Saturday, October 3, 2009

Better Fundamental Play Leads to Victory for Northwestern

To quote former Northwestern coach Randy Walker, “This wasn’t a game of perfect, but it never is.” The good news is despite playing a far from perfect game the Wildcats beat Purdue 27-21. The better news is despite the fact Northwestern wasn’t perfect, they were a lot better than they’ve been the past two weeks on defense. The offense struggled a bit more at times, but to be honest, I think the offense’s play has been pretty consistent so far this season.

Some will day Purdue helped NU’s defense look good, but virtually every turnover Purdue made was actually caused by NU. There were no plays were Purdue just dropped the ball or Joey Elliott threw right to NU. On Sherrick McManis’s interception, McManis made an amazing play to bait Elliott into making a bad throw. Also, most of the fumbles were the result of defensive strips including two by Brad Phillips, who played his best game all year.

NU’s defense also seemed to benefit from more playing time from Niko Mafuli and Adam Hahn at the defensive tackles and David Arnold at linebacker. All three players looked better at taking on blockers than the guys they replaced. Mafuli also seems to take pressure off of the other defensive linemen since the guy is gigantic. Arnold simply looked more like a Big Ten caliber player than Ben Johnson. Arnold and Johnson were both safeties in high school, but while Johnson still looks like a safety, Arnold looks like a strong physical linebacker. I think this is why he could shed blockers easier.

Northwestern also improved significantly on special teams. The kick coverage team got a big boost from true freshman Roderick Goodlow who busted Purdue’s wedge a couple times and led great pursuit on the ball carrier. I also saw Arnold and Jeravin Matthews show good speed and tackling ability on coverage as well.

Of course, any special teams discussion has to mention Stefan Demos hitting four fields and making a perfect rugby punt which got NU a turnover.

One thing I still don’t get on special teams, though, is the kickoff return game plan. NU doesn’t look like they block well and even when they do block, the returners seem to slow down before contact. That’s a bad idea. If you look at good kick returners they run full speed until they are tackled. Matthews and Andrew Brewer need to learn this lesson.

On offense Northwestern made pretty much the same mistakes they’ve made in all the other games. They also pretty much did the same things well as they have in the other games. Mike Kafka still threw the ball well overall, but also missed several wide open receivers because of his propensity to misfire high. A sure TD to Drake Dunsmore was the most notable miss. NU also continued to play inconsistently on the offensive line. The right tackle position is the worst offender, but the middle of the line didn’t open as many holes on QB draws as I think Mick McCall thought they would. I also still don't understand why NU can't just pick 5 (or 6) o-linemen and play them all the time. Why the 'Cats rotate linemen like wideouts or tailbacks is beyond me. I mean it'd be one thing if they were all about the same, but I think some of the backups are clearly weaker than the starters.

It was nice to see NU call some designed QB runs. Some worked and some did not, but at least the defense actually had to respect Kafka’s legs. The best thing about Kafka today was he didn’t turn the ball over. In fact, after a TO by Arby Fields on the first play of the game NU never turned the ball over again.

Finally, though, he made some less than stellar reads in the passing game and took a few losses, I think Arby Fields played well. He ran hard and clearly hits the hole quicker than Schmidt. In the goal line situation, though, I’d rather have NU keep the ball in Kafka’s hands as they did for the final score. I think the 6-4 Kafka is better in short yardage than any tailback NU has on the roster. Personally, if I were in charge I’d have both Kafka and Dan Persa in when NU was on the goal line. I think they’re NU’s best short yardage options.

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