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Maize n Preview: A Misguided and Misinformed 2007 Football Preview of Northwestern University

The Game
University of Michigan v. Northwestern University

Location: Ryan Field Evanston, Ilinois
Date: September 29, 2007
Game Time: TBA
Game #: 5
TV: TBA
Radio: WOMC-FM and CKLW-AM

The Opposition
University: Northwestern University
Location: Evanston, Illinois
Team Name: Wildcats
Facility: Ryan Field (47,130)
Conference: Big Ten
Conference Championships: 8 (1903, 1926, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1995, 1996, 2000)
Number of National Championships: Zero
First Season of Football: 1875 (0-1-0)
Last Season: 2006 (4-8-0)
All Time Record: 453-604-44
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (4-8-0) (2nd year)
Versus Michigan All-Time: 14-51-2


Ryan Field, home of the worst cat sounding thing in sports."

Fine Northwestern Sites and Blogs: Lake the Posts; The Sports Biz

Last Year: Four Wins And A Tough Season

Prior to the 2006 season everything seemed to be going Northwestern's way. Decent recruiting classes that included the occasional 4th star rather than the occasional no-star. Three bowl games in 6 years. A head coach who seemed determined to turn Northwestern into a power, admissions standards be damned.

Unfortunately, Northwestern and the entire college football world suffered a devastating loss when Randy Walker passed away last summer from a heart attack. Walker was 52 years old.

Taking his place was the youngest Head Coach in college football, Walker's handpicked successor, former Northwestern LB Pat Fitzgerald. At 31 years old, Fitzgerald had less than five years coaching experience at any level in any capacity. Despite a quality recruiting class and momentum from the previous year, Northwestern limped into the 2006 season with heavy hearts.

Things didn't get easier during fall practice. CJ Bacher, who backed up NU record setting QB Brett Basanez and was slated to lead the Cats, injured his shoulder leg (Ed. Note - stupid brain/memory. Thank you to the anonymous hero who corrected my stupidity). As a result, true freshman Mike Kafka stepped into the QB position with only a month of D-1 practice under his belt and only one year as a high school football starter to fall back on!

To their credit, Northwestern took it to their first opponent, Miami (OH), beating the Red Hawks 21-3 in a game devoted to former coach Walker. Tears were the norm rather than the exception. The emotional letdown the followed resulted in a 34-17 loss to D1-AA New Hampshire. While the loss looks bad, and honestly it is, a closer look reveals that New Hampshire not only ranked #1 at the D1-AA level but also returned most of its starting line up. The 'Cats rebounded to beat Eastern Michigan 14-6 the following weekend before a difficult trip to Nevada dropped them to 2-2. In the losses, Kafka was less than mediocre, failing to break 200 yards even once. During the Nevada loss he completed only 9 passes.

The start to the Big Ten season was not kind to the Cats. They managed just 26 total points in their first three games; all losses to Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue. When the Northwestern offense finally did get on-line, it wasn't enough. Despite putting up 38 points against Michigan State, they allowed 41 and lost what would become the greatest comeback in the history of NCAA football. Following a rain soaked pounding at the hands of Michigan, the Cats limped into Iowa.

On the road, and in a stadium where the Hawkeyes are nearly unbeatable, Northwestern limited Drew Tate and the Iowa offense to a single touchdown while posting three of their own. This was easily the biggest program win of the year, and supplied Northwestern with enough confidence to overcome a 41-10 loss to Ohio State, and top Illinois 27-16 in the battle for state bragging rights.

So What Should We Expect This year?

If Bacher and Sutton are healthy, expect them to be near the top of the league at their respective positions. Sutton somehow racked up 1,000 yards as a sophomore when every team they played keyed on him. Bacher posted a 59% completion percentage with only 161 attempts. If healthy, he should be able to take advantage of Northwestern's Play Station type offense and rack up some excellent numbers.

A huge boost to this team is the fact Wisconsin and Penn State rotate off their schedule and Minnesota and Indiana re-appear on it. While Indiana is not the pushover it used to be, it's also not Penn State. Instead of two guaranteed losses Northwestern should post at least one maybe two wins out of this switch. The rest of the schedule is pillowy soft. Northwestern starts off with Northeastern, Nevada and Duke at home before traveling to OSU and hosting UM. Without the badgers and lions on the table Northwestern legitimately has a shot at not only a bowl, but 8 wins.

