2014 CFN Preview - Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Posted Jul 19, 2014

Preview 2014 - Union talk, a losing season ... can Northwestern rebound and win again? (Getty Images)

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak 

- 2014 Northwestern Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Pat FItzgerald
9th year: 55-46
Lettermen Returning
Off. 31, Def. 22, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 14
Ten Best NU Players
1. LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr.
2. C Brandon Vitabile, Sr.
3. S Ibraheim Campbell, Sr.
4. OT Paul Jorgensen, Sr.
5. CB Nick VanHoose, Jr.
6. QB Trevor Siemian, Sr.
7. LB Collin Ellis, Sr.
8. WR Tony Jones, Sr.
9 FS Traveon Henry, Jr.
10. WR Christian Jones, Sr.*
*Jones out for year with knee injury
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 California
Sep. 6 Northern Illinois
Sep. 20 Western Illinois
Sep. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 Wisconsin
Oct. 11 at Minnesota
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

What the hell was that?

Coming off a brilliant 10-3 season, Northwestern started out 4-0, and while it was a bit shaky, it was still on a roll having won seven in a row going back to the end of 2012. Everyone got jacked, College Gameday rolled into town, and the Wildcats had Ohio State in trouble late, but stalled and ended up losing 40-30 – with the final score looking worse than the game thanks to a fluky late touchdown.

Little did anyone know that they season ended on October 5th.

It’s not like Northwestern was supposed to take a step back or letdown after the Ohio State loss – on the contrary, the team battled hard and gave the more talented Buckeyes all they could handle. But what followed was a bizarre string of losses in just about every way imaginable. It was if Northwestern spent 2012 figuring out ways to win, and then balanced it out last year by inventing new ways to lose.

It’s not like crushing defeats were anything totally new to the Wildcats – they had both Michigan and Nebraska dead in 2012, only to lose late on painful huge plays – but 2013 was something different.

Want to lose in a brutal slugfest? Ohio State 40-30.

Want to lose by not showing up the following week in a letdown alert game against a team looking to make a statement? Wisconsin 35-6.

Want to lose by doing everything right but hang on to the ball? Minnesota 20-17.

How about losing in overtime – Iowa 17-10 – or on a Hail Mary – Nebraska 27-24 – or on a miraculous late drive and three overtimes – Michigan 27-19 – or by just losing the will to live against the best team in the Big Ten - Michigan State 30-6?

To try to look on the bright side, it really did take a few crazy plays for the season to go into the tank, and while you are what your record is, 5-7 could’ve very, very easily have been at least 8-4. That’s Northwestern football, though – it’s just never going to have the talent to not get by on full effort and a few breaks here and there.

Even if last season was a humbling experience at a time when it seemed like the program was just about to take off, it’s not time to assume that it’s back to the days of good old reliable, homecoming game Northwestern.

If the program and the school can overcome what’s sure to be a season-long distraction with the unionization movement likely to reload, there’s enough talent returning on both sides of the ball to get right back into the hunt for really big things. 18 starters return, and with no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule, it really might be possible to prove that 2013 was just an aberration.

What to watch for on offense: Be prepared for more of a passing game. Northwestern’s offense was at its most dangerous when Kain Colter – Captain Unionize himself – was running the ball and doing whatever was needed for the zone-read attack, but Trevor Siemian proved to be a solid passer when given the chance. Now there’s no Colter, and it’s all Siemian’s offense to run. Fortunately for him, even without top target Christian Jones (knee) and versatile running back Venric Mark (transfer), the receiving corps is loaded with three of the top five pass catchers back. It’ll be tempting to keep feeding the backs the ball to blast away for the running game, but Siemian’s passing numbers should be special if he gets time to work – not a given for a line that allowed 35 sacks last season.

What to watch for on defense: The back seven could be surprisingly fantastic. All four starters are back in a secondary that could hit, but gave up a few huge plays at key times over the last few seasons, allowing close to 3,100 passing yards per game in 2013 with 20 touchdown passes. However, the Wildcats came up with 19 picks and did a good job despite the lack of a top-shelf pass rush. Leading tackler Damien Proby is gone from the middle of the linebacking corps, but Collin Ellis can move inside, Chi Chi Ariguzo appears ready to blossom into an even bigger performer in his final year, and there’s hope that if the line is a bit more productive and a lot healthier, the defense as a whole will start to become far stingier.

