This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
After taking Northwestern back to a bowl and a 9-4 season in his third year as head coach, Pat Fitzgerald has watched the Wildcats take small steps backward each of the past three season. Despite having 16 starters returning a season ago, the 2011 Wildcats scuffled to a 6-7 finish and yet another bowl loss (nine in a row).
The offense was pretty consistent and efficient in 2011, racking up about 29 points per game while scoring more than 35 only twice: 42 points against EIU, and 59 points against Indiana. Although the passing numbers were slightly improved thanks to Dan Persa's return, the running game was the real driving force behind the consistent output.
The defense failed the team in the first half of the Big Ten season, though, which is what dropped Northwestern to a 2-5 start. With a road game at Nebraska and a closing game against hot Michigan State left on the schedule, it looked like Fitzgerald would not get his Wildcats to a fourth straight bowl game.
However, on a cold, blustery day in Lincoln, the Wildcats pulled the seemingly annual shocking upset of one of the league's elite teams. When the dust settled on the critical 28-25 upset of the top-10 Huskers, the Wildcats had two straight Big Ten road wins and plenty of momentum to drive the team to a 6-6 finish.
Will Fitzgerald be able to take a young team with a lot fewer starters than 2011 and turn an improvement in 2012? Will the bowl streak continue in Evanston, and will the Wildcats finally win one of those bowls? Let's take a look.
The past two seasons were defined by how much quarterback Dan Persa could stay on the field, as the career passing efficiency leader was the glue that held the Wildcats offense together. After burning a redshirt in 2010, Kain Colter started the first three games of 2011 while Persa continued to recover. However, Colter went back to running and receiving upon Persa's return.
Despite leading the team in rushing and being in the top three for receiving yards, Colter will be back under center in 2012 and probably full-time. Sophomore Trevor Siemian will probably get a serious look in fall camp, but Colter has the experience and the playmaking ability to likely keep the job.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of the 2012 offense was finding out whether the receivers could meet the same level of production with the top two receivers gone and the third-best receiver being Colter, who will now quarterback. The cupboard was looking bare despite having a couple of other receivers, Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones, returning with some starting experience.
However, the NCAA granted junior WR Kyle Prater the right to play this season despite transferring from USC last season. This was a good decision, with Prater basically not participating at all in the Trojans offense despite being the top-rated recruit in his class at the position. Prater will provide this offense with a true deep threat that should draw attention and open passing routes for other receivers.
With Prater, the offense will likely continue to be pass-heavy. Northwestern was led in rushing by Colter a season ago because most of the actual running backs kept getting injured. Mike Trumpy will look to stay healthy during August drills this season, by protecting that ACL that was torn a season ago. True freshman Malin Jones should also see some opportunities, to keep Trumpy fresh.
Most of the returning starters and depth left on the offense is on the line, where the losses to graduation only number two starters and one regular backup. Look for the left side of the line to be particularly strong, with two long-time senior starters in Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward paving the way for the running backs.
With Prater in the mix and a solid line, the offense should not lose much of the production from 2011. This will put the pressure on the opposition to keep up against the Wildcats defense.
Speaking of that defense, Fitzgerald finally seemed to have put together a unit filled with tough and experienced players who could take Northwestern to the next level heading into 2011. Although some injuries hurt on the defensive front, the play on the line and in the backfield did not significantly improve as expected. This turned out to be a huge factor during the five-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
Now the Wildcats are much younger on defense, but perhaps that will be what is necessary to improve back to the better numbers this unit achieved in 2008 and 2009. The unit will be led by the linebackers again, with David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby coming back for another year.
Top recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo will likely see time at linebacker instead of defensive line, although that could change over his college career. Fitzgerald recruited a lot of strong talent along both lines and these players will be ready if the starters cannot improve from the 2010 and 2011 output.
The middle of the defensive line plugs in two new players, likely Brian Arnfelt and Will Hampton. These linemen will need to generate better pressure up the middle so that linebackers are able to drop back a bit and help cover the field against opposing passing games.
Even if the line play improves, the Wildcats will still struggle if opponents continue to find a lot of easy open lanes to pass into. The defensive backfield will be filled with many new faces, but look for Ibraheim Campbell to lead this group from the center in his safety position. As long as the cornerbacks do not miss an assignment, Campell and senior Hunter Bates will be able to eliminate the big plays and the long touchdowns.
It is hard to imagine the defense performing better with so many new faces, but Fitzgerald usually finds a way to make his defenses overachieve. If Northwestern can bring the points allowed per game back below 25, the offense will do enough to let the Wildcats be competitive in most games.
The special teams put together one of the better improvements statistically in recent memory in 2010, going from one of the worst special teams units in the country to 28th-ranked nationally. Part of that resurgence was punter Brandon Williams, who is a junior this year and could further improve on his 40.8 average yards per punt in 2011.
Jeff Budzien also returns for his junior year and his second as starting placekicker. Budzien had limited opportunities last season and only converted six field goals all season, but that will need to improve in order for Northwestern to change some of the losses from a season ago into wins.
Mark Venric handled all the kick returns and punt returns in 2011, and he will likely continue in those roles in 2012. Venric did not have any touchdowns, but he did have some explosive returns of over 40 yards in both kick and punt returning. Similar to the defense, the special teams will need to help carry this team if a winning record is to be achieved in the tough Legends division.
The Wildcats' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—@ Syracuse (win)
9/15—Boston College (loss)
9/22—South Dakota (win)
10/6—@ Penn State (win)
10/13—@ Minnesota (loss)
11/10—@ Michigan (loss)
11/17—@ Michigan State (loss)
Projected record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten
Northwestern is really unfortunate in that the Legends Division is so much stronger than the Leaders Division in 2012. However, missing Wisconsin and Ohio State in cross-divisional play does make the schedule easier than it could be otherwise.
The first seven games are all winnable, and four of the first five are at home. However, a young and inexperienced team is likely to stumble at least once during that opening stretch, which will put the pressure on to win one or more games in the tough final five games to achieve bowl eligibility or a winning season.
Look for the offense to carry the team once more. The team will need to have a great August camp though, with the early wins being critical to building momentum before facing two consecutive road games in the state of Michigan. If Kain Colter and Kyle Prater get a good connection going, there will be some Big Ten defensive backs who will be burned by the Wildcats this season.
Northwestern could win as many as nine games, but missing a bowl is also a possibility. Seems like six or seven wins is the most likely outcome, and I'll call for the same record from a season ago.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!