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Reviewing the 2014 Northwestern Wildcats

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David Banks

After running back Venric Mark left the team and wide receiver Christian Jones tore his ACL in August, many people started to backtrack on their expectations for Northwestern. Losses to Cal and Northern Illinois to start the season only magnified the question marks surrounding the Wildcats.

Then Northwestern stunned the Big Ten by upsetting Penn State and Wisconsin in back to back weeks. But then last weekend, Minnesota beat the Wildcats. So how good is Northwestern?  It looks like they are one of those teams in the muddy middle of the Big Ten.  On a good week, they can beat most teams (and maybe scare the teams at the top).  On a bad week, well, they can lose to just about anybody.  Maybe even Illinois.

The emerging star for Northwestern on offense is true freshman running back Justin Jackson (5'11" 190 pounds), who gradually earned more and more playing time in September with his production.  In the last two games, he's rushed for 162 yards on 33 carries against Wisconsin and then 106 yards on 23 carries against Minnesota, earning him Big Ten offensive freshman of the week. On the season, he's rushed for 502 yards (averaging 4.5 yards per carry) and caught 11 passes for 102 yards. Jackson's emergence has pushed senior Treyvon Green to the bench as a backup.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian is completing 59% of his passes for 1,323 yards and four touchdowns with five interceptions. While he's not a mobile quarterback (losing 44 yards on 32 carries this season), he has scored four rushing touchdowns to lead Northwestern. His primary targets are superback (NW's term for a tight end) Dan Vitale (24 catches for 260 yards) and senior wide receiver Kyle Prater (23 catches for 243 yards).

Early in the season, the offensive line was a major issue, but a key to Northwestern's turnaround was improvement in run blocking in Big Ten play. Siemian has been sacked six times in three conference games, so that continues to be a concern. (And something that Randy Gregory could potentially exploit.)

On defense, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo leads Northwestern with 51 tackles this season. Linebacker Collin Ellis, who has 33 tackles this season will miss this weekend's game due to injury; he'll be replaced by freshman Anthony Walker, who won Big Ten defensive freshman of the week honors two weeks ago. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell will be back after missing three games with a hamstring injury, sending freshman Godwin Igwebuike to the bench. Igwebuike won Big Ten defensive freshman of the week honors three weeks ago after intercepting three passes against Penn State.

How does Northwestern's defense rate nationally? The Wildcats rank 11th nationally in scoring defense (allowing 17.5 points per game) but 44th in total defense, allowing 358.8 yards per game. Northwestern's defense ranks 55th in rushing defense (giving up 145.7 yards per game) and 37th in pass defense (giving up 213.2 yards per game).

If past Nebraska/Northwestern games are any indication, this year's game should be a tight matchup.  Nebraska's won two of three games, but Wildcat fans feel that NW should be 3-0 against the Big Red. Is this the year that the Huskers break through with a decisive victory? We'll find out Saturday night.

Below, read our preseason preview of the Wildcats.

The CornNation.com Preseason Preview of Northwestern

Every Husker fan remembers how 2013's game against Northwestern ended up. And will remember for years to come. For Northwestern fans, it was just one more sad ending for the Wildcats. The week before, Iowa beat Northwestern 17-10 in overtime, and the next week, Michigan won in triple overtime after the Wolverines managed to get the field goal unit on the field in less than 10 seconds to tie the game as the clock expired at the end of regulation.  Losing seven conference games meant an end to a five year bowl streak for the Wildcats; a disappointing ending to a season where some thought Northwestern could contend to win the Big Ten's west division.

(For those of you confused by the West division reference, CornNation has always used east/west to describe the Big Ten's divisions because it was more intuitive than the Legends/Leaders names. And the Big Ten's eventual acceptance of our naming scheme validated our selection.)

Injuries were a key reason why Northwestern bottomed out in 2013, starting with star running back Venric Mark (5'8" 175 pounds), who only played in three games before finally being declared out of the season and getting a medical hardship to return in 2014. A healthy Mark should produce numbers equal to or better than 2012, when he earned second team all-Big Ten honors with 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's also a weapon returning punts, averaging 18.7 yards a return. Senior Treyvon Green, who scored all 3 NW touchdowns against NU last year in Lincoln, also returns. He rushed for 736 yards last season; 149 against Nebraska.

