NCAA Football Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

7:26 AM, Aug 23, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Wildcats won just enough ball games last year to earn a fourth consecutive bowl invite, as they finished 6-7 overall. It also marked the second straight season the team finished 3-5 in the Big Ten.

After opening the 2011 campaign with a win at Boston College, the Wildcats trampled Eastern Illinois the following week to jump out to a 2-0 start. However, nearly two months would pass until they were back in the win column as a brutal five-game skid put a serious damper on the team's postseason aspirations. To their credit, the Cats clawed their way back into contention with a four-game win streak, which included a stunning upset at ninth-ranked Nebraska on Nov. 5. That victory held enough weight with the bowl selection committee as the team was still invited to the Meineke Car Care Bowl despite dropping its regular-season finale at home to Michigan State. Still, the Wildcats came up short against Texas A&M in that contest, and they remain in search of the program's first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

At his Big Ten media day press conference, head coach Pat Fitzgerald did not mince words when he explained where he thinks Northwestern football is headed.

"We've got a group of young men that expect bowl games and now are hoping to take the next step and expect championships," he said. "That's where we're at as a program. Thirteen returning starters, which include all of our specialists. There's a few more there with 55 returning lettermen."

2012 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Former quarterback Dan Persa suffered an injury early on last season, and the offense was slow to recover. The silver lining behind that injury is that this year's quarterback, dual-threat junior Kain Colter (6-0, 190), got some all-important game action. In addition to his limited but promising passing numbers (673 yards, 67 percent comp., six TDs, one INT), Colter also led the squad in rushing (654 yards, nine TDs) and finished third with 43 catches for 466 yards and another three scores. He no doubt has the athleticism to exploit Big Ten defenses, the question now is whether he has the passing tools to run NU's spread offense with consistency.

While the team lost a pair of All-Big Ten receivers, the returnees are a deep and talented bunch capable of carrying the torch. Keep an eye out for speedy sophomore Tony Jones (6-0, 185), who is back after missing all of last year with a knee injury.

The Wildcats don't have a bell cow in the backfield, but sophomore Treyvon Green and junior Mike Trumpy figure to garner the most touches in a committee approach. The team also faces some turnover along the offensive line.

DEFENSE: Defensively, the Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense (27.7 ppg) and 11th in total defense (407.7 ypg) last year.

Senior defensive end Quentin Williams (6-4, 255) is coming off a three-sack season and will anchor the line, but redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson (6-3, 240), who was a sack machine in high school, could work his way into the rotation.

The team is deep and experienced at linebacker, led by senior David Nwabuisi (6-1, 240), who has played multiple positions and racked up 84 tackles and a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss in 2011.

The secondary has undergone a massive overhaul after graduating three starters, including ball-hawking safety Brian Peters. Safety Ibraheim Campbell (5-11, 205) is back after pacing the squad with 100 tackles last year as a freshman, and the coaching staff believes he will be stronger in coverage with a year under his belt.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The return game is in good hands with junior Venric Mark, who averaged nearly 16 yards on punt returns and 23 yards on kickoffs.

Former blue-chip recruit Jeff Budzien was just 6-of-10 on field goals last year, but it looks as if he'll continue to hold down the job. Punter Brandon Williams is also back after averaging 40.8 yards per punt a year ago. The special teams coaches spent a chunk of preseason camp working on Williams' directional punting.

OUTLOOK: While more than half of last year's starters are back for 2012, NU also has some holes to fill. Considering how the 2011 campaign unfolded, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as coach Fitzgerald recruited the program's best class in recent history and will give the newcomers plenty of looks.

By all indications, Colter is more than capable of guiding the offense. But does he have enough of a supporting cast? On the other side of the ball, opposing offenses will surely test the secondary early and often.

The schedule is quite manageable early in the season, but Fitzgerald is taking nothing for granted.

"We've got a very difficult schedule this year," Fitzgerald cautioned. "We're the only team that's going to play three BCS-level teams in the non- conference."

Talent-wise, the Wildcats don't quite match up with the Big Ten powerhouses -- at least on paper. A fifth consecutive bowl berth would be quite an accomplishment for the program. Then again, simply getting in the door no longer generates quite as much buzz, considering NU's nine straight bowl losses are tied for the longest bowl losing streak of all-time. A 10th straight bowl loss would almost certainly thwart any momentum Fitzgerald has built.

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