The team will be far better if… the lines can stay healthy. The Wildcats never quite seemed right up front on either side last year, needing to rotate in several different bodies on both sides to fill in the gaps. The result was a lack of consistency for the running game, not enough of a pass rush or big moments behind the line, and too many moments when the opposing lines on both sides were able to do what they wanted. There’s hope this season with all five starters back on the offensive line – the result of some parts getting their feet wet when needed last year – and the defensive front will have a good amount of depth to rely on. It’s hard to be tough when you’re patching holes, but this year, Northwestern should have the problem solved.

The Schedule: It's a sneaky-tough non-conference schedule to start, but the big boy is in late November with the first game against Notre Dame since the mid-1990s. The Wildcats have to come out hot and need to be ready for shootouts against Cal and its passing game and NIU and its revamped ground attack before getting an unnecessary week off. Unfortunately, the time off comes before Western Illinois.

NU couldn't ask for much more in West play with big dogs Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Ryan Field, and while playing Michigan from the East stinks, at least it's in Evanston. However, that means the tough home games have to be wins and there can't be mistakes on the road at Minnesota and Iowa. The run of three road games in four weeks in November will make-or-break the team and the season.

Best offensive player: Senior C Brandon Vitabile. This would've been Venric Mark, but he transferred after being suspended for the start of the season. The O line has to be tighter in pass protection, and it has to be far more consistent, but VItabile is a strong, veteran leader for a front five with all five starters back. The hope will be for QB Trevor Siemian to carry the attack, and it would be nice if other skill stars could emerge after losing Mark and Jones, but Vitabile will be the one who helps pave the way.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Chi Chi Ariguzo. The team’s leading returning tackler, Ariguzo will be the main man for a good back seven that should be one of the best in the Pat Fitzgerald era. A 12-game starter, he can work at either outside linebacker spot, but is better on the weakside, where he was a steady and consistent tacklers and a dangerous playmaker in the backfield. In a perfect world, he won’t have to be as much of a pass rusher – the line will do more of the job – but he should still be a double-digit tackle for loss guy again.

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman PK Hunter Niswander. It’s not like Northwestern won a slew of close games last year – the problem was the other way – but Jeff Budzien was still one of the team’s best weapons and one of the nation’s best kickers, hitting 23-of-25 field goals only missing from 42 and 49 yards out early on and making his last 17 of the season. However, he didn’t come up with any big bombs. Niswander is a big kicker with a huge leg and 50+ range. He nailed 111 extra points – an Ohio high school record – in 2012, and he should be ready to step in for Budzien right away. He should be the difference one way or another in a few games.

The season will be a success if ... the Wildcats win eight games and start looking more like 2012 again. There aren’t a lot of layups on the slate, but there isn’t a game that’s an absolute loss, either. Even if it’s a 7-5 regular season and a bowl win to close out, it would be a great bounceback campaign. However, with so much returning talent, and a coaching staff that won’t accept anything less than a Big Ten title, even 8-5 would seem disappointing – it shouldn’t be.

Key game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. Even when Northwestern was rocking and rolling in recent years, there were problems with the Nittany Lions with the last win coming in 2004. Penn State was wounded in 2012, but still won 39-28. In the last Joe Paterno victory before all hell broke loose, Northwestern lost 34-24 in 2011. This year, there’s a chance the Wildcats start off hot with nice home wins over Cal and Northern Illinois on the way to a 3-0 start, but beating Penn State in the Big Ten opener would do wonders to show that this really is a new year with a new attitude. With Wisconsin to follow and a road game at Minnesota and Nebraska to come after, winning in Happy Valley would be big deal.

2013 Fun Stats:
- First Half Scoring: Northwestern 175 - Opponents 126.
- Second Half & OT Scoring: Opponents 199 – Northwestern 139
- Fumbles: Northwestern 11 (lost 7) – Opponents 11 (lost 4)
- Punt Return Average: Northwestern 7.1 yards – Opponents 3.8 yards
- 2014 Northwestern Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players