Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Northwestern Wildcats

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) - Sun
2004 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) - Motor City
2002 Prediction / actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: TB Tyrell Sutton, WR Shaun Herbert, OT Dylan Thiry, OG Joe Tripodi, LB Nick Roach, CB Marquice Cole, SS Brian Heinz

Key Losses: Head Coach Randy Walker, QB Brett Basanez, WR Mark Philmore, WR Jonathan Fields, DT Barry Cofield, LB Tim McGarigle

Looking Back ... No one accurately predicted several things pertaining to Northwestern football in the past year. First off, the common theme from preseason pubs (myself included) was another tough, close but no cigar, spend the bowl season at home type of year. Second, that a team could be so explosive on offense, so porous on defense and yet wind up a blown coverage away (PSU game) from a solo finish in third place in the Big Ten and then give a really good UCLA squad a run for their money in a bowl game. Finally, no one could have foreseen the tragic, sudden death of 52 years young head coach Randy Walker.

To say the season and postseason was a roller coaster ride is like saying a Ferrari is a nice ride ... DUH! The 'cats exceeded expectations, had a great run at the Sun Bowl, came out of spring practice looking to rebuild a tad but excited and were met with tragedy in the summer. The big question that remains heading into the 2006 campaign is whether the team can overcome all of this and once again prove the naysayers wrong? Can someone fill the shoes of Brett Basanez? Can Pat Fitzgerald make a smooth transition to the head coaching job? Will this team score at the same frenetic pace as last year but be as flat-footed on defense and still manage a bowl berth? Looking back on last year and using it as a baseline - yes. But can and will are two different stories.

Outlook - Offense ... If you blinked, you missed it. That was the Wildcat offense in 2005. However, with the graduation of long-time starter Brett Basanez and the departure of some key receivers and a great offensive lineman, will Northwestern be as potent in 2006? It all depends on what happens at quarterback. If projected starter C.J. Bacher is adequate, the answer is maybe. Basanez put up impressive career numbers but never really blossomed as a star until his senior season. Bacher has been in the system and knows the offense and just has to play decent football and let it happen around him. If he struggles early, redshirt freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka will be on his heels.

The saving grace for this offense is in the star power and depth at tailback. When Terrell Jordan went down before last season with an injury, there was plenty of doubt about who would pick up the load. Enter Tyrell Sutton. Shunned by his favorite team - Ohio State - Sutton ran wild in the Big Ten, racking up 1,474 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Sutton will be a little bigger, a little stronger, maybe even a little faster this year and he has Jordan joining him. There is also the original starter from last season, Brandon Roberson. Between the three, the new signal caller will be able to ease into the offense a bit and the Northwestern offense will be able to maintain it's prowess. Look for more two back sets and for the 'cats to rely on the running game, especially early, to carry the team to success.

The other good news for the new QB is the return of leading receiver Shaun Herbert. Jonathan Fields and Mark Philmore leave a sizeable hole in the passing game, taking 115 catches away from the aerial attack, but Herbert caught 79 balls for 862 yards and is the sure-handed, go-to guy a new quarterback needs. There is some potential in Rasheed Ward, Kim Thompson and Ross Lane but they still have something to prove in order for Northwestern to be as potent as last year. Tight end Erryn Cobb is a great blocker and can even tote the ball in short yardage situations but he is not the safety valve a raw quarterback needs.

Despite the loss of tackle Zach Strief, the Northwestern front five is fantastic. All five penciled in starters have been mainstays on the O-line and more than one has All-America potential. The best of the lot is left tackle Dylan Thiry. At 6-8, 315, Thiry is a house, only an agile one. He will be tasked with protecting the blindspot of the young QBs and leading the way for Tyrell Sutton and Terrell Jordan. The versatile Austin Matthews jumps out to tackle after playing center and guard and Trevor Rees returns at center after academic problems a season ago. Ryan Keenan and Joe Tripodi round out what might be, from top to bottom, the best line in the league.

