By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Northwestern Wildcats took another step forward last year under coach Pat Fitzgerald, earning back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in 15 years. But things didn't get off to such a promising start,
as Northwestern squeaked by Eastern Michigan (27-24) in week two, then dropped
its next two contests to Syracuse (37-34) and Minnesota (35-24). The team
rebounded to win three of its next four outings, before falling to 12th-ranked
Penn State (34-13) on Halloween. However, the Wildcats put together a strong
finish. The highlight of the year was a 17-10 victory at then fourth-ranked
Iowa on November 7th. It marked NU's first win over a top-5 opponent since
They followed that up with another road win at Illinois (21-16) and a home win
against No. 16 Wisconsin (33-31) to earn a bid to the Outback Bowl against
Auburn on New Year's Day. The Wildcats fought tooth and nail in that contest,
but wound up on the wrong end of a 38-35 final in overtime. Instead of going
for a field goal to force a second overtime, Fitzgerald took a gamble and went
for the end zone with a 'fumblerooskie' play, which came up about two yards
OFFENSE: With Mike Kafka under center, Northwestern ranked 13th in the nation
in passing offense (286.6 ypg) last year. However, Kafka is now a member of
the Philadelphia Eagles, and the starting quarterback job belongs to redshirt
junior Dan Persa. His resume' includes only 34 career pass attempts, although
one of those netted a key touchdown during the team's upset win over Iowa. At
Big Ten Media Day, coach Fitzgerald said he isn't worried about the transition
to a new quarterback, which he's been through before.
"It's another year at Northwestern, so that means another new quarterback and
another new face, and it's Dan Persa's opportunity to take over the leadership
of our offense and to take over the leadership of our football team,"
Fitzgerald said. "And if he follows in the footsteps of C.J. Bach?r and Mike
Kafka -- that's why I'm sleeping pretty well at night."
At receiver, slot man Zeke Markshausen has left, along with his 92 receptions
in 2009. Junior Jeremy Ebert takes over there, and the coaching staff is
expecting big things now that he's fully healthy. Somehow, the Wildcats must
find a way to improve the nation's 95th-ranked rushing offense (117.6 ypg)
with largely the same personnel. Several starters return to the offensive
line, although the competition has been fierce since spring drills.
DEFENSE: On defense, the Wildcats must replace talented defensive end Corey
Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis, both of whom were selected in the NFL
Draft, in addition to All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips. The strength of the D
will be at linebacker, where they are loaded with talent and depth. Senior
Quentin Davie has been a three-year starter at both outside linebacker
positions and last year led the team in tackles (90), tackles for loss (11.5)
and sacks (five), while also forcing four fumbles. Fellow senior Nate Williams
has been a two-year starter in the middle, where he managed to notch 86
tackles last year in an injury-plagued campaign.
Along the defensive line, redshirt junior Kevin Watt (6-4, 265) takes over for
Wootton at defensive end. Watt was thrust into action at times last season and
showed a knack for making plays. Junior defensive end Vince Browne (6-5, 265)
and fifth-year tackle Corbin Bryant started every game last year. In the
secondary, redshirt junior Jordan Mabin has made 24 straight starts at
cornerback, but he'll need to step up his play with three new starters joining
him in the defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Wildcats didn't make a whole lot of noise in the return
game last year, though senior Stephen Simmons (25.3 ypr) was effective at kick
returner when given the chance. Mabin has been taking reps at punt returner.
Kicker Stefan Demos earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors after making 17-
of-25 attempts, including two game-winners. He has also been the punter for
the last three years, though Fitzgerald has opened up the competition so Demos
can focus solely on kicking.
OUTLOOK: Having won 17 games over the last two years, Northwestern is
certainly on the rise under coach Fitzgerald. If NU makes it to a bowl game
this year, it will mark the first time in program history the team has
received three straight bowl bids. If the Wildcats can actually win a bowl
game, it will mark the first time they've done that in more than 60 years.
With 16 starters returning, they have a good shot at accomplishing that.
The schedule gets underway with a non-conference test at Vanderbilt to set the
stage for the rest of the season. In the Big Ten slate, the Wildcats dodge
Ohio State and Michigan, though they'll play at Penn State on November 6th,
followed by Iowa at home and then Illinois at Wrigley Field.