Certainly watching the ‘Cats play Saturday was a different experience for me, but quickly it was evident that NU football in 2012 is going to be very similar to that of 2010 and 2011.
Despite losing quarterback Dan Persa, receiver Jeremy Ebert, and tight end Drake Dunsmore who combined for much of the Wildcats offense the last few years, the weapons on offense are abundant and effective. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were both able to move the offense with consistency, and while it is not clear which one of them will take the first snap the rest of the season, the one-two punch of these two different style quarterbacks is going to be very difficult for any defense to stop this season.
The skilled positions shined across the board Saturday as six different members of the deep receiving core caught passes led by the strong senior leader Demetrius Fields and his eight catches for 83 yards and game-winning touchdown.
Venric Mark, who displayed great playmaking abilities last year, has picked up where he left off, returning a first-quarter punt return for a score and 84 hard-earned yards from his new position at tailback. Northwestern's spread attack is a true system, which year after year continues to plug new players into familiar roles.
Another staple of NU football recently, unfortunately, has been a poor pass defense. Not only did the ‘Cats give up 470 yards over the air, a majority of these yards came through explosion plays reminiscent of last year's second half struggles against Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana.
Throughout the offseason, the rhetoric coming out of both coaches and players reflected the sentiment that the 2011 problems in the secondary were caused by mental errors and missed assignments. These problems either still have not been cleaned up or there exists a larger issue with defensive scheme or personnel.
As a former defensive lineman I feel compelled to comment on the d-line play, which not only was a bright spot at times Saturday, but with young talent emerging, all signs point to this being a talented group for the foreseeable future. The pass rush although not consistent provided timely pressure including effective rushes on the final drive of the game by emerging star Tyler Scott and freshman Dean Lowry. Certainly more pressure up front throughout the game will help solve some of the problems out back in the secondary.
As many close to college football will tell you, the biggest improvement happens between week one and two of the season, and I fully expect this to be true for this year's Northwestern team. Coach Fitz, although thrilled to go into the hostile Carrier Dome and escape with victory, will certainly be at an even further elevated sense of urgency to sure up many of the problems that plagued Northwestern Saturday.
If the offense continues to keep opposing defenses on their heels and the defense can clean up some of its issues, NU will be poised to compete for a Legends Division title this season.
It cannot be overlooked how important a victory like this was for this year's squad, and as someone who is now outside the meeting rooms at the Nicolet Football Center in Evanston, I can enjoy this win for much longer than the NU staff will allow its players.