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2009 CFN Northwestern Preview
Northwestern QB Mike Kafka
Northwestern QB Mike Kafka
Posted Jun 2, 2009 2009 Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2009

By Pete Fiutak  

- 2009 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2009 Northwestern Offense
- 2009 Northwestern Defense | 2009 Northwestern Depth Chart
- 2008 NU Preview | 2007 NU Preview | 2006 NU Preview 

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Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald
4th year: 19-18
Returning Lettermen
Off. 24, Def. 23, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 23
Ten Best NU Players
1. DE Corey Wootton, Jr.
2. SS Brad Phillips, Sr.
3. FS Brendan Smith, Sr.
4. CB Sherrick McManis, Sr.
5. QB Mike Kafka, Sr.
6. LB Nate Williams, Jr.
7. LB Quentin Davis, Jr.
8. DT Corbin Bryant, Jr.
9. OT Al Netter, Soph.
10. RB Stephen Simmons, Jr.

2009 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2009 Record:

9/5 Towson
9/12 Eastern Michigan
9/19 at Syracuse
9/26 Minnesota
10/3 at Purdue
10/10 Miami University
10/17 at Michigan State
10/24 Indiana
10/31 Penn State
11/7 at Iowa
11/14 at Illinois
11/21 Wisconsin

2008 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2008 Record:

8/30 Syracuse W 30-10
9/6 at Duke W 24-20
9/13 So. Illinois W 33-7
9/20 Ohio W 16-8
9/27 at Iowa W 22-17
10/11 Michigan State L 37-20
10/18 Purdue W 48-26
10/25 at Indiana L 21-19
11/1 at Minnesota W 24-17
11/8 Ohio State L 45-10
11/15 at Michigan W 21-14
11/22 Illinois W 27-10
Alamo Bowl
12/29 Missouri L 30-23 OT

Even when Northwestern was winning Big Ten titles in the 1990s, it's not like anyone really took the program seriously. After all, it was Northwestern.

The program that was synonymous with futility, and jokingly said to be kept around by the Big Ten to raise up the league's academic profile, has obviously had some big moments, but it's always been seen as more of an annoying gnat that buzzes around the heads of the bigger name schools, rather than be accepted as one of the Big Ten's more successful, consistent teams.

With the recruiting restrictions, school size, and a lack of local interest in a major market, there are plenty of built-in excuses, and all of them valid, that make it hard for teams to get up for that trip to Evanston, and that's not a bad thing. Everyone circles the calendar to mark the Michigan game. Everyone gets jacked up for Penn State, and the year is focused around what a team can do against Ohio State. Northwestern is still Northwestern, and even though head coach Pat Fitzgerald is trying to change the perception, the underdog image works to the team's advantage. However, Fitzgerald has said from day one that he wants to make Northwestern a powerhouse, and he might be on the verge of coming closer than anyone thought possible. Now the team has to start winning more of the big games.

Northwestern isn't exactly an underdog anymore going four out of the last five years with a 6-6 record or better, and another year, in 2003, that finished up 6-7 after a trip to a bowl game. Ah yes, the bowl games. And there's the problem.

For all the positive things that NU has done over the last 15 years, there hasn't been a bowl win. In fact, the school is 1-6 in bowls with the only victory a 1948 Rose Bowl win over California. While winning bowl games is hardly the total measure of how good a program is, the lack of being able to pull off that extra victory has cemented the NU into the try-hard category. Oh sure, the Wildcats can rise up and pull off an upset of Iowa or Illinois now and then, but when teams are able to take a few weeks to focus and gameplan, they can't win. And it's not like the bowls have all been mismatches in talent. There was a Motor City Bowl loss to Bowling Green, too.

This year's team could be different, and it might not be the type of Northwestern squad that has its head too far over its skis with a nice record that gets exposed in the post-season. There are issues, but there are other parts that will be as strong as the program has ever had.

It all starts with a secondary that gets everyone back and has a slew of good-looking backups to count on. Throw in an athletic linebacking corps, and a line that could dominate if everyone is healthy (but that's a HUGE if), and a defense that gave up just 341 yards and 20 points per game should be fantastic.

The offense will have to change some things up a bit with a new backfield that will run more than it has in the last few years, and with a receiving corps that's wet behind the gills, but the line should be strong enough to give everyone time to get comfortable.

There are reasons to have high expectations at this point considering the recent success, and Fitzgerald appears to be coming into his own as a coach just as the talent level is starting to rise. Big Ten teams will be warned and warned again about how dangerous NU will be, and several will still get picked off.

