5. Northwestern Wildcats
Big Ten Countdown - Legends Division - Fifth Place
By Tony Gerdeman
A short--and prolific--passing offense that hasn't been able to run the ball very well of late. Four starters return on the offensive line. The defense lacks playmakers, but has plenty of veterans.
Nine on offense, seven on defense and the punter.
Sept. 3 at Boston College (L)
Sept. 10 Eastern Illinois (W)
Sept. 17 at Army (W)
Oct. 1 at Illinois (L)
Oct. 8 Michigan (W)
Oct. 15 at Iowa (L)
Oct. 22 Penn State (L)
Oct. 29 at Indiana (W)
Nov. 5 at Nebraska (L)
Nov. 12 Rice (W)
Nov. 19 Minnesota (W)
Nov. 26 Michigan State (L)
"Thirty minutes strong!"
A Big Ten Championship. Make hay when the sun is shining, and when Ohio State isn't on Northwestern's schedule, that's the football equivalent of daylight savings.
Ten wins. The Wildcats return 16 starters from a team that won seven games and lost three others by eight points or less. This team should be better than last year's version, but this year's schedule is much tougher.
Four wins. Given Northwestern's inexplicable early-season struggles, it's possible that the Wildcats could lose at both Boston College and Army early in the season. Minnesota is their best bet for a home conference win, and Indiana is the most likely road win. Other than that, there are definitely games up for grabs.
Five Questions Looking For Answers
1. Can the Wildcats beat an upper division team that isn't Iowa.
2. Will the offense be hampered if quarterback Dan Persa drastically reduces his running?
3. Is there a legitimate rushing attack on this team?
4. Will Pat Fitzgerald find three linebackers that he likes?
5. Can this defense stay strong for all four quarters?
Best Chance For a Big Loss
At Nebraska. Sometimes hard-nosed teams can pummel Northwestern into submission, and then cruelly keep pummeling them some more. Nebraska is such a team.
Most Important Game
At Illinois. Northwestern has won six of eight in the series, but they were embarrassed in the second half of last year's 48-27 loss at Wrigley Field. If the Wildcats want to show that they are for real, starting a trend of losing to Ron Zook is the wrong way to go about it.
Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To
At Iowa. Iowa City, Northwestern's home away from home. At this point, Wildcat fans are scheduling their family reunions around their trips to Iowa. They've won three straight at Kinnick Stadium, and really had no business doing it any of the three.
Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could
At Indiana. We don't really know what to expect from the Hoosiers, but as Northwestern has shown, a potent offense can go a long way. If Kevin Wilson's bunch can run his offense, this could be Heimlich territory for the Wildcats.
Something To Look For
Rimington Award watch lister Ben Burkett is not at center right now. With four starters returning on the offensive line, it was thought that the only job up for grabs was at right guard. Turns out that Burkett is currently manning that spot and redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile is handling snaps so far in practice. The coaches are looking for their best five, and it seems that the options at center were better than the ones at right guard. Burkett has started the last 39 games at center, so the staff must like Vitabile quite a bit. As an aside, doesn't Vitabile sound like something that should come with a list of side effects?
Quarterback Dan Persa. Coming back from an Achilles tendon injury, Persa has taken it slowly. But his passing so far in practice seems to be right about where he left off. He will complete 70% of his passes this season and make the most of each play. His offense will score enough points to win most every game.
Receiver Jeremy Ebert. If only Persa's last name was 'Siskel', then you'd better understand the connection between Persa and Ebert. The senior receiver is your typical Northwestern zone finder, but he can also get behind a defense when they're not paying attention.
Player People Are Expecting Too Much From
Running back Mike Trumpy. Those around the program are expecting a 1,000-yard rushing season from Trumpy. He's going to need over 200 carries to get there, but he's going to have to improve from where he was last year because 200 carries may not be justifiable for what he has provided in the past. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season. In Northwestern's spread offense, he should be averaging a yard better than that.
Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By
Left tackle Al Netter. Netter is no surprise. After all, he's anchored the offensive line at left tackle for three seasons now and has started all 39 games in his career. He's twice been Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, but even more is expected of him from the coaches this year, and they don't expect him to disappoint.
