2012 Record: 10-3, 5-3 Big Ten. 3rd in Legends Division.
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, eighth year at Northwestern. 50-39 overall in seven seasons.
Offensive Starters Returning: 8
Defensive Starters Returning: 7
Last season, Northwestern went 10-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, though the Wildcats just missed out advancing t0 the conference title game thanks to close losses to Nebraska (29-28) and Michigan (38-31, OT).
Against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern led by as many as 28-16 with just over nine minutes remaining in the contest before Taylor Martinez tossed two touchdown passes in a span of less than four minutes to lead Nebraska in the one-point win.
Three weeks later in Ann Arbor, NU held a 31-28 advantage before having to punt with less than 30 seconds to go. Then Devin Gardner heaved a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree to set up Brendan Gibbons’ 26-yard field goal with two seconds left to force OT. Gardner scored on a one-yard run in the first overtime session and the Wildcats gained just eight yards on four running plays to end the game.
Northwestern’s other loss was a 39-28 setback to Penn State at State College in which NU was up 28-17 heading into the fourth quarter before surrendering 22 points in the final 10:20. The Wildcats went 5-0 to begin the 2012 campaign with wins over Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana before dropping the 11-point decision to the Nittany Lions.
Of the 10 wins, Northwestern closed out the 2012 season on a three-game winning streak by defeating Michigan State (23-20), Illinois (50-14) and Mississippi State (34-20) in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his Wildcats return eight of 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball, including a pair of seniors in running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. Mark gained 1,366 yards on the ground in 226 attempts with 12 touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 104 yards and another score. Colter was second on the team in rushing with 894 yards on 170 carries, while throwing for 872 yards on 101-of-149 (67.8%) passing with eight TDs and four interceptions.
Though he’s listed second on the depth chart at quarterback, junior Trevor Siemian played in all 13 games last season and completed 128-of-218 (58.7%) of his throws for 1,312 yards with 6 TDs and three INTs.
Also returning are Northwestern’s top pass catchers from a year ago with junior Christian Jones (35 rec., 412 yards, 2 TDs), junior Tony Jones (29 rec., 335 yards, 4 TDs), and senior Rashad Lawrence (34 rec., 321 yards).
If there are any holes in Northwestern’s offense, it on the O-line with just two starters returning from last year that includes junior center Brandon Vitabile and junior Jack Konopka.
Seven starters from last year’s team return on defense led by senior defensive end Tyler Scott, senior weakside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, senior middle linebacker Damien Proby, and sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose.
Last season, Proby led the team in total tackles with 112, Scott topped the roster with 9.0 sacks, Ariguzo led the squad with 7.5 tackles for loss, and VanHoose had a team-high three interceptions.
Conclusion and Prediction:
Last season, Northwestern came about 10 minutes or so away from an undefeated season. But due to blowing three, fourth quarter leads, the Wildcats went 10-3.
This season the schedule gets more difficult as Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders Division are back on Northwestern’s slate. The last time the Wildcats and Buckeyes met on the gridiron was 2008 as OSU won 45-10 in Evanston. And the last time against Wisconsin was in 2010 as the Badgers won convincingly, 70-23.
In 2012, Northwestern was 42nd in the NCAA in scoring offense (31.7 points per game) and 64th in total offense (394.2 yards per game), but were just 106th in passing offense. Granted, the Wildcats ran the ball a lot more than they passed it (595-396), but Coach Fitz will need a more balanced offense if he wants to contend in the Legends Division.
Defensively, the biggest question marks come from the secondary after losing three starters from a unit that finished dead-last in the Big Ten in pass defense, giving up 250.5 yards per contest last season. On the plus side, junior strong safety Ibraheim Campbell returns after recording 89 tackles, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012, while VanHoose and a junior cornerback Daniel Jones made several starts last season, though there’s not much depth in the back four.
Northwestern should not have much trouble in their first four games of the season against California, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. Then after a bye week, the Wildcats host Ohio State. This is where things get dicey for the Purple and White. After that, it’s a trip to Wisconsin.
After starting out 0-2 in conference play, Northwestern takes on Minnesota at home, but then hits the road for two straight against Iowa and Nebraska. After another bye, NU gets Michigan and Michigan State at home before traveling to Champaign to take on in-state rival Illinois.
With that, I think Northwestern ends up 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats will have a fairly potent offense, but will also have trouble stopping good teams defensively.