No. 42: Northwestern
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 23, 2010
It makes me very happy to sit back and dream of this scenario: Pat Fitzgerald, now 35 years old, remains at Northwestern for the next 30 years — until the end of his coaching career — and has a Joe Paterno-like impact at his alma mater. This makes me very happy to consider. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe it has to do with how I felt about Fitzgerald as a player. Maybe it has to do with my respect for what he’s done at Northwestern, building upon the foundation laid by his coaching mentors, Gary Barnett and Randy Walker. Maybe it’s because it seems like Fitzgerald does it the right way, like Paterno. Maybe it’s because whenever I get tired of the Kiffins of the world, I remember that at Northwestern — little Northwestern — there’s a throwback coach we can all get behind.
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
at Penn St.
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
Illinois (in Chicago)
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
Do I have this team repeating its nine regular-season wins of 2008? No, I don’t. But I think very highly of the defense, which is strong on the line and potentially terrific in the secondary. And we cannot forget about Pat Fitzgerald, who has done a wonderful job in improving Northwestern’s win total over each of the last three seasons. That string ends in 2009, as the Wildcats will not get to double-digit wins, but the team will certainly reach back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 1995-96 seasons.
In a nutshell Another fine season for the Wildcats, winners of 17 games over the last two seasons. The last time Northwestern won at least 17 games over two seasons? Try 1995-96, when the Wildcats reached back-to-back January bowl games. The last time before that? Try 1903-4. We’ve reached a new era of Northwestern football, ladies and gentlemen, where the Wildcats deserve to enter each season as heavy favorites to reach bowl eligibility. Not that the road to six wins in 2009 was pretty: no win by more than a touchdown against F.B.S. competition; three losses to sub-.500 teams; and a defense that had its struggles, one year after ranking 26th nationally in scoring. However — and bear with me here — it says much about the program under Fitzgerald that Northwestern can be pedestrian on both sides of the ball; beat Eastern Michigan by a field goal and Indiana by a single point; score only 16 points on Miami (Ohio); lose to Syracuse; and suffer a heartbreaking bowl loss, yet still win eight games on the season. It’s a brave new world.
High point A 17-10 win over then-No. 4 Iowa on Nov. 7, ending Iowa’s perfect season and national title hopes. While it was the Hawkeyes that had made a living in 2009 with their second-half brilliance, this game saw Northwestern dominate from the second quarter. After trailing 10-0 after 15 minutes, the Wildcats clamped down on an inexperienced Iowa quarterback and scored just enough to earn a marquee win. This was the first of three consecutive victories to end the year, with the third a 33-31 win over then-No. 16 Wisconsin.
Low point A 37-34 loss at Syracuse. Teams that beat Iowa and Wisconsin usually don’t lose to teams like Syracuse, but the loss typified the malaise with which Northwestern opened the season. The Wildcats were 2-2 entering October, with ugly wins over Towson (of the F.C.S.) and Eastern Michigan and losses to the Orange and Minnesota.
Tidbit Northwestern’s 17 wins over the last two years ties for fourth-best in the Big Ten during that span. Wisconsin, winners of seven games in 2008 and 10 last fall, also has 17 victories. Leading the way is Penn State, 22-4 since 2008. Ohio State is second at 21-5, Iowa third at 20-6.
Tidbit (Iowa edition) Don’t look now, but Northwestern might own Iowa. The Wildcats have won four of five over the Hawkeyes, including three straight games in Iowa City. The largest margin of victory in this streak was a 14-point victory in 2006, when Iowa finished 6-7. In 2005, Northwestern won by a single point, 28-27; in 2008, by five points; and last fall, if you remember, by a touchdown.
Tidbit (fun with numbers edition) Thirteen players in the F.B.S. made at least 90 receptions in 2009, including Zeke Markshausen, Northwestern’s senior receiver. Of the 13 to make at least 90 grabs, 12 entered the season with at least 36 career receptions; 11 had at least 70 career receptions. The there’s Markshausen, who entered the 2009 campaign with one career catch. One. Then had 91 on the year. That’s an increase of 9,000 percent, if my math is correct.
Former players in the N.F.L.
16 QB Brett Basanez (Chicago), LB Kevin Bentley (Houston), DE Luis Castillo (San Diego), DT Barry Cofield (New York Giants), CB Marquice Cole (New York Jets), OG Trai Essex (Pittsburgh), DT John Gill (Indianapolis), QB Mike Kafka (Philadelphia), CB Sherrick McManis (Houston), OT Ike Ndukwe (Kansas City), WR Eric Peterman (Chicago), LB Nick Roach (Chicago), OT Zach Strief (New Orleans), RB Tyrell Sutton (Carolina), DE Corey Wootton (Chicago), RB Jason Wright (Arizona).
