For the last two years, Northwestern football coach Randy Walker and Wildcats fans everywhere played the waiting game. All that time everyone kept waiting and waiting for the heralded young kids to learn how to win college football games.
Finally there was that "Eureka!" moment at midseason last year. Northwestern shrugged off a 42-17 drubbing to Minnesota at home and won four of its last six regular-season games, including an upset of Wisconsin, to earn a berth in the Motor City Bowl.
Now that the Wildcats have tasted success, they hope to take things to the next level. Every starting offensive and defensive lineman returns, along with many of the top reserves. The days of opponents easily danced through Northwestern's lines on both sides of the ball should be over.
Elsewhere, too, there is plenty of experience. In all, 19 lettermen return on defense, 16 on offense, creating a deep, veteran squad for the first time in three years. "I do think we have solid depth on this team," Walker said. "We haven't lost anybody for two years and we haven't had a lot of seniors the last few years. It was that transition we went through when I came here and those kids had to play before their time."
Now is their time.
OffenseNorthwestern's spread offense carried the Wildcats to their second bowl game in four years under Walker.
But a trip to the Motor City Bowl as the Big Ten's record-setting eighth bowl team was far from where Northwestern hopes to be this fall -- 2,000 miles from where it hopes to be.
"Any bowl is a good bowl, but for us the goal is always Pasadena," senior running back Noah Herron said. "You always set your expectations high."
Herron is a big part of that bowl quest. He will have to make up for the 1,871 yards and 126 points graduated back Jason Wright racked up last year.
Herron, who gained 996 all-purpose yards last year, should get help from reinvigorated quarterback Brett Basanez, a healthy receiving corps and an offensive line that returns its top eight players.
Basanez was the nation's top freshman passer two years ago but slumped last year in the face of constant pressure and few targets. Receivers Mark Philmore and Ashton Aikens suffered season-ending injuries last year but return to the starting lineup. Another returning receiver, Brandon Horn, averaged 28.5 yards per catch.
With all five starters returning on the offensive line, the Wildcats have their deepest unit since the late 1990s. Guard Matt Ulrich and tackle Trai Essex are third-year starters. Tackle Zach Strief and center Trevor Rees are preseason All-Big Ten candidates.
DefenseNorthwestern will rely on a large group of returning starters to reduce the 417.3 yards opponents averaged last season. End Colby Clark leads all Northwestern players with 35 career starts in 36 games the last three years. Luis Castillo and Loren Howard, both two-year starters, are the Wildcats' top playmakers.
Leading tackler Tim McGarigle returns at outside linebacker; Walker calls him the best to play that position under him at Northwestern. John Pickens joins McGarigle as an All-Big Ten candidate. The big question is which of three sophomores will play in the middle.
More experience returns in a secondary that gave up more than 250 yards passing per game. Cornerback Marvin Ward and safety Dominique Price are hard-hitting tacklers. Jeff Backes and Marquice Cole are speedy cornerbacks. Safety Bryan Heinz, a former walk-on, led the unit with five interceptions last year.
"We have a chance to grow on defense," Walker said. "We made a modest improvement and we have to keep climbing."
SpecialistsWalker was not pleased with the kicking game, but the Wildcats will continue to rely on Brian Huffman, who added placekicking duties to his punting duties when Slade Larscheid injured his hip in midseason.
Derell Jenkins, who averaged 17.8 yards per return the final six games of the season, is the frontrunner to return kicks.
Final AnalysisThe questions are fewer this season but still important. Who will replace Wright's offensive production? Will Basanez return to his freshman-year form? Will the offensive and defensive lines live up to expectations? Will the secondary shut down opponents' passing attacks?
Second-tier bowl games are becoming regular occurrences at Northwestern. Now the Wildcats would like to graduate to the next postseason level. To do that, they still have some questions to answer.