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June 20, 2013Follow @JohnVeldhuis
Wisconsin's Sept. 28 game against Ohio State game casts a large shadow, but it's unlikely that the Badgers will have an easy game two weeks later against Northwestern.
The Wildcats won 10 games last year for the first time since 1995, including a 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. And with 15 starters returning from a team that was just over five minutes away from an undefeated season, the Wildcats have received a lot of off-season press as a dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten. Throw in the fact that the Badgers are just 3-4 against the Wildcats since 2000, and the Wildcats just aren't the pushovers they used to be.
In today's beat writer preview, Aric DiLalla of WildcatReport.com stops by to answer a few questions I had about the Wildcats. It's too soon to tell if they can climb the mountain and win their first outright Big Ten title since 1995, but we should at the very least get another interesting season out of the Cardiac Cats.
Northwestern was in position to win a lot of games last season, but some seemed to slip through their fingers. How draining was that on last year's team, and how do you think they will affect this year's team?
Aric DiLalla: Northwestern certainly had its share of chances to win the Legends division in 2012. The Wildcats held double-digit leads in games against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, only to ultimately squander these leads in new ways each week. Following the losses to Penn State and Nebraska, it sure seemed like the games couldn't get any more heartbreaking. But then Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner heaved a long pass to Roy Roundtree with just 18 seconds remaining, and Northwestern suffered another collapse.
Still, if there's one thing to be said for Pat Fitzgerald's squad, its that the team bounced back following each loss. The Cats were 3-0 following a loss in 2012, and they seemed to use the losses as motivation on their way to a 10-3 record and a Gator Bowl win. Moving into this year, Fitzgerald certainly isn't letting his team forget: Northwestern's spring practice jerseys were stamped with "5:03," a reminder of the five minutes and three seconds that separated the Cats and an undefeated season. As a result, this team has taken a "Rose Bowl or bust" mentality through spring practice. We'll see if the team can live up to these expectations, but the motivation is certainly there.
What's left for Northwestern to work with on offense this year? What should fans expect to see?
AD: The two-quarterback system worked wonders in 2012, with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian splitting time to keep defenses on their heels. At various points of the year, each quarterback proved his worth to this Northwestern team. Colter accounted for at least three touchdowns in four games last season, including dominant performances against Indiana, Iowa and Illinios. Meanwhile, Trevor Siemian stepped in when Northwestern needed a vertical presence and led the Cats to a last-second win against Syracuse and a touchdown drive at the end of the first half against Michigan. But let us not forget Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Ultimately it is the combination of these three guys that will make the Northwestern offense tick in 2013. Look for Colter to line up as a slot receiver at times, as this worked effectively in 2012, and you may see both he and Siemian on the field more often. Also, the emergence of deep threat receivers like redshirt sophomore Cameron Dickerson could push this offense to the next level. If the key players can stay healthy and the offensive line can gel after losing three starters to graduation, this Northwestern offense will be nothing short of explosive.
How about in defense? Are the wildcats equipped to make strides on that side of the ball?
AD: One could certainly make the argument that Northwestern's losses in 2012 could be attributed to the defense, as Nebraska marched down the field in the fourth quarter and Michigan -- well, let's not go there again. While Northwestern's rushing defense finished third in the league, its passing defense finished dead last. However, things may be changing in Evanston.
Northwestern lost very few seniors to graduation, and the Cats seem poised to make a jump on the defensive side of the ball. On the defensive line, senior DE Tyler Scott is ready to follow up his on an All-Big Ten honorable mention season in which he had nine sacks. Redshirt sophomore Deonte Gibson showed flashes as an edge rusher last season and may have the quickness to be an impact player on the other side. At linebacker, Northwestern returns senior Damien Proby and junior Chi Chi Ariguzo, two players that will provide leadership and experience to a group that will continue to be a strong suit for the defense. However, I expect the biggest strides to be made in the secondary, where Northwestern returns safety Ibraheim Campbell, junior cornerback Daniel Jones and sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose to starting roles. Plus, sophomore safety Traveon Henry got quite a bit of playing time as a true freshman last season and looks primed to step into a No. 1 job. Lost in the collapses last year was the fact that VanHoose, who is arguably the most important player on the defensive side of the ball, missed three games due to injury.
How has Pat Fitzgerald changed the culture in Evanston? Are the Wildcats in a position where they can raise their expectations for the football team?
AD: To put it simply: absolutely. Fitzgerald has instilled a belief in his players and in the Northwestern fan base that not only can this team compete for Big Ten titles, but it's a disappointment if it doesn't. Understandably, it takes results for people to believe in this vision, but that seems to be exactly what 2012 accomplished for Northwestern. The 10-3 season and the Gator Bowl triumph seemed to show both the players and the nation that Northwestern is not just an underdog team that can pull off a few wins against big schools but not make any real noise. No, this team is for real, and a top-20 ranking to end the season proved that people have taken note.
More importantly, this may be only the beginning. The Cats bring in four-star quarterback Matt Alviti in the Class of 2013, and the Class of 2014 already features three four-star players. So the talent level is increasing every year. While Fitzgerald has long been preaching the importance of going about things "the Wildcat Way," which focuses on strong character and values, he finally achieved the success to back up his claims. If Northwestern is able to procure another solid season in 2013, this team may garner enough momentum to stick around for quite a while.
Finally, what's the most likely outcome for the Wildcats this year? Are they a dark horse in the Legends Division?
AD: Ah, the million-dollar question. You'll likely hear a wide variety of responses regarding how Northwestern's season is going to turn out, ranging from an 11-1 season that ends with a Big Ten championship game berth to a disappointing 7-5 campaign. A lot is going to depend on Northwestern's ability to stay healthy and live up to the pressure. The 2012 team was very lucky in the injury department and also seemed to have an underdog mentality. Well, no one is looking past the Wildcats anymore.
Northwestern is being mentioned just as frequently as Michigan and Nebraska as a potential Legends division champion. Last year, Fitzgerald's squad proved it could win games when it was an up-and-coming team, but can it maintain this success as a front-runner? I think so. In 2010, the Wildcats had similar expectations and stumbled to a 7-6 record, which has prompted some to predict the same might happen this year. But despite a tougher schedule in 2013, I think Fitzgerald will have this team prepared and motivated. This Northwestern team isn't going to let "5:03" happen again. That being said, I believe the end result is going to be somewhere in between the two extreme predictions mentioned above. If Colter and Mark stay healthy, I think the Cats will end up losing two Big Ten games. We'll see if that is good enough to get them to Indianapolis.
Thanks again to Aric for sharing his thoughts on the Wildcats.