2012 Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview
The Northwestern Wildcats are an enigmatic football program, caught between the misery of the past and the weight of expectations for their future. One of the most fascinating debates in all of college football is simply this: Is Northwestern an overachieving or underachieving program in its current state?
There's a strong case to be made for either side of the "Northwestern argument." Those who think the program has overachieved under current head coach Pat Fitzgerald would point to the fact that the Wildcats have made bowl games in four straight seasons, an unprecedented feat in the history of the school. Fitzgerald has already led Northwestern to four bowl appearances, thereby surpassing his successor, the late Randy Walker, who reached three bowl games at the school in Evanston, Ill. Moreover, Northwestern acquitted itself well in most of its bowl games under Fitzgerald, failing to win but putting up a good fight against opponents that were favored. NU took Missouri (2008 Alamo Bowl) and Auburn (the Outback Bowl from the 2009 season, played in January of 2010) to overtime before losing. The Wildcats lost to favored Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl the next season but did not get blown off the field as many pundits had feared. It was only last year that Northwestern really fell short in a bowl under its current coaching staff, sleepwalking for two and a half quarters before a late rally made an 11-point loss to Texas A&M appear deceptively close. It's hard to be too critical of a program when it does positive things that haven't been done before. Plenty of programs would love to have Northwestern's problems, to be sure.
The case against Fitzgerald is also a legitimate one, however. First of all, Northwestern went 6-6 last season before losing its bowl game. A break-even record would not have produced a bowl game in prior decades. The presence of 35 bowl games – and 70 teams – has certainly cheapened the value of making a bowl game. Second, while competing admirably, the fact does remain that Northwestern still hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, the program's only postseason victory. Third, Northwestern has blown big leads on several occasions under Fitzgerald, losing a 21-point lead at Penn State and a 17-point lead against Michigan State in 2010, followed by an 18-point lead that went down the drain last year against Illinois. Fourth, head-scratching losses have cropped up far too frequently for NU, which lost to a woeful Purdue squad at home in 2010 and dropped a brain-bender to Army last season. Northwestern is far better than it was in the 1980s, but it is nowhere near where it could be if it could demonstrate more consistency… and if Fitzgerald could make better halftime adjustments. It's not reasonable to expect Northwestern to average 10 wins each season, but it is reasonable to expect the Wildcats to protect large leads and handle inferior opponents without too much trouble.
What will Northwestern achieve this year? Quarterback Kain Colter will have a lot to say about the answer to that question. He's not the same passer than former quarterback Dan Persa was, but Colter can run the ball as well as Persa did, and he might even be a better scrambler. On defense, the Cats need a more imposing pass rush so that they don't get gouged by opposing offenses. Northwestern allowed at least 31 points in seven games last season, a big reason why it wasn't able to compile a better record. Chance Carter is seen as the pass rusher who could transform the identity of Northwestern's defense. He'll have to if this season is going to end with a bowl win… and fewer missed opportunities. Then, Fitzgerald's foremost critics won't be able to find much fault in the evolution of Northwestern football.
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