Starting next week our previews will actually be of the Illini, but today we finish up our previews of our opponents in 2013. And we finish up by looking at the team we'll be facing on Senior Day.
Those purple bastards from the north.
Yes, our most hated rivals. We just hate them so much! They had one really good season and now the entire fanbase -- it's easier for an entire fanbase to be unanimous when it's so tiny -- thinks ten win seasons will just become the norm. But will they?
Well, let's find out.
Name: Northwestern Wildcats
From: Not Chicago, Illinois
2013 Record: 10-3 (5-3)
Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense, both specialists
You know, it'd be a whole lot easier for this supposed rivalry to feel like a rivalry if Northwestern had a coach worth hating, but they don't. They have Pat Fitzgerald who, even if I tried not to, I like. Quite a bit. What he's done in his time at Northwestern cannot be discounted because this is fucking Northwestern we're talking about and people are considering it a Big Ten title contender.
I mean, what else do you need to say about Pat Fitzgerald to explain the kind of positive impact he's had on this program? I wish the son of a bitch was an actual son of a bitch that forced players to play through concussions or took a dump on the NCAA rule book, but he's not. He's just a really good football coach who I'm ready to run through a wall for when I finish hearing him speak.
Oh, and he's also 50-39 in his first seven seasons at Northwestern, which doesn't seem all that impressive until you remember that this is fucking Northwestern we're talking about and it includes five straight trips to bowl games. Even if they only won one of them.
History With Illinois
MOST HATED RIVALS
Seriously, Northwestern fans are really quick to yell "50-14!!" any time you remind them that they're still Northwestern, and they should because they really did beat the crap out of Illinois last season. However, overall it's Illinois that's had the advantage in this rivalry.
We've met 106 times and the Illini have a 54-47-5 record. However, what is interesting about this series through time is how cyclical it is. It's very rare for these teams to trade wins in consecutive years. Instead what happens is that each school takes turns ripping off between two and four wins in a row. The longest streak in the series is Illinois winning seven straight twice (1913-1928, 1979-1985) while Northwestern's longest win streak is four (which its done four times, most recently from 2003 to 2006).
In the last decade the advantage has belonged to Northwestern as the Wildcats are 7-3 in the last 10 meetings, though only 4-3 under Pat Fitzgerald.
What Do We Know About The Offense?
We know that it's very fun to watch. I mean, how many offenses do you know of that not only have a two-quarterback system, but also use one of their quarterbacks as a running back and wide receiver? Because that's what Kain Colter does.
As for the production, Northwestern's numbers can be a bit misleading. Yes, the Wildcats finished third in the conference with 31.7 points per game last season, but they actually finished eighth in yards per play at 5.32. They just don't make a lot of big plays as they ranked eighth in the conference (82nd nationally) in plays of over 20 yards (50) and ninth (98th nationally) in plays over 30 yards (19) last season.
Still, with so many options as to what to do, this is a hard offense to stop, and just about all the playmakers are back this year. The area of concern will be the offensive line as the Wildcats must replace three starters from last season's line and this is going to be a young unit. Should the Wildcats suffer some injuries on the line, things could get ugly because there's talent at the position, but I'm not sure it's all ready for the Big Ten just yet.
How About The Defense?
The Northwestern defense looked pretty good at times last season, but like the offense, some of the numbers can be misleading. The Wildcats allowed only 22.5 points per game, good enough for fifth in the conference, but it also allowed 5.25 yards per play, which ranked seventh in the Big Ten. However, this defense did a decent enough job in the red zone, which helped matters out considerably.
The biggest factor in the defensive improvement, though, came in one area. This defense forced turnovers, and it forced a lot of them. 29 to be exact -- the Wildcats had a Big Ten best +14 turnover margin last season -- which was the most in the Big Ten and ranked 20th nationally. Now, this is both a good and a bad thing. Forcing turnovers is awesome, but it's also rather unpredictable. I'm just not sure Northwestern can rely on forcing so many turnovers again this season.
Seven starters from last seasons unit return this year, including three members of a secondary that proved to be pretty damn good last season. There will be a couple of new faces on the defensive line, though, and that could have an effect on a pass rush that was good but not great. Yes, they had 28 sacks last year, but they also faced more passes than any other defense in the conference last season. Northwestern's sack rate (sacks/pass attempts+sacks) was only 5.3% last season. To put that in perspective, it felt like Illinois' pass rush was non-existent last season and the Illini had a sack rate of 6.8% last season.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
I've already mentioned Kain Colter, and while he's great, my favorite player on this team is still Venric Mark. I just love that little guy. He's only 5'8 and 175 pounds -- and those measurements may be a touch generous! -- but between his duties as a running back, receiver and returner he compiled 2,166 yards last season, and averaged 7.7 yards every time he touched the ball. He also scored 15 touchdowns.
He's a tiny dude that provides a big problem for opponents.
Where Will This Team Finish In The Big Ten?
I've got Northwestern finishing third in the Legends this season, but they could win the division if things break right. Namely, they're going to need to force turnovers at the same rate or improve on defense overall. If the defense remains the same and the turnovers aren't there this team could easily finish 8-5 or 7-6 again, which would seem like a step back but would likely be more of a regression toward the mean -- I'M SPEAKING NORTHWESTERN'S LANGUAGE SO THAT THEY UNDERSTAND BETTER THE WORDS I BE SAYING -- because the numbers just don't say that this was a 10-win team last year.
Well, the numbers that don't count anyway. They actually were a 10-win team.
Anyway, combine those factors with some schedule concerns, and I just think third place is the best-case scenario here. Along with Illinois the Wildcats draw Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders, and Ohio State is the only one of those three coming to Evanston. They also have to travel to Nebraska this season, though Michigan does come to Evanston but I'm really not sure that matters for Northwestern. The fact of the matter is that when Ohio State and Michigan come to Evanston Northwestern fans will be out-numbered in their own stadium. I'm not even saying that to insult the NUrds, I'm just stating the obvious.
So I'm not sure what kind of home-field advantage the Wildcats will even have in those game. So because of that, I'm going to say Northwestern finishes the regular season 8-4 and 4-4 in the Big Ten. That's third place at best.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
Well, considering the streaky history of this series, I'd say odds are they won't. Northwestern ended Illinois' two-game win streak last year, so now they're destined to have their own two-game win streak. That said, beating Northwestern certainly isn't impossible. If you watch last year's game tape it would certainly feel that way, but I feel there were other factors in that game besides just the talent on the field. Don't get me wrong, I think Northwestern wins that game no matter what, but if the defense had actually given a shit for an entire four quarters the Wildcats aren't winning by 36.
I'm still thinking Northwestern wins again this season because I feel like they have more talent at the moment, but with the game in Champaign and with the Illini having what should be an improved offense, it's not ridiculous to think the Illini could pull this one off.