Although Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats were not able to punch a ticket to Indianapolis in 2012, a 10-3 record marked their best record since that landmark year in Evanston's football history: 1995. Even in 2000, when the 'Cats were able to win a share of the Big Ten title (along with Michigan and Purdue), the high-octane 2000 'Cats finished just 8-4.
Were it not for an improbable caught deflection by Roy Roundtree with seven seconds to go and a one point defeat at home against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the purple and black indeed would have represented the Legends division against the Wisconsin Badgers. Of course, such is the nature of college football. Even more so, such is the nature of Northwestern football, which, even in its best years (1995, 1996, 2000 and last season) lives up to the "Cardiac Cat" moniker with gusto.
Nonetheless, this past season, capped by Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949 (a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl), was without a doubt a success, especially after losing a quarterback of the caliber of Dan Persa.
A glance at the end of season top 25 reveals an increasingly brainier top of the heap. Stanford has become a fixture out west, playing old school Big Ten football in a sunnier locale. Even the historically inept Vanderbilt Commodores, under head coach James Franklin, finished in the top 25 of both polls at season's end for the first time since 1948.
Neither the Commodores nor the Wildcats have quite reached Stanford's lethal combination of brains and brawn, but that has never been Northwestern's forte, anyhow. The Wildcat offense over the years, led by signal callers like Zak Kustok, Brett Basanez, Dan Persa, and, now, Kain Colter (and Trevor Siemian), has always been about quickness, pace and space.
The Wildcats offense in 2012, paced by Kain Colter's ground game sorcery and Venric Mark's dazzling big play ability, did not quite find themselves near the top in any major categories. The 'Cats were 42nd in points per game, 47th in offensive S&P+ and 29th in OFEI. However, the 'Cats were ranked 16th in "methodical drives," which speaks to the potent and reliable ground game.
Northwestern will continue to lean on its offense in 2013, as both quarterbacks, Mark, and NU's top three receivers return, as well as three out of five starters on the offensive line. The ground game is proven, but the major question for the 'Cats going forward is whether or not OC Mick McCall can get a little more out of the passing game.
Rising junior Trevor Siemian was deployed as the primary "traditional" quarterbacking option in 2012, with Colter being used as, in Denardian parlance, an "offensive weapon" (OW). Siemian gives the 'Cats a traditional pocket passing sort that they haven't necessarily had much of; although his 2012 numbers were far from spectacular (58.7% completion, 6 TDs to 3 INTs, 6.02 YPA), he did show some promising flashes of ability.
Not that anyone needs reminding, Siemian eviscerated Michigan's statistically dominant passing defense on two drives in the Big House, both ending in touchdowns, late in the first half and again in the fourth quarter. Siemian went 6/7 on the day for 87 yards and two touchdown strikes, including a 15-yarder to Tony Jones to put the 'Cats up by a field goal late.
Things got tougher for Siemian last October, but his numbers stabilized a bit the rest of the way. The good news is, with another year of experience under his belt, there is room for improvement. Siemian is the proverbial X factor here; if he can be a little more Gardner to Colter's Denard, the 2013 iteration of the Wildcat offense could jump from merely effective to downright scary, especially with a back like Mark capable of breaking a play open at almost any time.
While the Northwestern offense has continued to irritate the rest of the Big Ten with varying gradations of success over the years, it is of course the defense that has held things back. However, as is the case with Stanford (and even Vanderbilt, 35th in DFEI), things may be getting better on that front.
The Wildcats did lose a couple of starters on the defensive line and a very good linebacker in David Nwabuisi, but they do also return Damien Proby and the still fantastically named strong-side linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Ariguzo led the 'Cats with 10.5 tackles for loss in 2012, as well as co-leading the Big Ten with four fumble recoveries (including one against Michigan). He also led the linebackers with three sacks. If a play is being made by someone in purple and black, the odds are good that Ariguzo is the one making it.
The Northwestern defense will lean on its linebacking play, especially as the pass rush continues to be somewhat average; the 'Cats finished tied for 50th in the country with 28.0 sacks in 2012. That said, Tyler Scott proved to be a strong pass rusher for the 'Cats, notching nine sacks in 2012 (improving upon just two in 2011).
Four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo brought some pass-rushing promise to the 'Cats front four season season, but that promise quickly fizzled out as he took a medical redshirt early last season. Odenigbo is listed at 6 feet three inches tall and 220 pounds (the latter which I'm assuming is wrong). Either way, if Odenigbo can bounce back from last season's injury and bulk up a bit without sacrificing his speed and quickness, the Northwestern pass rush should be much stronger in 2013, notwithstanding the loss of Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams's combined 7.5 sacks in 2012.
Secondary has always been a bit of an issue for the 'Cats; truth be told, it's likely the most difficult defensive position group to perfect at the college level (unless your name is Nick Saban).
Despite missing a few games due to injury in 2012, the 'Cats return promising corner Nick Vanhoose to the fold, now a redshirt sophomore. Likewise, guy-who-seems-like-he's-been-around-forever and No. 3 solo tackler Ibraheim Campbell returns at safety. Daniel Jones returns at the other corner spot as well. Although the 'Cats lost a few starters/contributors in the secondary (Stanford fifth year transfer Quinn Evans, Demetrius Dugar and safety Jared Carpenter), the Northwestern secondary should see a little improvement in 2013, especially with a hypothetically improved pass rush.
The Legends division is stacked, but the competitors are not without significant questions. Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern will all be in the mix for a berth in this year's conference title game, the last before Maryland and Rutgers join the fray.
Can the passing game and the pass rush improve enough to send Fitzgerald's always exciting squad to Indianapolis? Without pouring through too much offseason chatter, it seems like the 'Cats have passed the "darkhorse saturation" point; that is, if you call a team such so many times, are they really a darkhorse?
My answer is no. The 'Cats absolutely do need to improve upon the aforementioned facets of their game (in addition to closing out games in the fourth quarter, i.e. all three losses last season), but the 'Cats have as good of a chance as anyone else in the division.
In last season's Northwestern preview, I wrote:
Unless Northwestern football (and basketball) is about to experience the Ewing Theory in all its glory this season, Persa's lost senior season seems like a missed chance, a misfortune that perhaps affirms that some things are not meant to be...if you don't believe in such quixotic notions of Fate and the rigidity of one's station, you could say that some things are just merely implausible.
While Persa's senior season may have been a "missed chance," 2012 proved that it would certainly not be the only chance going forward.
Although The Keg of Evanston has once again closed, you'll be sure to find a packed Nevin's should the 'Cats seize this new chance in 2013.