Lowes Line 2020


2020 Lowes Line Previews

The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2020 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Maryland Preview and Prediction


By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Maryland Terrapins (0-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (0-0)
Date: Saturday, October 24, 2020, 6:30 pm CDT
Line: Northwestern (-11)


Welcome back for another Lowes Line season, Northwestern fans!  It’s been a week short of 11 months since the Wildcats last took the field, when they topped the Illini for the fifth consecutive year, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise brutal 3-9 season.  For quite a while, it didn’t look like the 2020 campaign would happen for the Big Ten, but a reversal of fortune occurred after the initial decision to cancel the season, and here we are with an 8+1 game schedule.
The schedule consists of solely conference games, six against Big Ten West rivals, and two crossover games with Big Ten East opponents. In addition to this week’s game against Maryland, the ‘Cats will be taking on Michigan State in Evanston on November 28th.  The ninth game on the schedule will also be a crossover game on December 19th, a matchup with the East team with the same division finish as NU has in the West.
Things will be quiet inside Ryan Field this season, with COVID-impacted capacity limited to approximately 1,100 fans and each player receiving four tickets for family and friends.  It’s ok, you can chuckle to yourself and say, “Heh, probably no quieter than any other game...”  We’re all old and laugh at dad jokes too. 
This will be a big year for the Northwestern offense, and the team will likely be judged by how this unit performs.  A team that went 8-1 in the Big Ten in 2018 did an about face last year and finished 1-8.  This was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, and long-time offensive coordinator Mick McCall left the program after leading the offense since 2008. It was viewed as a long time coming by many, and last year was simply woeful by nearly any offensive metric.  Consider: the first six conference games last year had NU averaging less than 7 points per game, and their total offense was near the bottom of the collection of FBS squads.
Replacing McCall is Mike Bajakian, who comes to NU from Boston College where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, having also had the same role at Tennessee and Cincinnati prior to BC.  Bajakian also spent time in the NFL, as the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs.  Expect a significant uptick from the offense under his leadership and approach.  In nine seasons as a college offensive coordinator, Bajakian’s squads have averaged over 400 yards and 30 points per game.
So what does new OC Bajakian have to work with?  After no less than four QBs taking snaps last season, Northwestern turns to graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey, who played three seasons at Indiana before arriving in Evanston.  Ramsey was named honorable mention All-Big Ten last year in Bloomington, where he threw for 13 TDs and ran for 7 more.  He’s been named the starter on the two-deep this week.
Recovering from surgery after only seeing time in five games last season is junior running back Isaiah Bowser, who looked very promising as a true freshman in 2018.  Bowser and NU running back legacy Drake Anderson will be seeing the bulk of snaps in the backfield.
Offensive lineman and NFL prospect Rashawn Slater opted not to play in August, and he’ll be missed on the line, but there’s considerable excitement about true freshman Peter Skoronski, who’ll line up at left tackle. Skoronski is considered one of the top five recruits in NU history and was the second-rated high school player in Illinois last year.
The receiving corps starts three seniors, with Riley Lees looking to be the primary target.  With the arrival of offensive coordinator Bajakian is the departure of the term “superback” from the NU lexicon.  The ‘Cats start another graduate transfer at tight end, John Raine, who comes to Evanston after receiving his degree last year at Florida Atlantic where he was named honorable mention all-Conference USA.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have a tough time replacing the production of tackle Joe Gaziano, who has graduated.  The defensive line will likely be the weak link of this unit, and the ability of the ‘Cats defensive front to mount a pass rush will be critical.  The linebackers’ starting unit consists of three seniors, led by preseason All-Big Ten selection Paddy Fisher.  The secondary returns Cam Ruiz at corner and JR Pace at safety.  The other projected starter at corner, junior Greg Newsome, is reportedly out for the opener this week with an injury.
Coach Fitz is going for career win # 100 in the season opener.  It’s hard to believe Fitz is entering his 15th season as head coach, and he’s not yet 50 years old.  Give him credit for making a change at offensive coordinator.  A fiercely loyal coach, the time had come to finally admit things were woeful on offense and make a change.  Let’s hope Bajakian can have an immediate positive impact.
What do we know about the Terrapins?  Other than those dudes star in Xfinity commercials about slow internet speeds and tasting damn good in some soup with a dash of sherry, not a hell of a lot.  They’re very young and very new, for one.  The Terps have 39 freshman and 18 transfers on the squad.  Historically, Maryland tends to recruit top tier receivers, with Jeshaun Jones and Dontay Demus being the big names for the Terps.  The NU secondary could have their hands full containing this pair.
It’s a wild card to predict what’s going to happen with the ‘Cats at the outset.  How were they impacted by the pandemic, reduced practices in both the spring and summer, etc.?  Did Bajakian have enough time since being hired to install all elements of his offense? Not that it happens often with the Wildcats, but there are no non-conference games to iron out the kinks, and every game will be important to the division title.
One thing we know for sure, regardless: Northwestern as a big home favorite?  Has anyone in Vegas been paying attention over the past 15 years?
Pick:  Slow and steady doesn’t win this race.  ‘Cats start off quick, but hold on to win this one.  Northwestern 27, Maryland 24.  Take the Terps and the points.

