Like I said previously, it is time to start looking greedily ahead to the 2013 season while the memories of 2012 feel good. Optimism is running high and this exercise is as much about tempering expectations as it is setting them in some ways. The Wildcats are getting set to turn the page and look toward 2013.
Signing Day IS right around the corner.
The 2013 team will begin to take shape, as I mentioned previously, in the unsupervised days of Winter workouts away from football. Northwestern is also entering uncharted territory. As several pre-preseason polls are suggesting, the Wildcats will be ranked at the beginning of the season and have a heap of expectations on them. Then you add the fact that Northwestern loses just eight starters (four on each side) and there is a lot of excitement that 2012 will be a launching off point. Questions of replacing leadership aside, this is where we first begin our look at 2013:
1. How will Northwestern handle the weight of expectations?
For much of the last four years — and perhaps even longer — Northwestern has been playing with little outside expectation. There were internal goals and expectations for sure, but the media and fan scrutiny was never at a particularly high level.
The pressure of breaking the bowl losing streak and achieving a ton of program firsts is quickly going away. That is a good thing. What that means though is that the team will be expected to do more.
For the longest time, Northwestern played against this history as the underdogs. This season and the Gator Bowl, in particular, exemplified a shift there. Not only was the Gator Bowl a win, but the way Northwestern was staggering. There were not trick plays or cutesy play calling. The Wildcats did not have the desperation of an underdog. They had the confidence of a favorite. They blew that 13-0 lead but then charged forward to dominate the second half.
Northwestern has struggled with this weight before.
When the team was ranked against Penn State and against Nebraska, Northwestern stubbed its toe. Fitzgerald’s record when his team is ranked is not good. It is not good at all. There was legitimate worry in the fan base that Northwestern was ranked entering its bowl game.
For the first time since 2001, Northwestern will likely have that number next to its name when it opens the season. And I think we all know how that season went.
The Wildcats will be expected to win next year and continue this bowl streak and even take a step forward and really compete for a Big Ten title. This was a rebuilding year, after all.
So now that the expectations are there, will this team be able to live up to them? Pat Fitzgerald has always had the bowl monkey on his back. Now that is gone. He is incredibly successful as a coach at Northwestern but 2013 will be a big year as the Wildcats take a step forward to becoming a consistent championship contender. Dealing with this pressure and this attention will be the big question for 2013.
Another monkey off the program’s back came in the form of Venric Mark’s 1,366 rushing yards. Mark was the kind of explosive, game-breaking playmaker that Northwestern just does not get all the time (read: ever). Mark turned Northwestern into a running team this year out of nowhere and changed the identity of the whole team.
It worked so no complaining. And when Mark got past that 1,000-yard barrier, you could feel the weight lifted off the program’s shoulders. Pat Fitzgerald really hated answering questions about that.
So the question has to be now what can Mark do for an encore?
The last player to rush for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for Northwestern was Tyrell Sutton. He went for 1,474 yards in 2005 as a freshman and then eclipsed the century mark in the final game of the season in 2006 for an even 1,000 yards. Sutton never did live up to that freshman year as injuries continued to zap his speed and take him out of games. It was a frustrating way for a promising four-year career to dwindle away.
Obviously, Mark has only one chance to match his 1,000-yard season and he seemingly seems to be a shoo-in to do it. But give a team an offseason to study tendencies and gameplan and the task becomes much harder for Mark. Undoubtedly, Mark will also have to adjust to a new offensive line as three players along that solid offensive line will be graduating.
Getting back to the century mark will not be easy, but it will be essential for Northwestern to have a successful 2013.
This question was an important one for 2012 as well. And it was never fully answered. Or maybe it was that a plan was never fully developed to take advantage of the talents of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. It is difficult to see either one on the bench for any extended period of time. Yet, Northwestern’s passing attack is based so much on rhythm that one has to be in more than the other.
We saw this play out to mixed success this season with the 1a/1b system. Colter was able to dominate with his legs at times and Siemian was able to air it out at time. And at times neither was successful (thankfully Mark was there to carry the defensive load). Even in the Gator Bowl victory, Mississippi State knew what to key in to when each was in. And Northwestern’s offense did not really pick up until Siemian got into rhythm and moved the team down the field quickly.
When the two quarterback system worked it kept defense extremely off balance especially at the pace Northwestern goes at. When it did not work the offense struggled and stagnated. It was tough to watch.
So the question in the offseason is this: Will Colter improve enough as a passer? Will the Wildcats be able to use both successfully and keep each in rhythm? Who is Northwestern’s quarterback?
The Wildcats very much answered this on the fly throughout the year.
We still have nightmares about what happened in 2011 with the secondary and we saw plenty of improvement this year with Nick VanHoose emerging as solid starting cornerback and Ibraheim Campbell becoming the pulse of the secondary. Still, there were plenty of questions everywhere else and teams still passed for an average of 250.5 yards per game against Northwestern.
Then we saw what happened should any one of these players go down to injury and the depth was not good.
Fortunately for Northwestern the secondary really prepared itself and stepped up in slowing down Mississippi State’s passing attack. And the Wildcats continued their opportunistic ways with four interceptions in that game. The team was able to create turnovers even as it gave up yards. This was a sign, at least, the pass defense was improving.
The question is can cornerbacks like C.J. Bryant and Daniel Jones step into the spots left vacant by Demetrius Dugar and Brian Peters? What about Traveon Henry? Is he ready to fill in at safety next to Campbell?
Talent is there without doubt, but Northwestern still only goes as far as its secondary takes it. Particularly when protecting leads late in the game.
Excuse me if I am not quite confident in the secondary. And that goes particularly with the defensive line losing some stalwarts and having a really breakout season. I want to see some consistency — although the talent is there to be optimistic about it.
5. Can newcomers and freshmen live up to their potential?
And so we go back to the beginning with this last question. Can some of the new players live up to their expectations?
At the beginning of the season, we got a small glimpse at Ifeadi Odenigbo, the highly rated linebacker, before his season ended with an injury. Then there was Kyle Prater who gained a lot of interest from Northwestern fans because of his high school exploits, but turned out to be nothing more than an edge blocker at wide receiver for most of the season.
Both those players came in with a lot of potential and neither had much of a chance to do much of anything in 2013. To say the least, the expectations will not decrease despite the poor statistical seasons or any injuries. And that goes for the recruiting class getting ready to play their first games this season.
Whether they are redshirt freshmen or true freshmen getting the chance to play, as a class, more will be expected from them. Northwestern cannot keep having “the best recruiting class in program history” year after year and not see the results on the field. These have raised expectations as much as the on-field performances have too.
So the Wildcats will need the newcomers (and those with expectations already attached to them) to begin to cash in on those expectations. Prater is not going to be an all-world receiver right off the bat, but he should figure more into the gameplan with a full year in the system and more playing time. Odenigbo is not going to be a monster in the backfield in all likelihood off the bat. He probably still has some weight to put on and an injury to recover from. But I think everyone expects some contribution from both of them in 2013.