No. 35: Northwestern
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 30, 2011
Go ahead and call. You won’t be blamed; instead, you’ll be lauded for your diligent research and big-picture point of view. Have your people call his people. Charter the private jet. Sign a blank check. Don’t even waste the time needed to bankroll, name and organize the ever-popular search committee, as those suits will sit, eat, drink, dally for days and still, a week later, come up with the same name. Just do it. Call, email, snail mail, smoke signals, semaphore, what have you: just reach out and check. Maybe you’re the suitor he’s waiting for? Maybe you have what others don’t? It can’t hurt. You’d never regret it. Just one problem: Pat Fitzgerald’s not going anywhere.
Big Ten, Legends
16 (9 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
at Boston College
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
We’re looking at another eight-win season for Northwestern. Areas that might be a concern, well, really aren’t. Losing Kafka is not that troubling: Northwestern has had wonderful success inserting unproven quarterbacks into the starting lineup, mainly due to the knowledge of the friendly system these quarterback bring into their debut season in the starting lineup. Persa certainly fits this bill. The Wildcats must replace their two top receivers, but return far more experience than they did at this time a year ago. Most importantly, Northwestern is led by Pat Fitzgerald, perhaps the finest young coach in the country. This program continues to improve under his watch, developing overlooked prospects into solid Big Ten performers en route to developing into yearly bowl participants. For those unaware, it’s time to start respecting Northwestern; this is a good team — and a good program.
In a nutshell Here’s a strange thought to consider: Northwestern won seven games… and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it was a disappointment. I expected a bit more from these Wildcats, who entered the fall with a few questions marks – quarterback, funnily enough, was a slight one – but had the sort of schedule to make a dark horse Big Ten run. That wasn’t the case. Northwestern dropped five conference games, including three by larger and larger margins in November. It was by the year’s final month that this defense, beaten down without help from an offense missing its leading piece, dropped off the map. Penn State scored 35 points, Illinois 48 and Wisconsin and whopping 70; it could have been worse, as those who witnessed the loss to the Badgers can attest. The defense continued to slide in a bowl loss to Texas Tech, giving up 48 points, which meant that N.U. allowed 43.6 points per game during its 1-4 finish to the year.
High point The Wildcats did start strong. You’d expect nothing less with this schedule, which didn’t pit N.U. against a bowl opponent until Oct. 23. So Northwestern opened 5-0, defeating Vanderbilt, Central Michigan and Minnesota by a combined eight points. Did you know that Northwestern beat Iowa? Again? There were a few comments about that win – Northwestern’s third straight, and fifth in six tries, against the Hawkeyes – at the bottom of the South Florida preview.
Low point How the year ended. It’s easy to place blame on the defense, but the offense simply couldn’t control the ball with any consistency after Dan Persa’s Achilles injury in the win over Iowa. Try as it might, the defense simply wasn’t good enough to put this team on its back. But we knew that in September; it’s just that the offense did everything it could over the year’s first two months to offset Northwestern’s liabilities.
Tidbit Northwestern is the only Big Ten program to play a non-conference game in November; the Wildcats host Rice on Nov. 12. Each of the remaining 11 teams in the Big Ten plays its four non-conference games over the first four games of the year, in fact. This fall’s date with Rice marks Northwestern’s first November non-conference game since 2001, when the Wildcats hosted Bowling Green on Nov. 17. That game was a late addition to the schedule when Northwestern’s Sept. 15 game against Navy was canceled after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
Tidbit (January edition) Pat Fitzgerald has had a hand in all four of Northwestern’s January bowl appearances. Two came as a player, as we all remember. Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl in 1996 and the Citrus Bowl in 1997, losing to U.S.C. and Tennessee, respectively. Two have come as a coach: the Wildcats lost to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl and to Texas Tech after last season. In essence, it’s safe to say no one individual has had a bigger impact on the football program. As an aside, N.U. is 1-8 all-time in bowl games.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader NUwildcat09, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Miami (Ohio) preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Northwestern Wildcats. Take it away, NUwildcat09:
Any preview would be remiss if not mentioning Dan Persa’s health. Will he be the same player he was last year? It seems unlikely. More importantly, he shouldn’t have to carry the team as much as last year. The development of the running game with Trumpy and Smith will lessen the burden. As for the kicking game, NU lost an experienced kicker in Demos. However, there are hopeful options in Budzien and Flaherty. I believe NU will go to a record fourth consecutive bowl game. Best case scenario: 10-2 (6-2) and a bowl win over the SEC. Go ‘Cats!
