Chicago Colleges: Chi Chi Ariguzo

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM CT
There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM CT
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Venric Mark, Sr., 5-8, 175; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Christian Jones, Sr., 6-3, 225; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.

Wildcats focus on firming up midsection

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
3:30
PM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

Sure, the unit was on the field for the play that encapsulated a hard-luck season: a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory and set off pandemonium in Lincoln. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is right when he states: "We were five plays away from winning five more games, and we needed to make five more plays on defense somewhere."

The defense could have collected a few more takeaways in Big Ten play after a surge early in the season. It could have made another stop against Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Iowa that might have been the difference.

But if Northwestern's offense is anywhere close to its normal production, the team easily wins seven or eight games. End of story.

The offseason spotlight is on the offense as it ditches a two-quarterback system -- senior Trevor Siemian will be the sole operator -- and likely returns to its pass-first roots. Things are much quieter for the defense, which returns nine starters, including all four in the secondary. It's possibly the team's strongest position group.

Collin Ellis
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern linebacker Collin Ellis is moving inside, hoping to help boost a defense that was a little too soft in the middle in 2013.
It's not a stretch to suggest this could be the strongest defense in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern can go two or three deep at every secondary spot, thanks to the emergence of several redshirt freshmen this spring. Veteran playmakers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis return at linebacker, and speedy ends Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson spark the pass rush.

But perimeter strength might not mean much if Northwestern doesn't firm up its core.

"Defensive football is a lot like baseball," Fitzgerald said. "You better be great at the catcher, pitcher and center fielder, the belly of your defense, and that shortstop and second baseman are plenty important, too. [In football] you've got to be strong at D-tackle, the linebacker position and safety. I'm not minimizing the ends and the corners, but if you don't have those things inside, the belly of your defense gets exposed.

"You can't stop people."

Northwestern didn't stop the inside run consistently enough in 2013. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde pounded away for 168 rush yards and three touchdowns on a night when quarterback Braxton Miller struggled. Other running backs -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Minnesota's David Cobb, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford -- eclipsed 100 yards against the Wildcats, who surrendered 192 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.

Injuries at defensive tackle, particularly the midseason loss of Sean McEvilly, hurt the Wildcats. Northwestern needs McEvilly and Chance Carter to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar to keep developing. Both Robbins and Kuhar received increased practice time this spring as McEvilly missed the whole session following foot surgery and Carter missed the first nine workouts because of injury.

"Everyone knows the fastest way to get somewhere is straight down the middle," Carter said. "That goes with the D-tackles first. We're the first line of defense. We have to be more fundamentally crisp."

The safety spot should be fine as Ibraheim Campbell, an excellent run defender with 262 career tackles, anchors the secondary. But there are questions at middle linebacker as Ellis moves over from the strong side to replace Damien Proby.

Ellis, lighter than Proby at 233 pounds, admits he has to play the position differently, using his speed and lateral quickness.

"As a linebacking corps, we are quick," Ellis said. "What we're saying is the defensive tackles, if they get in the wrong gap, stay there and we can recognize that and fill."

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.

B1G spring position breakdown: LB

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
1:30
PM CT
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini, Big Ten, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Purdue Boilermakers, Big Ten Conference, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Jack Lynn, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Jake Ryan, Jimmy Hall, Joseph Jones, Reggie Spearman, Damien Proby, Mason Monheim, Mike Hull, David Santos, James Ross III, Eric Finney, Mike Svetina, Taiwan Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Ben Kline, David Cooper, Michael Trotter, Nyeem Wartman, Ryan Russell, Collin Ellis, Drew Smith, Curtis Grant, Zaire Anderson, Raekwon McMillan, Josh Banderas, Michael Rose, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, T.J. Simmons, Brian Knorr, Jaylen Prater, Quinton Alston, Travis Perry, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Allen Gant, Ben Gedeon, Camren Williams, Clyde Newton, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Damien Wilson, Danny Ezechukwu, Darien Harris, Darron Lee, Davon Jacobs, De'Niro Laster, Derek Landisch, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Gelen Robinson, Jamal Merrell, Joe Bolden, Joe Gilliam, Joe Schobert, Jon Reschke, Joshua Perry, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Leon Jacobs, Marcus Newby, Marcus Oliver, Marcus Whitfield, Mylan Hicks, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Ralph Cooper, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Shane Jones, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Trey Johnson, Troy Reeder, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

