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Posts Tagged ‘Pat Fitzgerald’

Final Look: Northwestern

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014


Michigan-Northwestern(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan topped Northwestern last Saturday in one of the ugliest offensive games played this season by both teams. The Wolverines get a bye week this week to rest up and prepare for the final two games of the season, of which they must win at least one to gain bowl eligibility. But instead of taking a bye week myself, I decided to torture myself during the by week by diving deeper into the advanced stats from Michigan’s 10-9 win in Evanston. And you get to read it. Luck you.

Advanced Statistics
Michigan Stat (National Average) Northwestern
59 Total Plays 84
 42.2 Avg. Starting Field Position (29.9) 28.1
15 Possessions 14
7 Scoring Opportunities 3
 1.4 Points per Opportunity (4.69) 3.0
 67.2% Leverage Rate (68.2%) 65.1%
 39.7% Success Rate (41.9%) 41.0%
 21.0% Success Rate Passing Downs (30.6%) 24.1%
 48.7% Success Rate Standard Downs (47.1%) 50.0%
 33.3% Success Rate Passing (40.2%) 50.9%
44.1% Success Rate Rushing (43.5%) 21.4%
3 Turnovers 3
14.5 Equivalent Points 12.3
0.25 Equivalent Points Per Play 0.15

As I’ve said before, I’m working to expand this section in the future, and hoping to put in some work to go back and calculate the previous games this season as well as last season so I can draw comparisons between this year’s offense and last year’s. The stats and formulas used are from Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

Northwestern ran 25 more plays than Michigan but didn’t score until its final two possessions, which went for 19 plays and 14 plays. Michigan had a huge advantage in field position, but didn’t take advantage of it until Tony Jones fumbled a punt and Michigan took possession at the Northwestern 21 and scored two plays later. Michigan had seven scoring opportunities and only scored on two of them, while Northwestern had only three, but scored on two. Michigan had a slightly better leverage rage* but Northwestern had the better overall success rate** on everything except rushing.

*Leverage Rate: Standard downs/(Standard downs + passing downs)
**Success Rate: 50% of necessary yards on first down, 70% on second down, 100% on third or fourth down
***Passing Down is considered 2nd & 7 or more, 3rd & 5 or more, 4th & 5 or more

Let’s take a look at the Five Factors.

Five Factors
Michigan Stat Northwestern
4.4 Yards Per Play 3.2
 39.7% Success Rate 41.0%
42.2 Avg Starting Field Position 28.1
1.4 Points Per Opportunity 3.0
Even Turnover Margin Even

Michigan won two of the five factors, lost two, and tied one. Per Football Study Hall, here are the chances of winning based on each of these five factors:

Yards Per Play (weighted 35%)
• Michigan +1.2 = 86.2 percent chance of winning, with an average scoring margin of 13.2 (Michigan won by 1).

Success Rate (25%)
 Northwestern +1.3% = 59.2 percent chance of winning, with an average scoring margin of 3.6 (Northwestern lost by 1).

Average Starting Field Position (15%)
 Michigan +14.1 = 86.7 percent chance of winning, with an average scoring margin of 19.9 (Michigan won by 1).

Points Per Opportunity (15%)
 Northwestern +1.6 = 74.7 percent chance of winning, with an average scoring margin of 11.4 (Northwestern lost by 1).
However, Michigan had more scoring opportunities (seven to three) and a worse scoring average, which equates to a winning percentage of 64.8.

Turnover Margin (10%)
 Even = 50 percent chance of winning, with an average scoring margin of 0 (Michigan won by 1).

Michigan won two — Yards per Play (35 percent) and Field Position (15 percent) — and tied turnover margin (5 percent). Added together, that equates to a 55 percent overall chance of winning, which they did by one point. Northwestern won two — Success Rate (25 percent) and PPO (15 percent) — and tied turnover margin (5 percent). Added together, that equates to a 45 percent chance of winning. They lost by one.

Sometimes the advanced stats show an outlier that can help explain the outcome of a game. But this game was about as even as it gets with neither team having much success offensively, and the advanced stats prove exactly that.

Drive Chart
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*Hover over team initials to see drive statistics, Dash indicates direction of drive, Green dash = scoring play, Grey = punt, Red = turnover, Pink = missed field goal, Black = end of half or turnover on downs, Shaded line = special teams or defensive touchdown

The numbers game

12: Michigan allowed a season-low 12 rushing yards

150: Michigan rushed for at least 150 yards in back-to-back games for the first time this season

45: Jake Ryan’s career tackles for loss, moving into a tie for sixth in Michigan’s record book with Glen Steele (1994-97)

121: De’Veon Smith rushed for a career-high 121 yards

2: Mario Ojemudia recorded the first two sacks of his career

6: Michigan has won six straight games at Northwestern

732: Devin Gardner passed Todd Collins (1991-94) and Tom Brady (1996-99) for fifth place in career passing attempts with 732

Just enough: Michigan 10 – Northwestern 9

Saturday, November 8th, 2014


UM-NU(MGoBlue.com)

Nobody expected an offensive shootout in Evanston, Ill. on Saturday afternoon, and Michigan and Northwestern, both of whom feature offenses in the 100s nationally, lived up to that expectation combining for 19 points and 13 punts in a 10-9 Michigan win.

Northwestern crossed midfield on the opening possession of the game, but a converted 3rd-and-1 with a 10-yards Justin Jackson run, got called back for illegal formation and the Wildcats punted.

Michigan got a quick first down on two Drake Johnson runs, but on 3rd-and-8 from the Michigan 43, Devin Funchess dropped a would-be first down. Michigan punted.

And so the game went, neither offense able to put together anything resembling a long drive. Jake Ryan picked off a Trevor Siemian pass at the Northwestern 47 and Michigan quickly moved into the Northwestern red zone. But De’Veon Smith was stopped on 4th-and-1 at the Wildcat 16.

UM-Northwestern-small-final-FINAL
Final Stats
Michigan Northwestern
Score 10 9
Record 5-5, 3-3 3-6, 2-4
Total Yards 256 264
Net Rushing Yards 147 -9
Net Passing Yards 109 273
First Downs 13 18
Turnovers 3 4
Penalties-Yards 5-50 3-10
Punts-Yards 7-267 6-209
Time of Possession 25:49 31:51
Third Down Conversions 1-of-12 10-of-20
Fourth Down Conversions 0-of-1 0-of-2
Sacks By-Yards 6-59 0-0
Field Goals 1-for-2 1-for-2
PATs 1-for-1 0-for-0
Red Zone Scores-Chances 2-of-4 2-of-4
Full Box Score

Midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan took possession at the Northwestern 31 after a short punt and a nine-yard Amara Darboh return. Three plays later, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Matthew Harris. Northwestern gave it right back four plays later when Matt Godin intercepted Siemian at the Northwestern 35. But once again Michigan couldn’t convert. Matt Wile’s 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked and the teams went to halftime locked in a scoreless game, each offense barely over 100 total yards.

In the second half it was Northwestern’s turn to squander a great opportunity. A Michigan fumbled snap on its first possession gave the Wildcats possession a the Michigan 27. But three plays later, kicker Jack Mitchell pulled a 36-yard field goal to the left.

Michigan finally broke through midway through the third quarter thanks to another Northwestern mistake. Tony Jones fumbled a Will Hagerup punt and Michigan recovered at the Northwestern 21. Gardner connected with Funchess for 18 yards and Smith carried it into the end zone on the next play, putting Michigan ahead 7-0.

