Sunday, September 27, 2009

Northwestern Looks Like a Nervous, Uptight Football Team

The good news and bad news is that we’ve started looking ahead to the next week of college football. This is good new because obviously nobody associated with Northwestern’s program can be happy with last week’s loss. It’s bad news because the Wildcats need to make a serious mental change and have less than a week to do so. The good news, again, is I really believe NU’s problem isn’t talent. The bad news, again, is that sometimes making a mental change is harder than making a physical one.

The change I see NU needing to make is to relax and stop putting some much pressure on themselves while playing. NU came into this season with a certain amount of expectation and right now it looks like the Wildcats are feeling the weight of those expectations. Looking at NU’s sideline it appeared like everyone was on edge. Nobody seemed to loose and relaxed. This is a bad thing. The best players are their most relaxed and loose under pressure. They also have the ability not to let self-awareness of mistakes or high-pressure situations bother them. The 2009 Northwestern Wildcats seem to do the opposite. Whenever anything goes wrong it’s as if you can see NU’s players looking at each other going, “Oh Crap! We’re supposed to be good!” A great example of this was when Minnesota scored to take the lead in the 4th quarter, instead of NU’s sideline showing confidence, you could see them deflate and seemingly start to think “It’s just like last week. Here we go again.” And because they thought that, that’s right where they went.

This is dramatically different from past Northwestern teams, including last year’s group, who seemed to thrive when the pressure was on. The only difference I can think of is that people expected this year’s team to be good so every time they fail the weight of that failure is felt. Ever worse, it seems that because they feel that weight, they can’t let it go. I really believe guys like Cornerback Jordan Mabin seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about mistakes. Jordan and his teammates need to get back the ability to “Flush it” that they were so proud of last season. Eight games are left in the 2009 season and if the Wildcats can’t get over their failures in the last two then the next eight will likely be repeats of those because that’s what will be on the player’s minds when they take the field.

Let’s change that ‘Cats.

Flush It.

Press On.

Go 1-0 this week against Purdue.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Poor Defense, Kafka’s Turnovers Killing Northwestern

Northwestern’s defense at one point regarded as potentially the top unit in the Big Ten now looks like the defense the Wildcats fielded in the decade of 1997-2007 when the defense was coordinated by Jerry Brown and Greg “Swiss Cheese” Colby. Current defensive coordinator Mike Hawkwitz certainly has more pedigree than those guys, but after one successful season, his results now look about the same. What’s amazing about NU’s defensive failure is that the players involved are pretty much the same cast of characters who successfully led NU to a 9 win season last year. Just to tell you how much better last year was, if NU wants to win 9 games this season they can only lose one more time this year. I think even the most optimistic NU fan would say that isn’t going to happen.

What I don’t get is that the key to NU’s success last year appeared to be an aggressive approach. This season NU doesn’t seem to cover as aggressively in the secondary and they certainly aren’t as aggressive at pursuing the quarterback. I also really don’t understand why after NU successfully used DE Vince Browne as a standup rusher in one series where they actually stopped Minnesota that they never went back to that setup.

The bottom line on NU’s defense is nothing is working right. That’s obvious both in allowing 37 and 35 points in successive weeks and in the fact that both Syracuse and Minnesota could pick whether they wanted to run or pass and succeed at will at both.

NU’s other major problem is the turnovers from QB Mike Kafka. Kafka’s numbers look good, but I’m beginning to question his ability to consistently lead this team. I know some will disagree, but I look at some key plays which have really hurt NU these last two weeks. Kafka fumbled the opening play against Syracuse and he threw a pick which I think was intended to the Syracuse guy when NU was driving for the winning fieldgoal. This week he threw a key pick right before halftime and fumbled on consecutive plays when NU was trying to mount a last ditch effort. It also seems that Kafka has a tendency to at times miss wide open receivers as he did on his first half pick and when he could have hit Sid Stewart for a game changing TD. I’m not necessarily calling for Dan Persa yet, but I’m thinking NU’s coaches should be getting closer towards getting Persa involved. I sure hope Pat Fitzgerald isn’t influenced by loyalty to a senior and will be willing to pull Kafka if these turnovers continue.

