No. 59: Northwestern
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 11, 2012
Unlike a certain quarterback’s Achilles tendon, Northwestern is firmly attached to its current location: six or seven wins in the regular season, followed by a loss during bowl play. This is Northwestern football as run by Pat Fitzgerald, the legendary middle linebacker who has lifted N.U. into a position where a postseason run isn’t merely a nice surprise but a designated expectation. Unfortunately, those who have seemingly forgotten the Wildcats’ dire past — you wouldn’t think it was possible — are no longer satisfied with six or seven wins; to this slice of the fan base, six or seven wins should have already been used as a springboard to Rose Bowl contention. I can think of three things wrong with that point of view: Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska — and that’s just in the Legends division. It pays to be pragmatic, especially when your pragmatism involves Northwestern football.
Big Ten, Legends
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
at Penn St.
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
at Michigan St.
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
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. 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.
In a nutshell There was a time — and this is still somewhat hard to believe — that I furthered the idea of putting a medical redshirt on Dan Persa, aiming to get a sixth year for Northwestern’s starting quarterback, and handing the starting job over to Kain Colter for all of 2011. The idea might have held some merit in early September, when Colter played well in leading Northwestern out of the gate with two straight wins. The idea stopped holding water once the Wildcats lost to Army, a game that found Colter on the bench as the offense looked for a spark in the fourth quarter. Persa returned a week later and played at his normal level, but the Wildcats never seemed to recover from the loss to Army or a narrow setback at Illinois a week later. While the team bounced back in time to post a tremendous win at Nebraska, Northwestern did fail to reach its preseason expectations. But a bowl bid is a bowl bid: Fitzgerald has now led the Wildcats to five straight seasons with six or more wins. That remains an amazing feat.
High point The 28-25 win in Lincoln on the first Saturday of November. The Wildcats were sparked by Colter, who replaced an injured Persa and gave the Cornhuskers fits. That was Northwestern’s lone win on the season against a bowl team; the four remaining victories over F.B.S. competition came against teams that combined for 13 wins on the year.
Low point A string of close losses in September and October. Army by a touchdown. Illinois by a field goal. Michigan, the lone outlier, came by 18 points. Iowa by 11 points. Penn State by a touchdown. A disappointing stretch for a team that could have been pesky in the Legends division.
Tidbit Northwestern has increased its scoring total in each of the last five years. The Wildcats scored 310 points in 2007 after scoring 198 points in Fitzgerald’s first season, a program-low since 1999. That was followed with 317 points in 2008, 337 points in 2009, 343 points in 2010 and 376 points a year ago. Last season’s total was the third-most in program history, trailing 2000 (441 points) and 2005 (388 points).
Tidbit (bowl edition) Northwestern holds the nation’s lowest bowl winning percentage of any program with more than five games of bowl experience. The Wildcats are now 1-9 overall in the postseason after last winter’s loss to Texas A&M, and enter 2012 on a nine-game bowl losing streak. It’s been a long time since 1949, when the Wildcats knocked off California, 20-14, in the Rose Bowl.
Former players in the N.F.L.
17 DE Corbin Bryant (Pittsburgh), DE Luis Castillo (San Diego), NT Barry Cofield (Washington), CB Marquice Cole (New England), TE Drake Dunsmore (Tampa Bay), WR Jeremy Ebert (New England), OG Trai Essex (Pittsburgh), QB Mike Kafka (Philadelphia), CB Jordan Mabin (Baltimore), WR Zeke Markshausen (Kansas City), CB Sherrick McManis (Houston), OT Al Netter (San Francisco), LB Nick Roach (Chicago), OT Zach Strief (New Orleans), RB Tyrell Sutton (Seattle), DE Corey Wootton (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Season-killing quarterback injuries, 2007-11
1. Dennis Dixon, Oregon (2007).
2. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (2009).
3. Case Keenum, Houston (2010).
4. Jake Locker, Washington (2008).
5. Dan Persa, Northwestern (2010).
Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern ’96), 40-36 after six seasons at Northwestern. Yes, a winning record — four games over .500, in fact — through six seasons. Were you expecting anything less? 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 a heart attack in the summer of 2006. 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 lure highly-touted players to 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 were left out of bowl play due to a league-record 10 Big Ten teams reaching six wins. Using that disappointment as motivation, the Wildcats have stormed out of the gate in each of the last five years, earning a program-first five 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 Outdoor Sporting Arena. It’s a mouthful, but I like the way that sounds.
Players to watch
How strong is Kain Colter? Can he bench press a horse, squat a Mack truck, curl a steel derrick? It doesn’t matter: Colter is not Dan Persa, his stone-tough predecessor in the starting lineup, but rather a shiftier, more electric runner who is still working to develop a Persa-like level of consistency in the passing game. That’s not a process that will occur overnight. For Colter, the first step will be acknowledging his first and greatest weakness as a passer: he’s far too willing to tuck the ball down after making one read rather than go through his route progressions.