After forcing a Wildcat punt, Michigan’s offense looked to add more to the tally, but Gardner was picked off by safety Ibraheim Campbell at the Northwestern six. Campbell rumbled 79 yards to the Michigan 15. But yet again Northwestern’s offense imploded. Frank Clark stopped Jones for a five-yard loss on the first play, then back-to-back sacks by Brennen Beyer pushed the Wildcats out of field goal range. On 4th-and-38, Pat Fitzgeraldn had no choice but to punt.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, after forcing a Michigan punt, Northwestern put together its best drive of the game, marching 95 yards on 19 plays, but had to settle for a 21-yard field goal to pull within four at 7-3.

Michigan rode Smith and a 16-yard completion to Jake Butt down the field and Wile kicked a 37-yard field goal to put the Wolverines ahead by a touchdown once again with 3:03 remaining.

But Northwestern wasn’t finished, methodically marching down the field with a series of short passes. On 2nd-and-10 from the Michigan 22, Raymon Taylor was flagged for pass interference giving Northwestern a 1st-and-goal at the seven with less than a minute to play. After back-to-back runs by Jackson failed to reach the end zone, Siemian found Jones for a touchdown with three seconds left. Rather than kick the extra point and go to overtime for the third straight season, Fitzgerald elected to go for the win. On the two-point conversation attempt, Siemian rolled out to his right, but Clark was right there waiting for him. Siemian lost his footing and fell to the ground sealing the Michigan win.

After the game, Michigan coaches and players alike said they were prepared for the two-point conversion play. Hoke credited the coaches in the booth for seeing it and the players credited their preparation during the week.

“I knew it was going to be a sprint out once I saw the double motion, and that’s how I went about it,” said Clark.

Ryan agreed, saying, “”We planned for it all week. We knew what they were doing.”

Michigan finished the game with 256 total yards, 147 of which on the ground. Gardner completed 11-of-24 passes for 109 yards and two interceptions, while Smith led the way with 121 rushing yards on 18 carries (6.7 yards per carry). Darboh led Michigan with four receptions for 41 yards.

Northwestern outgained Michigan with 264 total yards, but the Michigan defense held the Wildcats to minus-nine yards rushing thanks to six sacks. Siemian completed 32-of-49 passes for 273 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. After averaging 123 yards per game in his last four, Jackson was held to just 35 yards on 17 carries (2.1 yards per carry). Kyle Prater was the leading receiver with eight catches for 86 yards.

Ryan finished with 11 tackles, half of a tackle for loss, and one pick. Clark tallied seven tackles, two for loss, and one sack, but was a disruptive force for most of the game. Beyer and Mario Ojemudia each recorded a pair of sacks, while Willie Henry added one.

At 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, Michigan heads into its final bye week of the season. The Wolverines host Maryland (6-3, 3-2) on Nov. 22. The Terrapins were off this week and host Michigan State next Saturday. A Michigan win over Maryland would make the Wolverines bowl eligible heading into the season-ending trip to Columbus.

M&GB staff predictions: Northwestern

Friday, November 7th, 2014


StaffPicks_banner

Michigan heads to Northwestern tomorrow, the site of their most exciting finish of the season a year ago. The last two meetings between the teams have been controlled by Northwestern, but stolen by Michigan in the closing seconds and overtime. Can Michigan top the Wildcats in regulation this time? Or will Northwestern finally get the best of the Wolverines? Here are our picks.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Northwestern
Justin 20 17
Sam 21 20
Derick 28 13
Josh 20 24
Joe 28 24
M&GB Average 23 20

Justin: Neither team features a good offense and the forecast in Evanston tomorrow afternoon calls for high 30s and wind 15-20 miles per hour. This game has all the makings of an ugly, low-scoring affair similar to last year’s meeting that closed regulation tied 9-9.

Both teams will look to the ground, Michigan hoping the combination of De’Veon Smith’s power and Drake Johnson’s speed can get something going. Northwestern will hope true freshman Justin Jackson can carry the momentum from his last four games in which he averaged 123 yards against four solid defenses. In reality, neither team will string together many long scoring drives and whichever team limits the turnovers will likely win this one.

Two years ago, Michigan needed a Roy Roundtree circus catch on a bomb from Devin Gardner to get into field position for the game-tying touchdown and then won in overtime. Last season, Michigan needed a fire drill 44-yard field goal at the last second by Brendan Gibbons to force overtime and then won in triple overtime. This year it will probably be a Will Hagerup 100-yard fake punt scramble out of his own end zone for a game-tying touchdown and then Michigan wins in quadruple overtime.

Michigan 20 – Northwestern 17

Sam: Michigan is on a roll, having won two of their last three games. Or, you can also view it as a free fall, with the Wolverines having lost four of their last six.

I tend to take the latter with a little more weight.

Last week, after Athletic Director Dave Brandon was shown the door by President Mark Schlissel, the Maize and Blue showed some life against the miserable Indiana Hoosiers, putting them away comfortably.

But the road has not been kind, and that’s exactly where Michigan will be this Saturday.

Michigan travels to Northwestern for an afternoon game outside of Chicago looking to inch within one game of bowl eligibility, and the Wildcats are struggling mightily as well, coming off three straight losses – two of which weren’t close – and showcasing a quarterback who simply can’t throw.

It should be another hard-to-watch battle, but give me Michigan.

Michigan 21- Northwestern 20

Derick:  A scheduling reshuffle hands Northwestern a chance to get even for kick-gate on their home turf Saturday with the triple-overtime loss on its mind. The Wildcats’ shocking upset over Wisconsin given way to three straight losses, and Michigan is perking up in recent weeks. The Wolverines have to win the next two games to earn an invitation to a bowl game, and I think the relief that came from the end of the Dave Brandon era has them playing with less on their minds. Michigan will top this offensively-challenged Northwestern squad.

Michigan 28 – Northwestern 13

Josh: I said before the season I felt this was a potential loss. Not because I thought Northwestern would be any good or that Michigan would be so bad but simply because of luck. Michigan has had some incredibly lucky games against Northwestern and they’ve all gone the way of the Maize & Blue. Numerous dropped interceptions by the Wildcats, miracle catches (Roundtree) and sliding field goal holds at the last second are just plain dumb luck. With the way our season has gone so far I think that run ends this year, basically eliminating Michigan from bowl eligibility. Which I think is a good thing; we cannot wait until end of December to fire Hoke and begin a new coaching search for someone not named Jim Harbaugh (no, I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell he leaves the NFL, sorry).

Northwestern 24 – Michigan 20

Joe: And down the stretch they come!!! One thing is for sure. These guys will play hard for their coach, even if it is only for a few more weeks. The goal should be simple. Win two more games and go bowling. I want to believe they have it in ‘em to put another solid performance together and get that fifth win, but doing so two straight weeks might be asking a bit much. I think the offense will continue to feed Johnson the ball and see if they can control the clock early. Devin will manage things well throwing the occasional deep ball but will not be able to pull away. This one will be ugly on both sides of the ball and may be tough to watch. Northwestern will slow things down like they did last week and mix in some up tempo every once and a great while. Look for a close game with Michigan pulling it out late.

Michigan 28 – Northwestern 24

Michigan-Northwestern game preview

Friday, November 7th, 2014


Game Preview_Northwestern_banner

With three games left in the season Michigan is reduced to fighting for its postseason life, needing to win two to become bowl eligible and avoid a losing season. Indeed there are some fans rooting for that not to happen if only to speed up the seemingly inevitable coaching change, but there are seniors such as Devin Gardner and Jake Ryan and Frank Clark who are down to the final three games of their careers. Tomorrow is the first of those, and if they take care of business they’ll be one step closer to earning a fourth and final game.

