• 2012 finish: The Wildcats finished 10-3 in ’12 with a 5-3 record and third place in the Big Ten’s Legends Division.
• Returning offensive starters (8): QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Rashad Lawrence, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile (OL), LT Jack Konopka
• Projected starting offense: QB Kain Colter (6-0, 190, Sr.); RB Venric Mark (5-8, 175, Sr.); WR Tony Jones (6-0, 185, Jr.); WR Rashad Lawrence (6-2, 185, Sr.); WR Christian Jones (6-3, 225, Jr.); SB Dan Vitale (6-2, 220, So.); LT Jack Konopka (6-5, 285, Jr.); LG Geoff Mogus (6-5, 280, So.); C Brandon Vitabile (6-3, 300, Jr.); RG Ian Park (6-4, 295, #Fr.); RT Paul Jorgensen (6-6, 295, Jr.)
• Returning defensive starters (7): DE Tyler Scott, DT Sean McEvilly, WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo, MLB Damien Proby, CB Nick VanHoose, CB Daniel Jones, SS Ibraheim Campbell
• Projected starting defense: DE Tyler Scott (6-4, 265, Sr.); DT Chance Carter (6-3, 270, Jr.); DT Sean McEvilly (6-5, 275, Jr.); DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (6-3, 220, #Fr.); WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo (6-3, 220, Jr.); MLB Damien Proby (6-0, 235, Sr.); SLB Collin Ellis (6-2, 225, Jr.); CB Nick VanHoose (6-0, 185, So.); SS Ibraheim Campbell (5-11, 205, Jr.); FS Traveon Henry (6-1, 200, So.); CB Daniel Jones (5-11, 170, Jr.)
• Returning specialists (2): P Brandon Williams (6-2, 185, Sr.), K Jeff Budzien (5-11, 165, Sr.)
• Key losses: WR Demetrius Fields, RG Neil Deiters, LG Brian Mulroe, LT Patrick Ward, DE Quentin Williams, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi
• Top 5 additions: QB Matt Alviti (6-0, 185); RB Godwin Igwebuike (6-0, 190); DL Tyler Lancaster (6-3, 275); RB Keith Watkins (5-11, 170); OL Brad North (6-2, 280)
• 2012 review: Forever the motivator, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald pasted “5:03″ on the backs of his players’ practice jerseys this spring. No, that wasn’t dinner time nor was it a Bible verse. By Fitzgerald’s calculations, that was the amount of time that stood between the Wildcats and an undefeated 2012 season. “We were 5 minutes and 3 seconds away from being undefeated,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s an incredible motivator.”
For now, before the Cats have anything to do about it in ’13, the 5:03 will remain an unreachable itch. Penn State lurched ahead of NU with 2:37 to play. Nebraska pulled ahead with 2:08. Michigan started its game-tying drive with 18 seconds left. The consolation prize ended up being a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, notching the Cats’ first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. (That win also gave Fitzgerald his 50th victory, making him the career wins leader at NU.)
RB Venric Mark finished with 2,166 total yards, just 29 shy of Damien Anderson’s single-season school record of 2,195 set in 2000. QB Kain Colter rushed and threw for 20 TDs. He also caught 16 passes, sixth on the team. DE Tyler Scott had two sacks in the Gator Bowl and has 10 career sacks going into this season, tying him for ninth all-time at Northwestern.
A huge part of NU’s success was turnover margin. The Cats finished plus-14, 11th in the country. They also put points on the scoreboard, averaging 31.7 points a game, NU’s highest in the last six seasons.
• 2013 schedule: A31 — at California; S7 — Syracuse; S14 — Western Michigan; S21 — Maine; S28 — off week; O5 — Ohio State; O12 — at Wisconsin; O19 — Minnesota; O26 — at Iowa (time, TV TBA); N2 — at Nebraska; N9 — off week; N16 — Michigan; N23 — Michigan State; N30 — at Illinois
• Key stretch: Northwestern is a team that has its sights set on the top of the Legends Division. That makes the first four weeks of November the big deal for the Cats. NU finishes October with Iowa, but then begins November at Nebraska. NU QB Kain Colter, who’ll split time with Trevor Siemian, showed the B1G what was to come while leading the Cats to an upset victory over the No. 10 Huskers at Lincoln in 2011. Last season, the Huskers caught and passed the Cats in the fourth quarter at Ryan Field. Here’s the rubber match, at least in games that will involve Colter.
Then, the Cats get a week off before finishing with Michigan, Michigan State and at Illinois. Northwestern collapsed at Michigan last season, allowing a field goal with two seconds left. The Cats closed the deal against Michigan State, holding on for a 23-20 victory while forcing four turnovers. All four of the favorites in the Legends will touch base from Nov. 2 to Nov. 23.
