Big Ten spring game recap: Northwestern

We're in the home stretch of the spring game recaps, and up next is Northwestern, which wrapped up spring ball Saturday at Ryan Field.

Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Friday that the spring game wouldn't go longer than 80 plays or so and his main goal was to keep the team healthy. Injuries really hurt the Wildcats during the first half of the 2009 season and led to inconsistent play. Northwestern went through its healthiest spring in recent memory and survived any major injuries in the spring game, so mission accomplished.

As expected, the game was a bit watered down, but it provided a few clues about the 2010 team.

The defense led the way, allowing only 253 yards on 85 plays (2.9 ypp) and only 92 rushing yards on 47 carries. Northwestern's continued inability to spark the ground game is a concern after the 2009 season, when it finished an uncharacteristic 95th nationally in rushing average (117.5 ypg). Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon couldn't get going, and backup quarterback Evan Watkins (7 carries, 36 yards) actually had the best day on the ground.

It's important to note that Arby Fields, the team's leading rusher last fall and the frontrunner to win the job for 2010, didn't participate in the spring game -- or any spring scrimmages for that matter -- because he was playing baseball for Northwestern. The Wildcats also have a couple of starting offensive linemen banged up, but they simply need to improve the run or it could be a long season in 2010.

Starting quarterback Dan Persa was efficient, completing 7 of 11 passes for 83 yards, but he also got picked off in the end zone by cornerback Mike Bolden. Watkins threw an interception on his first drive but rebounded to pass for 78 yards and a touchdown.

A few Wildcats nuggets:

  • Defensive tackle should be a strength for Northwestern this fall. Fifth-year senior Corbin Bryant has extensive experience, and Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli combined for four tackles for loss and a sack in Saturday's spring game.

  • A healthy Jeremy Ebert makes a big difference, and the junior should be the team's No. 1 wide receiver this fall. Ebert recorded four receptions for a game-high 49 yards on Saturday, including a 21-yard gain.

  • Linebacker Quentin Davie missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but he participated in the scrimmage and recorded three tackles.

  • Northwestern's secondary took a good step Saturday as it looks to replace three multiyear starters from 2009. Bolden and safety David Arnold both recorded interceptions and cornerback Justan Vaughn had a sack, while safety Davion Fleming and cornerbacks Jeravin Matthews and Ricky Weina each recorded a pass breakup.

  • Kickers Stefan Demos and Jeff Budzien both connected on 3 of 4 field-goal attempts, with their only misses coming from 51 yards (Demos) and 48 yards (Budzien). Steve Flaherty went 2-for-4 on the day, while Budzien had a game-long 46-yard conversion.

  • Rather than have coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz call plays, Fitzgerald gave the duties over to his position coaches, calling it an opportunity for them to professionally grow.