What to watch for on offense: More running. Head coach Mick McCall's offense didn't work quite as well as expected, with the idea that the playmakers should have the ball in space as much as possible. C.J. Bacher was good at distributing the ball around, but he had three veteran receivers to work with and a do-it-all back in Tyrell Sutton to rely on. All the top skill players are gone, and while the receiving corps is the biggest question mark, there are talented runners ready to pick up the slack. Mike Kafka is a dangerous running quarterback, and backs Stephen Simmons, Alex Daniel, and Jeravin Matthews are all quick. McCall will still try to get his top players in places where they can do something with the ball, but it might just look a bit different.

What to watch for on defense: The health of the defensive front. Long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz got a ton of production out of a defense that was camped out in opposing backfields led by Corey Wootton. The junior has always had the tools and the potential, and he put it all together last season with a ten-sack season that made him finally look like the top NFL prospect everyone expected him to become. Now he has to get over a bad knee injury suffered in the December loss to Missouri, and that might still take a while get to 100% once the season starts. Tackle Adam Hahn is trying to get over a foot injury  and versatile tackle/end Corbin Bryant is trying to get past a knee injury. On the plus side, the injuries allowed others, like end Vince Browne, to get more work this offseason, but if the starters aren't healthy, the defensive pressure of last year will diminish.

The team will be far better if … Mike Kafka can throw. He was excellent running the ball when he replaced Bacher last year, running for 217 yards against Minnesota and 83 yards against Ohio State, and while he completed 32-of-46 passes, he threw three picks with two touchdown passes. He's not going to be Bacher throwing the ball, but if he's able to provide just enough of a deep passing threat to keep defenses honest, things will open up that much more for the ground game.

The Schedule:
It's not bad. If the Wildcats can win at Syracuse, and as long as they don't screw up at home early on, they should be at least 6-2 before dealing with Penn State. The non-conference schedule is laughable playing Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse and Miami University. Going on the road to face Iowa and Illinois in back-to-back weeks in November will be tough, and to close out against Wisconsin will be difficult meaning the first half of the season has to be fantastic. Not playing Ohio State is as big a plus as it gets, and while it might seem like a plus to miss Michigan, it's not a break this year..

Best Offensive Player: Junior QB Mike Kafka. He has to stay healthy, he has to keep the mistakes to a minimum, and he has to be consistent. The 6-3, 215-pounder has the starting experience to be ready to produce in a big way, but he takes big shots (he was knocked out against Michigan) and he has to prove he can lead the team to wins with his arm as well as his legs. But he's a talent with the potential to go from a nice relief pitcher to a dangerous centerpiece to work the offense around.     

Best Defensive Player: Junior DE Corey Wootton. But this could quickly change if he's not 100%. When he's right, he's one of the best all-around ends in college football and he'll make NFL scouts with 3-4 defenses drool. If Wootton isn't the best player, then it'll be safety Brad Phillips, a top tacklers who'll be a near-lock for all-star honors. Safety Brendan Smith and corner Sherrick McManis will also earn all-Big Ten mention.

Key player to a successful season:
Senior WR Andrew Brewer. Kafka is the team's key player, but he needs receivers to throw to with Ross Lane, Eric Peterman, and Rasheed Ward gone. Brewer didn't come up with a big year with just 18 grabs for 145 yards, but he needs to become a No. 1 target who stretches the field from the outside. He's the veteran in the green receiving corps and he needs to be dangerous..

The season will be a success if ... the Wildcats win nine games again ... and a bowl. Not getting Ohio State is as big a break as it gets, and Michigan is better this year so not playing Big Blue is a plus. However, there are just enough offensive issues to expect better than last year's 9-4 campaign, especially with a nasty finishing kick. NU won't win at Michigan State and will likely lose against Penn State and at Iowa, so there has to be a split at Illinois and against Wisconsin and no mistakes anywhere else.

Key game: September 26 vs. Minnesota. Considering Purdue is in a rebuilding mode and needs to be a win for the Cats. If they can pull off a win over an improved Gopher team in the Big Ten opener in Evanston, there's a real chance to start out 6-0 before the brutal part of the state starts to kick in. A big start, with Indiana still on the slate, could mean a nine win season is possible.

2008 Fun Stats: 
- Third down conversions: Northwestern 97-of-209 (46%) - Opponents 68-for-196 (35%)
- Penalties: Opponents 78 for 688 yards - Northwestern 61 for 567 yards
- Sacks: Northwestern 34 for 235 yards - Opponents 22 for 176 yards

- 2009 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2009 Northwestern Offense

- 2009 Northwestern Defense | 2009 Northwestern Depth Chart
- 2008 NU Preview | 2007 NU Preview | 2006 NU Preview