Big Ten Football Preview: Northwestern
In 1995 the Northwestern Wildcats stunned college football when they won the Big Ten and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. That year, they were led by a consensus All-American named Pat Fitzgerald.
Fast-forward almost two decades. Fitzgerald is now in his eighth season as head coach of the Wildcats and they are once again looking to stun the prognosticators and return to Pasadena.
Northwestern enters 2013 riding a tidal wave of momentum following their Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State on New Year’s Day. It was the program’s first bowl win since the Rose Bowl in 1949.
On the offensive side of the ball Northwestern likes to mix things up as much as possible. They are one of the few teams in college football that can successfully run a two-quarterback system.
The system features versatile senior Kain Colter, who boasts an accurate arm and terrific running ability. In 2012 Colter ran for 894 yards and passed for 872 yards, while completing 67.8% of his throws.
Colter shares time under center with junior Trevor Siemian. Siemian is a more capable passer than Colter. He threw for 1,312 yards last season. Expect to see Siemian on passing downs.
Both quarterbacks spread the ball around very well to their receivers last year. Six different players caught twenty or more passes in 2012. Look for junior wideout Christian Jones to develop as a major deep threat. Jones totaled 412 receiving yards and two touchdowns a year ago.
The Wildcats also return speedster Venric Mark at running back. Mark stands at an unimposing 5-8, and 175 pounds, but his speed makes him dangerous coming out of the backfield. He rushed for 1,366 yards last year and scored 12 touchdowns.
Mark is also an impact player in the return game. He returned two punts for touchdowns last season, including one against Penn State.
Northwestern lost three starters from the offensive line last season. Center Brandon Vitabile and left tackle Jack Konopka return, but the Wildcats will need to get consistent play from the line as a whole if they are going to succeed.
On the defensive side of the ball Northwestern has a few young stars that might burst on to the national scene this season. Senior Damien Proby became a force at middle linebacker last season and led the Wildcats in tackles with 112.
Opposing teams will also have to pay special attention to defensive end Tyler Scott. Scott sacked the quarterback nine times last year and also forced three fumbles.
Northwestern has a solid front seven but their secondary is suspect. Nick VanHoose needs improve at the cornerback position and they also need someone to step up and play opposite him.
Northwestern did not get any favors with their schedule. They drew Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover games from the Leaders Division. The positive for the Wildcats is that they will have the chance to show the entire country what they are made of very early in the year. They open the year with a challenging road test in Berkeley against California.
Five weeks later they open Big Ten play at home against conference favorite Ohio State. That evening against the Buckeyes will be their chance to show a national audience exactly how far they have come as a program.
At the least, Northwestern appears to be a solid team. What they do against the Big Ten’s elite programs will determine whether this is just another winning season and bowl trip for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, or an unforgettable year like 1995, that will forever be remembered by Wildcat fans.
Dan Cronin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him email firstname.lastname@example.org.