2012 Record: 10-3 (5-3 in B1G)
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39 at Northwestern, 26-30 in B1G)
Four Year Trend: 7.75 wins and 5.25 losses
Last Bowl Game: 2012 Gator Bowl: beat Mississippi State 34-20
Stadium: Ryan Field in Evanston, IL (capacity = 49,256)
Home Field Advantage: ranked 39th out of 69 BCS teams
Out of Conference: 8/31 at Cal, 9/7 vs Syracuse, 9/14 vs WMU, 9/21 vs Maine
Toughest Conference Home Games: 10/5 vs Ohio St, 11/16 vs Michigan, 11/23 vs Michigan St
Toughest Conference Road Games: 10/12 at Wisconsin, 11/2 at Nebraska
Stat to Fear: gave up 190 plays of 10 or more yards (10th in B1G)
Stats to Cheer: +1.08 turnover margin (1st in B1G), converted on 45.92% of third downs (2nd in B1G)
Advanced Stats (Football Outsiders 2012 FEI Ranking): 21st out of 124 teams
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7, Special Teams: 2
Key Defensive Returnees: DE Tyler Scott (9 sacks, 12.5 TFL, 42 tackles), , LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (91 tackles, 10.5 TFL), LB Damien Proby (112 tackles), S Ibraheim Campbell (88 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: ATH Kain Colter (8 pass TD, 12 rush TD, 872 yds pass, 891 yds rush, 16 rec), RB Venric Mark (1366 yds rush, 6.04 ypc, 12 TD), QB Trevor Siemian (1312 yds pass, 6 TD, 3 INT), C Brandon Vitablie
In 2011, I was expecting the Wildcats to challenge for the "Legends" division crown. They finished a disappointing 6-7. In 2012, I adjusted my expectations and of course Northwestern had their best year under Pat Fitzgerald. This year, Northwestern has a lot of reasons to be optimistic but they also have a very challenging schedule.
On offense Northwestern returns their two-headed QB (Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter), their 1300+ yard rusher (Venric Mark) and their top three leading receivers off a team that finished with the third highest scoring offense in the B1G. According to Phil Steele, they only return 40 offensive line starts (which is 105th in the Nation and last in the B1G) so that could be a concern. This was a team that was very balanced last season in terms of production (2932 rush yards vs 2198 pass yards) but Fitzgerald likes to run the ball more when he has a productive runner (595 rush attempts vs 369 pass attempts). Whether or not the OL gels will play a big part in Fitzgerald being able to dictate tempo with his offense.
A big reason for Northwestern's improvement last season was their defense. They held opponents to 5.2 less points per game, improved on third downs (from 50% to 40.64%) and they improved in the red zone (from 85.71% opponent success rate to 79.59% and from 63.27% opponent TD rate to 55.10%). Another area of improvement was in giving up the big play as they allowed 64 plays over 20 yards in 2011 and decreased that to 45 in 2012 (although they did give up a lot of plays over 10 yards they were not as damaging as they were in 2011). Out of their top ten tacklers, four were seniors. Leading sacker, DE Tyler Scott, returns and he really blossomed last year improving from just one sack in 2011 to nine in 2012. They lose two of their top players on the line but they are deep at these positions. At LB, David Nwabuisi is a big loss but they return Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo so they have a chance to be just as good in 2012. Defensive Back is another area where there are some losses but they also return some key players. Overall, this unit looks like it should be able to continue the success they had last season.
In my mind, this season comes down to the schedule and it's a tough one. The opener will be especially interesting as the Wildcats travel to Cal to face Sonny Dykes and his newly installed offense. Will the Golden Bears be ready for Northwestern in week one? Then they face a tough Syracuse team that will also be breaking in a new head coach. The conference schedule is not Pat Fitzgerald's friend. Over the last few years, the Wildcats have avoided the best teams in the "Leaders" division but not this year. This year they get Ohio State and Wisconsin and they get them right out of the gate (at least in terms of conference play). Add this to the inner-division match-ups with Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska and this is a very tough schedule. I like this Northwestern squad and think they can challenge for the Legends division title but it will be an uphill battle and a lot of things will have to go their way (and against their division foes). Getting off to a quick 4-0 start out of conference and then knocking off Ohio State or Wisconsin will be a key. If they can do that then we will know they are in store for a big year.
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