Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Smart Aggressive Versus Dumb Aggressive

A number of NU fans have gotten on Coach Fitzgerald for what they’ve called unaggressive play calling. I personally would like to see Fitz take a few more risks than he currently does. However, after this weekends game against Indiana, I think it is time to discuss the difference between playing smart aggressive and playing dumb aggressive. Between being aggressive in order to help your team win, and being aggressive just because it seems time to try something.

For the record, this discussion is relevant in any sport. I personally coach baseball and talk about this all the time. We tell our players we’re going to give them the green light to steal a base whenever they want because we want to put pressure on our opponent and “make them play different than they practice”, however, we aren’t going to continue to give a player the green light if he tries to steal third with two outs and a 2 ball 0 strike count on our cleanup hitter. If a player does that, he’s not being smart aggressive. He’s being aggressive for aggressiveness sake and not to help the team win.

I think what we saw this weekend from Indiana was a coaching staff that seemed like they wanted to be aggressive for aggressiveness sake. The result was a series of dumb aggressive fourth down calls which kept NU in the game. The most obvious of these was the 4th and goal in which not only did Indiana go for the TD, but they called some sort of trick pop-pass play with wildcat back Mitchell Evans in as quarterback. If Indiana had at least gone for 4th and goal with a normal power running formation the mistake might have been more excusable, but Coach Lynch and his staff tried to pull a rabbit out of their collective hat when just putting the hat on their heads would have been fine. An IU field goal at that point and NU has to score a TD to win on their final drive.

Coach Fitz, despite his conservative reputation, actually provided a great counter to Lynch in this game. Fitz and the NU staff made what I would call a smart aggressive call on the 3rd and 8 delay draw to Jeravin Matthews on NU’s final drive. Now, you might be asking what makes a simply run play aggressive. What makes the play an example of aggressiveness is NU hadn’t run that play all season. Therefore, it was risky to call in such a clutch situation, however, the play had a high reward factor as Fitz knew that if executed correctly it could break for a big gain. If not, NU would be in forth and long and Stefan Demos would have had a tougher task kicking the game winner. You see, the difference is there was a positive reward to Fitz’s aggressiveness compared with Lynch’s. Lynch could have had a NU in a situation where they needed 2 TD’s if he’d just played it safe and kicked the FG. Fitz on the other hand knew that taking a chance with a semi-trick play could help NU get into easy winning FG rang and run off some valuable time on the clock. Fitz’s risky play call was much smarter.

Now, the question becomes where else can Fitz be smart aggressive. I think the fans calling for multiple double passes with Brewer and Persa this week aren’t really thinking smart. Yes, PSU’s defense is good, but you also can’t trick them more than once or twice at the most. What Fitz needs to do this week is take a lesson from his two mentors Gary Barnett and Randy Walker. Barnett was the master of the smart aggressive call, but Walker wasn’t bad either. In contrast, Fitz is been mostly not aggressive during his head coaching career. In fact, Fitz really is known for two aggressive moves one smart (and successful) and one dumb (and not successful). It’s also amazing how being dumb aggressive also results in failure more than success. Fitz’s brilliant aggressive move was starting the second half of the Illinois game in 2006 with an outside kick. That allowed NU to go down the field and score and helped put the game away (I’d love to see that game again by the way if anybody has a copy). Fitz’s failed aggressive move was the infamous 4th and 3 against Duke in which he took points of the board to try and covert.

So what can Fitz do this week (and in the future) which is like Barnett and Walker. Well, Barnett always seemed to have one solid trick play ready each week. He had the double passes for Michigan and Iowa, he had Gator vs Michigan in ’96 and a slew of others over the years. He also waited until the key moment in the game to use these, but they were in the playbook for when the smart aggressive surprise was needed. Fitz might need one in the next few weeks.

Coach Walker was the master of the well timed fake punt or field goal. Walk ran some brilliant fake punts and made a name for himself with “fastball” and “changeup” in fake field goals. I have a feeling their might have been a “slider” as well since Eric Batis did throw a fake FG TD pass against U of I in 2003, it just happened to get called back. Fitz has, thus far, been reluctant to call fakes. Now, I’m not saying he should fake from his own 20, that’s dumb aggressive, but at the right moment from his own 40 a key fake could provide NU with a huge lift. That would be smart aggressive. Coach Walk always knew when to call the fake and I’d like to think Fitz learned some of that from him. Also, there is always that onside kick move. Both Barnett and Walker actually started games with onside kicks. That’s tough if it doesn’t work, but I still think it qualifies as smart aggressive if you’ve watched the tape and have a plan when you kick.

Will Fitz be more aggressive in the next few weeks? I don’t know, but I think some smart aggressive football will be necessary for NU to pull off the needed upsets.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Interesting 16 year old New York Times Article

I happened on this article from the October 2, 1993 New York Times today. I think from an NU fan perspective it’s pretty interesting. It was written by Malcolm Moran and quotes NU faculty member Fred Hemke and NU punter Paul Burton who essentially predict NU’s Rose Bowl run two years before it happened. It is amazing to read Burton assess the different attitude of his classmates who would be the key cogs in two Big Ten Titles. Burton basically explains how his class of players really do buy into Barnett’s “Expect Victory” motto. Even more amazing, Hemke says, “Gary will take a team to the Rose Bowl” at a time when NU (despite a win over Boston College) hadn’t exactly completed the program turnaround. This is the kind of confidence NU needs in order to be successful. It should be easier now with evidence of success to point towards, but I think this really shows the type of leader Barnett was. It shows how effective he was at recruiting a class (including Fitz) that bought into his message of “belief without evidence” and then went out and created evidence for their beliefs.

