The past year on the shores of Lake Michigan in the tony Chicago suburb of Evanston has been, well, rocky. Northwestern’s once promising 2013 football season spiraled out of control due to injuries, resulting in a seven-game losing streak and an extended stay home for the holidays.
The Wildcats were primed for one of their finest years in school history. In early October, Northwestern was 4-0 and on the cusp of defeating No. 4-ranked Ohio State before disaster struck. Four months later, the center of college sports’ union debate came to Northwestern.
The hoopla swirling around the program could’ve been a distraction, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald limited any outside interruption. While former quarterback Kain Colter attracted worldwide headlines off the field, current signal-caller Trevor Siemian was the one garnering local attention.
There will be no two-quarterback system this season after Siemian turned in an impressive spring. He doesn’t have the mobility Colter displayed, but the Florida native does throw an accurate football. Siemian completed 60 percent of his passes last year for more than 2,000 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. A 31-of-44, 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in the season-finale against Illinois set the tone for 2014.
“I had a chance to just cut it loose and not look back," Siemian told the Chicago Tribune this spring. "I felt like it was my team. I’m trying to carry over that mentality.”
Questions about Siemian’s athleticism have been answered by his head coach. Fitzgerald believed Siemian can run well, even if he isn’t a dual-threat guy like Colter. Regardless, Fitzgerald wants the best players on the field.
Amid the constant losing last season, Siemian pointed to a disappearance in leadership. In the first month of winning – after the program’s first bowl victory in a lifetime – Northwestern dealt with overconfidence and an unwanted demeanor of complacency. Siemian’s vowed to take control of the team and not allow satisfaction to creep in until goals are met.
“I don’t want to say guys were on their high horse, but there’s a different approach,” he said. “We have something to prove.”
|9/27||@ Penn State|
|11/15||at Notre Dame|
The health of running back Venric Mark, who could be the offense’s biggest weapon, remains uncertain. He was a 1,300-yard rusher in 2012 before injuries took away much of 2013. Mark played in just three games, with a 103-yard effort – combined rushing and receiving – against Ohio State representing the high-water mark.
His impact would also be cheered on special teams, an area Mark’s become a game-changer. But how does he translate in an offense that won’t be running much zone-read? Mark and Colter became a dynamic duo in the option game. The Wildcats are sure to put Mark in situations where he can use his speed and elusiveness. Part of his success rate will depend on running behind a line that’s also experienced health and continuity issues.
If all else fails, Siemian can sling the ball around to transfers Kyle Prater (USC) and Miles Shuler (Rutgers). The wide receiver corps is stockpiled with a blend of veterans and youth with high expectations. But it’s Prater and Shuler who carry the highest hopes. While both have played sparingly in their careers, Prater’s 6-foot-5 frame gives the Wildcats size downfield and Shuler can fill a void as a slot receiver.
“I’m looking forward to great things happening this year,” Prater told ESPN.com. “I can honestly say I feel like I’m back, and I’m ready to go.”
From Prater to the offensive line to the defensive line, health is a major storyline for Northwestern. The D-line dealt with four players having offseason surgeries, including three players who figure into the rotation come fall – Sean McEvilly, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. The Wildcats’ rush defense under performed last season, which hamstrings Big Ten teams.
But the pass defense is projected to be exceptional. All four starters return from a unit that ranked in the top half nationally. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is the leader in the secondary, though depth will be an unusual commodity this year.
Separating Northwestern from the postseason could be the schedule – and coming up short in close games. The Wildcats lost two games in overtime last season and two by three points. The 2014 schedule includes games against Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Cal.
They avoid Big Ten kingpins Michigan State and Ohio State, but from Sept. 27 to Nov. 15 – a seven-game stretch – every opponent went to a bowl game or had a winning record.
During Fitzgerald’s All-American career as a player, the Wildcats established an identity for closing under pressure. He’ll have to muster up some old magic in 2014.
“I don’t think we’re that far behind. It’s just painfully obvious that we’re not there,” he said. “This next phase will be the most important phase of this team’s life. It’s always important, but with a lot of things we’ve gone though, we’ve got to come together.”