2012 Quick Stats
Passing Offense: 10th in Big Ten, 110th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 4th in Big Ten, 19th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 3rd in Big Ten, 42nd Nationally
Total Offense: 6th in Big Ten, 63rd Nationally
3rd Down Conversions: 45.92% (90 out of 196 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 53.33% (8 out of 15 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 87.72% (50 out of 57 attempts)
Total Points: 412 (50 TD, 20 FG, 50 extra point, 0 two-point)
Average points per game: 31.7
2012 Record: 10-3 (5-3 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 15-54-2
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald: 50-39 at Northwestern and overall
What's up with the offense?
Northwestern's offense has been of the more consistently productive offenses in the Big Ten. Since 2007, Pat Fitzgerald's second year as the head coach, the Wildcats have not fielded a total offense that has ranked below 6th in the conference. They also haven't fielded an offense that has been ranked 1st either, but they came close: they were ranked 2nd overall in 2008, when they went 9-4, and in 2011. Last year, while the Wildcats matched the regular season record of 2008, they went from first in the Big Ten in passing in 2011 to tenth. That partly explains why their total offense clocked in at 6th.
Part of the reason why Chicago's Big Ten Team was able to get to 10 wins for the second time in school history was due to the vast improvement of their defense, which this article doesn't discuss. On the offensive side of the ball, the Wildcats were most productive in the running game, where they ranked 4th (improving from being ranked 7th in 2011), thanks to the legs of running back Venric Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter (more on them later).
The passing game was not necessarily a weakness, but it's never a good thing to fall ten spots simply because a quarterback (in this case, Dan Persa) graduates. They were also significantly more conservative through the air: in 2012, the Wildcats were dead last in the Big Ten in passes that went more than 10 yards. Considering that the Big Ten was pretty much the opposite of a passing league last season, that's a pretty strong statement. A year prior, in 2011, with Persa flinging the ball, Northwestern was third in those types of plays. So that's quite a drop.
You could argue that it simply fit Colter's skill-set better to run more of a spread-option offense, and that's why they brought in Trevor Siemian for the more pass-heavy plays and formations. However, Colter's dual-threat ability allowed him to open up more lanes either by scrambling or creating opportunities for receivers or one of the backs as the defense keyed in on him. Colter's scrambling still counts as rushing, and as often as plays broke down, he was able to pick up an impromptu first down. Which, of course, makes them look and seem like more of a rushing team.
If you're one of those Michigan fans that didn't really pay attention to Northwestern last year, you can get a really clear idea of how good their offense was by looking at the 2013 Gator Bowl. The Wildcats won the game decisively, 34-20, much to the chagrin of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and their head coach, Dan Mullen, who you might remember walloped Michigan in Rich Rodriguez's last game, back in the 2011 Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs didn't expect much fight out of the Wildcats when they faced off in Jacksonville and were surprised when they got it.
Though Mississippi State probably dug themselves into a karma hole when defensive back Corey Broomfield said this about Venric Mark:
When a guy is fast in the Big Ten, he stands out. If he was in the SEC, he would be just another player. That's the difference.
The entire game is here, at least until it's inevitably removed, and despite the rampant SEC bias, it is well worth watching. However, if you're short on time, Northwestern's athletic department put together a highlight reel (with Wildcat commentary) that basically captures all the key plays of the game for both teams:
The spring game didn't offer much in terms of groundbreaking information, other than that freshman Malin Jones might see some carries at running back. Sippin' On Purple has a pretty good recap if you're interested.
When talking about key players, you have to start with Kain Colter. The 6'0", 190 lbs. senior has made a name for himself not only because he is the son of Spencer Colter of Colorado Buffalo fame, but also because he is the most identifiable example of a triple-threat. He played a peripheral role when Dan Persa quarterbacked the offense from 2009 to 2011 and primarily served as a receiving option as well as occasionally being Persa's backup under center. He surprised Wildcat fans by showing that he could handle the starting job himself in 2011 when Persa fought bouts of injury. After Persa graduated, Colter took full or at least primary control of the offense in 2012.
He shared a great deal of the throws with Trevor Siemian (6'3", 210 lbs.), a more typical pocket passer, but this wasn't because of performance. Pat Fitzgerald wanted to keep Colter as much of a triple threat as possible, and the then-junior was the team's second-most rusher with 169 carries for 891 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Colter also threw for 872 yards, falling behind Siemian, who threw for 1,312. Despite Siemian's apparent better production at quarterback, Colter was far more dynamic at the position and that's why he'll most likely be the starter in 2013. There is also incoming freshman Matt Alviti, yet another dual-threat quarterback that fits Pat Fitzgerald's offense, who fans hope is a carbon copy of Dan Persa. However, with Colter and Siemian in tow, Fitzgerald should do everything he can to make sure Alviti redshirts.