Iowa Preview and Prediction

By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (1-0) at Iowa Hawkeyes (0-1)
Date: Saturday, October 31, 2020, 2:30 pm CDT
Line: Iowa (-2.5)


Coming off finishing 1-8 in the Big Ten last year, with a new offensive coordinator, and with football starting, then stopping, then starting again due to COVID-19, no one was sure what NU football would look like this season.  But it is safe to say few if any could have foreseen NU's blowout victory over Maryland.  NU was favored by 12 points and taking Maryland plus the points seemed like the safest bet in all of college football.  After watching NU struggle to score at all last year, seeing them explode for 30 points in the first half on their way to a 43-3 victory was amazing.  Now granted Maryland is not very good but it was nice to see the 'Cats not play down to the level of their opponent.  NU ran for 325 yards, averaging over 6 yards per carry.  Peyton Ramsey looked decent in his first start for the 'Cats.  The defense was stout and forced 4 turnovers.

This week the 'Cats head to Iowa to face the Hawkeyes.  Iowa lost 24-20 to Purdue last week.  It has been a controversy filled year for Iowa as a group of players is suing the University, alleging past mistreatment of its African American players.  Over the summer Iowa fired its strength coach for alleged racial slurs directed at former team members.  The Lowes Line offers no opinion on the validity of these matters for as much as we hate Iowa, and yes we do hate Iowa, we do not condone racism and the harm it brings to all involved.  It is hard to write about football once you start discussing racism but that is the task at hand.  Nevertheless, the controversy has affected the Hawkeyes.  Several players have opted out of playing this season and several recruits have de-committed due to the alleged events.  The line between winning and losing for mid level Big Ten teams like Iowa, Minnesota, and NU is so thin that it takes very little to see a season slip away.

This week NU will be tested on both sides of the ball.  Luckily Iowa approaches a football game in 2020 the same way they approached one in 1984.  Run the ball, play good defense, try to create turnovers, wear the opponent down and try to win in the 4th quarter.  A sound plan but it keeps the game close, letting your opponent hang around and if the breaks bounce the other way, you are the one on the losing side even if you have a the "better" team.  With new offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian, I believe NU realizes they have to score more points.  Yes, they will emphasize the run but if NU scores 35+ points they greatly increase their chances of winning (Duh).  Ramsey is good enough for the 'Cats, though at times it looks more like he is "shot putting" or lobbing the football, rather than throwing it.  Iowa will pick off at least one of his throws but if NU stays aggressive they should be fine.  Iowa likes to run the ball and throw to their tight ends.  This works to NU's favor as the strongest area of the NU defense is its linebackers, led by senior Paddy Fisher.  Expect to see some good licks laid by the NU linebackers.

Pick: Back in the day, this was a red letter game but with the short season and all that is going on, this year's version seems a little more low key.  It will be close but the 'Cats pull out the upset in Iowa City.  30-24

Record:  1-0 Straight up, 0-1 Against the spread

Nebraska Preview and Prediction

By Galloping Grapes

Matchup:  University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cornhuskers (0-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (2-0)
Date:  Saturday, November 7, 2020, 11:00 a.m. CST
Line:  Northwestern (-3.5) (o/u 53)

Outlook:  First of all, a review of my prior Lowes Line efforts reveals that I have made 11 different derogatory references to the Red Chinese, about half of which relate to putting ketchup on hot dogs.  In view of the shifting political landscape, I have very respectfully requested that the Ministry of Truth drop those particular passages down a memory hole, before the incoming Ministry of Love assists me with my newthink training.

