Few teams felt the kind of heartbreak Northwestern did last year. The Cats were arguably a few plays and one horrendous quarter away from an undefeated season. How do you judge last year as a whole given some of the terrible luck?
Well, yeah, heartbreak, but I wouldn't say bad luck. Sure, they lost three awful games -- huge comebacks by Nebraska and Penn State, the Nebraska one coming with Jeff Budzien's only field goal miss of the year with a minute left. Oh, and ROY ROUNDTREE, WHO CAN TRIP AND FALL ON A BED OF RUSTY NAILS THAT RECENTLY GOT RUBBED BY RUSTY NAILS IN FRONT OF AN 80-FOOT TALL MAN-EATING SPIDER. I don't like that dude.
But on the other hand, NU also won a game 42-41 against Syracuse on a last-minute TD drive and won a 23-20 game against Michigan State with a 4-0 turnover margin, including one fumble and one turnover on downs inside the 5-yard-line. So, basically, NU went 2-3 in close games. The heartbreak was real, but it's tough to argue we deserved more than one additional win.
And even with all the hellish, godforsaken stuff that befell Northwestern, they won ten damn games, is the second time that's happened since they started throwing forward passes.
Northwestern had one of the more interesting and diverse offenses in the conference last year with Venric Mark and Kain Colter leading the way and spot appearances by Trevor Siemian at quarterback. There are a lot of weapons available and the experience level is high. What do you expect from the offense in 2013?
Ahhhhhhhhh, here's the fun part: All those dudes who just gave Northwestern their first bowl win since cavemen were flying pterodactyls and people used Myspace? They're back. Colter and Mark are back, and that option is cold as hell, plus Colter ain't the worst passer. Siemian's still there. The only departures are NU's left guard and left tackle, both of whom are replaced by highly touted incoming starters, and wide receiver Demetrius Fields, who, while good, was just one target in a deep receiving corps. Northwestern won't change anything about the way they operate, nor should they.
Numbers-wise, the Northwestern defense took a big step forward in 2012. What helped the unit improve in yardage and scoring defense, and can Northwestern continue that success in 2013?
Three things. For starters, Northwestern had half of a competent secondary between freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Ibraheim Campbell. Teams were still good through the air against NU, but VanHoose made one side of the field tough to pass to and Campbell was a little bit of everything. (NOTE: VanHoose did not play against Michigan last year, because he was hurt. He would have been guarding Daniel Jones' side of the field. Daniel Jones is the guy who was guarding Roy Roundtree and successfully tipped the ball into the air on a Hail Mary pass. It didn't work. If VanHoose was playing, that pass maybe gets tipped down, or slightly further up, or IN ANY DIRECTION THAT DID NOT ALLOW ROUNDTREE TO TIP IT TO HIMSELF AND CATCH IT.)
Secondly: the linebackers. But we'll talk about them in a sec.
Thirdly: Tyler damn Scott. Nine sacks, 12.5 TFL's, three forced fumbles, five pass breakups. Northwestern didn't land great recruits in the past, and Scott is no exception, but he went from a 220-pound outside linebacker to a 265-pound defensive end, capable of bullrushing almost every offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Weight room, y'all.
What is Northwestern's best position group? What is its worst?
Best? LB. Chi Chi Ariguzo is everywhere, Damien Proby is an exceptional middle linebacker, and the the two guys competing for strongside linebacker, Drew Smith and Collin Ellis, have both proven their worth in reserve roles. All guys are active and solid as tacklers and display the athleticism to make plays in parts of the game you don't usually expect from linebackers.
Worst? There's no real bad unit at Northwestern, but I'd have to focus on offensive line. It's unfair, because NU's current offensive line group has better recruits than any offensive line group in the history of the school, but there's scant experience. The lone starter in the position he started last year is Brandon Vitabile, who, to be fair, could be the best center in the conference. But our starting LT is last year's starting RT, our starting RT was a tight end last year -- albeit a well-regarded OT recruit in high school -- and both starting guards are gone. I think they'll get the job done because we've heard good things about the new players both from recruiting analysts and NU coaches, but there's the potential for disaster.
Did spring practice offer any hints or insights into what players could emerge in 2013?
Nah, son. Pat Fitzgerald keeps his spring practices nice and boring and sits almost everybody with any potential of injury, and as if that wasn't enough, NU returns almost every starter.
But here's two: Smith, who I already mentioned. Dude likes to hit people.
And Kyle Prater. He was generally considered the best wide receiver in the country in the Class of 2010, and was considered by some the best player as any position. But he washed out at USC, transferred to Northwestern to be close to his family, and only had 10 catches for 54 yards last year, eighth on the team. I refuse to believe somebody as can't-miss as Prater -- 6'5, amazing hands and body positioning, and enough athleticism to put him at WR -- can be invisible, one of the least important wide receivers on a team that doesn't put it in the air much. But maybe everybody was wrong.
Looking at the Legends division, Northwestern might be as close as there is to a pre-season front runner. Are you confident in the Wildcats chances at wining the conference, and what is the biggest concern going into 2013?
Y'all sure you're the Michigan writer, saying Northwestern is the pre-season front-runner?
Hell no I'm not confident about Northwestern's chances of winning the conference. You Michigan Men can live your lives with heads aloft, proud of the opportunity to attain whatever glory comes your way, but that doesn't work out for us, man. If we get cocky for even a second, we blow a 35-point lead to Michigan State, Dan Persa's Achilles explodes in our faces and then he comes to our houses to rip our Achilles open, or our tipped Hail Mary pass ends up in ROY FRIGGIN ROUNDTREE'S HANDS instead of ON THE GROUND WHERE IT BELONGED. I'm confident in a good season, most likely with eight wins or more with a good possibility of 10 or more, but confident in a B1G Championship? It's a possibility, probably like 20-25 percent that we win the division, and we'd all be thrilled if it happened, but nobody's betting the bank.
What concerns me? This very realistically should be one of Northwestern's best football teams ever, unless something out of Northwestern's control happens. Whatever comes out of that, I'm cool with.