Northwestern's 6-1 start has stood out in a season of suckage for the Big Ten conference. Granted, victories over 2-4 Syracuse (42-41), 2-4 Vanderbilt (23-13), and 1-5 Boston College (22-13) aren't terribly impressive...though they are three BCS conference opponents. And let's be honest, it's better than what the rest of the Big Ten did in nonconference play.
As I suspected this summer, Kain Colter is splitting his time between quarterback and wide receiver this season. Trevor Siemian leads the Wildcats in passing, completing 63% of his passes for 811 yards and two touchdowns. Colter has completed 70% of his passes for 432 yards and two touchdowns, while catching 13 passes for 152 yards and rushing for 421 yards and eight touchdowns. The big change on offense is the emergence of running back Venric Mark, who leads Northwestern with 792 yards and eight touchdowns this season. The 5'8" 175 pound junior spent most of last season at wide receiver before trying him out at tailback. The explosive runner is also a kick return threat, scoring twice so far this season on punt returns. In the receiving game, it's Demetrius Fields leading the Wildcats with 25 catches. Kyle Prater, the touted transfer from Southern Cal, is indeed eligible but has only seen minimal playing time.
Defensively, Northwestern is led by linebacker Damien Proby, who has 62 tackles on the season. Redshirt sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo may have been the star of the first month of the season, and has 59 tackles on the season. Up front, defensive tackle Tyler Scott leads the Wildcats with six sacks on the season. The Wildcats are fairly stout against the run, allowing 109.9 yards a game which is second in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally. Northwestern can be beaten through the air, as the Wildcats allow 270.9 yards, which is 11th in the Big Ten and 101st nationally.
Saturday's game likely comes down to two aspects of the game: can Northwestern run the ball against Nebraska's defense, and whether Nebraska can run the ball on Northwestern? Below, our summer preview of Northwestern.
Husker fans learned last season what Iowa fans are reminded of continually: On any given Saturday, Northwestern is fully capable of beating you. They may not impress you with their talent level, and their record may not either. The Wildcats are well-coached and can catch you off-guard if you're not playing your best game. Last season in Lincoln, Northwestern took command with a fourth quarter bomb from Kain Colter to Jeremy Ebert, giving the Wildcats a 21-10 lead on the Huskers. Two first half Nebraska fumbles in the red zone meant Nebraska trailed the whole game, and when Nebraska needed defensive stops in the fourth quarter, the Blackshirts became a sieve. Northwestern racked up 468 yards of offense, while Nebraska could only muster 122 yards on the ground. That's a formula that knocked the Huskers out of the Top Ten and derailed any hopes fans had for a third straight conference championship game appearance.
Last season, we noted that it was "2011 or bust" for Northwestern because of a large senior class, and success depended on the recovery of Dan Persa. Persa missed the first three games of his senior season and was a shadow of his former self running the ball. The effects of that Achilles tendon injury cut his rushing totals from 519 yards in 2010 to 32 in 2011. That injury didn't affect his arm much, as his completion percentage dropped a whole tenth of a percent in 2011. But Persa's career, along with nearly half of last year's starters, is over. Only ten starters return for Northwestern in 2012...but the same disclaimer applies for Northwestern. They are still well coached and once again this season, they'll likely upset somebody. Let's hope it's not Nebraska again.
When Persa wasn't able to go last season, Kain Colter stepped in at quarterback. Colter is the ultimate Wildcat quarterback, though Northwestern fans may take offense that Colter is a gimmick. He's the ultimate Wildcat quarterback because he's talented enough to line up just about anywhere on offense. Name any other player in football where a team's leading returning rusher, passer, and receiver is the same guy. Last season, Colter completed 67% of his passes for 673 yards, six touchdowns, and only one interception. He rushed for 654 yards and nine touchdowns, and caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns. When Colter isn't taking the snap, Trevor Siemian will take the reins (and probably look to get the ball to Colter). As a freshman last season, Siemian completed over 61% of his passes for three touchdowns and an interception. Colter's weakness is throwing the ball deep, so expect Siemian to see significant playing time to allow Colter to freelance elsewhere on offense where there are bigger questions.
