The No. 10 Northwestern football team ended its season in disappointing fashion last year by winning its final eight games but missing out on the playoffs once again thanks to early season failures against Doane and Morningside.
The Raiders finished ranked No. 17 nationally, one spot away from playoff contention. According to All-American senior running back Brandon Smith, the same mistakes won’t be repeated this year.
“I think we use it as motivation,” Smith said. “We found the past two seasons that even losing two games can leave you out of the playoffs. We need to treat every game as if it’s to get into the playoffs because any slip could cost us.”The Raiders will be returning many key players, including 10 offensive starters from last fall.
Smith will play his final season as a Raider in 2012, but the offense also returns junior quarterback Davis Bloemendaal and junior running back Theo Bartman, as well as senior wide receivers Tyler Walker and Eli Groenendyk. Four of the five offensive linemen from 2011 will protect the playmakers.
Aaron Jansen, an All-GPAC second team selection, will return for the defense at middle linebacker. All-American senior Jordan Carlson will anchor a defensive front that will let Jansen and the linebacker core make plays throughout the field.
“I think you’ll see a team that brings it every single game,” Smith said. “We have a bunch of seniors and upperclassmen that have been playing for a long time and want this season to last a long time.” That’s not to say the Raiders are top-heavy.
“Our depth is excellent,” said head coach Kyle Achterhoff. “We can play a lot of different players at nearly every position without much drop-off in talent. That should help us throughout an 11-game schedule.” Achterhoff stressed the importance of staying focused on the task at hand, no matter what the standings say. “I think it will be very important for us to stay focused on playing one game at a time,” Achterhoff said. “We can’t fall into the trap of looking ahead during the season.”
The Raiders are looking for postseason success this year, but for seniors, this season also represents the end of an era. Smith said he recognizes his special opportunity and plans to make the most of it.
“As a senior, every game is going to be memorable,” Smith said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group to play with.”
NW will open GPAC play this Saturday at national championship contender No. 7 Morningside at 7 p.m.