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NORTHWESTERN'S 2011 SEASON BEGAN WITH GREAT PROMISE: There was a ballyhooed Heisman campaign for quarterback Dan Persa, talk of a Big Ten title run and real hope that the Wildcats would win their first bowl game since 1949. Then those dreams got sacked—often literally. As if impersonating turnstiles, the offensive line allowed an eye-popping 42 sacks, the fifth most in the country and a main reason the team finished 6--7. Northwestern surrendered an average of 1.2 sacks in wins and 5.0 in losses, with a season-high eight coming in a 33--22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
This fall, just like the offensive linemen, the entire program is focused on getting back on the right foot. "We're not [just] hoping to win," says coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We expect to take the next step and compete for championships." If that's to happen, the Wildcats will need to keep junior quarterback Kain Colter upright. But can the returning offensive line nucleus—two seniors, guard Brian Mulroe and tackle Patrick Ward, and sophomore center Brandon Vitabile—change its ways for the better? "We had issues with consistency [in 2011]," admits Ward, who moves from right to left tackle. "It was mostly a breakdown in our fundamentals. ... It comes down to the most basic thing: footwork. You can accomplish a lot just by having your body in front of a defender." Better blocking would not only help give Colter time to find receivers such as senior Demetrius Fields, but it also could help spring runners such as promising sophomore Treyvon Green.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern's primary concern is its pass defense. In 2011 the root of the problem was the exact opposite of the offense's: a paucity of sacks. The defensive front generated a conference-low 17, and another poor season could doom a secondary that has only one returning starter, sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell. "When we didn't get to the quarterback, we hung our secondary out to dry," Fitzgerald says. "We need to create more pressure."
The Wildcats have lost four straight bowl games, and their last Big Ten title came 12 years ago. And yet, says Fitzgerald, "we're a lot closer than people outside the program are going to give us credit for." Perhaps they are only a few well-placed feet away.
COACH Pat Fitzgerald (7th year) 40--36 (21--27 in Big Ten)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Mick McCall
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Mike Hankwitz
2011 RECORD 6--7 (3--5, 5th in Legends Division)