Big Ten

2010 NCAA Football Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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Between now and the September 2nd season kick-off, Danny Hobrock will be previewing all the major college football teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, conference): 8-5, 5-3
Bowl Game: Outback Bowl (L 38-35 vs. Auburn)
Final Ranking (AP, Coaches'): NR, NR
Conference finish: 5th Big Ten Conference
Offensive rank: 40
Defensive rank: 47

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Arby Fields, 302 yards, 5 TD; Mike Kafka, 295 yards, 8 TD
Passing: Mike Kafka, 3,430 yards, 16 TD, 12 INT
Receiving: Andrew Brewer, 925 yards, 9 TD; Zeke Markshausen, 858 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Quentin Davie, 90 total tackles; Brad Phillips, 86 total tackles; Nate Williams, 86 total tackles
Sacks: Quentin Davie and Vince Browne, 5 sacks (5 solo)
Interceptions: Sherrick McManis, 5 interceptions

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes conference game)

Key Matchups

October 9 vs. Purdue: A win over Minnesota the previous week is no guarantee, and the Wildcats have struggled in games they should win, but taking on Purdue the following week will be the first conference test for a Northwestern team who seems to be constantly on the cusp of making a splash in the Big Ten.

November 6 @ Penn State: Here's where the Wildcats begin their biggest test of the season. They'll get Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin in three of their final four games. Throw in the matchup against Illinois at Wrigley Field and Northwestern is looking at a tough close to a season in which they expect to find themselves in another January bowl game.

November 20 vs. Illinois: The in-state rivalry game will be played at Wrigley Field this year. The Illini won't compete for the conference and probably won't finish close to the top of the Big Ten, but you can bet they'd love to win this one at a unique setting such as this.


Coaches': Not Ranked

Key Losses

Mike Kafka, QB; Zeke Markshausen, WR; Andrew Brewer, WR; Corey Wooten, DE; Adam Hahn, DT; Sherrick McManis, CB; Brad Phillips, S

Key Returning Players

Drake Dunsmore, TE/FB; Al Netter, OT; Ben Burkett, C; Vince Browne, DE; Corbin Bryant, DT; Quentin Davie, LB; Nate Williams, LB; Jordan Mabin, CB; Brian Peters, S; Stefan Demos, K

Offensive Overview

Northwestern ranked 13th in passing offense last season behind Mike Kafka and a couple senior wide receivers. With Kafka and wide receivers Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen now gone, the torch will be passed to a new generation and whether they are able to replicate their success through the air immediately is questionable. The new signal caller will be Dan Persa, a dual threat quarterback who should carry the ball quite often in 2010. He's no premier passer—though he's not awful either—which combined with a defense prone to giving up points could hurt the Wildcats if they fall into a shootout or have to play catch up late in a game. If they find themselves in such a situation, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins and his big arm could be called upon.

The passing offense may have been tops in the conference, but the rushing offense was horrible, ranking 95th in the nation with a leading rusher who just barely outrushed Kafka and eclipsed 300 yards by just two. This should again turn into a committee of backs with Arby Fields leading the way. Jacob Schmidt, Scott Concannon and Stephen Simmons should round out the rotation. They'll be running behind a more experienced offensive line this season, though the veteran unit didn't produce much last season, ranking 92nd in sacks allowed and failing to clear the way for the running backs. Tackle Al Netter will be the leader of the bunch with Ben Burkett a member of the Rimington Watch List going into the season at center.

Drake Dunsmore will resume his role as a fullback/tight end, also known as the Superback (probably the best name for any position in sports). He caught 47 passes for 523 yards and added three touchdowns a season ago and will prove an effective target for Persa. Wide receiver Sidney Stewart was a starter late in the season last year and finished the fourth leading receiver. He'll return along with Jeremy Ebert and Demetrius Fields as the trio hopes to replace departed seniors Brewer and Markshausen.

