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The big 2014 Northwestern football preview: How big is the bounce back?

It's been a strange 12 months for Northwestern, from injuries and tight losses on the field to union drama off of it. Pat Fitzgerald's experienced Wildcats will almost certainly recover this fall, but is the magic of 2012 gone?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

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1. Memorable isn't always good

It's been a strange year or so in Evanston.

First, a program that has tended to fade into the background, winning either six or seven games six times in the nine seasons between 2003-11, went out and won 10 games (for just the second time since 1903) in 2012, capping the season with a Gator Bowl romp over an SEC team -- yes, it was Mississippi State, but it still counts -- and a spot in the postseason AP top 20. As a result, in 2013 Northwestern was ranked in the preseason polls for the first time in 12 years.

Then, the team went out and cut its wins in half, starting 2013 with a 4-0 record and reaching as high as 16th in the polls before losing seven games in a row, including four straight by eight or fewer points.

Finally, the program became one of the offseason's primary conversation topics when its departing quarterback spearheaded an effort to form a player union, with courts supporting the attempt and head coach Pat Fitzgerald very much turning up his nose at it.

Northwestern built a lot of positive buzz in 2012, spent most of it in 2013, and has made unique news (good and/or bad) off the field in 2014. Speculating on how the union battle might affect the on-field product seems pretty much impossible -- there's really no precedent for this -- so we won't. But there have certainly been more unique occurrences than normal for which the coaching staff has had to account in recent months.

Combined with last season's frustration, that could create a pretty volatile situation in Evanston this fall. Volatility can work in either direction, however -- rallying cry vs. team divider. We'll see what it means for the Wildcats, who now have much more to prove than they did a year ago.

2. Regression to the mean is harsh

During my first couple of years of writing these offseason previews, I became fixated on Northwestern's gaudy record in close games. From 2007-10, the Wildcats went a ridiculous 20-8 in games decided by one possession. That's not supposed to happen. It was fascinating trying to figure out the root cause of this. Were they letting inferior teams hang around too long before finally asserting themselves? Had Fitzgerald and his staff figured out ways to maximize the Little Things™ and close out tight games?

Was Northwestern lucky as hell? Was this all a sample-size issue that would work itself out over time?

The 2013 season certainly struck a blow for those latter two options. From October 5 to November 16, the Wildcats lost games in the following ways:

  • They led Ohio State, 23-20, heading into the fourth quarter of one of the biggest home games in school history -- "College GameDay" in town, nearly 50,000 in attendance -- but gave up 20 points in the final 12 minutes and fell by 10 after the Buckeyes returned a desperation fumble for a score at the buzzer.

  • They allowed just 299 yards to Minnesota and forced punts on seven of the Gophers' first nine possessions, but they lost two second-half turnovers (including a pick six) and managed to fall, 20-17.

  • After allowing 102 yards and a touchdown in Iowa's first two possessions, they allowed just 203 yards the rest of the way, but they lost two more fumbles and fell in overtime, 17-10.

  • Despite another pick six, they took a 24-21 lead over Nebraska with just 80 seconds left in Lincoln. Then this happened.

  • In a game that featured 14 punts (eight from Northwestern) and saw the Wildcats stall and settle for field goals in their only three good drives of the game, they held a 9-6 lead in the closing seconds against Michigan before the Wolverines pulled off the quickest offense-to-field goal team transition in the history of football to force overtime. And in the third overtime, they fell, 27-19.

A finished drive here, a fumble recovery there, and a knocked-down Hail Mary, and this team finishes 8-4. Instead, Northwestern missed a bowl for the first time since 2007. Close-game luck boosted some shaky Northwestern teams and got them to bowls earlier in Fitzgerald's tenure; it did the opposite in 2013.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 59
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug at California 103 44-30 W 24.6 - 30.8 L
7-Sep Syracuse 75 48-27 W 45.1 - 36.4 W
14-Sep Western Michigan 117 38-17 W 34.1 - 25.1 W
21-Sep Maine N/A 35-21 W 24.8 - 33.4 L
5-Oct Ohio State 9 30-40 L 39.4 - 24.3 W 3.6
12-Oct at Wisconsin 19 6-35 L 21.6 - 29.3 L 3.3
19-Oct Minnesota 55 17-20 L 21.1 - 22.9 L 1.2
26-Oct at Iowa 29 10-17 L 35.3 - 27.5 W 0.9
2-Nov at Nebraska 39 24-27 L 27.4 - 25.2 W 3.1
16-Nov Michigan 37 19-27 L 20.2 - 24.3 L -0.7
23-Nov Michigan State 6 6-30 L 33.5 - 37.9 L -0.1
30-Nov at Illinois 71 37-34 W 24.0 - 31.9 L -1.3
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ -2.1% 67 +4.4% 42 -0.3% 72
Points Per Game 26.2 83 27.1 69
Adj. Points Per Game 29.3 58 29.1 76

3. The offense gave out first

Bad fumbles luck and pick sixes played a significant role in Northwestern's 2013 misfortune. But so did bad offense.

