By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Pat Fitzgerald is widely recognized as one of the best coaches in college football, and deservedly so.
But even he can only do so much with an inept offense, and with horrendous quarterback play.
That became painfully clear last season as the Wildcats suffered through their worst season during Fitzgerald’s 14-year tenure, finishing 3-9 overall and 1-8 in the Big Ten.
Northwestern ranked 126th in scoring (16.3 points per game), 128th in passing touchdowns (six) and last in yards per attempt (4.5) last season.
The season ended on a high note with Northwestern defeating Illinois 29-10 in the season finale, but that wasn’t enough to please Fitzgerald, who told his players afterwards “this is never happening again” in regard to his team’s record.
To say it’ll never happen again is one thing.
To do something about it is another.
Fitzgerald has certainly done something about it, and he didn’t even have to leave the Big Ten Conference to address his problems at quarterback.
The addition of Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey has turned a weakness at quarterback into a strength, and that was apparent during last Saturday’s 43-3 beat-down of Maryland in the season opener.
Ramsey completed 23-of-30 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. He was the first Northwestern quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards in his program debut since Dan Persa did in 2010 against Vanderbilt.
Iowa fans should remember Persa because he caused fits for the Iowa defense with his running and passing ability, and with his moxie and grit.
Ramsey figures to challenge the current Iowa defense with the same skills and intangibles when Northwestern faces Iowa at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
“It looked like they ran their system flawlessly on Saturday,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Northwestern. “It was very impressive to watch. The new quarterback is giving them stability at that position and we had a lot of respect for him when he was at Indiana.
“Best way I can describe him, at least from an outsider looking in, I think the guy is a winner. Seems like he does a lot of really good things for his football team from what we saw o them again Saturday night. He’s very impressive.”
Iowa offensive lineman Coy Cronk gave a similar description of Ramsey, and Cronk should know since he and Ramsey are close friends, and were roommates at Indiana.
Cronk started 40 games at left tackle for Indiana before transferring to Iowa as graduate student.
“I do have a lot of experience with Peyton, I live with him for a couple years and he’s one of my best friends in the entire world,” Cronk said. I love him to death.
“But he knows this week we’re not going to be talking to each other. There’s not whole lot of love lost there.”
Ramsey will be matched against an Iowa defense led by Phil Parker, who is considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the Big Ten.
“The coaching staff, when I talked to them earlier in the week on Sunday and Monday, they know what type of player he is and the type of heart he has, and the toughness he possesses” Cronk said of Ramsey. “He’s going to bring that to the Northwestern offense, and probably the entire team, because that’s the type of kid and leader he is.
“I’ve got nothing but love for that kid, but he’s our enemy on Saturday and we’ve got to get after him. We can’t make him have all day and be all comfortable in the pocket. He’s a great competitor. Our coaching staff knows that and it’s going to be a challenge for us on Saturday.”
Kirk Ferentz compared Ramsey to former Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley.
“It’s not like he’s got a tremendous arm or this or that, just exceptional,” Ferentz said of Ramsey. “The guy is just a good football player. I’m not saying he’s McSorley, but McSorley the way he was, just his team always won it seemed like. He just has that knack. He’s a coach’s son so maybe it’s got a little something to do with it, he’s got a little savvy. But he’s just an impressive football player.”
Northwestern also has a new offensive coordinator with 46-year old veteran play caller Mike Bajakian now devising the schemes.
Bajakian was the offensive coordinator for Boston College last season, and quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2015-18.
“It doesn’t look totally different than what they’ve done, but it’s definitely different,” Kirk Ferentz said of the Northwestern offense under Bajakian. “It’s his personality, his beliefs are certainly apparent, and it’s a little bit interesting because when he was at BC they pretty much ran what BC had been running, and we faced them a couple years ago in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He clearly has some ideas about what he likes and he’s an excellent coach, and that showed up.
Ramsey decided to leave Indiana despite having led the Hoosiers to an 8-5 record as the fill-in starter last season.
He had started the previous season, but then was unseated by Michael Penix Jr. during the 2019 preseason camp. However, Penix suffered a season-ending knee injury after winning two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards.
Ramsey then stepped in and passed for 2,454 yards and 13 touchdowns, and rushed for 252 yards and seven scores last season.
Penix Jr. was considered the frontrunner to start again this season, so Ramsey decided to explore other options, and he eventually picked Northwestern, which desperately needed help at quarterback.
It now looks like the perfect fit for both Ramsey, and for Northwestern, although, it’s only been one game.
One of the keys for Ramsey will be staying available during a global pandemic because there are no guarantees.
Saturday’s game between Wisconsin and Nebraska has been canceled after six Wisconsin players and six staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
Take Ramsey away from Northwestern and it’s a different offense, and a different team.
He’s that good, and that influential.