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2010 Big Ten football previews: Northwestern (premium)

Posted on 22. Aug, 2010 by in Iowa Football

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By Brendan Stiles

HawkeyeDrive.com

After examining Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Purdue, we now take time to discuss the upcoming 2010 season for the Northwestern Wildcats. Iowa will pay a visit to Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Nov. 13.

Last season might not have started the way Northwestern envisioned. At one point last season, the Wildcats were 4-3 and found itself on the cusp of mediocrity as it trailed Indiana at home, 28-3.

Northwestern found a way to come back and beat the Hoosiers, turning around the entire season. Although they lost the following week to Penn State, the Wildcats and Nittany Lions were tied at 13-13 entering the fourth quarter of that contest.

Then, Northwestern did what many on the outside didn’t see possible by coming to Kinnick Stadium and handing Iowa its first loss of the 2009 season. The Wildcats won their final two games against Illinois and Wisconsin and earned a trip to the 2010 Outback Bowl against Auburn, a game Northwestern ended up giving away in overtime.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 2010 squad has many Wildcat fans thinking about something Northwestern has never done before — go to a third straight bowl game. Looking at this team, there’s no reason to think this won’t happen.

Yes, Northwestern loses a very important player from last season in quarterback Mike Kafka. But his successor, junior Dan Persa, has some experience. In fact, it was Persa filling in for an injured Kafka and leading Northwestern to its monumental win over the Hawkeyes last November.

Although he only completed five passes for 37 yards against Iowa, Persa did throw what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass to Drake Dunsmore, and also rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries. His runs allowed Northwestern to continue moving the chains and thus preserve the upset win.

If Persa can continue getting yards on the ground, defenses will have to respect him as both a runner and passer. He’ll also have the luxury of sophomore running back Arby Fields, who led the Wildcats in rushing with 302 yards rushing and five touchdown runs on 82 carries.

Northwestern’s other big void offensively is at receiver, where it loses two starters from 2009. Its returning leading receiver is the aforementioned Dunsmore. The 6-3 junior playing superback for the Wildcats had 47 receptions for 523 yards last season. His best performance came against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, as Dunsmore caught nine passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Also returning is senior wideout Sidney Stewart, who had 42 receptions for 470 yards. He had two touchdowns in 2009, one in the season finale against Wisconsin, and the other against Auburn. In those two contests, the 6-1 senior had a total of 191 yards receiving on 14 catches.

The good news for Northwestern offensively is up front, as all five starters from last season are back in 2010, with juniors Al Netter at left tackle and Ben Burkett at center leading the way.

Defensively, the Wildcats lose their best player from 2009 in defensive end Corey Wootton, who was picked by the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFL Draft. But they also return a couple of experienced upper-classmen in junior defensive end Vince Browne and senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, both of whom started every game last season.

In 2009, Browne had 39 tackles for Northwestern, as well as five sacks. Meanwhile, Bryant had 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

The Wildcats return their entire linebacking corps, led by senior Quentin Davie, who recorded 90 tackles and five sacks last season. But the secondary is where Northwestern will be breaking in three new starters, including both safety positions.

Senior  Stefan Demos returns after being named second team all-Big Ten in 2009 at kicker. Demos connected on 18-of-25 field goal attempts, while also handling the Wildcats’ punting duties and booming 63 punts for a net average of 35 yards.

Looking at Northwestern’s schedule, I believe the Wildcats should be able to win all their non-conference games, including the two road contests at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4 and at Rice on Sept. 18. If it does go unbeaten in September, that could prove big for the Wildcats entering Big Ten play.

Northwestern, once again, will not play either Michigan or Ohio State in 2010, and the first four Big Ten games are at Minnesota, against Purdue and Michigan State at home with the bye week in-between, and at Indiana.

The challenge for the Wildcats will again be in November, with only one home game (against Iowa on Nov. 13) in the final-third of their regular season. Northwestern was supposed to have a home game with Illinois on Nov. 20, but moved it to Wrigley Field in Chicago. It also has late-season road games at Penn State and Wisconsin, who will be seeking payback for its loss to the Wildcats at Ryan Field last year, a game that may have vaulted Northwestern over Wisconsin for the Big Ten’s spot in the Outback Bowl.

Northwestern proved in 2009 it could finish strong, even if it came up short in its bowl game. If the Wildcats can start strong in 2010, it could potentially be a great season in Evanston. If they struggle out of the gate again, however, those games in November are going to look more challenging.

Northwestern QB Dan Persa

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