In the first five games of the year, despite injury struggles for star running back Venric Mark, the Wildcats established a pretty high level of play, averaging 6.4 yards per play and 39.0 points per game against mostly mediocre-to-poor defenses. But over the six losses that followed, NU only once averaged even 5.0 yards per play (exactly 5.0 against Iowa), scored more than 20 points just once, and scored 10 or fewer points in regulation four times.

Things completely fell apart for the Northwestern offense, and in the final two games of the year, the defense gave out as well.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Northwestern 33.6, Opponent 30.0 (plus-3.6)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 25.8, Northwestern 25.1 (minus-0.7)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 2 games): Opponent 34.9, Northwestern 28.8 (minus-6.1)

(Luckily, one of those two final games was against Illinois, so the Wildcats still managed to finish on a winning note.)

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.02 113 IsoPPP+ 89.2 113
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 45.9% 33 Succ. Rt. + 112.0 25
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.6 85 Def. FP+ 98.4 76
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 96 Redzone S&P+ 103.0 48
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.8 ACTUAL 20 +4.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 73 46 25 44
RUSHING 62 50 43 31
PASSING 71 35 16 55
Standard Downs 36 16 83
Passing Downs 81 52 124
Q1 Rk 57 1st Down Rk 42
Q2 Rk 17 2nd Down Rk 60
Q3 Rk 89 3rd Down Rk 40
Q4 Rk 34

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Trevor Siemian 6'3, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 177 296 2143 11 9 59.8% 19 6.0% 6.5
Kain Colter 64 82 583 4 3 78.0% 16 16.3% 5.1
Zack Oliver 6'4, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Matt Alviti 6'0, 185 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Clayton Thorson 6'4, 200 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Treyvon Green RB 5'10, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 138 736 8 5.3 5.5 38.4%
Kain Colter QB 99 574 5 5.8 4.3 52.5%
Mike Trumpy RB 97 370 2 3.8 2.8 34.0%
Stephen Buckley RB 6'0, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 50 265 1 5.3 4.8 42.0%
Venric Mark RB 5'8, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 31 97 0 3.1 3.0 29.0%
Trevor Siemian QB 6'3, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 29 144 0 5.0 2.0 51.7%
Warren Long RB 6'0, 180 So. 3 stars (5.6) 11 39 0 3.5 2.5 36.4%
Dan Vitale SB 6'2, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 4 27 0 6.8 6.4 50.0%
Justin Jackson RB 5'11, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Auston Anderson RB 5'9, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

4. Another year, another quest for play-makers

Despite itself, Northwestern's offense was balanced and relatively efficient in 2013. The Wildcats ranked 16th in Passing Success Rate+ and 43rd in Rushing Success Rate+, and as long as they stayed on schedule, good things tended to happen.

But with almost no big-play threat whatsoever, Northwestern had to pull off eight or 10 snaps of error-free football to avoid falling behind schedule; that tended to be too difficult.

Trevor Siemian split snaps with Kain Colter over each of the last two seasons and was asked to take most of the snaps in obvious passing situations. That did his stat line no favors, but assuming he's allowed to take all of the first-string snaps this year (as in, blue-chip redshirt freshman Matt Alviti doesn't take his job or at least force him to split it), he'll be given some easier throws and opportunities.

Still, Northwestern needs big plays. The Wildcats had only 18 gains of 30+ yards last year, 107th in the country, and while running back Treyvon Green showed some jets here and there, the receiving corps just didn't have much to offer. Eight Wildcats caught at least nine passes last year; only one of them averaged more than 12.4 yards per catch (Rashad Lawrence), and three averaged 7.1 or fewer.

A quick, short passing game is fine and can often be rather efficient, but you still need players who can break a tackle and burst upfield occasionally.

