Big Ten football preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten football preview: Northwestern Wildcats
August 5, 2013, 12:30 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Northwestern is just starting its summer camp, but already there’s been enough talk of the Wildcats’ raised expectations this season to make it a story line that everyone who pays attention to this sort of thing knows all too well.

The Wildcats themselves know exactly what the expectations are, and for them they haven’t changed.

“Everyone says that we have all these expectations,” senior running back Venric Mark said at Big Ten media day. “We know where we want to go. ... Everyone’s going to have whatever they think, who they think is the best team. At Northwestern, we know where we want to go, we know what we want to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Mark had a breakout season in 2012, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and adding a pair of scores as a punt returner. He was named a first-team All-American for his return skills and made the All-Big Ten Second Team as a running back.

His fellow senior standout in the backfield, quarterback Kain Colter, offered a bit more detail on where exactly Northwestern’s sights are set.

“When you go to the board in our team room, it’s: ‘Win a Championship.’ So, a Big Ten championship, that’s obviously our first goal,” Colter said. “It’s something that we haven’t done in a while. We want to put Northwestern back on top. We have a high character program that I think would be a great representative of the Big Ten as a leader coming out this year. For us, that’d be huge.”

[MORE: Fitzgerald discusses Northwestern's upcoming season]

No matter how realistic that goal is, it seems more attainable now than ever, and it would certainly be the next giant leap Fitzgerald and his program can make. The Wildcats return 15 starters from last season’s team, including impact players in Mark and Colter, Colter’s tag-team partner at QB in Trevor Siemian, a group of talented receivers and the 2012 Big Ten sack leader Tyler Scott.

“With the experience we have, we know what the expectations are, and we know that we can raise our levels,” Scott said. “That we were that close last year in so many games, we can definitely do it, and we have the talent. It’s just how we want to lead and push everybody else.”

Last year

Record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

Bowl: The Wildcats defeated Mississippi State, 34-20, in the Gator Bowl, their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

At the helm

Fitzgerald is in his eighth season as the Northwestern head coach. He’s led his team to five straight bowl appearances and got his first postseason win last year. And he’s someone his players can’t stop talking about.

“He’s passionate,” Scott said of his coach. “He’s so passionate about the game. If you give him a helmet and shoulder pads, I think he’d still go out there and play and would be able to hold his own. It’s definitely fun (playing for him). He’s definitely a player’s coach.”

On the 2013 schedule

With four non-conference games that should heavily favor the Cats, it’s the Big Ten schedule that is the true story this season, as things increase in difficulty from a year ago. In addition to annual Legends Division opponents in Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, Northwestern replaces its two Leaders Division games from last season against Penn State and Indiana with games at home against Ohio State and at Wisconsin. And those are the first two games on their Big Ten slate.

Northwestern hasn’t faced Wisconsin since 2010 and hasn’t played Ohio State since 2008.

[RELATED: Northwestern begins the season ranked 22nd in coaches' poll]

Under center

Colter and Siemian form a dual-quarterback attack that proved effective a season ago. Colter is more of a dual-threat option, and he ranked second on the team in rushing yards last season with 894.

Siemian, meanwhile, attempted 69 more passes than Colter and led the team with 1,312 yards.

“As you know, Trevor’s also great,” Mark said. “Trevor knows his role, and that’s one thing I love about him. He’s a stand-up guy. But he’s also very competitive. When his name needs to be called, everyone on the team trusts him to make that play.”

Back in the fold

There are many impact players returning for the Wildcats this season, but perhaps none will be a bigger home-run hitter than Mark. The senior was named to a slew of preseason award watch lists, and was one of 10 players named to the Big Ten’s Players to Watch list.

“I’m a very competitive person,” Mark said. “I’m a nice guy, but when it comes to playing in between the white lines and putting on a helmet and shoulder pads, there’s something a lot different. That means a lot to me. Northwestern just isn’t a football team, that’s a family.”

Season outlook

While higher expectations and a lot of experience are key factors, a tougher schedule could dictate where the Wildcats fall in the Big Ten hierarchy. There’s likely no team that will have as much riding on its first two games in October than Northwestern, but the Cats still have a good chance to be among the conference’s best teams.