Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Northwestern
For Notre Dame fans over the age of 25, the mere mention of Northwestern is likely to awaken past demons that they have been attempting to bury since 1995.
It had been 47 years since the Wildcats had been to a bowl game, but in the 1995 season opener, Northwestern launched a miraculous run to the Rose Bowl with a 17-15 upset of the Fighting Irish in South Bend.
One of the stars of that Northwestern team was Butkus Award-winning linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, now entering his ninth year as the head coach at his alma mater. Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats to five straight bowls from 2008-2012, but after a 4-0 start last season, Northwestern dropped seven straight en route to its first losing season in seven years.
Notre Dame and Northwestern have not meant since that fateful day 19 years ago. That will change on Nov. 15 when the Wildcats return to Notre Dame Stadium. Fitzgerald has a veteran team that is hungry to prove last year’s two-month meltdown was no more than a fluke.
Northwestern kicked off spring practice Wednesday. Let’s take an early look at the 2014 Wildcats.
Date: Nov. 15 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: Northwestern 17, Notre Dame 15 (1995)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Northwestern 17, Notre Dame 15 (1995)
Current Win Streak: Northwestern – 1
Record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Leading Passer: Trevor Siemian (Jr.)—177-of-296, 2,143 yards, 11 TD, 9 INT
Leading Rusher: Treyvon Green (Jr.)—138 carries, 736 yards, 8 TD
Leading Receiver: Christian Jones (Jr.)—54 receptions, 668 yards, 4 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Northwestern—5.73 (62nd nationally, seventh in Big Ten); Opponents—5.38 (47th nationally, sixth in Big Ten)
Turnover Margin: +3 (41st nationally, fourth in Big Ten)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Northwestern—52.17 percent (104th nationally, 11th in Big Ten); Opponents—56.55 percent (37th nationally, sixth in Big Ten)
Third-Down Conversions: Northwestern—39.89 percent (64th nationally, eighth in Big Ten); Opponents—40.11 percent (69th nationally, ninth in Big Ten)
Explosive Plays: Northwestern—48 (95th nationally, ninth in Big Ten); Opponents—48 (26th nationally, fourth in Big Ten)
Northwestern has been primarily a spread team for the last 15 years, helping counter the size and athleticism disadvantage it often faces in the Big Ten. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Fitzgerald went to the multi-quarterback system.
The approach worked beautifully in 2012, as the Wildcats won 10 games for the first time ever and snapped a 64-year streak without a bowl win.
Despite having both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian returning, the promise of the 2013 season quickly eroded. Now Colter, the more mobile of the two, departs, leaving Siemian, the better passer.
Colter’s versatility helped mask many of the team’s weaknesses for the past three seasons. The same can’t be said for Siemian.
The Wildcats allowed 35 sacks last season, most coming against Siemian. The senior was most effective in the quick passing game, but has the arm strength to push the ball downfield, certainly far more than Colter could. He’ll have almost the entire 2013 starting offense back, so if Siemian can stay upright, his last season should be his best.
If there’s one player on whom you can pin Northwestern’s 2013 struggles, it’s running back Venric Mark.
The senior missed all but three games, depriving the Wildcats' offense of its most potent and versatile weapon. For the season, Mark finished with only 97 yards, almost 1,300 yards fewer than his 2012 total.
Mark was awarded a medical redshirt for last year, and the Wildcats need him to return to 2012 form without Colter. Treyvon Green was the beneficiary of Mark’s absence, as his junior season resulted in 733 yards and eight touchdowns. At 215 pounds, Green is more of a traditional back who can move the ball between the tackles.
After going over 200 yards on the ground in each of the four games (without Mark), the Wildcats had three straight games with fewer than 100 yards. The schedule lightens this season in the Big Ten West, so if Mark can stay healthy for a full season (he won’t participate in spring practice), this unit should be much improved.
Through the years, Northwestern has turned little-known wide receivers into stars. From D’Wayne Bates in the '90s to Sam Simmons in the '00s and the recently-departed Jeremy Ebert, the Wildcats always seem to have one playmaker that gives opposing defenses fits.
This year, defenses will have to keep up with the Jones’, as seniors Christian and Tony Jones lead an experienced receiving corps.
The duo’s 2013 statistics were about as similar as their names—Tony held a narrow 55-54 edge in receptions, while Christian won the yardage battle, 668-630. Each caught four touchdowns.
Junior Cameron Dickerson had 11 catches a year ago and should take over the Z receiver role vacated by Rashad Lawrence. Dan Vitale returns as the hybrid H-back/tight end. The 220-pound junior had 34 catches in 2013 and went over 100 yards for the first time in the season opener against California.
