2011 Record: (6-7, 3-5 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (40-36 All-Time, 21-27 in B1G)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Meineke Car Care Bowl: lost to Texas A&M 33-22
Must Win: 9/15 vs Boston College, 9/22 vs South Dakota, 9/29 vs Indiana, 10/13 at Minnesota
Revenge: 10/6 at Penn State, 10/27 vs Iowa, 11/10 at Michigan, 11/17 at Michigan St, 11/24 vs Illinois
Swing Games: 9/1 at Syracuse, 9/8 vs Vandy
Stat to Cheer: converted 47.85% of third downs (2nd in B1G, 13th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: only had 17 sacks in 2012 (last in B1G, 95th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 5; Defense: 5; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Ibraheim Campbell (100 tackles, 2 INT), LB David Nwabuisi (84 tackles), DE Quentin Williams (3 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB/ATH Kain Colter (43 rec, 18 total TD), WR Demetrius Fields (32 rec, 3 TD), OG Brain Mulroe, OT Patrick Ward, C Brandon Vitabile
Inside Scoop with Lake The Posts:
CFBZ: In our 2011 Exit Survey, we talked a little bit about Kain Colter and how he will be used next year. Where do you see him taking most of the snaps next year and how do you think Northwestern should utilize him for maximum effectiveness?
Lake The Posts: This conversation has kept the off-season chatter going. Despite the fact Kain completed 67% of his passes last season, albeit in mostly manageable passing distances, many fans seem to believe Trevor Siemien is the better passing QB. Kain is a lethal weapon and his ability to create positive yardage is admirable, however the one major question mark is his downfield accuracy. There are several specific plays last season where Kain missed easy TDs on downfield passes. Yet, the guy is a flat-out winner and OC Mick McCall has been fantastic at keeping the NU QBs at the top of the Big Ten charts each year. I think he is a brilliant receiver and he may ultimately end up there, however, I see him and Siemien getting reps at the QB spot with Kain as the incumbent. Fans are most fearful that we'll be predicatable as Trevor coming in to the game in passing situations and passing would be a theme that wouldn't take much to figure out.
CFBZ: The Northwestern defensive backfield was a problem area last year for the Wildcats (last in the Big Ten in passing defense). Who needs to step up in that area this year?
Lake The Posts: We are going to be weak at the cornerback position, I fear. I believe
sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell will emerge as the leader of the secondary after some ups and downs as a freshman. The loss of co-captain Brian Peters is going to hurt immensely, but I think we've got some talent at safety. The cornerback spot is pretty big question mark. It's not exactly a Russell Wilson comparison, but getting Stanford DB Quinn Evans, who graduated and is therefore eligible immediately can't hurt. In fairness, we need the pass rush to be much improved as last year's secondary challenges must be shouldered at least in part by our awful ability to apply any consistent pressure.
CFBZ: What do you see as the most critical stretch of games on the schedule this season?
Lake The Posts: The entire first half of the season. With non-conference games at Syracuse and at home against a rising Vandy program and an average BC team, we've got some work to do. We very rarely go 4-0 in non-conference, but I think we have to this season if we want to continue our bowl appearance streak (would be five if we go this year). We open with Indiana at home and have Minnesota sandwiched after Penn State. I believe we need to start 6-1 and then pull the old school Minnesota where we hold on for dear life. A four game gauntlet that includes Iowa and Nebraska at home and @ Sparty and @Michigan makes wins seem scant after mid-October.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Lake The Posts: My gut is 6-6. I'd love to think we can get to 7-5 and anything over that I'd be ecstatic.
I thought Northwestern would be a sleeper team last year but that did not pan out as Dan Persa never really seemed to come back fully from the injury he sustained in 2010. This year, Northwestern goes from Phil Steele's most experienced team in 2011 to his least experienced team.
If the Wildcats want to be successful in 2012, they need to take the next step on defense. In 2011, they were 10th in the league against the run and last against the pass. They were also last in sacks which led to the Wildcats giving up the most plays over 20 (47 plays) and 30 (22 plays) yards in the league. Getting to the quarterback should be a priority this year for the Wildcats but they return just seven sacks from last years squad. Defensive improvement is a must if Northwestern wants to move up the laddder in the Big Ten.
On offense, the Wildcats will be fun but they have a lot of question marks. They return experience on the offensive line but they have some questions (as well as options) at the skill positions. One big question (in addition to Kain Colter) is if RB Mike Trumpy can return to form. He played just three games last year as he went down with an ACL injury.
We will find out about the Wildcats early in 2011 as they face three out of confrerence foes from BCS conferences. The schedule is tough (road games against Michigan and Michigan State) but they don't face Ohio State or Wisconsin so there is hope.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas
Big Ten: Minnesota