Some Random Thoughts and Observations

Chicago College Basketball published a Northwestern season preview today. As usual it is well-written and I encourage you to check it out here. What’s really amazing as I look at the various season previews on the ‘Cats is virtually everybody expects NU to make some sort of postseason tournament whether it is the NCAA or NIT. The only other time I can remember NU getting so much positive press going into a year was 2004-05 when Mike Thompson was transferring in from Duke. Obviously that year didn’t end very positively for NU, but the difference is this year’s positive predictions are based on evidence of success last season. Not the outside hope that a guy can change a team because Coach K recruited him and then sat him on the bench so much he transferred.

The Wildcats will play their first exhibition game in a little over a week. For those who won’t be in Evanston (and I won’t that day) the game is available on bigtennetwork.com for $2.99. In fact, a number of NU games will be webcast on bigtennetwork.com for $2.99. Obviously, that isn’t a huge price, but it’s a lot more than the free cost for past webcasts. The Big Ten Network says the cost is due to the fact they have heavily invested in webstreaming technology. I hope this means that the games will look pretty much like a television broadcast, but on the computer. I really don’t want to pay for a traditional webcast.

I’ve been thinking about how close NU really was to the NCAA tournament last season and I think it’s safe to say they were literarily 4 minutes away. Between the epic blown leads to Illinois and Purdue and the short held lead with just about 4 minutes to go at Ohio State it really seems NU could have been in the NCAA tournament with just four more good minutes of basketball. Can NU make up those four minutes this year?

On the football side of things it seems NU might be without Sherrick McManis this weekend. With Brendan Smith already out and Brad Phillips injured and not 100%, NU’s only healthy secondary starter is sophomore slumping Jordan Mabin. This needs to be the week Mabin has a Craig Moore versus Miami type performance. That’s a performance where despite having a horrid sophomore season, he looks like the all-Big Ten player he will be and helps NU win the game. I’ll go out on a limb now and say if Mabin makes a pick NU wins the game.

At least NU will have its latest walk-on all-star Ricky Weina to fill in for McManis. Weina played Indiana’s two top receivers very well last week and I really don’t think PSU’s guys are that much better. The difference is Darryl Clark can probably make tougher throws than Ben Chappell.

It’s been a long time since NU had a big offensive game against a good team. Maybe this will be that week. It could be if Scott Concannon actually emerges as a tailback and Mike Kafka remembers to use his feet.

Finally, Lake the Posts polling NU fans on the best NU football comeback ever. I’d love to see video of “The Comeback” against Illinois. I’ve got the poster, but as I was eight at the time I don’t really recall the game. Still, I think 20 points down in the 4th quarter against an in-state rival is pretty spectacular. If somebody has video of that they need to post it on youtube. Come on NU Athletic Depart, the clip of Lee Gissendanner catching the winning TD from Len Williams is in the NU football history video. That means a tape of the game most at least exist in the football office achieves. I’d give honorable mention to the 2000 Minnesota game due to all the forth downs including the 4th and 20 pass from Kustok to Patrick.

The best basketball comeback is, of course, Michael Jenkins finishing off the Hawkeyes with the buzzer beater after Vedran Vukusic sent the game into overtime all by himself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Did Northwestern Miss An Opportunity to Promote the Basketball Programs?

This weekend’s football game between Northwestern and Penn State will probably feature the largest attendance of the season at Ryan Field. It is also the only scheduled matchup in Evanston to feature a starting time in the afternoon. Back in 2005, NU took advantage of an evening start against Michigan to showcase both the men’s and women’s basketball teams in an event NU termed Halloween Hoop-la. While the event wasn’t exactly Michigan State’s Midnight Madness, it did feature NU alum Mike Wilbon as MC and was a nice way for some football-only NU fans to get some exposure to both basketball programs.

Given that NU is expected to feature competitive (and potentially very good) teams in both men’s and women’s hoops, I am surprised, and a little disappointed, NU isn’t attempting a Halloween Hoop-la type event this year. Yes, such an event would be impossible with an 11:00 am kickoff, but ESPN did NU a huge favor in scheduling this game for 3:30. Even better, the game was set for 3:30 before the season even started so a basketball preseason event could have been promoted all year long.

If there was ever a year when NU’s men’s team needed early fan support this is it. The Wildcats play a series of tough early season foes either in Evanston or Chicago. The Wildcats take on nationally ranked Butler in just their second game and the non-conference schedule also features Notre Dame (in Chicago) and Stanford at home. The Wildcats also play North Florida on national TV (I’m not sure why), but nonetheless I’d hate for those who tune into to that game on ESPNU to see a ¾ empty Welsh-Ryan. It’s embarrassing for the school and the program.