With the loss of three starters from the 2012 team that won the Gator Bowl, the offensive line was a major question mark heading into last season.
The unit stayed relatively healthy, with only three different combinations of starters, but was over-matched physically against the league’s toughest schedule.
While lumps were taken, the Wildcats now have three second-year starters and two third-year starters returning. The guard positions are not set in stone, but both positions have multiple players with starting experience competing to join senior tackles Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen and senior center Brandon Vitabile.
As is usually the case with Northwestern, this is an undersized unit who can get worn down physically. Only Vitabile played last season at 300 pounds.
Success is feasible if the spread is working the way it should, but take Colter and Mark out of the picture, and the group’s major flaw is greatly exposed. Hence, a 5-7 record.
When the Big Ten unveiled its all-conference teams last season, it took quite a bit of perusing before any Wildcats were found.
The only non-specialist to make either a first or second team was defensive end Tyler Scott. The senior’s six sacks led the team, and Scott finished his career with 16.
The pass-rushing burden now falls on sophomore Ifeani Odenigbo, a third-year sophomore who Notre Dame had interest in as a recruit. Odenigbo is on the small side for a defensive end at 235 pounds, but played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman and recorded 5.5 sacks.
Scott is the only loss among the 2013 starting unit. Junior Dean Lowry returns at the other end position along with senior tackles Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly.
Despite plenty of experience, injuries will limit this unit in the spring, as McEvilly, Odenigbo and end Deonte Gibson all will not participate. McEvilly is still recovering from a foot injury that cost him much of last season.
Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps also loses only a single starter. That loss is a big one, however, as 32-game starting middle linebacker Damien Proby departs.
Proby was a model of consistency the past two seasons, finishing with 112 and 111 tackles in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Both outside linebackers return in Chi Chi Ariguzo on the weak side and Collin Ellis on the strong side. Ariguzo started two games in 2011 and has been a mainstay at weak-side linebacker since then. The senior was second on the team in tackles last season and also recorded a pair of interceptions.
Who takes over for Proby is the biggest defensive question this spring. Sophomore Jaylen Prater played in a handful of games last season, but has a ways to go to be able to fill Proby’s shoes. If you’re only as strong as your weakest link, this unit could be down a bit from last year despite being solid on the outside.
While there are some key question marks in the front seven, the Wildcats secondary is quite stable. There will be some battles for starting roles, but that’s good problem in the case of Northwestern.
The 'Cats welcome back two players with at least 20 starts, two others with at least 10 and two other part-time starters from 2013.
Junior Nick VanHoose has made 22 starts at cornerback in his first two seasons, tying the team lead for interceptions in 2012 with three. Daniel Jones missed all but the opener last year after suffering a knee injury. He’s out until the summer, when he’ll battle sophomores Matthew Harris and Dwight White.
Both safeties return. Senior Ibraheim Campbell, a Freshman All-American in 2011, has started 37 games for the Wildcats. He had four interceptions as a junior, one in each of the first three games. Junior Traevon Henry was third on the team in tackles with 77, an impressive accomplishment for a free safety.
This is one of the Big Ten’s best secondaries.
If special teams really are a third of the game (they’re not), then the Wildcats could be in trouble. Two-time All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien departs after converting 42 of 45 attempts in 2012 and 2013. Hunter Niswanger, who is 6’5”, is in line to be Budzien’s successor.
Niswanger’s duties may not be limited to just placekicking. Four-year starting punter Brandon Williams is gone after 235 punts over the past four seasons. Junior Chris Gradone had four punts last season, but Niswanger could also be the answer here.
The return game missed literally missed the Mark last year. With Mark out for most of 2013, Harris handled kick returns, averaging just 23 yards per return. The Wildcats returned just nine punts last season, all by Tony Jones. His 7.11 average per return was less than half of Mark’s average in 2012.
When the October chill began to sweep through the Midwest in 2013, it blew away the hopes for another double-digit win season for Northwestern. The Wildcats never recovered from letting a landmark win over Ohio State slip through their fingers in the Big Ten opener.
With no bowl trip, Northwestern has had a long winter to stew over the 5-7 disappointment. There may be as few as three positions that don’t have starting experience when all the chips fall into place come August, but as always, Northwestern’s chronic depth concerns mean staying healthy is a must.
Against opponents that none of Notre Dame’s players had played against previously, Brian Kelly is 10-4.
The line of scrimmage should be a mismatch, and the Irish have fared better against pocket passers like Siemian than dual-threat players like Colter.
While Irish fans will likely grow tired of hearing about 1995 come the second week of November, when the game ends, it’s unlikely they’ll feel as deflated as they did on that September Saturday 18 years ago.