Yes. I mean that.

Sixteen starters return and this year's defense should make serious strides based on the number of young, returning starters. Further, Fitzgerald is making serious waves on the recruiting path and has significantly upgraded Northwestern's talent. Even though that talent won't start for a year or two, it adds needed depth to a relatively thin lineup. With a veteran line, veteran QB, veteran RB, and an improving defense the Cats could be this year's Big Ten Cinderella. While a New Years Day Bowl appears out of the question, their schedule and schemes indicate they could end up in a bowl we don't make fun of.

On the coaching side, Fitzgerald now has a full year under his belt on the sidelines. Don't underestimate the difference this will make. The MSU comeback absolutely screamed inexperience (or idiocy) on the sidelines. Since I'm in the camp that believes Fitz will be an excellent coach, I feel squeezing four wins out of a team with 6 returning starters on defense and a mediocre freshman QB was an accomplishment. He'll learn from the MSU collapse and field a much stronger team this year.

OFFENSE

A pinball machine in hyperdrive. The late Randy Walker's offense was the Fun and Gun on steroids. In the year before his death the Cats average 32.3 points a game, and that was with 5 returning starters. Last year's collapse to 16.5 a game was the result of bad luck, injuries and heavy hearts. This year with 8 returning starters on the offensive side of the ball including a healthy No. 1 QB and a veteran O-Line, the four receiver sets we were so used to seeing from Northwestern during Walker's tenure will return. Three of the top four receivers return as well. Look for this offense to put up between 23-25 a game. Also don't be surprised if the Cats grind out some possession yards on Sutton's tiny frame.

QB

Starting a freshman quarterback isn't good for anyone unless your name is Henne or McCoy. Ask Mike Kafka. 1 TD and 5 INTs on 96 attempts. You really can't blame him though, it's hard for anyone to step into a starter's role with only a month under your belt. This year the pressure won't be on Kafka. Instead, CJ Bacher returns to his starting role following last season's early shoulder injury. Bacher didn't start until Michigan State, and when he did the difference was noticeable. 38 against MSU. 21 against Iowa. 27 against Illinois. Bacher's got a good arm, but his biggest advantage over Kafka is his decision making. He reads defenses relatively well and is able to check down to his outlets. That's one of the reasons Tyrell Sutton had 40 catches out of the backfield.

The quarterback position isn't an overwhelming bunch, but they are decent. A healthy start to the season combined with a decent line should make this an exciting team to watch in all but two or three games where they will be totally out classed by upper tier Big Ten Teams.

RB

Tyrell Sutton is a badass. The 2004 Mr. Football in Ohio got interest from a number of Big Ten powerhouses but only received offers from NU and Illinois. The teams that didn't offer are now regretting it. Sutton rushed for 1,474 yards and 16 TDs, earning Big Ten Freshman of the year honors in 2005. Last year despite any help from his offensive line and a lost freshman quarterback, Sutton rushed for 1,000 yards. More impressively, Sutton's best games came at the end of the year rather than the beginning. He posted 172 against MSU, 168 versus Iowa, and 110 against Illinois (for the record, Illinois only gave up 3.3 yards per carry last year).

Sutton is speedy runner who isn't afraid of contact. A lot of bigger teams were scared off by his size, but that's never been something that bothered Sutton. He simply does not go down easily. On 189 carries last year Sutton lost only 40 yards. When he gets hit, his legs never stop churning and he's a slippery running back with good cutting ability. If the offensive line is even remotely productive Sutton should return to the 1,200 yard plateau fairly easily, and 1,500 yards isn't out on the question based on Northwestern's schedule.

My main concern about this unit is that it is truly only one man deep. Where Sutton was a three star (and arguably 4 star) recruit, his backups are low two stars at best. His main backup is Brandon Roberson who has 214 yards in three years. NU's other backup is Omar Conteh, from Cy-Fair in Texas (McGuffie's high school). Conteh's rating arguably should've been higher based on his senior year numbers in Texas' highest class (2,129 Yards and 31 TDs in 10 games). As a junior I'd expect he'll see the field to spell Sutton from time to time. Could be a valuable backup, but his lack touches over two years makes me wonder.

