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June 11, 2013

Out of spring: Northwestern Wildcats

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The Fighting Illini will host in-state foe Northwestern on Nov. 30, 2013 - the last regular season game of the 2013 campaign. The sting of a lopsided 50-14 defeat at the hands of the Wildcats a year ago will add fuel to the fire of an already contentious and growing rivalry.

At the moment, Illinois and Northwestern appear to be two programs heading in opposite directions. Pat Fitzgerald led his team to a 10-3 record in 2013, capped off by a win over Mississippi St. in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.

Illinois yielded 450 yards of total offense to the Cats in last season's game at Ryan Field in Evanston (338 yards rushing) and Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter threw for a career-high three touchdowns. Illinois also self-destructed; they turned the ball over 4 times and were whistled for 8 penalties for 88 yards on the day.

Overall, Illinois leads the series with Northwestern 54-46-5, but Northwestern has been victorious in 7 of their last 10 meetings with the Illini. With a large number of returning starters this fall, the Cats figure to be a formidable opponent once again for Illinois.

Colter returns for his senior season to lead the Cats offense, along with 2nd team All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark at running back. Mark racked up 1,366 rushing yards last season, and is also explosive in the return game (first-team All-American at punt returner by the Football Writers Association of America).

The Illini will have to put a lot more than 14 points on the board to compete with Northwestern this fall. The Wildcats defense was ranked 8th overall in Big Ten in conference games in 2012. They gave up 24.4 points per game, good for 5th in the Big Ten. They are vulnerable in the passing game, however. New Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has a reputation for airing it out - the Illini could make it interesting if QB Nathan Scheelhaase can get on a roll.

Orange and Blue News caught up with Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com to talk about how Northwestern stacks up coming out of spring drills.

1. What was the overall theme for Northwestern football heading into spring drills this year?

Louis Vaccher: Northwestern has 16 starters coming back this year, so the theme for spring ball was bolstering the depth chart and developing the players who will start for the 2014 and 2015 teams. There are some positions up for grabs, most notably on the offensive line where NU must replace three starters, but it seemed like many of the players vying for those positions were held out of spring practice because of injuries or recovery from offseason surgery.

2. What important questions about the team were answered this spring?

Vaccher: I'm not sure they answered any. The Cats have players with experience ready to step into all of the open starting positions. There were some people wondering whether Northwestern would continue its practice of rotating quarterbacks, but coaches never really considered moving away from it. You can expect Kain Colter to be QB1 and Trevor Siemian QB1-A again next season - and don't be surprised if NU finds a way to get them both on the field at the same time a little more often. One thing we did find out: the 2013 team will feature the fastest and most athletic defense NU has fielded in quite some time.

3. Who were some of the standout performers on the offensive side of the football?

Vaccher: It's hard to single anyone out among what will be a veteran unit, but redshirt sophomore Cameron Dickerson had a strong spring in his bid to become a favorite target as an outside receiver. He's not a burner, but at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he is a big, physical receiver who looks ready to have a breakout season in NU's crowded receiver corps. Another guy that many eyes will be on next fall is redshirt freshman running back Malin Jones. Northwestern will need a bigger back to complement the speedy Venric Mark to lug the rock in short-yardage situations, and Jones looks ready to heed the call.

4. Who were some of the top defensive players this spring?

Vaccher: Sophomore safety Traveon Henry, who played last season as a true freshman, had an impressive spring. He is big, fast and physical, and he and defensive leader Ibraheim Campbell will give Northwestern a very strong pair tandem in the back half. One young guy who clearly emerged this spring is redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White. He almost certainly will crack the two-deep next year.

5. What unfinished business do the Cats have heading into camp later this summer?

Vaccher: Well, they will have to pick some starters on the offensive line. Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus have the inside tracks to the starting guard jobs, while Shane Mertz and Paul Jorgensen will likely battle it out for the No. 1 right tackle spot. Outside linebacker will also be a hot spot, with Drew Smith and Collin Ellis likely fighting for a starting role.

6. Talk about the game vs. Illinois on Nov. 30. What are you expecting from that game?

Illinois actually outplayed Northwestern early in last year's game, but the Illini kept shooting themselves in the foot. Then, once Northwestern got rolling, a 50-14 route ensued. While a rivalry game is always dangerous, the Cats have their sights on bigger things this season. This is a team returning virtually all of its key players from a squad that went 10-3 and won the program's first bowl game since Harry S Truman was in the White House (64 years for those of you counting). They will likely start the season in the Top 15-20. So many Northwestern fans are hoping that a win in Champaign on the last Saturday in November will lock up a spot in the Big Ten title game, or at least a big-time bowl bid. Will it happen? Only time will tell. But this has the potential to be that type of year for the Wildcats.

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