Former players in the N.F.L.
8 DE Luis Castillo (San Diego), CB Marquice Cole (New York Jets), DT John Gill (Indianapolis), QB Mike Kafka (Philadelphia), CB Sherrick McManis (Houston), OT Ike Ndukwe (New York Giants), RB Tyrell Sutton (Carolina), DE Corey Wootton (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Most one-sided major bowl games during 2000-5 seasons
1. 2005 Orange Bowl: U.S.C. 55, Oklahoma 19.
2. 2000 Alamo Bowl: Nebraska 66, Northwestern 17.
3. 2001 Rose Bowl: Miami (Fla.) 37, Nebraska 14.
4. 2005 Peach Bowl: L.S.U. 40, Miami (Fla.) 3.
5. 2001 Orange Bowl: Florida 56, Maryland 23.
Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern ’96), 34-29 after five seasons at Northwestern. Yes, a winning record — five games over .500, in fact — through five seasons. Were you expecting anything less? Though Fitzgerald is entering his sixth season at the helm of the program, he remains the second-youngest coach in the F.B.S., trailing only U.S.C.’s Lane Kiffin. Fitzgerald is a Northwestern legend, perhaps the greatest player in program history and the unquestioned leader of the back-to-back Big Ten title-winning teams in 1995-96. Fitzgerald was a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Bednarik Award winner in Evanston; his superb career has already earned him a much-deserved spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. His rise to the top at Northwestern came under difficult circumstances: Fitzgerald was tapped to replace the late Randy Walker when his coaching mentor died of an apparent heart attack four years ago. Fitzgerald served under Walker for five years before taking over, coaching the secondary (2001) and linebackers (2002-5). He added the title of recruiting coordinator during the 2004 season, and has excelled at that role; though it is very difficult – because of academic standards and the regional dogfight with Illinois, Notre Dame, Michigan and others, to land talented players in Evanston – Fitzgerald was widely thought of as one of the best recruiters in the Big Ten. After an altogether excusable 4-8 initial season the Wildcats returned to bowl eligibility with a 6-6 2007 season but, because of a league-record 10 Big Ten teams reaching six wins, were left out of bowl play. Using that disappointment as motivation, the Wildcats have stormed out of the gate in each of the last three years, earning a program-first three consecutive bowl berths. It is therefore not a far stretch to call Fitzgerald, as both a player and a coach, the most important figure in the history of Northwestern football. He’s also a rising star in the coaching ranks, a widely-respected leader for his work at his alma mater, and the man most likely to someday coach in a stadium that bears his name: Ryan Field at Pat Fitzgerald Stadium. I like the way that sounds.
Persa to watch
It’s fitting that even when he suffered a season-ending blow, Dan Persa still came out on top. The scene: Evanston, Nov. 13, Iowa; 1:22 left, Northwestern trailing, 17-14; Persa, back to pass, finds Demetrius Fields for the go-ahead touchdown; seconds later, the camera cuts back to Persa, writhing in pain, his Achilles torn and, though we didn’t know it yet, Northwestern’s season about to run off the rails. No other player in the Big Ten was — or is — more important to his team’s success. And before you say Denard Robinson, recall that Michigan’s offense continued to play at a high level even when Tate Forcier was forced into action due to injuries. Persa means everything, every little thing, to Northwestern, so it’s with great anxiety that the Wildcats look towards September and picture life without the Heisman contender under center.
