Biggest Loss for 2013 — Senior Leadership

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It did not take very long after the confetti was cleaned up from EverBank Field and the stuffing was vacuumed out of the locker room for thoughts to race toward 2013.

How could they not? For the first time in 64 years, Northwestern could leave a season feeling unbridled hope for the future. Not only was the team winning, it had won that elusive bowl game and had everyone talking positively about the program. No one could feel pessimistic about the season. Even those pessimistic Northwestern fans were seeing the glass half full.

And there is good reason for that. Kain Colter and Venric Mark return to anchor the offense. Kyle Prater has the potential still within him to be a game-breaking offensive weapon. The secondary played its best game in maybe two or three years against Mississippi State and returns virtually everyone (save Demetrius Dugar and Jared Carpenter). The defensive line gains Ifeadi Odenigbo after a strong year.

See. Optimism.

It is hard not to get wrapped up in all that. It was also hard to believe — and we seem to be saying this with disbelief today — that this was a young team meant to be a rebuilding year, so to speak. Inexperience was supposed to be the team’s weakness and uncertainty about who would step up tempered expectations a bit.

Thankfully, several players did step up and we know the rest of the story.

Moving forward to 2013, though, copying that success and meeting now raised expectations will be Northwestern’s next challenge. Staying on cloud nine is much more difficult than getting there.

It will not be easy in 2013. Particularly considering the little Northwestern does lose to graduation. That group includes three offensive linemen, which was the foundation for Northwestern’s rushing renaissance this year, in Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and Neal Dieters. There are defensive stalwarts like Quentin Williams (who had a sack and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl), David Nwabuisi and Gator Bowl MVP Jared Carpenter to replace too.

It might be easier to replace their on-field presence and production. But as Nicholas Medelline of PurpleWildcats.com points out, it is those intangible qualities that might be more difficult to find and replace next year. This season’s success, as we all know, was born out of the failures of the last two seasons. And this senior class, the all-time winningest class in program history, wanted to leave as champions on the field.

 

Though the word is difficult to define, this class of NU seniors embraced the concept. Last season, they left Houston an unsatisfied group, and committed to building their teammates up. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said it took a yearlong process to reach this height.

 

“The guys took it upon themselves from the minute we landed in Chicago until today when it said ‘zero, zero, zero’ on the clock to be champions,” Fitzgerald said. “We might not be putting the Big Ten Championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.”

 

All season long, Fitzgerald talked about the “chemistry” of his team, and referred to it as the greatest accomplishment of his departing senior class. Not only that, in their swan song, many delivered their finest performances.

 

The stories of this team’s chemistry were pretty wide ranging. Fortunately there are a lot of players who were a part of building that chemistry — Kain Colter was a captain all season — and they know the feeling and the methods used to build that camaraderie. But the kind of chemistry needed to have those truly special seasons takes something much more organic. Hopefully there is carryover.

More importantly, though, Northwestern will need players to step in and fill those shoes. And this is unfortunately something you cannot predict will happen.

It would make sense for this year’s statistical leaders to step into the spots left vacant by last year’s leaders. That is how these things are supposed to work. But each player is different and each person is different. Each season is different and each team is certainly different.

After the Wildcats lost in the TicketCity Bowl, the team hit the weight room hard but did not build that off-field chemistry. Dan Persa’s injury did not help as Persa became the heart and soul of the team. This past offseason was different. The whole thing with the monkey and the refusal to settle for any type of mediocrity (or just being happy to be bowling) drove the team in the offseason.

Now with that first goal accomplished — a bowl win — what drives the team this offseason? Do they sense the goals and the optimism fans sense? Do they ignore that and go about their business? Who steps into those leadership roles?

These are questions asked every year. But one of NU’s big motivators is gone and the program is officially heading into uncharted territory. And so as the revelry over winning that bowl game begins to wind down and eyes turn toward the 2013 season (Signing Day is officially one month away!) this is the biggest question for the team as they enter their winter workouts and build the 2013 team away from the coach’s eyes.

We will have to wait until spring to see what emerges on the field.

  • zeek

    I think the biggest factor that will impact next year is the dramatically heightened set of expectations that will surround the program going into next year.

    Fitz has never had to deal with that or try to deal with complacency in terms of a team that ended the year on fully positive note like this one did (as you point out). End of season top 25 rankings that lead to preseason top 25 rankings are a whole different beast.

    It’s another level from the minor levels of hype that went in and out in 2008 as we were ranked a few times that season but had a couple of deflating losses that made it clear that we weren’t really close to being elite. Or the whole Persa for Heisman preseason campaign that didn’t pan out…

    This season, we had leads in the 4th quarter of all 13 games (a feat that’s remarkable all things considered), and the manner of the 3 losses were of games that were basically taken away in the final minutes (or final half-minute as it were).

    There’s never been a feeling like this one that we’re right where we want to be on an upward path and the only program that looks to be on another level is Ohio State (but even then I think we can give them as good a game as anyone can in the Big Ten).

    Plus, you combine that with finally getting liftoff on the huge facilities upgrade for Sunday-Friday over the past half year as well as the switch to UnderArmour, and you’re talking about a huge shot in the arm as far as public/national perception of the program. Getting all of the negatives out of the way as far as recruiting goes (bowl loss streak, facilities), etc.

