Every time Northwestern’s football players slip on their workout shirts, they see just how close they came to an undefeated season in 2012.
Stamped on the back of each one is “5:03.” It stands for the total of 5 minutes, 3 seconds the Wildcats trailed at the end of their three losses.
“I knew we were close,” defensive end Tyler Scott said Wednesday on the Big Ten Legends Division spring teleconference. “It just really brought it to top of your mind when it said 5:03 and how little time that was we had to execute a couple more times to put us in the position of playing for the Big Ten title and going undefeated. It was scary to see that and know we’re capable of it.”
Northwestern would appear primed to make a run this fall with eight starters returning on offense and seven on defense.
Defending Legends champ Nebraska will have a potent offense led by fourth-year starting QB Taylor Martinez. The Cornhuskers might need every point that offense can muster to compensate for a defense that lost eight starters and surrendered 115 points in the last two games.
Michigan lost half its starters and is transitioning this spring from the spread to pro-style offense with quarterback Devin Gardner. Michigan State is breaking in a new offensive coordinator and planning for life without workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell.
The focus at Iowa is sorting out the competition among the three quarterbacks vying to replace James Vandenberg. Minnesota has all but one starter back on offense and is looking to move up.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said graduate assistant McNeil Parker was the one who pointed out the 5:03 time difference between 10-3 and 13-0 last season. The Wildcats (5-3 Big Ten) led Penn State until the last 2:37 and Nebraska until the last 2:08. In an overtime loss to Michigan, it took the Wolverines 18 seconds to score the winning touchdown.
“Our staff discussion was, ‘Are we that far away or are we that close?’ We have to decide as a program,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve chosen to build on the positive.”
There is a lot to be positive about at Northwestern, which is coming off its first bowl win since 1949. It starts with the alternating quarterbacks. “Kain (Colter) and Trevor (Siemian) can lead us to a championship,” Fitzgerald said.
Venric Mark, who rushed for almost 1,400 yards, and three receivers are back. Fitzgerald also talked up a fourth receiver, fifth-year senior Mike Jensen, who is having a “terrific spring.”
Fitzgerald said the defense has continued to add size and speed and is two deep at each position.
“It really doesn’t matter from a standpoint of what we’ve done in the past and what we have coming back,” Fitzgerald said. “What matters is how close this team is willing to get and what we’re willing to sacrifice between now and the opener against Cal to come together and improve as a program. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Nebraska (10-4, 6-2) played its spring game Saturday, and the offense scored five touchdowns and a field goal on the first six series. That did nothing to ease anxiety about a defense that gave up 70 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and 45 more in the Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia.
“What happened last year happened,” Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. “It’s over. You move on. This will be a different team with different challenges.”
Pelini said the situation isn’t as dire as critics think on the defensive line, which went through the spring with several players out or limited because of injuries. “Our line made great strides the second half of spring,” he said. “I like the potential there.”
Coach Brady Hoke of Michigan (8-5, 6-2) said he’s been impressed with how Gardner has prepared himself to take over at quarterback full-time this fall. Offensive coordinator Al Borges is installing more of the pro-style offense he has long preferred, and Hoke said Gardner has immersed himself in film study and embraced the system.
All-America offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said the offense is markedly different, with quarterbacks taking more snaps from under center and the emergence of more power running game.
“This is the style we need to be in,” Lewan said.
Dave Warner has taken over as offensive coordinator at Michigan State (7-6, 3-5), and the Spartans are starting to open things up after Bell carried the ball 382 times. Three quarterbacks threw 55 times for 401 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s scrimmage.
Andrew Maxwell and the other QBs are taking live hits in every practice, something that didn’t happen last year.
“They get more game-time experience, as close as we can get it. I think it’s been a positive for us,” coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Spartans have three starting receivers back, and a fourth who could become a factor is DeAnthony Arnett, who caught three balls last season after transferring from Tennessee.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who had one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten, is looking at sophomore Jake Rudock, junior Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard to replace Vandenberg.
“It’s a three-horse race,” Ferentz said. “We came in with no preconceived notions. We’ve rotated all three players.”
Eight starters are back on defense, but the Hawkeyes (4-8, 2-6) are without conference defensive back of the year Micah Hyde.
Minnesota (6-7, 2-6) continues to build under Jerry Kill. The Gophers bring back almost everyone on offense but have only one experienced quarterback, Philip Nelson, after Max Shortell transferred.
Kill said he’s noticed greater effort this spring from Donnell Kirkwood, who ran for 77 yards and a touchdown in the Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
“The bowl game really helped his confidence,” Kill said. “He’s grown up and matured and he’s doing really good things.”
Even with so many returnees, the question is whether the Gophers can become more competitive.
“We are closer than a lot of people think,” safety Brock Vereen said.