Freshman receiver Christian Jones. Despite a good deal of depth at receiver, the 6'3" 205-pound Jones provides a big body that doesn't exist anywhere else in the receiving corps. The fact that he's already impressing people during practice is a good sign for both Jones and Northwestern.
Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated
The front four. Three starters return from last year's front four, but they only combined for 7.5 sacks--and seven of those sacks came from defensive end Vince Browne. They also allowed 185 yards rushing per game, and gave up 5.1 yards per carry. Those are outrageous numbers. Even Michigan only allowed 4.4 yards per carry last season.
Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated
Offensive playmakers. Dan Persa is about as good a place to start as any. Northwestern receivers come off the rack ready to wear, and they all know exactly what they're doing. There are some added possibilities in the running game, and we must never forget Superback Drake Dunsmore, who is on the Mackey Award watch list. Every bit of this talent on offense will be involved.
Something They Do Well
Get everybody involved on offense. Northwestern takes the spread offense literally. They spread the ball out and they spread it around. Three different players had 40 receptions last season, and six players had at least 40 carries. Add in the fact that quarterback Kain Colter will also see the field despite already having a Heisman candidate at quarterback, and there is clearly no prejudice in who gets the ball on this team.
Something They Don't Do So Well
Finish. Northwestern led in the second half of their first three losses last season. Had they won those three games, they would've started 10-0. Against Illinois, the Illini led 27-24 late in the third quarter before outscoring Northwestern 21-3 over the final twenty minutes. The 70-23 blowout loss in Madison to end the regular season was a microcosm of their late-game collapses throughout the season. Finishing has become one of the areas of emphasis for Pat Fitzgerald this season, and for good reason.
Consistency in the running game. Mike Trumpy is expected to carry the load this season, but the tailbacks on the roster who will be called upon to change the pace should provide more than they did last season. Trumpy isn't anything particularly special, but all this offense needs is positive yards on each and every carry, and that's exactly what he does. Add in a guy like Adonis Thomas who had a good spring and who can hit the long ball, and suddenly things are looking a bit better. Also keep an eye on Tyris Jones (6'0" 220), a former walk-on linebacker who has shown some promise as a short-yardage brute. Northwestern loses Arby Fields and Stephen Simmons from last year, but that makes Trumpy and Thomas' roles even more defined, which should help them both immensely.
What's Gotten Worse?
The linebacking. Northwestern returns one starting linebacker in Bryce McNaul, and loses 167 tackles from starting linebackers last year. Currently, the linebackers are being touted - or taunted - as a group of "no names". Redshirt freshman Collin Ellis is one to watch, however, as he has been working with the first unit since the spring. But that may speak more to the fact that there was nobody else to go with.
Anything Else We Should Know About?
Backup quarterback Kain Colter will be involved, but Pat Fitzgerald isn't telling anybody how. Colter is a great athlete, and will likely be worked in the same way Mike Kafka and Dan Persa were before him. Colter's ability to run and throw could allow Persa to avoid being the one that has to do too much of that.
The secondary has some potential. Everybody who started at safety last year is back, so it's only right to presume that they will be better. There is also the matter of redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell, who will likely backup Second Team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. Pat Fitzgerald admitted to regretting redshirting Campbell last season, and after a strong spring, there are already expectations for Campbell to have some type of role on this team. Senior cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews are both veterans, though Mabin is a bit more experienced, having been at Northwestern since the early 90s.
Make a Wish
A Ryan Kerrigan-type of defensive end. A constant and unstoppable defensive end would make every single member of the Northwestern defense better.
Jeremy Ebert will lead the conference in receptions and receiving yards.
Scandal Most Likely To Rock the Program
Complete lack of gates-gate. Northwestern is one of just a few football programs to have never faced NCAA sanctions. Sometimes programs are just too clean to be clean, you know what I mean?
If The Head Coach Was a Superhero, What Would His Super Power Be?
Super loyalty. Granted, it's not gonna do you much good thwarting a bank robbery, but it does come in handy when opposing forces are trying to lure you into a trap - like coaching at Michigan. Super loyalty is also one of the great things about dogs.
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