WR/TE

Deep but not overwhelming. Northwestern returns 3 of its top four receivers and most of its core group. Gone to graduation is Shaun Herbert who snagged 47 balls but only racked up 494 yards and 2 TDs. Despite his loss, this will be a much stronger unit this year.

On the front line two converted quarterbacks will provide Bacher with able targets. Eric Peterman caught 23 balls last year for 349 yards, including a 52 yarder (the longest of the year for NU). Peterman runs a 4.6 and is one of the faster receivers on the team. He's also ripe for ridicule. From the team site:

Q: If you could choose the title for your autobiography, what would it be?

A: "The Renaissance Man: Eric Peterman"


Hey, Peterman!

After Peterman, fellow converted QB Andrew Brewer comes in at the No. 4 receiver slot. Brewer is an extremely athletic young man who could fill in at running back if needed. His only catch last year went for 48 yards. Not bad, eh?

Natural receivers Ross Lane (Jr.) and Rasheed Ward (Jr.) round out the circus style offense. Lane topped 400 yards on 30 receptions last year. Ward brought in 22 catches and 212 yards. Of the two, Lane is the slipperier of the receivers and the more dangerous. He's also the tallest receiver on the team at 6'3" and should be the Cats' red zone receiver. Interesting note, Lane went to high school with former Michigan basketball guard, Reed Baker.

This isn't a great group, but it's not a horrible one either. They're solid. Don't expect a big play out of them but don't expect them to drop catchable balls either. They'll churn out yards. Everyone of these receivers can catch the ball so expect them to spread the field and eat up what you give them. As a result, expect a lot of bump coverage and face guarding on these guys. None of them are a get behind you threat, so if you can take them out of rhythm it'll throw a monkey wrench in the offense's timing on pass plays.

Offensive Line

This group is a bit of a conundrum. I'm not sure if they'll be good or horrible. Seriously. One of the main cogs, Senior Centre Trevor Rees was suspended indefinitely during spring practice for a DUI arrest that was reduced to reckless driving. He was reinstated by the school but may still face discipline from the school. If Rees returns, this should be a good but unspectacular unit. Rees has 33 starts under his belt and is the anchor of the line. If Northwestern decides to send a message, it could be a rough year.

Where the line failed last year was opening holes for Sutton. Where they succeeded was keeping their QB upright. The unit allowed only 26 sacks last year with the outlier being an inexplicable 5 sack game against Purdue. Minus that game, the line was surprisingly solid in pass protection. On the positive side, senior Left Tackle Dylan Thiry returns. Thiry has 22 starts in his three years at NU. At 6'8" 315 he's a gargantuan frame who may earn a paycheck in the NFL at some point. He's not as quick as some of the DE's he'll be facing, but he's a good tackle. Next to him will be last year's second string left guard Adam Crum. Crum started 4 games last year, but is undersized at 6'1" 285. Opposite Crum is returning starter Joel Belding at right tackle. Belding started 7 games last year at RT and at 6'3" 300, has great size and strength for the position. Finally, rounding out the line, is highly touted redshirt sophomore Kurt Mattes. Mattes was second string last year, and at 6'6" 290 is a prototypical size for the position. He's a little light, but as a starting sophomore he should be a natural fit.

There's not a lot of depth after the starters, so injuries could play a role in the season if anyone goes down. Still, this group should be better than last year's group at opening up the running game. Decent but not great.

DEFENSE

Over the last 6 years? Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Over the last six years here are the points per game: 2001 - 34.4; 2002 - 41.1; 2003 - 25.1; 2004 - 28.5; 2005 - 33.9; 2006 26.2. Ugh. This year may see a significant drop in those statistics. Northwestern returns eight starters on defense and sports a shiny new four star DB recruit who could/should start immediately. Last year Fitzgerald was forced to start a number of true and redshirt freshman and sophomores all over the field. This year they return as an experienced front who could post Northwestern's best defensive numbers since its 1996 squad.

Treat this with a grain of salt. Greg Colby's been the DC for 6 years, and the last time he had 8 returning starters his squad gave up 25.1 a game. Even so, there was improvement last year. Northwestern lopped a touchdown off their average from the year before while starting mostly freshmen at the line. 7 of the top ten tacklers and 4 of the top five return as well. This could shape up to be a formidable unit.

