It's finally pleasant enough to wear a t-shirt on the north shores of Evanston. That means it's time to visit a perennial conference overachiever.
SEVENTH IN A SERIES: THE NORTHWESTERN SPRING FIELD GUIDE
Northwestern at a glance...
First Season: 1876
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (4th Year, 27-22, .551 winning percentage)
All-Time Record: 458-600-44 (.436)
2009 Record: 8-5 (5-3 Conference)
Offseason Cliff Notes...
It's become somewhat of a cliche to say that these cats have nine lives, but forever resilient Northwestern keeps on chipping away at entrenched stereotypes. After closing out September with back to back losses at Syracuse and to Minnesota in 2009, Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats battled back -- clawing out wins against Purdue, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin to earn a New Years Day bowl bid. What followed was frankly the most amazing football game I've never watched. (I listened to the Outback Bowl on the radio while racing across the desert from Las Vegas to Pasadena, and almost wrecked the rental car on four occasions). After battling back from two first quarter interceptions, Mike Kafka went on to throw five touchdown passes, and another three interceptions. Our writers praised Northwestern's heart and drive, but lamented the fact that the season ended with a whimper, a sigh, and an overtime loss.
The Wildcats' reward for back to back exhilarating postseason appearances? A prognosticated 7-5 record in 2010, and birth in the Eagle Bank bowl. When we look at the purple we see steady improvement, and a system that pays dividends. For his resilience, Fitzgerald earned a B+ grade on the season. In fact, resilience was our word of the decade for the Wildcats.
This California native is just what the doctor ordered.
In February, Northwestern signed a 17 member class with ten three star athletes, including running back Adonis Smith, who ditched his commitment to Washington State to join the good guys. His breed of running (hard, fast, and mean) will immediately help a Wildcat offense that averaged just 117 rushing yards per game in 2009.
In the cupboard...
Total Returning Starters: 16 (8 Offense, 6 Defense, 2 Special Teams)
For me, the loss of gun-slinging veteran quarterback Mike Kafka means the end of daily literary allusions. For Pat Fitzgerald, it means a need to replace 3,430 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, and a scramble threat. Fitzgerald is counting on Senior Dan Persa to continue the metamorphosis. (Last one, promise). In mop up duties in 2009, Persa displayed a knack for using his legs to evade would-be tacklers. Whether his arm is capable remains to be determined.
Pat Fitzgerald says Dan Persa has taken "the next step."
On the plus side, the Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line, and their top four rushers. As USA Today reports, "The better news is that redshirt sophomore Alex Daniel, who missed last year with an ankle injury, and redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy jump into the mix and figure to increase the competition even more." Plus, there's the aforementioned Adonis Smith. Whatever the end result, the competition at running back figures to look more like USC than Northwestern.
On defense, the Cats "must find replacements for a decorated fivesome (DE Corey Wootton, DT Adam Hahn, CB Sherrick McManis, S Brandon Smith and S Brad Phillips) that combined to make 196 career starts." Frankly, that's not going to be easy -- but Junior Safety Brian Peters learned the ropes last year, when injuries forced him to take an active role in the Nickle Package. The defensive staff has moved OLB David Arnold back to the secondary to try and ease the burden -- but Northwestern still needs help on the defensive line, where it must replace two anchors.
1. After finishing 8th in rushing offense in the Big Ten in 2009, will the glut of capable backs buoy Northwestern's ground game into the top half of the conference?
2. Will Northwestern continue to lead the Big Ten in passing offensive in 2010?
3. Will defensive youth hamstring the Wildcats in conference play?
4. Will Northwestern win its first bowl game since 1949?
The Road Ahead...
|11/06/2010||@ Penn State|
For the second year in a row Northwestern doesn't have to play Ohio State or Michigan. Will they ride a favorable out of conference schedule and key home games to another eight win regular season?
MONDAY: Spring Field Guide
TUESDAY: Northwestern's Achilles Heel
WEDNESDAY: Wildcat Roundtable
THURSDAY: MVP Profile
FRIDAY: Keeping the Enemy Close