The fourth installment of our preseason opponent preview series brings the fourth easiest (or ninth-toughest) opponent on the schedule, the Northwestern Wildcats. Previously, we introduced, from easiest to not-so-easiest, UMass, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Northwestern is still trying to break through under Pat Fitzgerald. The former linebacker has guided the Wildcats to four straight bowl games and a 34-29 overall record over the past five seasons. He inked a 10-year deal last May, meaning he has a home in Evanston for as long as he wants. But with just 11 starters returning (five on offense, six on defense), he has his work cut out if he wants to avoid repeating last season’s disappointing losing record.
How do you progress when your quarterback, who finished his career as the all-time Division 1 leader in completion percentage and ranks in your top five in most passing categories, graduates? For Northwestern, the answer is to plug in an even more talented and versatile quarterback who already has experience.
Dan Persa completed nearly 73 percent career passes and was hyped as a Heisman Trophy contender before missing several games last season. The injury opened the door for Kain Colter to gain valuable experience. He played extended minutes in three games and finished the season with a 67 percent completion rate for 673 yards and six touchdowns to just one interception. But he did the most damage with his legs, leading the Wildcats in rushing with 654 yards and nine touchdowns. He also caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns. This year, he gets the chance to step out of Persa’s shadow and take the reigns of the offense behind center.
Having another talented playmaker is a good place to start and Colter has one in five-star receiver Kyle Prater. The USC transfer will instantly become one of the top receivers in the Big Ten. At 6’5″ and 215 pounds, he’ll be a tough matchup for any defensive back. But he’s not the only weapon Colter will have. Receivers Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones also return, as does running back Treyvon Green who had a good freshman campaign last season. Running back Mike Trumpy returns from a torn ACL, and how well he has recovered will determine whether he’s the starter.
The big question mark offensively is the line, which struggled throughout the spring. It has to find a replacement for left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves competition and will have all summer and fall camp to determine a solid five.
Defensively, Northwestern faces some questions despite returning six starters. The line looks to be pretty good with returning ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams. Redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson and sophomore Chance Carter both shined in the spring game leaving many in Evanston excited about their possibilities. Similarly, the linebackers are experienced, with Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi, and four others pushing for time. Incoming freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo is one to watch. He’s a four-star from Centerville, Ohio who ranked ninth nationally at the linebacker position and held offers from Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, Stanford and many more.
|Sept. 1||@ Syracuse|
|Sept. 15||Boston College|
|Sept. 22||South Dakota|
|Oct. 6||@ Penn State|
|Oct. 13||@ Minnesota|
|Nov. 10||@ Michigan|
|Nov. 17||@ Michigan State|
The biggest are of question on the defense is the secondary, which lost three starters from the conference’s third worst pass defense. Safety Ibraheim Campbell is the only one who looks to have a starting spot secured. A host of others are battling through inexperience, poor play, and mental mistakes for the remaining spots. Corner Daniel Jones started in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but after him, the dropoff is severe.
Punter Brandon Williams and kicker Jeff Budzien both return, though the latter connected on just 60 percent of his field goal attempts last season. Kick and punt returner Venric Mark is a speedy threat in the return game. His 15.9 yards per punt return led the Big Ten last season and ranked third nationally.
All four non-conference games are winnable and then the Wildcats open conference play with Indiana, a beleaguered Penn State, and Minnesota, so they could jump out of the gates hot. But the schedule is back-loaded and with so many questions defensively and the need for playmakers to emerge on offense, six or seven wins are the most Northwestern will reach in 2012.
What it means for Michigan
The game falls late in the season, right after Michigan plays Minnesota. It’s Michigan’s first time back in Ann Arbor after road contests at Nebraska and Minnesota, so it falls in a good spot. Northwestern does get an extra week to prepare for Michigan, but it’s in the Big House. The Colter to Prater connection is worrisome, especially since Michigan doesn’t have tall defensive backs, and the Wildcats should be able to put up some points this season, but there’s no way they can slow down Michigan that late in the season. A year ago, Northwestern hung tough in the first half before Greg Mattison adjusted the defense and shut the Wildcats down in the second. This season’s game should be closer to the second half than the first.