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Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Six: The Northwestern Wildcats

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Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Six: The Northwestern Wildcats

I don't know how to measure a great coach. I don't know what a coach has to do to be considered "great."

After all, wins are, in a way, relative. For example, if a (football) coach at Indiana or Duke wins eight games a season for five years straight, that coach would have accomplished something momentous.

If a coach did the exact same thing at Ohio State or Florida, that coach would have been fired before he reached his fifth year.

If a coach did the exact same thing at Iowa or Arizona, people would say the coach was "OK," but that a new coach was needed "to bring the team to the next level."

Pat Fitzgerald's overall record as the head coach of Northwestern University is 27-23.

He came into the job unexpectedly, as he was promoted after the unexpected death of Coach Randy Walker . Before assuming the helm at NU, he had worked under Walker as the linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator.

In 2006, his first season as head coach, the Cats went 4-8. In 2007, they went 6-6, though they did not get picked for a bowl.

Over the last two seasons, Northwestern has gone 9-4, and 8-5, respectively. They received bids to play in the the Alamo and Outback Bowls. They lost both bowl games.

Therefore, one is left with the following question: Has Pat Fitzgerald been successful?

Before answering that, consider the following: Northwestern holds the record for the longest losing streak in FBS/Division I football, a distinction they acquired between 1979-1982.

Moreover, the Wildcats haven't won a bowl game since Harry S. Truman was president.

They had a bowl drought of over 40 years, stretching from the 1949 Rose Bowl—their last bowl win—to the 1996 Rose Bowl.

Last season, they had the second lowest-average attendance of all BCS teams (Washington State had the lowest), despite winning eight games.

They are the only private school in the Big Ten, and have the smallest enrollment by far .

The Cats regularly rank at, or near the bottom of Big Ten recruiting rankings . Since 2002, NU has an average ranking of 9.1 out of the 11 teams.

Due to the rigorous academic requirements of Northwestern, it is not only more difficult for recruits to gain acceptance to the school, but it is also more difficult for them to make and maintain their grades.

So, is Pat Fitzgerald a success?

I would say he's a substantial success. Moreover, I would say the fount of his success is his belief in his team, and his investment in them.

Pat Fitzgerald is a Wildcat through and through. He was an All-Big Ten linebacker for them, and much of his coaching career has connections to the Cats.

Win or lose, Pat Fitzgerald wants to be in Evanston . In fact, though I certainly can't speak for Coach Fitzgerald, I'd bet he'd rather be at NU than Ohio State, Michigan, or Notre Dame.

Not many coaches would say that. Perhaps none would say that.

I believe his investment in his team is a motivational factor that he uses consistently to push his team to overachieve.

The question is, can Pat Fitzgerald's genuine enthusiasm for Wildcat football spark his team to reach another bowl game, or a bowl win, or even more?

 

Offense

Northwestern's offensive scheme is simple: spread the field, and dink and dunk their way to the goal line.

They are not a prototypical Big Ten power team. They are not looking to overwhelm anybody with their power and size. They are patient, and they take what they are given.

For this reason, NU, despite having the most passing attempts per game and the highest completion percentage in the Big Ten, had the second lowest yards per passing attempt at 7.0.

The first necessary element of this sort of offense is an efficient, patient quarterback that can hit 5-15 yard passes over and over and over again.

Such a quarterback does not need a huge arm. He is also not required to make a huge amount of post-snap decisions, as many of his plays are based on timing and pre-snap reads, rather than anything that happens after the snap. However, once he decides, he has to be quick and precise.

Last year, Mike Kafka held down this spot, completing almost 65 percent of his passes.

Nevertheless, Kafka has moved on, and will be replaced by junior Dan Persa.

Last season, Persa did get a fair amount of work in after Kafka got injured in the Penn State game. Persa finished the PSU game, and started the Iowa game, though Kafka also played against the Hawkeyes.

In those two games, Persa played admirably. He completed almost 59 percent of his passes for 224 yards. He also ran for 167 yards.

There will be a learning curve for Persa, but he has a substantial upside and plenty of time to learn. In short, don't expect a huge drop-off from Kafka to Persa, especially by the time the Big Ten season rolls around.

The second necessity in the Wildcats' offense are sure-handed receivers who can make plays in traffic.