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Quick Facts
Ryan Field – 3:30 p.m. EST – ESPN2
Northwestern Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (9th season)
Coaching Record: 58-51 (all at Northwestern)
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall (7th season)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz (7th season)
Returning 2013 Starters: 17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
Last Season: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Last Meeting: UM 29 – NU 17 3OT (2013)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 55-15-2
Record at Ryan Field: Michigan leads 19-7
Current Streak: Michigan 3
Current Streak at NU:  Michigan 5
Last 10 Meetings:  Michigan 8-2
Last Northwestern Win: 2008 (21-14)
Last NU Home Win: 2000 (54-51)

But while Michigan owns the series history with Northwestern 55-15-2 and has topped Northwestern three years in a row, 11 of the past 15, and 30 of the past 34, the Wildcats have made Michigan really work for it in each of the past two years. In 2012, Michigan needed a Devin Gardner hail Mary to Roy Roundtree in the closing seconds to get into field position for the game-tying field goal and then won in overtime. Last season, it took an improbable last-second 44-yard field goal to tie the game and Michigan won in triple overtime.

This season, Michigan and Northwestern are essentially equals, underperforming their preseason expectations with bad offenses and decent defenses. But while Michigan doesn’t have a quality win Northwestern has beaten then-17th-ranked Wisconsin, and while Michigan doesn’t have a road win Northwestern dominated Penn State in State College. On the other hand, Northwestern has the worst loss, a 23-15 Week 2 home loss to Northern Illinois.

After a 10-3 season in 2012, Pat Fitzgerald had Northwestern the talk of the town. The Wildcats started 4-0 in 2013, moving all the way up to 16th nationally and landing ESPN College Game Day for the Oct. 5 showdown with 4th-ranked Ohio State. But that 40-30 loss kicked off a seven game losing streak that ended with a 37-34 win over Illinois on the final game of the season. Northwestern finished 5-7, which means in the past 16 games, the Wildcats are 4-12 — two games worse than Brady Hoke’s 6-10 in that same timespan.

But Fitzgerald is still beloved in Evanston and has even been thrown around as a possible candidate — if a long shot — to replace Hoke at Michigan. An argument can certainly be made that Northwestern has outplayed Michigan each of the past two years despite losing, and Fitzgerald won’t have to use much to motivate his team tomorrow. Can Northwestern finally finish the game? Or will Michigan get the best of the ‘cats once again? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Michigan defense vs Northwestern offense: When Northwestern has the ball

Northwestern’s offense ranks 113th nationally in scoring (19.1 points per game), 105th in rushing (124.8 yards per game), 88th in passing (205.2 yards per game), and 114th in total offense (330.0 yards per game). Comparatively, Michigan’s scores about a field goal more per game, rushes for 30 more yards, and passes for 30 fewer. Both teams average the exact same amount of total yards. Northwestern converts third downs at a clip of 38 percent compared to Michigan’s 41, has allowed five more sacks in one fewer game, and has scored three fewer touchdowns.

With Kain Colter gone, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has attempted just 15 fewer passes than he did all of last season, but is 603 yards shy of last year’s pace and 3.5 completion percentage points behind. He has also thrown just four touchdown passes in eight games and compared to six interceptions. Even so, he has still thrown for more yards than Devin Gardner in one fewer game. He has topped 200 yards passing in four of eight games with a high of 269 on 32-of-50 completions against Minnesota. However, Iowa held him to just 8-of-18 for 68 yards last Saturday.

Siemian doesn’t have a standout receiver, but does have a group of solid pass catchers. The leading receiver is senior USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has 29 catches for 286 yards and one touchdown. At 6’5″, 225, he’s a similar size as Devin Funchess, but lacks the same type of game breaking ability. Junior super back Dan Vitale is the second-leading receiver with 26 catches for 282 yards and a score, while junior Miles Shuler has 23 for 190 yards, but has yet to find the end zone. However, Shuler, a Rutgers transfer, suffered a head injury on Oct. 18 and hasn’t played since. He’s out for tomorrow as well. Senior Tony Jones, a Flint, Mich. native, started the season with a seven-catch, 64-yard game, but has tailed off since then. He has 18 catches for 179 yards. Junior Cameron Dickerson is the only other receiver with double-digit receptions with 11 for 171 and one score.

The backfield has brought Northwestern fans some excitement this season, namely from true freshman running back Justin Jackson, who has been gaining steam as the season has gone along. In Week 1, he received just eight carries for 40 yards, and through the first four games, he averaged just 14 carries for 58.5 yards per game. But in the last four, his workload has increased to 25 carries and 123 yards per game. He has topped 100 yards in three of the last four, and the only one he didn’t was a 96-yard performance against Iowa last week. And he did that against four pretty good defenses — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

Michigan offense vs Northwestern defense: When Michigan has the ball

Northwestern’s defense ranks 46th in scoring (23.9 points per game), 65th against the run (166.1 yards per game), 53rd against the pass (222.2 yards per game), and 60th in total defense (388.4 yards per game). The Wildcats allow 2.2 more points, 50 more rushing yards, 33 more passing yards, and 83 more total yards per game than Michigan.

Entering the season, the front seven was considered to be a strength, most notably linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Ariguzo, a senior, leads the team with 72 tackles to go along with four tackles for loss and one sack. Ellis moved from strong side to middle linebacker this season, but suffered a concussion against Minnesota and will not play tomorrow. In his place has been redshirt freshman Anthony Walker, who has recorded 24 tackles, two for loss, and one interception. The strong side spot has been split all season between junior Drew Smith and senior converted safety Jimmy Hall. The duo has combined for 55 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and one sack.

The line is led by junior end Dean Lowry, who leads the team with five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The other end has been a rotation between juniors Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman, who have combined for 20 tackles, six for loss, and two sacks. The interior of the line received a huge setback prior to the season when fifth-year senior Sean McEvilly suffered a season-ending foot injury. Sophomore Greg Kuhar and junior C.J. Robbins have been the stalwarts inside, though senior Chance Carter has also seen quite a bit of time. All three, however, are listed on this week’s injury list, Kuhar and Robbins as probable and Carter as questionable.

The secondary has started junior Nick VanHoose and sophomore Matthew Harris at corner in every game this season. The two rank third and fourth on the team in tackles and lead the team with 11 and nine passes defended, respectively. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell has missed four straight games with a hamstring injury, and is questionable for tomorrow’s game. Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike has done well in his stead, leading the team with three interceptions while recording 36 tackles. The other safety is junior Traveon Henry, who ranks second on the team with 56 tackles, including two for loss.

Special Teams: The other third

Sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell has made 7-of-8 field goals this season, but has attempted one field goal longer than 29 yards, a 44-yarder that he missed. Junior punter Chris Gradone‘s average of 37.8 yards per punt does not rank in the Big Ten’s top ten. Shuler is the main return man, averaging 19.8 yards per kick return and 14.0 yards per punt return. The latter would rank second in the conference if he had enough returns, but he has only returned three punts.

Prediction

Michigan and Northwestern are pretty similar and I would expect a close, low-scoring game like saw last year and like we saw three weeks ago against Penn State. Three of the past four opponents have rushed for over 220 yards against Northwestern and Michigan will try to do the same, combining the power running of De’Veon Smith with the speed of Drake Johnson. It could have some success, but don’t expect 200 yards.

With cold and windy weather expected in Evanston tomorrow, neither passing game will have much success, so it will be up to the ground games. As mentioned above, Northwestern has found success against good defenses the past few weeks with freshman Justin Jackson. Michigan’s rush defense, although 16th nationally, has given up big games to running backs this season. It kept Indiana’s Tevin Coleman in check a week ago because the Hoosiers posed no passing threat. Northwestern’s passing threat will be a bit better, but not much considering the weather. It will be an ugly offensive game and whichever team can avoid turnovers will win. Given Michigan’s recent history with Northwestern, I’ll take Michigan ever so slightly.

