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Northwestern Football: Was 9-4 a Fluke?

Writing about Northwestern football right now obligates one to use some variation of the following terms: Character guy, hard working, getting more out of less, gutsy, and possibly the word "spunky." As in: "Pat Fitzgerald may not have the best talent in the Big 10, but he has got more out of less than any coach in the nation" or "Safety Brad Phillips defines the term "character guy" - God first, school second, and always a hard worker on the gridiron." One decent season and a gutsy bowl performance has brought a slew of compliments and good feelings to Evanston. There has been much huffing and puffing about how this academic driven school that endured an infamous 34 game losing streak has the capability to be a Big 10 power. Enough of the backhanded compliments - Can Northwestern consistently field winning teams? Did Fitzgerald hit his ceiling at 9-4? Can he top that?

Favorable Scheduling Helped in 2008...and Will Help in 2009

It was a perfect equation for football revival in Evanston: Veteran QB + wildly disappointing opponents ('Cuse, Mich, Purdue, Illinois) = Most wins since 1996. The Wildcats played the easiest overall schedule in the conference (see here and here). This year's schedule, rated by Law Buck as the tenth easiest in the conference, will help pad the win totals again.

Bad Recruiting, No Worries?

The recruiting has not been impressive (and yes I know, it's just NW, pursuit of big time recruits isn't paramount, Fitz wants them big, quick, tough, not hyped). Since began compiling rankings in 2002, the average ranking amongst the 11 conference teams is 9.5. In 2009, Northwestern pulled it's first 4 star recruit since 2002. But it is Northwestern, so high school athletes who come to Evanston know the drill: come in as a raw 2 star athlete, get redshirted, allow the program to shape and teach you, turn into a contributor. Let's look at five impact players that could make All-Big 10 teams and help the Wildcats to another winning season.

Senior QB Mike Kafka - 3 star dual threat QB...ranked #50 high school QB in the nation during senior year...didn't play in '05, saw valuable PT in '06 and '08 including his 217 yad rushing performance against Minnesota...looks ready to lead team judging by his '08 play...

Redshirt Senior DE Corey Wootton - 3 star offensive tackle who received offers from NC State, UConn, Louisville...was switched to defensive end in '05, blew up in '08 with All-Big 10 First Team performance...2009 All-American candidate and on Lombardi Trophy Watch List...

Junior Safety Brad Phillips - 2 star athlete who was chased by primarily MAC schools...extremely religious and got an 1140 on his SAT to go along with his 4.09 high school GPA...All Big 10 Honorable Mention in '08...

Redshirt Sophomore DE Vince Brown - 3 star defensive end who is being pegged as Wootton's heir apparent...Presidential Merit Award winner in high school...#20 ranked player overall in Ohio during senior year...

Sophomore RB Jeravin Matthews - 2 star wide receiver who received offers from low tier MAC schools...out of 22 freshment in 2008 class, one of only 2 who were not redshirted...switched to running back, impressing coaches with his versatility...ran for 115 yards in Spring Game...

A couple of 2 stars, some unheralded 3 stars and Wahlah - Fitzgerald has NW headed for another winning season with these mid level recruits. However, Lake The Posts noted earlier this year that the coaches are setting their sights higher, not only going after studs like Kyle Prater, but adding more 4 star recruits to their "wanted" list than ever before.

Coaching Can Only Go So Far

Coach Pat Fitzgerald's description: intense, a great leader, level headed, inspiring, goal oriented. Fitz has expanded the recruiting base, put NW in the national spotlight with an outstanding bowl performance, and generally created good vibes amidst the small but passionate fan base. Looking at the guy, one gets the feeling he'll fearlessly take any challenge head on.

That determination will be needed because the ceiling is looming for this program- Northwestern has beaten Ohio State only twice since 1964 and has traditionally struggled with October 31 opponent Penn State. After the 2009 season and its cake schedule has passed (they should begin 6-0), all (or at least a few) eyes will be watching to see if the Wildcats can continue their flight away from the mediocrity that has historically enveloped this program.