That last year's top three targets return is a good thing, especially considering both Tony Jones and Christian Jones caught more than two-thirds of their targets. Can someone like former blue-chipper Kyle Prather (nagged by injuries for much of his career) or four-star Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler stretch the field a bit?

5. Old Venric

But at least Northwestern gets Venric Mark back. The senior from Tomball, Texas, erupted for 1,371 rushing yards with 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity and 12 touchdowns in 2012 and averaged an other-worldly 18.7 yards per punt return with two more scores. Granted, he's not much of a weapon in the passing game, but he was a constant big-play threat for the Wildcats in 2012.

In 2013, Mark played in just three games while battling an ankle injury. Green and Stephen Buckley got experience and showed potential of their own in Mark's absence, but if Mark is full-strength this fall, chances are good that offensive coordinator Mick McCall will figure out how to use him and the other backs. McCall's proven willing to experiment to get play-makers on the field -- case in point: Colter ending up as the Wildcats' leading rusher, passer, and receiver heading into 2012 -- and having three worthy running backs is a pretty good problem to have.

(Mark's presence could also reinvigorate a special teams unit that fell from fourth to 72nd overall last year.)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tony Jones WR-X 6'0, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 80 55 616 68.8% 22.3% 66.2% 7.7 -29 7.1 87.6
Christian Jones WR-H 6'3, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 77 54 668 70.1% 21.4% 58.3% 8.7 41 8.8 95.0
Dan Vitale SUPER 6'2, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 57 34 382 59.6% 15.9% 50.9% 6.7 -46 6.9 54.3
Rashad Lawrence WR-Z 48 31 463 64.6% 13.4% 68.3% 9.6 88 10.5 65.9
Mike Trumpy RB 18 15 98 83.3% 5.0% 52.9% 5.4 -63 5.5 13.9
Cameron Dickerson WR-Z 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 17 11 125 64.7% 4.7% 64.3% 7.4 -8 9.0 17.8
Kyle Prater WR-X 6'5, 225 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 14 9 59 64.3% 3.9% 54.5% 4.2 -50 4.9 8.4
Treyvon Green RB 5'10, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 14 10 71 71.4% 3.9% 53.8% 5.1 -44 5.4 10.1
Mike Jensen WR-Y 12 7 106 58.3% 3.3% 54.5% 8.8 17 8.1 15.1
Kain Colter QB 7 3 16 42.9% 1.9% 0.0% 2.3 -30 1.8 2.3
Venric Mark RB 5'8, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 7 5 62 71.4% 1.9% 71.4% 8.9 4 7.4 8.8
Stephen Buckley RB 6'0, 180 So. 2 stars (5.4) 6 5 51 83.3% 1.7% 25.0% 8.5 -3 11.5 7.3
Mark Szott SUPER 6'4, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Mike McHugh WR-Y 6'3, 185 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Andrew Scanlan WR-H 6'2, 200 So. 2 stars (5.3)
Jayme Taylor SUPER 6'4, 225 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Miles Shuler (Rutgers) WR 5'10, 175 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Garrett Dickerson SUPER 6'3, 235 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 111.5 3.23 2.95 41.1% 64.3% 17.8% 63.1 6.0% 11.7%
Rank 23 23 95 47 89 45 116 96 117
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Brandon Vitabile C 6'3, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 38
Jack Konopka LT 6'5, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 25
Paul Jorgensen RT 6'6, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 12
Geoff Mogus LG 6'5, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 11
Ian Park RG 6'4, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 8
Matt Frazier RG 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 4
Adam DePietro LG 6'5, 285 So. 3 stars (5.6) 1
Shane Mertz RT 6'8, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Hayden Baker C 6'2, 290 Sr. NR 0
Eric Olson LT 6'6, 290 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Sam Coverdale OL 6'6, 265 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Brad North OL 6'2, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Tommy Doles OL 6'6, 270 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Blake Hance OL 6'5, 265 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

6. A dynamite line

This doesn't really help in terms of big plays in the passing game, but Northwestern should have one of the nation's better run-blocking fronts in 2014. The Wildcats ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards last fall despite the lack of a field stretcher, and the entire two-deep returns intact. That's three senior starters and seven players with starting experience (99 career starts).