Michigan 20 – Northwestern 17, probably in quadruple overtime

First Look: Northwestern

Monday, November 3rd, 2014


FirstLook-Northwestern

Michigan got back in the win column on Saturday with a 34-10 win over Indiana and now has to win two of its last three to become bowl eligible and avoid a losing season. For the second season in a row Michigan has to travel to Northwestern, but of all the road venues in the conference Kyle Field has been the most hospitable with a large Michigan alumni presence in Chicago. Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Northwestern compare through the first two thirds of the season.

Northwestern Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Northwestern | Michigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 19.1 | 21.9 113 | 105
23.9 | 21.7 46 | 29
Rushing Yards 998 | 1,394 1,329 | 1,041
Rush Avg. Per Game 124.8 | 154.9 105 | 71
166.1 | 115.7 65 | 16
Avg. Per Rush 3.2 | 4.5
4.1 | 3.1
Passing Yards 1,642 | 1,576 1,778 | 1,703
Pass Avg. Per Game 205.2 | 175.1 88 | 110 222.2 | 189.2 53 | 18
Total Offense 2,640 | 2,970 3,107 | 2,744
Total Off Avg. Per Game 330.0 | 330.0 114 | 114 388.4 | 304.9 60 | 9
Kick Return Average 19.1 | 19.3 100 | 96 22.5 | 21.3 96 | 80
Punt Return Average 12.8 | 6.2 21 | 88 8.1 | 11.9 66 | 112
Avg. Time of Possession 29:12 | 30:28 82 | 53
30:48 | 29:32
3rd Down Conversion Pct 38.0% | 41.0% 76 | 57
40.0% | 36.0% 75 | 40
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 23-192 | 18-111
105 | T66
14-89 | 21-172
T87 | T54
Touchdowns Scored 19 | 22
24 | 22
Field Goals-Attempts 7-8 | 11-15
8-13 | 14-17
Red Zone Scores (22-26)85%|(23-25)92% T52 | 9
(25-30)83%|(25-29)86% 66 | 89
Red Zone Touchdowns (15-26)58%|(18-25)72% (19-30)63%|(15-29)52%
Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) .082 | -.218
50 | 91
-.066 | -.196 59 | 44

It has been a strange season for Northwestern after entering with hopes of making a push for the Big Ten West Division. The Wildcats opened with losses to California and Northern Illinois before reeling off three straight wins, including a dominant 29-6 victory at Penn State and a 20-14 win over 17th-ranked Wisconsin.

Just when it looked like Northwestern had turned things around, the Wildcats went on a three-game losing streak, falling by a touchdown at Minnesota and then getting blown out by Nebraska and Iowa.

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 30 California L 24-31
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois L 15-23
Sept. 20 Western Illinois W 24-7
Sept. 27 at Penn State W 29-6
Oct. 4 #17 Wisconsin W 20-14
Oct. 11 at Minnesota L 17-24
Oct. 18 #19 Nebraska L 17-38
Nov. 1 at Iowa L 7-48
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at #10 Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

The problem has been offense. Northwestern has yet to score 30 points in a game this season and has scored 20 or more in just four of eight games. Only 12 teams in the nation average fewer points per game. Unlike Indiana’s offense last week, Northwestern doesn’t have one part of the offense that does really well. The passing game ranks 105th nationally, averaging 124.8 yards per game and the rushing game ranks 88th, averaging 205.2 yards per game.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has taken a step back from last season. He’s completing just 56.2 percent of his passes for 195.5 yards per game and has thrown just four touchdown passes compared to six interceptions. In other words, he’s averaging a touchdown every two games.

One small positive for the Wildcats has been the emergence of freshman running back Justin Jackson, who is averaging 123 yards per game over the last four. He has surpassed 100 yards in three of those four and just missed last week against Iowa with 96 yards. After getting just 14 carries per game in the first four games, he has seen his workload increase to 25 carries per game the last four.

Altogether, Northwestern passes for 30 fewer yards than Michigan but rushes for 30 yards more. Both teams average exactly 330 yards of offense per game, which ranks 114th nationally.

Defensively, Northwestern is about a middle of the road team, ranking 46th nationally in scoring defense, 65th against the run, and 53rd against the pass. After holding three of the first four opponents under 200 yards rushing, three of the last four have eclipsed 200 yards on the ground. Those four have rushed for 11 touchdowns against the Wildcats. Those same three — Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa — have each totaled more than 400 yards of offense as well. In fact, the last two — Nebraska and Iowa — have averaged 477 yards.

In total, Northwestern gives up 84 more yards than Michigan per game, 51 more rushing and 33 more passing. The Wildcats also rank 75th nationally in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert 40 percent of the time, and have only recorded 14 sacks through eight games.

Special teams is also middle of the road with the exception of punt returns. Northwestern ranks 21st nationally with an average of 12.8 yards per punt return, but they’ve only had six. Sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell has made 7-of-8 field goal attempts, but his long is 29. The only field goal he has attempted over that was a missed 44-yarder against Penn State.

As you can see, there’s nothing statistically that says Michigan shouldn’t have a good chance to win in Evanston, but the Wildcats have beaten Wisconsin and thumped Penn State on the road. Additionally, they have played Michigan tough the past two years with both going to overtime.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Average/Game
Trevor Siemian 159-283 1,564 4 6 195.5
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
Justin Jackson 158 726 5 27 4.6
Treyvon Green 46 158 0 25 3.4
Warren Long 26 116 0 21 4.5
Solomon Vault 20 81 2 16 4.1
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
Kyle Prater 29 286 1 22 35.8
Dan Vitale (SB) 26 282 1 28 35.3
Myles Shuler 23 190 0 22 23.8
Tony Jones 18 179 0 35 22.4
Cameron Dickerson 11 171 1 54 21.4
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Chi Chi Ariguzo (LB) 43 29 72 4.0-15 1.0-7
Traveon Henry (S) 31 26 57 2.0-6 0-0
Nick VanHoose (CB) 44 11 55 3.0-9 0-0 (2 INT, 11 PD)
Godwin Igwebuike (S) 20 16 36 1.0-3 0.0 (3 INT, 5 PD)
Dean Lowry (DL) 14 11 25 5.0-16 3.5-14
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Jack Mitchell 7 8 29 16 18
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Chris Gradone 53 2,001 37.8 16 3
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Northwestern in the coming days.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 4 was a much-needed good week for the Big Ten with all but two teams picking up wins. Those two teams were Michigan and Ohio State. The bad news for Michigan fans is that Ohio State had a bye week, which means Michigan was the only conference team that lost last Saturday.

East Division
1. Penn State (4-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat UMass 48-7 This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Penn State stayed hot this weekend, dominating UMass 48-7. With the rest of the conference struggling, the newly bowl-eligible Nittany Lions have emerged as the toughest competition for Michigan State in the East.

2. Michigan State (2-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Eastern Michigan 73-14 This Week: Sat vs Wyoming (3-1), 12pm, ESPN2

The Spartans bounced back from the tough loss at Oregon by pounding Eastern Michigan following the bye week. The Spartans defense is as strong as it’s ever been heading into a conference slate littered with teams that struggle to score.

3. Indiana (2-1, 0-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat #18 Missouri 31-27 This Week: Sat vs Maryland (3-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Indiana pulled off the biggest win of the non conference schedule for the Big Ten by beating SEC contender Missouri on a last minute score. The Hoosiers came out of nowhere for the win, proving that an elite offense will give them a chance to stay in every game going forward.

