14 Teams in 14 Days: Northwestern Wildcats
Oct 5, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerlad during the first quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports Photo: Image by Jerry Lai
To say 2013 was a disappointment for Northwester would be an understatement. The Wildcats were 4-0 heading into their B1G Ten opener with Ohio State, a game that brought ESPN's College Gameday crew to Evanston. The Wildcats lead the Buckeyes 23-20 entering the fourth quarter, but Carlos Hyde was just too much as Ohio State escaped with a victory.
What we didn't know at the time was that the loss to Ohio State would send Northwestern into a tailspin, the first of seven-straight losses, all in conference. The Wildcats would close out the season by knocking off in-state rival Illinois, but the 1-7 B1G Ten record was the worst of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure in Evanston.
How did it happen? Injuries and an inability to close out close games. Northwestern went 1-4 in games decided by one possession (not including the loss to Ohio State, which for all intents and purposes was a one possession game). The biggest injury they faced was losing running back Venric Mark.
For the first time in three years Northwestern will move away from employing a two-quarterback system. Instead the Wildcats will lean solely on Trevor Siemian this year. Siemian is a break from the recent string of Wildcat quarterbacks who've had a combination of mobility and passing ability (Brett Basanez, CJ Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter) and is primarily a pocket quarterback. Siemian had a stretch of rough play last year but was also battling a heel injury. His performance in spring practices was so strong it immediately ended any talk of a competition between he and junior Zack Oliver.
While Siemian's presences gives them a true pocket passer for the first time in years, it doesn't mean the Wildcats will become a pass-happy offense. Northwestern is loaded in the backfield with Treyvon Green (last season's leading rusher) and Warren Long in the mix. The big additions though are the returns of Venric Mark and Stephen Buckley. Mark led the Wildcats in rushing in 2012 (1,366 yards) after being converted from wide receiver. Buckley showed promise in 2013 before a gruesome knee injury ended his season in November.
Depth is there at wide receiver, but Fitzgerald has felt that way the past few years only to see his team struggle at passing the ball. Christian and Tony Jones both return after combining for 109 receptions last year. They're joined by Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, a slot guy with the speed to make him a down-field weapon. Rounding out the group is Dan Vitale, Kyle Prater and Mike McHugh.
The offensive line struggled last year and was hit hardest by the injuries. The group never quite formed a cohesion and it resulted in getting pushed around and not protecting the quarterback. They're set at center with senior Brandon Vitabile, the B1G Ten's most experienced center and leader of the group. Geoff Mogus is back at left guard and Paul Jorgensen is back at left tackle, one year after switching sides so you'd assume he'll improve. The right side of the line remains in question though as the spots are up for grabs with Matt Frazier and Eric Olson the leading candidates to win those jobs.
The defensive line only loses Tyler Scott and brings back Dean Lowry at defensive end. Joining Lowry is Deonte Gibson, Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter, giving the Wildcats and all upperclassmen line.
Linebacker is one of the strengths of the defense, featuring Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo, the two combined for 184 tackles and seven interceptions in 2013. Ariguzo is an early favorite for all-conference honors at linebacker. The race for the final starting spot is between Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall. Smith had a strong spring and figures to be the starter, but the coaching staff likes what they see in the converted safety, Hall, thinking he'll push Smith early and possibly eventually overtake the job.
The other strength on this defense is the secondary. The Wildcats have the deepest group they've had under Fitzgerald, led by senior safety Ibraheim Campbell. Joining Campbell at safety is the hard-hitting Traveon Henry. Redshirt freshmen Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro both figure to factor in as well. As deep as the safety spots are, cornerback is even deeper with the return of Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris at the starting spots. They're joined by Daniel Jones, Dwight White and Keith Watkins II.
|9/6||vs NORTHERN ILLINOIS|
|9/20||vs WESTERN ILLINOIS|
|9/27||@ Penn State|
|11/15||@ Notre Dame|
Difficult non-conference opponents in Northern Illinois and a road contest with Notre Dame could pose challenges for the Wildcats. In conference play the Wildcats avoid Ohio State but still get Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan at home and road games against Iowa and Penn State.
Almost everything that could have went wrong for Northwestern in 2013 did go wrong. The 5-7 record wasn't indicative of the talent on the roster but the injuries and losses in close games were just too much to overcome. The defense is deep and experienced and the offense is loaded in the backfield. All-in-all, they welcome back 16 starters in 2014 and figure to be the most improved team in the B1G Ten.