EVANSTON, Ill. - Long gone are the days of the Northwestern Wildcats not being “tough enough” to play in the Big Ten.
Step onto Pat Fitzgerald’s practice field in August and you are stepping into the middle of one of the conference’s most competitive training camps.
You will often see players on the sidelines break out into chants to cheer on their side of the football. “Friendly” fights seem to break out every few plays. And Fitzgerald will yell “winner offense” or “winner defense” on every single play in the team drills, deciding which side of the football is victorious.
The Wildcats’ offensive line has never been as big as some of the other lines in the Big Ten. Its defensive line has never been as athletic. Physically, at least on paper, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have a big advantage. They are bigger, stronger and faster.
So how did Northwestern beat both of those teams in 2009?
Under Pat Fitzgerald, what the Wildcats lack in size is made up for what it doesn’t lack in mental toughness. And that’s a big reason why they are poised to make a third straight bowl game for the first time in program history.
The Goal. Fitzgerald and his players have not been shy about it. Their goal is to make a third straight bowl game. It’s a very realistic and attainable goal in a year that could set them up for much loftier goals in 2011.
The positives. Junior quarterback Dan Persa looks very comfortable behind center and has improved his arm strength. He only has 34 career passing attempts coming into the season, but he does have game experience and that puts him ahead of a very talented group of quarterbacks behind him that will keep him on his toes and possibly push him for the starting job in 2011. Evan Watkins is huge 6-6 backup who has struggled at times, but Fitzgerald made it clear Wednesday that he is still the No. 2 quarterback.
“Evan is our No. 2, there’s no question about that. If not for anything else besides he’s just been in the offense a little longer,” he said.
Senior linebacker Quentin Davie anchors a very deep front seven that will have to have a big year to keep up the improvements Northwestern has seen on defense since Mike Hankwitz took over as coordinator two years ago. Bryce McNaul is pushing incumbent starter Ben Johnson for playing time and saw a lot of time with the No. 1 unit Wednesday.
“I’m going to assume that role so long as I’m out on the field playing it. And if I’m not, I’ll be ready to step up,” McNaul said after practice.
Hankwitz said a decision on that spot would be made by Sunday before the team enters game-week preparation for Vanderbilt, but added that “it will be up for continual evaluation” throughout the season.
The secondary is young and holes to fill, but returning starting cornerback Jordan Maybin will bring some experience while junior Brian Peters and sophomore Jared Carpenter appear ready to step in at safety.
The negatives. The Wildcats continue to look at number of different options at running back after failing to have a single back reach 100 yards rushing in a game last season. Sophomore Arby Fields is most likely the starter again, but he has been dinged up in camp and hopes to be back in practice next week. Stephen Simmons, Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon continue to get a lot of reps.
There isn’t a whole lot of depth in the secondary and a playmaker needs to step up at cornerback opposite of Maybin. A number of guys were beat in 1-on-1 coverage in practice Wednesday and it appears this might be the biggest weakness of the entire team.
“We’re a young football team,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “We only have 11 seniors. We have a lot of teaching still to do.”
Best case scenario. It’s very possible the Wildcats could enter their bye week Oct. 16 with a perfect 6-0 record after sweeping their not conference slate and beating Minnesota on the road before taking care of Purdue at home. From a confidence standpoint, getting bowl eligible in the first six weeks would be the best thing for Northwestern if it wants to think about winning the Big Ten. With trips to Penn State and Wisconsin looming, along with a home date against Iowa, a third place finish in the Big Ten and another New Year’s Day bowl game is probably the Wildcats’ ceiling.
Worst case scenario. The Wildcats only play five games at Ryan Field this year and while Vanderbilt might be the doormat of the SEC, a road game in Nashville is no gimmie. Neither is a trip to Houston where Northwestern will take on an improved Rice team. A 4-0 start in their non-conference slate would go a long way in securing a bowl berth, but it’s possible the Wildcats drop one they should win. A couple of close losses early in the season might derail a season that could go either way.
Get more from Adam Hoge throughout the college football season by following him on Twitter @AdamHoge670.