4. Maryland (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Syracuse 34-20 This Week: Sat at Indiana (2-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Beating power conference opponents on thr the road is always a good way to build a stronger resume, and Maryland did just that this weekend, pounding Syracuse by two touchdowns.

5. Ohio State (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Cincinnati (2-0), 6pm, Big Ten Network

Ohio State took a week off after bouncing back from a loss to Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes should finish near the top of the East standings, but they won’t contend with Michigan State.

6. Michigan (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Utah 10-26 This Week: Sat vs Minnesota (3-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Saturday turned into a disaster for Michigan when the team failed to show up against a talented Utah team. The program is under siege from the fanbase and Brady Hoke is clinging to his job by a thread heading into the Big Ten season.

7. Rutgers (3-1, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Navy 31-24 This Week: Sat vs Tulane (1-3), 12pm, ESPNNews

Rutgers turned in an impressive performance against Navy on Saturday, beating the Midshipmen on the road. Rutgers has to consider the 3-1 start a success, but a brutal conference schedule leaves little hope for the team in the big picture.

West Division
1. Nebraska (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Miami 41-31 This Week: Sat Illinois (3-1), 9pm, Big Ten Network

It wasn’t always pretty for Nebraska in the preconference schedule, but in a year when so many if their Big Ten rivals were upset, Bo Pelini will gladly take a spotless 4-0 start to 2014.

2. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat San Jose State 24-7 This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-2), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Minnesota put in a strong defensive effort to stay perfect Saturday against San Jose State. The Gophers will take their show on the road this weekend in the battle for the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor.

3. Wisconsin (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Bowling Green 68-17 This Week: Sat vs South Florida (2-2), 12pm, ESPN2

Melvin Gordon and the Badger offense put on a rushing show Saturday against a Bowling Green team that upset Indiana last weekend. The team rushed for over 600 yards in the contest and demonstrated why it is favored to win the West.

4. Iowa (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Pittsburgh 24-20 This Week: Sat at Purdue (2-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Iowa put in its best effort of the season Saturday, beating Pittsburgh on the road. The Hawkeyes played inconsistent football throughout the preconference schedule and were fortunate to come out with three wins.

5. Illinois (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Texas State 42-35 This Week: Sat at #21 Nebraska (4-0), 9pm, Big Ten Network

For the third time this season Illinois played with fire but escaped, moving to 3-1 on the year. This time the Fighting Illini pulled through in a shootout, winning 42-35 over Texas State.

6. Purdue (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Southern Illinois 35-13 This Week: Sat vs Iowa (3-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Purdue pulled back to .500 Saturday by crushing a weak Southern Illinois team at home. The Big Ten will reap few victories for the Boilermakers this season.

7. Northwestern (1-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Western Illinois 24-7 This Week: Sat at Penn State (4-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Pat Fitzgerald followed up the bye week by getting the monkey off his team’s back, beating Western Illinois 24-7. It looks like it will be another difficult year for the Wildcats in 2014.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 2

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

It was a dreadful week for the Big Ten as a conference, as the top teams crumbled against strong competition and the rest of the teams struggled against weak teams. Purdue and Northwestern both fell to MAC schools and Iowa barely escaped Ball State. Nebraska, Illinois, and Maryland were favored by multiple scores but all only won by a single possession. At night the conference’s supposed top three teams lost by a combined 64 points in a week that may have eliminated the Big Ten from playoff contention.

East Division
1. Penn State (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Akron 21-3 This Week: Sat at Rutgers, 8pm, Big Ten Network

What could be better than crushing Akron to move to 2-0 on the season for Penn State? How about learning that, after an offseason resigning themselves to literal championship irrelevance, the team will be eligible to play in the postseason after all? The news comes for a Penn State team that looks dangerous behind sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg and could make a run at the East Division crown.

2. Michigan State (1-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #3 Oregon 27-46 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Eastern Michigan)

Very few teams in the country have the talent to beat Oregon on its own turf, and Michigan State is not one of those groups. But that doesn’t mean the Spartans can’t make a run at the first college football playoff. Losing by 19 points should never satisfy a fan base that hopes to support an elite program, but Michigan State certainly looked like the class of the Big Ten when it led 27-18 in Autzen.

3. Maryland (2-0, 0-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat South Florida 24-17 This Week: Sat vs West Virginia, 12pm, Big Ten Network

After demolishing James Madison in Week 1, Maryland still had everything to prove in its first year as a member of the Big Ten conference. On Saturday it was more of the same as the Terrapins went on the road and beat a South Florida team that finished 2-10 last season.

4. Indiana (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Bowling Green, 12pm, ESPNU

Scheduling a bye may have been the best possible move for Indiana in a week when nearly every Big Ten powerhouse lost by more than 10 points. The Hoosiers go on the road to face Bowling Green this week before a big matchup in Missouri.

5. Rutgers (2-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Howard 38-25 This Week: Sat vs Penn State, 8pm, Big Ten Network

Following a huge road win in Washington State to bring in the new season, Rutgers struggled with Howard when it returned back home. In the end, four touchdown passes from Gary Nova was enough to move Rutgers to 2-0.

6. Ohio State (1-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Virginia Tech 21-35 This Week: Sat vs Kent State, 12pm, ABC/ESPN2

Week 1 against Navy was just a fluke, right? Unfortunately for Urban Meyer, his team proved that notion wrong on Saturday night when Virginia Tech walked into the Horseshoe and stomped his Buckeyes 35-21. J.T. Barrett was 9 for 29 with three interceptions in what turned out to be a disastrous performance. Would Ohio State be the best team in the conference with Braxton Miller? It’s certainly possible, but without the former Heisman candidate the team is revealing massive holes at more than just backup quarterback.

7. Michigan (1-1, 0-0) – Down 5
Last Week: Lost to #16 Notre Dame 0-31 This Week: Sat vs Miami (Ohio), 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

In the final matchup with Notre Dame on Saturday night, Michigan proved how much a team can change over the course of a week. After a nearly perfect showing against Appalachian State in the opener, the team completely collapsed in South Bend. Doug Nussmeier’s offense posted the school’s first scoreless effort in 30 years while Greg Mattison’s ‘more aggressive defense’ sat back and let Everett Golson pick it apart like a thoracic surgeon. One loss can’t derail an entire season, but the 31-0 shelling fans witnessed Saturday is as close as it gets. Brady Hoke’s best road win in four seasons at Michigan is over an Illinois team that finished 7-6 after scraping out a victory in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011. Nothing short of wins in East Lansing or Columbus should save this coaching staff.

West Division
1. Minnesota (2-0, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Middle Tennessee 35-24 This Week: Sat at TCU, 4pm, Fox Sports 1

Minnesota’s presence atop the West Division standings says more about the rest of the conference than it does about the Golden Gophers. Minnesota has played two cupcake opponents at home, but through Week 2, beating those teams by double digits is enough to earn the top spot.

2. Wisconsin (1-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Western Illinois 37-3 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Bowling Green)

Blowing a 17-point lead to LSU on the national stage almost came back to bite Wisconsin again, as it led Western Illinois just 9-3 at halftime. But the Badgers came back in the second half and scored 28 unanswered points and are the obvious favorite in the West Division.

3. Nebraska (2-0, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat McNeese State 31-24 This Week: Sat at Fresno State (0-2), 10:30, CBS SN

Nebraska highlights a host of teams that struggled to beat inferior opponents on Saturday. McNeese State fought the Cornhuskers to the bitter end in Lincoln, losing by just a touchdown.

4. Illinois (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Western Kentucky 42-34 This Week: Sat at Washington (2-0), 4pm, FOX

Though Illinois beat Western Kentucky by only eight points, quarterback Wes Lunt has emerged as a leader of the offense. Lunt has thrown for 741 yards and seven touchdowns through his first two weeks.