How is the Achilles, anyway? By all accounts, dating back to the spring, Persa’s recovery has been ahead of schedule. And the senior at 90 percent is still better than 90 percent of the quarterbacks in the F.B.S., not to mention 100 percent of Northwestern’s other options at the position. So Northwestern needs Persa, whether 100 percent or no, and needs him badly. And don’t roll your eyes at the Heisman comment: Persa is absolutely, unequivocally a Heisman contender if he can lead Northwestern into the Top 25. He’s the heart and soul of the offense. The leader of the team. The engine that drives everything that Northwestern does offensively. Without him, the Wildcats are 4-8. With him at full health, the Wildcats could sneak up and take home the Big Ten.
When Persa has his legs — and Achilles — under him, he’s as good as they come. While most expected him to fare well as a first-year starter, it’s funny to recall how some viewed quarterback as a question mark for N.U. heading into 2010. Persa answered any doubts by hitting of 19 of 22 attempts for 222 yards and 3 scores in a season-opening win over Vanderbilt, and continued that torrid pace for his nine games in the starting lineup. For the year, Persa hit on 222 of his 305 attempts, a 73.5 percent clip, with 15 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. As a runner, Persa added 519 yards and a team-best 9 scores. He can do everything that’s asked of him in this offense. There’s a reason he’d warrant an invite to Manhattan should the Wildcats push for 10 wins. There’s strong, then there’s Persa strong.
Players to watch
This offense could be one of the best in the Big Ten… if the running game can perform with any consistency. Don’t hold your breath. Northwestern’s finished no higher than sixth in the Big Ten in rushing in each season since 2006, and even last season’s sixth-place finish is tinged by the fact that the Wildcats averaged 3.6 yards per carry, third-worst in the Big Ten. But what the total does suggest that Fitzgerald wants to run the ball, wants to create more offensive balance, which is a start. The next step? Finding a lead back capable of carrying the load, which won’t be easy, and getting more serviceable play from an offensive line that struggled on the ground and in pass protection a year ago. No, the line was not good in 2010.
Four starters are back up front, so it’s only natural to expect improvement. The one open position is right guard, a spot formerly belonging to Keegan Grant. N.U. has two options: one is senior Doug Bartels, who started the first three games of 2010 before an injury paved the way for Grant; the other is junior Neal Deiters, a converted tackle whose size, 6’8, is an asset outside but may be a liability along the interior of the line. Expect the status quo elsewhere. Senior Al Netter and junior Patrick Ward are a solid bookend pairing at tackle, but you can’t forget that N.U. did allow 40 sacks last fall, so Netter and Ward need to button things up. Senior Ben Burkett returns at center and junior Brian Mulroe at left guard, though I’d imagine that the loser of the Bartels-Deiters position battle could end up unseating Mulroe on the left side. What about depth? It should also be improved. Colin Armstrong, Deiters and Bartels played a good amount last fall, and the Wildcats are high on a few redshirt freshmen, like Paul Jorgensen and Brandon Vitabile.
Even if N.U. can’t it going on the ground, Persa will have a wealth of riches to work with at receiver. It’s a group led by perhaps the Big Ten’s best at the position in senior Jeremy Ebert, who posted 62 receptions for a league-best 953 yards and 8 scores in 2010. Northwestern seems to always has one previously unknown receiver step up out nowhere; Ebert was in the rotation in 2009, but his ascension into the Big Ten’s elite was one of the nice stories off of Northwestern’s offense. Sidney Stewart must be replaced, but N.U. has nothing but depth at the position. There’s Fields (25 catches for 291 yards), the junior with the big catch against Iowa. Senior Charles Brown (16 for 198) will hold a big role, as will promising sophomore Rashad Lawrence (12 for 178). The depth continues with another crop of sophomores, like Tony Jones, and Veneric Mark, and N.U. also reeled in a handful of true freshmen receivers who could steal some playing time. More? Try out H-back Drake Dunsmore, referred to as the “superback” in this offense, a senior and team leader who is a much-used safety valve for Persa and one of Northwestern’s favorite red zone targets.