DL

A point of strength for the Cats' defense this year. While not an overwhelming group, the entire defensive line returns a year older and a year bigger. Everyone of the returning starters was a redshirt freshman or sophomore last year. Sophomores Corey Wootton (DE) and Adam Hahn (DT) both showed some capability. Wootton actually posted 4.5 sacks last year and 4.5 tackles for loss, earning him HM BT honors. He had a good spring and appears to actually have gotten bigger since last season. If he can continue to build on the pressure he brought last year on opposing QBs, it'll be a gigantic lift to this squad. Hahn is another of the young players Fitzgerald brought in prior to Coach Walker's death who is showing signs of becoming something special. At 6'3" almost 300 pounds, Hahn posted 28 tackles out of a backup position. Big, mean, and still growing, Hahn should and does scare the hell out of opposing running backs. This pair should not only produce this year, but be a solid foundation for next year as well.

The other two positions will be manned by Juniors John Gill (NT) and Kevin Mims (DE). Gill is another big body close to 300 pounds. Gill does have some talent but needs to take the next step this year to prevent teams from running all over him. Gill has the size and motor to be a good run stopper. At the End, Mims will be looking at single blocking all season and will need to take advantage. Mims saw time at tackle last year making 38 stops. Now in a starting role, he'll have to get into the backfield to keep offenses from totally keying up on Wootton.

As you'd expect from a line this young, most of the depth will be provided be freshmen and sophomores. However, the first guy off the bench will likely be senior Mark Koehn who made 14 stops and racked up 2 sacks last year. Koehn is a natural DE, but hasn't managed to emerge from the pack and secure the starting job. Also chipping in will be senior David Ngene who should spell Wooton at end from time to time. On the inside Marshall Thomas and Keegan Kennedy who are both just starting to bulk up, but are capable reserves at this point.

The line should be a source of strength for the Wildcats this season. While it's not going to overwhelm top tier foes, it will be respectable against them. Against middle tier and mediocre opponents, look for the Cats line to shine. Unfortunately they'll have to be good in order to keep the pressure off a re-tooling linebacking corps.

LB

The Cats return only 1 starter to the top three at linebacker, but Adam Kadela is a damn good returnee. Kadela racked up 80 tackles last year and was Northwestern's top stopper in 2006. Like all of Northwestern's linebackers Kadela has good but not great speed, and excellent size for the position. All of the Cats' LBs are 6'1" or taller and move well in their respective zones. Kadela took over the middle of the defense after now-departed Nick roach snapped his ankle against MSU. Based on his size and skill, this should be a perfect match for Kadela. Look for him to top the 100 tackle mark this year and be in on just about every rushing tackle.

On the sides Northwestern sports a pair of first time starting upperclassmen in Junior Mike Denard and Senior Eddie Simpson. Simpson started NU's last four games in place of Roach and Denard is another capable linebacker who's a little short on speed. They'll form a decent linebacking group that should be good against the run but subpar in coverage. Off the bench Junior Malcom Arrington and Prince Kwateng should provide depth. Both are special teamers supposedly ready to explode, but Kwateng's been injured and Arrington's behind Kaleda. Also in the mix will be freshman Bryce McNaul if he doesn't switch to DE.

This should be a decent unit. It's not going to shine by any respect, but will be capable against the runs up the middle and anything between the tackles. Sweeps to the outside could be another matter altogether. Thought the group has size, outside speed is a question mark. Expect the corners and safeties to help out considerable when opponents stretch the field horizontally.

DB

Like the defensive line, this will be a source of strength for the Cats defense. Northwestern sports to very good safeties in Junior SS Brendan Smith and senior FS Reggie McPherson. It's not too much of a stretch to say they'd compete for starting time in Michigan's backfield (based on last year's play). McPherson's got great size and cover ability, leading the team with 7 pass breakups and notching 57 tackles. At 6'1" 200, McPherson has an outside chance of playing in the NFL if he makes a good showing this year. Brendan Smith posted an HM BT season last year racking up 68 tackles, 4 pass break ups, and 3 INTs. Easily the fastest of Northwestern's DBs, Smith has excellent closing speed and at 6'1" 210 brings a load when he hits. Smith and McPherson play the run very well and aren't afraid of larger running backs. Both safeties were first time starters last year who showed tremendous improvement as the season wore on. If they can stay healthy, this could be one of the better safety pairings in the Big Ten.

