Northwestern a new breed of 'Cat

The Northwestern team which will face Wisconsin in 2013 is no longer a Big Ten pushover.

This is the sixth in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team's 2013 opponents. 

Let's get this out of the way first: This isn't your older brother's Northwestern team. That is to say, the Wildcats are no longer a Big Ten pushover, and several conference teams will likely find out why once again in 2013.

Last season, Northwestern finished 10-3 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. With eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters returning, most of the players on the field this season will understand what it takes to win important games.

Ohio State and Wisconsin replace Indiana and Penn State as cross-divisional opponents, so the road through the Big Ten won't be easy. But head coach Pat Fitzgerald has turned the program around, eclipsing the highs he attained as a player for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s. 

By the time Northwestern finishes its Oct. 12 game at Camp Randall Stadium, we'll know whether the Wildcats can be considered a Big Ten championship-caliber team. Northwestern's first two conference games come against Leaders Division frontrunners Ohio State and Wisconsin. 

Personnel: Northwestern could feature one of the Big Ten's best offenses one season after averaging 31.7 points per game. The focal point of the offense will be quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.

Colter is a dual-threat signal caller who can burn teams with his speed out of zone-read looks. Last year, he rushed for 894 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also passed for 872 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

What makes Northwestern's offense so unique is that coach Pat Fitzgerald utilizes two quarterbacks during games. Trevor Siemian is more of a pocket passer who led the team in passing yards (1,312) while throwing for six touchdowns and three interceptions.

Mark rushed for 1,366 yards with 12 touchdowns and averaged 105.1 yards rushing per game. He ranked fifth in the Big Ten last season in that category. And the only returning Big Ten player to average more yards per game was Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. Mark, who also handled kickoff and punt returns, finished with more all-purpose yards than any player in the conference.

The Wildcats' biggest area of concern offensively will come at receiver because no player last season caught more than 35 passes. But Northwestern does return four of its top five pass catchers -- Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale.

On defense, Northwestern should continue to see improvement with a veteran group. Defensive end Tyler Scott, a senior, led the team in sacks (nine), tackles for loss (12.5) and fumbles (three) last season. Scott's nine sacks tied for the Big Ten lead with Ohio State's John Simon.

Linebackers Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo return after standout 2012 seasons. Proby tallied a team-best 112 tackles, while Ariguzo registered 91 tackles with three sacks, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. 

In the secondary, safety Ibraheim Campell and cornerback Nick VanHoose are back. Campbell recorded 89 tackles with 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. VanHoose had 33 tackles and three interceptions.

Fun fact No. 1: The last time Northwestern and Wisconsin faced each other as ranked teams came back in 1995, when the Wildcats defeated the Badgers 35-0. Since that game, Wisconsin has been ranked in the top 20 in nine of 11 matchups. This season, both teams figure to challenge for top-25 rankings at mid-season. Few preseason top-25 rankings have been released, but Athlon's top 25 lists Wisconsin at No. 19 and Northwestern at No. 24. 

Fun fact No. 2: Before Northwestern's 34-20 victory against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl last season, the Wildcats hadn't won a bowl game since Jan. 1, 1949. According to, the average house cost $15,241 back in 1949 -- equivalent to $139,823 in today's dollars. The average car cost $1,420, and the average wage was $2,574. Also in 1949, the first automatic street lights were installed in Connecticut, and RCA announced the development of a color TV system.

"5:03": Pat Fitzgerald used last season's fourth-quarter failures as motivation for his team during spring practices. He had "5:03" printed on the backs of players' workout shirts to remind them how close they came to an undefeated regular season. 

Penn State took a lead with 2:37 remaining in an eventual 39-28 victory. Nebraska pulled ahead with 2:08 left in a 29-28 victory. And Michigan's game-tying drive began with 18 seconds remaining, which led to a 38-31 overtime victory.

"We're only 5 minutes, 3 seconds from being undefeated," Fitzgerald said during the spring. "Our staff discussion was, 'Are we that far away or are we that close? We have to decide as a program.' That's kind of been the focus here. The choices that we make from what's happened in the past, we can either build on positively or we can focus on the negative. We've chosen to build on the positive."

Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 28

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