Part V previewing the Big Ten and beginning with the Legends Division moves us back to the Midwest in Evanston, Illinois; where a team is waiting in the wings to finally become a legitimate conference title contender in 2011.
While the football team hasn't had nearly as much success as the Wildcats women's lacrosse team, the guys out on the gridiron are beginning to make a name for themselves not only in the Big Ten, but in the Midwest.
Let's face it, Northwestern hasn't been relevant in competing for a Big Ten title since Darnell Autry was pounding tacklers into the turf, leading the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl since 1949.
That team had Pat Fitzgerald leading the middle of the defense, while this year's team will have Pat Fitzgerald leading from the sidelines. The former Wildcats linebacker is beginning to put the Big Ten on notice that his team is planning on a breakout season for 2011.
Looking Back: 2010
"The Cardiac Cats"—Northwestern lived up to that nickname last year, as eight of its 13 games were decided by eight points or fewer. While the 'Cats shot out of a cannon in 2010 winning their first five games, the end of the season was less than impressive.
After the win at Minnesota by just one measly point, the Wildcats came home to a battle under the lights versus a depleted Purdue team that took to them. The loss to the Boilermakers rolled over into a choke-fest against previously unbeaten Michigan State and another head-scratcher against Penn State, which saw Northwestern's 21-0 lead evaporate to a 35-21 win for the Nittany Lions.
Northwestern rebounded to win a tight one against Iowa, but the damage was done as the 'Cats struggled to a 7-6 finish to the season. The stats tell the story: Northwestern was a pretty average team last year.
The offense failed to tally big-time points in the conference, even while Dan Persa showed himself to be one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.
The rushing game was missing a big name to tote the pigskin, and the defense gave up way too many yards and points in big games.
That leaves the door open for improvement going into 2011, where expectations are the highest since Coach Fitz's arrival. Northwestern is usually better suited to operate as an underdog, but this year it'll have the target on its back with the talent returning.
What Lies Ahead: 2011
Returning Starters: Nine Offense, Seven Defense, Two Specialists
Next season brings back a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, with the big name being at QB. I know I can speak for the rest of the Big Ten in saying that we are tired of seeing the same QB playing at Northwestern. It doesn't matter if it's Zak Kustok, Brett Basanez, C.J. Bacher or Mike Kafka—they all seem to blend into the same QB every year.
Pardon my rant there, but the new season coming up will showcase talent at skill positions and the quest to replacing starters that made a namesake on defense.
Last year, the defense had problems stopping both the run and the pass, and this year the Wildcats will need to improve their 10th-best total defense in the Big Ten to have a chance to win the Legends Division.
Fitzgerald will need to work some magic on defense with the offense comfortable where it is currently. Also, the non-conference schedule finally has a decent game to begin the 2011 season, which means Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have to work out the issues quickly.
It's back to the Northwestern of old in 2011, as Dan Persa-Kafka-Bacher-Basanez (like I said, they all blend together) continues to recover from his Achilles' injury that derailed his impressive run in 2010.
Evan Watkins came in and performed admirably in his absence, but Kafka is the man when it comes to starting behind center in Evanston.
The quarterback position isn't the worry spot going into next season—it's the guy that lines up right next to the signal-caller.
The rushing game was more miss than it was hit, and needs to develop a No. 1 guy that has confidence running the football. Sophomore Mike Trumpy will more than likely get the nod as the No. 1 back, as he was the only true tailback that rushed for over 100 yards in a game last season.
Adonis Smith and Jacob Schmidt are the two others that will fight for the position, with the loss of Arby Fields putting a decent dent in the depth of the running backs. It's a deep backfield, but the position still lacks a feature back that can carry this rushing attack.
The receiving corps will welcome back leading pass-catcher Jeremy Ebert, who broke onto the scene last year as the No. 1 receiver in the Big Ten, catching 62 balls for 953 yards and eight TDs.
