Today is the fifth story in my series of Big 10 team previews for the 2011 season featuring the Leaders and Legends division. I will be touching on one team from the Big 10 conference in each article, as I break down who is returning, who left, their 2011 schedule and some key reasons to the team’s chances of success this season….Today I will be previewing the Northwestern Wildcats from the Legends division.
Northwestern 2011 Prediction
I have the Wildcats finishing in fifth place of the very underrated Legends division, directly behind the Iowa Hawkeyes. Fifteen of 22 starters return for Pat Fitzgerald’s crew. The defense has not been very good the last few seasons even with the former Cat linebacker, Fiztgerald, at the helm. The big story in Wildcat country is that quarterback Dan Persa will be back this season after tearing his achilles in 2010. The 1st All-Big 10 selection was one of the most efficient players in the conference last season, and arguably the conference MVP at the time of his injury. Persa completed 73% of his passes last season and was 15 yards shy of leading the team in rushing yards with 515 on the ground. Persa’s importance to his offense may be as important as any single player to his team in the Big 10 in 2011. If he stays healthy, my fifth place projection is going to be way off the mark.
Persa’s go-to guy Jeremy Ebert will be back at wide receiver for the Cats. Last year, Ebert led the Big 10 in receiving yards (953), and led his Northwestern team in receptions (62) and touchdowns (8). There is no doubt this will be the best combo in the Big 10 Conference, as far as quarterbacks and wide receivers go. Tight end Drake Dunsmore is back in the mix as well. He proved to be a highly consistent target last season for Wilcat QB’s. The offense runs a spread that scores quickly when they’re running on all cylinders. The only problem is their defense is not good enough to withstand the quick scoring drives.
Watch out for defensive end Vince Browne who registered seven of the Wildcat 16 sacks last season. He also had a 10-tackle game versus Penn State last season. Browne is going to need to do a lot more of that this season if his team figures to be anywhere near the top of the division. Safety Brian Peters was sixth in the Big 10 last year with 106 tackles. He also tied for the team lead in interceptions with three in 2010. Venric Mark averaged an outstanding 26.2 yards per kick return last season. He will cause major problems for special teams units who must account for him. Expect the Wildcats to put him on offense a bit more, but for now he is the Wildcats primary special teams weapon, which can only help the Cats defense. Kevin Watt, Jack Dinardo, Bryce McNaul and Jordan Mabin round out the rest of the returning starters on defense for Northwestern.
The Wildcats stole the top Louisiana quarterback recruit, Zack Oliver, away from LSU and the rest of SEC country. The 6-foot, 4-inch athletic quarterback will fit in well with the Wildcats spread offense system. Oliver also has a great deal of mobility, to go along with a strong arm, making things interesting in Evanston for the foreseeable future. He reminds some people of current Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa.
September: @ Boston College, Eastern Illinois, @ Army
October: @ Illinois, Michigan, @ Iowa, Penn State, @ Indiana
November: @ Nebraska, Rice, Minnesota, Michigan State
A Northwestern run would not be improbable in 2011. The way the schedule works out, their first actual test wouldn’t be until the middle of October when they travel to Iowa (who I picked ahead of the Cats in the Legends division). Realistically, the Cats will have a setback or lose to a team they should beat somewhere down the road. Nevertheless, I would not be surprised at all if Northwestern is 6-2 after October. The fact that they have five games October is going to make or break their season. November is tough, however I expect the Wildcats to possess a nice record and even receive a bowl bid at the end of a solid season.