B1G 40: Can Northwestern return to 10-win glory days?

B1G 40: Can Northwestern return to 10-win glory days?
July 23, 2014, 5:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Can Northwestern return to the 10-win glory days of 2012?

One could argue that the 10-win glory days never left. That would be mildly insane, of course, considering the Wildcats turned in just five wins last season, the lowest win total since Pat Fitzgerald’s first season as head coach in 2006. The 10-win campaign of 2012 was the program’s highest since the Rose Bowl season of 1995. So how exactly could it be argued that last season was a continuation of that double-digit-victory season?

Well, the Wildcats certainly don’t deserve a pass for a season that saw them fail to meet expectations and play pretty poorly at times. But, at the same time, the ridiculous manner in which they lost the many games they did was downright strange, making it seem as if the team was somehow cursed.

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After winning the first four, Northwestern fell in a hard-fought game to Ohio State, one that was much closer than the final 10-point deficit made it seem. If Kain Colter can pick up a fourth down conversion attempt, the Cats have a good shot at winning that game. A week later, they were crushed by Wisconsin. But then came a loss to Minnesota sealed by a late Trevor Siemian interception, an overtime defeat at Iowa and that ludicrous Hail Mary that spelled defeat against Nebraska. Two weeks after that came the sliding, time-expiring field goal that allowed Michigan to force overtime and eventually win in Evanston. Then a right pounding from Michigan State and the only conference win at Illinois to cap the season.

Go back and count. There are five games in there that could have very easily been Northwestern wins (Ohio State, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan). Add that to the five wins they actually had, and you have 10. That’s how it could be argued the Cats are still in the midst of the 10-win glory days. Of course, while one bizarre ending after another meant a pile of losses by the end of November, Northwestern could have also avoided many of those losses by playing better. Fitzgerald said all season long that things came down to execution. They didn’t execute enough. Simple as that.

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Yes, injuries played their part. All-American running back and return man Venric Mark was hurt for effectively all but one game, appearing only briefly in two others. He was supposed to be a focal point of the offense, and his disappearance meant Northwestern went from the fourth-best rushing team in the conference in 2012 (226.3 yards per game) to the ninth-best last season (172.4 yards per game). Colter was also banged up much of the year, throwing Fitzgerald’s finely tuned two-quarterback system out of whack.

But the truth is that the Cats went 5-7 last season, and it was a huge disappointment. Here’s some good news, though: Things should be much better in 2014.

The main thing that can be corrected is avoiding those late-game situations that allowed those weird endings in the first place. Play just a few points better in those games, and they can’t be tied on a sliding field goal or won on one of college football’s all-time craziest Hail Marys.

What Northwestern has going for it is experience and a lot of it. Almost every starter from last season returns. That includes nearly the entirety of what was, particularly at the beginning of the season, a playmaking defense. That includes an experienced offensive line. That includes Siemian, who now has the quarterbacking gig to himself. That includes Mark, who expects to be fully healthy this season and ready to get back to his All-American ways.

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The new Big Ten alignment puts the Wildcats in what’s being viewed as the weaker of the two divisions, the Big Ten West. And Northwestern can certainly be among the contenders. Heavy favorite Wisconsin has lost a ton of talent, and while Iowa expects to be strong, Northwestern can be right there with them. There’s tricky games outside of the conference schedule against fast-paced California — who the Cats narrowly beat in an opening-week shootout last season — mid-major standout Northern Illinois and Notre Dame, which expects to be much improved with the return of Everett Golson.

But making noise in the Big Ten shouldn’t be out of the question, especially if Northwestern can avoid those wacky finishes that have stolen wins away from them not just last season but the year before, as well. People can see the horrible luck from last season and write the Cats off, or they can see a team returning a ton of experience and one that wasn’t too far from an impressive season a year ago. Bottom line: Don’t sleep on Northwestern.