Given the need for fan support in those early games, and all the others, I am really surprised NU didn’t setup some event to try and promote the hoops squads this weekend. Yes, NU has done some nice things with giving football season ticket holders basketball tickets for both men’s and women’s games, but this is perhaps the one weekend all season when a large collection of non-season ticket holding NU fans are going to be in Evanston. That is the group NU needs to win over in order to pack both Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan. Please keep in mind, I’m not saying NU needs to turn this people into season ticket holders. That might be impossible, but it doesn’t hurt to try and motivate them to show up to some big games. The games when NU needs the most support. I bet a good percentage of causal NU fans don’t even know that NU is hosting NCAA Tournament media darling Butler at Welsh-Ryan this year. If they did, they might want to show up for the game. They’re showing up for JoePa after all. Sure, you could just give out basketball schedules as people walk in. That would be something to at least cerate awareness. But for people to really connect to the team, it would be nice for them to see the team practice and then hear from the coaches and players as was done in 2005.

I don’t know why NU stopped any sort of preseason event. I’d like to think there was some reason. There were on campus Hoop-la events for students before 2005. They weren’t heavily attended, but they did get the team’s core fan base to interact with the squad and gave the women’s team some moments in the spotlight. It didn’t help attendance much, but more success is expected now. Maybe NU’s athletic depart thought it was a losing proposition, but I can’t really see how. If the team practices from 12-2 and the event starts at 2:30 with a scrimmage what is lost? The gym still needs to be open and the lights still need to be on, so it’s not like it costs extra for the facility. Yes, NU might need some ushers, but NU needs ushers for the football game anyway, so they’re already paying people for that day. Plus, the team still gets a full practice in. That’s the most important thing to me. All they have to do is stick around for another half hour and have people cheer for them. I don’t think many athletes would have a problem with that.

Regardless, we can all still do are part this weekend. If you see NU fans who are showing up for their one game a season remind them about the big basketball game vs Butler. Also, don’t forget to tell them about North Florida on December 16th because there aren’t even going to be student sections to make the crowd look halfway decent on that night.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Football: Wildcats Notch Another Comeback Win

When Northwestern wins football games they really do seem to win ugly, but I’ll take ugly wins over no wins anytime. Northwestern’s 26 unanswered points to beat Indiana today moved the ‘Cats to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten. Most importantly, the 5th win moved the ‘Cats ahead of 4-4 Indiana and Minnesota in the quest for a bowl breath. While I know many fans might not be in love with fighting it out for a bid to the Motor City Bowl, for this NU team any bowl would be great. A postseason game would be just the second time ever NU made back to back postseason appearances. That type of stat makes any bowl worthwhile. I’d also point out that NU actually still has a chance to make any number of bowls depending on how the rest of the year goes.

What I believe made the difference in this game and in past NU wins, was the willingness of NU’s Mike Kafka to use his legs. Kafka showed his ability to scramble and make plays when nobody was open today. This has been missing for a great deal of this season. NU also got some nice running help from Scott Concannon. There are a number of NU fans who say Concannon is too small or too slow to be effective, but the fact is that many times a fresh tailback can rip off yards late in the season when facing defenses which are somewhat banged up. By virtue of the numerous injuries Concannon has suffered, Concannon is relatively fresh having only carried the ball 16 times before today. Considering the limited success NU’s other backs have had, including Arby Fields today, I think Concannon deserves a shot next week as well.

I also have to give credit to Mick McCall for attempting the downfield passing game. Although Kafka’s inconsistency with the deep ball sometimes makes these plays frustrating and dangerous, The ‘Cats MUST attempt the deep pass in order to at least make the defense respect that possibility. If not NU’s receivers will constantly get jammed at the line and knocked by linebackers when running across the middle. Also, when NU does make a big play, such as the 51-yard TD to Andrew Brewer, it is a huge momentum swing.

NU needed several momentum swings after the 28-3 Indiana start (Is NU that limited in the Kickoff and Punt game?). Somehow and someway NU must not get down when they play Penn State and Iowa the next two weeks. Both those teams will make the ‘Cats pay if they aren’t ready for the opening whistle. In some ways, the football ‘Cats remind me of NU’s hoops squad late last year. We all remember how NU failed to finish big comebacks against Ohio State, Minnesota, and Tulsa because they stated too slow. This can’t happen the next couple weeks. Penn State and Iowa have better teams than NU. If the ‘Cats want to pull the upset they have to be ready to play. Maybe Coach Fitz should just till his players the Big Ten has decided to give Penn State a 21-0 lead before they take the field.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Linking NU Football and Basketball: Where Do The ‘Cats Have Playmakers?

Attention is turning more towards basketball in many sections of the NU community, but the fact is the Wildcats also play a big football game this weekend against Indiana. If the Wildcats win they will most likely play in some bowl game. If the Hoosiers win, it is likely they will play in a bowl game instead of the Wildcats.

Northwestern is the favorite according to the betters, but the fact is Indiana has a very good chance of winning this game. Injuries have seriously reduced NU’s collection of playmakers and the Wildcats depth is not that great. If NU is to win, they will need big games from the playmakers they have available such as Quentin Davie on defense and Mike Kafka on offense.

