Big Ten Spring Football Review: Northwestern

While questions swirled off the field, Pat Fitzgerald's team worked on it to put behind them a disastrous 2013 that spiraled out of control after a loss to Ohio State.

Quick 2013 review:

Northwestern started the season with high hopes that carried them through September 4-0. They led Ohio State in the fourth quarter of their Big Ten opener Oct. 5 before Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde keyed a rally that knocked the Wildcats from the ranks of the unbeaten and send them on a seven-game losing streak. After being hammered by Wisconsin a week later, the Wildcats dropped a pair of three-point games (to Minnesota and Nebraska) and fell twice in overtime (at Iowa and at home against Michigan) before getting spanked by Michigan State 30-6. They finally snapped the losing streak with a 37-34 victory over hapless Illinois, but the Wildcats missed going to a bowl for the first time five years.

The offense, in part limited by injuries to standouts Cain Kolter and Venric Mark, took a step back in 2013. The Wildcats averaged only 26.2 points per game (10th in the Big Ten) and checked in just ninth in the league in rushing and 11th in yards per completion. The defense was no great shakes, either, as Northwestern was 88th nationally and ninth in the Big Ten in total yards allowed, 97th in first downs allowed and 91st in the red zone.

As far as Football Outsiders rankings, the defense gets a reprieve at 56th in S&P+ while showing better against the run (57th) than pass (73). The ratio was similar on standard downs as compared to passing downs, and the unit tended more toward bend-but-try-not-to-break status as it was 104th nationally in first down rate but 26th in preventing explosive drives. The offense looked better in this light, too, checking in 49th in rushing, 35th in passing and 36th on standard downs. The unit struggled on passing downs, though, checking in 80th.

Spring game recap: The Wildcats did not have a spring game.

Issues addressed:

More than anything, Northwestern might have just needed to turn over the calendar as 2013 had the feeling of "one of those years" as it wore on. Just getting back to football was easier said than done, of course, with the issue of potential unionization hanging over their head for much of the spring, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team were able to work on building for 2014 on the field nonetheless.

With the top three pass catchers, the top rusher and all five starters returning on the offensive line, becoming a more explosive unit is a priority this season.

Getting back Mark figures to help in that area, but they hope Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, a former four-star recruit, can also help in that department when he becomes eligible this season.

"He's going to be one heck of a football player for us this fall," Fitzgerald said. "When he first came here and was cleared to participate to practice (last fall) he gained everyones attention on the practice field right away with his speed and overall football knowledge."

Shuler joins a crowded receiver room that loses only one starter from last season and returns Tony Jones and Christian Jones, who combined for 109 catches and 1,298 yards receiving last season.

The passing game also figures to get a boost from senior Trevor Siemian becoming the full-time starter after sharing quarterback duties with Colter the past couple of seasons.

"From what I've seen pretty much since we got back in January to now there is no doubt this is Trevor Siemian's football team," Fitzgerald said. "As this has unfolded, the impact and the influence he has is rock-solidly on the standpoint of trust from his teammates, from the standpoint of his experience and because of his great care and concern for his teammates."

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats lost only two starters, but they were leading tackler Damien Proby at middle linebacker and sack leader Tyler Scott at end.

At MLB, Fitzgerald liked what he saw from senior Collin Ellis, who tied for third on the team with 77 tackles last season.

"He jumped in with both feet and I think where he's at in the spring, he's going to be one hell of a middle linebacker," the coach said. "He's taken over the leadership role on the defense in my opinion, there's no doubt. Based on spring. Now we're going to get some other guys back. But coming out of spring, he's the leader of our defense. And it ain't bad having a Ragin' Cajun with a crazy look in his eye being the leader of his defense."

With four defensive linemen sitting out spring drills following surgeries, Fitzgerald called the defensive line a work in progress.

"I like what the guys did this spring, but there's no way, shape or form that we're ready to make any analysis there," he said.

Follow on Twitter @marcushartman

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