The Wildcats had nine running backs carry the ball last year, but you really only need to know about a few of them. Obviously there's Venric Mark. The short (5'8", 175 lbs.) scatback is about ten pounds lighter than Vincent Smith, to give you an idea of his size. That hasn't stopped Mark from accumulating more than 1,300 yards rushing, and with a combined 696 yards returning punts and kickoffs, he is one of the Big Ten's most dangerous special teams returners.
Mark's supporting cast with likely be some combination of Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green. Trumpy had the third most rushing yards behind Mark and Colter, with 76 carries for 349 yards, and he was a solid backup, averaging 5.85 yards a carry. Green amassed 362 yards on 97 carries in 2011 as a freshman, but his production in 2012 took a significant hit due to being hampered by injury. As a sophomore he only played in nine of the thirteen games, collecting a sparse 73 yards on 22 carries. Finally, freshman Malin Jones turned some heads in the spring game and could be an occasional contributor.
One player that any team playing Northwestern needs to watch out for is Dan Vitale. His role for the Wildcats is defined as a "superback," sort of a hybrid of fullback, running back, and tight end. As a true freshman last season he made a huge impact in the second half of the schedule, most notably the Gator Bowl, where most of his plays came in critical situations for big chunks of yardage. However, his season stats are a little funky: while Vitale performed well both while carrying the ball and catching it, almost all of his yards are listed as "receiving." This is probably because he was frequently given the ball on a "forward pitch," which I guess statisticians are interpreting as a pass. It always looked like more of an option play to me, but whatever.
Northwestern should have receiving options galore as nearly every player who had over 10 receptions returns except for the now-graduated Demetrius Fields. Former USC Trojan Kyle Prater didn't make quite the immediate impact last year that many wanted, but fans are expecting him to take a major leap forward this season. Junior Christian Jones led the team in receptions, with 35 catches for 412 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he should lead a solid tandem of receivers for Colter and Sieman to target. Senior Rashad Lawrence (34 receptions, 321 yards) and junior Tony Jones (29 receptions, 335 yards, 4 TDs) are also back. Needless to say you can always expect multi-threats Kain Colter and Dan Vitale to get some passes tossed their way as well.
The Wildcat offensive line wasn't exactly a weakness last year, but it wasn't exactly a strength either. In a very recent discussion of the two quarterback styles between Colter and Siemian, it was commented by Northwestern fans that the interior offensive line "struggled mightily with the [defensive tackles]." On top of that, Northwestern blog Sippin' On Purple notes that three of the offense's departures (LT Patrick Ward, LG Brian Munroe, RG Neil Dieters) are on the offensive line, which is "cause for concern." Northwestern's underclassmen at the position will have to step up in a big way if the Wildcats are to produce another 10-win season. With center Brian Vitabile and right tackle Jack Konopka returning, fans expect junior Paul Jorgenson, sophomore Geoff Mogus, and sophomore Mike Frazier to lead the unit forward.
It seems like everyone (including myself) says this about every team, but it just feels especially true for Northwestern: the offense will either live or die by the offensive line. In 2012, two preseason publications, Lindy's and Sports Illustrated, listed Northwestern's offensive line as a major potential liability on that side of the ball. Fortunately for the Wildcats, Pat Fitzgerald was able to patch together a line that got the job done, and it was one of the reasons why their offense was so effective rushing, which of course was part of why they won 10 games. However, three of those starters on the line are gone, and so the offensive line is yet again a big question mark.
The good news is that Northwestern has the offensive skill positions down. Quarterback, running back, "superback," and wide receiver all have experienced (and dare I say talented?) contributors, so if Fitzgerald's staff can manage the same patchjob on the line that they did in 2012, they should be able to at least match what they did that season offensively, if not take a few steps forward.
The coaching staff at Northwestern has experienced very little turnover year-to-year, and all primary coaches, including offensive coordinator Mick McCall, are still on board and coming back, which is why the Wildcats have maintained a great deal of their offensive consistency. It's also why we can generally expect them to be dangerous again in 2013. I don't see the Wildcats taking a gargantuan step back.