The sight of opposing running backs rolling off five and six yards in bunches grew tiresome late last fall, especially after Illinois gained 519 yards on the ground — not a misprint — followed by Wisconsin’s 329-yard performance the following Saturday. Something has to change here: N.U. can continue to pull rabbits out of its hat offensively, but the Wildcats won’t push Nebraska or Michigan for the Legends division if the defensive front, especially along the interior, doesn’t begin carry its weight. That’s the main storyline surrounding this defense heading into 2011, one that ranks second for the team altogether behind Persa’s health.
N.U. moves forward at tackle without Corbin Bryant, who was not quite a star but was still the most serviceable option the Wildcats had inside. The line needs a healthy Jack DiNardo, who missed the spring following shoulder surgery, as while he’s even farther removed from stardom as was Bryant the junior’s experience will come in handy. If the Wildcats are looking for more size inside, it may be time to increase senior Niko Mafauli’s playing time. A lack of stamina may keep Mafuli from being an every-down lineman, but he could make an impact on first and second down. For now, Mafuli shares the top spot alongside DiNardo with junior Brian Arnfelt (14 tackles), one of last year’s reserves. What you’re not going to get from the tackles: a pass rush, or much push whatsoever in the backfield. That’s fine; Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz just need these tackles to maintain the line of scrimmage.
It’s amazing that senior end Vince Browne was able to do as much as he was last fall, when he led Northwestern with 15.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks, considering no other lineman did much of anything. Browne had the full and undivided attention of opposing offensive lines yet still produced; that’s noteworthy. He’ll again lead an otherwise paltry pass rush, earning all-Big Ten honors in the process, but Browne could use some help. Senior Kevin Watt (29 tackles, 5.5 for loss) returns, but he was held without a sack last fall. So perhaps sophomore Tyler Scott can lend a hand: he showed his worth in somewhat limited duty last fall.
Northwestern needs last year’s reserves to step up at linebacker. Two solid starters must be replaced, leaving weak side linebacker Bryce McNaul (62 tackles, 5 for loss) in a leadership role heading into the fall. The starting lineup seems set, with senior Ben Johnson on the strong side and junior David Nwabuisi in the middle. These three can move, especially the two new additions, so they’ll be an asset against the pass. N.U. needs help against the run, however, so we’ll have to see if the second level can help the defensive front control the line of scrimmage.
There are some issues with the front seven. Those concerns diminish as you move back to the secondary, where Northwestern has enough talent, experience and depth to make a major improvement off of last year’s numbers — which weren’t great, to be honest. In a perfect world, senior safety Brian Peters would do less against the run (team-leading 104 tackles) and even more against the pass (three interceptions, tied for the team lead). It depends whether the Wildcats can do enough with their line and linebackers to stop the run; if they can’t, Peters will again move into the box to lend support. David Arnold is currently listed as his running mate at safety, ahead of Jared Carpenter, with whom Arnold shared time in the starting lineup last fall. Arnold needs to stay healthy after missing the second half of 2010 with a foot injury. Additional depth comes from redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell, who’s going to play somewhere in the secondary, and junior Hunter Bates — he only sounds like a lacrosse player.
Senior Jordan Mabin may be the best cornerback in the Big Ten. He’s among the most experienced, at least, having started 37 games over his first three seasons. Mabin has a nose for the football (Big Ten-best 15 pass breakups), though he needs to turn some of those touches into interceptions. Justin Vaughn’s shoes will be filled by senior Jeravin Matthews, a special teams maven who is somewhat new to the cornerback position. He has the speed and athletic gifts to succeed. With this secondary, all N.U. needs to do defensively is button things up a bit against the run. If the Wildcats can do that, there’s no reason why this defense can’t return to its 2008-9 form.