Offseason to-do list: Northwestern

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
11:00
AM CT
The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists

Season wrap: Northwestern

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
7:30
AM CT
When Northwestern opened Big Ten play Oct. 5, it had a perfect record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and Ohio State on the ropes. When the Wildcats concluded their home schedule Nov. 23, they did so in a largely empty stadium and watched Michigan State celebrate a Legends Division title. Things fell apart quickly and dramatically for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which missed a bowl game for the first time since 2007 and endured a losing regular season (5-7) for the first time since 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as head coach.

A combination of poor play, injuries and extremely lousy luck doomed Northwestern, which lost two games in overtime and a third on a Hail Mary as time expired at Nebraska. Star running back/returner Venric Mark missed almost the entire season, and the offense never found a steady rhythm in league play. The defense held up decently but left too many plays on the field. Fitzgerald often uses the phrase "flush it" when asked about bad plays or games. Northwestern certainly should flush the 2013 season.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. He played through pain for much of the season but continued to produce, rushing for 489 yards and five touchdowns and completing 78.8 percent of his passes despite limited opportunities. Colter put Northwestern in position to beat both Iowa and Nebraska, but mistakes elsewhere doomed the team. He also caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State. Running back Treyvon Green merits a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Tyler Scott. Scott finished a solid career by triggering Northwestern's pass rush with six sacks, 10 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries. He also had two forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebackers Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo were solid.

Best moment: It came in the opener against Cal, as Northwestern overcame the absences of both Colter and Mark to rally for a 44-30 win. Ellis recorded pick-sixes of 56 and 40 yards in the second half en route to earning national defensive player of the week honors. The win sparked Northwestern to a 4-0 start, but things went downhill from there.

Worst moment: The Nebraska Hail Mary encapsulated a season of what-ifs. The Wildcats jumped ahead 21-7, blew the lead, couldn't punch in a late touchdown but still led by three with four seconds left. After Northwestern called a timeout (that some questioned), Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp somehow slipped behind the defense and caught a deflected pass for the game winner as time expired.

Northwestern defense embraces speed need

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
2:00
PM CT

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," said senior end Tyler Scott, who finished . "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."

Spring breakout player: Northwestern

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
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Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible.

Northwestern has a vacant starting spot at linebacker, and don't be surprised if it goes to ...

Drew Smith, LB, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds

Smith appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season, mostly on special teams but also as a reserve linebacker. He performed well, racking up 17 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, to go along with a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Thursday mentioned that he's looking for flexibility with his linebackers and safeties -- players strong enough to play the former but athletic enough to play the latter.

At 205 pounds with good speed, Smith is a good athlete who loves dropping the hammer on ball carriers. He rushed the passer well against Syracuse, Nebraska and Michigan last year. "He thoroughly enjoys contact," Fitzgerald told reporters Thursday. "I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off, and he goes around doing that."

Northwestern returns two starters at linebacker, although middle linebacker Damien Proby is sitting out spring practice with an injury. Smith will compete with Collin Ellis and others for an outside linebacker spot opposite Chi Chi Ariguzo. If he continues to knock people's lips off the rest of the spring, he'll see a lot of field time in the fall.

Big Ten bowl helmet stickers

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
8:04
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Recognizing the top individual performances by Big Ten players in the postseason:
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers senior had two interceptions, a pass break up and seven tackles in Minnesota's 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Playing in perhaps his final collegiate game, the Spartans junior once again carried the offense in a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards. He accounted for all but 53 of Michigan State's total yardage.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: The Huskers' defense struggled, but Burkhead was in beast mode in the 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia. Fully healthy for the first time since the opener, Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a score, and he also had four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. We can only imagine what kind of numbers he would have put up as a senior had he not dealt with a knee problem all year.
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: The redshirt junior turned in a strong season-ending performance, catching nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. He accounted for nearly 70 percent of Devin Gardner's passing yards.
  • Northwestern's secondary: After some shaky moments in the regular season, the Wildcats' pass defense came up large in the 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs threw for only 106 yards and were intercepted four times. Safety Jared Carpenter, who had 10 tackles, was named the game's MVP. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose also had picks. Add in defensive lineman's Quentin Williams' pick six and another interception by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, and you have the recipe for Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949.

