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Northwestern looking to build on first bowl victory in 64 years

Dual-threrunning back Venric Mark (shown last seasagainst Minnesota) said NU’s coaching staff might involve him more passing game this season.

Dual-threat running back Venric Mark (shown last season against Minnesota) said NU’s coaching staff might involve him more in the passing game this season. | AP

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The schedule


31 at Cal, 9:30


7 Syracuse, 5

14 Western Michigan, 8

21 Maine, TBA


5 Ohio State, 7

12 at Wisconsin, 2:30

19 Minnesota, TBA

26 at Iowa, TBA


2 at Nebraska, TBA

16 Michigan, TBA

23 Michigan State, TBA

30 at Illinois, TBA

Key game

Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State. Both teams could be undefeated heading into NU’s Big Ten opener. It has the potential to be one of the biggest regular-season games in Wildcats history.

Key departure

Defensive end Quentin Williams. Williams was second on the team last season with 4.5 sacks. NU will need to find another pass rusher to complement Tyler Scott, who led the team with nine.

Key addition

Wide receiver Kyle Prater. Prater played last season after being granted an NCAA waiver in the wake of his transfer from USC, but he had only 10 receptions. The hope is that he will blossom after a year in the offense.

Updated: September 5, 2013 6:49AM

Even disregarding the white noise of national hype, which includes Northwestern being ranked 22nd in USA Today’s preseason coaches’ poll, the Wildcats’ usual internal expectations have increased, especially with 15 starters back from a season in which NU won a bowl game for the first time in 64 years.

Here are five questions to ponder for the upcoming season:

How much time will Trevor Siemian see under center?

The answer is directly related to how often coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff plan to use starting quarterback Kain Colter elsewhere. Colter’s ability to play multiple positions keeps defenses confused and allows Siemian to get some playing time.

But putting Siemian under center does more for NU than just cause confusion. Siemian has proved himself in big-game situations. In the opener last season at Syracuse, he led the Wildcats on a 75-yard drive that gave them the lead with 44 seconds left. The next week against Vanderbilt, Siemian twice led NU on go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter.

Who will step into starting roles on the offensive line?

Guards Neal Deiters and Brian Mulroe and tackle Patrick Ward graduated, making the offensive line the Wildcats’ biggest question mark entering training camp Monday.

Junior center Brandon Vitabile, who has started every game for NU since his redshirt-freshman season in 2011 and is considered among the best in the country at his position, and junior tackle Jack Konopka are incumbents who will start again this season.

But Fitzgerald said there would be an open competition for the other three positions. Junior Paul Jorgensen, who started last season against Penn State and played in goal-line situations, figures to be a favorite entering camp.

Will the defense be able to finish games this season?

As much as last season was celebrated after the Wildcats ended their 64-year bowl drought with their Gator Bowl victory, there was some talk about what might have been.

NU led in the fourth quarter of every game it played last season yet finished 10-3. The Wildcats allowed 45 points in the fourth quarters of those three losses. That tied into their pass defense, which ranked last in the Big Ten.

When teams trail late, they pass more. So for NU to improve on its fourth-quarter follies, it must shore up its pass defense.

Will Christian Jones emerge as an elite receiver?

There might not be a team in the country that spreads the ball among more receivers than NU. Six players had at least 20 receptions last season, and Jones led the Wildcats with 35 catches for 412 yards.

While there’s no reason to think NU quarterbacks won’t be as generous with their receivers as they were in 2012, Jones might warrant some extra looks.

Is there a way to get Venric Mark more touches?

Undoubtedly one of the Wildcats’ biggest open-field threats, Mark averaged 21.7 touches last season between his work as a running back and receiver and on special teams.

Mark might see an uptick in his carries — he averaged 17.3 last season — but he indicated at Big Ten media days that the coaching staff might involve him even more in the passing game.

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