• Trap game: Let’s go with Minnesota. In the Big Ten schedule shift, Northwestern picks up Ohio State and Wisconsin this year. On Oct. 5, the Cats play host to Ohio State, QB Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer, who’ll replace MSU’s Mark Dantonio as the Darth Vader around these parts very, very soon. Then, NU travels the 90-some minutes to Madison for a date with Wisconsin and new coach Gary Andersen. And then it’s Minnesota before traveling to Iowa City and Lincoln. Minnesota has lost three straight to Northwestern. If UM coach Jerry Kill is really going to get the Gophers off the ground, they’ll need to win games against Division favorites. This year, Northwestern is a fitting target in that regard.
• Glass half-full: There are a lot of great quarterbacks in the league this season, from Michigan’s Devin Gardner to Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez. Colter probably isn’t enough of a passer to get into that race. He had just 150 attempts last season compared to 254 for Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Where Colter matters is big plays. He finished third in the conference (behind leader UW RB Montee Ball and Miller) last season with 43 plays of 10-plus yards. No, Colter doesn’t pass much, but when he does, it’s with purpose. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes last season. He’ll still split time with Trevor Siemian (the “thrower,” with 217 attempts and more than 1,300 yards last season), but Colter is right there with Miller as far as impact goes. Pair Colter with speedy running back Venric Mark. So, Mark is just 175 pounds, he averaged 6.0 yards on 226 carries last season. He finished right behind Colter in fourth place in the Big Ten with 40 plays of 10-plus yards. DE Tyler Scott is a high-caliber pass rusher, tying for the B1G lead with nine sacks last season. The 6-4, 265-pounder will provide pass rush, while an experience linebacker corps — led by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby — will try to top last season’s 22.5 points allowed per game, NU’s best since 2008.
• Glass half-empty: Why bother changing QBs? Siemian must have superior arm strength. As far as the numbers go, Siemian had a 6.0 yards per attempt compared to 5.8 for Colter, who was the more accurate passer. Siemian’s value comes in stretching defenses, but Colter does that just as well with his feet. Fitzgerald is smart enough to go with what works, but could that keep the Cats from developing an identity on offense? NU also replaces three O-linemen, including both guards. Defensively, the Cats are veteran in the back seven, returning three of four starters, including SS Ibraheim Campbell, in the secondary. Big Ten Division titles are decided up front. After Scott, the Cats lack optimum size (tackles Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly are 270 and 275, respectively) and have redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo penciled in at the other end. Of the Legends contenders, the Cats are the only one that draws Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Cats did a ton of damage with turnovers last season. That’s the product of a pass rush and an experienced secondary, so there’s a good chance NU could enjoy a plus turnover margin again, but it’s hard to count on that. Also, NU didn’t close the deal in the fourth quarter last season. That’s not something that just happens.
• The Iowa angle: The Big Ten can’t have Iowa and Northwestern “elite” good at the same time. At least it seems to work that way. You probably could throw Wisconsin and Michigan State in there, too, except for the fact that UW and MSU met in the first B1G title game. Talent cycles in and out. Ohio State and Michigan haven’t had straight lines to first place (pretty darn close, however, for the Buckeyes). The notion that Northwestern is an easy win probably has dissipated for most of you. Yes, Iowa once beat NU 21 straight times. Those days clearly are over. Kirk Ferentz is 5-7 against Northwestern and just 2-5 against Fitzgerald. When the Golden Nugget released its early lines this month, the Wildcats were a 12-point favorite for the Oct. 26 game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has some catching up to do, plain and simple.
Quotable: “We’re focused. We all want our goal more than we want to go out there and party and live college life. We want to go out there and win the Big Ten championship. You know, we’re going to have fun. We’re going to be college students. But when it comes down to business, we’re a business-type team. We don’t take things for granted. When it comes time to work, we work.” — Northwestern QB Kain Colter, on his team’s focus at the end of spring.
|Passing Yards:||T. Siemian||1312|
|Passing TDs:||K. Colter||8|
|Rushing Yards:||V. Mark||1366|
|Rushing TDs:||K. Colter||12|
|Receiving Yards:||C. Jones||412|
|Receiving TDs:||T. Jones||4|
|Offense (FBS Rank)|
|Passing Yards:||2198 (107)|
|Rushing Yards:||2932 (17)|
|Points per game:||31.7 (42)|
|Yards per game:||394.6 (63)|
|Field Goals:||20 (17)|
|Defense (FBS Rank)|
|Passing Yards:||3257 (98)|
|Rushing Yards:||1659 (24)|
|Points per game:||22.5 (29)|
|Yards per game:||378.2 (47)|
|Field Goals:||15 (70)|