The Northwestern Wildcats come into the 2013 Big Ten season with 13 returning seniors. Coach Pat Fitzgerald counts on Kain Colter for quarterback leadership. Last year, Colter was a dual threat in leading the team to 10-3 and a bowl victory against SEC West Mississippi State, which capped Fitzgerald’s best season to date. Colter had the help of 1365-yard back Mark Venric, who’s entering his final audition for the pros. Let’s chalk it up to a contract year. Colter and Venric really formed a nice one-two running combo. The pair scored a combined 24 TD’s on the ground while gaining 2259. Colter added 8 through the air.
So for argument’s sake, let’s say Colter and Venric play the full schedule without missing a snap such that they raise their draft stock with Colter going 5th round and Venric in the 2nd-3rd round. That guesstimate projects them at 30 TD’s and 3000 yards on the ground, and very nice round number for everyone to contemplate.
Colter needs to do three things correctly this year to get his team to the Big Ten Title Game in Indianapolis. First, he needs to connect with his big, strong wide receivers. The Wildcats have six WO’s who are taller than 6′ 3″. Second, he needs to protect himself when running to avoid unnecessary contact. In addition to preventing injury, this allows for more deception with Venric. Colter’s only listed at 190 lbs and his OL are listed at 290-300 lbs. The smallish but more athletic OL needs to protect Colter. Finally, Colter needs to maximize his chemistry with Venric. Fitzgerald needs to go into the fifth game against Ohio State with an absolute feel for Colter and Venric’s interoperability. Their combined dual-threat ability needs to come together across the first four games. Big time.
The defense, too, has its strengths and weaknesses. Like the offense that doesn’t use its WO’s to its best advantage (by over-relying on the ground game and elusiveness of the dual threat), the defense is too vulnerable to getting beat in the secondary. Of the Wildcats’ 29 turnovers caused last year, only 13 were interceptions and five of those were from players no longer on the roster (Nwabuisi and Ariguzo). Sophomore Nick VanHoose now leads all remaining active players with 3.
The Wildcats did win the turnover margin by nearly 2:1, but even that stat needs to be improved upon this year. The defense has its abilities to get to the QB and stop the run, but in its 3 losses the opponents managed to score 30+ points. Also, the Wildcats’ defensive Red-Zone numbers were not all that impressive with opponents scoring on more than half their entrances from inside the 20. Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ offense only sniffed at 2:3.
Northwestern’s got an extremely difficult October schedule with travel to Madison and Iowa City, while hosting Ohio State’s Braxton Miller in Evanston. Assuming that everything’s copacetic after the first 4 games, the Wildcats will be on a lot of radar screens. A home game against the Gophers will give Fitzgerald a chance to catch his breath between road contests, but the energy level’s going to have to stay high to get through the toughest stretch of the schedule.
The Wildcats need to dominate in the early games of their schedule. No one will bother to judge them as credible until they confront Miller and show their stuff. That game will probably say all. Fitzgerald’s job will be to keep the Wildcats focused on the immediate game at hand and not to look forward to Ohio State until the week of the game. If the Wildcats are still standing after that game then they stand to be catapulted into the top-15.
From my keyboard to God’s eyes.