Opponent Breakdown: Northwestern

As the 2013 season approaches, will break down each opponent, in an order of what we feel will be the most anticipated games. We've determined that the 8th most anticipated matchup is one of three Big Ten games on the schedule, a meeting at Northwestern.
Northwestern Wildcats
2012 in review
10-3 overall (5-3 Big Ten)
Postseason: Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi St. (W 34-20)
The Wildcats have turned around a program that was once all but left for dead, as a string of solid coaches have built the program into a mid-to-high level Big Ten outfit. Seven of the last eight years, NU has been bowl-eligible.
Another weight was lifted off the program's back last season when they notched an impressive bowl win over Mississippi State of the SEC, the Wildcats' first postseason victory since 1948 (a span of nine straight losses).
While Northwestern still holds Division I FBS' longest losing streak ever at 34 games, those dark days of the 1970s and '80s are long gone. This program looks to be a factor in the Big Ten for years to come.
As mentioned before, Northwestern has had a string of successful coaches. In his eighth season as the head man, NU alum Pat Fitzgerald (50-39) has reached new heights of consistency.
Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker for the Wildcats and a member of the 1995 team that made a magical run to the Rose Bowl. He's had plenty of success (including five straight bowl appearances) and has undoubtedly received plenty of interest from other schools, but appears more than happy to stay at his alma mater for the long haul.
Passing Game
Key departures: WR Demetrius Fields (305 yd, 1 TD)
Key returnees: QB Kain Colter (67.8%, 872 yd, 8 TD/4 INT), QB Trevor Siemian (58.7%, 1312 yd, 6 TD/3 INT), WR Christian Jones (412 yd, 2 TD), WR Tony Jones (335 yd, 4 TD), WR Rashad Lawrence (321 yd)
Some have called last year's NU passing game weak, but the truth is that it was a sneakily efficient attack that simply was not called upon to rack up the yardage in this offense. Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter split time in the spread attack, and between the two threw just 367 times for 2184 yards and 14 TDs. While NU will look to increase their yards per pass attempt (just under 6 in 2012), it was still a stretch to call the passing game a weakness.
Look for Colter, a senior, to take more of the reps at QB this fall. A do-it-all type of player, the 6-foot, 190 pounder racked up 872 yards passing, 894 rushing and 169 receiving with 20 total touchdowns in 2012. That's not to say there won't be room for the junior Siemian, a more traditional passer, to see plenty of action as Colter moves around the field. But this is more of Colter's offense in 2013.
Receivers remain a bit of a question mark, as nobody really stepped into the spotlight last season. This could be spun into a positive as four of the top five pass-catchers return from a group that really spread the wealth, but the fact is that the quarterbacks could benefit from having a go-to target step up-- particularly a deep threat, which was very much absent last fall.
Look for Rashad Lawrence, a senior whose production has steadily risen since playing as a true freshman, to possibly be that guy this fall for the Wildcats.
Running Game
Key departures: LG Brian Mulroe, LT Pat Ward, RG Neil Deiters
Key returnees: RB Venric Mark (1,366 yd, 6.0 ypc, 12 TD), QB Kain Colter (894 yd, 5.3 ypc, 12 TD), RB Mike Trumpy (368 yd, 4.6 ypc, 3 TD)
Northwestern may remind some Mid-American Conference fans of Kent State on offense, with a speedy, shifty back (Venric Mark) and a bigger bruiser (Mike Trumpy). Of course, Mark carries a bigger every-down load than KSU's Dri Archer, and the Wildcats also add a dangerous running quarterback to the mix with Kain Colter.
All of this came together last season for over 225 rushing yards per game, good for 19th in the nation. Mark heads into his senior year as one of the most touted running backs in the conference and possibly the nation.
It seems unlikely that this ground attack can be slowed down with so much talent returning. With a focus on improving the passing game as well, a bit more balanced attack could make the rushing game even more prone to breaking big plays.
If anything could throw a wrench in these plans, it's the potential holes in the offensive line. Three departing linemen combined for 95 career starts, and the entire left side of the unit must be replaced.
Brandon Vitabile is an all-conference candidate at center and the up-tempo 'Cats offense allowed for plenty of backups to gain experience, but the fact is that the same five started each game in 2012 and this group will be far less proven.
