In 2012, Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern went 10-3. That was its first double-digit win season since 1995, and second double-digit win season in the program's history. Moreover, as Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported, the Cats were 5:03 away from a 12-0 record.
With 14 returning starters in 2013, Northwestern was a darkhorse to win the Big Ten. Then the bottom fell out. The Cats' offensive backfield was beset by injuries, and when the smoke cleared, Northwestern was 5-7 and out of a bowl for the first time since 2007. Despite this letdown, it is easy to see how close the Wildcats were to a respectable 8-4 record. They had two overtime losses—Iowa and Michigan—as well as two three-point losses—Minnesota and Nebraska.
This year, Northwestern has a Big Ten second-best 17 returning starters, are in the wide-open Western Division, and are once again a darkhorse to win the conference, but will the Wildcats fold under the pressure?
2013 scoring offense: 26.2 PPG (10th in the conference), total offense: 399.6 YPG (seventh), rushing YPC: 4.08 (ninth), passing efficiency: 129.18 (ninth)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 6.2
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Third (2012)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 10th (2013)
Returning starters: RBs Venric Mark (inj), Treyvon Green; WRs Christian Jones, Tony Jones; SB Dan Vitale; OL Brandon Vitabile, Matt Frazier, Geoff Mogus, Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen, Ian Park
Open Positions: QB, WR
Offensive Formation: Multiple with spread leanings
Offensive Philosophy: West-Coast passing game with finesse rushing
Northwestern, along with Purdue, ushered the spread offense into the Big Ten. Originally, that offense was primarily known for passing, but over Pat Fitzgerald's eight-year tenure, the Wildcats' offense has slowly moved from a pass-first offense to a rush-first, rush-often offense. Between 2006-2009, the Wildcats twice passed more than they ran, and they were almost 50/50 the other two years. Since then, Northwestern has rushed on 59.2 percent of its plays from scrimmage.
It remains to be seen what direction the Wildcats offense will go in 2014, as the 2010-2013 offense featured dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in Dan Persa and Kain Colter. The probable starting quarterback this year is a pocket passer who, while not a statue, is not going to scare any opponents with his legs.
That probable starting quarterback is senior Trevor Siemian, who gained two starts last season, and had more than twice Colter's passing attempts in 2012-13 combined, despite Colter being the official starter both years. Even though the coaches seem to trust Siemian's arm, he hasn't been especially impressive as a passer. In 513 passing attempts (2012-13), he compiled a 122.28 quarterback efficiency rating. For comparison's sake, this would have made him the second-least efficient quarterback in the Big Ten last year, ahead of only Minnesota's Phillip Nelson. Even though Siemian is definitively the starter, don't count out the continuation of the dual-threat system, with redshirt-freshman Matt Alviti—a former Rivals four-star prospect—coming in as the wildcat option.
In 2012, speedster Venric Mark paced Northwestern with 1,366 yards rushing, 6.04 YPC and 12 touchdowns. He also had 20 receptions. However, he missed the majority of last year with an injury. This year, he will be at 100 percent and should spark Northwestern's running game, though he will be suspended for the Cats' first two games. Senior Treyvon Green is the more powerful option and he will spolit carries with Mark. Last year, Green ran for 736 yards, 5.33 YPC and eight touchdowns. After that, sophomores Stephen Buckley, Warren Long or true freshman Justin Jackson (Rivals four star) will provide back-up options.
Northwestern returns four of its top five pass catchers. Seniors Christian and Tony Jones will pace the Cats, though neither is much of a big-play receiver—both averaged fewer than 12.50 YPC. The third starting position will be between junior Cameron Dickerson—who had 11 receptions for 125 yards in 2013—and senior USC-transfer Kyle Prater (nine receptions for 59 yards). Depth is a concern, as no other Northwestern wide receiver registered a reception last year, but historically, the Wildcats do a good job of finding sure-handed receivers who can do what is asked of them. The superback—a tight end-fullback-receiver hybrid—will be manned by junior Dan Vitale, who had 34 catches for 382 yards. His backup, junior Mark Szott, has yet to register a collegiate stat.
Offensive line should be a strength as the Wildcats return six players with substantial starting experience, and seven players who have started at least one game. The unit has done a strong job paving the way for the rushing offense, but has to hold up better against the pass rush. Last year, Northwestern let up 35 sacks, which was third-worst in the conference. That is one sack for every 10.9 passing attempts, which is further compounded by the nature of Northwestern's quick-release West Coast offense where the quarterback doesn't hold on to the ball for very long.
The return of Mark will give the offense a much-needed spark, and the one-quarterback system will help the offensive line protect the quarterback more ably. The biggest question for the offense is if Siemian can lead the team on a consistent basis. He has had his moments, but Colter has been the go-to quarterback over the last two years, and Siemian, despite his reputation as a strong passer, hasn't been impressive. The Northwestern offense will be dangerous if Siemian can make significant progress; it will be mediocre if he can't.