I know many of you have been fully invested in great issues other than college football this week, and there may be a certain expectation (or is it fear?) that this author will use the Lowes Line platform for a politically charged parody of a lesser-known song from the Hüsker Dü album Candy Apple Grey.  First of all, I doubt anybody would even recognize a Hüsker Dü song reference.  Second, screw Hüsker Dü, because they spell the word ‘gray” wrong.  Third, it’s hard to be very inspired by a contest between the political equivalents of Yahoo Serious and Carrot Top.  So, I guess congratulations to President-Elect Serious.  (P.S., please put in a good word for me with the Red Chinese.)

Obviously, the best thing that has happened for the country in the last week – BY FAR – is a Northwestern win over Iowa.  Because eff Iowa.

I think that is the best recap of an NU game I’ve ever written.  Seriously, I love it when NU beats Iowa.  There are three happy thoughts that can reliably make me giggle like a schoolgirl: 1. NU beating Iowa; 2. Hillary losing to, of all people, the political equivalent of Carrot Top; and 3. Unicorn glitter in my shorts (because it tickles—the first two are more existential joys).

Today, NU welcomes the other NU, which is technically UNL, to Ryan Field.  Here is a critical viewing tip for today’s game – DO NOT USE DUCT TAPE ON YOUR FLATSCREEN TV TO COVER UP THE INFURIATING SCORE GRAPHIC THAT WILL INCORRECTLY SHOW NW v NU ALL DAY.  It may salve the burning rage that you’ve transferred from politics to sports, but it will wreck your screen.  The short, short version of my preview of today’s matchup is……eff Nebraska.  (Best pre-game analysis since my classic “Illinois stinks on ice” preview.) (Also, eff the Illini.)

The preseason bitching and moaning from the Nebraska fanbase heading into this Covid clusterfudge of a season was less annoying than, for example, the bitching and moaning from the #Resist crowd over the last 4 years, by virtue of the fact that Husker Nation’s squealing and whining only lasted for about 6 weeks, until Big Red started their annual ritual of losing more B1G Ten games than they win.  To be fair, UNL has some talent, albeit in a 1990s mid-tier sorority kind of way.  For some reason, long-time savior-elect QB Adrian Martinez is sharing time with the Eli (or, perhaps, the Cooper) of the McCaffrey family, Luke McCaffrey.  I was always a big fan of Easy Ed, and Luke is definitely good and fun to watch, but it says something that coaching powers that be in Lincoln feel like they needed a slightly more exciting second banana to push their senior candidate over the top.  By the way, Luke McCaffrey is totally a socialist who is just waiting in the wings for the starter to fall asleep in his tapioca so he can take charge.  Typical for UNL, they are a run-focused team with 2 QBs and a potentially awesome WR in Wan’Dale Robinson.  Feel free to come up with a cohesive and coherent plan, coach.  This isn’t like running a country where you can just say a bunch of sh*t you don’t mean that nobody really believes.  By the way, that’s the cream of the talent crop, notably all on offense.  The Husker defense is better than a box of pudding pops (hey, Joe Biden just woke up! Nope, he nodded off again; I think the country just elected one-half of Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan SNL sketch).  That said, it’s not worth spilling a bunch of ink over.  I guess I should mention that UNL will be missing their top-2 defensive backs for the first half of the game, but will NU’s new-look offense take advantage under Coach Bakajaiakfeghean (did I spell that right? I was trying to type it the way President-Elect Gabby Johnson would pronounce it…that’s first rate frontier gibberish).  I’m not convinced that Fitz and Bakajaimelphian won’t play it straight by establishing the run, getting a lead, and holding on for a win.  If you believe that much in Coach Bakajamaicanhorshethifreer’s new offense, maybe bet NU to cover the first half.

