Our last two opponent previews have been about the new kids on the block, Rutgers and Maryland. Today, we take a look at one of the old guards, the Northwestern Wildcats, who we feel will be the fifth-toughest opponent on Michigan’s schedule. Previously, we previewed Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland.
||at Penn State
||at Notre Dame
A year ago at this time, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Northwestern program that many assumed was ready to take the next step forward. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season and a bowl victory and started the 2013 season ranked for the first time in over a decade. A 4-0 start got Northwestern to 16th in the country heading into a Big Ten opener against fourth-ranked Ohio State. ESPN College GameDay was there for the nationally televised primetime battle.
Instead of pulling off a program-building upset, its was the beginning of the end for Pat Fitzgerald’s 2013 squad. Northwestern held a 30-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to steal the win. From there, the Wildcats lost seven straight, including two in overtime before finishing the season with a 37-34 win over Illinois. Instead of building on the 10-win 2012 season, Northwestern cut its win total in half at 5-7.
Then came the offseason and the circus came to town. Departing quarterback Kain Colter led a unionization push that Fitzgerald strongly opposed. It led to a team vote and brought the nation’s media to Evanston in search of a story that could forever change the landscape of college athletics. Instead of simply focusing on improving through the offseason, Fitzgerald had to keep his players focused on football despite all of the distractions and visions of grandeur. By many accounts, the situation galvanized the team, but while the vote came and went, the result has yet to be announced and could become a distraction once again this fall when the National Labor Relations Board releases the outcome.
If the process really did bring the team together, and if Fitzgerald can keep his team focused through the NLRB ruling, the expectations from last season could come to fruition this fall. Seventeen starters return from last year’s team, including nine on offense, and the Wildcats don’t have to deal with Ohio State or Michigan State this season. Could Northwestern make a run at the Big Ten West title? Let’s take a closer look.
||178-298 for 2,149 yds, 11 TD, 9 INT
||97 yds (3.1 avg), 5 rec, 48 rec. yards
||34 rec, 382 rec. yds, 3 rec. TD
||55 rec. for 630 yds, 4 TD
||54 rec. for 668 yds, 4 TD
||11 rec. for 125 yds, 1 TD
||12 starts (13 career starts)
||11 starts (11 career starts)
||12 starts (38 career starts)
||4 starts (4 career starts)
||0 starts (0 career starts)
Last season, Northwestern’s offense stormed out of the gate averaging 41.3 points per game in the 4-0 start. A 30-point performance in the loss to Ohio State was good as well, but the offense took a nose dive from there. The Wildcats failed to score more than 24 points in any of its next six games — all losses — and averaged just 13.7 points in that stretch. The 37 points put up in the finale against Illinois brought Northwestern’s season average to 26.2 points per game, which ranked 83rd nationally. The total offense ranked 73rd (399.6 yards per game), rush offense ranked 62nd (172.4 yards per game), and pass offense ranked 71st (227.2 yard per game). That’s a far cry from the way the first five games of the season went and offensive coordinator Mike McCall will have to find a way to sustain the offense through Big Ten play if the Wildcats want any chance of competing.
The major change will be handing the reigns of the offense completely to fifth-year senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who has spent the past two seasons splitting time with Colter. The do-everything Colter was a freak athlete playing quarterback to keep defenses off balance while Siemian is your more traditional true quarterback with less big-play ability, but also more stable. In 2013, Siemian completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. In that Ohio State game, he completed 13-of-18 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick and he capped the season with a 414-yard, four-touchdown game against Illinois.
Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten
While the offense loses the mobility of Colter, it still has one of the Big Ten’s most electric running backs, Venric Mark. The 5’8″, 175-pound senior was plagued by injuries last season and played in just three games as a result. But when he was healthy in 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on six yard per carry, earning second team All-Big Ten honors. Drew rated Mark the sixth-best running back in the Big Ten this fall, though it likely would have been higher if not for the questions about his health.
Mark isn’t alone in the backfield, however. Fellow senior Treyvon Green picked up the slack in Mark’s absence last season, leading the Wildcats with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. At 5’10″, 215, Green is a much bigger back than Mark and creates a nice one-two punch. Then there’s redshirt sophomore Stephen Buckley, who saw limited action in nine games last season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. In the one game he saw a full workload, he rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries against an Iowa defense that held Michigan to just 60 rushing yards on 29 carries.
Like the backfield, a lot of production returns at receiver, but the one thing the group lacks is explosiveness. Five of the top six receivers from a year ago return, but the only Wildcat that caught at least 10 passes and averaged a respectable yards per catch — Rashad Lawrence (14.9) — is gone. Senior Christian Jones, who led the team with 668 yards and four touchdowns on 54 catches, averaged just 12.4 yards per catch. Fellow senior Tony Jones led the team in receptions (55), finished second in yards (630), and also had four scores, averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good receiving duo — Drew ranked them the sixth- and seventh-best receivers in the Big Ten this fall — but they lack the big-play ability that Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have.
There are a couple of contenders to complement them. USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has been hampered by injuries since he’s been in Evanston, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler were both highly-ranked recruits and if at least one of them can pan out, Siemian will have plenty of options to work with. McCall and Fitzgerald have stated their intention to spread the ball around a lot more this season and superback Dan Vitale, who caught 34 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, will also get plenty of targets. Finally, there’s junior Cameron Dickerson, who caught just 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown last season but is expected to take on a bigger role in the passing game this fall.
