Around the Big Ten: No more distractions for new-look Northwestern

Chad Leistikow

Pat Fitzgerald is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons, yet he is nowhere near the coaching hot seat as he enters his 10th year in charge of Northwestern football.

There is no outcry or panic in Evanston, Ill., as evidenced by Fitzgerald (the Big Ten Conference's second-longest tenured coach, behind Iowa's Kirk Ferentz) retaining his entire staff. Perhaps the biggest change — a certain positive as far as the coaching staff is concerned — will be removing the cloud of player unionization efforts that surrounded the program last year.

"I don't think any team dealt with a bigger distraction than we did a year ago," Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune in February. "We dealt with it fine, but I think it hurt our team's performance on the field. Why do I feel that way? It's a huge allocation of time. We only have so many hours to be with the guys, and we were taking the time to educate them on situations that had nothing to do with football."

Northwestern's 2015 success depends on finding more consistency than was present in 2014. A year ago, the Wildcats beat Big Ten West champ Wisconsin, Penn State in Happy Valley and Notre Dame in South Bend. Yet they lost at home to Northern Illinois and Illinois and experienced a 48-7 beatdown at Iowa.

Spring buzz

In its season preview, Athlon Sports says this might be Fitzgerald's most talented defense at Northwestern. The Wildcats were a respectable 47th in the country in scoring defense a year ago (25.2 points a game) despite finishing last in the Big Ten with 17 sacks.

Northwestern's strength is seen in the secondary, where three starters plus sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike, who had three interceptions in his first career start against Wisconsin.

On offense, the Wildcats are excited about running back Justin Jackson after his breakout 1,000-yard season as a true freshman, plus the return of receiver Christian Jones (105 career receptions) after he missed 2014 following knee surgery.

Still to be settled

After three years of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian sharing time under center, the Wildcats will break in a new quarterback in 2015. Coming out of spring ball, the front-runner to win the job was redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson.

Thorson was a highly ranked dual-threat quarterback from Wheaton, Ill., and Fitzgerald isn't afraid to start fresh faces under center — he made Dan Persa his guy for four years before transitioning to the Colter/Siemian tandem. The Wildcats have two other candidates in senior Zack Oliver (bigger arm, less mobility) and sophomore Matt Alviti (limited mostly to read-option runs in 2014).

Fitzgerald could opt to go the multi-QB route, at least early on, considering the Wildcats' Sept. 5 opener is against Stanford.

Our take ...

Oft-injured, drop-back passer Siemian didn't really fit the Fitzgerald template of a mobile quarterback, so if Thorson can provide enough of a passing threat to loosen lanes for Jackson shine and the defense is better than average, look for Northwestern to return to bowl eligibility.

Tough nonconference games against Stanford and at Duke will test the Wildcats. A key swing game for Northwestern could be Oct. 17 at home against Iowa — a program that Fitzgerald relishes beating. By that point, we should know whether 'Fitz' has his mojo back.