The fifth-toughest opponent on the schedule really shows how tough Michigan’s schedule is this season. The Northwestern Wildcats enter the season with soaring expectations thanks to 12 returning starters. But they rank just fifth in our opponent countdown, ahead of Akron, Central Michigan, UConn, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State.
For 64 years, the Northwestern football program stared down an embarrassing streak similar to that of the most famous team the Wildcats share a city with. Like the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, Northwestern hadn’t won a bowl game since the very first one it ever played in – in 1948. Nine straight bowl losses – two in overtime – hung over the program, but optimism remained due to the transformation head coach Pat Fitzgerald was making in Evanston.
Northwestern finally broke through in convincing fashion, topping SEC foe Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. That means that for the first time in a long time the Wildcats will enter a season with momentum – and it’s not likely to stop there. Fifteen returning starters give Fitzgerald one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten and make the Wildcats a contender to win the Big Ten title – something that hasn’t been done since 2000.
Of the 15 returning starters, eight are on offense, most notably the quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Colter is the more athletic of the two, having spent time at receiver in 2011, where he caught 43 passes. Last season, he took over the starting quarterback job, which he ended up sharing with Siemian. He completed 68 percent of his passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns, but was even more effective with his legs, rushing for 894 yards on 5.3 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns.
Siemian, meanwhile, was the better passer, throwing for 1,312 yards and six touchdowns. But he’ll have to improve his completion percentage this season for the Wildcats to continue to improve. While the two-quarterback system worked pretty well last season, Fitzgerald will need to make sure there’s enough balance between the two that the offense isn’t predictable.
The backfield may be where the Wildcats’ best player resides. Venric Mark is the league’s top returning running back after a 1,312-yard season that ranked fifth in the Big Ten. His yards per carry of 6.1, however, led all running backs and was second only to Denard Robinson’s 7.2. Senior Mike Trumpy is his backfield mate and is capable of gaining yards as well, as evidenced by his 106-yard performance against Boston College last season.
Good depth returns at the receiver position with the top three all back for more. Slot receiver Christian Jones led the team with 35 receptions and 412 yards, while Tony Jones led the group with four touchdowns. Rashad Lawrence ranked second on the team in receptions with 34, though none went for six points. He’ll be expected to increase his production in his senior season. Superback Dan Vitale caught 28 passes – two for touchdowns – as a true freshman, including a nine-catch, 110-yard outing against Michigan State.
The offensive line is the one area of concern for the Wildcats after the graduation of left guard Brian Mulroe – a second-team All-Big Ten selection, – left tackle Patrick Ward, and right guard Neal Deiters. Center Brandon Vitabile has started the past two seasons and will become the leader of the group, while right tackle Jack Konopka figures to slide over into the left tackle spot. Fitzgerald has been recruiting the line well and will look to plug in some of that depth. Geoff Mogus, Matt Fraizer, and Shane Mertz will all compete for the remaining spots.
Northwestern’s defense was hot and cold last season, ranking third in the conference against the run, allowing just 127.6 yards per game, but dead last against the pass, giving up a whopping 250.5 per contest. Fortunately, three starters return in the secondary, including safety Ibraheim Campbell, who ranked seventh in the Big Ten in passes defended, and cornerback Nick Van Hoose, who picked off three passes and recovered three fumbles. The other returning starter is Daniel Jones, who took over the starting job for the Minnesota game and maintained it for the rest of the season. At the vacant safety position, sophomore Traveon Henry looks to fill the void after a strong spring.
The best player on the Wildcat defense is likely defensive end Tyler Scott. The junior tied Ohio State’s John Simon for the most sacks in the conference in 2012 (nine), including two in the Gator Bowl. Fitzgerald signaled him out after the spring as “taking (the) next step,” which could be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. But how much help will he have along the line?
|Aug. 31||@ California|
|Sept. 14||Western Michigan|
|Oct. 5||Ohio State|
|Oct. 12||@ Wisconsin|
|Oct. 26||@ Iowa|
|Nov. 2||@ Nebraska|
|Nov. 23||Michigan State|
|Nov. 30||@ Illinois|
Former four-star recruit, Ifeadi Odenigbo, hopes to grab the other starting end spot, though he’ll have to fight off Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Regardless, all should be in the rotation and will give Northwestern a solid pass rush. It’s the middle of the line that is the question. Sean McEvilly started 10 games last season and Will Hampton also has starting experience.
Two of the three starting linebackers are back, led by Chi Chi Ariguzo, who broke out with 10.5 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-best four fumble recoveries a year ago. Senior middle linebacker Damien Proby is also talented. He finished seventh in total tackles (112), but sat out the spring with an injury. Collin Ellis and Drew Smith will battle it out for the other outside starting spot.
Jeff Budzien returns as Northwestern’s kicker. The senior made 19-of-20 field goal attempts with a long of 44. It was good enough to earn co-Big Ten Kicker of the Year honors along with Nebraska’s Brett Maher. Punter Brandon Williams has three years of starting experience. He ranked seventh in the Big Ten with a 39.9-yard average.
Mark is the league’s best punt returner. He returned two for touchdowns last season, earning first team All-America honors in that regard.
Northwestern travels to California for the season opener and if the Wildcats come away with a win, they should be unbeaten when Ohio State comes to Evanston on Oct. 5. They also host Michigan and Michigan State, but the conference schedule didn’t give them any breaks with trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. If the pass defense is better than last season, Northwestern can contend for the Legends division title, but a more realistic goal should be to continue the bowl-winning momentum.
What it means for Michigan
Michigan heads to Evanston to culminate a brutal three-week stretch with Michigan State and Nebraska preceding the Wildcats. Win all three and Michigan should win the Legends, but it will be far from an easy task. Michigan basically stole the game last year in Ann Arbor, so Fitzgerald’s squad will have this once circled on their calendar for revenge.
The Wolverines have had success in Evanston over the years with so many alums living in the Chicagoland area and turning Ryan Field into a de facto home game. Northwestern is hoping its new “purple pricing” ticket-selling module will keep some of tickets from winding up in the hands of the maize and blue, but that’s unlikely to stop Michigan fans from flooding Evanston, especially if the Legends division title is within reach. Michigan should have enough offensive firepower to win a shootout.