SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Northwestern Wildcats

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Randy Walker (5th year, 18-28)
2002 record: 3-9
Big Ten finish: T-10th
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 157.0 ypg
(8th in Big Ten, 53rd in nation)
Pass: 232.0 ypg (5th, 45th)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 313.6 ypg (11th, 117th)
Pass: 188.8 ypg (2nd, 29th)
Projected Starters
Offense (6 returning starters in bold)
WR   80   Kunle Patrick   Sr.  
WR  Ashton Aikens  Jr. 
WR  Mark Philmore  So. 
LT   76   Trai Essex   Jr.  
LG   64   Matt Ulrich   Jr.  
77  Carl Matejka  Sr. 
RG  65  Bill Newton  Jr. 
RT   63   Zach Strief   So.  
TE  Ray Bogenrief  Sr. 
QB   14   Brett Basanez   So.  
RB   18   Jason Wright   Sr.  
Defense (6)
DE  96  Greg Lutzen  So. 
DT   94   Luis Castillo   Jr.  
DT   97   Colby Clark   Jr.  
DE   66   Loren Howard   So.  
SLB   51   John Pickens   Jr.  
MLB  49  Doug Szymul  Sr. 
WLB   41   Tim McGarigle   So.  
CB  28  Jeff Backes  So. 
CB  20  Marquice Cole  So. 
S   8   Dominique Price   Jr.  
29  Torri Stuckey  Sr. 
Special Teams
15  Slade Larscheid  Fr. 
99  Brian Huffman  Jr. 
KR  18  Jason Wright  Sr. 
PR  80  Kunle Patrick  Sr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  at Kansas 
Sept. 6  Air Force 
Sept. 13  Miami (OH) 
Sept. 20  at Duke 
Sept. 27  at Ohio State 
Oct. 4  Minnesota 
Oct. 11  at Indiana 
Oct. 25  Wisconsin 
Nov. 1  at Purdue 
Nov. 8  Penn State 
Nov. 15  Michigan 
Nov. 22  at Illinois 
Northwestern had a big problem during the 2002 season that consumed most of the Wildcats' offseason attention. It's called defense.

Since coach Randy Walker arrived at Northwestern, the Wildcats have put on an impressive offensive display -- averaging 29.5 points per game since 2000 -- but a meek defensive stand. Last year Northwestern had the second-worst defense in the nation, allowing 502 yards and 41 points per game.

Get the scoreboard warmed up again this year when Northwestern takes the field. The spread offense Walker started running three years ago still has no consistent antidote.

This year, the Wildcats hope to turn some of those 50-point performances into wins instead of close losses. Whether Northwestern can reverse two years of losing will be up to the defense.

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

When quarterback Brett Basanez and running back Jason Wright get together in Northwestern's spread offense, you don't want to miss the show.

Despite missing two games with a broken leg, Basanez still led the Big Ten in total offense during the regular season and led all freshmen nationwide in passing yardage last year. Meanwhile, Wright topped that by finishing among the nation's leaders in all-purpose, kickoff return and rushing yardage. He fumbled once in 219 carries.

With those two leading the way, the dozen or so other skill players will have to compete for time and touches. Speed is all over the place, starting with backup quarterbacks Alexander Webb and Derell Jenkins and backup running backs Noah Herron and Terrell Jordan. Three-year starter Kunle Patrick, who has a 34-game reception streak, leads a deep and talented receiving corps.

The only true concern on offense is who will replace four-year starting center and team leader Austin King. Several players tried out for the job this spring, but no one was particularly impressive. Returning starters Trai Essex and Matt Ulrich, along with Zach Strief, a three-game starter in '02, will have to carry the load early on.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

Injuries and inexperience were the two culprits on defense last year. At least the experience part should be fixed.

All seven underclassmen who played significant time along the defensive line return, led by third-year starting tackle Colby Clark and end Loren Howard. At linebacker, team leader Pat Durr returns after missing the majority of the 2002 season with a torn ACL. In Durr's absence, a host of underclassmen earned playing time, led by Doug Szymul, John Pickens, Ryan Peterson and three sophomores.

In the secondary, four experienced returnees will combine with three converted running backs. With such a deep roster of experienced linemen and linebackers, Walker hopes to be as creative defensively as the Wildcats are offensively.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Brian Huffman, who ranked third in the Big Ten in punting last year, faces three challengers for the placekicker job. Wright and cornerback Jeff Backes formed the nation's sixth-best kick-return duo last year. Patrick will handle punt returns.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

There are plenty of excuses floating around Evanston for what happened on defense last year -- mostly injuries and youth. This year, as spring practices opened, excuses were out of vogue. The Wildcats welcome back 16 of 22 starters from last year and still have just 10 seniors on the roster.

"We weren't a good football team last year," Walker said. "It doesn't matter if we were young or we had injuries, we have to get better. But the silver lining in that dark cloud is that we played a lot of kids who are going to be here two or three years. It's amazing what a winter and growing up can do for you."

If the defense does its part against a schedule that features seven opponents who went to bowl games last year, the Wildcats may be able to terminate their lease on the Big Ten basement.

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