But there’s value – tremendous value – in his ability to impact the game in more ways than merely as a passer. Colter, who started the first three games of last season while Persa was recovering from his Achilles tear, threw for 669 yards, completing 66.7 percent of his 81 attempts with only a single interception, and added 458 yards as a receiver and a team-best 654 yards and 9 scores on the ground. He’s multifaceted; Colter is able to attack opposing defenses in several ways – throwing, running and split out at receiver.
He’s a different animal compared to Northwestern’s recent run of starting quarterbacks. With Colter in shotgun, opposing defenses will be forced to tailor a system fit to keeping him inside the pocket; this will open up the Wildcats’ entire offense, most notably in the outside passing game. And if N.U. wants to utilize him in other ways, it can move Colter out wide and use sophomore Trevor Siemian, the stronger passer.
Again, there’s no question that Colter is going to provide this offense with a degree of explosiveness in the running game. What he needs to work on – and Colter admitted that there’s room for improvement – is his pocket presence and comfort level under pressure. This is an asset that comes with time for every quarterback; it’s just that Colter, an athlete still learning the ropes at the position, is a bit behind the curve. You’ll see him impact the game as an athlete from the start, and Colter’s already shown an ability to limit his mistakes in the passing game. Once he grows more comfortable on passing downs, Colter will be the second-best dual-threat quarterback in the Big Ten.
He’ll also lend some significant production to a running game that has struggled moving the chains with consistency since 2006 – that’s a long time without a Big Ten-level running game. There’s some reason to believe that the tide will turn in 2012, thanks not only to Colter but, perhaps, a healthy Mike Trumpy. Through the first four games of last season, Trumpy – who led the Wildcats in rushing in 2010 – lent this offense a rare sight: four yards per carry with regularity. Trumpy rushed for 182 over the year’s first month, missing one game with a head injury, before tearing his A.C.L. in the loss to Illinois.
If he’s recovered – and he’s on schedule, though he sat out spring ball – Trumpy gives N.U. a bigger, beefier back to go with Colter’s flash. If Trumpy isn’t ready to go, the Wildcats will team Colter with sophomore Treyvon Green (362 yards), who while promising is not yet ready to handle the every-down load. Additional depth comes from senior Tyris Jones and true freshman Malin Jones, though the latter could stand to redshirt.
The Wildcats’ receiver corps must replace a first-team all-Big Ten tight end, a second-team all-Big Ten receiver and will lose Colter, last year’s third-leading receiver, due to the position change. So how is it possible that this season’s group is the deepest of Fitzgerald’s entire tenure? Because of the program’s solid work on the recruiting trail: while N.U. lacks proven production, Fitzgerald and his staff have accumulated tremendous young talent.
One name to keep in mind is former U.S.C. transfer Kyle Prater, the former five-star recruit who remains entangled in N.C.A.A. red tape – he may learn his fate for this coming season by the middle of this month. If you add Prater, the Wildcats’ receiver corps goes from deep to dynamic; while he won’t hit the ground running from day one, Prater is obviously an all-conference talent.
While waiting for his transfer decision, N.U. moves forward with a starting trio of senior Demetrius Fields (32 catches for 390 yards), sophomore Christian Jones (16 for 195) and either sophomore Tony Jones or junior Rashad Lawrence (19 for 203). Obviously, whomever doesn’t grab a starting role becomes a key reserve. Tony Jones is intriguing: a projected cog in the rotation heading into last September, he missed the entire season with a knee injury. If back at 100 percent, he’s going to push for snaps – especially if Prater isn’t ready to go. Another two names to watch: redshirt freshmen Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Cameron Dickinson. Both are big-bodied targets who can give N.U. even more size on the second level of the two-deep.
When it comes to replacing Dunsmore at tight end – the superback position, in Northwestern’s parlance – the Wildcats won’t have the luxury of calling on extensive game experience. Check that: any game experience. That’s a concern, as N.U. does rely heavily on the tight end both over the middle of the field and the red zone. The Wildcats have bigger options who can make an impact on running downs – former lineman Brian Smith, for example – but junior Tim Riley and converted quarterback Evan Watkins are going to need to chip in some support in the passing game.
The ongoing competition taking place along Northwestern’s defensive line will ultimately benefit this defense – perhaps drastically so. After two years of substandard results up front, both against the run and in getting pressure on the quarterback, N.U. needs to shake things up; the Wildcats need to get a stouter presence in the middle and more speed on the outside, and the battle for starting roles will bring the best out of every potential contributor. While it’s wise to take spring results with a shaker of salt, that the rebuilt front four ran circles around the Wildcats’ offensive line in March and April indicates that this group does have the potential to improve upon last year’s production.
