College football, probably more than any other sport, is a game of momentum. Entire games can swing on a single play, entire seasons (and entire coaching careers) can hinge on the result of a single game.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern alum and linebacker on the 1995 team that went to the Rose Bowl, has been steadily building his team from the ground up but has always sat right on the periphery of the Big Ten heavyweights.
In 2013 Northwestern was primed for what, on paper, looked like the best team in school history. Flying high off a 10-3 2012 campaign that ended with a #16 Coaches’ Poll ranking and Northwestern’s first bowl win in 64 years, and returning all its major contributors on offense and defense, the Wildcats were ready to tackle a 2013 schedule that featured marquee opponents in Ohio State and Wisconsin. Eyes were on Evanston, and the Wildcats were ready to show the nation that 2012 was not a fluke.
Things went great for a little while as Northwestern outlasted California 44-30 and hammered an average Syracuse team and bad Western Michigan and Maine teams. The Cats were 4-0 and #16 in the country when #4 Ohio State came to town, a game many (myself included) had pegged as a trap game for the Buckeyes.
Northwestern played a brilliant first half, holding a 23-13 lead midway through the third quarter, allowing zero offensive touchdowns along the way . . . but Ohio State outscored Northwestern 27-7 in the last nineteen minutes, the Buckeyes won the game 40-30, and Northwestern never recovered.
Average score, before Ohio State: Northwestern 41.3, Opponents 23.8 (4-0)
Average score, vs. Ohio State and after: Opponents 28.9, Northwestern 18.6 (1-7)
Wisconsin steamrolled the Wildcats 35-6. Stud running back Venric Mark* got hurt and the previously-potent offense lost its wheels, scoring just 17 points against Minnesota and 10 against Iowa. Northwestern watched its upset bid at Nebraska die in a Hail Mary touchdown, managed just 19 points in three overtimes against Michigan, and its bowl hopes got stuffed by Michigan State.
Northwestern rallied for a barnburning 37-34 win over Illinois to close out the season, but the damage was done: 5-7 on the year and no bowl game for what was supposed to be the best team in school history.
(And then there was that whole union thing, but that’s another story.)
How does Fitzgerald take the team forward? He did it before. 6-7 in 2011 became 10-3 in 2012. Can Northwestern bounce back again in 2014?
For three years Northwestern carved out an identity for itself as a spread-hybrid team that emphasized efficiency and ball control in a low-risk attack, mixing spread elements (namely, horizontal passing) into a power running game style. It was at its most potent with do-everything quarterback Kain Colter, who at times took snaps at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, split snaps with Trevor Siemian. Colter added an element of mobility and a rushing threat that the stationary Siemian couldn’t. In turn, Siemian made the big throws downfield (sometimes to Colter), and the two-quarterback system worked well.
While never particularly explosive (113th in points per play), defenses knew the Wildcats could grind out drives with the best of them. Colter was deadly efficient in short passes (78% in 2013) and defenses couldn’t figure out whether to attack the wide receivers on the edges or try to stuff Mark and the running backs in the middle.
Until it stopped working. Colter got hurt and missed the Wisconsin and Minnesota games, and Siemian missed the Iowa game, and the Wildcats posted their three worst showings of the season.
Now, Colter is gone and it’s all Siemian’s game. A 60% completion rate and 7.2 yards per attempt is nothing to scoff at . . . but only 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions and 19 sacks is. Without the rushing threats Colter and Mark, the Wildcats became one-dimensional and opposing defenses knew it. Running back Treyvon Green was admirable in relief of Mark, but the punch was gone.
Fortunately for Northwestern, Mark returns in 2014 (he’ll be a senior), as does his entire starting offensive line. The Mark-Green running back tandem should be efficient enough to keep Siemian out of too many obvious passing downs. When those passing downs do come, Siemian retains his favorite wide receiver targets, Tony Jones and Christian Jones*, who were dependable third-down targets (but, as mentioned before, seldom a deep threat), while adding two incoming transfers (Rutgers’ Miles Shuler and USC’s Kyle Prater, who at 6’5” and 225 pounds adds much-needed size).
In order to step up to the next level, Northwestern’s offense needs to find a big play threat, plain and simple. Efficiency is fantastic but it’s hard for a team to consistently get ten to fifteen snaps in a row of error-free execution on offense (especially against the upper tier of Big Ten defenses).
I can’t help but wonder whether Colter’s departure will be a blessing in disguise in this regard. As a Nebraska fan, I’ve watched over and over again through the years as mobile quarterbacks embarrassed us over and over again, yet in the 2012 Northwestern/Nebraska game, Siemian took all the snaps at quarterback. After Colter had led an upset of the ninth-ranked Cornhuskers in Lincoln the year before. It made me wonder whether Fitzgerald occasionally outsmarted himself a little bit. Having just Siemian behind center might allow the Northwestern offense to focus on doing one thing really well instead of essentially needing to run two offenses: one when Colter was quarterback and another when Siemian was.
Although who knows. Before Colter split snaps with Siemian he split snaps with Dan Persa, though in a more limited role. Maybe Fitz just likes to use two quarterbacks.
[Update: on August 13, 2014, Northwestern announced Mark is transferring from the program. Also, Christian Jones will sadly miss the season with a knee injury.]
In the offensive section I described an offense that was pretty good at grabbing small chunks of yards and working its way up a field, but that was also hopeless at making big plays.
The defense was pretty similar: while the Cats were able to stymie the big play (9th preventing plays of 20+ yards), for the most part opposing offenses were able to find rhythm and grind out drives (93rd against efficiency).
However, they were mostly a young unit that retains a lot of its experience and talent in 2014. Safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry return to lead a secondary that snagged 19 interceptions in 2013. Up front, the Wildcats will miss defensive end Tyler Scott (and his ten tackles for loss) from a unit that excelled at pressuring the quarterback without blitzing, but junior Deonte Gibson (seven tackles for loss) should be ready to fill his shoes. At linebacker, the Wildcats return seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Colin Ellis who combined for seven interceptions in 2013. This is a defense with some talent and some depth, which should help to prevent the late-game slumps that have hounded Fitzgerald-coached teams for years.
NORTHWESTERN SPECIAL TEAMS
Mark’s return should give a boost to a punt return game that was middling in 2013 (Mark averaged 18.7 yards per return in 2012, an ungodly high number. Opposing punters may want to aim for the sidelines), but the Wildcats will need to replace placekicker Jeff Budizen who didn’t miss from inside the 40 yard line in 2013. Punter Chris Gradone averaged just 37.8 yards per punt. He replaced Brandon Williams late in 2013 who was worse (36 yards per punt), so hopefully with time the punting unit can improve.
For a rebuilding offense, this schedule sets up nicely. Conference juggernauts Ohio State and Michigan State rotate off in favor of Penn State and Purdue (from a getting-wins standpoint, Purdue is always nice to have on the schedule), and the Wildcats get California, a Jordan Lynch-less Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan in Evanston. We’ll get to see Northwestern’s mettle in road games to Penn State, Iowa, and Notre Dame. In order for Northwestern to get back to a bowl they’ll have to lock up their non-Notre Dame non-conference games and take care of business against Purdue and Illinois, while stealing a game from the middle of the schedule. I see 6-6 or 7-5 for this team, which isn’t that exciting but it’s a hair better than 5-7.