At the corners, former four star recruit Deante Battle is now a senior and locks down the top corner spot. Battle has excellent coverage skills and isn't afraid to play the run (as his 67 tackles indicate). However, a top corner needs more than 1 INT on his resume. Judging by his 5 PBUs and 2 sacks last year, his numbers will definitely improve. Opposite him will be either Sophomore Sherrick McManis or true freshman Jordan Mabin. McManis started only four games at corner, but still managed 5 PBUs and an INT. He's got excellent top end speed, but isn't quite at shifty as Battle. Even so, he's the team's leading return specialist. If he continues to grow into the position, he'll likely take over the No.1 corner spot with Battle's departure. The other possibility is four star CB Jordan Mabin. Mabin is only the second four star recruit in Northwestern's recent history. While there are several good corners ahead of Mabin on the depth chart, the true freshman has both the wheels and quickness to be an impact corner. I can't see him sitting too long.

There is some depth at corner, but not a lot at Safety. If Mabin isn't the first DB off the bench it's because redshirt freshman Justan Vaughn continues to improve. The 6'0 190 corner had an excellent spring and impressed everyone with his closing speed and coverage skills. David Oredugba adds depth, but isn't a threat to take over a starting position. At Safety the main sub will be 6'4" sophomore Brad Phillips. Phillips is huge for a safety but moves deceptively well. If he or any of the safety starters go down, the pickings are thin. Ben Rothrauff and Chaz Richart are game upperclassmen, but they're not good enough to start or play appreciable minutes.

ST

Stephan Demos will handle the FG and KO duties for the Cats. He's supposed to be good. I only wish his name was Lubchenko...


It's funnier in Spanish...

Punting will be handled by Kyle Daley and the return duties will fall to McManis.

The Schedule

Sept. 1 Northeastern
Sept.8 Nevada
Sept. 15 Duke
Sept. 22 at Ohio State
Sept. 29 Michigan
Oct. 6 at Michigan State
Oct. 13 Minnesota
Oct. 20 Eastern Michigan
Oct. 27 at Purdue
Nov. 3 Iowa
Nov. 10 Indiana
Nov. 17 at Illinois

Best Case Scenario: 9-3 - Yes. This is a pipe dream. But it is a best case scenario. This assumes Sutton is back to his freshman year form, the Offensive line is above average, the Defensive line and DBs are as good as advertised, and Bacher is a legit BT QB. I don't see the Cats beating Michigan, Ohio State or Purdue, but the rest of the schedule is surprisingly winnable. After five games the Cats should be 3-2. MSU is a tossup. Minnesota and Eastern Michigan should be wins. Iowa is a toss-up (sorry Iowa fans, after squandering Drew Tate I'm not a Ferentz fan), and Northwestern will likely be favored against Indiana and dead even against Illinois. The Cats have played Illinois well during the down years so I'll give them the nod early on the basis of experience.

Worst Case Scenario: 4-8 - Again, highly unlikely, but possible. The four wins would be Northeastern, Duke, Minnesota and Eastern Michigan. This assumes Bacher gets hurt again, the O-Line goes up in flames and the defensive line takes a huge step backward.

Season Prediction: 7-5 - I'm a hair away from calling an 8-4 season. The Cats were overly generous with the ball last year and didn't pick off that many passes. I see both of those statistics improving based on the upgrades at QB and the experience in the defensive backfield. I think they'll start 3-2 as in the best case above, and lock down wins against Eastern Michigan, Indiana, and Minnesota. There's six wins and bowl eligibility. That puts them at 6-2 with Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, and Purdue as toss ups. I don't think the Cats stand a chance against Painter and Purdue, but stranger things have happened. I'll call losses at East Lansing and West Lafayette. That leaves a visit from Iowa or a trip to Champaign for that elusive seventh win. Iowa's under achieved for too long and the hole at QB will hinder the Hawkeye's game plan. I'll take the Cats to make it two three straight over Iowa to take them to 7-4 and a decent bowl game.