Bottom line is that NU and Nebraska always play it close, and their games are usually far too exciting (i.e., stressful) to put a lot of money down.  If you really want to scratch that gambling itch, keep in mind that today is Breeder’s Cup day, with a pretty great lineup of races.  Today’s UFC card is not great, with some real mismatches on offer, but there is some value.  I’ll defer to Kevin for any mid-tournament picks in the Houston Open, but here are some additional betting options available for you today:

Breeder’s Cup

   Filly & Mare Sprint: Gamine (7/5) is a heavy favorite; Serengeti Princess (3-1) fair value
   Turf Sprint: Got Stormy (7-2) morning fave; I like Run the Fed to place at (12-1)
   Dirt Mile: Not a Motley Crüe sequel. Take Complexity (2-1) at the end of a Pick 3
   Filly & Mare Turf: choose 1 of 4 Chad Brown entries (Rushing Fall is 5-2)
   Sprint: wide open race.  Yaupon (7-2) and Frank’s Rockette (10-1) are interesting
   Mile: also wide open. Uni (5-1) won in 2019, but give me Ivar (4-1)
   Distaff: $2 exacta box with Monomoy Girl (8-5) and Swis Skydiver (2-1)
   Turf: Tarnowa to win at (6-1).  Also like Magical (5-2)
   Classic. The Big Race.  Lots of good horses here, including Maximium Security (7-2), who was DQ’d in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but has won almost everything since then.  Improbable (5-2) getting lots of action, with Tiz the Law (3-1) and Authentic (6-1) also popular.  Should be a fun race to bet and to watch.


   Meh.  I put a couple bucks on the over (2.5) for total main card fights to end in KO/TKO/DQ. Lots of mismatches today.


   You can get 3-1 odds that Justice Breyer retires in the next two years, but it’s 6/5 that a President Biden insists on nominating Matlock to replace him.

Pick:  Covering as a favorite over Nebraska will be more challenging than Joe Biden saying a three-syllable word.  NU 30, UNL 27.  Take the ‘Huskers and the points (and the over, if you can get it at 53).

Season to Date:  2-0 straight up, 1-1 ATS

Purdue Preview and Prediction

By MOCats

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats #23 (3-0) at Purdue Boilermakers (2-0)
Date:  Saturday, November 14, 2020, 4:00 p.m. CST. NEW TIME, NEW TIME!!
Line:  Northwestern (-2.5) (o/u 50.5)

Outlook: Well, we have the undefeated Wildcats traveling down I-65 to West Lafayette to play the undefeated Boilermakers.  The Big Ten West championship likely hinges upon the outcome of this game.  Purdue comes off an unexpected COVID bye week as the Badgers were out of service, heavily affected by the outbreak.   Northwestern is coming off a comeback win over UNL 21-13 as they once again shut out their opponent in the second half, and the offense did just enough with key turnovers with the ball “bouncing” the right way for the ‘Cats.   Purdue has been bitten by the injury bug, as starters Rondale Moore, Jackson Anthrop, OL Sam Garvin and Cam Craig, and stud DE George Karlaftis will be on the sideline.    Northwestern just needs to pound this ball over and over again and as fans, WE NEED TO BE PATIENT.   Purdue’s strength is their passing game and they will get a few big ones off today.  Look for Anderson and Brown to each get about 20 carries.  Ramsay will sneak one around the edge in the fourth quarter.  

Pick:  'Cats cover as Purdue cannot hold up against this defense -  21-14 final.  Take the ‘Cats and give the points as the under pays as well.

Season to Date:  2-1 ATS, 3-0 Straight up

Wisconsin Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:  #10 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) at #19 Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)
Date:  Saturday, November 21, 2020, 2:30 p.m. CST
Location:  Ryan Field at Dyche Stadium
Line:  Northwestern (+7.5) (o/u 44)

Outlook:   It certainly has been wonderful to see Northwestern roll up 4 wins in a row, including the last few as a favored team.  The Cats historically have not always worn the title of favorite (or ranked) very well.  Four teams that Northwestern should beat.  Four victories.  That's how a program starts earning respect and becomes self-sustaining.  But now, it's time to put on the Big Boy Pants (TM).  #10 Wisconsin is coming for a visit, and the outcome of this game will likely determine who faces off in the Big Ten Championship game against the winner of the East, and who plays against the East's first also-ran.

The game against Purdue went largely as forecast in last week's abbreviated Line (hey, some Line staffers manage to turn out an accurate Line AND go save lives!  #respect).  Northwestern played good defense, kept the ball on offense, and covered against a Purdue team they should have beaten.  The bright spot on offense was the passing game, with 3 touchdowns to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.  Peyton Ramsey has proven more efficient with the ball than quarterbacks past, with a higher completion percentage and lower turnover rate.  What was a little jarring against the Boilers was the lack of a running game.  Bowser was at the top of the NU running back class, with only 27 yards rushing.  On 13 carries.  Two yards per carry just isn't going to get it done against better competition.

