2008 CFN Northwestern Preview
Northwestern RB Tyrell Sutton
Northwestern RB Tyrell Sutton
Posted May 9, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2008

By Pete Fiutak

- 2008 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2008 Northwestern Offense
- 2008 Northwestern Defense | 2008 Northwestern Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2006 CFN Northwestern Preview 

It's been two years since the tragic death of Randy Walker, and while the program is still in a grieving stage, it's hard to avoid the influence of the former head coach, now it's up to Pat Fitzgerald to make this team his own.

Fitzgerald was thrown to the wolves in the most impossible of circumstances. Too young, too green, and needing to somehow keep the program going while also dealing with transition from Walker's loss, Fitzgerald did what he could. By all accounts, he's one of the bright, up-and-coming head coaches, and while he said and did all the right things in deference to Walker's legacy, it's been hard for him to put his stamp on things and take full ownership of one of the most unique programs in college football. 

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald
3rd year: 10-14
Returning Lettermen
Off. 26, Def. 17, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best NU Players
1. RB Tyrell Sutton, Sr.
2. QB C.J. Bacher, Sr.
3. DT John Gill, Sr.
4. SS Brendan Smith, Jr.
5. WR Eric Peterman, Sr.
6. FS Brad Phillips, Soph.
7. DE Corey Wootton, Jr.
8. WR Ross Lane, Sr.
9. OT Kurt Mattes, Jr.
10. DE Kevin Mims, Sr.

2008 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2008 Record: 0-0

Aug. 30 Syracuse
Sept. 6 at Duke
Sept. 13 Southern Illinois
Sept. 20 Ohio
Sept. 27 at Iowa
Oct. 11 Michigan State
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Indiana
Nov. 1 at Minnesota
Nov. 8 Ohio State
Nov. 15 at Michigan
Nov. 22 Illinois

2007 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2007 Record:

Sept. 1 Northeastern W 27-0
Sept.8 Nevada W 36-31
Sept. 15 Duke L 20-14
Sept. 22 at Ohio State L 58-7
Sept. 29 Michigan L 28-16
Oct. 6 at Mich St W 48-41 OT
Oct. 13
Minn. W 49-48 2OT
Oct. 20 Eastern Mich W 26-14
Oct. 27 at Purdue L 35-17
Nov. 3 Iowa L 28-17
Nov. 10
Indiana W 31-28
Nov. 17 at Illinois L 41-22

While it's not fair to blame losses just on Fitzgerald, Northwestern had its share of clunkers under Walker, too, it's safe to say the team wouldn't have lost the Duke game last year, it probably wouldn't have lost to Iowa, and it definitely wouldn't have blown the Michigan State game in 2006 and would've at least split with New Hampshire and Nevada, if it had a veteran head man at the helm. However, consider those a few steps back to potentially take a giant leap forward.
From moment one, Fitzgerald has never allowed for anyone to have an excuse for anything. He has said that he demands a Big Ten championship, and he truly believes he can make Northwestern football something special on a continuous basis. Considering he was one of the key pieces for the mid-1990s teams that were so amazing, it's hard not to believe him.
He has brought in Mick McCall, an inventive offensive mind from Bowling Green, to add a little more zip to the attack. He also snapped up defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who was canned by Bret Bielema at Wisconsin this off-season, to attack more on defense. Fitzgerald was an aggressive player and is an aggressive coach, and he has the assistants to fit his style. Now he has the team to follow suit.

Going 6-6 is always a positive at Northwestern, especially since there were three wins over bowl bound teams, but that should be just the springboard to a big year. QB C.J. Bacher gets almost all his key weapons back, Tyrell Sutton is the league's best all around back, the defense is loaded with veterans, and the special teams should be excellent. And the coaching is in place.

This is Fitzgerald's time to open up the throttle and see what he and his team are capable of. Unlike the last two years, there should be expectations for a winning season and a bowl, and while Fitzgerald has never shot for anything lower, he has to prove he can really be the man who makes Northwestern a steady player in the Big Ten. It starts now.