Four from B1G are Butkus semifinalists

October, 22, 2012
10/22/12
8:18
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There's one area where you can't criticize the Big Ten's performance this year: linebacker play.

The Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker, announced its 12 semifinalists on Monday, and one-third of the list is populated by Big Ten players. Two of them, appropriately enough, are from Linebacker U.

The semifinalists are:

Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
Arthur Brown, Kansas State
Jonathan Brown, Illinois
Max Bullough, Michigan State
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Dion Jordan, Oregon
Michael Mauti, Penn State
Kevin Minter, LSU
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Trent Murphy, Stanford
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame

It's good to see Mauti and Hodges on this list after they were inexplicably snubbed for the Lombardi Award semifinalists list. Penn State conspiracy theorists can calm down a little bit. Bullough has played terrifically for a Spartans defense that has been asked to carry a heavy load, and Brown has been one of the few highlights in a barren Illini season.

All are worthy selections, but you could also make a very strong case for Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Mike Taylor and Michigan's Jake Ryan, who are each having outstanding seasons. Iowa's James Morris, Nebraska's Will Compton and Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo are also starring at what might be the league's deepest position this year. Filling out the linebacker spots on the All-Big Ten team won't be easy this year.

Te'o and Jones will be hard to beat for this award, but the Big Ten could get one player into the finalist group.

Midseason report: Northwestern

October, 16, 2012
10/16/12
9:44
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NORTHWESTERN

Record: 6-1, 2-1 Big Ten

At the halfway mark of the season, only one team in the Big Ten has guaranteed itself bowl eligibility. And in fact, Northwestern is one bad fourth quarter at Penn State away from possibly being undefeated.

Are the Wildcats for real? Well, good teams almost always do two things: run the ball, and stop the run. Pat Fitzgerald's club ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing just 109.9 yards per game. That's about 70 yards fewer than Northwestern allowed last season, when it finished No. 10 in the league, so the defensive improvement up front has been impressive.

The Wildcats are also one of the league's top rushing teams, averaging nearly 230 yards per game on the ground (up by nearly 65 yards per game over last season). Tailback Venric Mark has been one of the biggest stars of the first half, and he and versatile quarterback Kain Colter form a dangerous duo, especially on the zone read.

Fitzgerald's use of Colter and fellow quarterback Trevor Siemian has been the team's most interesting storyline of the first half. Siemian finished the opener at Syracuse by leading a game-winning drive, and split some reps with Colter for the first few games. When Big Ten play arrived, Northwestern started using Colter as a receiver and almost exclusively a running quarterback. That formula worked great against Indiana, but Colter didn't get enough touches at Penn State. The Wildcats will have to find the right balance going forward.

Northwestern has also benefited from a schedule that hasn't been as difficult as it looked on paper. According to NCAA stats, the Wildcats have played the easiest schedule in the Big Ten through seven weeks. The competition level is about to rise considerably, with Nebraska coming to Evanston this week, followed by games against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. That will tell us for sure whether this team's 6-1 start is for real.

Offensive MVP: Mark. Colter has been extremely valuable, too, with all the different things he can do. But Mark has given the offense a dependable, big-play threat it has lacked for years. Despite his small size, Mark has already run for 792 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and should become the Wildcats' first 1,000-yard back since 2006. He's also a spark plug on special teams, with two punt returns for touchdowns this season.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. The sophomore announced he was going to play a big role, when he had an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown in the opener against Syracuse. He's second on the team in tackles with 59, including 6.5 for loss. Defensive lineman Tyler Scott also deserves notice for his six sacks and 7.5 TFLs.

Wildcats, Gophers are on the upswing

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
10:29
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The Big Ten as a whole may be off to a disappointing start in 2012. But don't try selling that storyline at Northwestern or Minnesota, where disappointment is in short supply these days.

The Wildcats and Gophers are two of the only three undefeated Big Ten teams left (Ohio State is the other). That they are a combined 6-0 is notable since they won just nine games between them last year. Yet these two teams bear little resemblance to last season's clubs.