Personally, I think these last two weeks have been some of my most painful as a Northwestern fan because of the expectations I had for this year. It reminds of the 2001 football season when NU lost to Penn State, Purdue, Indiana, and Iowa in increasingly worse fashion and then dropped close losses to Bowling Green and Illinois.

Some might think this an insane statement, but I strongly Northwestern’s game next week against Purdue might be the most important football game Northwestern has played since beating Purdue to win the Big Ten in 1995. If NU beats Purdue I can see them still winning 7 or 8 games. If they lose to the Boilermakers, I see the Wildcats winning 4 at most.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

NU Welcomes A Couple Visitors to Ryan Field This Week

The blog fomerly known as the Purple Drank, now known as Sippin' on Purple, interviewed Drew Cieszynski today. Here's the link:

Drew and a group of friends are coming to Northwestern as part of a tour of all 11 Big Ten football venues. I think this a great deal and I hope that NU makes a positive impression and Drew and his friends. He lists several awards NU could win in his interview as Sippin' on Purple, but as someone who visits all 11 sites in the Big Ten I'd love to hear where NU could improve. After all, as much as we all love Ryan Field Northwestern's gameday could use a little work. Perhaps after Drew and his partners see NU and compare it to other places they've been they'll be able to offer a few ideas on what NU does right, but also what NU can do to make Saturday at Ryan Field a venue which appeals to more than just NU's biggest fans.

Also, if you see Drew and the rest of the tour group make sure you offer them so free food or drink, we do want NU to look good.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NU Link Fest

Some may have already seen these stories, but good stuff has shown up all over the web about NU sports so let's have a look...

Lindsey Willhite of the Daily Herald writes about NU sports all the time and I think has some of the best stuff on college hoops. Today he posted a great story on Jershon Cobb and the upcoming year for NU. The best part to me this quote, "guard Drew Crawford already looks like a junior or senior in terms of strength." Here's the whole story:

Now, while Willhite knows a great deal about NU hoops, this next post comes from someone who knows even better, former NU guard Craig Moore posted on his blog about who will take over for him at NU's two-guard spot.

New NU blog Carmody Court also has a post on Cobb's choice to come to NU:

Finally, I come to my favorite NU post of the day. The blog Black and Purple has started a Monday blog-O-meter in which he ranks how each NU blog feels about the Wildcats football team. I think this is a great idea. Here's his first ranking:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wildcats Land First 2010 Hoops Commit today announced that Northwestern had landed its first 2010 basketball recruit. 4-star guard Jershon Cobb of Atlanta, GA visited Northwestern last week and committed today. Cobb is ranked 90th in the Rivals150 for the class of 2010 and his 4-star status makes him one of the highest rated recruits to enter NU in a long time. If he has a good senior year it will be interesting to see just how highly ranked he ends up. If he really explodes it might be an all-time high for NU.

This commitment is also big for NU because the class of 2011 has four players from the Atlanta area who are looking at NU. Given Cobb’s potential positive relationship to those young men, his decision to verbal to Northwestern has to put the Wildcats in serious position to land at least a couple of his fellow Atlanta area athletes.

As was the case in recruiting many of NU’s current players, including incoming highly regarded freshman Drew Crawford, great credit has to go to the hard work of assistant coach Tavaras Hardy. Hardy seems willing to work as hard as any assistant coach around in order to land prospects not just from Illinois, but around the nation.

Most preseason predictions expect NU to make the postseason this year, some even say this season will mark NU’s first NCAA tournament appearance. Only time will tell if that is the case, but I think we can safely say that with Cobb’s commitment NU has its first big win of the 2009-10 season.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Last Second Loss to Syracuse has NU Facing Tough Tasks If 'Cats Want to Play in the Postseason

Northwestern football’s recent history is filled with terrible losses followed by big wins so I don’t want to write NU off just yet, however, the loss tonight shows NU has major flaws which existed in the first two games and have not been corrected. That is the mark of a poor team. Most notably, Northwestern’s defense can’t stop the passing game and gets very little pressure on the opposing QB. Considering this has been a problem against a MAC team and now a guy who has played 3 football games in four years, I think this a bid sign for the upcoming matchup with stud QB Adam Weber or Minnesota. It’ll also be a problem against most of the other Big Ten teams NU plays. I really don’t know what the problem is, but this season the defense has looked for like it did during the heyday of the Greg Colby era. That’s bad.