Their pass protection numbers were awful, but a lot of that had to do with Colter managing to get sacked 16 times in 98 pass attempts, a Braxton Millerian sack rate. Siemian still got sacked six percent of the time, but his presence alone will make the sack rates drop. So could an efficient run game and lots of play-action opportunities.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.02 9 IsoPPP+ 109.0 22
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.6% 93 Succ. Rt. + 94.2 80
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.9 70 Off. FP+ 98.5 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 34 Redzone S&P+ 106.9 37
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.3 ACTUAL 23.0 +1.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 89 67 80 77
RUSHING 68 57 66 38
PASSING 101 73 92 114
Standard Downs 63 80 17
Passing Downs 71 73 63
Q1 Rk 41 1st Down Rk 65
Q2 Rk 74 2nd Down Rk 104
Q3 Rk 70 3rd Down Rk 35
Q4 Rk 81

7. A little too much bending

Go back to the series of painful losses listed above. In multiple games, I used a phrase like "Despite allowing _ yards..." Perhaps the most frustrating part of the 2013 experience is that the defense performed well a majority of the time. Northwestern's No. 42 ranking in Def. F/+ was its best in the F/+ era (unit rankings go back to 2007), but both offense and special teams fell apart.

There's still room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, however. While Northwestern ranked a strong 22nd in IsoPPP+ (big-play prevention), the efficiency numbers (80th in Success Rate+) were a little too far on the bend-don't-break side. The pass defense was mediocre, and if the pass rush didn't get to the quarterback on passing downs, opposing quarterbacks were able to make plays downfield.

The overall level of experience on this defense is pretty exciting and makes further improvement a possibility, but the cornerback position probably needs to make a few more plays on the ball.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 95.7 3.09 3.50 42.5% 71.4% 17.2% 98.2 3.8% 7.6%
Rank 77 85 84 103 90 89 63 81 49
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Tyler Scott DE 12 41.0 5.7% 10.0 6.0 2 3 2 0
Dean Lowry DE 6'6, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 27.5 3.8% 7.0 4.5 2 3 2 0
Chance Carter DT 6'3, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 26.0 3.6% 5.0 2.0 0 5 0 0
Will Hampton DT 12 17.0 2.4% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Deonte Gibson DE 6'3, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 16.5 2.3% 7.0 3.0 0 2 0 0
Ifeadi Odenigbo DE 6'3, 235 So. 4 stars (5.9) 12 8.0 1.1% 6.5 5.5 0 1 0 0
Max Chapman DE 6'3, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 7.5 1.0% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Greg Kuhar DT 6'3, 300 So. 4 stars (5.8) 6 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sean McEvilly DT 6'5, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 5 6.5 0.9% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
C.J. Robbins DT 6'5, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 2.0 0.3% 0.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Tyler Lancaster DE 6'3, 250 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Ben Oxley DL 6'6, 260 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

8. Stability in the middle?

The defensive end position was well-stocked in 2013, with Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, and former star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo combining for 30.5 tackles for loss and 19 sacks. This allowed Northwestern to forego an overt amount of blitzing but still get a decent rush on the quarterback, and with three of the four ends returning in 2014, there's no reason to think this won't be the case again. Odenigbo needs to figure out how to contribute more than just sacks -- he had 5.5 sacks and just 8.0 overall tackles -- but his potential is obvious.

Defensive tackle depth was an issue, however. Greg Kuhar, another former four-star recruit, didn't earn playing time until the second half of the season, and Sean McEvilly battled injuries all year. That left basically two guys -- Chance Carter and Will Hampton -- to take most of the snaps. It's not surprising, then, that the fourth quarter was Northwestern's worst defensive quarter.

Hampton's gone, but if Kuhar and McEvilly can stay both healthy and dialed in, the defensive line should improve on last year's numbers overall.

