lift they are seeking after a first-to-worst tumble left them at the bottom of the Big Ten West last year.
The next phase begins when the pandemic-delayed season kicks off with a home game against Maryland at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on BTN and WGN-AM 720.
“I think it’s a great fit,” Ramsey said. “I have experience playing in the Big Ten, playing against a lot of these different defenses, playing in Big Ten weather — just kind of the whole gamut. I’ve played a lot of football. I’m really experienced. Coming into a great, experienced team, I think that helps a lot, too.”
With an offense that ranked among the nation’s most anemic, the Wildcats matched their worst overall record since 2002 at 3-9. They finished 1-8 in Big Ten play, their lone win coming in the season-finale against Illinois.
The quarterback spot in particular was a big issue. The Wildcats got a boost when Ramsey transferred in March, and they announced him as the starter on Monday, with Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty behind him.
In three seasons at Indiana, Ramsey completed 67% of his passes for 6,581 yards and 42 touchdowns with 23 interceptions. He lost the starting job prior to last year to redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. But as Penix dealt with injuries, Ramsey helped lead the Hoosiers to their first eight-win season — and first winning record in conference play — since 1993.
Maryland also is looking to solidify the quarterback spot after going 3-9 in coach Mike Locksley’s first season. But he wouldn’t say whether Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa or redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre will lead the Terrapins on Saturday.
Northwestern hopes to give coach Pat Fitzgerald his 100th career win on Saturday.
An All-American linebacker for the Wildcats during the 1990s, he comes into his 16th season with a 99-79 record. He has more than twice as many wins as any other Northwestern coach, with Pappy Waldorf (49 from 1935-46) second.
“It would be awesome putting Coach Fitz in that 100 mark,” defensive back JR Pace said. “We’re definitely striving to do that in Week 1.”
BACK IN ACTION
Maryland running back Jake Funk has one overriding goal for this year: to stay healthy.
The senior played in three games in each of the past two seasons. After missing most of last year with a torn ACL, he couldn’t be more delighted to be back in uniform.
“I feel great. My knee feels great and I’m more in shape than I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s been a long two years, to say the least.”
While working his way back, Funk was understandably concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic would rob him of his final college season.
“The whole entire time,” he said. “You really questioned whether it was going to happen. Just a big mess.”
Northwestern announced last week defensive end Samdup Miller, safety Travis Whillock, quarterback Aidan Smith and tight end Jason Whittaker have opted out of the season. Fitzgerald said those decisions were made prior to the start of camp.
With Miller and Whillock not playing, the defense is down two returning starters.
Miller made eight starts as a junior last season before missing the final four games because of an injury. He had 29 tackles in 2019. Whillock was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a junior last year, with 78 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
Maryland’s 3-9 record last season could be attributed in part to turnovers, penalties and poor decisions.
If the Terrapins are to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2014, that can’t happen again.
“Discipline will define our season,” Locksley said.
FINALLY, A GAME
Locksley worried almost every day during fall practice about whether the Terrapins would actually get to Northwestern for the opener.
That concern carried into this week.
“I’m still cautiously optimistic. Every day you hear about a coach that tests positive or a player that tests positive,” he said. “I’m still on pins and needles that we can get to the point we can get on the road, and obviously the (COVID-19) tests on game day are going to be real important.”
He applauded the squad — which includes 56 new players — for hanging tough.
“They’ve all just continued to fight through adversity,” Locksley said. “That’s what I love about the great game of football. It’s as close to anything that emulates what real life is about.”