Run Defense
NU did a very fine job shutting down opposing ground games in 2012, though there are question marks along the defensive line in particular. Starting tackle Brian Arnfelt and end Quentin Williams depart, although an impressive amount of depth returns. Former four star recruits and redshirt freshmen Ifeadi Odenigbo (DE) and Greg Kuhar (DT) look to make their presence felt this year.
Look for Kuhar in particular to push junior Chance Carter (10 tackles) for playing time as the season goes on. All in all, this is still an undersized line particularly on the interior, which puts some extra pressure on the linebackers to make plays in the run game.
Luckily for NU, standout 'backers Damien Proby (93 tackles) and Chi Chi Ariguzo (73.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4 FR) return to head what should be a solid unit. The running games of opponents are still likely to be less of a concern than their aerial assaults.
Pass Defense
There is good news on this front for Northwestern. While the back end of the Wildcat defense is arguably the weakest portion of this team, the pass rush should be improved this fall as sack leader Tyler Scott (9) returns. Dean Lowry picked up three sacks in his limited playing time at defensive end and may in fact be an upgrade as a rusher over the departed Quentin Williams.
Some onus will be on LB Chi Chi Ariguzo to improve on his three sacks from 2012, while the aforementioned Ifeadi Odenigbo could be a real threat as a redshirt freshman. A true speed rusher at 220 pounds, Odenigbo may be an X factor for a defense that often struggled on passing downs.
NU is banking on this somewhat, as they do lose a starting safety (Jared Carpenter) and corner (Quinn Evans) from a sometimes-shaky defensive backfield. Ibraheim Campbell returns after leading the secondary in tackles (74) and passes defended (12), and the junior will continue to be relied upon heavily.
Look for sophomore Nick VanHoose to step into the top cornerback role after a solid freshman campaign that saw his playing time steadily rise and included three picks, seven passes defended and three fumble recoveries.
The main issue for Northwestern is the depth of this defense outside of the defensive line. That may not be what Wildcat fans want to hear. After all, the 'Cats lost three games in which they held double-digit leads late into the second half-- and went 10-3 for the year. They'll have to find some more quality depth this year to avoid wearing down late again.
Special Teams
Special teams should once again be a positive in Evanston. Punt coverage (despite average punting distance from Brandon Williams), punt returns and placekicking were stellar in 2012. With stellar kicker Jeff Budzien (19-of-20 FGs) returning, and Venric Mark set to return punts again, that shouldn't change.
Mark, in particular, is a game-changer at this position. In 15 chances, he averaged almost 19 yards per return and took two to the house. That didn't translate so well to kick returning, where he only picked up 19.8 yards on average, but he still has to be considered a threat with the ball in his hands.
Kick coverage was neither a strength nor a weakness for the Wildcats, rounding out a solid special teams unit that has a chance to be great in 2013.
Overall Outlook
Northwestern was a sneaky-good team in 2012. While their numbers don't jump off the page at you, even their conference mark at 5-3, this team was shockingly close to running the table when you consider their late leads over Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State.
With the amount of talent returning, there's no reason to believe there will be a major dropoff. It's hard to call the Wildcats' schedule "favorable" in 2013, but the ability is certainly there to make some noise-- and perhaps even a darkhorse run at a Legends Division title.
An early date with Ohio State looms large. A win there is unlikely, but it is at Evanston, so there's a fighting chance for NU. If they pulled that game off, a split with Nebraska and Michigan would give the 'Cats a solid shot to play in the conference title game.
NU's clash with Western Michigan comes in Week 3, between home dates with Syracuse and Maine. At this early stage, this does not look like a favorable matchup for the Broncos. Beyond the fact that the Wildcats look to be a possible contender in the Big Ten, their offensive strength lines up directly against what has recently been WMU's biggest weakness-- spread rushing defense.
That said, some hope is lent to WMU given Northwestern's recent struggles in putting away MAC opponents. Despite solid teams, the Wildcats have played close games against Central Michigan (2010), Eastern Michigan (2009), Miami (2009) and Ohio (2008) in recent years. Each game finished within ten points.
Northwestern did not face a MAC opponent in 2011 or 2012.
Bold Prediction
It's way too early to even begin to predict specific results for games, but will, almost as ridiculously, predict certain events in each game this fall.
Northwestern will get their yards and points in this one, but WMU will also find some offensive success against a fairly questionable NU secondary. Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen records his second 300 yard passing game of the year to go along with his performance vs. Nicholls.
Follow BroncoBlitz on Facebook and Twitter!