The Land of Lincoln Rivalry was the last test on Northwestern's regular season schedule. After a convincing win, it's on to the postseason. What follows is our final thoughts on the Wildcats' victory, along with some analysis on the final weekend of Big Ten play and a brief preview of next week's championship game.
Bright Future for Northwestern’s Linebackers
By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The linebacking corps has been the driving force behind the semi-revival of Northwestern’s defense this season. From David Nwabuisi to Damien Proby to Chi Chi Ariguzo, the unit has played with excellent consistency, forging a stable link between the oft-shaky secondary and defensive line and offering constant leadership and guidance for an overall young defense. In Saturday’s win over Illinois, the linebackers faced a bit of adversity when junior MLB Damien Proby left the game in the first half with an ankle injury. Proby didn’t return, and in most years, that would be a major problem. Not with this group. Redshirt freshman Drew Smith stepped right in and allowed minimal dropoff. The switch was almost seamless; next man up, no problem.
That exchange provides a window into the current state of the Wildcats’ linebacking corps and what you can expect from the group next season. David Nwabuisi, who Saturday recorded an interception for the second consecutive week, is the only starter lost to graduation. Northwestern brings back Proby, Smith and sophomores Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Losing Nwabuisi hurts, but as we witnessed yesterday with Smith filling in for the injured Proby, this is a deep unit built for the long haul. What’s more, none of these guys need to be pigeonholed into one spot; they can all play both in the middle and the outside. With highly touted class of 2013 recruits Anthony Walker and Brett Walsh coming in next season, the linebackers are getting stronger for the future.
The current group of linebackers is arguably the best of Fitzgerald’s tenure, but the future isn’t any less promising. I guess we shouldn’t act so surprised – Pat Fitzgerald, after all, was a two-time All-American linebacker himself. He takes pride in fielding an elite group at that position.
Lack of Injuries Remarkable for Northwestern's Run Game
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Kain Colter and Venric Mark have been banged up a few times this year — "bumps and bruises," as Pat Fitzgerald would say. However, the NU run game has largely been able to avoid injuries this season, which has been possibly the most remarkable accomplishment of the year. Running backs are tough to keep healthy in any situation because they take on so much contact, just ask Iowa and AIRBHG. However, the fact that Colter and Mark have managed to stay relatively healthy all season is even more remarkable. Mark is only (a generous) 5-f00t-8 and 175 pounds, and he has carried the ball 213 times (for 1,310 yards) this year. That kind of workload is incredible for a back his size, and the hits he has taken have been vicious. There are a number of times this year when I saw him get hit and said, "There's no way he's getting up." Yet he bounces right back up every time.
Colter has taken his share of hits, as well, and he pretty much refuses to slide unless he has already gained all the yardage possible on that play. There is no way this team could have been 9-3 without a dominant running game, and without Colter or Mark — much less both — for a majority of the season, NU could have been looking at a Texas bowl game for a third straight season rather than a middle-to-top tier game in Florida. With so many pieces returning on offense, NU has the potential to be a very good team and challenge for a Big Ten Championship in 2013. However, with success there is always some luck involved, and for NU to reach its potential next year, the Wildcats will need similar luck to this year with regard to their lack of injuries in the run game.
Leaders Are Followers
By Chris Johnson
I was never totally on board with the Big Ten’s division names. Legends and Leaders? It feels too plastic, too cliché. And after this season’s debacle in the Leaders, it feels downright out of touch. The two “Leaders” in this year’s Leaders division, Penn State (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) and Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten), are both ineligible for the postseason. Both have shown over the course of this season that they are, by all accounts, the best the division has to offer. But thanks to NCAA penalties, neither will be rewarded for their remarkable success with postseason games. Instead, Wisconsin will in the Big Ten Title Game for a shot at the Rose Bowl.
The Badgers are a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, far less imposing than Ohio State and slightly worse than Penn State. By default, they have a prime opportunity to go down as this year’s Rose Bowl representative, a prestigious honor no matter the fluky confluence of events needed to get there. This is exactly the type of situation Jim Delaney wanted to avoid – an underachieving team competing for his league’s flagship postseason event. If Wisconsin beats Nebraska in the league title game, the Badgers will have earned their spot in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no doubt it’ll be a bad look for the league.
Which brings me back to Big Ten media days, when Fitzgerald suggested the Big Ten use a selection committee to account for the division imbalance in this year’s league race. The committee would convene at the end of the season to choose the two teams most deserving of playing in the league championship game, irrespective of division. It was a sensible solution to preempt unfavorable situations like the Badgers, a middling squad, reaching the title game unfairly while more qualified teams from the other division don’t get the same opportunity. The idea may have seemed radical at the time, but in hindsight, Fitzgerald’s selection plan might have been the perfect resolution to the Big Ten’s inter-divisional competitive disconnect.
