B1G 2013 // Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview

Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern: Standing for America, Academics, and (last year) beating the SEC. - US PRESSWIRE

Tipping back drinks with your boss? Odds/stereotypes are he's/she's a Northwestern fan. Learn how to sound smart about the Wildcats with the Cocktail Party Preview

Let's face it -- odds are your boss is a Northwestern alum/fan. Well, at least the stereotype is that your boss is a Northwestern alum/fan, and since we're going to try to broadly offend you at every turn here at OTE (why would I watch football?!), we'll run with the stereotype.

How do you impress your boss when the topic turns to his/her favorite college football team? Here's what you need to know:

LAST SEASON

Good News:

2012 was Northwestern's best season since 2000's team shared the B1G Championship, and may have been the best season since 1995. How great a year was it in Evanston? Let's break it down:

  • A 10-3 record, Northwestern's first 10-win season since 1995 (a.k.a. the beginning of college football)
  • A Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State that ended a nine-game bowl losing streak that dated back to Northwestern beating Cal in the Rose Bowl on January 1949. When you end a streak dating back to the Truman administration, that's a good thing.
  • A 2-0 record vs. the SEC (Vanderbilt and Mississippi State), a road win against the eventual Big East co-champion (Syracuse), a perfect non-conference record, and recognition by Spencer Hall that Northwestern is the SEC's kryptonite.
  • The Cats never lost two games in a row, demonstrating some sense of resiliency.
  • Pat Fitzgerald became the winningest coach in Northwestern history with 50 wins. This is impressive, even accounting for Northwestern's historical football futility, because: (a) Fitz has more wins at Northwestern than legends like Ara Parseghian (36), Pappy Waldorf (49) and Randy Walker (37); (b) Fitz is only 38 years old, meaning he's still the youngest coach in the B1G by 5 years (Bill O'Brien is 43); (c) he's the 2nd longest tenured coach in the B1G (behind Kirk Ferentz); (d) he's signed at Northwestern until 2020, at which point he'd be 45, which is the same age as Bo Pelini NOW; (e) he's never leaving Northwestern; (f) and Northwestern is now building new football training facilities on Lake Michigan and is currently recruiting a potential top 25 class (NOTE: at the time of this article, Northwestern was #24 in the 247Sports composite rankings). In other words, Fitz is going to win a lot more games, and has the potential to challenge some crazy all-time win numbers given his youth, his team's increasing upside, and the fact that he has pretty much a life-time gig at Northwestern if he wants it.
  • Oh, and since this is Northwestern, let's not forget that Northwestern once again led the nation in APR. Basically, they're winning a lot on the field AND off the field.

We should also mention that Venric Mark was an All-American as a punt returner and had 1366 yards rushing in a huge breakout season, that Northwestern miraculously used a 2-QB system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian very effectively, that Dan Vitale emerged as a legit threat at superback, that Brandon Vitabile anchored a strong offensive line, that Tyler Scott had the most sacks of any B1G player returning from last year, that Nick VanHoose and Ibraheim Campbell made huge strides in shoring up a suspect Northwestern secondary, that Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo made huge plays at linebacker, and that Jeff Budzien missed just one FG (a 53 yarder) all season.

One more thing that qualifies as good news. EVERY PLAYER IN THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH RETURNS IN 2013.

Bad News:

5:03.

That number (printed on Northwestern's t-shirts for offseason conditioning) represents the difference between Northwestern's 10-3 record in 2012 and a potential perfect season. Northwestern led Penn State until 2:37 remaining in the 4th quarter, led Nebraska until 2:08 in the 4th quarter (and still almost won on the aforementioned missed 53-yard FG by Budzien), and led Michigan until Roy Roundtree caught a miracle Hail Mary with 18 seconds left to set up a tying FG in a game that Michigan went on to win in OT.

Also falling into the bad news category? The passing game wasn't as effective as in past years (perhaps because the Cats were running so effectively?), and the secondary continues to be a huge question mark (perhaps best demonstrated by Ryan Nassib of Syracuse throwing for 482 yards and 4 TDs in Week One).

And to bang the tired drum once again, Northwestern averaged 35,697 fans last year in Ryan Field (capacity: 47,130). That's up 7% from 2011 and Northwestern is certainly making admirable gains in season ticket sales, etc., but it's going to be a sore point with alumni until that number is well over 40k per game.

THIS SEASON

Offense:

As noted above, Venric Mark, Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian, Dan Vitale, Brandon Vitabile, and all of the WR corps (save Demetrius Fields) returns, meaning the Wildcats have a ton of firepower on an offense that averaged 31.7 points per game last season. There's also increasing depth, particularly at running back, where redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley both figure to get some playing time in relief of primary backs Mark and Mike Trumpy.