The loss of No. 2 receiver Sidney Stewart will leave a hole to be filled, but sophomore Rashad Lawrence is next in line to take over that position. Demetrius Fields will slide over to the slot back position, while "Mr. Reliable" Drake Dunsmore is back for his final year in Evanston as well.
The O-line was a huge disappointment last season after being tattered to pieces in 2009. You would think after two years ago they could only get better, but the Northwestern offensive line for some reason stayed below average.
That will need to change immediately if Northwestern wants to be effective on the ground for next year. There's plenty of experience that's back on the O-line, with four starters returning up front. But there's still that uneasy feeling that the line will continue to revert to its old self.
Tackles Al Netter and Patrick Ward are by far the best of the five big uglies, and they'll need to do a much better job than a year ago in protecting Persa's blind side and giving him time to throw in the pocket.
Guard Brian Mulroe returns as starter, while senior Doug Bartels is slated to finish up his campaign in Evanston as the starter opposite of Mulroe. Center Ben Burkett was reliable last season, and will also get the nod anchoring the offensive line.
The offensive line will need to improve by leaps and bounds compared to last season, where they gave up a Big Ten-worst 40 sacks, and ranked just sixth best in the conference in rushing offense.
There's room to improve up front, and if the buffet busters can get their act together, this offense will be raised to new heights with the skill position players on the outside and the dual-threat ability of Dan Persa.
Where do I begin with the defense? Well for one, second-leading tackler Nate Williams has graduated. Experienced and quick linebacker Quentin Davie has graduated, cover corner Justan Vaughn has exceeded his eligibility and DT Corbin Bryant is moving on as well.
Those are four pretty big names that are leaving the Wildcats defense in a position where replacements will have to step up in a big way.
The D-line will be led by senior defensive end Vince Browne, who returns as the second-leading sack master in the Big Ten. Browne is a unique blend of size and speed, much like former Wildcat Corey Wootton. Granted, Wootton is a bit taller than Browne, he's a guy that can disrupt plays in the backfield and at the line with his long reach.
Alongside Browne is senior DT Jack DiNardo, who helped put up good numbers in tackles last year and will be looked upon to improve his play in the middle. Kevin Watt is the other defensive end starter, with the open DT spot left by Corbin Bryant as Brian Arnfelt's to lose.
While the D-line did a decent job at getting after the QB, don't be surprised if Fitz changes things up at the end positions if he doesn't get the production he desires from Watt or Browne. Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams are two others that are capable of coming in and putting up big numbers as well.
The linebacking corps is the area of most concern, filling the holes left by Davie and Williams. The lone returnee is senior Bryce McNaul, who ended the 2010 season sixth on the team in tackles and will have to increase that number for next year.
As for the two other open spots, it's pretty much a toss-up as to who takes over in the middle and the other outside spot. The middle will more than likely go with experience and start David Nwabuisi, who's been champing at the bit to finally get the start at MLB. Next to him on the outside is literally anyone's best guess.
Ben Johnson could get the nod as a returning senior, while Damien Proby has experience returning as a sophomore. Roderick Goodlow is another who will throw his hat into the competition, as he comes off a torn ACL last year. If I was pressured to take one, I'd go with the senior Johnson. He's more suited to play on the outside anyway, but by the end of the year Goodlow could be starting.
The secondary has two big names back that will anchor a defense, which will need to help the linebackers along in 2011. Northwestern's leader in tackles and interceptions returns at strong safety. Brian Peters was a freak of nature last season, ranking sixth in the Big Ten with over 100 tackles (having a safety lead the team in tackles should tell you all you need to know about the defense).
While it's not the ideal situation to have your safety lead the team in tackles, it also tells you the leadership Peters brings to the table and the type of player he can be tackling in the clouds of dust.
Jordan Mabin has "breakout season" written all over him, and free safety Jared Carpenter is back but will have to face competition with redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell who has looked great in the spring.
