Pat Fitzgerald has slowly brought the Northwestern football program along since its painful and sudden loss of former coach Randy Walker. Fitzgerald has been loyal, eschewing other job opportunities, and has since led the Wildcats to three consecutive bowl appearances. Now, he returns his deepest, most experienced, and most talented team in his time in Evanston and should field a contender for the Big Ten Legends Division in 2011. Sixteen starters, nine of which are on what was a very potent offense, return. The schedule is also conducive to a conference title game run. Provided nothing catastrophic happens, it should be a big year for Northwestern.
Dan Persa is the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ offense. With him on the field, Northwestern moved the ball against even the toughest of defenses. When Persa was lost late last season to an Achilles injury, the offense sputtered. Persa is the definition of a team leader and elevates the play of everyone around him. Before the injury, Persa threw for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions, a tribute to his decision making and accuracy. Persa is expected back full strength for the start of the season and also welcomes back his all but one of his top receiving threats. Demeterius Fields and Drake Dunsmore form a dangerous pair of receivers. The passing game should be extremely potent for Northwestern.
The Wildcats are typically a pass first offense under Fitzgerald, but they can run the ball effectively when called upon. Mike Trumpy played well as a freshman and will see an expanded role carrying the ball this year. Persa will likely carry the ball less than he did in 2010 due to the possibility of further injury, and that means Adonis Smith will likely see more carries in his place. The offensive like returns four of five starters, including three seniors. Persa’s blind side will be protected by steady senior left tackle Al Netter. With all of these pieces in place, it should be a very potent offense in Evanston in 2011.
The Wildcats hope that returning experience in the front seven will lead to better execution. At times last year they were simply manhandled by bigger and more physical teams like Illinois and Wisconsin. They remain a bit undersized, with no starters up front over 300 pounds, but defensive end Vince Brown is a very good pass rushing defensive end that recorded seven sacks in 2010. The linebacking corps returns just senior linebacker Bryce McNeal which could leave them once again susceptible to the more physical rushing teams in 2011. Still, there is depth and a rotation of seven or eight experienced defensive linemen will help mitigate that size mismatch some.
The secondary should be better than it was in 2010. Three of four starters are back, led by safety Brian Peters. Peters is a very big safety. At 6’4, 215 pounds he is essentially a very fast outside linebacker and his team leading 107 tackles reflect that. He also led the team with three interceptions. Jordan Mabin is a solid cover corner with four years of experience. David Arnold will return at the other safety spot and like Peter, is very big for his position (6’1, 220 pounds). Because of their size, Northwestern will often bring the safeties up on exotic blitzes to compensate for being smaller up front. Arnold and Peters are certainly built for it.
The schedule should allow for Northwestern to contend for the Legends Division title. Out of conference they have a legitimate opportunity to open 4-0 with wins over Boston College, Army, Eastern Illinois, and at Illinois. If they do, they’ll face a rebuilding Michigan team in Evanston before heading to Iowa City to face another rebuilding team in Iowa. If they host Penn State at 6-0, that game could be a de facto playoff game. Two weeks later the Wildcats travel to face division favorite Nebraska. A late season game against Rice provides a reprieve before hosting Minnesota and Michigan State to finish the season. It should be a big year for Fitzgerald and his Wildcats in 2011.
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