Northwestern Wildcats Preview
  2012 SEASON IN REVIEW:The Wildcats finished the 2012 season ranked 17th in the nation and, most importantly, won a bowl game for the first time in a 64- year stretch dating back to the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Included among their 10 wins were two against SEC bowl teams (Vanderbilt, Mississippi State). However, only a few key plays separated Northwestern from an undefeated season. The three losses came on the road against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, and the Wildcats held fourth-quarter leads in each of those contests.

Still, the team has plenty to build on entering a promising 2013 campaign. After all, NU went bowling for the fifth straight season and finally snapped a drought of nine straight postseason losses with a 34-20 triumph over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

"We're not satisfied with just going to Bowl games anymore," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Day. "That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a (bowl) game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships."

A31 at California
S 7 vs. Syracuse
S14 vs. Western Michigan
S21 vs. Maine
S28 Open
O 5 vs. Ohio State
O12 at Wisconsin
O19 vs. Minnesota
O26 at Iowa
N 2 at Nebraska
N 9 Open
N16 vs. Michigan
N23 vs. Michigan State
N30 at Illinois
QB Kain Colter
RB Venric Mark
SB Dan Vitale
WR Christian Jones
WR Tony Jones
WR Rashad Lawrence
OL Jack Konopka
OL Brandon Vitabile

DE Tyler Scott
DT Sean McEvilly
LB Chi Chi Ariguzo
LB Damien Proby
CB Daniel Jones
CB Nick VanHoose
S Ibraheim Campbell

K Jeff Budzien
P Brandon Williams

OFFENSE:Former quarterback Dan Persa suffered an injury early on last season, and the offense was slow to recover. The silver lining behind that injury is that this year's quarterback, dual-threat junior Kain Colter (6-0, 190), got some all-important game action. In addition to his limited but promising passing numbers (673 yards, 67 percent comp., six TDs, one INT), Colter also led the squad in rushing (654 yards, nine TDs) and finished third with 43 catches for 466 yards and another three scores. He no doubt has the athleticism to exploit Big Ten defenses, the question now is whether he has the passing tools to run NU's spread offense with consistency.

While the team lost a pair of All-Big Ten receivers, the returnees are a deep and talented bunch capable of carrying the torch. Keep an eye out for speedy sophomore Tony Jones (6-0, 185), who is back after missing all of last year with a knee injury.

The Wildcats don't have a bell cow in the backfield, but sophomore Treyvon Green and junior Mike Trumpy figure to garner the most touches in a committee approach. The team also faces some turnover along the offensive line.

DEFENSE:Defensively, the Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense (27.7 ppg) and 11th in total defense (407.7 ypg) last year.

Senior defensive end Quentin Williams (6-4, 255) is coming off a three-sack season and will anchor the line, but redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson (6-3, 240), who was a sack machine in high school, could work his way into the rotation.

The team is deep and experienced at linebacker, led by senior David Nwabuisi (6-1, 240), who has played multiple positions and racked up 84 tackles and a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss in 2011.

The secondary has undergone a massive overhaul after graduating three starters, including ball-hawking safety Brian Peters. Safety Ibraheim Campbell (5-11, 205) is back after pacing the squad with 100 tackles last year as a freshman, and the coaching staff believes he will be stronger in coverage with a year under his belt.

SPECIAL TEAMS:The return game is in good hands with junior Venric Mark, who averaged nearly 16 yards on punt returns and 23 yards on kickoffs.

Former blue-chip recruit Jeff Budzien was just 6-of-10 on field goals last year, but it looks as if he'll continue to hold down the job. Punter Brandon Williams is also back after averaging 40.8 yards per punt a year ago. The special teams coaches spent a chunk of preseason camp working on Williams' directional punting.

OUTLOOK:While more than half of last year's starters are back for 2012, NU also has some holes to fill. Considering how the 2011 campaign unfolded, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as coach Fitzgerald recruited the program's best class in recent history and will give the newcomers plenty of looks.

By all indications, Colter is more than capable of guiding the offense. But does he have enough of a supporting cast? On the other side of the ball, opposing offenses will surely test the secondary early and often.

The schedule is quite manageable early in the season, but Fitzgerald is taking nothing for granted.

"We've got a very difficult schedule this year," Fitzgerald cautioned. "We're the only team that's going to play three BCS-level teams in the non- conference."

Talent-wise, the Wildcats don't quite match up with the Big Ten powerhouses -- at least on paper. A fifth consecutive bowl berth would be quite an accomplishment for the program. Then again, simply getting in the door no longer generates quite as much buzz, considering NU's nine straight bowl losses are tied for the longest bowl losing streak of all-time. A 10th straight bowl loss would almost certainly thwart any momentum Fitzgerald has built.

By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor

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