Northwestern caught the attention of college football by opening the season with five straight wins. Most impressive was a game against Michigan State, ranked #8 at the time. The Wildcats led 17-0 late in the first half, and still led 24-14 in the fourth quarter. But a fake punt sparked the Spartans' comeback, which was sealed by a diving touchdown grab with two minutes to go. Heartbreaking, to be sure...but the Wildcats moved onward, led by quarterback Dan Persa. Persa's touchdown pass with 1:22 left in the game gave Northwestern yet another victory over Iowa (that's five out of the last six years) but also ended Persa's season. He tore his Achilles tendon celebrating after the play and had to be hauled off the field. Northwestern ended up losing their next three games, including a 70-23 loss at Wisconsin to close out the regular season. If your cable system carries ESPNU, you might have caught Northwestern losing to Texas Tech in the "Ticket City Bowl" (which was played in the Cotton Bowl stadium).All expectations for Northwestern start with the health of Dan Persa. Persa was a true dual-threat for the Wildcats: completing over 73% of his passes for 2581 yards and fifteen touchdowns (and only four interceptions) plus 519 yards and nine touchdowns more rushing. He was the second leading rusher on the team despite not playing in the final three games of the season. That 73.5% completion percentage led the nation and shattered Darrell Bevell's Big Ten record (67.8% in 1993). And when he went down, boy was he missed. Sophomore Evan Watkins finished the season, but struggled to complete 51% of his passes for just 378 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions. Persa is supposed to be fully healed, but can Persa perform at that same incredible level in 2011? Over one-third of NFL players who suffer an Achilles rupture don't return to the game, and those that do play at a dimished level. So it's unrealistic to expect the same Persa back, but even a diminished Persa is still better than most other quarterbacks...and certainly better than anybody else Northwestern has. Iif the Wildcats still depend on Persa for 75% of their offense this season, they'll be in serious trouble.
The Wildcats top three running backs from 2009 returned in 2010, but after only rushing for 32 yards on 15 carries against Central Michigan, Northwestern turned to redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy and true Freshman Adonis Smith. Trumpy went on to lead the team in rushing with 530 yards and four touchdowns. Trumpy topped the 100 yard mark twice last season, breaking a 20 game streak for the Wildcats without a 100 yard rusher. A wrist injury in the Illinois game ended his season, and Adonis Smith took over from there. Senior Jacob Schmidt scored four touchdowns in the first three games before rolling his ankle, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. A full season for Trumpy should be more productive for Northwestern this season.
Persa's favorite target is senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, who caught 62 passes for 953 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. He's a solid receiver, but not necessarily a burner. Junior Demetrius Fields is solid as well, catching 25 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns last season. Look out for sophomore Rashad Lawrence, who'll see more playing time this season. He's got good size (6'2") and even better speed, so he might be poised for a breakout season. Also keep an eye on senior "superback" Drake Dunsmore, a 6'3" 235 pound hybrid tight end/fullback, who caught 40 passes last season for 381 yards and five touchdowns. He'll be that fallback option for Persa that will put pressure on linebackers.
The offensive line that will try to protect Persa has experience, but little to show for it so far. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten with sacks allowed (40). If you assume that Persa's mobility will be compromised, that should put even more pressure on the line to produce in 2011. The leader up front is senior left tackle Al Neter, who's started every game the last three years and earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors the last two years. Senior center Ben Burkett is also a three year starter who's expected to produce this season. Of course, they expected the same thing last year.
The defensive line wasn't all that great last year either, only accounting for 17 sacks, seven of which came from senior defensive end Vine Brown, a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season. Senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo added 33 tackles and two blocked kicks last season. If his name sounds familiar, it should; he's the nephew of BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo. But the lack of production from this group last year makes me wonder if we won't see some youngsters contend for playing time, like sophomore defensive end Tyler Scott who looked good in limited playing time last season.
Only senior weakside linebacker Bryce McNaul returns from a group that was exposed badly by Illinois running back Mike'l Leshoure for 330 yards at Wrigley Field. McNaul, who's been battling shoulder issues throughout his career, still managed to total 62 tackles last season. If he's finally healthy, he'll put up even bigger numbers. The new starters have seen a lot of playing time in reserve roles and spot-starters. Junior middle linebacker David Nwabuisi had 26 tackles last season and senior strongside linebacker Ben Johnson added 21 tackles as a spot starter.
The Wildcats return three of four starters in a rather porous secondary. Senior strong safety Brian Peters led the team with 107 tackles, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. He also added three interceptions. Senior cornerback Jordan Mabin broke up 15 passes last season and added 63 tackles to get named to the honorable mention all-Big Ten squad. As you can see, they're good tacklers, but they've got their issues defending the pass. Look for redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell to work his way onto the field, perhaps as a nickel back who made a splash in the spring.
The Wildcats return a lot of talent, but other than Dan Persa, it's unclear just how valuable that talent is. The 2011 season likely comes down to what Persa is able to do with a reconditioned Achilles, as the Wildcats likely will only go as far as Persa's able to carry them. And with the number of seniors on this roster, it's 2011 or bust for Northwestern.