The defense continues to play well.  Until Purdue, Northwestern had not surrendered a point in the second half.  Despite surrendering yards in the typical bend-but-don't-break Cats' style, the Cats have had more success in getting off the field on 3rd down.  In three out of four games, the turnover ratio has been even; the lone exception was the opener against Maryland, in which the Cats won the turnover battle 4-0.  The Cats have some great momentum, and this Saturday we'll find out if they're the irresistible force or something less.

Enter the Badgers.  It's a little harder to get a handle on what the Badgers will represent Saturday as two of the Badgers' games were canceled due to Covid-19.  The Badgers opened the season against Illinois, and smoked Lovie Smith's charges 45-7 behind 5 touchdown passes from new starter Graham Mertz, on 20-21 passing.  Yes, you read that right...the Badgers struck early and often through the air.  The Badgers' next game was last weekend, at the Big House against what is increasingly appearing to be a terrible Wolverines team (lifetime contract for Harbaugh!  Please!).  The Wolverines didn't have much more success against the Badgers than the Illini, getting shellacked 49-11.  Mertz wasn't nearly as efficient, but still completed passes to move the sticks and score when needed.

Statistically speaking, the Badger defense has been suffocating this season.  Wisconsin leads the country in total defense, surrendering only 218 yards a game, and also giving up only an average of 8.5 points per game.  As is typical of a Badger defense,  linebackers are the strength of the defense.  Yet many are questioning whether Wisconsin should truly be considered an elite defense, despite the statistical prowess.  Wisconsin has played a mere two games and neither opposing offense would be considered a juggernaut.  Northwestern's defense, with a larger sample size of 4 games, isn't ranked too far behind Wisconsin's, and the offenses NU's defense has stifled are certainly better than Wisconsin's opponents.  Recall that Iowa put up almost half a hundred against Michigan State, a team that beat Michigan.

One odd part up Madison way is that no alpha dog running back has yet emerged.  Two-time Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor is playing on Sundays, so the Badgers have resorted to running back by committee so far this season, giving three to four backs meaningful carries.  Nakia Harris, who spelled Taylor last season, returns, as has Garrett Groshek, who was the third down, change-of-pace back in 2019.  Jalen Berger has also shown promise carrying the ball, averaging over 5 yards per carry.

So when the showdown for the Big Ten West crown kicks off on Saturday, what happens?  Can the Cats' defense continue to bend but not break, and get off the field on 3rd down?  Will the Cats' running game show up again?  Will Ramsey throw to the purple (or grey, or black, or whatever Under Armour concocts this week) jerseys, or will too many of his passes find their way to white trimmed with red?  Will Graham Mertz dissect the Cats' secondary like he did the previous two games?

Time of possession is frequently cited as one of the more misleading statistics, but I think it will matter in this game.  If NU can hold the ball like it did against Purdue (35 minutes), that means the NU defense stays on the sidelines and doesn't get worn out by yet another massive Badger offensive line.  Certainly the Badger offense is far more formidable than Purdue's (or Maryland's...or Nebraska's) and the threat presented by the Badgers is more diverse than at any time since Russell Wilson lined up under center.  I have to believe that Paul Chryst will review the Purdue film and see that the secondary is a bit vulnerable to the bigger play/pass interference penalty.  Cornerback Greg Newsome II played solid defense against top Boilermaker receiver Bell, but did get dinged for a couple of DPIs.  And one facet of the passing game at which Wisconsin excels over most of the others in the Big Ten is tight end play; Jake Ferguson (grandson of AD Barry Alvarez) made several key plays against the Wolverines.

Unfortunately, at 4-0 and ranked, Northwestern isn't sneaking up on the Badgers, and this definitely isn't a trap game.  I see nothing to indicate it will be anything but another Big Ten West rock fight.   Wisconsin will have to work harder to put up yards in the running game, and will be in passing situations more frequently.  Northwestern will need a breakout day from the running game, or the defense will wear down and take chances of victory with it.  At the end, both sides will emerge from the game bloodied and bruised, but Northwestern's defense does just enough to leave the Purple and White (yes, Under Armour, you read that right...) smiling through the pain.

