With fifteen starters returning from a ten-win 2012 season, Northwestern is a sexy pick as a darkhorse to win the west division this season. There are some good reasons to think that: the Wildcats defeated two - yes TWO - SEC teams last season (bowl teams, no less), and had fourth quarter leads in each of their three losses, including that 29-28 loss to Nebraska. And in that Nebraska loss, the Wildcats dropped two interceptions that could have locked the game up well before the Huskers' furious comeback.
But in that game, dropped interceptions plagued both teams; the Blackshirts dropped at least three. And if you watched the whole game, Nebraska did a much better job of stopping themselves than Northwestern ever did - especially on special teams. Twice, Nebraska fumbled the ball away while trying to fair catch a punt, and a Northwestern fumbled punt was wiped out by a brain-dead personal foul penalty away from the play. Want proof of Nebraska's dominance on the day? The game statistics tell you the story of the game. Total yards: Nebraska 543, Northwestern 301. First downs: Nebraska 26, Northwestern 14. Rushing yards: Nebraska 201, Northwestern 180 (80 yards on one Venric Mark third quarter run tilted this statistic). Completion percentage: Nebraska 69%, Northwestern 43%.
That completion percentage statistic was not an anomaly with Northwestern's two-man rotation of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. The 6'0" 190 pound Colter is the elusive speedy runner who makes plays happen with his feet; 6'3" 210 pound Siemian comes into the game in passing situations. Ironically, Colter was the better passer last season, completing 68% of his passes for 872 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions. Siemian completed just 59% of his passes for 1,312 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. Siemian's arm is stronger than Colter's, but probably the real reason for the rotation is to split Colter out wide at receiver. Truth be told, Northwestern probably should have used more of Colter than Siemian at quarterback against the Huskers, considering how much Colter scorched the Huskers in 2011.
Senior Venric Mark's move from slot receiver to running back was an unquestioned success last season. Mark was always an elusive punt and kickoff returner, but at running back, he rushed for 1,366 yards and twelve touchdowns, becoming Northwestern's first 1,000 back since 2006. The 5'8" 175 pound back isn't big, but lighting quick and difficult to catch, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors in 2012. He'll be backed up by senior Mike Trumpy, who's battled wrist and ACL injuries the last few years. He's a bigger back at 6'1"and 210 pounds who can provide a little more power when he's healthy. Junior Treyvon Green (5'10" 215 pounds) finished the 2011 season as the starter, rushing for 362 yards, but only saw spot duty in 2012, rushing for just 73 yards. Keep an eye on 6'0" 170 pound redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley, a former quarterback who could line up at just about any skill position on offense and make a big play.
Colter was Northwestern's leading returning receiver going into last season, and while Christian Jones, Tony Jones, and Rashad Lawrence emerged to lead the receiver corps, Colter still caught 16 passes for 169 yards in 2012. Christian Jones, a 6'3" 225 pound junior, caught 35 passes for 412 yards last season; he's not a game breaker, but a sure-handed target on short to intermediate routes. Tony Jones, a 6'0" 185 pound junior, is the deep threat who caught 29 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns last season. Lawrence, a 6'2" 185 pound senior, caught 34 passes for 321 yards. The emerging star could be sophomore "Superback" Dan Vitale, who plays a hybrid fullback/tight end/H-back position. He caught 12 passes in the first 10 games, but then 16 in the final three games. Buried deep on the Wildcats' roster is junior Kyle Prater. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, he's found it difficult to find the field at either Southern Cal or Northwestern and now has just eleven career receptions for 60 yards.
The big question on offense is the line, where only two starters return. Junior center Brandon Vitabile has started every game at center the last two seasons. At 6'3" and 300 pounds, he's as dependable as it comes leading the line. Junior left tackle Jack Konopka has been solid on the edge using his athleticism to make up for his smaller size. A former "Superback" (aka tight end), he's 6'5" but only 285 pounds. But the real question is who'll replace departing tackle Patrick Ward (honorable mention all-Big Ten) or left guard Brian Mulroe (second team all-Big Ten); lots of young options for Northwestern to work through before November.
With seven starters back on defense, the Wildcats look to improve on a defense that made a big jump last season. Up front, senior defensive end Tyler Scott returns after earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. At 6'4" 265 pounds, he's converted from linebacker to be a speed rusher who had 12.5 tackles for loss. He should put up even bigger numbers this year. On the opposite side, 6'6" 230 pound sophomore Dean Lowry and 6'3" 220 pound redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo may be undersized on run support, but could race past slower tackles to get to the quarterback. On the inside, junior tackle Sean McEvilly is also undersized at 6'5" and 275 pounds, but relies on his speed to get to the ball carrier. The Wildcats should be better on the pass rush, but I suspect that offenses will find a way to push the ball up the middle on the ground this season.
That's where the linebackers come into play, led by middle linebacker Damien Proby. The 6'0" 235 pound senior led the Wildcats with 112 tackles. He's a sure tackler with with good speed and should be the key to Northwestern's defense this season. Junior Chi Chi Ariguzo (6'3" 220 pounds) filled in for junior Collin Ellis (6'2" 225 pounds) when Ellis was limited by a hand injury; now both are back. Ariguzo racked up 91 tackles last season, which was third on the Wildcat defense last season.
Junior Ibraheim Campbell is the leader of the secondary at strong safety. Fourth on the team with 89 tackles last season, the 5'11" 205 pounder also added 12 pass breakups and two interceptions last year to earn honrable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. As a freshman all-American, he led the Wildcats with 100 tackles in 2011. Sophomore Nick VanHoose started ten games at cornerback last season with 33 tackles and seven pass breakups; at 6'0", he's developing into a shutdown corner and a future honors candidate. This secondary had a tendency to give up the big play last season, and the hope is that sophomore Traveon Henry (6'1" 210 pounds) could be the key to taking the secondary to the next level.
Late breakdowns in pass defense was the common factor in all three Northwestern losses in 2012; if the pass rush and coverage is better in 2013, the hope is that even bigger things could be in order for Northwestern. That being said, the conference schedule increases in difficulty as Penn State and Indiana are replaced by Ohio State and Wisconsin this season. So while Northwestern could be better on the field, the record may not be better in 2013.