2013 scoring defense: 27.1 PPG (ninth in conference), total defense: 423.4 YPG (ninth), rushing YPC allowed: 4.15 (eighth), passing efficiency allowed: 124.00 (seventh)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.6
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fifth (2012)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 10th (2011)
Returning starters: DEs Dean Lowry; DT Chance Carter; LBs Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis, CBs Nick VanHoose, Matthew Harris, Dwight White; S's Ibraheim Campbell, Traveon Henry
Open positions: DE, LB
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: Attack to force mistakes
Northwestern, under Fitzgerald and seven-year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, relies heavily on zone blitzes. The primary goal of these blitzes is not to get to the quarterback, but to cause the quarterback to make mistakes, which creates opportunities for turnovers. This is reflected in the Wildcats' turnover margin since Hankwitz has been in Evanston. 2007 and 2011 were the only years in which the Cats weren't in the top half of the conference in turnovers gained. Northwestern is comfortable giving up yards to opposing offenses—under Hankwitz, it has only twice been in the top half of the conference in total defense—provided it creates turnovers.
Seniors Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly will likely man the inside spots for the Wildcats. Carter started all 12 games last year, while McEvilly began the year as the starter, but was lost for the season due to a foot injury. Junior C.J. Robbins and sophomore Greg Kuhar will provide depth. Junior Dean Lowry will start at one end, while fellow-junior Deonte Gibson will likely start opposite him. Lowry gained 4.5 sacks in nine starts, while Gibson started the three that Lowry missed. Moreover, sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo will come in as a rush specialist. Last year, he was second in the team with 5.5 sacks, despite not starting any games.
Two of the linebackers are set in stone with seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis manning the weak side and middle, respectively. Ariguzo will compete for all-conference honors. The strong-side starter is wide open, and is probably Northwestern's most hotly contested position. Senior Jimmy Hall is the front runner, but junior Drew Smith and sophomore Anthony Walker will push for playing time. Whomever doesn't win the job will be the primary source of depth.
The secondary returns five players with extensive starting experience. Junior cornerback VanHoose is a two-year starter while sophomore Harris was pressed into starting last year, and will improve palpably in 2014. Sophomore White started six but was ultimately supplanted by Harris. At safety, senior Campbell will be a four-year starter and will push for all-conference honors, while Henry will lock down the free safety spot. Lastly, true freshman Parrker Westphal was Rivals' 19th-ranked cornerback and could push for a spot on the depth chart.
As previously mentioned, the Northwestern defense's goal is not to dominate the opposing offense but to create turnovers. With solid talent and depth in most positions, look for it not only to create turnovers, but to improve overall, giving its offense a lot of short-field opportunities.
For the past two years, Jeff Budzien has paced Northwestern to one of the best field goal units in the conference, hitting a combined 43 of 46 field goal attempts, but his elibility has expired. The Wildcats also lose their starting punter, though he was nowhere near as successful as Budzien. Red-shirt freshman Hunter Niswander is the likely kicker with junior Chris Gradone taking punting duties. Gradone had four punts last year for 37.82 yards.
Venric Mark was one of the top kick returners in the country in 2010, but his average has dropped every year since, and he obviously missed last year. Last year's primary returner, sophomore defensive back Matthew Harris, led the Wildcats to the eighth-best return team in the conference.
Northwestern also returns its punt returner, receiver Tony Jones, but the Cats only returned nine punts on the year, which was tied for 121st nationally.
Mark's return may spring the kick return game, but there is no reason to expect much from the Northwestern special teams.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Northwestern.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/30: California $
09/06: Northern Illinois $
09/20: Western Illinois (FCS) #
09/27: at Penn State $
10/04: Wisconsin $
10/11: at Minnesota $
10/18: Nebraska $
11/01: at Iowa $
11/08: Michigan $
11/15: at Notre Dame !
11/22: at Purdue #
11/28: Illinois #
Siemian comes into 2014 a much better quarterback than his previous play could have predicted. Moreover, Mark's return to the lineup is the spark the offense needs. The defense, meanwhile, is as solid as the 2012 group.
Northwestern opens the year a surprising 8-0, before getting tripped up against Michigan. It then loses the roadie at Notre Dame, but wins its final two, and with a 7-1 conference record, it locks up a trip to Indianapolis to take on the Eastern Division champion.
Siemian's previous performance proves to be a fair indication of his abilities. This leads to a quarterback controversy before the conference slate begins. The changing quarterbacks lead to trouble for the offensive line. Mark is effective, but rusty, an issue which is exacerbated by the disappointing line play. The defense, meanwhile, is okay, but can't compensate for poor special teams play and an offense that can't stay on the field.
The Cats go 2-1 to begin the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. It then loses six of its next seven before squeaking by its final two opponents to get to a second-straight 5-win season.
Northwestern offers a lot of upside, and it's difficult to foresee the Cats doing worse than last year, let alone failing to improve upon five wins. However, the degree of improvement depends a great deal upon Siemian. There are no indications he can be as effective as past Northwestern quarterbacks Colter or Persa, but maybe less of a reliance on one player will open up the offense more.
Look for the Wildcats to begin 4-0 before losing back-to-back games against Wisconsin and at Minnesota. It will come back for a win against Nebraska, but Pat Fitzgerald's post-bye week record does not inspire confidence, as he has a career 1-10 mark following the week off. The Cats will lose a heartbreaker to Iowa, which will be followed by two straight losses before finishing the year with two straight wins.
Final Record: 7-5 (4-4 in conference)
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