Northwestern coach Jim Fitzgerald has proven a worthy leader despite his youth. He continues to put out winning teams, and the future in Evanston is bright. The Wildcats are bowl eligible and will be featured on ESPN's College Gameday Saturday outside temporary home Wrigley Field.
It remains to be seen how effective they will be this week against Illinois. Star junior quarterback Dan Persa ruptured an Achilles tendon at the end of the Iowa upset last week. He was the heart and soul of a diverse offense that was accounting for 410 yards of total offense a game, good for fifth in the Big 10. Persa was personally averaging 310 yards of total offense and was completing 73% of his passes.
Redshirt freshman Evan Watkins (6'-6", 245) has a strong arm and better-than-expected mobility, but he has precious little experience. In four appearances this year, he has completed four of seven passes and has lost one yard rushing in two attempts.
Reports of his exploits at Glenbard North High School suggest he is a top talent, and he has two years in the system. Northwestern might keep the game plan simple for him, but he will likely perform well. True freshmen Trevor Siemian (6'-3", 200) and Kain Colter (6'-0", 190) are listed as backups. Illini coaches expect someone to replace Watkins in a wildcat formation to add to the running game.
Redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy (6'-0", 210) is the starting running back. He averages 40 yards a game. Freshman Adonis Smith (5'-11", 185) and sophomore Arby Fields (5'-9", 205) are his backups. Fields ran well against Illinois last year.
Junior Jeremy Ebert (6'-0", 195) leads Wildcat receivers. He is first in the Big 10 for average yards per game with 84.9. For the season, he has grabbed 54 receptions for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns. Junior Charles Brown (5'-11", 180) backs him up. He has 15 catches on the season for 197 yards.
Senior Sidney Stewart (6'-1", 190) has caught 32 passes for 376 yards. His backup is freshman Rashad Lawrence (6'-2", 190). On the other side, sophomore Demetrius Fields (6'-0", 205) has 22 receptions for 260 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Tony Jones (6'-0", 175) is his backup.
Junior Superback (Tight end/H-back) Drake Dunsmore (6'-3", 235) is the second leading receiver on the team. Through 10 games, he has caught 36 passes for 339 yards and four TDs. Senior Josh Rooks (6'-6", 265) is more blocker than receiver.
NW has an offensive line that fits its system well. Left tackle is junior Al Netter (6'-6", 310); left guard is manned by sophomore Brian Mulroe (6'-4", 295); junior Ben Burkett (6'-4", 300) is the center; the right guard is senior Keegan Grant (6'-2", 305); and true sophomore Patrick Ward (6'-7", 305), son of Illini Brian, is the right tackle. This unit has given up 35 sacks on the season, more than they would prefer.
The defensive front seven is stout and aggressive, and the linebackers may be the team strength. The middle linebacker is senior Nate Williams (6'-1", 235), and the two outside linebackers are senior Quentin Davie (6'-4", 230) and junior Bryce McNaul (6'-3", 230). Williams and McNaul are second and third on the team in tackles and swarm to the ball, while Davie leads the team in interceptions with three.
The front four are strong and experienced. The ends are juniors Kevin Watt (6'-4", 265) and Vince Browne (6'-4", 265), and the tackles are senior Corbin Bryant (6'-4", 300) and junior Jack DiNardo (6'-4", 290). Sophomore Brian Arnfelt (6'-5", 290) shares time with DiNardo. Browne leads the team with 13 tackles for loss including seven sacks. Bryant and Watt have 5.5 and 4.0 tackles for loss respectively.
Junior safety Brian Peters (6'-4", 215) leads the team in tackles with 73. His backup Hunter Bates, a 5'-10", 180 pound sophomore, has two interceptions. Sophomore Jared Carpenter (6'-0", 210) is the other safety, while the cornerbacks are junior Jordan Mabin (5'-11", 185) and senior Justan Vaughn (6'-0", 190).
Senior placekick specialist Stefan Demos has seemingly been around forever. He is 12 of 19 on field goals and has converted all 26 extra point chances. Redshirt freshman Brandon Williams handles punting duties. He doesn't hit for a high average yardage, but his net yardage ranks fourth in the Big 10.
Stephen Simmons, a 5'-8", 190 senior, and freshman Venric Mark (5'-8", 170) are the kick return specialists. Bates is the punt returner.
Northwestern is not loaded with big name players, they just find ways to win. Fitzgerald has established a winning tradition, and his Wildcats find ways of pulling out games. The Illini will have their hands full Saturday even without Persa.