    It’s just going to be a whole different ballgame when we open up the season @Cal with a ranking.

    • zeek

      #17 in final AP poll.

      • David

        I am a little surprised we didn’t end up ahead of Utah State.

        • UVA Cat

          I was surprised, too, considering Utah State beat Toledo, an arguably weaker bowl opponent than Miss St, and we were already ahead of Utah State in the polls. And it’s not like Utah State has a lot of positive program perception from the media on its side either…

  • http://twitter.com/jayrutz Ken Rutsky

    Seems pretty straightforward, Division title, Big 10 Champ win and RoseBowl win should be the goal, if not now, when?

  • PurpleHayes

    Agree with previous two comments. In addition to the whopping 64-year monkey off our backs, another less obvious jinx mentioned several times on LTP deals with heightened expectations: the fact we always seem to lose the next week after being ranked. We avoided that by winning last week, but that win will almost surely mean a pre-season 2013 ranking and the weight of those heightened expectations. Question: when was the last time Northwestern was rated in pre-season polls? Has been a while (1997, I believe, but has it happened since?).

    • Fanaticat

      I thought we opened up ranked in 2001 and were picked by many to with the Big Ten. (Googling…) per HailToPurple, we opened up AP preseason #16 in 2001. Before that it was 1996 where we opened up #18.

  • NorCalCat

    I’m think we’ll be fine from a leadership standpoint. This senior class was important in getting us to consistency and over the bowl game hump, but I think the younger guys and the coming seniors have been ingrained with a sense of what it takes to win. The one area that I worry about graduation is the offensive line. The seniors were a huge part of our improved (and good) o-line play this year so I hope that the new group can gel quickly and get close to the performance from last year.

    My optimistic prediction (hope) for next year: only loss is to OSU but we get revenge in the B1G title game and beat Stanford in Pasadena

  • UVA Cat

    In terms of this year’s final ranking, I’m going to speculate that we end up at #17 or #18 in the AP Poll.

    This is based on the following assumptions:

    –The outcome of the BCS title game really won’t impact the Cats’ ranking

    –We jump ahead of 4 teams (maybe 5): NIU, Nebraska, UCLA, Michigan and maybe Oregon State or Oklahoma.

    –2 teams move ahead of us based on their bowl wins: Louisville and Texas (I suppose Texas moving ahead of us may be a toss up. They are currently ranked lower than us, but they beat a top 15 team in their bowl…

    Not sure how this will translate into a pre-season ranking for next year, but I can easily see us somewhere around #20

    • UVA Cat

      My comment was based on BCS rankings not AP rankings…

  • PBRCat

    Kyle Prater was certainly hyped when he transferred to NU. Now, we need to see some production from him. In limited playing time during 2012, he did not make much of an impact. I am hoping for better things.

    As for motivation, there are so many goals to aim for: winning the division and winning in Indianapolis; Coach Fitzgerald has yet to record a “W” against Ohio State or Penn State, etc.

    I hope that Northwestern receives a good final ranking and moves forward to make 2013 even better.

  • cece

    we’ve got some great leaders left and some good ones coming in….Alviti, for example. I fully expect guys like Colter, Vitale, Semian to pick it up and challenge in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom. Go ‘Cats!

  • Scott

    While I embrace and celebrate the optimism for next season, I also think it’s optimism that somewhat overlooks the losses on the offensive line. That will be a huge challenge, to replace those three seniors so crucial to the huge improvement in the running game this year.

  • NUmanager

    If we want to make another leap next year we need to get the QB situation figured out. We were essentially winging it all year and no one seemed satisfied when we attempted to implement a true 2QB system. If we try to wing it against OSU and Wiscy next year, it won’t end well.

    • James Klock

      I’m not fundamentally disagreeing with your analysis, though I think that our 2QB system was quite deliberate in it’s design– which is intended to optimize our flexibility on offense. When flexible systems of any sort work well, they look masterful, and leave the competition wondering what the hell just happened to them (Siemian strolling into the endzone??). When then break down, they turn into “just winging it”, with minimal results.

      So, I don’t think that our 2QB system is likely to go anywhere, any time soon (look for Colter/Siemian 13 to meld into Siemian/Alviti 14, with a stronger pass-first look based on Siemian taking the “1a” role and a less-experienced running back stepping into MachV’s shoes). My hope, though, is that it will continue to develop and become more refined, and more resilient (that is, able to adapt and excel, even when defenses succeed in shutting down elements of our system).

  • cece

    happy to watch ND get crushed. vanderbilt in the polls….surprise. we’re 17 in the AP with OSU and 16 in the Coaches as in highest big ten school. Go ‘Cats!!!!!!

West Division

TeamsW (Overall)L (Overall)W (B1G)L (B1G)
Nebraska3000
Minnesota2100
Iowa2100
Illinois2100
Wisconsin1100
Purdue1200
Northwestern 0200

East Division

TeamsW (Overall)L (Overall)W (B1G)L (B1G)
Penn State3010
Maryland2100
Ohio State2100
Michigan2100
Michigan State2100
Indiana1100
Rutgers2101