Final side note:  ESPN's football power index gives Northwestern just a 14% chance to win.  Coach Fitzgerald, might I suggest that be posted on the bulletin board next to the following:

Pick:  Northwestern 24, Wisconsin 21.  The Cats' defense holds up against the Wisconsin offense, preserving the victory late.

Season to Date:  3-1 ATS, 4-0 Straight up

MSU Preview and Prediction

By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:  #8(!) Northwestern Wildcats (5-0) at Michigan State University Spartans (1-3)
Date:  Saturday, November 27, 2020, 3:30 p.m. EST
Location:  Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Line:  Northwestern (-13.5) (o/u 41.5)

After an improbable, unusual, but convincing win against Wisconsin last week, to say Northwestern is trending in the world of college football is an understatement.  We'll get to the game and outlook shortly, but pick your poison for best story this week:

1.  NU currently 8th on the College Football Playoff ranking, higher than its US News College Ranking.  One win away from making it to the Big Ten Championship game.
2.  ESPN currently ranks NU's chances of making the College playoffs at 81% based on strength of schedule if they win out (don't be misled...that route requires beating OSU in the Big Ten Championship game).
3.  NU DB JR Pace was captured on the broadcast stealing Wisconsin player towels (as in plural)...seriously, check it out:  (LINK)
4.  Fitzgerald to the NFL rumors heating up led by the Jets (really?) and the Bears (uh oh).
5.  The Wildcats are a major topic on ESPN related to Joey Galloway's insult to NU players before the last game, Fitz's calling out Galloway post-game, and Rece Davis embracing the attention.

So much to cover this week, but let's start with last week's game.

Recap:  #19 (at the time) Northwestern beat #10 Wisconsin at Ryan Field.  Without going into gory detail, the game was highlighted by a stifling defense from the Wildcats that again allowed zero points in the second half, NU's inability to run the ball, and the Badger's five turnovers.  Immediately after the game, there was a note of incredulity in the football world based primarily on the crazy running yards imbalance and high number of turnovers.

Despite pundits turning from focusing on excuses for Wisconsin's failure to pumping NU as the feel good story of the week, official channels urged calm and a return to normality.

As hours and days ticked by, advocates for both sides pressed for support.

While we wait out the perfectly rational and reasonable discussion of the issue, let's transition to the presumption that Northwestern won the game based on touchdowns/field goals scored and counted and explore what we've learned so far this season in order of decreasing confidence:

1.  NU's defense is the real deal.  Opponents may make excuses, but both run defense and pass defense is very good.   
2.  NU's offense has become more proactive.  Likely a combination of an experienced, quality QB and a new coordinator, the Wildcats are throwing downfield to stretch defenses.  In addition, Mike Bajakian also appears quick to adjust the game plan based on what the opponent is doing. 
3.  Speaking of Bajakian, his newcomer advantage is disappearing.  The sudden drop off in rushing yards in the past two games (80y, 28y) is concerning.  Especially against Wisconsin, it very much looked like the Badger defense was looking for specific plays on first down or short yardage third downs.  That includes NU's complete failure to pull off simple screens later in the game after handoffs were abandoned.  Some of this may be due to opponents having a "free" week to prepare for Northwestern, but the same is true of MSU this week.

The "Big Picture":  Northwestern is ranked 8th with three games to go.  While Covid is creating some unusual "what if" scenarios, with the cancellation of the Minn/Wis game this weekend, the simplest is that if NU wins one more game (against MSU, Minn, and Illinois), they will go to the Big Ten Championship game, likely against OSU.  I won't go any further along that road, other than to note that OSU just got hit with Covid (minimum 10 players) and their game status this weekend will be announced Saturday morning.  

The Wildcats go into Spartan Stadium this week at two touchdown favorites.  MSU so far has a season to forget with losses to Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana, and only a win against in-state rivals Michigan to salvage the season.  The Spartans are dead last in the Big Ten for scoring per game and middle of the road for scoring prevention.  They have trouble running the ball and are below average defending against the pass.

Similar to previous opponents, MSU's game last week was cancelled.  Depending on Covid numbers on the team, at the very least that gives the Spartan coaching staff extra time to scout NU and likely more time for players to recover from previous games. 

On top of that, I think we can expect FItz and Baj to work hard to reestablish the run in addition to their noted tendency to run more on the road.  The line and running backs need to build up their confidence after last week's poor performance.  I also expect Fitz to go back to his typical conservative approach when he has the advantage. 