[+] EnlargeTyler Scott
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJunior defensive end Tyler Scott said a strong bond has been key in Northwestern's 3-0 start.
The 2011 Northwestern narrative was a simple one: great offense, crummy defense, inability to finish games. A 42-41 opening win over Syracuse reinforced some of the notions about the defense. In the two games, since, however, the Wildcats have held their opponents (Vanderbilt and Boston College) to just 13 points each, while Syracuse has shown itself to have one of the nation's top passing attacks.

One of the biggest differences for Northwestern this year is its play up front. The defense is allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry, while the offense is averaging over 200 rushing yards per game.

"I think we're a tougher team from top to bottom," senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields said. "The proof is in the pudding, in the running game. We've committed to a mentality, a want-to."

The Wildcats' defense still has holes but is making more things happen. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt rank in the top five of the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The team didn't have a single player in the top 20 of that stat last season.

"In the offseason, we tried to make it a point to come together, so when we're on the field communication wasn't going to be a problem," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said. "I think this team is super close, and we really enjoy being around each other. We have fun together, and we have trust in each other so we can go play fast."

Jerry Kill never promised a fast turnaround at Minnesota but rather a gradual building of the program when he took over before last year. So Kill is trying not to overplay the fact that his team has already matched its 2011 win total. The schedule -- UNLV, New Hampshire and Western Michigan -- isn't exactly the NFC East.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe play of Ra'Shede Hageman has helped Minnesota's undefeated start to the season.
Still, this looks like a much different team than the one that lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State at home early last season. After years of struggling to generate a pass rush, the Gophers have playmakers on the defensive line in Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite. The team has eight sacks already after getting only 19 a year ago.

While the overall physicality is not yet to Kill's liking, Minnesota is averaging 210 rushing yards per game, 50 yards more than last year's team.

"I think it's more familiarity with the offense," tight end John Rabe said. "We're a lot more comfortable with the whole offensive scheme and knowing where we all fit in. We've had a pretty good start in the running game, and I don't think we're even close to where we can be."

The Gophers started to build confidence toward the end of last season, when they beat Iowa, hung tough at Michigan State and dominated Illinois. That has shown early this year, as they survived an overtime win at UNLV and outlasted Western Michigan despite losing starting quarterback MarQueis Gray to injury.

"Last year, we might have been like, 'OK, here it goes again,'" Rabe said. "But this year, we have a ton of confidence that we can pull these games out. Our whole attitude is that we are supposed to win and we are going to win these games, not that we're trying not to lose."

Rabe said there's a buzz building on campus about this team, with students and teachers talking football more than in the past. That has yet to spread nationally, as Minnesota's schedule and lack of recent success hasn't created much attention for the 3-0 start, though a win this week over Syracuse could help.

Northwestern is similarly unbeaten and unloved. The Wildcats aren't in the Top 25 this week despite beating three BCS AQ teams to start the year, and this week's game against South Dakota is unlikely to move the needle.

But that's OK with Pat Fitzgerald, who has been highly critical of his team even in triumph. Fields said he and the other veterans remember the 2010 season when Northwestern started out 5-0, only to fall apart and finish 7-6. They want to make sure this team stays focused on what's in front of them, and not get caught looking too much at the big picture.

So let the Gophers and Wildcats fly under the radar for now. They're not disappointed at all.

"People can't really deny you when you keep winning," Fields said.

Even in victory NU focused on improving

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
10:45
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern has found a way in three consecutive weeks to do just enough to pull out a win.

Whether it was their last-second win over Syracuse in the opening week, a decisive fourth-quarter performance against Vanderbilt last week or Saturday’s 22-13 win over Boston College where their offense, defense and special teams came through in the clutch, the Wildcats’ victories have included some good, some average and some bad.

Being 3-0, Northwestern can’t complain. The Wildcats’ record could easily be flipped. Each game has come down to just a few plays, and Northwestern has succeeded when it has mattered most.

But while the Wildcats have set themselves up to start the season 4-0 with next week’s opponent being South Dakota from the FCS, the Wildcats understand that if they’re going to make some real noise in the Big Ten and have a chance at knocking off such upcoming opponents as Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State, they have to be better.