Reading the discussion on fan websites and the like, I have to admit the observation that NU football is short on playmakers is probably right on the money. NU has some individual stars, but with many of them hurt, NU just isn’t at full strength. Also, some of NU’s frontline players are not the athletes their opponents are. In fact, at times NU plays four walk-ons out of 11 offensive players. Although one of those walk-ons, Zeke Markshausen, leads the Big Ten in receptions, the fact is it is hard to beat quality division one opponents when almost 40% of your offense didn’t originally get Division one scholarship offers. NU can pull upsets and get a win Saturday, but I believe in order to do so Mick McCall is going to have to turn the page on his playbook and open things up. Indiana has topflight athletes on defense, especially on the D-line, and if NU doesn’t get creative Mike Kafka is going to get smashed as Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton attack NU’s offensive line which may have two former walk-ons and one red-shirt freshman starting.

On the other hand, right now Northwestern’s basketball team has more guys with play making ability than the historical powerhouse Indiana men’s basketball team (though the Hoosiers do have a nice freshmen group). In fact, I think NU has more potential play makers than several Big Ten teams. Most notably, of course, the ‘Cats have Kevin Coble who can drop 30+ on a team at anytime. He’s not the only playmaker Coach Carmody has, though. Michael “Juice” Thompson has the range to hit from anywhere in the gym, and he has shown a clutch time leadership ability the ‘Cats need without departed star Craig Moore. Even Juice isn’t the end of the hoop ‘Cats playmakers, though. Both John Shurna and Jeremy Nash showed the ability to change games last season. Nash played remarkable defense and drove NU’s opponents insane as they tried to pass around him atop the 1-3-1. He also got down in the paint and blocked the shots of big men. Nash might not light up the scoreboard, but he makes plays on D.

John Shurna, on the other hand, might light up the scoreboard a bunch this year. He played on the USA U-19 team this summer and reportedly really worked on his jump shot. He also is NU’s best rebounder so he ought to be able to grab some put back points. He also looks bigger and stronger and that should help as well.

Aside from those four, NU also has potential playmakers in center Luka Mirkovic and guard Drew Crawford. Mirkovic showed flashes last year of being a true Princeton Offense center who can score 10 points and dish out 6 assists and get 6 rebounds on any night. Crawford is allegedly already slamming down alley-op passes from Juice in practice. If he really is that athletic, he’ll change how teams defend NU and that’ll open up shots and for guys like Luka.

Bottom line, I can’t remember a Northwestern basketball squad with so many potential game changing players. If NU is to be successful as they can, though, they must avoid major injuries. More than anything, it has been the MASH unit which NU has needed for their defense which has truly hampered NU’s football success this fall.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Men's Basketball: Mail From A New Season Ticket Holder

Editor’s Note: I’d like to thank Lake the Posts for pointing out an error in the original headline of this story. I wrote the story fast and didn’t proofread. To some it’s not a huge deal, but the fact is I should have seen it and known better. – The WRR Management.

I got an e-mail recently from an individual who was rather upset. Thankfully, he wasn’t upset at me, but at NU’s ticket office. It seems this gentleman wanted to buy two season tickets for this upcoming basketball season. He was excited at all the good press for NU and wanted to, “go from attending five games to attending fifteen.” NU actually has 20 home games this year, but you get the point. This guy wanted to become a season ticket holder. In addition, he said that he had hoped to get season tickets somewhere in the lower section of Welsh-Ryan. Apparently, he believed this wouldn’t be a problem given that at the games he attended last season, he saw a ton of empty seats in the lower sections. However, it turned out he was unable to get the seats he desired. He was told that despite the fact those sections are never full, they are sold. This individual did purchase two tickets in the upper level of the purple section, but he said he was disappointed that as somebody who planned to attend every game, he couldn’t get a better seat than somebody who only attends a few.

The fact is I’ve heard versions of this story repeatedly. We all have taken a look around Welsh-Ryan and seen a ton of empty seats in good sections. These seats are in fact sold. I believe in many cases they are sold to corporations that simply don’t use them very often. Now, while I’m not really in favor of pulling the tickets of corporations which have been long time season ticket holders, I’d like to hold them to some standard of support. I believe NU should start monitoring the use of these tickets, especially in the premium lower-level purple seats. Other schools do this by either filming the crowd at games, or by having ushers know who actually owns each seat. If NU finds that certain corporations are using their seats less than 50% of the time, or are giving those seats to opposing fans, I think those corporations seats should be moved to a less desirable location. Maybe NU could create a section for corporate season tickets. It’d be recognizable as the entirely empty lower section when NU plays Central Connecticut State.

