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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


Northwestern’s recent football fortunes have been a good news/bad news story. The good news is that the Wildcats have produced three straight winning records and bowl appearances. The bad news is that they lost all of those postseason games. Still, for a program that was the doormat of the league for decades, the resurgence under head coach Pat Fitzgerald (and, prior to him, Gary Barnett and the late Randy Walker) has been a relative golden age of Northwestern football, modest as that might be. NU administrators, who held their breath when their in-demand coach was courted by Notre Dame and Michigan the past two offseasons, rewarded Fitzgerald with a big-league contract extension ($1.8 million a year). He’s probably worth it for his intense sound bites alone.

"If you didn’t notice, at the end of last year, we really stunk without (Persa). So, yeah, he’s really important." That was Fitzgerald’s assessment of what a healthy Dan Persa meant to the Wildcats while addressing a group of the faithful purple fans at a gathering at Ditka’s in Chicago this summer. Persa, the first-team all-Big Ten quarterback last season, set a conference record by completing 73.5% of his passes, throwing for 15 scores with just 4 interceptions along the way. Persa’s final TD throw of the year was the game-winner against Iowa November 13. He celebrated with a hop and came down awkwardly, injuring his Achilles and ending his season. The Wildcats didn’t win again, yielding 163 points in their final three games of the season against Illinois, Wisconsin and the bowl loss to Texas Tech.

Persa’s favorite target last season was sr. WR Jeremy Ebert, who was named to the second-team all-conference squad thanks to his 62 catches and league-leading 73 ypg receiving. Junior WR Demetrius Fields and 6-3, 235-lb. sr. “superback” Drake Dunsmore combined for 65 receptions and 7 TDs, and Fitzgerald recruited a trio of 6-3 wideouts that might emerge as contributors.

The key to getting even more production out of Persa’s passing game lies in the offensive line. The “big uglies” at NU are the second-most experienced group in the country, combining for 137 starts, but they also provided some of the worst protection in the nation a year ago. The Wildcat OL yielded the most sacks in the Big Ten and ranked 112th in the nation in sacks allowed (40). Left tackle Al Netter is an all-conference candidate this season, and C Ben Burkett enters his fourth year as a starter, so the potential exists for improved performances.

Despite the fact the Wildcats started the season 5-0 SU, Fitzgerald was not satisfied with the production of his running backs at that stage of the season. Around midseason, NU was 71st in rushing, at which time Mike Trumpy was handed the ball more often. Trumpy carried 73 times for 383 yards (5.2 ypc) in a five-game stretch from midseason on before missing the final two games. The Wildcats finished the season 58th in rushing nationally, and Trumpy enters the fall as the featured tailback.

The defense was a problem last year, ranking 97th in yielding 426 ypg, which was the worst performance under the defensively-oriented Fitzgerald’s watch. The Wildcats were 10th in the conference in total defense, pass defense & sacks, while giving up a whopping 5.3 ypc for the season, and shipped points alarmingly down the stretch, the worst being a 7-point bomb dropped upon NU by Wisconsin. DE Vince Browne was a 2nd-team all-conference player thanks to his 15½ tackles-for-loss and 7 sacks, but a weak LB corps couldn’t stop the run. Browne is joined by returning starting DT Jack DiNardo (33 stops; his uncle is ex-coach, now Big Ten Network broadcaster Gerry DiNardo) up front, but the linebackers desperately need to step up and make some plays. Sr. holdover Bryce McNaul had 62 stops a year ago, but the linebackers are critical to defensive improvement.

The story with the secondary is similar, as despite the presence of 2nd-team all Big Ten S Brian Peters (team-leading 107 stops), the Wildcats gave up far too many yards in the second half of the season. Northwestern yielded 8 passing TDs and 599 YP in losses to Wisconsin and Texas Tech to close out the 2010 campaign.

Summary: With a favorable schedule (no Wisconsin or Ohio State this season) coupled with 16 starters and 56 lettermen returning to action, there is an excellent chance the Wildcats will net double-digit wins for the first time since winning the Big Ten title in 1995 under Barnett. However, that doesn’t mean pointspread success will necessarily follow. Northwestern is just 5-17 against the number as a favorite since early 2006, and it’s difficult for a program that doesn’t have a deep recruiting base to extend margins. Still, Fitzgerald has four returning all-conference stars, two on each side of the ball, plenty of experience in key areas, lots of enthusiasm, and he usually comes to work with a good plan. If the defense can slow down the rush, anything is possible.


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