QUICK LOOK BACK: The Wildcats finished a 9-4 season with an electrifying loss to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. It ended with a thud, but it was still their best finish in more than a decade. This was less the spread fireworks of Randy Walker’s teams than it was running and tackling that you’d expect from former all-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald’s team. Fitzgerald has arrived as a coach.
The offense lost all of its stats leaders. The defense returns leading tackler (safety Brad Phillips 109), sacker (end Corey Wootton 10) and interceptor (Phillips and CB Jordan Mabin three each).
Consider the Iowa-Northwestern rivalry stoked. The Wildcats topped Iowa in Iowa City, but in December, the Hawkeyes and their traveling band of merry fans nudged NU out of the Outback Bowl. This erupted in a spirited debate over at the Hlog. The rivalry heats up again Nov. 11 in Iowa City.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Quarterback Mike Kafka was pushed into action late last season and led the Wildcats to a victory at Minnesota. He’s game, but can he throw the ball? He threw only 46 times last season and was intercepted three times. He did complete 69.5 percent of his passes, but will he be consistently accurate when he’s “the guy.” DE Corey Wootton was a fabulous performer, picking up 10 sacks and beating the Hawkeyes with a few late pressures. He suffered a torn ACL late in the season and it remains to be seen if he’ll return to form.
THIRD DOWN — STRENGTHS: The Wildcats’ O-line returns four starters, including left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett. This showed up in the spring game. NU’s three running backs — Jeravin Matthews, Alex Daniel and Stephen Simmons — ran wild, combining for 207 yards and four TDs. Tackle Desmond Taylor and guard Doug Bartels also return.
Matthews, a 5-11, 170-pounder, is a converted wide receiver who brings wide receiver speed to the position. He rushed for a team-high 90 yards in the spring. He was one of only two true frosh to play last season. Earned stripes as a special teamer last year, specifically as kick return specialist.
SECOND DOWN — THE TALK: “After losing Tyrell (Sutton) and Omar (Conteh), I’m really pleased with the way our running backs stepped up this spring. All three guys really made some good progress the past four weeks and I’m encouraged where we’re headed with that group this fall.” — NU coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“We brought a whole new outlook to Northwestern, so teams are going to be coming with their ‘A’ game against us.” — sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin told ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg.
FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: The Wildcats will be strong on defense. They return all four starters in the secondary, including Phillips — a player Iowa fans know as the guy who knocked Shonn Greene silly and caused a fumble that pretty much won the Iowa-NU game last fall. If Wootton returns to form, expect this to be in the same league as the defenses that Fitzgerald led to the top of the Big Ten in the ’90s. The defense is going to have to carry things early. Kafka might be the real deal, but his resume is short and NU is sorting through things at WR. The O-line is a great place to start for any offense. The ‘Cats have experience there.