Despite the loss of leading tackler Damien Proby, the linebacking corps is stocked with experience and play-making potential; Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, and eight break-ups last year, and junior Drew Smith tossed in 4.5 TFLs in reserve duty. If the tackles can keep blockers off of them (and not wear down late in games), they'll make plays.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damien Proby MIKE 12 87.5 12.2% 5.0 1.0 1 2 2 0
Chi Chi Ariguzo WILL 6'3, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 84.0 11.7% 6.0 2.0 4 2 1 1
Collin Ellis MIKE 6'2, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 58.0 8.1% 5.5 0.5 3 6 0 0
Jimmy Hall SAM 6'2, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 11 27.5 3.8% 0.0 0.0 1 2 0 0
Drew Smith SAM 6'1, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 24.5 3.4% 4.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Timmy Vernon MIKE 12 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Jaylen Prater MIKE 6'0, 235 So. 2 stars (5.4) 3 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Joseph Jones WILL 6'1, 210 So. 2 stars (5.4)
Anthony Walker LB 6'1, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Traveon Henry S 6'1, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 65.0 9.1% 4 0 1 1 0 0
Ibraheim Campbell S 5'11, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 57.5 8.0% 2.5 1 4 5 0 0
Nick VanHoose CB 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 49.5 6.9% 5 0 0 8 1 0
Matthew Harris CB 5'11, 180 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 29.0 4.1% 0 0 0 5 0 0
Dwight White CB 5'10, 185 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 20.5 2.9% 1 0 1 1 0 0
C.J. Bryant CB 11 9.5 1.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Davion Fleming S 11 5.5 0.8% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Jarrell Williams CB 5'11, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 6 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Daniel Jones CB 5'11, 175 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 1 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Terrance Brown S 6'1, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 4 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Keith Watkins II CB 5'11, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Godwin Igwebuike S 6'0, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Kyle Queiro S 6'3, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Marcus McShepard CB 5'11, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Parrker Westphal CB 6'1, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

9. Potential and competition

Northwestern basically played five defensive backs in 2013. A sixth, corner Daniel Jones, was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 1. That left a sophomore (Nick VanHoose) and two freshmen (Matthew Harris, Dwight White) to man the islands on the outside, and the result was predictable. The defense as a whole was solid and prevented big plays pretty well, but if there was a breakdown, it came in pass defense.

With Jones back and theoretically healthy this fall, that gives Northwestern a solid two-deep of options. VanHoose is a pretty exciting player (five TFLs, eight break-ups), and Harris and White are certainly decent, but depth at corner improves.

What about safety? Traveon Henry was a nice weapon in run support, and Ibraheim Campbell is one of the best ball-hawks in the Big Ten (2012-13: six interceptions, 17 break-ups), but the third-leading safety made only 5.5 tackles last year. Depth is a must if Northwestern is going to avoid springing leaks in the fourth quaarter, and recent impressive recruiting could help here. Two high-three-star redshirt freshmen enter the mix, as do two high-three-star corners and a four-star freshman.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Brandon Williams 58 36.0 5 22 17 67.2%
Chris Gradone 6'2, 190 Jr. 11 37.8 1 3 5 72.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Jeff Budzien 65 61.3 21 1 32.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jeff Budzien 35-35 20-20 100.0% 3-5 60.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Matthew Harris KR 5'11, 180 So. 21 23.0 0
Stephen Buckley KR 6'0, 180 So. 6 18.5 0
Tony Jones PR 6'0, 195 Sr. 9 7.1 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 72
Field Goal Efficiency 19
Punt Return Efficiency 66
Kick Return Efficiency 74
Punt Efficiency 113
Kickoff Efficiency 39
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 71

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug California 82
6-Sep Northern Illinois 60
20-Sep Western Illinois NR
27-Sep at Penn State 37
4-Oct Wisconsin 15
11-Oct at Minnesota 73
18-Oct Nebraska 40
1-Nov at Iowa 34
8-Nov Michigan 32
15-Nov at Notre Dame 25
22-Nov at Purdue 108
29-Nov Illinois 63
Five-Year F/+ Rk 2.3% (52)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 59
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 5.5
TO Luck/Game -1.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (10, 8)

10. The inevitable bounce back

It's almost too predictable to call Northwestern a favorite for a breakout in 2014, isn't it? And besides, wouldn't it be more of a breakback?

The Wildcats appear to be deeper on defense, which should guard against late-game issues, and they return virtually everybody from last year's offense, plus Venric Mark. If you think this makes them seven points per game better in 2014, then just look at what seven points could have done for last year's team. (Hint: it would have made them between about 7-5 and 9-3.)

Of course, seven points is a lot of improvement, and as with so many Big Ten teams, Northwestern's 2014 schedule features a glut of teams in the No. 25-50 range. They should start and finish well, winning the first three and last two games on the docket, but the middle seven games feature five teams projected between 25th and 40th, three on the road.

A return to a bowl game is quite likely, but to threaten 10 wins again, as they did in 2012 and were supposed to do in 2013, they'll need to get back that old close-game form (or luck). They'll need to prove that last year's breakdowns have forged better leadership and wisdom, and they'll need to prove that the union drama in recent months has done nothing to affect chemistry.

I like this team quite a bit, but it's hard to buy in entirely, isn't it?

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