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Healthy Northwestern looking to rebound from ugly 2013

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) throws pass as Patrick Ward (70) blocks during fourth quarter an NCAA college football game

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) throws a pass as Patrick Ward (70) blocks during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, in East Lansing, Mich. Northwestern won 23-20. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

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The schedule

Aug. 30 California 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 6 Northern Illinois 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 Western Illinois TBA

Sept. 27 at Penn State 11 a.m.

Oct. 4 Wisconsin TBA

Oct. 11 at Minnesota TBA

Oct. 18 Nebraska 6:30 p.m.

Nov. 1 at Iowa TBA

Nov. 8 Michigan TBA

Nov. 15 at Notre Dame 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 22 at Purdue TBA

Nov. 29 Illinois TBA

Northwestern’s performance in its nonconference games last season set its fans up for a major letdown.

Victories against FCS opponents California, Syracuse and Western Michigan (who finished a combined 9-28) and a victory against FBS school Maine set up a ballyhooed game against Ohio State and a belief that the Wildcats might win their first Big Ten championship in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

In retrospect, that was laughable. NU followed up its cream-puff nonconference run with a 1-7 record in Big Ten play. So does it really say all that much that the Wildcats have 18 starters returning?

That’s what NU is selling as it tries to climb back into the conversation as a Big Ten title contender. But what speaks more to a potential bounce-back season is that the Wildcats enter camp healthy.

Last season was marred by a slew of injuries. That by itself doesn’t explain why NU couldn’t close out games, but it might be among the reasons some of those games came down to the final seconds.

And don’t think the injuries only hurt the Wildcats on Saturdays. NU couldn’t practice to the extent it wanted because its roster was so depleted.

Now that they’re fully healthy, we’ll see just how much the Wildcats would have liked to ramp things up last season.

The missing link?

Running back and return specialist Venric Mark, an All-American in 2012, missed most of last season with a stress fracture in his ankle. The injury was the reason he was granted a medical redshirt and is back for a fifth season.

But considering that Mark represents one more All-American than NU typically has on its roster, was his absence the reason the Wildcats sputtered so badly in conference play last season?

NU didn’t seem to miss much at running back in Mark’s absence. Treyvon Green filled in well.

Alviti package

Fitzgerald has made it clear since the Wildcats’ 2013 season ended that Trevor Siemian will be the starting quarterback this season. Even with talented redshirt freshman Matt Alviti lurking, that doesn’t figure to change during camp. But might NU dedicate a small portion of its playbook to Alviti?

Fitzgerald staunchly defends Siemian, despite his much-talked-about lack of athleticism. But with the read option having been a staple of the Wildcats’ offense for several years, there’s reason to speculate Fitzgerald might use Alviti in running situations.

Don’t expect to hear too much about it during camp. That will be a closely kept secret reserved for game week. But it’s worth taking note of Alviti’s reps.

Stretching the field

The only way NU would abandon its screen game is if it somehow became illegal. But the Wildcats might be well-served to throw downfield more often.

Speedsters Tony Jones and Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers, provide the big-armed Siemian with big-play threats at receiver. So why not look to take advantage of Siemian’s best attribute?

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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