Now that Kain Colter has moved on to trying to organize a player's union, the days of Northwestern splitting snaps at quarterback appear to be over for now. Senior Trevor Siemian (6'3" 210 pound) now will be able to take control of the Northwestern offense on a full-time basis. In the past, Siemian came into the game in obvious passing situations, which likely held down his statistics since the offense knew the ball was going in the air. Last season, he completed just under 60% of his passes for 2,143 yards and eleven touchdowns. Those nine interceptions look awfully high in comparison. This spring, Siemian was quite outspoken in opposing Colter's push to unionize NW's football players. Is that an attempt to separate himself from Colter and stake a claim as the leader of HIS team?

While Northwestern's receivers weren't particularly explosive last year, four of the top five return which gives them great experience returning in 2014. Seniors Christian Jones (6'3" 225 pounds) and Tony Jones (6'0" 195 pounds) caught 54 and 55 passes respectively last season. Christian along with junior "superback" (aka tight end) Dan Vitale (6'2" 225 pounds) give the Wildcats good size.  Vitale caught 34 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns last season. Junior Miles Shuler (5'10" 175 pounds), a transfer from Rutgers, is expected to bring an upgrade in gamebreaking speed to the Wildcats' offense. He was frustrated with limited playing time at Rutgers, but he showed great promise this spring in the slot, which should allow Christian Jones to spend more time lined up outside. And former five-star recruit Kyle Prater (6'5" 225 pounds) is still hanging around for his senior season. Maybe 2014 is the year he breaks through.

Northwestern's entire offensive line returns, led by senior center Brandon Vitabile (6'3" 300 pounds) who earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. Thanks to a rash of injuries, the backups played a lot last year, meaning that the two-deep has plenty of experience. That being said, the production up front wasn't terribly good  last year.  Rushing production was down, and the tandem of Siemian and Colter were sacked 36 times. How much of that was the result of injuries to both Venric Mark and the linemen, and how much of it was the ability (or lack thereof) of the offensive line isn't clear now.  We'll learn more as 2014 evolves.

The defensive line situation mirrored the offensive line to some extent. Senior defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (6'5" 290 pounds) was injured most of the season.  He's back, along with senior Chance Carter (6'3" 295 pounds) to give NW stability in the middle. Junior defensive end Dean Lowry (6'6" 265 pounds) also returns, but the player to keep an eye on is sophomore end Ifeadi Odenigbo (6'3" 235 pounds), who led the 'Cats in sacks with 5.5 off the bench.

Leading tackler Damien Proby departs, but the next two tacklers do return in senior linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo (6'3" 235 pounds) and Collin Ellis (6'2" 230 pounds). Ellis will slide into the middle to replace Proby, while senior Jimmy Hall (6'2" 205 pounds) and junior Drew Smith (6'1" 215 pounds) should alternate at the SAM spot. Ariguzo is expected to have a monster year in 2014 if he doesn't have to cover up for as many issues on the defensive line this season.

The entire secondary from last season as well as senior cornerback Daniel Jones (5'11" 175 pounds), who started eight games in 2012 only to have an ACL tear end his junior season after one game. Junior cornerback Nick VanHoose (6'0" 190 pounds) broke up eight passes with five tackles for loss last season, while senior strong safety Ibraheim Campell (5'11" 205 pounds) broke up five passes and picked off four more. He'll be the leader on defense along side junior free safety Traveon Henry (6'1" 200 pounds), who was solid on run support last season.

With so many returning starters in 2014, it's easy to see why Northwestern is expected to bounce back big time from a losing season last year. Northwestern fans may still wonder what could have been, just like in 2013, but the story was much the same. Nebraska turnovers made the game much closer than it really was.  The Huskers outgained the Wildcats by a 472-326 yard margin, and held a 28-16 edge in first downs. Northwestern may talk about their injury depleted status, but NU was also missing an all-Big Ten quarterback and offensive lineman amongst others. Really, it may come down to which team has the home field advantage in Evanston when the game kicks off.