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2013 Pre-Season Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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 

Schedule Glimpse:

2013 Schedule Link

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

 

Statistical Snapshot:

2012 Statistics Link

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

 

Personnel:

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

 
 
 
Inside Scoop with Philip Rossman-Reich of Lake the Posts:
 
CFBZ: Northwestern is coming off of a 10-3 season which is the best season of the Pat Fitzgerald era. What were the big reasons for the turnaround last year after three straight seasons of declining win totals?
 
Lake the Posts: Continuity helped. Northwestern had a lot of guys returning who remembered the struggles of the 2011 season and the disappointment that season came to represent. All the promise of Dan Persa's senior year and the struggles for the team to find any rhythm or defend the pass. It was an overall disappointing season.
 
That hunger to make up for that disappointment really drove the team throughout the offseason and things just seemed to click. A lot of players stepped up. Tyler Scott and David Nwabuisi led the defensive line and linebackers and turned them into one of the best run defenses in the country. Northwestern got a huge boost from Venric Mark stepping into that bell-cow running back role Pat Fitzgerald has desperately searched for. 
 
It really all just came together and Fitzgerald did a great job motivating those who suffered through the disappointments in 2010 and 2011 to do something really special in 2012. They certainly reaped the rewards.

 
 
CFBZ: Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter split time at QB last season. Will there be a similar arrangement this season?
 
Lake the Posts: The Siemian/Colter two-headed monster will definitely continue this year. Both bring such different skills and abilities to the game, it really made no sense not to have both on the field at points throughout the game.
 
There definitely was an adjustment period to it last year from both the quarterbacks and the coaching staff. They would take Colter out when he was in rhythm and the offense would sputter. Or Siemian would focus in on throwing the ball to Colter when Colter lined up at wide receiver. Everyone was figuring out how to make it work. When it worked though, it was very effective.
 
Ultimately, you would like to see one guy get the ball. But that is more of an issue in keeping guys in rhythm. If Siemian is completing a ton of passes in a row and is keeping the offense moving, he should stay in. I think it can work again this year and the coaching staff will have a better feel for it.
 
 
CFBZ: What games do the Northwestern fans have circled on their calendar this year?
 
Lake the Posts: October 5 vs. Ohio State at 7 p.m. CT. No home game in recent memory has the potential that this one appears to have. In all likelihood, the Wildcats will be 4-0 and ready to open the Big Ten against the conference favorite. The Buckeyes will be coming off a night game against the Badgers the week before, I believe, but everyone suspects they will be 5-0.
 
That means everyone is expecting this to be a matchup of undefeated teams at Ryan Field at night on ABC. We are beginning to get excited at the prospect of College GameDay being at Northwestern. For a team and a program looking to make big marketing inroads, that is a huge opportunity.

 
 
CFBZ: What will make the 2013 season a success in your eyes?
 
Lake the Posts: The 2013 season will be a success if Northwestern competes for the Legends Division crown and a spot in Indianapolis. Another bowl berth is expected at this point. And back-to-back bowl wins would affirm the progress this program has made. Northwestern's goal should be winning the Big Ten, and this is a team capable of doing that.
 

Verdict:

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.

Prediction: 8-4

 

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Kevin Causey

About Kevin Causey

dry humorist, beer snob, occasionally unbiased SEC fan, UGA alumni, contributor for The Student Section and founder of College Football Zealots

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