In this respect, there might be some bumps in the road, as Northwestern's top two receivers from 2009—Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen—have graduated.

All of the rest of the Cats' top receivers are back, but none of them come close to replicating the production of the top two.

On the other hand, the Wildcats' top receiver for three of the past five years has been a senior.

Moreover, it has been a relatively unknown receiver, who has played his best ball in his last season. In other words, I wouldn't be surprised if somebody steps up.

The most likely candidate is senior Sidney Stewart , who had 42 receptions for 470 yards in 2009. Also notable will be junior Jeremy Ebert , who started four games last season, but spent much of the year recovering from hip surgery.

I imagine a lot of "experts" will be surprised when one of these two comes out of nowhere and pulls in All-Big Ten honors.

As I said, Northwestern is not your typical Big Ten team. They don't move the ball via the "big uglies" in the trenches. Nevertheless, NU struggled mightily on the o-line last season.

They let up 31 sacks , which were the second most amongst Big Ten teams. This is particularly surprising given the nature of Northwestern's high-percentage, quick-pass offense.

They were also the conference's fourth-worst team in terms of rushing yards.

All things considered, this had to be expected, as the Wildcats' o-line saw its share of injuries. Moreover, at times, they were starting three sophomores and one freshman.

In 2009, the Cats' started seven different linemen. Two of them have graduated. Moving forward, expect sacks to go down and rushing production to go up.

This brings me to the running backs. As with the o-line, the backfield suffered its share of injuries.

Throughout the year, Northwestern started four different backs. The top producing of those backs was sophomore-to-be Arby Fields and his 302 yards.

Between Fields, senior Stephen Simmons, and juniors Scott Concannon, and Jacob Schmidt, NU should have improved, if not stellar play from the backs.

Overall, Northwestern was seventh in the Big Ten in total offense with 25.2 points per game.

Due to the strength of the conference this year, their place within the league might not advance that much. However, their points per game should see some improvement.

 

Defense

I was admittedly surprised when I saw that Northwestern ranked fifth in Big Ten total defense last season.

Not that I thought of them as defensive slouches, but I never thought of them as dominant in any way.

This is especially true given how much their secondary was decimated by injuries in 2009. Over the season, they started a total of five different cornerbacks and four safeties.

Expect that to pay dividends this year, as NU has built up a wealth of depth, especially in the backfield.

Unfortunately, they will need it, as three Northwestern multi-year starters have graduated from said backfield. Specifically, Sherrick McManus, Brad Phillips, and Brendan Smith are all gone.

Also, up front, Marshall Thomas, Adam Hahn, and most notably, All-Big Ten defensive end, Corey Wootton have graduated.

However, if the spring game is any indication , the line should be a strength for the Wildcats. Fifth-year senior Corbin Bryant has plenty of experience, and juniors Niko Mafuli and Jack DiNardo (yes, this guy's nephew) have had very strong springs.

All of the linebackers return, and four of NU's top five tacklers are back. Most notable amongst the backers is senior Quentin Davie . Due to the graduation of so many of the Big Ten's premier linebackers, I wouldn't be surprised to see Davie garner All-Big Ten consideration.

Those linebackers, as well as the Cats' secondary depth will be extremely valuable; Northwestern is a team that employs a lot of different looks and schemes, and blitzes often out of every single one of them.

For this reason, Northwestern had 12 players with at least one sack , and none with more than five.

Compare this to Iowa and their seven players with a registered sack, and you can see what NU tries to accomplish on defense.

Heading into 2010, I would expect about the same level of play from the Wildcat defense, only this year, maybe they'll get luckier on the health front.

 

Schedule

The scheduling gods were smiling down on Northwestern this season.

The combined 2009 record of their first eight opponents was 41-56.

NU opens with a road game at Vanderbilt. Certainly, road games are always tricky, but Vandy went 2-10 last year. Furthermore, they might do worse next season , and, as of July 14, they are without a coach .

The Cats should handily beat the Commodores. They should also dispose of the remainder of their out-of-conference schedule, which includes Illinois State, a road game at Rice, and a home game against Central Michigan.

They begin their Big Ten schedule with a trip to Minnesota, followed by a home game against Purdue, and then an open date. At that point in the season, it is very realistic to expect the Wildcats to be 6-0.