So, what am I saying here?  I expect victory, but 14 points seems like a big gap unduly influenced by the national coverage and some lopsided losses on MSU's side.   On the plus side, late breaking news suggests Newsome may have more freedom this week:

Pick: Northwestern 24, MSU 13.  NU runs out the clock to take another step in this unprecedented season.

Have great weekend and stay safe.

Season to Date:  4-1 ATS, 5-0 Straight up

Illinois Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4) @ #14 Northwestern Wildcats (5-1)
Date: Saturday, December 12, 11:00 am CST, Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Line: Northwestern (-14), o/u (40.5)

Outlook:  It’s been a crazy few weeks in Northwestern football land.  The ‘Cats pull what was considered a huge upset at the time in beating Wisconsin, proceed to crap the bed the next week as a big favorite, per usual, and then get their contest with Minnesota canceled due to Covid within the Gopher squad.  In the midst of all this, NU managed to win its division, sending them to the Big Ten Championship Game next week against the Indiana Hoosi…[checks notes]…Ohio State Buckeyes.  My apologies.  I thought Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said, “Hoosiers,” but it was hard to hear as he sounded like his mouth was full and he was kneeling in front of Brutus the Buckeye.  So, yes, the Wildcats will play for the Big Ten championship next week against Ohio State in a rematch of the 2018 title game. 

This week, however, it’s all about the Hat, the Land of Lincoln trophy going to the winner of this weekend’s game.  Northwestern and Illinois have met 113 times previously, and each year since 1927.  While Illinois still holds a slight lead in the all-time series of 55-53-5, NU has won the last 5 meetings, 7 of the last 8, and is 10-4 in the Fitz era.

What do we know here? Both teams might not be as good as their records indicate.  Illinois is probably better at running the ball than throwing it, and while the NU secondary is highly-rated, I like the Wildcats’ chances of stopping the run, even though they were adhering to proper social distancing protocols against the run-pass option in East Lansing a fortnight ago.

For the ‘Cats, this again looks to be about defense.  The last time Northwestern had a solid day rushing the ball, catching Corona meant hauling in a Mexican beer tossed your way.  An exaggeration?  Only slightly.  There has been no semblance of a running attack since the Nebraska game, and that’s not an exaggeration.  Wildcat fans have been so enthralled this year at the prospect of having an offense that isn’t “hope for something better than three and out” that they’ve overlooked the fact that NU hasn’t exactly set the world on fire offensively.  We ate the forbidden fruit in the opener against Maryland, suddenly were enlightened and remembered we were NU, covered ourselves in fig leaves, and went back to scoring just enough for the defense to keep us in games.

But this is rivalry week.  Fitz always wants desperately to beat Illinois.  Couple that with wanting to bounce back after a bad loss and having an additional week off to prepare, and you’d think NU would be poised to put a hurting on its downstate rival.  Maybe so.  I just don’t see it.  It’s an important game, and you always want to beat your rival, but you have to think some coaching cycles have been spent on looking forward to the Buckeyes.  Hard to think of this game as a trap game, but it could be. 

Pick:  Tip of the stovepipe hat to Illinois for keeping it close, but Abe’s lid stays in Evanston. Northwestern 24, Illinois 14.  Take Illinois and the points.
Season to date: 5-1 Straight up, 4-2 ATS

Go ‘Cats!

Ohio State Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Big Ten Championship - #14 Northwestern Wildcats (6-1) vs #4 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0)
Date: Saturday, December 19, 11:00 am CST, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana
Line: Northwestern (+19), o/u (56.5)

Outlook:  Besides the fact that it’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning, let’s face it…there’s not much left to say.  Anyone who’s a fan of NU has read all the content, seen the memes, heard the Medill Mafia on various sports shows, and laughed at the Twitter comments.  Time to play the game.

NU has a great defense, and Ohio State can put up points.  Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields completes nearly 80% of his passes.  The Wildcat defense needs to contain him and prevent big plays.  Cause a turnover or two.  Fields hasn’t seen a defense like NU’s all season, and the NU secondary and linebackers are as good as they come.