“I think we got a hungry team,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They have a look in their eye they’re embracing improvement. We’re in no way, shape or form where we want to be quite yet. Mission accomplished: we’ve gone 1-0 three times, and hopefully we continue to embrace getting better.”

Northwestern’s offense encapsulated what delighted and frustrated Fitzgerald in Saturday’s win.

On the one hand, Northwestern compiled 560 yards on 100 plays, threw for 267 yards, ran for 293 yards, reached the red zone five times, had a time of possession of 35:56 and was 12 of 19 on third down.

But on the other, the Wildcats scored just one touchdown and had to settle for five field goals. The Wildcats moved the ball with ease everywhere on the field except when they got inside Boston College’s 20-yard line.

“It was unbelievable ball movement, keeping possession of the ball, putting together great drives, picking up first downs,” Fitzgerald said. “I could keep going on and on and on … time of possession.

[+] EnlargeMike Trumpy
Jerry Lai/US PresswireIt was all field goals for the Wildcats until RB Mike Trumpy finally found the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
“But the end of the day, we got to turn three (points) into seven as we move forward, and we got to finish drives. A lot of the issues we had with drives were self-inflicted, either drops, penalties, not hitting guys who were open.”

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took a brunt of the blame for the offense’s red-zone failures. He even went as far as describing a passing attempt in which he missed a wide-open Christian Jones in the end zone as a “girl throw.”

“We got to go out and execute,” said Colter, who was 16 of 20 for 144 yards. “At the end of the day, we’re 3-0, and we haven’t even nearly played our best football. That’s the encouraging thing. We can go out there play a lot better. I can play a lot better. That’s something to look forward to.”

What has increasingly improved since Week 1 has been Northwestern’s defensive play.

Against Syracuse, the Wildcats’ defense wore down and allowed 28 points in the second half. Syracuse picked up 496 total yards, scored 41 points and was 12 of 20 on third down on the day. They’re the type of numbers that had to put a scare in Northwestern coming off a difficult defensive season in 2011.

But Northwestern’s defense has bounced back. The Wildcats held Vanderbilt to 13 points, 318 total yards and 4 of 15 on third down last week. On Saturday, the Wildcats limited Boston College to 13 points, 316 yards, including 25 rushing yards, and 2 of 11 on third down.

Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo was asked afterward if the fans could get used to the defense being the reason for the Wildcats winning.

“It’s a team game, so whichever one (offense or defense) is doing better we’re going to pick each other up,” Ariguzo said. “They can just get used to us winning.”

That they have through three games.

Miscues undo Syracuse in one-point loss

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
4:37
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Did Keon Lyn get too greedy, or did the officials overreact to Trevor Siemian's timely tumble?

Regardless, Syracuse's 13th and final penalty of the game was ultimately the one that did the Orange in during Saturday's opener at the Carrier Dome, where their 22-point comeback went for naught in a 42-41 loss to Northwestern.

Lyn was charged with a late hit on Siemian, the Wildcats' quarterback, with less than a minute left on a third-and-15 play deep in Syracuse territory. With new life, Siemian hit Demetrius Fields for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds remaining, and Jeff Budzien's extra point accounted for the final and decisive points.

The miscues took away from a monster day by Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib, who set school records with 44 completions (on 64 attempts) and 472 yards passing. He tossed four touchdown passes and one interception, leading Syracuse back from a 35-13 deficit to take a 41-35 lead with 2:40 remaining.

The Wildcats had rattled off 28 unanswered points of their own before the Orange's comeback, but their secondary gave up big play after big play.

Syracuse had 596 yards of total offense to Northwestern's 337, but the Orange turned the ball over three times.

Venric Mark returned a punt 82 yards for a Northwestern touchdown in the first quarter, and Chi Chi Ariguzo recovered a Jerome Smith third-quarter fumble and brought it back 33 yards.

Nassib, whose four touchdown tosses all came in the second half, played exactly how you would expect from a senior. But miscues elsewhere proved too much to overcome for Syracuse, which won't have a chance next week against USC unless it shores up some of those loose ends.

Wildcats optimistic despite recent slide

April, 10, 2012
4/10/12
11:01
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."

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