Junior end Tyler Scott (31 tackles, 3.0 for loss) holds the key. Any improvement N.U. finds in the pass rush – 17.0 sacks last fall, tied for 95th nationally – hinges on Scott’s ability to get pressure on passing downs; he has the size and speed to be disruptive, and should play less tentatively with last year’s experience under his belt. The same can be said of his running mate at end, senior Quentin Williams (29 tackles, 3.0 sacks), who pushed Vince Browne out of the starting lineup over the second half of last season.
What should help N.U. rush the passer is a surplus of young, speedy ends. While Scott and Williams are anchors, the Wildcats could utilize redshirt freshmen Max Chapman and Deonte Gibson as pure edge rushers – Gibson is one end to watch in 2012 and beyond. Obviously, it’s vital that N.U. get pressure on Big Ten quarterbacks like Taylor Martinez, Andrew Maxwell, Denard Robinson and James Vandenberg. The trickle-down effect of a solid pass rush is stronger secondary play, which in turn would allow the Wildcats to devote added attention to the running game on first down.
While senior Brian Arnfelt remains healthy, he can be the block-consuming interior lineman this defense needs. Unfortunately, a foot injury stymied Arnfelt’s 2011 campaign. But he proved himself when in the lineup, not merely eating up blockers but also penetrating into the backfield. The Wildcats are going to lean on Arnfelt’s production this fall – and pray that he remains healthy – while the defense moves two or three fairly unproven tackles into the mix. One is Chance Carter, an undersized sophomore who played in nine games last fall. A second is junior Will Hampton (15 tackles). There’s your top three inside, but N.U. could use more depth at the position.
The defense’s strength lies at linebacker. The Wildcats return all three starters: senior David Nwabuisi (84 tackles, 8.5 for loss) on the strong side, sophomore Collin Ellis (28 tackles) on the weak side and junior Damien Proby (60 tackles) in the middle. This is a solid group; while Nwabuisi is the star – he’s a better fit outside than in the middle, where he opened last season – it’s safe to presume that Ellis and Proby are ready to take a step forward after moving into the starting lineup midway through last season. As elsewhere, N.U. is strong on the top level but will need to find depth from a handful of redshirt freshmen and sophomores – and even a true freshman in Ifeadi Odenigbo, this February’s top recruit.
Now, the secondary. Brian Peters, Jordan Mabin, Jeravin Matthews: gone. The only starter that N.U. returns is sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell (100 tackles, 2 interceptions), a reigning Freshman all-American who moves from quiet understudy to the leader of this defense – beyond the production, the Wildcats need Campbell to lend a steady hand to a defensive backfield very much in flux. Taking on that role, being a leader, will test Campbell more than any Big Ten quarterback.
You understand why Northwestern’s pass rush needs to take a huge step forward when looking at this secondary. It won’t be as simple a matter of promoting last year’s backups: I don’t think that sophomore Daniel Jones played well enough last fall to justify a move up the ladder, and the same could be said – albeit less so – of senior safety Hunter Bates, Peters’ backup.
More than anywhere else, N.U. needs to really throw the gauntlet down with this secondary in August. Not playing up to your potential? Then have a seat, youngster, and here’s someone to take your place. One positive development from this summer was the addition of former Stanford cornerback Quinn Evans, who was buried on the Cardinal’s roster but should push for a starting role in Evanston.
If the season started today, I think that Fitzgerald, coordinator Mike Hankwitz and defensive backs coach Jerry Brown would team Bates and Campbell at safety with Evans and senior Demetrius Dugar at cornerback. But this is more than open for competition during fall camp. The only player assured of a starting role is Campbell; Evans could be replaced by redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, Dugar by Jones, Bates by sophomore Davion Fleming.
Northwestern is one team that benefits enormously from the new kickoff rules. That’s because kickoff specialist Steve Flaherty, a senior, was terrible at forcing touchbacks; the five extra yards might mean a world of difference. Unfortunately, the Wildcats can’t rely on junior kicker Jeff Budzien with any regularity. The good news? Junior punter Brandon Williams isn’t a boomer, but he does offer up solid directional punting. And junior Venric Mark has flashed the ability to be the Big Ten’s best return man.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line The Wildcats’ front needs to grow up – and fast. Northwestern’s losses include left tackle Al Netter and right guard Ben Burkett, who made a combined 104 starts over their four years in Evanston, as well as two important reserves in Doug Bartels and Colin Armstrong. What this does is greatly impact overall line depth: with two former backups moving into the starting lineup, N.U. will lean heavily on several redshirt freshmen and sophomores to complete its two-deep.