The offensive line has a chance to be among the Big Ten’s best with everyone returning. All 60 starts from last season are back with 100 combined career starts between them. The anchor of the line is fifth-year senior Brandon Vitabile, an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer a year ago who has started 38 straight games. Drew ranked Vitabile as the eight-best offensive lineman in the conference this fall. Last year’s left tackle, Jack Konopka, who has 25 career starts, may be the odd man looking in as he has been replaced by fifth-year senior Paul Jorgensen, who moves over from right tackle to help protect Siemian. Rising redshirt sophomore Eric Olsen will likely take the spot Jorgensen vacated at right tackle, while Konopka will be the top backup to both of them. At guard, redshirt juniors Geoff Mogus (11 career starts) and Matt Frazier (four) will start on the left and right, respectively.
||33 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
||9 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 QBH
||3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD
||22 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 2 PD
||31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH
||78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PD
||Chi Chi Ariguzo
||106 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INT, 6 PD
||61 tackles, 5 TFL, 8 PD
||36 tackles, 5 PD
||73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD
||77 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD
Fitzgerald came to Northwestern promising a tough, hard-nosed defense just like he was as a linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s. But last season, Northwestern got pushed around, and while some of that can be pinned on the offensive meltdown in the second half of the season, the defense just wasn’t put to par. It ranked 69th nationally in scoring defense (27.1 points per game), 89th in total defense (423.4 yards per game), 68th in rush defense (167.7 yards per game), and 101st in pass defense (255.8 yards per game).
Senior Ibraheim Campbell is one of the top safeties in the conference (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)
Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, played at Michigan and was a part of the 1969 Big Ten championship team in Bo Schembechler’s first season. He then served as a graduate assistant for Bo from 1970-72 before moving on. He has been a defensive coordinator since 1982 and has been at Northwestern since 2008.
His first order of business this season will be finding a replacement for the production lost by defensive end Tyler Scott’s departure. Scott led the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks and was a second team All-Big Ten selection. The good news is that juniors Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and redshirt sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, are talented and experienced. The three combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013. The interior of the line is where the questions lie. Former four-star Greg Kuhar, now a redshirt sophomore, worked his way into the rotation late last season and will be needed to play an increased role this fall. Seniors Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter are the presumed starters, but Kuhar and redshirt junior C.J. Robbins are pushing them with good spring performances.
Similar to the situation on the line, the linebacker corps has to replace its most productive player from 2013, but does have solid talent and experience returning. Damien Proby led the team with 112 tackles in addition to five tackles for loss and a sack, but will be replaced by either junior Drew Smith or senior Jimmy Hall. Hall, a converted safety, tallied 36 tackles and an interception last year, while Smith contributed 31 tackles, 4.5 of which went for loss. The returning starters are seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who were second and third on the team in tackles last season with 106 and 78, respectively. Ariguzo had six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a team-high four interceptions, while Ellis had 5.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, and three picks.
Northwestern’s secondary was pretty bad a year ago, but has some good playmakers and enough experience returning that it could be a strength this season. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is one of the Big Ten’s best. Drew ranked him the fourth-best safety in the league. He recorded 73 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and four interceptions last season. His safety mate is junior Traveon Henry, who excels in run support. He notched 77 tackle, four for loss, and one pick. There will be some competition at corner. Redshirt junior Nick VanHoose has 22 career starts and should have one of the spots locked up. Sophomore Matthew Harris started the final five games of last season and will battle with Daniel Jones, who started the season opener in 2013 but blew out his knee and missed the rest of the year, and sophomore Dwight White.
||37.8 avg, 5 In-20, 1 TB, 1 50+
||21 ret, 23.0 avg
||15 ret, 18.7 avg., 2 TD (in 2012)
While Northwestern has returning starters all over the offense and defense, the Wildcats have to replace a very good kicker. Jeff Budzien made 87.3 percent of his field goal attempts the last three years (48-of-55) and if you throw out his 2011 season, he converted 93.3 percent (42-of-45) in 2012 and ’13. He won the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year award both years. But now his reliability is gone and Fitzgerald has to find someone to replace him. That will be a battle between redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander and redshirt junior Arthur Omilian. The former was the 12th-ranked kicker in the 2013 class, while the latter served as Budzien’s backup last season. Punter Brandon Williams is also gone, but he averaged just 36 yards per punt. Junior Chris Gradone, who handled punting duties for the final three games last season, will assume the role.
The return game will be led by Mark and Harris. When healthy in 2012, Mark was a first team All-America punt returner, averaging 18.7 yards per return with two touchdowns. He was less explosive on kick returns, averaging just 19.8 yards, but he’ll still share the job with Harris, who averaged 23 yards per kick return in 2013.
Injuries really hurt Northwestern last season, but in reality, the 5-7 record very easily could have been 8-4 plus a bowl game. The Wildcats lost to Iowa in overtime, Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary, and Michigan in overtime after the Wolverines converted an improbably last-second field goal in regulation. Five wins should be guaranteed right off the bat — the first three against California, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois and the last two against Purdue and Illinois. Then they’ll have to fight for wins against a tough middle slate. Mark’s return and more stability at quarterback should certainly help avoid the offensive pitfalls of last season and the overall depth on defense should help them finish games better than they did a year ago. Anywhere between a 6-6 and 9-3 regular season is doable and it will all depend on whether Siemian and Mark can stay healthy.
What it means for Michigan
Michigan has to travel to Evanston for a second straight season, but that’s not as bad as having to travel to East Lansing two years in a row. Michigan always has strong fan support in Chicago, so the environment isn’t as tough. But Michigan and Northwestern have essentially played as evenly as it gets the past two years. A case could certainly be made that Northwestern outplayed Michigan in both despite Michigan winning both, as both required near miracles in the closing seconds of regulation. That’s great motivation for Fitzgerald’s squad. Another close one this year is probably a safe bet.