As the mail I’ve gotten show, plenty of NU fans and alums exist who would attend every game, support the ‘Cats, and feel thankful to have good seats. Now, I know to some this might be controversial, some readers might even be high ranking members of the corporations whose seats I want to move, but the fact is NU needs NU fans in the good seats every single game. There just aren’t enough NU basketball fans in general. Those who really want to commit to showing up at Welsh-Ryan shouldn’t have to sit above empty seats. The other thing is that as much as I love NU basketball, I can’t possibly think of any corporation that would think tickets to an NU basketball game was a really good way to reward a top employee or a real treat for a client unless that person was an NU fan or NU is using some product they want a client to see. If the people who get the corporate seats are NU fans, they can buy NU tickets on their own at some point, and they shouldn’t mind if fans who attend every NU home game have better seats. If they are viewing some product NU is using they don’t have to view that product from some of the best seats in the arena. I suspect the truth is many of corporations hold on to NU season tickets to give to clients who are fans of other Big Ten schools to which its impossible to get tickets for. For example, Wisconsin fans who make the trek from Madison or who live the Chicago area and can’t get a seat in Madison or worse Illini fans that can’t make it to Champaign. This needs to stop. So I’m asking NU’s Athletic Department, please make good seats available to good fans.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Let’s Get Over Football with Talk about Basketball

So I’ve gotten a couple e-mails urging me to post basketball news since practice has started. I’ll try to do as we approach the Wildcats first and only exhibition contest on November 4th against Robert Morris (can NU get revenge for last season?), but I still feel the need to share my thoughts on football. After all, while those of us who live NU basketball are totally diehards, I mean we have to be, that fact is though it’s a small fan base compared to other Big Ten schools NU’s football fan base is wider. Therefore, I want to keep football fans visiting the site to read as well. Maybe, though, they’ll also get interested in hoops with this and other preseason posts.

One of the questions which showed up in my mailbox was something along the lines of, “Who is going to shoot clutch free throws now that Craig Moore is gone?” Well, I could just offer my thoughts on that, but I thought I’d do something a little different. I’ve taken a look at the NU roster and the various skills involved in playing basketball and below I have my assessment of who is the most skilled Wildcat in each area. I think will be interesting considering a recent debate I saw on Rivals.com about who might be NU’s best players and most indispensible players.

Free Throw Shooting (General): Kevin Coble and John Shurna. Yes, I’ve taken the easy way out and listed two guys in the first category. I defend myself in this way, although Coble has shown over his career that he is a good free throw shooter, I think Shurna might actually be better. Plus, I expect Shurna to get to the line more often this year as he has added a little bulk which should help his already excellent ability to offensive rebounds.

Free Throw Shooting (Clutch): Juice Thompson. Sure, Thompson isn’t a 70% free throw shooter generally, but he is the guy who is going to get the ball against the late press. Therefore, he is going to be the guy NU sends to the line late in games. Based on his ability to knock down his throws at MSU last season I think he’ll be fine. Also, I think Thompson is NU’s best clutch player based on his ability to pull NU out of the dumper in situations like when the Wildcats got down and were teetering on the brink of collapse in their home win over Iowa last season.

Best Shooter:
Juice Thompson. I’m sticking with Thompson here as well. He’s a guy who makes over 40% of his threes and has the ability to toss up a soft floater for two in the paint. With Craig Moore gone I think it’ll be Juice who is knocking down threes when NU comes out of timeouts. He’s also got a pretty quick release off the dribble which I’ve heard is even quicker after working on that skill over the summer.

Best Ball Handler: Juice Thompson. I will pick guys other than Thompson in future categories, but you can’t pick against a guy who averaged 3.7 assists and only 1.7 turnovers when it comes to ball handling. You especially can’t pick against him when he played virtually ever relevant minute he could. Basically, unless he has foul trouble Juice runs NU’s team and NU is lucky to have him.

Best Passer: Juice Thompson and Luka Mirkovic. Yes, I picked Thompson again, but I’m giving him some company. NU’s center has to throw a lot of passes from the high post and no doubt exists in my mind that Luka can do so effectively. He did so last year at times and work on mastering the Princeton Offense in the offseason can only help.

Best Rebounder: John Shurna. I seriously considered Jeremy Nash for this category, but while Nash had some nice rebounds, Shurna put up bigger numbers. Kevin Coble actually had the most boards for the ‘Cats, but I don’t think that’ll be the case this year. A stronger Shurna will be use his nose for the ball to pull down at least 5 a game.

Best Defender: Jeremy Nash. No surprise here to anybody who watched a game last season. Nash gets his hands on passes at the top of NU’s 1-3-1 and makes life tough for opposing teams to enter the ball. He also is probably NU’s best defender when they do play man.

Best Offensive Player: Kevin Coble. Coble is a guy who at times is just amazing. He might not be the best shooter on the team, or the best rebounder, or the biggest post player, but he is just a flat out scorer. He can hit a turnaround with multiple guys draped on him. He can draw a foul on a drive. He can knock down the three. If NU is going to go to the NCAA tournament, Kevin Coble will have to show his multi-skilled offensive game night in and night out.

Well, that’s all I got for now. I’d make a predication about NU’s best freshman or best bench player, but I don’t think we really know enough yet. I mean I’m totally hyped to see Drew Crawford, but Alex Marcotullio actually might fit NU’s more immediate needs right now. As to a bench guy, let’s first figure out five starters.

Stupid Football, Injuries, and Some Decent Play by Michigan State Results in a Wildcat Loss

I was wrong. I predicated a Northwestern win and I predicted the ‘Cats offense would play well. To modify a quote from former NU coach Dennis Green, Northwestern is not the team I thought they were. The offensive line is terrible, the running backs aren’t that quick (though the offensive line makes them look way worse), the defense is a shell of its former self (mostly due to injuries), and the offensive playing lacks any imagination what so ever. Optimistic as I am, if NU doesn’t beat Indiana next week I don’t see them even getting to visit Detroit this winter.