5. Iowa (2-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Ball State 17-13 This Week: Sat vs Iowa State (0-2), 3:30pm, ESPN

Iowa was a popular pick to challenge Wisconsin for the West Division title at the beginning of the season, but two poor showings have buried that belief despite a 2-0 start for the Hawkeyes. Ball State nearly upset Iowa in Iowa City, but fell just four points short.

6. Purdue (1-1, 0-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Central Michigan 17-38 This Week: Sat vs #11 Notre Dame, 7:30pm, NBC

Former Michigan running back Thomas Rawls shredded Purdue for 155 yards and two touchdowns as Central Michigan absolutely rolled the Boilermakers 38-17 in West Lafayette. Purdue trailed the whole game and is clearly inferior to mid-level MAC schools at this point of the season.

7. Northwestern (0-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Northern Illinois 15-23 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Western Illinois)

Two losses to start the 2014 season have left Northwestern with a 2-9 record since the middle of last season as the program continues to unravel underneath Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats are the only team in the conference without a win.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 1

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 1 could have been an outstanding start for a conference that really needs a lift. Rutgers, perhaps the worst team in the league, kicked the season off with a road victory against Washington State, and Wisconsin held a 24-7 lead over LSU in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, a couple games went south. Northwestern couldn’t hold on against California and Wisconsin hit a brick wall, handing the league a deceptive 12-2 start to the 2014 campaign. The league did pick up a few quality wins: Penn State beat UCF, the defending Fiesta Bowl champions; Ohio State beat a solid Navy team; and Rutgers picked up a road win. But the Big Ten is fighting an uphill battle to regain some respect, and another loss to the SEC won’t help the conference gain any ground.

The East Division certainly looks to be the stronger half of the Big Ten, as all seven teams took care of business to open the season. Here are the power rankings after the first week of college football.

East Division
1. Michigan State – Even
Last Week: Beat Jacksonville St 45-7 This Week: Sat. at #3 Oregon 6:30pm, FOX

If there were any questions about Michigan State’s defense after it lost Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, the Spartans took the first step toward answering them on Friday. Mark Dantonio’s team shut down the Gamecocks, allowing just one score. If fans think the performance was a fluke, a nationally-televised test against Oregon on Saturday should settle the matter.

2. Michigan – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Appalachian St 52-14 This Week: Sat at #16 Notre Dame, 7:30pm, NBC

The most important takeaway for Michigan at the start of 2014 was the improvement of an absolutely porous offensive line from a year ago. On Saturday the offense not only looked strong up front, it rushed for 350 yards, including over 100 each for Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Appalachian State’s defense may not be the best measuring stone, but Michigan running backs never averaged more than 10 yards per carry in a game last year. In week 1, both sophomores blew that number out of the water.

3. Penn State – Up 1
Last Week: Beat UCF 26-24 This Week: Sat. vs Akron, 12pm, ABC/ESPN2

When Penn State scheduled a game against Central Florida to begin the 2014 season, the team never imagined it would match up with a school coming off a Fiesta Bowl championship. But a last-second field goal gave the Nittany Lions a 26-24 win in Ireland and the most impressive showing for the conference last week.

4. Ohio State – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Navy 34-17 This Week: Sat. vs Virginia Tech, 8pm, ESPN

Experts have already started making excuses for Ohio State. After a close call in Week 1, the Buckeyes were praised for fighting through adversity against an underrated Navy team. In reality, Ohio State is supposed to be the best team in the conference, and shouldn’t struggle with the Midshipmen, with or without Braxton Miller. The effort was reflected in the most recent rankings, in which OSU fell below Michigan State to No. 8 overall.

5. Rutgers – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Washington St. 41-38 This Week: Sat. vs Howard, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Rutgers was one of the few Big Ten teams to challenge itself during week 1, heading across the country to battle Washington State. A balanced offensive attack helped the Scarlett Knights hang on for a 41-38 victory in their first game as a Big Ten school.

6. Indiana – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Indiana St. 28-10 This Week: Bye (9/13 at Bowling Green)

The Hoosiers put on a rushing show against Indiana State on Saturday, posting 455 yards on the ground and only attempting 18 passes. The electric offense seems to have returned from a year ago, but the defense will have to improve to help Indiana compete during Big Ten play.

7. Maryland – Down 2
Last Week: Beat James Madison 52-7 This Week: Sat. at South Florida, 3:30pm, CBS Sports Network

Maryland put on an impressive offensive show Saturday, scoring 52 points against James Madison. Fans won’t really know what to expect of Maryland until week 6, when it gets its first challenge against Ohio State.

West Division
1. Nebraska – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Florida Atlantic 55-7 This Week: Sat. vs McNeese State, 12pm, ESPNU

Florida Atlantic didn’t provide a huge test for Nebraska on Saturday, but the Cornhuskers still impressed by rushing for 498 yards and scoring a league-high 55 points. During a week in which much of the division struggled, Nebraska took care of business and landed in the top spot.

2. Minnesota – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Eastern Illinois 42-20 This Week: Sat. vs Middle Tennessee, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

One year after breaking out for eight wins, Minnesota can keep the momentum rolling with four wins before the start of the Big Ten season. The Gophers cruised to a 22-point win in Week 1, despite a mediocre performance in the passing game.

3. Purdue – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Western Michigan 43-34 This Week: Sat. vs Central Michigan, 12pm, ESPNews

How did Purdue land in the top three of the West Division? Two Big Ten teams lost in Week 1 and two more struggled with FCS opponents. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers tied their win total from last season with a victory over Western Michigan.

4. Wisconsin – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to #13 LSU 24-28 This Week: Sat. vs Western Illinois, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Fans in Madison have to be pulling their hair out in frustration after the Badgers blew a 17-point halftime lead to LSU. Wisconsin faces just one more ranked opponent this season when Nebraska comes to town, but visions of an undefeated season vanished with the collapse.

5. Iowa – Down 3
Last Week: Beat Northern Iowa 31-23 This Week: Sat. vs Ball State, 3:30pm, ESPN2

Iowa is favored by many to be the stiffest competition to Wisconsin in the West Division. But the Hawkeyes were underwhelming in Week 1, struggling to take care of the lowly Northern Iowa Panthers at home. Luckily, Iowa escaped with a win, but a defense that surrendered 23 points will have to figure things out before the conference season starts.

6. Illinois – Even
Last Week: Beat Youngstown St. 28-17 This Week: Sat. vs Western Kentucky, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Illinois also struggled with a FCS opponent, beating Youngstown State 28-17. If the offense can only rush for 78 yards against this type of competition, then the Fighting Illini stand little chance against talented Big Ten defenses.

7. Northwestern – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Cal 24-31 This Week: Sat. vs Northern Illinois, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

Another season got off to a disappointing start in Evanston Saturday, when Northwestern dropped the opening game to California 31-24. Coach Pat Fitzgerald felt the absence of Venric Mark right off the bat, as his offense rushed for just 108 yards.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Coaches (part two)

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top head coaches in the Big Ten this upcoming season. This may be bending the definition of “position,” but this series has already listed who will be the best offensive, defensive, and special-teams players in the Big Ten in 2014. The head coaches included in this top 10 are whom we believe have been the best coaches recently and will be next season, not necessarily those who have had the best overall careers. Yesterday, we revealed the Big Ten head coaches ranked No. 6 through No. 10. If you missed it, we encourage you to catch up here. Done? Perfect! On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best head coaches in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists, Return Specialists | Coaches: Part One

5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin | Overall Record: 39-35 (6 yrs) – Record at Wisconsin: 9-4 (1 yr)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 6-2 2nd (Leaders) Capital One (L)
Career Totals 9-4 6-2   0-1
(Brian Ebner, AP)

(Brian Ebner, AP)

Of all the head coaches in the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen probably is the toughest to peg. Until this past season, Andersen had no experience coaching in a Power Five conference. He made his head-coaching debut at Southern Utah, a Division I-AA program, in 2003. He departed after the season to become an assistant at Utah—before it joined the Pac-12—where eventually he was promoted to defensive coordinator. He held that position when the Utes’ undefeated squad upset Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen utilized that success to land the head-coaching gig at a floundering Utah State program. The Aggies had not won more than seven games in a season since 1979. Andersen’s first two years there were no different, but, thereafter, he took Utah State to unforeseen heights. The next two seasons, the Aggies totaled an 18-8 record, which included a program-best 11 wins in 2012. No longer was Utah State some bottom-of-the-barrel program. It now was a legitimate “mid-major” power.