Their first real test will be a home game against Michigan State followed by two roadies in a row: At Indiana and at Penn State.

They finish playing Iowa at home, Illinois at Wrigley Field, and Wisconsin in Madison.

They miss reigning Big Ten Champion, Ohio State, as well as Michigan.

As I said, heading into the MSU game, Northwestern might be 6-0. Furthermore, the Michigan State game is very winnable.

In effect, they might be unbeaten and ranked when they head into Happy Valley.

If that is or isn't the case, they are unlikely to leave Beaver Stadium with a win.

I would also say they will not beat Wisconsin or Iowa, but as an Iowa fan, I will never say that again . Nevertheless, a Northwestern win in those games does seem unlikely.

Therefore, as the Cats should win their first six, as well as their games against Indiana and Illinois, that gives them eight wins.

How they do in their other four games will determine if they are a product of an easy schedule or a truly good team.

 

Intangibles

Special teams should be an area of great concern for the Wildcats.

In 2010, they were dead last in Big Ten punting , averaging 35 yards a punt.

Much of the problem was that they didn't have a true punter. Instead, their kicker, senior-to-be Stefan Demos, did the punting.

At the close of spring ball, the punting question still had not been settled. However, hopes are that redshirt freshman Brandon Williams will step up as punter.

Meanwhile, Stefan Demos is a quality kicker. In 2009, he went 18/25 on field goals. However, he did have some glaring misses, none of which were more notable than the two field goals and one extra point he missed against Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

If he nailed any of those, the game might have ended differently.

He also blew an extra point in a loss to Syracuse that might have made a difference.

It will be imperative that Demos step up and make the big kicks in 2010.

Also notable are returns. Northwestern ranked eighth in punt returns and tenth in kick returns. Those numbers should improve if running back Stephen Simmons can stay healthy.

Finally, there is the question of the schedule. Will a soft start to the year leave the Cats unprepared to play the better teams later in the season?

It's almost a shame that NU has such a soft start, as the depth that they've built up would serve them well if the schedule were more of a grind.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Playing on the road screws with NU's mojo. They wind up stumbling out of the gate, and lose to either Vanderbilt or Rice. However, they still win their other three OOC games.

The offensive line continues to struggle, which causes Persa to turn the ball over a good deal.

They beat Minnesota and Indiana, but lose to Purdue and Michigan State.

Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin annihilate the Cats, but Northwestern does manage to beat their in-state rival, Illinois.

Final record: 6-6. Bowl destination: Dallas Football Classic vs Big 12 or Conference USA team.

 

Best Case Scenario

Persa and his boys come out swinging. They easily dispatch their OOC schedule, and get the second-stringers plenty of second-half work.

Minnesota doesn't do much better against NU. Purdue proves to be the Cats' stiffest test up to that point, but the Boilers are beaten by at least two touchdowns.

Michigan State's young and inexperienced d-line has trouble with Northwestern's blitz-happy defense, and the Wildcats win by virtue of winning the turnover battle.

They blow Indiana away, and head into Happy Valley ranked in the mid-teens with an 8-0 record.

That is where the ride ends, as Penn State proves too much for the Wildcats. They lose in a close one.

They proceed to lose to Iowa, beat Illinois, and lose to Wisconsin.

At 9-3, they receive a bid to play in the Insight Bowl against a lesser-tier Big 12 team, against whom they win their first bowl game in over 50 years.

 

My Prediction

NU will win their first six, before falling to Michigan State.

They will come back against Indiana for their seventh win, but they will lose to Penn State.

Both Iowa and Wisconsin will avenge their 2009 losses to the Cats, but NU will win in Wrigley Field against the Illini.

Final Record: 8-4.

Northwestern receives a bid to play in the Texas Bowl against a team from the Big 12.

If NU manages an 8-4 record, it would be the first time since 1903-1905 that NU would have at least eight wins for three straight years .

In the end, I think this could be a good Northwestern team, and not simply the beneficiaries of an easy schedule. However, this year, I don't think they're good enough to hang with the best the conference has to offer.

 

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Three: The Indiana Hoosiers

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Four: The Purdue Boilermakers

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Five: The Michigan Wolverines

 

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