The worst thing Northwestern does is just play stupid. They make dumb turnovers and get ridiculous penalties. At least Mike Kafka avoided interceptions today, but there were still several times when he could have made plays with his feet and instead tried to force a pass. He just got lucky they weren’t picked. I also am starting to think that while Kafka is very accurate in the short passing game he isn’t as comfortable over 15 yards as he missed several receivers for what might have been big gains. Now, overall I still think Kafka has played well and he certainly isn’t helped by the poor line play, but I’d still like to see more of Dan Persa, especially if NU doesn’t win next week. Kafka first year starter problems might be avoidable for Persa if he sees more time this year.

NU also cost itself big time with two fumbles. Jeravin Matthews dropping a kickoff and Drake Dunsmore fumbling away an NU drive which had momentum. The Dunsmore call was questionable as he looked as if his forward progress was stopped, but Matthews has no excuse. I could catch a short kickoff without a problem. Also, Matthews for some reason doesn’t look like he runs full speed on returns. I don’t get that. I also think NU was really lucky Hunter Bates got his fumble back, but I put the punt return problems on the fact nobody in that group apparently knows how to block.

At least the Wildcat defense played okay. They were put in a couple tough situations due to turnovers and injuries have sure hurt. MSU got their first TD because two reserve DBs didn’t make a makeable play. I’d like to think Phillips and Smith would have. Also, Corey Wotton is a shell of his former self. At this point I think he’s better not playing at all. All that can happen now is he can get hurt worse and completely ruin his NFL future. Finally, great as Sherrick McManis has been to date, he got toasted regularly today on play action. It reminded me of Iowa a few years back. Ugh.

On the positive side NU started basketball practice last night and I should probably write about that since that’s what this site is supposed to be about. Unfortunately, I’m too focused on NU’s massively under achieving football team right now. NU needs to beat Indiana next week to even consider a trip to the Motor City Bowl. I guess I hope Illinois wins tonight and IU is really down in the dumps, but who knows. It’s not as if NU will get any home crowd advantage, so maybe the psychological aspects aren’t even worth thinking about.

Congrats to Purdue for the win over OSU. I knew the Boilers were too good not to get some wins, but I didn’t really expect OSU to be their first victim. What that wins does show is the Big Ten is pretty even, but I’m not sure that helps NU’s bowl hopes unless the ‘Cats can actually scratch out 7 wins and not just 6.

It that possible? Sure, Purdue just beat OSU, but something needs to change on offense. Could Mick McCall be any less imaginative? One nice looking option to Matthews was as creative as McCall got today. McCall needs to use the zone read more and take some more chances downfield. If Kafka can’t throw those passes than Persa needs to get another chance. Once MSU started getting tight on the NU receivers and taking away the dinks the NU pass offense really suffered. Also, with the way teams pursue NU, a reverse more than once every three weeks might be nice. Finally, this isn’t a McCall issue, but his a Fitz team ever faked a punt. I think they’ve faked a FG, but I can’t remember a Fitz team faking a punt. Can anyone?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What Are Northwestern’s Realistic Bowl Chances?

I love my fellow Northwestern fans, but it seems many times those of us purple faithful take a view of our teams which is either overly pessimistic or overly optimistic. After the win on Saturday I’ve heard many people talking about how that could be the last win of the year if the O-Line doesn’t shape up. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say that now that the defense is back the ‘Cats will dominate from here to Pasadena. I have to say I don’t think either group is correct. Therefore, I want to look at the rest of the season to realistically assess what might happen to the Wildcats at Holiday time.

I tend not to be a big fan of trying to predict games several weeks out since a lot can happen in terms of intangibles in a week of football, but I’ll make an exception this time.

Week 7 @ Michigan State: Before Saturday I thought this was a good matchup for Northwestern. A less than stellar MSU pass defense versus the Big Ten’s best percentage passer. On Saturday, though, Mike Kafka struggled and MSU’s pass defense held Illinois’s two QBs to a 9-for-28 day passing. The good news, though, was that in those 9 completions the Illini made some big plays. Also, Juice Williams missed several open receivers, as he does tend to do. Therefore, I think the game will turn on whether Kafka can play well and not make mistakes for 60 minutes. I think he can and I think NU can win in a classic Wildcat shootout. Northwestern, 38 Michigan State, 30

Week 8 vs Indiana: I think Illinois will beat Indiana this week and I think NU will beat MSU. Therefore, this will be a game which features two teams going in opposite directions. Also, while Ryan Field won’t be packed, I think NU will get a nice homecoming crowd and get revenge for last season. I have to admit, though, I am a bit scared of IU’s D-line and think they’ll prevent a blowout. Northwestern, 29 Indiana, 24

Week 9 vs Penn State: Penn State is not real strong on offense. They are real strong on defense. Barring a massive change in NU’s ability to run the ball, I don’t see this game going real well for the Wildcats. I hope I’m massively wrong on this one, but I think Joe Pa gets an easy win. Penn State, 24 Northwestern, 10