The biggest question mark surrounds the O-line, which loses 3 starters from 2012 (including LT Patrick Ward). Luckily, Northwestern's recent recruiting has focused on the O-line, and that new talent (including players such as OT Shane Mertz, OT Paul Jorgensen, OG Geoff Mogus, OG Adam DePietro, and OG Matt Frazier) will get a chance to prove themselves.

Also in question? The passing game. The Northwestern spread evolved from run first (in the early 2000s) to pass-first (basically Brett Basanez to CJ Bacher to Mike Kafka to Dan Persa), and now has shifted to an option-run based attack. Criminally underrated Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall (seriously, how has he not gotten a head coaching job yet?) continues to push the right buttons in terms of matching the skill of his players to the system, so expect the passing game to improve and the Northwestern offense to be even more effective in 2013.

Defense:

The focus here is going to be on stopping the passing game. Northwestern had a surprisingly effective run defense in 2012 (allowing only 127.6 ypg, good for 3rd in the B1G behind Ohio State and Michigan State), but the passing defense (250.5 ypg allowed, last in the B1G) needs to make some improvements. Luckily for NU, Ariguzo and Proby both return, which should keep the run defense effective.

What will help against the pass? The health of Nick VanHoose, for one (he missed most of the 2nd half against Nebraska as well as the loss against Michigan, both of which may have shifted had he been on the field). Second, they need to keep up the pressure on the QB (Northwestern was 5th in the conference with 28 sacks), which they should be able to do with Tyler Scott being joined by Drew Lowry and redshirt freshmen and top recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo. Third, they need to keep forcing turnovers -- NU led the conference with a +14 turnover margin. Finally, they need to find a solution at the CB spot opposite VanHoose. Do that, and Northwestern might give up less than last year's 22.5 ppg.

Special Teams:

Honestly, it's hard to imagine improvement here. Everyone in the nation should know not to kick to Venric Mark by now, so it's unlikely he'll put up numbers as big as last year's in the return game. And other than going perfect, Jeff Budzien can't do much better than last year. I would expect Fitz to give Budzien more chances from long distance, though, now that the coaching staff fully trusts his leg (they were a bit gun shy given past NU kicker foibles).

Schedule:

Here's where the bad news comes for Northwestern. Gone are (sanctions-effected) Penn State and Indiana. In are Ohio State and Wisconsin. Ugh.

Luckily, Northwestern gets the Buckeyes (homecoming), Spartans, Wolverines, and Gophers at home. That, combined with trips to Iowa City (where NU has been VERY effective), Lincoln (where Kain Colter led Northwestern to a win in 2011), Champaign-Urbana (reminder: Northwestern beat Illinois 50-14 last year) and Madison (Northwestern's surprisingly 4-3 vs. the Badgers since 2000) means the Wildcats will have a challenging, but doable, chance at again having a winning record in conference.

As for the non-conference slate, Northwestern gets Cal (on the road, at night, vs. new coach Sonny Dykes), Syracuse (new coach), Western Michigan (new coach) and Maine (sacrificial FCS team). The Cal game will be tricky given Dykes' talent as a coach and the time change, but Northwestern fans should be thinking 4-0.....which will make the October 5th homecoming game under the lights versus Ohio State (who will potentially be 5-0) arguably the biggest home game in Northwestern history and a potential ESPN Gameday spot (not a lot of other options on the slate that week).

IF YOU'RE TALKING TO A NORTHWESTERN FAN....

Do Mention:

The bowl win, 2-0 vs. SEC, the APR scores, Fitz-for-life, the new facilities, the 10-win season, and the uptick in recruiting are all obvious choices. But here's something to set you apart.....

Northwestern has been bowl eligible for 6 straight seasons (they were 6-6 in 2007, but didn't go bowling). Here is a list of BCS conference teams that CANNOT claim the same: NC State, North Carolina, Miami, Duke, Kansas State, Nebraska, Iowa State, Baylor, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Arizona, Washington State, Stanford, Washington, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Virginia, Colorado, Texas A&M, Louisville, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Indiana, Arizona State, UCLA, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State, Wake Forest, Maryland, Kansas, Texas, Cincinnati, California, Oregon State, Boston College, Texas Tech, Connecticut, South Florida, Temple, Iowa, Utah, and Missouri.

Do Not Mention:

Attendance (look, we know it's a problem but it's improving), football in the 1970s and 1980s, Roy Roundtree, the fact that Northwestern had a safety on Taylor Martinez last year but it wasn't called, the 2001 season (NU fans are fearful that this season, like 2001, will be one of high expectations that get horribly disappointed), Stanford (screw those guys), Vanderbilt (except if you're making fun of them cancelling games with us after we beat them twice), a to-be-nameless poster on Sippin' On Purple, losing Michigan State as a division opponent (the two teams played some seriously fun games), "what if Dan Persa's Achilles hadn't snapped?," the possibility that Fitz might leave (it'll never happen, but still.....), and anything having to do with Chicago fans supporting Notre Dame (much like Stanford, screw those guys).

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