Arbitrary top five list
F.B.S. coaches as players
1. Steve Spurrier, quarterback at Florida.
2. Pat Fitzgerald, linebacker at Northwestern.
3. Turner Gill, quarterback at Nebraska.
4. Jim Harbaugh, quarterback at Michigan.
5. Bob Stoops, safety at Iowa.
Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern ’96), 27-23 after four seasons at Northwestern. Yes, a winning record — four games over .500, in fact — through four seasons. Were you expecting anything less? Though Fitzgerald is entering his fifth 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 Wildcat 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. A personal favorite of the Countdown during his playing days, 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, etc., to land talented players in Evanston – Fitzgerald was widely thought of as one of the best recruiters in the Big Ten. After a 4-8 initial season — an excusable finish when taking into account the difficult circumstances — 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 stormed out of the gates in 2008 to a 5-0 mark, and finished with their most wins since 1996. The improvement continued last fall, as the Wildcats returned to bowl play for a second consecutive season. This tied a program record, joining the Fitzgerald-led teams from 1995-96. 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.
Players to watch
Northwestern will have its third starting quarterback in as many years this fall: Mike Kafka will be replaced by junior Dan Persa, a multiple-year reserve whose skill set greatly resembles that of his predecessor. Like Kafka, Persa can makes plays with his feet; he rushed for 167 yards last fall, sixth on the team. Also similar to Kafka, Persa brings knowledge of this system to the table, due to his years with the program. An underrated asset, to be sure. Unlike Kafka, however, Persa does not bring a sizable amount of game experience to the table in his first season as the starter.
Kafka made a pair of starts in 2008, in one start setting a new Big Ten record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Persa’s first significant action came last fall, when he completed 20 of 34 attempts for 224 yards in addition to his rushing output. To be fair, Persa was thrown into the mix in some unfriendly environments. Here’s what we do know: like his predecessors — Kafka, C.J. Bacher and Brett Basanez — Persa has a strong knowledge of the offensive system. He has the running ability to make a difference on the ground. He has the arm to make the throws asked of him. In short, Dan Persa will eventually play at an all-conference level, just like each of his three predecessors. The easy start to the season will allow him to steady his nerves before opening Big Ten play.
Look for Northwestern to continues its by-committee approach at running back, thanks to the return of all four meaningful rushers. The Wildcats do lose Kafka, of course, who led the team in net yards rushing — yards prior to those lost due to sacks — but Persa will recoup all of that lost production, if not add more. In terms of a starter, however, look for sophomore Arby Fields to again lead all backs in carries. He also led the Wildcats in yards with 302, while Scott Concannon adding 241 yards and 3 scores, Stephen Simmons 233 yards on a team-best 3.9 yards per carry and Jacob Schmidt another 217 yards.
No, this team will not a true lead back, as it most recently had in Tyrell Sutton. But look for this returning quartet, with redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy a potential fifth back, to maintain a healthy attack on the ground. Don’t look for many big plays from this group, unfortunately: Northwestern’s longest run last fall went for 25 yards — Fields matched that total once, as did Persa.
The Wildcats return all five starters up front, with only senior — Keegan Grant — listed on the two-deep. Ironically, while Grant started seven games at left guard last fall, he’s in danger of losing his starting role to sophomore Brian Mulroe, who started in Northwestern’s bowl loss to Auburn. Look for some more shuffling up front: sophomore Neal Deiters moves from right tackle — where he made seven starts last fall — to right guard, where he’ll push fellow returning starter Doug Bartels for the top spot. That position change will allow highly-regarded sophomore Patrick Ward to move into the starting lineup at strong side tackle.
The rest of the line will remain intact, with junior center Ben Burkett and junior left tackle Al Netter holding onto their starting roles. This is a young group, albeit one that features several linemen with starting experience. Expect more progression in 2010, with the line improving in each week and heading into 2011 as, potentially, the deepest line in the Big Ten.
The wide receiver corps loses its top two targets: Markshausen, as noted, had a breakout 2009 campaign, while converted quarterback Andrew Brewer added 57 receptions for a team-best 925 yards and 9 touchdowns. Looking back, the receiver corps was the biggest question mark — by some, I might add — heading into last season; Northwestern returns far more experience in 2010 than it did this time a year ago. The Wildcats return three receivers who made at least 21 receptions last fall: senior Sidney Stewart (42 catches for 470 yards), sophomore Demetrius Fields (24 for 225) and junior Jeremy Ebert (21 for 226). There’s your three starters. Depth is a question mark, with junior Charles Brown the only returning receiver to have made more than five catches last fall. Northwestern also touts a productive tight end — superback, in this system’s term — in junior Drake Dunsmore, who led all returning players in receptions (47), yards (523) and touchdowns (3). As I wrote in last year’s preview, anyone predicting the receiver corps to be a weakness is incorrect.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters. Senior Quentin Davie is an all-conference candidate, one year after leading Northwestern in tackles (90) and tackles for loss (11.5) while tying for the team lead in sacks (five). He, along with junior Ben Johnson (28 tackles, 3.5 for loss), will flank senior middle linebacker Nate Williams, who finished third on the team in stops (86, 7 for loss). Johnson is mired in a battle to retain his starting role, however, with junior Bryce McNaul riding a strong spring into the mix. Sophomores David Nwabuisi and Roderick Goodlow return in secondary roles.
