2010 Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview
2009 Results: 8-5, Lost Outback Bowl vs. Auburn
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (5th year @ NU, 27-23 Overall)
Home Venue: Ryan Field (47,130), Evanston, Illinois
No team in the country has had more hard luck in bowl games in the last two years than the Northwestern Wildcats. Both times they faced an opponent who was favored by more than a touchdown (Missouri in ’08 and Auburn in ’09) yet they took both opponents into overtime before losing in heartbreaking fashion. However, the fact that we’re talking about Northwestern suffering such disappointment in bowl games is a real testament to Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, the 35 year old former All-American linebacker who has led the Wildcats to three consecutive seasons of bowl eligibility. Northwestern has clearly morphed from a patsy into a legitimately difficult opponent over the course of the last seven years and should continue to contend in a major manner this season. Can Fitzgerald set another school record this season by leading the Wildcats to a 3rd consecutive postseason berth for the first time in school history and claim Northwestern’s first bowl victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl?
Northwestern had a big turnaround on offense last fall, scoring 26 points per game. That was their highest scoring campaign since 2005 and their average output of 404 total yards of offense amounted to a 13 percent increase from 2008! However, the triggerman to the offense was quarterback Mike Kafka and he is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles after being drafted in the 4th round. Can the Wildcats continue their offensive excellence without their star?
Junior Dan Persa (167 rush yards, 224 pass yards 2 TDs, 2 INT in ‘09) will be the starting quarterback this fall and the good news is that he isn’t as inexperienced as his numbers would indicate. He played extensively in Northwestern’s upset of unbeaten Iowa last year and he has great mobility. In many ways, he’s a clone of Kafka and I’m confident he’ll step in and have a strong season running the Wildcat spread attack.
Where he could run into some problems is at wide receiver, since the team’s top two targets from ’09 graduated. While junior Drake Dunsmore (47 catches, 523 yards, 3 TDs) and senior Sidney Stewart (42 catches, 470 yards, 2 TDs) should form a solid tandem, they have huge shoes to fill. Zeke Markhausen led the Big Ten in catches last fall with 91 grabs while Andrew Brewer led the league in touchdown catches, making them the most productive pairing in the conference last year. However, there are still four players returning who registered more than 20 catches last autumn, so Persa should have plenty of options to distribute the football.
Another important aspect of the Wildcat aerial assault is the pass protection abilities of their offensive line. This group is very experienced as there are four returning starters, two of whom will be entering their 3rd season on the front line. This much returning talent is enormous because Northwestern threw more passes last year than any Big Ten team and it should mean that Persa will have plenty of space to make good decisions in his first season starting.
There’s just one very notable omission from this whole pass-happy picture: The running game. Northwestern had the Big Ten’s 8th rated rushing attack last fall and even that number is misleading since Kafka was the team’s 2nd leading rusher! Sophomore Arby Fields (302 yards, 5 TDs) will look to be the team’s #1 tailback for the 2nd straight year after leading the team as a true freshman last fall but this time he needs to actually put together a season worthy of the ‘number one’ moniker. Considering that last year was the worst season on the ground for the Wildcats during Fitzgerald’s tenure, I’m confident that the talented Fields will power an improved running game.
When it comes down to it, Northwestern could actually have an improved offense in 2010, even with some key losses in the passing game. Persa has a similar skill set to Kafka and is just as much (if not more) of a running threat. Meanwhile, the ‘Cats might not have two top tier pass catchers like last season but this is a deeper group that could post similar overall production. Finally, I expect that the running game will be much better with a more experienced group of tailbacks and a veteran line. Expect Northwestern to finish somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten in scoring offense this year.
What has really powered the Wildcats’ jump up the Big Ten ladder in the last two seasons was the performance of the defense. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Fitzgerald’s pedigree as an All-American linebacker, but Northwestern has finished 6th and 4th in the last two seasons, respectively, in the conference in scoring defense! While the ‘Cats have to replace two NFL draft picks and only bring back six starters, there is plenty of reason for confidence this year. Can Fitz’s defense post a 3rd consecutive strong campaign?