On offense NU can’t seem to get a running game going. I’d personally like to see more Arby Fields. He showed a brief flash tonight, but then disappeared. I’d also still like to see more of Mike Kafka running as I don’t think he can be counted on to throw the ball as well as he did tonight in future games.

Finally, NU’s special teams look terrible on kickoff coverage and punt return. These are key field position areas and NU needs to control field position to be successful. If Demos can’t kick the ball into the endzone in a dome he should not kickoff. On punt return, our outside blockers need to at least get in the way of the other team’s gunners or one of these days Smith is going to get seriously hurt.

Again, I’m not writing the season off, but right now Northwestern looks like the type of team who will have to battle to reach a .500 record and a big to a low-level bowl. They don’t have to stay there, but a very different team needs to show up against Minnesota if they don’t want to do so.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Northwestern Announces Men's Hoops Schedule

Here's the 2009-10 Men's Basketball schedule from Northwestern:

The Wildcats play a school recrod 20 home games.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Northwestern, 27 Eastern Michigan, 24: We Won! We Stink!

Personally, I don’t actually believe Northwestern stinks, but if you look at the message board chatter or listened to the fans in the parking lot after today’s victory you’d conclude that most Wildcat fans think Northwestern is a bad football team. The reason, obviously, is the fact the Wildcats struggled to beat a very mediocre Eastern Michigan team 27-24 today at Ryan Field. Amazingly, this win has NU fans in a total panic. What I want to do is go through some of the reasons fans have hit the panic button and see if they’re legitimate.

#1 Mike Kafka didn’t look sharp throwing the ball: I really am not worried about this at all. Due to one of the strangest play calling exhibitions I’ve ever seen, Mick McCall basically only let Kafka throw the ball in obvious passing situations. As a result, Kafka rarely got to throw when the defense wasn’t ready for him to do so. Also, Kafka really hasn’t been allowed to run the ball yet. This puts more pressure on NU’s running backs and makes it harder to pass as teams don’t have to worry about Kafka getting outside of them on a scramble. While on the topic of QB runs, NU didn’t run the zone read at all today and ran it something like two times against Towson. For Kafka and the NU spread to be effective they need to be balanced and show they can use all their weapons at one time. If NU does this in the future no reason exits to worry about Kafka. If McCall insists on not running Kafka and only passing in long yardage situations Kafka will look lousy. Any QB would.

#2 The defense line only has 3 sacks this year: The first reaction of many people to this news is to say Corey Wotton must still be hurt. I heard a lot of that after the game. This is not something I want to speculate on. I’m not an NU coach, a doctor, or Corey’s family. If I was, though, considering Corey’s potential NFL future I wouldn’t let him play hurt against Towson or EMU. Therefore, I think Corey’s probably fine. The problem is one of two things. First, he did put on 20 pounds of muscle. Great as muscle is, remember Corey dropping weight was part of what made him good last year. Also, John Gill is gone and now Corey gets the double teams. That means that the DTs Marshall Thomas and Corbin Bryant need to setup. Right now, I’m very disappointed in their play.

#3 Special Teams: Other than Demos hitting the game winning field goal NU’s special teams were terrible. Demos himself should NOT be kicking off. If you can’t kick the ball past the ten yard line you shouldn’t kick off. It’s as simple as that. NU has other kickers who can kick the ball deep and let Demons concentrate on field goals and punts. Brendan Smith and Andrew Brewer ran into each other on a punt return which cost NU 7 points. That’s bad and I put that on the coaching staff who for the first time I can remember put them both back to return a punt at the same time.

#4 NU has about 17 running backs and can’t choose one: NU doesn’t actually have 17 running backs, they have five, but I agree that’s about three or four too many. Simmons and Schmidt had nice days today and Arby Fields looked like a freshman. I’d like to see NU use these three with one getting the majority of the carries and probably Schmidt getting the ball on short yardage and the third guy backing up both. Scott Concannon, unfortunately, should be the odd man out. If Matthews comes back I like him in the hybrid role we saw in week one.

