Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats meet Notre Dame for the first in nearly 20 years.

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

Northwestern_f_medium

2013 Record: 5-7

F/+ Rank: 59

Wins: California, Syracuse, Western Michigan, Maine, Illinois

Losses: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State

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Season Recap

For a team that was a sleeper pick in the B1G it was a disastrous season. They surrendered 549 yards to one of the worst Cal teams in recent memory but did at least come out of Berkeley with a win. A big win over Syracuse and two patsies brought the Wildcats to 4-0 but then nothing went right in league play. Northwestern lost their first 7 games in Big Ten play and only upended Illinois in the final week to avoid a winless season. It was a season full of tough luck as 5 out of their 7 losses were by 10 or fewer points.

Series: 37-8-2 Notre Dame

This used to be one of Notre Dame's main rivalries but that died in the mid-70's. From 1920 until 1948 the Irish and Wildcats played 24 times, the series then took a break from 1949 to 1958, and then 15 more games were played between 1959 and 1976. The last series lasted 4 games from 1992 to 1995 with Northwestern famously winning that last game in the '95 season opener.

Coach Resume: Pat Fiztgerald (55-46, 9th year)

The former Northwestern linebacker and two-time consensus All-American enters his ninth season in Evanston. Fitzgerald was a grad assistant at Maryland in 1998 and Colorado in 1999. In 2000, he became the linebackers coach at Idaho. From 2001 until 2005 he was an assistant at his alma mater and took over the head coaching job in 2006 following the sudden death of Randy Walker. Generally considered to be doing a good job Fitzgerald made it to 5 straight bowl games from 2008-2012. He is currently 10 games under .500 in Big Ten play and has lost at least 3 games in league play in all 8 seasons.

Linemen Situation: Very Strong

The entire starting offensive line is coming back for 2014. Senior left tackle Jack Konopka, fifth-year senior center Brandon Vitabile, and fifth-year senior right tackle Paul Jorgensen all started 12 games last year. Redshirt junior Geoff Mogus started 11 games at left guard with redshirt sophomore Adam DiPeitro starting the other contest. Redshirt sophomore Ian Park started 8 games at right guard while redshirt junior Matt Frazier started the other 4 games.

Defensive end Tyler Scott (12 starts, 47 tackles, 10 TFL, 6 sacks) and defensive tackle Will Hampton (9 starts, 22 tackles) are the losses up front on the other side of the ball. Even still, 73 percent of their tackles for loss from the defensive line are coming back this fall. Former Notre Dame recruiting target Ifeadi Odenigbo is entering his redshirt sophomore season and is a budding young star. He didn't start any games last year and only totaled 9 tackles but he had 6.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and 3 quarterback hurries.

Returning Quarterback: Sort Of

Kain Colter--now of the players union movement fame--graduates and so should Northwestern's two quarterback system that has been used extensively in recent years. Colter started 10 games last year and 12 games in 2012. However, he was more of a run-first option (449 career rushing attempts versus 320 career passing attempts) while rising fifth-year senior Trevor Siemian was more of a traditional pass-first quarterback.

Colter only leaves behind 82 pass attempts from last fall but his departure also leaves Northwestern without its second leading rusher. Siemian was a pretty average passer last year with 2,143 yards on 296 attempts with 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Improved Quarterback Play

Colter is gone but not having to play in a two quarterback system might help Siemian this fall. There were some good moments last year for Siemian including 15 completions for 259 yards against Syracuse, 13 completions for 245 yards against Ohio State, and 414 passing yards against Illinois.

There were some tough low-lights though including a 4th quarter interception against Ohio State, pick six and lost fumble against Minnesota, pick six against Nebraska, and an interception that ended the triple overtime game against Michigan. Siemian only had 7 touchdown passes in 252 attempts through Northwestern's first 11 games while the Wildcats were 106th nationally in pass plays of 30+ yards last year.

Less mistakes and a little more explosiveness could go a long way in 2014.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Overall Returning Experience

If you count Siemian in the numbers then every single starter returns on offense for Northwestern. Not many teams can say that. That doesn't even include 2012 punt return All-American (1,366 rushing yards in '12) Venric Mark who missed 9 games with injuries last year and has returned for a fifth season.

On defense a healthy 8 starters return for the Wildcats. Put it all together and every single starter returning is coming into at least their third year in the program. Lots and lots of experience.

Offensive Scheme: Spread

The Northwestern offense had a very Tony Pike/Zach Collaros from Cincinnati feel to it with Colter running more of a power run-first spread and Siemian relying on his arm to move the ball. The Wildcats base offense doesn't usually take advantage of a ton of 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets and instead relies on giving more playing time to running backs and slot backs. We'll see how much this changes with Siemian at the helm.

Special Teams: 2/4

Fifth-year senior wideout Tony Jones is back as the team's punt returner and of course Mark is healthy again after scoring 2 touchdowns in 2012. True sophomore corner Matthew Harris is back at kick returner. Northwestern does have to replace punter Brandon Williams and All-American and two-time first team Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien who made 23 of 25 field goals last year.

Famous Alum: Stephen Colbert

The current host of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central transferred to Northwestern from Hampden-Sydney College after two years. Following graduation he worked at Second City in Chicago and later enrolled in improv classes there. Colbert first broke onto the national scene as a correspondent on the Daily Show and has been picked to replace David Letterman on the Late Show in 2015.

Random Stat: 417

That is the amount of penalty yardage for Northwestern last year, 10th fewest in the country. If they had any problems getting flagged for penalties really wasn't one of them.

Summary

Last year was a real kick in the you-know-what for Northwestern. They started 4-0 and led Ohio State late in the 4th quarter with GameDay in town and the whole country watching. The Wildcats blew that lead, lost the turnover battle by 3 in a 3-point loss to Minnesota, lost in overtime to Iowa, blew a 21-7 second half lead and lost on a Hail Mary to Nebraska, and blew a 9-3 fourth quarter lead in a triple overtime loss to Michigan.

That's a ton of bad luck that you think will even out a bit next year. Add in all of the experience coming back and this should be a 7 or 8-win team next year. A 3-0 start should be on the horizon (Cal, Northern Illinois, Western Illinois) and I wouldn't be surprised to see them go into Happy Valley in week four and pull out a win.

Northwestern does miss Ohio State and Michigan State which is a bonus plus their toughest league games (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan) are all at home. If the 'Cats were dark horse candidates to win their division last year I see no reason why they shouldn't be in the same position again in 2014. Perhaps they won't go from last to first but this will be a much improved team in the fall.

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