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CFN Preview 2013 - Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Posted Jun 1, 2013 2013 Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald
8th year: 50-39 
Ten Best NU Players
1. RB/KR Venric Mark, Sr.
2. LB Damien Proby, Sr.
3. DE Tyler Scott, Sr.
4. QB Kain Colter, Sr.
5. S Ibraheim Campbell, Jr.
6. C Brandon Vitable, Jr.
7. LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Jr.
8. CB Nick VanHoose, Soph.
9. PK Jeff Budzien, Sr.
10. DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, RFr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 at California
9/7 Syracuse
9/14 Western Michigan
9/21 Maine
10/5 Ohio State
10/12 at Wisconsin
10/19 Minnesota
10/26 at Iowa
11/2 at Nebraska
11/16 Michigan
11/23 Michigan State
11/30 at Illinois 
It’s not like Northwestern hasn’t tasted success.

Ever since the epic run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, losing seasons have become an aberration and going to bowl games is no longer anything to scream and shout about. However, remember, this is a program what went 23 straight seasons from 1972 to 1994 without a winning record, highlighted by a stretch from 1976 to 1981 with just three victories. Yeah, it is still a big deal, and what’s happening now in Evanston could potentially big bigger.

Gary Barnett did the impossible and Randy Walker came up with a brilliant second act, but what Pat Fitzgerald did in 2012 was different.

For starters, last year’s team won a bowl game, validating the season that much more considering it came against the SEC’s Mississippi State. But more than anything else, Northwestern was actually really, really good and not lucky or quirky. It didn’t win just because it had a gimmicky spread attack, and it didn’t slink by because a slew of try-hard types gave it 110%; it won because it was a talented and athletic team that played college football at a high level.

Northwestern will never bring in the five-star talents like an Ohio State or a Michigan, but Fitzgerald has built and then rebuilt his team around speed, athleticism and aggressiveness, adapting and adjusting along the way to get to a point where the starting 22 can match up well with anyone in the conference. He has also done it with a bit of patience and a lot of learning.

The 2011 team suffered through some major growing pains with massive inconsistencies across the board, but it was a necessary step. The rebuilt receiving corps improved, and now the payoff should come with almost all of the top targets returning. The secondary was an issue for years, but Fitzgerald improved the speed by leaps and bounds, and it showed with a decent year. The pass rush kicked in, the offensive backfield was deadly, and the special teams were peerless as area after area that was a question mark going into 2012 suddenly turned into a plus. And now the momentum should continue.

Coming up with the right facilities and generating a big buzz have been a problem, but even with all the barriers and restrictions, the program is working and things are changing for the better. There might have been a few gag games last season, and there weren’t enough giant wins over big-name teams, but with Fitzgerald maturing into the gig and with the players he’s getting, there’s a reason to believe. There’s a reason to think that going 10-3 might be just the beginning and not just a fun anomaly. There’s a reason to hope that Northwestern can continue to be really good.

And that means coming up with a 2012 now and then isn’t good enough anymore. That means 2012 has to be the norm, and Fitzgerald has the team returning that can make that happen.

What to watch for on offense: Can the offensive line rebuild and regroup in a hurry? If the passing game is going to improve, and it should with all the returning talent, it’s going to have to start by giving the quarterbacks even more time. The Wildcat front five doesn’t have to destroy defensive fronts, but it needs to be physical and it has to be able to wall off enough so the quick backs can scoot by. The Cats led the Big Ten with the fewest sacks allowed, and it did a great job for the loaded ground game, but this year three key starters have to be replaced and need to shine with Cal and Syracuse coming up quickly on the slate.

What to watch for on defense: Even more from the pass rush. One of the biggest keys to the turnaround was a more aggressive defense that generated more pressure on a regular basis. There might not have been enough plays behind the line – finishing tenth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss – but the quarterbacks were hit more. Tyler Scott is back at one end after a strong season, and the pressure should come on a regular basis from the other side with Dean Lowry a dangerous up-and-coming option and 2012 super-recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo ready to start producing if he can stay healthy. The linebackers will be sent from the outside, and the defensive interior will do its part.

The team will be far better if … the secondary tightens up. It wasn’t bad overall, and for the most part it didn’t get torched on too many big plays, but late breakdowns proved deadly. The Cats were up 28-17 on Penn State, but Matt McGloin got hot leading the way to 22 fourth quarter points for the win. NU had Nebraska dead in the final few minutes before giving up a 30-yard pass play leading to one score and a 25-yarder on the way to the Husker game-winner. And, of course, there was the 53-yard Roy Roundtree deep ball in the final seconds that helped Michigan force overtime. Ball control is the key for the offense, but the secondary has to do its part to close.

The schedule: Can the Wildcats build on their success of last season? They’ll have a few challenges early on with a trip to face Cal in Berkeley in Sonny Dykes’ first game at the helm. Syracuse is in a rebuilding mode, but it’ll still be a dangerous home opener and Western Michigan has the type of offense to be a problem. With Maine coming to Evanston to close out the home slate, and a week off to follow, everything has to be in place for a rough start to the Big Ten season.

Who do you not want to play from the Leaders? Ohio State? Check – that’s the conference opener. Wisconsin? Check – the Cats have to go to Camp Randall the week after. Beating Minnesota and winning at Iowa could be vital with a trip to Nebraska to follow. The week off couldn’t come at a better time with home games against Michigan and Michigan State to follow before closing out with the rivalry date at Illinois.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Venric Mark. Northwestern is always good when it gets big production out of a running back. Years ago it was Damien Anderson and Darnell Autry, and now it’s Mark who’s working wonders as a do-it-all playmaker for the Wildcat attack. An elite kick and punt returner as well as a runner, he’s an all-purpose machine finishing 12th in the nation in yards. While he’s not built to be a workhorse, he can carry the ground game at times.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Damien Proby. However, pass rushing terror Tyler Scott might be the most important, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo is the most versatile and safety Ibraheim Campbell one of the top leaders. However, it’s Proby who brings it all together in the middle with big hitting ability and great range. While he doesn’t put up big pass rushing numbers and he’s not splashy, he’s consistent.

Key player to a successful season: Junior OT Paul Jorgensen. The offensive line and the pass protection was one of the biggest keys to the amazing 2012 season, and it should be set at left tackle with Jack Konopka returning and center with Brandon Vitabile back. However, the other three spots have to be settled, and it starts with right tackle where the 6-6, 295-pound Jorgensen has to settle in right away. He might not blast away on anyone, but he has to be decent against speed rushers.

The season will be a success if … the Wildcats win ten games again. Having to play Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders is a horrendous break, and going to Nebraska won’t help. Those three games could be just enough to keep NU out of the Big Ten title chase, but for a program that struggled for so long to win a second bowl game, another 9-3 regular season with a post-season victory would be fantastic.

Key game: Aug. 31 at California. After all the excitement of last year and with all the momentum, the Wildcats can’t come out flat. Cal will be jacked up at home in the first game under new head coach Sonny Dykes, and it’ll be a good test for the NU secondary. With four straight home games to follow, if the Cats can come out of Berkeley with a tone-setting win, the roll might not stop for a while.

2012 Fun Stats:
- 1st Half Scoring: Northwestern 207 – Opponents 109
- Turnovers: Opponents 29 – Northwestern 15
- Punt Return Average: Northwestern 16.5 yards – Opponents 4.9 yards
- 2013 Northwestern Preview | 2013 Northwestern Offense
- 2013 Northwestern Defense | 2013 Northwestern Depth Chart