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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Second-half outlook: Northwestern

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 4-3

Remaining schedule: vs. Indiana, vs. Penn State, at Iowa, at Illinois, vs. Wisconsin

The Wildcats were unable to fully capitalize on a favorable opening schedule, and they have some work left to reach back-to-back bowls for just the second time in team history. A defense that really struggled early on seems to have turned things around, but injuries are piling up at key spots. If Northwestern can simply stay healthy on defense and get more production from the front four, particularly end Corey Wootton, it should win a few more games. There's no mystery about what the Wildcats need to improve on offense, and it's a run game that ranks 10th in the Big Ten and 97th nationally. Quarterback Mike Kafka has been fabulous on short to intermediate passes, but the spread offense still needs production from the run game to fully surge. Northwestern will have a tough time building on the momentum it generated in 2008, but it can't afford to miss a bowl game with such a cushy slate.

Best-case scenario: The defense finally stays healthy and keeps Northwestern afloat in every game down the stretch. Stephen Simmons or Arby Fields emerges as a viable running option and the offensive line finally surges to take pressure off of Kafka. Northwestern beats Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin and pulls an upset against Penn State or Iowa to finish 8-4 and make a decent bowl.

Worst-case scenario: A one-dimensional offense can't turn yards into points and the defense never gets healthy. Northwestern shows that it can't reload after losing key contributors on both sides of the ball to graduation or injury. The Wildcats lose their remaining games to finish an extremely disappointing 4-8.

Prediction: Bowl game, but barely.