Junior Mike Trumpy is back at running back after tearing his ACL in the third game of 2011. He rushed for 530 yards in 2010 and 182 more before the injury. When he's healthy, he's a load to bring down, as his 5.2 yard/carry average would attest. Sophomore Treyvon Green rushed for 362 yards and four touchdowns as one of Trumpy's replacements. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Jordan Perkins here. This group is likely to be asked to take some of the load off of Colter this season.
Good news for Husker fans: Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore are gone. Ebert's 81 yard touchdown grab was part of a 147 yard day. Senior Demetrius Fields is going to be asked to step up his game; he caught 32 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns last season. In the Car Care Bowl, he caught seven passes for 73 yards, which might be a sign of things to come. Speed at the receiver position should come from sophomore Christian Jones and junior Rashad Lawrence. Jones caught 16 passes last season before suffering an ACL injury, while Lawrence caught 19 as a part-time starter. Meanwhile, Northwestern fans wait anxiously for the NCAA to rule on Kyle Prater's eligibility. Prater was a superstar recruit who transferred from Southern Cal after two injury plagued seasons. At 6'5", he changes the dynamic of the entire NW receiving corp if he's eligible this season. And let's not forget Colter, who'll likely split out wide occasionally this season again.
Three starters return on Northwestern's offensive line, led by senior left guard Brian Mulroe, an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection last season. Sophomore center Brandon Vitabile started all 13 games last season as a freshman, while senior left tackle Patrick Ward slides over from right tackle, where he started the last two years. The Wildcat offensive line was considered a disappointment last season, but you couldn't tell that in the fourth quarter last season in Lincoln. When Nebraska cut the Northwestern lead to 21-18 with nine minutes left in the game, the Wildcats ate up over seven minutes on a 13 play touchdown drive - all on the ground.
Northwestern's defense was considered a disappointment last season...except against Nebraska. They were stronger against the run than the pass. This year up front, the Wildcats will try to lean even more on 6'4" 260 pound senior defensive end Quentin Williams. Williams accounted for 29 tackles last season, including 5.5 tackles for a loss. On the other side, 6'4" 265 pound junior defensive end Tyler Scott is recovered from a shoulder injury that limited him in the second half of the season. On the interior, look for 6'3" sophomore tackle Chance Carter to emerge after playing only briefly last season.
Two starters return at linebacker for Northwestern. Junior Damien Proby took over midway through the season at middle linebacker with 60 tackles. Proby's emergence pushed senior David Nwabuisi over to the SAM linebacker spot; he had 84 tackles last year including 8.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore Collin Ellis probably will start early in the season at the WILL, but look out for true freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo. Odenigbo is a bit undersized at 217 pounds, but he's got speed to burn. Likewise with redshirt freshman Drew Smith, who'll probably see some playing time on the outside.
The secondary is really green, with only sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell returning as a starter. Campbell was a freshman all-American last season and led Northwestern with 100 tackles. Sophomore Daniel Jones started the bowl game at cornerback, but only totaled 12 tackles all season. At the other corner position, redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose is expected to emerge. But who will replace all-Big Ten safety Brian Peters? Will it be senior Hunter Bates, who had 45 tackles in 2010, but only 10 last season due to a broken leg? Or will it be unproven junior Davion Fleming or sophomore Jimmy Hall. With having to replace so much of an underperforming group from last season, the Wildcats have major question marks in the secondary to answer this season.
Lots of questions for Northwestern this season. On offense, many can be answered if Kyle Prater is declared eligible by the NCAA, but even without Prater, Colter is going to be a weapon to be reckoned with. On defense, a lot of young players are going to need to step up this season, and that'll make or break the Wildcats in 2012.