By Madeleine Church
The Northwestern Wildcats, the wild card of the Big Ten, had an unpredictable 2011 season, to say the least.
Having lost their first four conference games, they seemed to find their rhythm by early October and showed real promise for a turnaround, rebounding with a four game winning streak.
Hopes ran high that they would finish the season strong, only to end with a disappointing 6-7 record, losing their last two games, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M (Northwestern’s Bowl record fell to 1-9, with their last win coming 62 years ago in the Rose Bowl against Cal).
The end of the 2011 season meant the loss of a 25 person senior class, who became the winningest class in the school’s history with 36 wins.
The 2012 season will see the return of five offensive starters, six defensive starters, and all of the key special teams players. In addition, the Wildcats welcome former USC wide receiver Kyle Prater to the team.
Though there was some speculation about whether or not he would be able to play this season, he received a waiver from the NCAA on the typical one-year wait period that transferring players usually incur and his three-year eligibility status was announced on July 31st.
Though he only saw action in one game in his career at USC, he has the potential to be an important playmaker for the Wildcats if he lives up to his top five prospect rating from the 2010 recruiting class.
As 2011 was quarterback Dan Persa’s senior year, the Wildcats will have to adjust to playing with Persa’s back-up, Kain Colter, as their starting quarterback this season.
Fortunately, Colter saw playing time in all 13 games in 2011 as a quarterback and wide receiver, so the pressure of the position is familiar territory for him. He went 55-82 for 673 yards in passing for six touchdowns and just one interception.
However, given that he lead Northwestern in rush yards last season (654 with 9 touchdowns), running back Mike Trumpy will need to step up after returning from a torn ACL in 2010 and allow Colter to maintain his focus on the quarterback position.
This will be a rebuilding year for the Wildcat defense that will give young players valuable experience for the coming seasons. The 2011 team had a very mediocre season, despite the high number of players returning to the field, they consistently struggled against the pass and that aspect of their game needs significant improvement in 2012.
This year will see a few returning starters to the line and at linebacker, but the only returning starter in the secondary is Ibraheim Campbell, coming off an impressive freshman season, leading the team with 100 tackles and three interceptions.
This off-season Northwestern signed 21 new recruits which, according to the Northwestern Athletics website, is the biggest signing class the Wildcats have seen in head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s six years with the team.
The recruiting class includes ten offensive players, ten defensive players and one long snapper.
Given the number of starters returning to the team this year, Colter’s return from a strong back-up showing in 2011, and the addition of Prater to their roster, the Wildcats show real potential for a successful season. However, the lack of experience on defense, especially in the secondary, could have a big impact on their ability to achieve a winning record.
Though they have a very manageable conference schedule, they will still need to show a lot more consistency on both sides of the football and, given the unfortunate number of season-ending injuries this team has seen over the past few years, the Wildcats should look to develop some real depth on their bench.
That said, I predict the Wildcats will conclude the 2012 regular season with the same record as 2011, 6-6.