EVANSTON, Ill. – One big hurdle is out of the way. Plenty remain.
Northwestern will try to take the next big step and assert itself as one of the best in the Big Ten on the heels of a bowl victory that ended a drought dating back more than six decades.
Our mentality has definitely changed, running back Venric Mark said. In the past we came in kind of like as an underdog.
While Ohio State is widely viewed as the best in the Big Ten coming off an undefeated season, the Wildcats believe they at least belong in the discussion with the top teams in the conference.
After all, they went 10-3 last season and beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The only other bowl victory for Northwestern was when the 1948 team beat California in the Rose Bowl.
With five straight bowl seasons and that elusive victory in their pocket, the Wildcats believe better days are coming.
Here are five things to watch for as Northwestern heads into the season:
1. Whos the quarterback? Rephrase that. Who are the quarterbacks? Ones named Kain and others Trevor, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Theyre going to play a lot of football for us. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian both played plenty last season, and thats not about to change after Northwestern ranked third in scoring offense. A two-way threat, Colter threw for 872 yards while running for 894 and 12 touchdowns. Siemian, technically the backup QB, threw for 1,312 yards.
2. Who else is back? The Wildcats return eight starters on offense and seven from a defense that ranked third in the conference against the run. They also have their top special-teams players back in Big Ten co-Kicker of the Year Jeff Budzien, punter Brandon Williams and Mark, one of the top return men in the nation last season. He ran back two punts for touchdowns last season and averaged 19.8 yards on kickoff returns. He also became Northwesterns first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006, running for 1,366 yards and 12 TDs. Tyler Scott, who led the Wildcats with nine sacks, is back anchoring the defense along with honorable mention all-conference players Chi Chi Ariguzo (linebacker), Damien Proby (linebacker) and Ibraheim Campbell (safety).
3. Big tests: Northwestern opens at California on Aug. 31, and there arent too many breathers after that. The schedule includes trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska, and at home, they get Ohio State along with Michigan and Michigan State. The goal is to go 1-0 every week and thats how were going to approach each week, Scott said.
4. Thinking big: Big things are happening for the athletic department as a whole, not just Fitzgeralds program. A new lakefront complex that includes facilities for football and other sports is in the works. Theres a new mens basketball coach in Chris Collins. The football team is coming off its first 10-win season since 1995, when Fitzgerald was a linebacker and the Wildcats shocked the nation with a run to the Rose Bowl, and the swagger is noticeable.
5. Closing out the close ones: The Wildcats believe they were only a few plays from an unbeaten season a year ago, and their ability to pull out the close ones could be something to watch this time. They blew a double-digit lead at Penn State. They lost by one to Nebraska at home. The third loss was in overtime, 38-31, at Michigan. We knew what we did last year wasnt enough, Scott said. We had three games that we lost – it was a play here, a play there – that could have changed the outcome. Were really focused on that, and were really focused on that first game at Cal.