Position battle(s) to watch
Running back Here’s a nice, troubling, disappointing, frustrating statistic to chew over: when Mike Trumpy came out of nowhere to rush for 110 yards a win over Indiana last October, he became Northwestern back to crack the 100-yard mark since Tyrell Sutton did so in 2008. So it had been some time. Trumpy did it again, believe it or not, but suffered a season-ending injury while doing so against Illinois. Does his two 100-yard showings guarantee that Trumpy will lead the way for N.U. on the ground in 2011? Probably. He’s earned the shot, at least, and will begin September as Northwestern’s top rushing option. But it’s not a stretch to say the Wildcats need more, not just from Trumpy but the running game at large. Trumpy’s a big part of it: he led the team with 530 yards on the ground in 2010. What N.U. really needs is a change-of-pace back to compliment Trumpy’s more, well, straight-ahead running style. Senior Jacob Schmidt isn’t that guy, though he has done a nice job in the passing game. Adonis Smith is that guy, or seemed like that guy in small doses in 2010. Maybe freshman Jordan Perkins can step right in and make an impact. Or perhaps Northwestern will again play mix-and-match at running back, using one guy for a series, then another and another rather willy-nilly. I’d advise not to do that. For now, it’s Trumpy and Smith. Persa will do his fair share, though the Achilles should slow him down a bit in 2011.
Game(s) to watch
Only six home games, far less than your typical Big Ten team. Key games come on the road, at Iowa and at Nebraska, though the Wildcats do get Michigan and Michigan State at home. The season opener with Boston College is also interesting, as it will give us a glance at how well Persa has progressed with his injury.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell If Persa is fully recovered. If the run defense can improve. If the offensive line can be more physical. If the running game can be more consistent. There are issues, and no, Northwestern is not a national title contender. Here’s what Northwestern is: a scrappy, disciplined, well-coached team with a superb quarterback, a great crop of receivers, a good secondary and enough senior leadership to be a real factor in the Big Ten hunt. It begins with the foundation built by Fitzgerald, which should have the Wildcats in bowl play every season for the foreseeable future — until someone makes him an offer he can’t refuse, though I can’t ever see that happening. It continues with a Heisman contender like Persa, who has shown an ability to put this team on his back: the Wildcats were 7-3 with him, 0-3 without. He’ll have weapons to work with in the passing game, like Ebert, Fields and Dunsmore. The running game clearly needs work, though the combination of Trumpy and Smith, with a healthy Persa, should boost Northwestern’s totals in 2011. In my mind, the biggest task facing the Wildcats is the run defense: Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa are going to pound away on the ground, so Northwestern needs to improve in that regard if it plans on sneaking up and stealing the Legends division. I don’t see that happening, even if I see Northwestern winning eight games in 2011. Nebraska’s just too good, and Michigan now has the focus along the sidelines to accompany its high talent level. Both those teams are ahead of Northwestern. But don’t count N.U. out, not for a second, as it’s when you do that the Wildcats will score the upset. There will be one or two of those in 2011, along with a few wins that are closer than they should be, a loss that hurts, an easy home win, the same old story. I’m not suggesting that the Wildcats will win the Big Ten; I’m merely suggesting you take note of a very good team, a great quarterback and a terrific coach.
Dream season A road win in Lincoln becomes one of the defining wins in program history, and lifts the Wildcats to a Legends division title and shot at a B.C.S. berth.
Nightmare season Northwestern’s bowl streak ends at three; the streak of non-losing seasons ends at four, as the Wildcats suffer a disappointing 4-8 finish.
In case you were wondering
Where do Northwestern fans congregate? Start with Lake the Posts, which covers Northwestern athletics better than anyone. I continue to be fascinated by Bring Your Champions, They’re Our Meat, which is nothing if not thought-provoking. Want a third Northwestern blog? Try out Sippin’ On Purple. For some message board action, check out Wildcat Report and Purple Reign.
Through 86 teams 261,308.
Who is No. 34? If you live in the city housing tomorrow’s university and have a problem with your water bill, you’ll likely try to have a hearing in front of a five-person committee consisting of the head of the Department of Water, the city solicitor, the head of Sewer and Water Department, one citizen automatically appointed by the mayor and one citizen appointed by the mayor from a list of no less than three and no more than nine applicants submitted by the City Council.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Al Netter, Big Ten, Brian Peters, Bryce McNaul, Dan Persa, Jordan Mabin, Niko Mafuli, Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald, Patrick Ward, Vince Browne
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