- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

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 champion Nebraska will have a potent offense led by fourth-year starting quarterback 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 last 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.”

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