Andersen’s achievements in college football’s lower levels were noticed after 2012 as Power Five schools with head-coaching vacancies came calling. One such school was Wisconsin, whom former head coach Bret Bielema had stunned by ditching the Badgers for Arkansas in the SEC. Bielema left behind a Big Ten powerhouse that won a share of the conference crown and appeared in the Rose Bowl each of his final three seasons in Madison. With Bielema no longer in the picture, someone needed to step in and maintain Wisconsin’s success; Andersen was tabbed to be that person. He did well in his first season with the Badgers last year, too. Although their streak of Big Ten championships ended, Andersen coached them to a 9-4 record and national rank of 19th in the F/+ Combined Ratings—a set of rankings which combines two advanced statistical algorithms. It was an encouraging sign that Wisconsin experienced little drop-off with Andersen holding the reins.

Yet this will be the season that really tests whether Andersen deserves to be considered one of the five best coaches in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin will benefit from possessing what should be one of the nation’s most explosive rushing attacks and a weak conference slate, the Badgers still must replace their entire starting front seven on defense and find answers—any answer—for their depleted receiving corps. The talent and depth that has bolstered Wisconsin in years past does not seem to be quite there in 2014. This means that Andersen’s coaching ability will need to be at the top of its game because Wisconsin will not be able to afford as many errors. Then, after the season, we will be able to evaluate Andersen’s performance and finally peg exactly where he should fall on this list.

4. James Franklin, Penn State | Overall Record: 24-15 (3 yrs) – Record at Penn State: 0-0 (0 yrs)
Record at Vanderbilt Overall W/L SEC W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 4-4 4th (East) BBVA Compass (W)
2012 9-4 5-3 4th (East) Music City (W)
2011 6-7 2-6 T4th (East) Liberty (L)
Career Totals 24-15 11-13   2-1
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

James Franklin has been a collegiate head coach for only three seasons, but he has taken the nation by storm in that short span. Franklin made his head-coaching debut at Vanderbilt in 2011. Vanderbilt always has been one of the toughest coaching jobs in America due to its small enrollment, academic focus, and SEC membership. Since 1982, the Commodores had recorded only one winning season—a 7-6 record in 2008—prior to Franklin’s arrival and consistently found themselves near the bottom of the F/+ Combined Ratings. They were perennial losers, a team SEC powerhouses viewed as an automatic conference win. But Franklin changed all of that the instant he stepped on the Vanderbilt campus.

Under Franklin, the Commodores were no longer pushovers. In his first season in 2011, he coached Vanderbilt to a 6-7 record and only its second bowl appearance since 1982. The record was not flashy, but, unlike previous seasons, Vanderbilt actually was competitive against its tougher opponents, losing to Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida by a combined 13 points. It is no surprise that advanced statistics really liked what the Commodores offered in 2011, ranking them 39th in the F/+ Combined Ratings just one year after placing 101st. It was significant progress in just one season with Franklin in charge, but he was not finished. In each of the next two seasons, the Commodores posted a 9-4 record and no less than four SEC victories. The last time they had a nine-win season? 1915. And Vanderbilt just accomplished the feat two years in a row. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin tallied 24 wins overall, which tied the best three-year stretch in school history. Franklin’s stint at Vanderbilt was an overwhelming success as he was able to achieve things there that no one had done in decades and decades.

This translated into instant stardom for Franklin and made him a hot commodity as the coaching carousel spun and spun. Initially, it seemed like Franklin would remain at Vanderbilt for a fourth season. But, then, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien left Happy Valley for a shot at the NFL with the Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions, hoping to appease its disappointed fan base with a popular hire, traveled into SEC territory and persuaded Franklin to join them in the Big Ten. Since then, Franklin and Penn State have torched the recruiting trail. According to 247 Sports, Penn State already has 19 commits in the 2015 class, 12 of which are four-stars, and the sixth-best class in the nation. While Franklin’s recruiting prowess certainly has been noted, the real question is how Franklin will do on the sidelines in his first season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions still are dealing with the scholarship reductions and postseason ban handed to them in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Will Franklin continue to be a star and have immediate success at Penn State like he did at Vanderbilt? Or will the lack of talented depth at multiple positions be too much to overcome? My guess: Franklin’s star may not shine as bright after a 2014 season that will be a tougher challenge than most expect.

3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern | Overall Record: 55-46 (8 yrs) – Record at Northwestern: 55-46 (8 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 5-7 1-7 6th (Legends)
2012 10-3 5-3 3rd (Legends) Gator (W)
2011 6-7 3-5 5th (Legends) Meineke Car Care (L)
2010 7-6 3-5 T7th Ticket City (L)
2009 8-5 5-3 T4th Outback (L)
2008 9-4 5-3 T4th Alamo (L)
2007 6-6 3-5 T7th
2006 4-8 2-6 T8th
Career Totals 55-46 27-37   1-4
(US Presswire)

(US Presswire)

Similar to Penn State’s James Franklin, Pat Fitzgerald has built his coaching reputation by transforming what has traditionally been a down-in-the-dumps football program with lofty academic standards and limited resources into a respectable one. In 2006, Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker at Northwestern, was promoted by his alma mater from an assistant to head coach. Prior to Fitzgerald assuming the top spot on its coaching staff, Northwestern had managed an eight-plus-win season only three times since it had joined the Big Ten in 1953. Yet it took the Wildcats only the first seven seasons of Fitzgerald’s tenure to accomplish the same feat, recording nine wins in 2008, eight in 2009, and a program-best 10 in 2012. Not every season has been such a triumph for Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, but no longer are they an easy out for Big Ten opponents.

For example, many may question Fitzgerald’s spot at No. 3 on this list following Northwestern’s underachieving 2013 campaign. Entering last season, the Wildcats were projected to build off their 10-win season in 2012 and possibly contend for a Big Ten championship. However, after sweeping its four non-conference foes, Northwestern suffered one bad break after the other. There was quarterback Kain Colter’s bobbled snap on fourth-and-one as Northwestern was driving for a game-winning score late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Then, there was the Hail Mary the Wildcats allowed to Nebraska on the final play of the game to lose by three points. There was also the hurried field goal Michigan somehow managed to kick before time expired to force overtime, which led to Northwestern losing in the third extra frame. And none of this bad luck even accounts for the countless number of Northwestern players that went down with injuries all season. Essentially, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Should Fitzgerald be responsible for some of this? Possibly. But most of the reasons why Northwestern had a 5-7 record last season were out of his control.

