Despite the fact that these two teams are geographically really close, the September 6th battle between the Northern Illinois Huskies and the Northwestern Wildcats will be just their eighth meeting. And the Huskies are looking for a better result than in the previous seven - they are 0-6-1 against NU, with their only tie coming in 1987. In their last meeting, back in 2005, NIU suffered a heartbreaking loss after they failed on a 2-point conversion with six seconds left - giving Northwestern a 38-37 win. But coming off a year where the Huskies were the best B1G team in Illinois, will this be the year they break through?
Northwestern Wildcats 2013 Season Rewind:
The Wildcats are not normally a football powerhouse, but under Pat Fitzgerald they have been improving vastly. Until last season. The 2013 season started off great for NU, as they reeled off four straight wins to open the season. Then they hit the B1G schedule...and that's where things went south. The Wildcats lost seven in a row - with four of those losses by a field goal or in OT. However, they were able to beat Illinois in their final game, ending with a 5-7 record. Northwestern and Illinois had just one B1G victory each (whereas NIU had two wins in against B1G last year).
Willie the Wildcat helps fans get into NU athletics. But originally that job was bestowed to Furpaw, a caged bear cub from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. However, after a particularly bad season in 1923 the team decided he was bad luck and banished him from all games. NU even changed their name for the 1924 season to the current Wildcats. It wasn't until 1933 that we saw the first image of Willie the Wildcat, and 1947 saw the first live version of him. Luckily for Willie, he received a makeover in 2007. Unfortunately, he looks rather cuddly, almost like the old Victor E. Huskie.
Northwestern was a charter member of the Western Conference which changed changed it's name to the Big Nine, then to the Big Ten (which actually only had 10 members!), before becoming the B1G...which is still the Big 10, you just get 40% more teams for free! The Wildcats now compete in the West Division (formerly the Legends division) with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin. All time against B1G teams, the Huskies are 6-38-1, with wins against Maryland, Wisconsin, Purdue (twice), Iowa, and Minnesota.
The Wildcats play at Ryan Field, in Evanston, IL, and have since it opened in October of 1926. Northwestern doesn't seem to have much of a home field advantage, as they have only won 52.7 percent of their games at home (they are 340-304-28 in 672 games at Ryan Field). It has a natural grass surface and a capacity of 47,130. Originally it was named Dyche Stadium but in 1996, after 70 years, the stadium was renovated, and the name was changed.
Last Bowl Appearance:
The Wildcats last made the post-season in the 2012 season. On Jan. 1, 2013 they played Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Surprisingly, Northwestern defeated the Bulldogs 34-20, making it the first time since 1948 that they had won a bowl game and broke the streak of 9 consecutive bowl losses - tied for longest streak of all time (with Notre Dame).
NU is led by Pat Fitzgerald, a former linebacker for the Wildcats, who is now in his ninth season. Fitzgerald was the linebackers coach at NU for five seasons (2001-05) before taking the reigns as head coach in 2006. He already has the most wins in Wildcat history, with 55, and has led them to more bowl games than any other coach - NU went to five straight bowls from 2008-2012.
Five Key Players:
Trevor Siemian - senior QB (6'3, 210lbs)
Treyvon Green - senior HB (5'10, 215lbs)
The Jones Twins* (Christian and Tony) - senior WRs (6'3, 225lbs and 6'0, 195lbs respectively)
Chi Chi Ariguzo - senior LB (6'3, 235lbs)
Colin Ellis - senior LB (6'2, 230lbs)
* = not actually twins (or related, as far as I know)
The Wildcats boast a very balanced attack and one that was similar to the Huskies - a spread/option offense with athletic quarterbacks that can hurt you running or passing. Luckily Kane Colter, who did very well at NU, is gone leaving them with Trevor Siemian. Last season Siemian was average at best, throwing for 2149 yards, 11 TDs, and 9 INTs, while only completing 59.7% of his throws.
The Wildcats liked to spread the wealth when running the football. They had four players with more than 250 rushing yards. Luckily, two of those players have since graduated. The main rushing threat still comes from Treyvon Green, who racked up eight TDs and 736 yards on 137 attempts.
NIU's secondary will have their hands full with WRs Tony and Christian Jones. I called them twins earlier because their stats are almost the same - plus they're both named Jones...weird. Tony had 55 receptions, 630 yards, and 4 TDs. Christian had 54 grabs, 668 yards, and 4 TDs.
As a unit however, the Wildcats struggled offensively, gaining less than 4800 yards all season and only averaging 26 points per game. They did play tough defenses like MSU, Wisconsin, and OSU, but they also played Maine, Western Michigan, and Illinois.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that with a former LB as head coach, the Wildcats defense is anchored by a couple of great linebackers. Chi Chi Ariguzo had 106 tackles, six TFL, four INTs, two sacks, broke up two passes, and forced and recovered a fumble. Colin Ellis was right behind Chi Chi, with 78 tackles (5.5 in the backfield), three INT, six passes broken up, two QB hurries, and half a sack.
In the secondary, senior safety Ibraheim Campbell (5'11, 205lbs) leads the group. He amassed 73 tackles, four INTs, five breakups, and even had a sack. Junior Traveon Henry (6'1, 200lbs) is another safety the Huskies have to deal with. Last season Henry had 77 tackles, a pick, and a pass breakup.
Northwestern's defense gave up just under 424 yards per game last season (167 rushing and 256 passing) but allowed over 27 points per game. The defense got worse the longer the game went on and was especially bad in the fourth quarter, where they allowed 93 points, the most of any quarter. And more than a third (118 of the 325 points allowed) came in the final 15 minutes or OT.
Last year Jeff Budzien, their kicker, was lights out - making 23 of 25 kicks - as well as handling all of their kickoffs. Luckily for NIU, he graduated so the Wildcats have a choice to make. They have four kickers on the roster, a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior. Whoever they chose (most likely junior Arthur Omilian), it will be their first time out. Their punter, Brandon Williams, is also gone but they have a decent backup in Chris Gradone, who had 11 punts last year, averaging 37.8 yards, with 5 inside the 20, and a long of 61-yards.
The Wildcats were nothing special on kick or punt returns averaging just 21.7 yards per kick return and only 7 yards per punt return with longs of 47 and 22 respectively and no TDs. However, NU did defend kicks really well as opponents merely got 19.3 yards per kick and 3.8 yards per punt returned. They did give up a long of 50 for a kickoff and one punt was returned for a score, but for the most part they shut down opposing returners. So it's a long shot that Tommylee Lewis will break one and score.
It's hard to tell how NIU will do with their new QB (whoever it is), but this should be a close game. The Huskies have won their last two games against B1G teams and are 4-4 in their last eight tries. If the Wildcats' defense plays the way it did last season, this is a winnable game. The Huskies should have the speed on the outside to cause problems and the duo of Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels in the backfield adds a nice running threat. It will probably come down to how our secondary fares against the Jones'. If NIU nearly won in 2005, this year's team certainly has a chance to win. Going out on a limb here, but...