This offense once again has a chance to shine, but it all depends on the development of Bacher (or Brewer or Kafka). With the weapons this team has on offense, an above average season by the quarterback could spell another surprise season in Evanston.

Outlook - Defense ... Any success Northwestern had in 2005 was in spite of its defense. To be blunt, the Wildcat D was abysmal. It ranked near the bottom in most categories that matter, not only in the conference but nationally. The saving grace, however, was the 30 forced turnovers. Everything needs to get tighter and the turnover still need to come in droves if this team hopes to repeat the surprise performance of a season ago.

It all starts with the front four. Northwestern loses NFL talent in tackle Barry Cofield but has plenty of experience despite no seniors in the two deep. The next player to keep an eye on and with a bright future ahead of him is sophomore end Kevin Mims. Mims had a productive rookie campaign and put up some impressive statistics. He's extremely athletic and will be a recognized force in the league by the end of the season. He is joined by Mark Koehn, John Gill and Adam Hahn, all players with experience and plenty of upside. One thing is for certain, this foursome needs to shore up the run stopping or it will put more undue pressure on an offense that is breaking in a green signal caller.

The biggest hit the defense took was the graduation of Tim McGarigle. McGarigle was more or less a one man wrecking crew and his production will be sorely missed. On the bright side, Nick Roach and Adam Kadela return and are more than ready to try and fill the shoes of McGarigle. Senior Demetrious Eaton is the third starter and there is a young player in the mold of McGarigle waiting on the bench in Mike Dinard. In concert with the front four, this group must have success in slowing down the run this season or it will be a long, long year for the Northwestern faithful.

The best player on the defensive side of the ball, is, without a doubt, Marquice Cole. Cole is lightning fast and is an underrated lock-down cover corner. He'll have some talented help along side, notably Bryan Heinz. Heinz, a senior strong safety, missed most of last season with an ACL injury. He should help shore up the middle of a pass defense that gave up plenty of yards (262 ypg) last season. Eric Peterman and Brendan Smith round out the starting group.

Chances are this defense is going to have to be bailed out a lot this fall but don't be surprised to see some of the guys who were thrown into the fire last season start to really come around and become bonafide Big Ten playmakers. That is going to need to happen if the 'cats hope to get back to a bowl this holiday season.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Special teams, much like the defense, is an area with some concern heading into the fall. Place kicker Joel Howells is back, but he was a paltry 11-21 last year and will need to be far more accurate this year, particularly with a new quarterback at the helm. The punting and return game should be fair, also important in the field position battles that often play an integral role in Big Ten contests.

8/31 - at Miami-OH
9/22 - at Nevada
9/30 - at Penn State
10/7 - at Wisconsin
10/14 - PURDUE
10/28 - at Michigan
11/4 - at Iowa
11/11 - OHIO STATE
11/18 - ILLINOIS

Key Games: 8/31 - at Miami-OH, 9/22 - at Nevada, 9/30 - at Penn State, 10/28 - at Michigan, 11/18 - Illinois

Prediction ... As much as I'd love to see a "Rudy" type story come out of Evanston this fall, I just think the personnel losses (Basanez in particular) and the tragic loss of head coach Randy Walker will make things too tough for the men in purple this fall. I fully expect that Tyrell Sutton will have another outstanding year and that Northwestern will be right in several of the games, but looking back, it took a good three years to get Brett Basanez running the offense like a well-oiled machine and it will take a while for C.J. Bacher to do the same. In a year prefaced with heartbreak, the season will follow suit with a tough run through the Big Ten and a sub-par finish in the Big Ten.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Nevada)
B10: 1-7 (win over Purdue)
Overall: 4-8, T-9th in the conference


A.G. said...

Great read on how NU is adjusting:

FlakCat said...

Well done, Andy. You may even be a bit more optimistic than I am.

A.G. said...

flak - you may be interested to know that former NU kicker Brian Gowins is my son's soccer coach here in Grand Rapids.