The matchup we don’t hear too much about is NU’s passing vs. the Buckeye secondary.  This could be a critical one.  NU signal caller Peyton Ramsey may be able to control the game and move the ball against a weaker than typical Ohio State secondary.  This will depend greatly on the Wildcat rushing attack.  If we see a continued breakout like what we saw against Illinois last week, there could be some excitement.  Otherwise, it could get messy in a hurry if Ohio State doesn’t have to be concerned with the NU ground game.

Yes, this upset would be arguably the biggest in NU history.  Bigger than Notre Dame in 1995 because of the magnitude of the game.  You know in the championship seasons of 1995, 1996, and 2000 that the ‘Cats didn’t have to play Ohio State.  You know NU has beaten Ohio State no more than twice in the lifetimes of virtually everyone reading this.  You know this is the last season of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s 50+ years as a coach and arguably his best defense.  Frances Willard herself would do a keg stand if NU were to pull this off.

This past week, the namesake of this column, our friend and brother, Marcus, would have celebrated his 50th Birthday.  He always said bet with your head and not your heart.  ‘Cats keep it close to cover, but it’s head over heart in this one.

Pick: Nuts...Ohio State 28, Northwestern 21.   Take the ‘Cats and the points.

Season to date: 6-1 Straight up, 4-3 ATS 

Go ‘Cats!

Auburn Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Matchup: VRBO Citrus Bowl - #14 Northwestern Wildcats (6-2) vs Auburn Tigers (6-4)
Date: Friday, January 1, 2021 12:00 pm CST, Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
Line: Northwestern (-4), o/u (43.5)

Outlook:  Happy New Year, Wildcat fans!  This final edition of the Lowes Line of the 2020 season is coming in hot and just under the wire prior to kickoff of the Citrus Bowl, Northwestern’s first New Year’s Day bowl game in five years.

After a successful regular season of 6-1, the ‘Cats dropped the Big Ten Championship Game to Ohio State two weeks ago, falling to the Buckeyes 22-10 in a game that seemed very winnable at times for NU, until the OSU coaching staff figured out they could run the ball on every down, ultimately rushing for damn near a quarter mile on the ‘Cats.

Northwestern comes in having won three bowl games in a row and four of their last five.  The last time NU played in the Citrus Bowl, I was a twenty-something kid who spent the night prior tossing a few too many back at a Greenwich Village bar, waking up for the game with a headache of biblical proportions, ultimately exacerbated by the performance of Peyton Manning against our beloved ‘Cats.  Not so much this time.  A nice bourbon after a family dinner, and awake on New Year’s Day to be writing this column before the coffee is even brewed.

If you wanted some insight on this game, I’m afraid you may have come to the wrong place.  Northwestern played tough in the Big Ten Championship Game, but didn’t show much on offense, especially in the second half.  The defense has been exceptional all season, though perhaps not against the run vs OSU, and keeps the Wildcats in games when the offense hasn’t been doing the job.  Then you’ve got this transfer portal nonsense.  Seven players from NU by my count have entered the transfer portal, among them running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, WR Kyric McGowan, and DE Eku Leota.  The assumption is that these folks won’t be playing today, but what’s the reason for them wanting to transfer?  Suspected lack of playing time in the future?  Wanting to be closer to home after this COVID mess?  Maybe they know something about these Fitz to the NFL rumors?  Who knows?  I think you have a defense that will be playing like hell for defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who’ll be coaching his final game and seeking a 400th victory, after getting shafted for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.

And what about Auburn?  Their 6-4 record doesn’t look too impressive, but three of those losses have come to # 1 Alabama, #5 Texas A&M, and #9 Georgia.  The Tigers can put up some points, but I like the ability of NU’s defense to keep it manageable.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that Gus Malzahn was fired as head coach a few weeks ago.  Are the coaches focused on the game, or maybe looking for jobs?  Tough to tell.  

If we learned anything from the outing against Ohio State, it’s that the Wildcat rush defense may need some help.  Auburn’s freshman back Tank Bigsby could present some problems.  Defending the pass is an NU strong suit, and consensus All-American (you read that right) freshman defensive back Brandon Joseph has been outstanding, even before his highlight reel interception two weeks ago against the Bucks.

I like the ‘Cats to perform well and be prepared, but I think more points will be scored than expected.  NU’s defense still gets the job done when needed, but the Tigers cover.

Pick: Northwestern 27, Auburn 24.  Take Auburn and the points as NU gets 2021 off to a good start.

Season to date: 7-1 Straight up, 5-3 ATS

Go ‘Cats!