Before training camp began, we came up with five storylines to track throughout Northwestern’s 2013 season. All of those storylines have unfolded over the course of four games, and though an end-of-the-season revisiting would allow for a more comprehensive analysis, it would be silly to pass up the opportunity to briefly reassess these lines during the bye week lull. Many of the following remain, like they were before of the season, open-ended thoughts, but a four-game sample size offered enough evidence to help clear up some of the uncertainty and doubt we had in August.
“Rebuilding the offensive line.”
When describing Northwestern’s strengths and weaknesses before the season, national media outlets leaped at the obvious: the Wildcats were losing three starters on the offensive line. That meant, per common college sports roster turnover wisdom, Northwestern’s offensive line would be worse, because losing starters is always, unequivocally, inarguably a bad thing. But what if the number of returning starters isn’t directly proportional to team success? What if – here’s a novel concept – starters are being replaced by better players?
I’m not saying that’s the case with Northwestern; It's too early to know for sure. The offensive line is young and inexperienced, and has only one player – junior center Brandon Vitabile – playing the same position he did last season. This storyline is particularly difficult to evaluate four games into the season, because offensive lines tend to grow and congeal and improve over time. There have been mistakes – Jack Konopka has been inconsistent at left tackle, for instance – but all told, the new faces have acquitted themselves well in the early part of the season. Better Big Ten defensive lines, including Ohio State’s (which features scary edge tandem of Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence), will provide sterner challenges, which should help shed a more informative light on the offensive line’s cohesion and overall strength.
“That two-quarterback thing”
The controversy surrounding Northwestern’s two-quarterback system last season, particularly in the first few games – when there was open speculation about Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian’s purportedly adversarial relationship – was nauseating. I haven’t heard much of the sort in 2013; on the contrary, in the aftermath of Northwestern’s road victory at Cal, in which Colter was removed from the game after suffering a concussion on the Wildcats’ second offensive snap, Northwestern’s quarterback depth has been glorified en masse, with Siemian’s “rocket-arm” and Colter’s “electric athleticism” being bandied about in genuinely reverential tones.
Both quarterbacks have experienced their share of rough patches this season (and expectedly critical accompanying reviews), none more evident than the past two weeks, when – following an impressive 30-for-37, 275-yard combined passing effort in a 48-27 win over Syracuse – Colter and Siemian accounted for just 261 passing yards on 38 attempts, against defenses (Western Michigan and Maine) that are, let’s just say, less than stout. The Wildcats’ QB duo will benefit from an extra week of film study and preparation before facing Ohio State’s elite defense, a unit that’s sure to test how “deep,” and more importantly, how good, Northwestern is at quarterback.
Here comes the not-so-fun part of this piece. Northwestern’s secondary began the season needing to answer one big question: would the second cornerback spot, then held by Daniel Jones, hold up against Big Ten offenses? That question added a devastating variable less than one half into the Wildcats’ season-opener at Cal, when Jones sustained a season-ending knee injury. Dwight White replaced him, and has struggled against mediocre competition. Opposing quarterbacks consistently target the inexperienced redshirt freshman, and Big Ten coordinators will doubtless take White’s glaring struggles to date as a green light to attack his side of the field.
Worsening matters is the fact that Nick VanHoose, Northwestern’s best corner, has not played nearly as expected. Safety Ibraheim Campbell remains the backbone of the defensive backfield, and sophomore Traveon Henry has progressed nicely in his second season. But the cornerback situation remains a major quandary, one Northwestern – at the risk of maintaining its reputation as one of the league’s more vulnerable pass defense, a notion backed up in 2013 by the Wildcats’ seventh-ranked pass efficiency D (113.06) – will need to fix in short order.
“Emerging offensive playmakers”
The players I discussed encouragingly (and heaped big expectations on) in this section have not panned out. I opined on the imminent breakouts of redshirt freshmen receiver Mike McHugh and sophomores Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary; the trio has three catches and 30 yards combined. I talked about how redshirt freshman Malin Jones, a highly touted recruit, would develop into one of Northwestern’s top two running backs, potentially leaping Mike Trumpy on the depth chart; Jones has carried three times for -2 yards, and logged one reception for six yards.
My saving grace, at least on some small level, was Stephen Buckley. His role in the offense remains vague, and more situational than fixed, but Buckley has sparked the offense when called upon, most notably in the run game, where he has averaged 4.3 yards a carry over 19 attempts (and 8.5 yards per reception). Buckley’s best asset is his versatility, and because he can be used in so many different ways, it’s reasonable to expect his role will be tweaked based on circumstance throughout the season. My preseason storyline has been an epic fail so far, but Buckley, with a strong finish, could salvage some measure of accuracy out of my largely misguided predictive analysis.
Preseason predictions about how Northwestern would fare this season, with a tougher schedule and increased expectations, were across the map, far as I could tell. Some fans and media truly believed a Rose Bowl trip was in store. Others were more skeptical, conditioned by a disconcertingly win-bereft past and the spectre of the time-tested post-“flash in the pan” letdown season. This is another storyline that needs more time to play out before nearing a conclusion, but the Wildcats do look headed for the higher end of the predictive spectrum – which could mean any or all of the following things: a Legends Division championship, a conference championship, an invitation to a BCS bowl.
The way other supposedly upper-tier Big Ten teams (Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State) have looked so far, with the exception of Ohio State – who looks just as national championship-viable as it did before the season began – has prompted legitimate, reasoned, well-intentioned discussion about Northwestern achieving postseason dream scenarios. The Wildcats look like the best team in the division right now, but it’s still far too early to know whether they will retain that title through the brutal conference slate to come. I wish I could circle back to this storyline in exactly three weeks, after which Northwestern will have faced arguably the league’s two best teams at present: Ohio State (not arguable) and Wisconsin (semi-arguable). Until then, it’s hard to come up with a set of expectations I truly believe in.