2008 Big Ten Football Season Preview: Northwestern
Aug. 21, 2008
Northwestern enters the 2008 football season looking to get back to the postseason after finishing 6-6 last year. Pat Fitzgerald returns for his third year and welcomes back 47 letterwinners, which is the most for the Wildcats since 1992. Of those 47 returnees, NU brings back 19 starters, including eight on offense and seven on defense.
Northwestern boasts seven home games for the second straight season and does not play Penn State and Wisconsin this year. The Wildcats open the 2008 campaign in Evanston against Syracuse and play five of its first seven contests at home. They will be looking for wins early and often to start the season as the "final quarter" of their season is loaded with Big Ten contenders. Following a Nov. 1 road trip to Minnesota, NU hosts Ohio State, travels to Michigan and returns home to face Illinois to close out the regular season.
OFFENSE: Northwestern returns several key components to its high-powered offense that ranked 32nd nationally last season with 427.7 yards of total offense. Fifth-year quarterback C.J. Bachér threw for 304.7 yards per outing and racked up 307.3 yards of total offense last year, both of which ranked first in the conference and 10th and 12 in the country, respectively. Five of the Wildcats' six leading receivers from 2007 return to field balls from Bachér, including seniors Eric Peterman (744 yards, 3 TD) and Ross Lane (649 yards, 7 TD). Lane was also the team's big-play wideout as he tallied 13.2 yards per catch in 2007. Senior Rasheed Ward (434 yards) will also be a primary target in the passing game. Senior tailback Tyrell Sutton enters his final season at Northwestern as the Big Ten's leading active rusher and third all-time in NU yards (2,996), fourth in all-purpose yards (3,943) and fifth in career rushing touchdowns (25). Last year Sutton played in only five full games and saw limited time in two other contests due to injury. Filling his role and back for another year is senior Omar Conteh. As a junior Conteh ran for 447 yards and five touchdowns. Senior guard Joel Belding and junior tackle Kurt Mattes return to the offensive line and will anchor the right side. They will also be forced to mentor three newcomers in the trenches in Al Netter (LT), Keegan Kennedy (LG) and Ben Burkett (C).
DEFENSE: Northwestern boasts an impressive and experienced returning defensive unit as the 2008 season will feature seven veterans and only one new linebacker and cornerback. Senior tackle John Gill will anchor the line that features all four starters from a year ago. Gill recorded 50 tackles and 8.5 TFLs last season. He will be joined by juniors Adam Hahn (RT) and Corey Wootton (LE) and senior Kevin Mims (RE). Senior linebackers Prince Kwateng and Malcolm Arrington are back and will both be in charge of bringing sophomore Quentin Davie up to speed. Junior safeties Brad Phillips ('07: 55 tackles) and Brad Smith return to their starting roles in the secondary along with junior cornerback Sherrick McManis (75 tackles). Sophomore Justan Vaughn is expected to fill the other cornerback position. NU will be looking for new tackle leaders as Adam Kadela (125) and Reggie McPherson (78) combined for over 200 stops to lead the team last year and have since graduated.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior placekicker Amado Villarreal, who made 12-of-18 field goals last season, returns for his final year along with sophomore Stefan Demos at punter. Demos ranked sixth in the Big Ten in 2007 with an average of 41.0 yards per punt. McManis and Peterman return to their starting roles as kick and punt returner, respectively. NU was fourth in the conference last year with 22.4 yards every kickoff return, but managed only 6.3 return yards per punt.
MISCELLANEOUS: In the last 13 years, only four schools -- Michigan (8-3), Ohio State (8-1), Penn State (7-3) and Purdue (8-4) -- have managed winning records against NU and all except for Penn State are on the 2008 schedule. * The 2007 season marked the second straight campaign Northwestern finished in the nation’s top 10 for fewest penalties per game (4.9). In 2006, the Wildcats led the nation in that category. * NU boasts two new coordinators in 2008 as Mick McCall will call the shots on the offensive side and Mike Hankwitz will handle the defensive unit.