Know the Badgers foe: Northwestern

Northwestern running back Venric Mark fractured his ankle in a game against Wisconsin last season and took a redshirt year, but in 2012 he rushed for 1,366 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.

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This is the fifth in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.

Northwestern was all set to introduce itself as a major player on the college football scene last season in front of a national primetime audience against Ohio State. Then, the Wildcats collapsed and lost 40-30 at home to the Buckeyes, sending the entire season spiraling out of control.

NU, which opened the season 4-0 and reached No. 16 in the national top-25 rankings, lost seven of its final eight games to turn a promising season into an embarrassing one. And while most of the offseason talk surrounding Northwestern has involved the idea of unionization, coach Pat Fitzgerald has quietly been trying to right last year’s sinking ship.

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Northwestern is set to return nine starters on offense and nine more on defense, so don’t expect the Wildcats to produce a similarly poor season in 2014. Despite all the offseason distractions, Northwestern could creep into the discussion as a viable threat to win the Big Ten West in the first season of the realigned divisional format. NU opens Big Ten play at Penn State, followed by a big home game against Wisconsin — two games that likely will go a long way toward determining the Wildcats’ conference fate.

Personnel: Quarterback Trevor Siemian finally will have the opportunity to be the team’s No. 1 signal-caller now that Kain Colter is gone. Siemian put together a decent season last year, completing 59.7 percent of his throws for 2,149 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He’ll also have a boatload of options to throw to, which should boost the Wildcats’ offensive attack this season.

Northwestern brings back its top three receivers from last season: Tony Jones (55 catches, 630 yards, four touchdowns), Christian Jones (54 catches, 668 yards, four touchdowns) and Dan Vitale (34 catches, 382 yards, three touchdowns). With the departure of Rashad Lawrence, Cameron Dickerson (11 catches, 125 yards, one touchdown) has stepped in to fill another receiving spot as well.

At tailback, Northwestern possesses two players capable of putting up big numbers. Venric Mark is back after fracturing his left ankle against Wisconsin last season. He rushed for only 97 yards in three games and took a redshirt year. But as a junior the season before, he gained 1,366 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, and he is considered among the better tailbacks in the league. Meanwhile, teammate Treyvon Greene filled in well for Mark last season, rushing for 736 yards with eight touchdowns. His yards-per-carry average was a solid 5.4.

One of Northwestern’s strengths in 2014 should be its offensive line, which returns all five of its starters. The likely starters: Brandon Vitable at center, Paul Jorgensen at left tackle, Geoff Mogus at left guard, Matt Frazier at right guard and Jack Konopka at right tackle, though Konopka is battling with Eric Olson for that spot.

Vitable, a senior, has played in 38 games and was an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick a year ago. Jorgensen has played in 36 games over three seasons and started all 12 games at left tackle last season. Mogus started 11 of 12 games at left guard, and Frazier started the final four games of last season at right guard. Konopka started 12 games last season at right tackle.

Overall, the offensive line performed below average in 2013, and the offensive numbers reflect that performance. Northwestern ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring offense, but the Wildcats should be better given all of their returning experience.

Defensively, Northwestern returns starting linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo (106 tackles, six tackles for loss) and Collin Ellis (78 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss). But the Wildcats also lose their top tackler, Damien Proby (112 tackles). That’s a huge void for Northwestern to fill, and Fitzgerald will attempt to do so by moving Ellis from strong side linebacker to middle linebacker. Drew Smith appears ready to take over as the starting strong side linebacker. He tallied 31 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss a year ago.

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On the defensive line, Northwestern still has end Dean Lowry (33 tackles, 4.5 sacks), tackle Sean McEvilly (nine tackles) and tackle Chance Carter (34 tackles, two sacks).

In the secondary, the Wildcats will be especially loaded because they return all of their starters. Cornerbacks Nick VanHoose (61 tackles) and Matthew Harris (36 tackles), along with safeties Ibraheim Campbell (73 tackles, four interceptions) and Traveon Henry (77 tackles, one interception) will be as formidable as any secondary in the league.

Opportunistic D: Northwestern led the Big Ten last season in total interceptions with 19. Four were returned for touchdowns. The Wildcats had nine different players record an interception, and five players notched more than one. Wisconsin, meanwhile, had six players register an interception, but only one (cornerback Sojourn Shelton) tallied more than one.

Bowl streak: Northwestern had its streak of five consecutive bowl game appearances snapped last season after the Wildcats finished 5-7, including 1-7 in Big Ten play. Fitzgerald is 1-4 as a coach in bowl games during his tenure. But before he arrived, Northwestern had been 1-5 in bowl games in program history and hadn’t won one since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Kicker change: The Wildcats no longer have two-time Big Ten Kicker of the Year Award winner Jeff Budzien, who is off to the NFL. Budzien set program records for career points (280), career field goal percentage (.872) and single-season field goals made (23), among others. In his place will likely be Hunter Niswander, a redshirt freshman rated as the No. 12 place-kicking prospect in the country, according to Scout.com.

Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 21

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