This is why Fitzgerald still is considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. He put Northwestern in a position to potentially contend for a Big Ten title before bad karma struck and struck hard. Do you know how many other coaches could put Northwestern in such a position? Very, very few. Fitzgerald very likely would experience much more success and more wins if he chose to leave Northwestern for a blue-chip, top-of-the-line college football factory that has exponentially more resources. But he has chosen to stay in Evanston and sustain Northwestern’s new reputation as a respectable program. This fall, even after the recent news that playmaker Venric Mark will transfer and top wideout Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats still have an outside shot at winning what will be a weak Big Ten West. And this is all possible because of Fitzgerald.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State | Overall Record: 128-25 (12 yrs) – Record at Ohio State: 24-2 (2 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 12-2 8-0 1st (Leaders) Orange (L)
2012 12-0 8-0 1st (Leaders)
Career Totals 24-2 16-0   0-1
(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

There is no doubt that Urban Meyer has the best resume of any head coach in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.  Meyer won at an astonishing level at each of his first three stops. When he was first hired as a head coach by Bowling Green in 2001, he took over a program that went 2-9 the previous season. But this did not prevent the Falcons from earning 17 wins in Meyer’s two seasons at the helm. Meyer then moved to the Mountain West Conference to become Utah’s head coach. Just like at Bowling Green, he was there for only two seasons. This time, though, Meyer coached the Utes to a 22-2 record and two conference championships, including an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004. Meyer experienced the same type of success once he departed for Florida prior to 2005 and joined the “big leagues,” so to speak. In his six years with the Gators, he compiled a 65-15 record, three 13-win seasons, and two BCS national championships (2006 and 2008). In just a short decade, Meyer’s status skyrocketed from being a nobody to being considered one of the best coaches in the country.

After a one-year “reprieve” from college coaching in 2011 to “spend more time with his family,” Meyer dove back into it by taking the head job at Ohio State. The Buckeyes needed a new coach to guide the program after Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA violations resulting from a tattoo-parlor scandal that saw the NCAA allege that Tressel had knowingly withheld information to maintain his players’ eligibility. Meyer decided he was the man to replace Tressel as the face of the prestigious program. His first two seasons have seen him win just like he has at every other stop he had as a head coach. The Buckeyes won their first 24 contests under Meyer and achieved a perfect season in 2012. Their only two losses were to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl last season. Given Ohio State’s current recruiting and Meyer’s astounding track record of winning, Ohio State does not seem like it will be slowing down any time soon.

Accordingly, you are probably wondering why Meyer is at No. 2 on this list rather than in the top spot given the accolades he has received throughout his head-coaching career. Once again, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best head coaches in 2014, not necessarily the ones who have had the best careers. There is no doubt that Meyer has had the best career among Big Ten coaches. No other Big Ten coach can claim winning a national championship, let alone two. And no other Big Ten coach can claim to have won 24 consecutive contests at any point of their head-coaching career. Nonetheless, there is another Big Ten coach who has been more impressive than Meyer recently, turning a mediocre program into a consistent contender despite having far less to work with in the cupboard.

1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State | Overall Record: 82-46 (10 yrs) – Record at Michigan St: 64-29 (7 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 13-1 8-0 1st (Legends) Rose (W)
2012 7-6 3-5 4th (Legends) Buffalo Wild Wings (W)
2011 11-3 7-1 1st (Legends) Outback (W)
2010 11-2 7-1 T1st Capital One (L)
2009 6-7 4-4 T6th Alamo (L)
2008 9-4 6-2 3rd Capital One (L)
2007 7-6 3-5 T7th Champs Sports (L)
Career Totals 64-29 38-18   3-4
(AP)

(AP)

Before Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to assume command of the Michigan State football program in 2007, the Spartans were in a funk. Since the 1987 season, which had been the last time they had participated in the Rose Bowl, the Spartans had managed to win more than eight games only once—a 10-2 record in in 1999 with Nick Saban as head coach. Not only was Michigan State failing to win enough games to contend for conference championships, it also was struggling mightily against its premier rival Michigan. During that two-decade span, the Spartans were only 5-15 against the Wolverines from Ann Arbor. Accordingly, Michigan State was looked down upon by the Big Ten’s best, seen only as a middle-of-the-pack program that caused a minor inconvenience.

When Dantonio first arrived in East Lansing, there was not much to write home about. In his first three seasons at Michigan State, Dantonio’s Spartans put together only a 22-17 record, even though they did beat Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan twice. It was unclear whether Dantonio could take them to the top. It is not fuzzy anymore. In the past four seasons, Michigan State has been one of the best programs in the Big Ten. The Spartans have attained a 42-12 record and 77.8-win-percentage in those four years, which is second in the Big Ten only to Ohio State in that span, and won at least 11 games in three of those years. This increase in wins has brought the Spartans a share of two Big Ten championships—their first since 1990—and their first Rose Bowl victory since 1987. The Spartans now are surging under Dantonio.

So why is Dantonio slotted in the top spot ahead of Meyer? Michigan State’s win against Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game could be used as evidence, but let’s move that to the side for a minute. In the past four seasons, both Michigan State and Ohio State have 42 wins. Ohio State has a better winning percentage only because it has two fewer losses. It is that close. And, yet, Dantonio has achieved this with either loads of recruiting gems or less talented players than Ohio State. From 2009 to 2013, Michigan State’s recruiting classes’ average national ranking was 30.6 according to 247 Sports. Ohio State’s? 7.6. The Buckeyes have had much more raw talent at their disposal than the Spartans, but this has not stopped Dantonio, with the help of defensive wizard Pat Narduzzi, from putting out an equivalent product. No, Meyer has not been at Ohio State for the past four years, but he had much more to work with the moment he stepped foot in Columbus. And, despite this, Michigan State is on the same playing field as Ohio State, which is why Dantonio currently is the best head coach in the Big Ten.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Is Mark Dantonio currently the best head football coach in the Big Ten? Or should that honor belong to Urban Meyer? And what about Brady Hoke? Does he deserve to be in the top five? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section.

2014 opponent preview: Northwestern

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-NW

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.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 California
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 20 Western Illinois
Sept. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 Wisconsin
Oct. 11 at Minnesota
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

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.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Trevor Siemian 6’3″, 210 178-298 for 2,149 yds, 11 TD, 9 INT
RB Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 97 yds (3.1 avg), 5 rec, 48  rec. yards
SB Dan Vitale 6’2″, 225 34 rec, 382 rec. yds, 3 rec. TD
WR Tony Jones 6’0″, 195 55 rec. for 630 yds, 4 TD
WR Christian Jones 6’3″, 225 54 rec. for 668 yds, 4 TD
WR Cameron Dickerson 6’3″, 235 11 rec. for 125 yds, 1 TD
LT Paul Jorgenson 6’6″, 295 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Geoff Mogus 6’5″, 295 11 starts (11 career starts)
C Brandon Vitabile 6’3″, 300 12 starts (38 career starts)
RG Matt Frazier 6’4″, 290 4 starts (4 career starts)
RT Eric Olson 6’6″, 290 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

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.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Dean Lowry 6’6″, 265 33 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
DT Sean McEvilly 6’5″, 290 9 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 QBH
DT C.J. Robbins 6’5″, 285 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD
DE Deonte Gibson 6’3″, 260 22 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 2 PD
SAM Drew Smith 6’1″, 215 31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH
MLB Collin Ellis 6’2″, 230 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PD
WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo 6’3″, 235 106 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INT, 6 PD
CB Nick VanHoose 6’0″, 190 61 tackles, 5 TFL, 8 PD
CB Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 36 tackles, 5 PD
S Ibraheim Campbell 5’11″, 205 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD
S Traveon Henry 6’1″, 200 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 a ball-hawking safety (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

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.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Arthur Omilian 5’11″, 160
P Chris Gradone 6’2″, 190 37.8 avg, 5 In-20, 1 TB, 1 50+
KR Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 21 ret, 23.0 avg
PR Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 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.

Outlook

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.