Northwestern looking to rediscover winning formula
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Just last month, members of Northwestern's 1995 Rose Bowl team gathered to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of an epic ride that propelled a long losing program into the national spotlight.
It was a chance for players and coaches to reminisce, to reflect on an incredible run.
''There were a handful of guys that I hadn't seen in a number of years, and we had a Friday and Saturday event,'' said coach Pat Fitzgerald, a star linebacker on that team. ''And by about Wednesday that following week, my wife, Stacy, looked at me and she's like, `wow, you look tired.' I'm like, `I wasn't out that late, you know.' We're hanging out, but we weren't like we were back in college. It kind of dawned on me a little bit. I wasn't anything but just emotionally drained of seeing guys again and reconnecting and the bonds that we had and the brotherhood that we have.''
In some ways, this season is about reconnecting for the Wildcats. It's about rediscovering the formula that propelled them to bowl games five straight years. The greatest five-year run in the history of the program culminated with a 10-3 season in 2012 and a win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the Wildcats' first bowl win since 1949.
Northwestern is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons that also had the team in the spotlight over the future of amateur athletics. Only this past week did the National Labor Relations Board appear to settle the issue by tossing out a bid to unionize Northwestern's football team in what would have been a first.
The Wildcats still have plenty to tend to heading into this season. The up-tempo style that helped propel that five-year run has not clicked the way it did in the past, and they started practices with a quarterback competition.
With that in mind, here are some things to look for as Fitzgerald enters his 10th season leading his alma mater:
WHO'S THE QUARTERBACK? That's the biggest question now that Trevor Siemian is in the NFL after throwing for 5,931 yards in college. He started last season after sharing the position with Kain Colter for two years, and the Wildcats are looking at a group that's thin on experience, with senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and freshman Clayton Thorson in the running. Oliver has thrown for 381 yards in 12 career games. Alviti, mainly an option threat, played in the final four games last season and attempted four passes. Thorson starred at suburban Wheaton North High School.
JONES-ING TO COME BACK: Christian Jones is back after missing last season because of a knee injury, and that should be a boost for the Wildcats. After all, he led the team with 668 yards receiving and tied for the team lead with four touchdowns two years ago. Getting him back should help an offense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in scoring.
''I have a lot of confidence in this team now,'' he said. ''And I think they understand what we have to do to be great this year.''
RUSHING BACK: Justin Jackson made quite an impression as a freshman, rushing for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns`, and the Wildcats will need more of that with an inexperienced quarterback. He recorded six 100-yard games and joined Tyrell Sutton in 2005 as the only freshmen to rush for 1,000 yards.
STOPPERS: With safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo gone, the defense is missing two key pieces from last season. But the Wildcats figure to have a strong secondary led by cornerbacks Nick VanHoose (59 tackles last season) and Matthew Harris (nine pass breakups, 70 tackles) and safety Traveon Henry (73 tackles).
TOUGH SLATE: Northwestern starts things with a bang: The Sept. 5 opener is against Pac-12 power Stanford and the non-conference schedule also includes a trip to Duke. The Big Ten schedule includes visits to Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin.