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Updated 7/27: I fixed some horrendous proofreading errors that I am terribly embarrassed about... about 100 "Bazanez" (it's Basanez), leaving Joel Howells' name as BLANK Howells, and some typos. Also included some extra information on depth players at RB and DB . All credit for clever nickname Johnathan Fields "Forever" should rightfully go to Wildcat Report poster FlakCat.
Northwestern was about a third of a really good football team last year, a third of a mediocre team, and a third of an avert-your-eyes disaster. It added up to a 6-6 record, a historic win over Ohio State (Northwestern's first in over 40 years), and a disappointed glare directed at the defensive backs who couldn't cover and the kickers who couldn't kick.
Even though Northwestern seemed to define average at 6-6, it was a really fun, tense 6-6. A small shove in the negative direction would have seen a total disaster and resigned muttering (anger at losing being a trait reserved for schools less used to it) by Wildcat fans everywhere. Northwestern lived on the edge last year. They played an NCAA-record four overtime games. They were 3-1 in those games, losing only the opener against TCU due to the worst kicking display mgoblog has ever seen (except for the Oregon State-LSU game that same week where OSU lost because of 3 missed extra points), while beating Indiana, Ohio State, and Illinois. In their other three victories Northwestern was tied or trailed in the fourth quarter. Noah Herron scored with 38 seconds left to beat Purdue. Brandon Horn scored with 5:25 left to beat Kansas.
Whether you see that as phenomenal determination or luck is in the eye of the beholder. I think it's some of both. Quarterback Brett Basanez and the departed Herron had a knack for late-game heroics that can't be denied, but when you are a hair's breadth away from losing six games and you only manage to drop one that's somewhat lucky.
This year all the offensive skill players return except for the underrated Herron, but the losses on the line are somewhere between severe and nuclear holocaust. Four starters are gone, three to graduation and one, center Trevor Rees, to academic issues. However, the only returning player is a good one: All Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief. The defense has half of a really good front seven if defensive end Loren Howard is fully recovered from injury but in classic Northwestern fashion appears to have a lot of short confused guys in the secondary. The highwire act may persist this year.
Unit By Unit
Rating: 2. Brett Basanez has a ton of experience but an inaccurate arm. He's a hard-nosed guy who is decently suited for the run-oriented spread option Northwestern runs but doesn't have the athleticism to be a real threat in the run game or the arm to be a true dropback passer. mgoblog is not a fan.
Northwestern's passing statistics are a little deceiving. Though the Wildcats finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards, that was largely because they threw it more than any team except Purdue. Basanez only completed 54% of his passes last year and Northwestern only averaged 6.15 yards per attempt. The only teams in the conference significantly worse than that were Indiana and Penn State; not good company to keep. Either one of those stats would be all right in isolation (mgoblog likes Brian Cupito a lot even though he completed a measly 47% of his passes because Minnesota led the league in YPA with an impressive 8.10) but together they imply that Northwestern throws a lot of short, incomplete passes. You can get away with incompletions if you have Braylon Edwards or Ernest Wheelwright or Ted Ginn on hand to put some explosion into your offense, but Northwestern does not.
Adding it all up, Northwestern finished 95th in pass efficiency despite having an offensive line that kept Basanez very clean. I don't expect those numbers to improve this year. Basanez will be under more pressure with an almost all-new offensive line, and he does not handle pressure well. He is a limited player who's essentially a version of Craig Krenzel surrounded by middling talent. Yes, he's "heady" and "a gamer" but he's not particularly good. He's not terrible, but he's a fundamentally limited quarterback.
Senior Terrell Jordan will take over for the departed Noah Herron. He has a modicum of experience from backing up Herron the past few years; he had 65 carries and 336 yards last year, plus 17 kick returns. Randy Walker and Northwestern have produced a 1,000-yard back every year. Jordan is probably next in line. Sophomore Brandon Roberson also had a strong spring and will get his share of carries.
Yah zoom zoom zoom. Yah zoom zo--ARGH
Herron's running will probably be replaced by one of the two aforementioned players but Northwestern will probably lose a good chunk of Herron's productivity as a receiver out of the backfield. He was Northwestern's third-leading receiver last year and had a knack for running tough flare routes and catching passes without breaking stride.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. Northwestern returns all of its important receivers except for Herron, including go-to guy Mark Philmore, who had a pretty decent year with 54 catches and 633 yards... in only eight games. Shaun Herbert and Jonathan Fields "Forever" also return, giving the Wildcats three receivers with experience. Philmore is an excellent possession guy with good hands but is undersized and has trouble staying healthy.
What Northwestern lacks is a player who can stretch the field. That combined with Basanez's questionable accuracy on long passes severely limits Northwestern's ability to go over the top and forces the Wildcats to mount long drives that may be difficult to sustain with that new line. Fields is a guy who can fill that role but has had problems dropping the ball; if Basanez manages to hit someone long Northwestern needs that guy to make the catch.
Rating: 2. Last year the same five players started every game for the Wildcats. Four of those players are gone, but the best, All Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief, returns. Redshirt junior Trevor Rees was supposed to return but did not make the grade, a heavy blow to the Wildcats' hopes this year.
Last year the offensive line was one of the more underrated units in the entire country. They paved the way for Noah Herron's 5.1 yards a carry and kept Basanez free of pass rushers--the seven sacks allowed by Northwestern last year was second only to Michigan State's hard-to-attack mobile quarterback scheme. The Herron-line combination lifted Northwestern and its porous defense to a 6-3 regular season finish after an 0-2 start.
This position group will determine whether Northwestern has a chance to make a bowl this year. Basanez and the wide receivers will probably improve a bit via a natural progression but they aren't big play threats. A consistent and efficient offensive line is an absolute must for Northwestern to consistently score in the high twenties, a number they will have to reach to win most games this year.
Rating: 3. It's amazing that a school like Northwestern has a decent chance to have defensive linemen selected in the first round of the NFL draft in back to back years when Michigan's last first round defensive lineman was sent to search for the Fountain of Youth with Ponce de Leon. But it's true. The Wildcats actually have two guys with a shot: defensive end Loren Howard, who missed half of last year with injury--and was still hampered in the half he did play--and defensive tackle Barry Cofield. Cofield is admittedly a long shot but a healthy and disruptive Howard is not.
The Wildcats desperately need the first-round version of Howard to re-emerge this year in order to take some heat off what will be an inexperienced and shaky defensive backfield. Northwestern's leading sackers last year were linebackers Nick Roach and John Pickens, who had five each. Cofield had 3.5 playing defensive tackle, and Howard had 3 in his six games even though he was injured. He could reach double digits this year.
Past the two big names there are question marks. Tackle Trevor Schultz will pair with Cofield. The defensive end opposite Howard will be either sophomore David Ngene or freshman Kevin Mims, neither of whom has played. This unit is distressingly thin past the starters, a problem in today's game. Most teams attempt to rotate at least six linemen throughout the game to prevent them from wearing down.
Rating: 4. Middle linebacker Tim McGarigle is a strong candidate for the Best Nickname Award--people call him "the Angry Irishman." McGarigle had a ton of tackles last year (151) but that's often a double-edged sword on iffy defenses. Often the reason a ton of tackles are made is because a ton of tackles have to be made because the defense can't get their opponents off the field. Nevertheless, McGarigle is a fiery overachiever in the mold of former Wildcat star Pat Fitzgerald who is the emotional heart of the defense, the kind of guy who you can't help but root for until he decleats your running back and pops his head like a grape.
The other two starters aren't too shabby either. Roach, as mentioned, was heavily featured as a blitzer last year, racking up five sacks to go with 85 tackles. SAM linebacker Adam Kadela was the starter as a sophomore last year until being injured against Kansas. Led by McGarigle, these guys will be good as long as the defensive line holds the line of scrimmage.
Rating: 1. Expect many very short men to escort larger men in various uniforms to the endzone. Northwestern has found okay to good players at most positions since its mid-90s renaissance but the defensive backfield has remained a persistent eyesore. This year, three starters are gone, including senior-to-be Jeff Backes, who left the football team because of a lingering shoulder injury and in an "Only at Northwestern" moment immediately enrolled in medical school.
Backes' departure will hurt the team, but the effect in the secondary probably won't be devastating. Backes was quick but small and often out of position, vulnerable to a wide array of receivers. His replacements will be identical but probably less susceptible to skin cancer. Two 5'9" fireflies will take over at corner, junior Marquice Cole and sophomore Deonte Battle--though Battle is being pushed by senior Herschel Henderson and Cory Dious. Cole is reputed to be a burner. He missed last year with an injury, but the Wildcats have high hopes for his return.
Safety Brian Heinz was a bit of a mess last year, but he has two excellent excuses: he was a walk on and he was playing out of position. He was moved from free to strong safety in the spring in an attempt to let him focus on run support and underneath passes--and keep him away from the deep zone coverage he often blew last year. That leaves Reggie MacPherson, a complete unknown, the starting free safety.
There's some potential here for improvement. Heinz did have five interceptions as a freshman and to walk-on and start at any Big Ten team not named "Indiana" is an accomplishment. If he adapts to strong safety and improves like most players do he could emerge into a star... but probably in 2006. Cole is apparently Southern-Approved fast, and just about anything would he an improvement.
Ultimately, though, Northwestern is looking at three new starters (with the returning starter switching positions), a set of corners who have difficulty seeing over steering wheels, very little depth, and a history of giving up a ton of pass yards. I would be very surprised to see this unit pick itself up off the canvas this year.
Rating: 3. This is where the departure of Backes hurts the most. He was a dynamite kickoff returner and was effective when he tried his hand at punts. His absence will force Northwestern to find someone else. If Cole is as fast as reputed, he could spell Backes 100%, functioning as both a spectacular returner and a mediocre cornerback (unless he's a good cornerback). Roberson is also a possibility here.
Rating: 2. The kicker spot was a complete disaster area last year. Northwestern's opening loss to TCU (and thus their lack of bowl eligibility at year's end) was due entirely to kicker Brian Huffman missing a series of short field goals. Huffman can now put "former" in front of his job title, however, as Northwestern switched to Joel Howells at the end of last year. He hit 4 of 5 field goals. Howells doesn't have a huge leg but he did hit field goals from 43 and 46 against Hawaii and after last year Northwestern would be thrilled if he can be reliable from inside 40 yards.
Punter Ryan Pederson saw his average dip to under 40 yards last year. His name is also one letter different from a good friend of mine. This concludes your Ryan Pederson analysis.
Northwestern opens with what should be a walkover against Frank Solich and
Northwestern misses Indiana and Minnesota this year in the Big Ten and starts off with two critical home games against Penn State and Wisconsin. Neither team figures to be a passing juggernaut and both should be beatable at home, but Northwestern will have its hands full with the Penn State defensive line and Wisconsin running game, respectively.
Then the heavyweights roll in, with away games to Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State and home games against Iowa, and Michigan, a brutal stretch that the Wildcats should be thrilled to finish 2-3. The season ends against Illinois and Ron Zook.
Keys to the Season
Cobble cobble. Four new starters on the offensive line is usually bad news for any Big Ten team, but for one like Northwestern with a quarterback that does not respond well to pressure, a focus on the running game, and recruiting classes that are generally leftovers from the powerhouse teams it has the potential to be devastating. Anyone who attempts to tell you how this unit will do will probably be talking nonsense--it's impossible to know until the season gets underway--but I can tell you that the Wildcats will live and die on the offensive line. If it exceed expectations significantly and Cole turns into a corner Northwestern hasn't seen the likes of for a long time, this team has the pieces to be a threat to anyone in the Big Ten.
Baz to the future. Basanez will have a ton of experience going into this year, more than any other quarterback in the Big Ten by a wide margin. He's been intermittently effective, but has to improve his decision making and execution greatly this year because of the new offensive line. Craig Krenzel may have been totally mediocre but he won games. Basanez has led Northwestern to a similar number of last-second escapes, proving that he's unphased by mental pressure. He needs to prove that he's similarly comfortable with defensive pressure.
Shut off the grinder. Northwestern actually wasn't bad against the run last year, finishing 47th in the country, but there was a large discrepancy in their games. Teams with mediocre running games or ones that focus on finesse and trickery were generally shut down by the Wildcats. Old-school Big Ten teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan that feature big, nasty offensive lineman and a run-it-down-your-throat mentality plowed the Wildcats (251, 208, and 231 rushing yards, respectively) despite the presence of Luis Castillo. Northern Illinois, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Illinois are all winnable games for the Wildcats that figure to heavily feature backs scampering between the tackles* and questionable passing games. Northwestern will have a matchup advantage if it can shut down the run in these games since their opponents figure to be fairly inept at throwing the ball.
*(Illinois may be moving to a spread-type attack but with a total question mark at quarterback and two good running backs in EJ Halsey and Pierre Thomas, expect the Illini to be very ground oriented.)
Worst case: Things could really bottom out for the Wildcats this year in a Big Ten that looks to be extremely strong. There isn't a game on the schedule outside of Ohio that won't be difficult for Northwestern. If things go awry a battered and dispirited Wildcat team could drop the finale against Illinois after completely imploding even though Ron Zook has no idea what he's got himself into in Champaign. I don't think it will happen, but if the line really sucks the Wildcats could be looking at 2-9.
Best case: Sutton is the second coming of Mike Hart and the line holds together. The offense is effective against teams with mediocre front sevens. The defense is really solid against the run but still gets torched by teams that can throw: Arizona State, Michigan, Iowa, and Purdue. The Wildcats beat NIU and Ohio out of conference, take care of Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois in the Big Ten, and spring a couple of upsets against Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State to finish 7-4 and net a totally sweet Citrus Jr. berth.
mgoblog says... Northwestern's pulled themselves up into a respectable place in the college football world but this is going to be a painful year for them. Basanez doesn't have the arm to go deep and the line probably won't be able to hold off pressure long enough to try it anyway. Teams will stuff the box against the Wildcats and dare them to beat their corners over the top. Losing Rees is really tough.
Defensively, Northwestern should be all right against the run. McGarigle, Howard, Roach, and Cofield are an excellent starting point for anyone's run defense. There are questions about the line's depth and quality past the top two players, however, and I believe that Northwestern will still have a tough time against Michigan and Minnesota. I'll have to see a good Northwestern pass defense before I believe it.
It's hard to predict where this team is going. Games against Iowa, Michigan, Arizona State, Purdue, and Ohio State appear to be very difficult. Penn State is the wrong team against which to introduce your nearly all-new offensive line to Big Ten play. I do think that Northwestern has enough to spring an upset somewhere along the line. Against who? I have no idea. Hopefully Ohio State. Northwestern goes 2-1 out of conference but struggles in the Big Ten, beating Wisconsin and Illinois and springing that upset somewhere along the way to finish 5-6, 3-5 in conference.