What to watch for on offense: Bacher to be the triggerman for an interesting offensive scheme. Using more hurry-up and no-huddle, McCall's goal is to control the tempo. A great quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green, McCall will look to get Bacher to make quick reads, quick throws, and to make everyone around him better by getting the ball to the veteran playmakers in places where they can do something with it. This was the league's No. 1 passing offense last year, and while it wasn't efficient, it should be this season as Bacher will make more short to midrange throws and will try to keep defenses on their heels.

What to watch for on defense: Hankwitz to release the hounds. He doesn't have the most athletic defense around, but it's far speedier and with far more talent than it has had in the past. Fitzgerald has done a good job of recruiting to a type, and Walker brought in some nice talent a few years ago that's ready to shine. After struggling so much to force turnovers and get into the backfield, the Wildcat defensive front will do more blitzing and more attacking than in year's past.

The team will be far better if … generates more defensive pressure from the ends. Corey Wootton and Kevin Mims are big, talented veterans on the outside, but the best pass rush last year came from John Gill and the interior. The secondary had talented players who struggled because almost all quarterbacks got ten days to throw. Wootton and Mims are too experienced with too much upside not to be regulars in the backfield. 

The Schedule: The first rule of any schedule: You don't lose to Duke. The second rule of any schedule: You do NOT lose to Duke. The Wildcats blew it at home against the Blue Devils last season, but they'll get another shot. If NU wants to go bowling, it has to win at least three of four, if not all four, against Syracuse, at Duke, Southern Illinois and Ohio before the Big Ten opener at Iowa. Getting at least a split in home games against Michigan State and Purdue, after coming off a week off, is a must with a strange and difficult finishing kick. Going to Indiana and Minnesota for back-to-back road games wouldn't be that big a deal for anyone else, and those might be must wins with Ohio State, at Michigan and Illinois to close things out. Missing Wisconsin and Penn State in Big Ten play is a gigantic break.

Best Offensive Player: Senior RB Tyrell Sutton.  Hurt for most of last year, Sutton still led the team with 522 rushing yards and caught 30 passes for 282 yards. If the idea of the new offense is to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers as soon as humanly possible, and in a place where they can do something with it, then Sutton is option one. Get him the ball in space and good things will happen     

Best Defensive Player: Senior DT John Gill. The 6-3, 290-pounder is starting to emerge as a legitimate pro prospect with good quickness, nice pass rushing ability, and just enough toughness against the run to be considered an anchor for a veteran line. If he got any pass rushing help from the ends, he'd be dominant.        

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman C Ben Burkett. Everything is in place for the offense to explode. It put up a ton of yards last year, finishing second in the Big Ten, but it could be far better if there's steady pass protection. The emergence of Burkett this spring allowed Joel Belding to move from center to guard, and while Burkett isn't all that big at 6-4 and 265 pounds, he's the type of athletic center who should be great for the offense.

The season will be a success if ... the Wildcats go bowling. The team is better, the schedule isn't awful, missing Wisconsin and Penn State, arguably two of the top three teams in the league this year, and after going 6-6 last season, 7-5 is a must with a trip to somewhere, anywhere, to close out. It would be really nice if there was a win over a really big name, like Illinois or, dream of dreams, Ohio State.

Key game: Sept. 27 at Iowa. For a successful season, the Wildcats have to get hot, really hot, early on. A win in the Big Ten opener would do wonders with an off-week before home games against Michigan State and Purdue. Considering the second half of the season has two road games followed up by Ohio State, at Michigan and Illinois, beating Iowa at Iowa could be a must.

2007 Fun Stats: 
- Field goals: Northwestern 12 of 18 – Opponents 4 of 12
- Penalties: Opponents 77 for 638 yards – Opponents 59 for 563 yards
- Interceptions thrown: Northwestern 19 – Opponents 9