Week 10 @ Iowa: I’m sure people will jump on me for this pick, but I think NU can win this game. Some of that might be homerism or the desire to see Iowa fans melt down like they do every time they lose to Northwestern, but I like the ‘Cats in this one if their defense continues to produce TOs. Ricky Stanzi has shown a tendency to make the ill-advised pass and Sherrick McManis is looking like a serious ball hawk. Also, if Coach Fitz lets Kafka show his wheels I believe Michigan showed Iowa had some weaknesses against the mobile QB. So if NU plays and coaches to its potential I like the ‘Cats. Northwestern, 27 Iowa, 24. If Fitz gets wussy and forces Kafka to stay in the pocket or the defense forgets how to tackle again I say reverse the score to Iowa, 27 Northwestern, 24.

Week 11 @ Illinois: Things are going south in Champaign rapidly. By week 12 I imagine things will be located somewhere around Caracas. I don’t think it’ll happen, but if U of I drops the game to IU this week I even wonder if Ron Zook will be coaching in Week 12. Any how, I think a 6-4 or 5-5 Northwestern team will be far more motivated in Week 11 than an Illinois team with between 3-5 wins. Therefore I say Northwestern, 34 Illinois, 21

Week 12 vs Wisconsin: I like the Badgers. I know they looked less than spectacular against Ohio State, but I’m also afraid they’ll have the home field advantage even in Evanston and I think they could make a difference in what I expect to be a close game. NU can win if Wisconsin has ball handling issues like they did last week, but overall I think Wisconsin’s running game will be stronger than NU’s run defense. Wisconsin, 21 Northwestern, 17 (I know many will say this a more likely win than Iowa. I disagree, but I’ll be happy if NU wins it)

So there you have it. I’m on record now with those predications. If things work out the way I see it NU should for sure go to a bowl. Probably the Insight, Champs Sports, or the Motor City Bowl (or Little Caesars Pizza Bowl if that’s what they want to be called now).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Miami Advice: What NU Can NU Take From Beating the RedHawks?

Yesterday Northwestern beat College Football’s second best Miami by the score of 16-6. On the face of it the game seemed mostly useful as a cure for insomnia, but I think (or at least hope) that NU learned some lessons.

The first major lesson NU needs to take away from this contest is that right now their best running back is actually quarterback Mike Kafka. Jacob Schmidt’s eight yard run in the game's last moments was NU’s longest carry by a running back, but Mike Kafka turned in a couple 10-plus yard runs. I don’t actually put all of the failings of the running game on Schmidt and his fellow back Arby Fields because I think NU’s offensive line has been underwhelming all season. However, it seems that NU runs better with Kafka. Perhaps that’s because Kafka is quicker than Schmidt or has better vision than Fields. Maybe it’s because the QB runs are easier to block. I don’t really know. What I do know is that if NU wants to beat Michigan State it would be a good idea to run Kafka at least 15-20 times.

Another lesson from the win over Miami seems to be that NU’s defense needs to produce turnovers to help NU win. For the second week in a row NU used a series of opponent turnovers to achieve victory. Now, some would point to Purdue and Miami being really bad and say NU can’t count on this strategy to be successful in the Big Ten, but I actually think the turnovers are a signal of NU’s defense improving. Very few of the TO’s from the last two weeks have been due to terrible mistakes by the offense. NU has actually taken the ball away. Also, even some of the Big Ten’s best teams (like Iowa) have been turnover prone, so if NU’s defense can consistently cause TO’s the Wildcats can be in position to win a lot of games down the stretch.

On another note, I must say I was encouraged to see NU’s defense actually put pressure on the quarterback. At times it did seem NU took forever to reach the pocket, but overall getting seven sacks for itself. David Arnold is without a doubt a difference maker. He seems to an overall better player than Ben Johnson at this point when you factor in both rushing the QB and tackling in the run game.

Lastly, I still think NU needs massive work in the return game. Especially punt return. NU’s returners seem almost defenseless as if nobody is blocking for them. When you consider how a game can change on special teams, it is very important NU find blockers from their return people because Smith, Brewer and Matthews are fast enough to make big plays.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Follow this link (http://twitpic.com/kljyt) for the team picture for the 2009-10 NU Men's Basketball team. The Wildcats have new uniforms which for the picture I'm not sure if I like or not. I'll have to see them up close to know for sure. I do know that Drew Crawford looks like he's actually strong which is rare for an NU freshman. Also, NU added walk-on Reggie Hearn to the roster who is the picture wearing #11.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Northwestern can’t take Miami Lightly

Any Northwestern fan knows that no game is a sure win or sure loss, but this week’s contest against the Miami RedHawks seems like a sure win. That said, the Wildcats better not take Miami for granted. Yes, Miami is 0-5, but they are an improving team. Also, although Northwestern played much better against Purdue, they still have work to do in order to be prepared for the rest of the Big Ten season.

First off, I’d like to see Northwestern’s defense continue to play with the same intensity they played with in the second half against Purdue. Miami has a young quarterback who is improving each week and he’ll be a good challenge for NU’s defensive backs. Sherrick McManis made the play of the season against Purdue, but NU still struggled with pass defense at times. In fact, Purdue could have won the game if Joey Elliott had hit a wide open receiver.