The biggest loss for this defense is that of end Corey Wootton, who departed with his name littered in the school record books. With junior Vince Browne (39 tackles, 5 sacks) returning at one end spot, it will fall to junior Kevin Watt, who made two sacks in a reserve role, to offset some of Wootton’s lost production. The Wildcats will also turn to sophomore end Quentin Williams, who turned in a solid debut campaign in 2009.
The interior of the line returns Corbin Bryant, a senior, but must replace four-year starter Adam Hahn. He’ll be replaced by junior Jack DiNardo, whose early-season knee injury hampered his production throughout last fall. DiNardo, like McNaul, had a strong spring; his solid performance solidified his hold on the starting job. Interior depth will come from junior Niko Mafuli (six tackles, one a half sacks) and sophomore Brian Arnfelt, with the latter a special teams contributor in 2009.
There’s not much to worry about in the kicking game, as senior Stefan Demos is poised to hold double duties, kicking and punting. Demos is sure on close field goals, nailing 18 of his 25 attempts — though only 11 of 18 from 30 yards and further. In a perfect world, however, Demos would be supplanted at punter: he averaged only 35 yards per punt, though he did a fine job on placement. When it comes to punter, the Wildcats could also turn to redshirt freshman Brandon Williams.
Position battles to watch
Secondary The bad news: two all-Big Ten defensive backs must be replaced. The good news: thanks to injuries, several returning players earned important game experience a season ago. The secondary was uneven last fall, largely due to the uncertainty regarding the starting lineup, but the hope is that even with the departed pair, this group will be improved in 2010. At the very least — if Northwestern remains healthy — the Wildcats will be more consistent against the pass. Thanks to junior cornerback Jordan Mabin, this is a distinct possibility. Mabin will inherit a leadership role in 2010, as the two-year starter — who made 75 tackles and 2 interceptions last fall — is the most experienced returning defensive back. However, due to the injuries suffered by departed starters Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith, returning contributors Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn, Ricky Weina and Jared Carpenter made at least one start a year ago. This will pay dividends this fall. Peters made five starts, contributing 67 tackles and 3 picks, as is a lock to start at one safety spot. Carpenter holds the second starting role at safety, with junior David Arnold, a converted linebacker, running second at the position. Vaughn is the favorite to start opposite Mabin at cornerback, though the Wildcats could also turn to Weina or junior Mike Bolden, a little-used reserve in 2009.
Game(s) to watch
The first six games of the year. Northwestern should be favored in each game over the first half of the year; winning all six is a different story, but anything less than a 4-2 mark heading into a date with Michigan State on Oct. 23 would be surprising. The last month of the year is significantly tougher, with road games at Penn State and Wisconsin sandwiching home games with Iowa and Illinois. How does one Northwesterner feel about his team’s chances against Iowa? Chaddog chimed in with a comment in the Cincinnati preview, writing:
“Plus, regardless of Northwestern’s record, you know Fitz will find a way to beat Io_a… because NU always finds a way to take the ‘W’ from the Io_a Ha_keyes…”
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Anything less than a third consecutive eight-win finish would be a surprise. This is partly due to the schedule, which, as noted, is not intimidating. At least until November, when the Wildcats will be tested by the quartet of Penn State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Northwestern has a very solid opportunity to open the year 6-0; even 8-0 is a possibility, though that would entail landing three road victories in conference play and home win over stout Michigan State. In a worst-case scenario, Northwestern will enter November at 4-4 — this seems hard to believe. More realistically, the Wildcats enter November at least 6-2, perhaps 7-1. In either case, 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. Losing Wootton hurts, yes. Yet Northwestern return two starters up front and the entire starting linebacker corps. The secondary must supplant three starters, but last season’s injuries allowed several of last season’s contributors — now starters — to earn valuable game experience. 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.
Dream season The Wildcats ride a winnable early schedule to an 8-0 start. They split their final four games, but end the year at 10-2, 6-2 in the Big Ten.
Nightmare season The Wildcats need that easy non-conference slate, as they dip to 2-6 in Big Ten action. That mark, combined with a shocking loss to Vanderbilt to start the year, leaves Northwestern licking its wounds in a 5-7 finish.
In case you were wondering
Where do Northwestern fans congregate? Start with Lake the Posts, one of a select few college football blogs to have made Pre-Snap Read’s prestigious blogroll. Make sure to give that a read. I continue to be fascinated by Bring Your Champions, They’re Our Meat, where a recent post covered Big Ten expansion, Lou Piniella’s facial hair, Upton Sinclair, Al Pacino, soccer and Canadian political malfeasance. Want a third Northwestern? Try out Sippin’ On Purple, which counts Jamarcus Russell among its fans, for some reason. For some message board action, check out Wildcat Report and Purple Reign.
Who is No. 41? Our next program is searching for a new mascot. The early favorite was a Star Wars character, but don’t worry: it was just a trap. The search continues.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald
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