Defensive Overview

The defense will be led by a very talented group of linebackers. Quentin Davie was the team leader in tackles with 90, tackles for a loss with 11.5 and tied Vince Browne with five sacks. In the middle again is Nate Williams, who finished with 86 tackles, seven of them for a loss, in 2009. Davie and Williams make a dynamic duo at the second line of defense and along with Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul will make up one helluva linebackers corps if everybody stays healthy.

Kevin Watt will replace Corey Wooten, now playing for the Chicago Bears of the NFL, at the end spot. He's an athletic pass rusher who has tremendous potential to fill Wooten's shoes nicely. He'll be joined by Vince Browne, who tied Davie for the team lead with five sacks in 2009. He'll be one of the leaders of this unit and will have to prove he can be productive with Wooten gone. Quentin Williams will also see plenty of time in the end rotation. A couple of guys listed as 6'4 and 290 pounds will make up the interior of this line. Corbin Bryant is the more experienced of the duo with Jack DiNardo getting his first real shot at significant playing time. Nick Mafuli will provide some bulk on the inside at 6'3 and 310 pounds.

Jordan Mabin is the only starter returning to the secondary. He was the starter for every game last season and will again man one of the corner spots as the leader of this unit. Sherrick McManis led the team with five interceptions a season ago and will have to be replaced with Justan Vaughn the likely candidate to take on the challenge. Brian Peters and Jared Carpenter will man the safety spots. Peters finished fifth on the team last season after starting for much of the second half at strong safety. David Arnold should also see time at safety and Mike Bolden will be a key part of the cornerback rotation.

Special Teams Overview

Stefan Demos hit 18 of his 25 field goal attempts and 34 of his 36 extra point attempts. He'll return in 2010 as the place kicker, but could see his punting job go to a walk-on. Brandon Williams is expected to take over punting duties after Demos averaged a measly 35 yards per punt in '09. Stephen Simmons will return as the primary kick returner after averaging 25.3 yards per return last season. Punt return duties are up for grabs with Hunter Bates and Jordan Mabin expected to get a look.

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald

A former linebacker at Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald won the Bednarik Award and the Bronco Nagurski Award in 1995 and 1996. He was the first two-time winner of both awards. Entering his fifth year as head coach of his alma mater, Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to two consecutive winning seasons in which he took his team to a bowl game. The Wildcats have gone to seven bowl games since 1996, but have lost each one. Their last bowl win came in 1949 when they beat Cal in the Rose Bowl. After a coaching career that included stints at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho, he returned to Northwestern as the linebackers coach in 2001 and served in that capacity until he took over as head coach in 2006. He's yet to finish higher than tied for fourth in the Big Ten, but he's done a fine job of maintaining the underrated success that the Wildcats enjoy.

Top 2011 Draft Prospects

Corbin Bryant, DT; Quentin Davie, LB

Season Prediction

7th Big Ten Conference

Plain and simple: this team needs to be able to run the ball. Dan Persa is no Mike Kafka through the air, but is a dual threat quarterback who can be effective in the short- to mid-range passing game. If the offensive line can protect him and open up lanes for the slew of running backs expected to get carries this season, the offense should be in pretty good shape. They can't afford to rely on Persa to throw 78 passes for 500+ yards the way Kafka did in the overtime loss to Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

Meanwhile, the defense needs to avoid giving up big points to the opposition. They finished around the middle of the pack in the nation and in their conference in terms of scoring defense, but letting up over 30 points in five games (four of them losses) needs to change. Considering the Wildcats lost just five games in 2009, keeping opposing offenses off the scoreboard is essential, especially because the Wildcats hope to establish a running game with Persa under center instead of relying solely on the pass to get it done. - Danny Hobrock

Danny is a sports journalist primarily covering college football and professional baseball. His work for Xtra Point Football has garnered national attention and is critically acclaimed. Danny is the former editor of a political and current events website and the editor of our college football content.

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