#5 NU ran the Greg Colby Swiss Cheese 10 yard cushion pass defense: NU was down to their third or fourth corner at times, but I must say I thought some sort of invasion of the body snatchers event must have happened to Mike Hankwitz with the way NU’s defense was called.

Those are the major issues I see. Some are more serious than others, but changes need to be made before next week. It’ll be a hard week of work for both players and coaches if NU wants to beat Syracuse.

Chicago Invitation Challenge Moved to Chicago

According to Notre Dame’s website and the Sears Center itself, the Chicago Invitation Challenge has been moved from the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates to the UIC-Pavilion in Chicago. For those who already have tickets I do not know what this means. The Sears Center has had some major finance issues which is likely the cause of this move. To be honest, I’m not shocked that a large arena in the far west suburbs that doesn’t serve as the home to any major team is having financial problems. I am, however, a little disappointed that the location which this tournament was moved to is UIC. A team that isn’t even in the event. Yes, playing at Welsh-Ryan would give NU a home court advantage, but I bet considering the number of ND alums who live closer to Evanston than the west side of Chicago that many ND fans wouldn’t have cared. Then again, at least the Chicago Invitation Challenge is now in the city its named after. That does make more sense. Now, we need to have teams (like UIC) who are from Chicago instead of teams that the Chicago media think are from Chicago like Notre Dame.

Also: NU beat Eastern Michigan in football today 27-24 and Wildcat Nation is about to panic after a win. That, I think, is almost a good sign. I'll have more on the reasons to panic or not later.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What We Learned In Week 1

There was a time when veteran college football coaches scoffed at scheduling easy week 1 opponents. They believed playing some cupcake you could hammer by 30 points was less useful than practice. Now, though, with a 12-game schedule and more than 30 bowl games which will be open to 6-win teams, almost every team builds a few easy wins into their schedule. Truth me told, I still think certain games are less competitive than practice, say Florida versus Charleston Southern (is there a Charleston Northern?), but playing a cupcake is what you have to do in order to be on equal footing with your opponents in trying to get 6 wins. For that reason, I have no problem with Northwestern playing Towson today. Would it have benefited NU to play at least a little tougher team? Probably, but in the Wildcats 47-14 win I think we actually learned a few useful things about the 2009 edition of the Wildcats.

1) Arby Fields is NU’s best running back. I’m not trying to dismiss the contributions of any of the other guys, but it isn’t even close when looking at how quick Fields hits the hole or how effortlessly he cuts up the field when he finds a sliver of daylight. If he gets the ball 20 times a game, I think he can average over 100 yards a contest easily.

2) Sherrick McManis is NU’s best (or at least most important) defensive back. I love the NU safeties, but when McManis left the game was when Towson started throwing the ball effectively. McManis is a lockdown corner. The rest of NU’s DBs are good, but they don’t blanket wide-outs the way McManis does.

3) Mike Kafka doesn’t have to run to be effective. Mike Kafka ran for just 1.0 yard a carry, but his 192 yards passing helped NU take control of the game and he showed great touch on several balls during the game. His backup, Dan Persa, also showed good touch and a strong arm on a 72-yard TD to Andrew Brewer.

4) Drake Dunsmore is going to be a major weapon. Although he only had 2 catches for 24 yards, Drake Dunsmore showed the size and speed he hinted at during his freshman season and before injury his sophomore year. A fully healthy Dunsmore should make Mike Kafka’s job a little easier, especially in the red zone.

5) Andrew Brewer is fast. Towson’s DBs might not be Big 10 quality, but Andrew Brewer blew right past two of them on his TD catch. If he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the most versatile wide-outs in the Big 10. He’s a big target, he ran run, and he offers some very interesting Wildcat package possibilities as a former QB.