The other open corner position is likely to be taken by senior Mike Bolden, but could feature a rotation of Bolden, Demetrius Dugar, and Jeravin Matthews. The secondary is easily the strongest unit on defense for 2011, but will have to straighten out its 95th-best pass defense for this upcoming season.
The mindset for the defense next season will be to get more physical and get much nastier. Northwestern seemed to get pushed around a little too much on the defensive side of the ball at ties, and you know Pat Fitzgerald never likes seeing that.
Fitz's defenses always play hard, but the 'Cats will need more consistency and the ability to play above their level of competition to show they are for real next season.
Reason To Be Excited: Persa and Co.
From everything I've heard, Dan Persa's recovery is going as planned and he'll be ready to return after his Achilles injury to end the 2010 season. With him back and the talent he has through the air, there's reason to believe Persa could be the best quarterback in the Big Ten.
Ebert is your prototypical Northwestern receiver who can stretch the field, but also be extremely reliable as a pass catcher and route runner. My favorite of the bunch is H-back Drake Dunsmore, who does so much more than make big catches and huge plays. Dunsmore makes the little things happen, and that's what you want out of a guy that plays the H-back position.
Demetrius Fields has a chance to break out next season, and the depth at receiver is at Persa's disposal. That adds up to a passing offense opponents will have a tough time grounding next season.
Reason To Worry: Running and Stopping
I'll give you two for one here. Without Persa, the 'Cats had troubles running the ball last year. Mike Trumpy isn't a guy that I see becoming a No. 1 back. He's a lot like an Omar Conteh, who can be a good supplemental back to the starter.
So who's going to be the starter then? I like the look of Adonis Smith and he ended the season on a high note as well. If Smith can develop and Jacob Schmidt can provide a little power in between the tackles, Northwestern will have a decent rushing attack to help out the passing game.
Stopping the run is another story. Last season, the defense gave up over 185 yards per game while disrupting the backfield on occasion. That's got to change next year for Northwestern to have any chance of competing in the Legends Division.
The secondary is good enough to carry this unit, but the front seven need to make their impact felt.
Overall Outlook: 2011
Persa returns and improves on his breakout 2010 season. The offense finds a No. 1 back to rely on, and the offensive line becomes a cohesive unit that opens up holes running the ball. The defense is able to hover around fifth or sixth in the Big Ten overall, while opponents continue to underestimate the talent and the team Pat Fitzgerald has.
The offense never develops a formidable rushing attack, while Persa fails to completely recover from the injury that ruined his 2010 season. The defense continues to have problems in stopping opposing offenses and is "out-physicaled" by bigger, stronger teams.
A bowl game is definitely in the cards for Northwestern for a fourth straight season, but the 'Cats need to aspire for more. They haven't won a bowl game since 1949, and that happens to be their only bowl victory ever. Their last three attempts have been ever so close, losing in OT to Missouri and Auburn, while falling to Texas Tech by a TD last season.
The schedule could be one of the kindest in the Big Ten for 2011, and that may lead to a Wildcats run at a Big Ten title. Ohio State and Wisconsin are left off the schedule this year, but the first game of the season will test the 'Cats immediately.
Chestnut Hill will be rocking and Dan Persa will have a strong defense in Boston College to kick off the 2011 season. The one concerning point about this team that normally starts fast is just three home games in the first nine games of the season. That's it. Which means NU will have to start fast again without having the home fans behind it.
The end of the season should favor a team that normally stumbles to the finish, with Rice and Minnesota back to back before hosting MSU to close out the year.
The stretch of the season where NU plays at Illinois, Michigan, at Iowa, Penn State and at IU in a five-week stretch will tell the story of if the "Cardiac Cats" can play the close games, and continue to win them against the best of the Big Ten.
We will certainly find out this year if Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald can live up to the lofty expectations that could make or break the next few years of Wildcats football.