Halfway into its 2011 season, the Northwestern Wildcats appear to be reeling after losing four straight games. The "Cats sit at 2-4 through six games this season, and their schedule does not get much easier. The 'Cats still have games against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan State, as well as three other games that look a lot more challenging now than they did at the start of the season. Here are five questions Northwestern will have to answer throughout the second half of this season:
1. Will Northwestern get its upset win? During the Pat Fitzgerald era, Northwestern has been able to earn victories over favored teams on a fairly consistent basis. In 2009 and 2010, for example, the ‘Cats were able to upset the Iowa Hawkeyes. This year, Northwestern has not yet gotten its upset victory, even though the ‘Cats had chances to upset both Illinois and Michigan. There are likely three remaining chances this season for Northwestern to upset a ranked opponent: Oct. 22 vs. Penn State, Nov. 5 at Nebraska and Nov. 26 vs. Michigan State. Because Northwestern lost to Army, the ‘Cats will need to win one of these games in order to become bowl eligible.
2. How will the ‘Cats fare in their home games? Northwestern’s schedule this season is set up so that half of the Wildcats’ home games occur in the final month of the season. Playing so many games on the road early in the season is obviously difficult, but it does make some sense for Northwestern because students typically do not arrive to campus until the season is well underway. In the second half of the season, Northwestern has home games against Penn State (Oct. 22), Rice (Nov. 12), Minnesota (Nov. 19) and Michigan State (Nov. 26). Northwestern’s final three games of the season will be at home, which means the ‘Cats have a great opportunity to finish the year strong. If Northwestern can somehow win all of its home games, it has a chance to finish the year with seven victories, which would be very respectable considering the team’s poor start.
3. Will the defense improve or regress? Last year, Northwestern’s defense struggled at times throughout the year, but managed to be respectable for most of the season. That all changed in the team’s final two regular season contests, in which the ‘Cats gave up a total of 118 points – that’s 58 points per game. Dan Persa’s absence from those two games due to his ruptured Achilles obviously made a difference, but he would not have been able top stop Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure from gaining 330 yards on the ground against the ‘Cats. And while Persa’s presence may have prevented Wisconsin from hanging 70 points on the ‘Cats, the Badgers still probably would have run over Northwestern. The defense has already played poorly this season – the pass defense is the worst in the country – so it may not be possible for the unit to regress even more. If they do, say goodbye to a bowl game.
4. Who will make their case to the NFL? Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, Northwestern will say goodbye to several key seniors when this season ends. The most prominent names on this list are Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert, one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the Big Ten. Throughout the second half of the season, both players have a chance to show NFL scouts that they are worthy of being selected in April’s NFL Draft. NFLDraftScout.com currently ranks Persa as the 34th best draft-eligible quarterback in the country. While Ebert does not have the national name recognition of Persa, he also will likely have a shot at professional football if he continues to play well throughout the second half of the season. The key for all Wildcats dreaming of the NFL will be to play well in big games the rest of the year.
5. Who will emerge as the players to watch for next season? For many Northwestern supporters, the future may appear grim. The team is 2-4 in 2011, and will be losing its best players for next year. But there are a number of Wildcats that could have bright futures ahead. On offense, sophomore Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian have both shown flashes of brilliance so far this season, although neither has consistently shown that he is ready to take over for Persa next year. One of those two quarterbacks could emerge as the starter for next season over the next few weeks. Freshman running back Treyvon Green has played a bigger role in the Northwestern running game this season than many expected, and he should continue to receive carries in the second half, especially with Mike Trumpy out for the remainder of the season. On defense, Tyler Scott – currently a sophomore – has played very well the past two weeks, including a seven-tackle performance against Michigan on Oct. 8. Redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell has struggled at times this season against play-action, but he had two interceptions against Michigan and is expected to develop into a key defender for Northwestern over the next couple of seasons.