Will Beckman Last Through the Offseason?
by Kevin Trahan
Sunday was National Fire Your Coach Day in college football, which is otherwise known as the day after the end of the regular season each year. Purdue's Danny Hope, Auburn's Gene Chizik and NC State's Tom O'Brien were among those fired on Sunday, joining Tennessee's Derek Dooley and Kentucky's Joker Phillips as the most prominent firings this season. There are likely more to come, and I couldn't help but wonder, will one of those be Illinois' Tim Beckman? Coaches are disposed of at an unbelievable rate these days — Chizik was two years removed from a National Championship — and I believe that coaches deserve at least three years to try to get things together. However, I wouldn't be shocked if Beckman were fired after just one year in Champaign.
The Illini went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten this year, with their two wins coming against Western Michigan and Charleston Southern. The season spiraled out of control once Big Ten play came around, as Illinois lost by scores of 35-7, 31-14, 45-0, 31-17, 52-22, and 50-14. Beckman's team wasn't expected to win the Big Ten, but there was certainly talent in Champaign — especially on defense — and Illinois looked like a bowl team in the preseason. Instead, the Illini were an undisciplined mess, and that was evident in their embarrassing blowout loss to Northwestern on Saturday to end the season. I get the sense that Beckman will get to hang around in Champaign, and maybe he'll turn things around. But if there were ever a coach that didn't deserve more time to fix things, Beckman certainly fits the bill.
Around the Big Ten – Recapping The Three Top Games From the Weekend That Was
By Chris Johnson
Ohio State 26, Michigan 21 – The culmination of Urban Meyer’s incredible first season at the helm came Saturday, when Ohio State regained control of the annual hate fest known as The Game, the rivalry that spans three centuries and produces endless drama and flair, by finishing off their perfect season with a strong defensive effort and another efficient performance from quarterback Braxton Miller. One interesting note: Denard Robinson, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate (lest we forget), carried 10 times for 122 yards in what may go down as the most important performance of his Michigan career. Why? Robinson, for all his dual-threat exploits at quarterback, will never make it under center at the next level. Nice to see him go out on a personal high note.
Michigan State 26, Minnesota 10 – If there’s one thing we know about this Michigan State team, it’s that its defense is one of the best in the country and probably the best in the Big Ten. The unit was at its best in a desperation game Saturday at Minnesota, when the Spartans needed a win on the final week of the season to secure bowl eligibility. As it has all season, Michigan State leaned on running back Le’Veon Bell for the bulk of its offensive production. After his 35-carry, 266-yard performance Saturday, Bell finished the regular season with a whopping 350 carries and 1,648 yards. For a team who carried legitimate BCS aspirations into the season, finishing 6-6 and clinching bowl eligibility in the final week of the year was not exactly the outcome it had in mind. Still, credit to the Spartans for not laying down as their season spiraled into mediocrity.
Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21 – My above lament on the Big Ten championship game selection injustice fails to mention that Wisconsin suffered three of its five losses in overtime games. So perhaps the Badgers aren’t quite as bad as their record suggests. Wisconsin found itself on the wrong end of another overtime result in its final preparation before the conference championship game, as Penn State capped its remarkable success story with a 24-21 OT win on a Sam Ficken 37-yd field goal – the same Sam Ficken who missed four field goals in the Lions’ week 2 loss to Virginia. Ohio State is the Leaders Division’s (and the Big Ten’s) best team, but Penn State’s eight-win season is just as impressive. Given the harrowing circumstances and the national scrutiny directed at the program over the offseason, the Nittany Lions’ resilience and focus amidst all the turmoil is one of the best storylines of this college football season.
Around the Big Ten -- Previewing Next Week's Championship Game
by Kevin Trahan
Nebraska vs. Wisconsin — Nebraska is favored to win this game, and for good reason. The Cornhuskers won the regular season meeting between the two and they're ending the season on a hot streak, while the Badgers are slumping and have lost three of their last four games. Nebraska is clearly the better team, with one of the best offenses in the Big Ten and a defense that has improved greatly as the season progressed. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and the running back duo of Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead has been outstanding when Burkhead has been healthy. However, the Huskers have struggled with turnovers, and while they've still been able to pull out a lot of games despite turning the ball over, they'll need to be much less sloppy in the championship game. Wisconsin needs to take advantage of Nebraska turnovers, and if the Badgers do that, they'll have a shot to head to the Rose Bowl for the third straight year.