The Miami contest also gives NU’s defensive line another chance to show their talent. Most expected NU’s superior talent to win out against Eastern Michigan, but the Eagles O-line won that match up soundly. Syracuse and Minnesota also dominated NU’s d-line, but it was the Wildcats d-line who out muscled Purdue’s large offensive line. If NU plays as well, or better, against Miami then I’ll feel more confident about the rest of the season. I think getting Niko Mafuli into the rotation might be remembered along with the McManis pick as a key moment which changed NU’s fortunes.

Offensively Northwestern needs to find a way to establish its run game. The Wildcats improved somewhat against Purdue, but there is still great room for more improvement. One thing I liked in the Purdue game was how NU used Mike Kafka more in the run offense. One item which seemed missing, though, was Jeravin Matthews. I think the package where NU has the QB alone in the backfield and sends the running back in motion in front of him was something NU picked up when they visited to Florida to talk about how the Gators used Percy Harvin. Considering Matthews is NU’s fastest player, I would guess he’d be the best option to make the defense respect the fact the QB might hand the ball off on that play. I’d also guess he would be the guy most likely to beat the defense to the outside as Harvin did for the Gators.

Finally, I’d also like see NU get into together in short yardage situations. I know NU’s o-line might be built more for being able to move in the spread, but there has to be a way for the Wildcats to consistently pick up short yardage. I think the best way might be like at the end of the game in which NU kept the ball in Kafka’s hands. At 6-4 210 he should be tough to stop with forward momentum. I’d also like to see NU at least consider going under center. They could even go under center and use play action as they did for a TD to Brendan Mitchell in last year’s win over Purdue.

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.

End of Q4 from Purdue: NU Wins! NU Wins!

It seems like its been forever, but its only been two weeks. Still, it's great to see NU with a victory to move the record to 3-2. With a very winnable game next week the Wildcats are still in bowl contention. Great job by the defense of looking like the players they really are in shutting out Purdue during the second half and holding on the goal line at the end of the game. Go Cats!

End of Q3 from Purdue: Can Fitz read digital clocks?

Pat Fitzgerald must have an analog clock in his office because he just took the strangest penalty I've ever seen. Let's see if NU can pick up their coach with a good 4th quater and get the team's first Big Ten win of the season.

End of Q2 from Purude: Thanks, Boilers for letting NU back in the game.

Thanks to some poor ballhandling by Purdue the Wildcats are back in the game at 21-16. Northwestern MUST learn to score TDs in the redzone, however. Hopefully, Purude will continue to make mistakes. At least these 'Cats don't seem to quit when they get down.

End of Q1 from Purdue: I can’t believe how bad NU looks

I’m now convinced that somewhere between the end of the Alamo Bowl and the start of this season Northwestern’s defenders were abducted by aliens and replaced with imposters, because this group has no idea how to play football. That was so ugly I can’t even begin to say. Also, I’m not a fan of the gutless FG choice from the 1 when you’ve got a lousy defense you need to try and get 7.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Personal Changes Would Help Northwestern

I posted the following article at bleacherreport.com as well, but I think it’s worth a read for those who don’t frequent that site so I’m posting it here also.

Overall Northwestern has a talented football team and for the most part I think NU’s coaches have the right guys in place, but that doesn’t stop this interested observer from offering a few thoughts on where NU could improve itself.

First and foremost Arby Fields needs to play running back. I have all the respect in the world for Jacob Schmidt who has accomplished something 99.9% of the population probably couldn’t do in going from walk-on to starting tailback in the Big Ten. He’s also probably faster than 95% of the world’s population, however, the 5% he isn’t faster than play defense in division 1 football and right now Schmidt’s sub 4 yard a carry average is really hurting NU’s offensive balance. Playing Arby Fields might not be a total fix, but he is the back who will give NU the best chance to win.

The second personal change involves the kickoff return team. NU needs to find some guys who can block for this unit. Putting a bunch of receivers as up men isn’t working right now. Now, most teams would use fullbacks in that spot, but NU only has one real fullback, Mark Woodsum, and he is on the return team. Somehow, NU needs to find other guys who can block so their returners don’t get seriously hurt. Maybe linebackers who played fullback in high school could help get some blocking in front of Matthews or Brewer.

Third, NU needs to put starting defenders on the kick coverage team. I know this might not be the most popular suggestion, but many teams do this because the guys who start on defense are the fastest players who can also tackle. Although it looks like NU’s defense can’t tackle, they really can, and if they can cover kicks faster they’ll only help themselves by forcing opponents to travel a longer distance to the endzone.

Finally, Desmond Taylor needs to move back to tackle. The truth is Taylor was never the best tackle in the world, but he did a much better job at avoiding drive killing penalties and missed blocks than Kurt Mattes and Neal Deiters this year. Both Mattes and Deiters have struggled at the right tackle spot. I’m still hopeful Mattes can get back to form, but right now it looks like Taylor should start. If Taylor moves back to tackle either Keegan Grant or Patrick Ward will need to step up their play at guard, but with the way Minnesota’s defensive ends killed NU I think getting a stronger guy protecting the outside of the pocket is critical.