The right side of the line – the strong side, the running side – is a major concern. For one, N.U. will move right tackle Patrick Ward, a senior, over to the blind side. While a solid move, particularly with a new starter at quarterback, Ward’s move gives the Wildcats a brand-new right side. He’ll be replaced at tackle by senior Chuck Porcelli, who I think is ready for a starting role, but Burkett will be harder to replace: N.U. seems ready to hand right guard to sophomore Jack Konopka, a converted tight end who grew out of a skill position.
Ward’s new for left tackle, and that he missed some time during the spring likely slowed down his development. But in all, the Wildcats’ are set at center, left guard and left tackle. The line’s best is senior left guard Brian Mulroe, who will earn all-Big Ten accolades, and sophomore center Brandon Vitabile will make a nice progression in his second season as a starter. Merely in terms of personnel, what N.U. needs up front is a solid season from Konopka at right guard and perfect health from the starting five. With the lack of proven depth, the Wildcats will be in trouble if one of Ward, Mulroe or Vitabile misses serious time. Looking beyond the personnel, N.U. desperately needs to get more push at the point of attack. Perhaps one of the younger linemen brings a mean streak; if so, perhaps some shuffling would be good for this offense.
Game(s) to watch
Northwestern’s season will be decided by Sept. 16. The year comes down to the first three games: at Syracuse, home for Vanderbilt, home for Boston College. If the Wildcats can sweep, then it’s easy to see this team open with at least five straight wins – and potentially open 7-0. But with a dangerous five-game stretch to end the season, N.U. likely isn’t going to reach bowl eligibility if it opens 1-2 or 0-3. The Wildcats close with Nebraska and Iowa at home, Michigan and Michigan State on the road and Illinois at home. That’s five likely bowl teams, including three teams with realistic B.C.S. aspirations – no, Iowa is not one of those three teams. While it’ll be tough for the Wildcats to notch another upset win over the Cornhuskers, they do need to hold court at home against the rest of the opponents on the schedule.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell It’s easy to see this season spiraling out of control should Northwestern drop three straight games against non-conference competition in September. It’s also easy to see the Wildcats use a 3-0 start as a springboard to 6-1 or 7-0, moving into the Rose Bowl conversation in mid-October before coming back down to Earth in November. Both are possible. In reality, however, N.U. will more likely find some middle ground: the Wildcats won’t burst out of the gate, but neither will they dig themselves into such a hole that reaching another bowl game becomes an impossibility. What I like about this team is its potential for explosiveness on offense, beginning with Colter’s dual-threat ability at quarterback – one thing that separates this offense from any under Fitzgerald – and extending to one of the deepest receiver corps in recent program history. There are also things to like about this defense: Northwestern’s front seven is more athletic than a year ago; end play will improve, especially if the redshirt freshmen can help out on passing downs; and linebackers like Ellis and Proby will be stronger as second-year starters.
If only N.U. could feel secure in its offensive line and secondary. These are going to be issues all season. The secondary won’t come under fire early, as the offenses at Syracuse, Vanderbilt and B.C. won’t provide a stern test. But what’s going to happen when N.U. needs to bring a safety into the box to mirror Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson? Barring an August turnaround, it won’t be pretty. And while the offensive line might benefit from a move towards a more finesse-driven running game, the starting lineup needs solid play from a new-look right side – and can’t afford any major injuries. On paper, this isn’t Fitzgerald’s strongest team. But if the Wildcats start strong, this group could win eight games in the regular season. I don’t think that N.U. opens 3-0, losing one early, but this team is good enough to win seven games.
Dream season Northwestern doesn’t lose until Nebraska. That loss is joined by back-to-back road losses to Michigan and Michigan State, but N.U. rebounds to knock off Illinois in the regular season finale – keeping the Illini out of bowl play in the process. The nine wins would tie a program-best under Fitzgerald.
Nightmare season An 0-3 start cuts this season down in its tracks. While N.U. rebounds to beat South Dakota, Indiana and Minnesota, it finishes with three wins for the first time since 2002.
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 the always-strong Sippin’ On Purple. For some message board action, check out Wildcat Report and Purple Reign.
Northwestern’s all-name nominee LB Chi Chi Ariguzo.
Through 66 teams 254,501.
Who is No. 58? Prior to assuming his current position, the head coach at tomorrow’s program’s last season of college experience came for a team that was named the national champion by the Berryman poll, Football News and the National Championship Foundation.
Tags: Big Ten, Brandon Vitabile, Brian Arnfelt, Brian Mulroe, Chance Carter, Christian Jones, Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi, Demetrius Fields, Deonte Gibson, Evan Watkins, Ibraheim Campbell, Jack Konopka, Kain Colter, Kyle Prater, Mike Hankwitz, Mike Trumpy, Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald, Patrick Ward, Quentin Williams, Quinn Evans, Tim Riley, Treyvon Green, Tyler Scott, Venric Mark
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