6) We still need to learn more about NU’s defensive unit. McManis left the game with what might have been a minor injury issue and Corey Wotton was rested for all but the first few series of the game. With both those guys taking the majority of the afternoon off, it was tough to get a true sense of NU’s defense. The group should be very good, but they weren’t as dominating today as many would have expected. It’ll be interesting to see how they play next week.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Basketball Schedule Update

Some folks over at Rivals have done some work and have put together the latest news on NU's hoops schedule. Here's a link:

You'll see the 'Cats start with four home games. Three of them are "should wins" but the biggest one is against Butler who stands a very good chance of being a top-25 team to open the year. I bet the Big Ten Network is going to love having that game, since we know ESPN won't be showing it.

NU's opener against NIU is probably thanks to Jim Phillips making a connection with his former staff. I think it's a good opener as I like playing local (or at least semi-local) teams. NU also his Chicago State at home on March 3rd.

North Florida comes back to Evanston on December 16th, that was a 40-39 Kevin Coble buzzer beating put back last time NU hosted them. I hope it's not so close this year.

Of course, all NU fans are looking forward to that game in the Chicago Challenge vs Notre Dame on November 27th.

Finally, I hope to see everyone in Evanston on Saturday when the football 'Cats take on Townson. I'll be the one wearing the 1931 National Champs shirt (yeah, I'm still pushing that).

Go Cats!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It's Almost Football Season: Don't Toss the Sutton Jersey in the Closet

So we're only 24 hours away from the start of college football’s season and only a couple days from the start of NU’s season. Though I created this blog as primarily a basketball site, I still find myself unbelievably pumped when football season comes upon us. It’s almost the same type of feeling as being a kid waiting for Christmas. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, but you’re excited about the possibilities. For Northwestern the possibilities are huge. I’d say with four easy non-conference games that anything less than an 8 win season would have to be disappointing. This is a major change from fourteen years ago in 1995 when anybody outside of the NU program wouldn’t have expected the ‘Cats to win more than 3 games. Sports Illustrated ranked NU in the 70s that year and called punter Paul Burton the ‘Cats best player. To everyone’s shock, the ‘Cats won 10 games in 1995, and although Burton had a nice season, it was running back Darnell Autry who made the cover of Sports Illustrated when SI featured the ‘Cats. Will the 2009 season see NU on it’s first SI Cover since that year? Who knows, but the Wildcats are blessed with talent, some known, and some unknown. Let’s take a look.

#12 Andrew Brewer: The Wildcats receivers might be a bit under the radar, but Brewer’s 6-3 size and 4.4 foot speed should place him firmly on every opponent’s radar as long as he stays healthy.

#13 Mike Kafka: Most people point to Kafka’s game against Minnesota when discussing his ability to lead NU, but I also want to point to NU’s first drive against Ohio State. NU ran Kafka something like 7 straight times and the great Buckeye defense couldn’t stop him. For that series, Kafka was without a doubt the best player on the field. Eventually OSU figured out Mick McCall wasn’t opening the whole playbook for Kafka at the time, but if it opens this year the ‘Cats will be in a January bowl game.

#19 Arby Fields: Tyrell Sutton is gone, but if you bought a Tyrell jersey don’t toss it in the back of the closet. His replacement in jersey number will also replace Tyrell at running back. Simmons might be slated as the starter, but it’ll likely be Fields who is running the ball the brunt of the time when the Big Ten season comes around. Fields will also join NU defensive end Quentin Williams as an outfielder on NU’s baseball team next spring. Talk about a talented guy!

#57 Nate Williams: I don’t know why more people don’t talk about this guy. He was all over the field last year as middle linebacker when he took over. He’s got to have legit 4.4 speed as he ran down Juice Williams a couple times against Illinois. Considering who his head coach is, I think he’ll get even better this year.

#9 Drake Dunsmore; Something of a forgotten man after a pre-season injury last year. I would not be surprised to see Dunsmore led NU in receptions. With Kafka at the QB spot I expect to see more superback formations and with Dunsmore’s speed and versatility I think he’ll make a case for All-Big Ten honors.

#99 Corey Wotton: How is this guy not the pre-season pick for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Is the media blind? He’s big, he’s strong, he’s quick off the ball, and he’s got a monster playing next to him in Corbin Bryant. I think Wotton gets at least 12 sacks this season.