However, that draft pick number is skewed by former D-Lineman Corey Wootton, who was a 4th round pick by the Bears. Wootton was never truly healthy last season after tearing his ACL in the bowl game against Missouri and Northwestern’s line never really benefitted from his exceptional talents last year, so there is more experience returning than the numbers would indicate. Senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will enter his 3rd season as a starter this fall and should be an anchor up front. The other returning starter is junior DE Vincent Browne (39 tackles, 5 sacks), who led the team in sacks last fall. He’s widely considered to be a future NFL draft pick and could have a breakout year. Due to Wootton’s injury woes last year, there is a strong possibility that this season’s D-Line will be as just productive as the group that performed well in the trenches in ’09.
What about the position that Fitzgerald himself roamed fifteen years ago? Northwestern’s linebackers are a very experienced group, as seniors Quentin Davie (90 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and Nate Williams (86 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) were the team’s top two tacklers last fall. Furthermore, junior Ben Johnson (28 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) started seven games last year and should fill out a strong group of ‘backers for the Wildcats.
That leaves the secondary as the least experienced portion of the defense. Junior corner Jordan Mabin (75 tackles, 2 INT) is the only returning starter but he will be entering his 3rd season on the first string and will be one of the league’s best defenders. But the rest of the defensive backs aren’t as inexperienced as having one returning starter would indicate. Junior safeties David Arnold (34 tackles, 2 sacks) and Brian Peters (67 tackles, 3 INT) both started five games in ’09 and they should combine to form a good tandem at the back end. As the ‘Cats finished 8th in the Big Ten in pass defense last season, this group could easily take a big step forward this fall.
Overall, Northwestern looks like they’re going to continue their run of solid defensive performances. While they aren’t on par with the elite defenses at Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa or Wisconsin, the Wildcats could easily end up finishing as the best of the rest in the conference. Expect another effective season from Fitzgerald’s defenders.
Northwestern has a dream schedule. While they have to play two non-conference road games this season, they come at SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt and C-USA minnow Rice! With home games against Central Michigan ad D-1AA Illinois State completing their non-league portion, everything sets up perfectly for the Wildcats to have a 4-0 September.
They also get a huge break in Big Ten play, avoiding Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule rotation! On top of that, games at Minnesota and home versus Purdue round out the first half of the schedule, leaving the possibility of a 6-0 record heading into a mid-season off week. But 2nd half schedule will be very difficult, as they face Michigan State and Iowa at home while traveling to Penn State, Wisconsin and Indiana!
Finally, the rivalry showdown against Illinois will take place on the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field, the first time a football game will be played at the home of the Chicago Cubs since the 1970s! Expect a nationally televised game that should capture the attention of the nation. Overall, the schedule has a tough 2nd half slate but Northwestern really couldn’t ask for a more favorable schedule in and outside of Big Ten play.
Many people discount the Wildcats because of their less than illustrious history but I’m not one of them. Fitzgerald has built this team into a consistent mid-level Big Ten squad that has the ability to play with the league’s traditional powerhouses. This fall, Northwestern should be more balanced on offense thanks to an improved running game. With an easy transition at quarterback due to the similar styles of play between departed starter Mike Kafka and new signal caller Dan Persa, I’m confident that the ‘Cats will put up more points on the scoreboard.
The defense should also be an improved unit. The D-Line should be stout, the linebackers are one of the most experienced groups in the conference and the defensive backs are going to surprise a lot of people. Expect another strong showing from the Purple Gang.
Combine their quality talent level with an extremely favorable schedule and there is no way that this team misses out on the postseason. The only ‘tough’ game outside of conference play comes on opening day at lowly Vanderbilt and Northwestern will be heavily favored in that contest. A 4-0 September is a very strong possibility and I believe that the Wildcats will be 6-0 heading into a mid-year off week. Unfortunately, they’re going to have a lot of trouble with a difficult 2nd half schedule and that will prevent them from making a darkhorse run at the Big Ten title. However, I think that they’ll match last year’s eight win total and head into postseason play with a great chance to win their first bowl game in over sixty years. The Northwestern Wildcats are my choice to finish 6th in the Big Ten Conference in 2010.
PREDICTED RESULT: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten)
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