Pat Fitzgerald will be staying in Evanston for the next decade as he signed a nice ten-year extension. He is 34-29 through his first five seasons at Northwestern and the improvements have started to show in his style of recruiting.
Back to back 7-6 seasons is nothing to be concerned with as Fizgerald almost never has a player leave early for the NFL Draft since Northwestern is such a prestigious school academically.
They went 9-4 in 2008 and are attempting to match and perhaps break that eight win plateau.
A BCS Bowl is a bit out of the question, but a New Year’s Day Bowl is not. They have the talent and the perfect offensive system with starting quarterback Dan Persa.
Persa has been received many preseason accolades by a few magazine publications (Phil Steele, Lindy’s) and outside of Denard Robinson may not be anybody better. Persa means so much to his team, you could argue he is single handily the most important player in the Big Ten towards his team.
Persa threw the game winning touchdown pass against Iowa, but on the same play he tore his Achilles and ended up missing the Ticket City Bowl. NW lost to Texas Tech 45-38 which means Northwestern has still not won a bowl game in forever (’48 Rose v Cal or 63 years!! ).
Persa is expected to be 100% by the opener against Boston College and he cannot wait to end that bowl streak.
Persa might be considered Superman to the fans in purple because he nearly ended up leading the team in rushing yards (519) and did lead the team in rushing touchdowns (9). Whenever your QB nearly leads your team in rushing and it happens to only be in the 500s, it tells you the type of rushing attack/scheme you have.
They may lack the stud back that ranked teams possess, but they have a solid rotation as they use a committee approach.
Mike Trumpy only ran for 530 yards and his average needs to get above 4.6 if the ‘Cats expect to improve upon their rushing averages (156 YPG 58th).
Adonis Smith and Jacob Schmidt will backup Trumpy and they should all receiving heavy playing time early on in the season. Maybe perhaps even into Big Ten play if they can provide a few dazzling runs.
The offensive line will be rock solid like always led by seniors Al Netter and Ben Burkett. Both are All-Big Ten caliber players who are good enough to have a chance to play on Sunday’s. They need to stay healthy because the ‘Cats need all the leadership and talent they can have on the field.
Persa clearly does not have the best weapons in the conference, but they are not garbage by any means. His receiving corp is vastly underrated because of tight end/slot back Drake Dunsmore.
The kid is a flat out stud who hauled in five TDs. He is my top choice for the best tight end in the Big Ten ahead of Kyler Reed of Nebraska.
Jeremy Ebert (First Team Big Ten last year) and Demtrius Fields are the two receivers who will be moving the chains on third downs. Persa loves his slot back Dunsmore but will be looking for crossing patterns and deep fly routes to Ebert.
He had 8 TDs a year ago on 62 catches and had a nice average of 15.4 per catch. Guys like Charles Brown and Tony Jones will be expected to step in on passing downs.
This passing offense was solid not spectacular last year ranking 48th (235 YPG).
Persa and the ‘Cats need to stretch the field a bit more and they should expect more from Dunsmore, Ebert, Fields, and Trumpy out of the backfield.
Expect the numbers to increase and the offense to be ranked atop the Big Ten.
The defense on the other hand has not fared as well as the offense.
Particularly the run defense has struggled as they gave up 185 yards per game which ranked only 92nd in the nation.
That is flat out abysmal if you expect to become legit Big Ten contenders. Their linebacker corps were solid. However the front four could still improve and it should with three returning starters.
This front four consists of Kevin Watt, Brian Arnfelt, Jack DiNardo and All-Conference selection Vince Browne. 6’5”, 265-pounds is what Brown is listed at, but he has a solid motor that does not stop until the whistle blows.
The defense returns its first, third, fifth and sixth top tacklers and all of those players should contribute a lot. The top linebacker is Bryce McNaul (highly touted player) who is now in his senior season.
McNaul alongside Ben Johnson (21 tkl, 1 sk) and David Nwabuisi (26 tkl) will make up the starting unit.
The numbers should improve but the talent level is still not up to par with the rest of the premier Big Ten teams such as Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State.
The secondary returns three of their stars and it should make this defense better than the 2010 version because of it. Brian Peters is a sensational senior that has the goods to make First Team All-Big Ten and corner Jordan Mabin is good enough to earn honorable mention.
It is a bit surprising of how bad they were last year ranking 95th in the nation allowing 241 yards per game.
Peters, Mabin and David Arnold (42 tkl 2 pb, and 1 Int) should improve upon those numbers slightly at the very worst.
Persa and his offense can march down the field at will, but the season opener may be the ultimate game changing moment. It is usually never stated this difficult right out of the gates.
However, if the ‘Cats want to be taken seriously they will need to find a way to win on the road at Boston College.
BC had an exceptional defense last year, but their offense was pretty bad for most of the season (Montel Harris is out).
That may be the case again and if NW can bottle up the run against Montel Harris’s backups, they should sneak out with a victory to help springboard their way to a successful season.
Northwestern will still be in some shootouts, so the defense will get lit on occasion and they will be in several tight games in 2011. Boston College in the opener on the road in Chestnut Hill will be tough and so will trips to Iowa and Nebraska.
Their home games will make or break their bowl chances and how good of a bowl game they get. Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan State all come to Ryan Field.
If they can split those four and then split their four road games (Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, & Nebraska), the ‘Cats will not only be bowling but will have a great chance at achieving a nine win season.
Predicted Finish: 8-5, 3-5
Predicted Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Predicted order of finish in Big Ten: Fifth in Leaders, Eight Overall