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Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Story

Football will continue in Evanston after Randy Walker's shocking midsummer death but wins and losses will be beside the point. That's probably a good thing for Pat Fitzgerald, thrust into the head coach spotlight at only 31 without four-year starter Brett Basanez or much hope on the other side of the ball. Northwestern will enter the year without the two men who came to symbolize the program over the past four years, adrift and looking for purchase on the harsh terrain of a Big Ten schedule without Minnesota or Indiana. The defense also lost a star contributor in painful fashion when defensive end Loren Howard was injured on the eve of last season. He decided to redshirt and bolt to Northwestern's Pac-10 doppleganger, Arizona State. Left in his wake is the usual array of pedestrian linemen and overachieving linebackers, though the defensive backs resemble helpless kittens far less than usual.

The outlook is grim, especially when you consider Northwestern's outlying turnover ratio: they were +9 despite having a terrible defense because said defense managed 30 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. That is well into the land of flukes. With a mewling babe replacing ancient Brett Basanez, Northwestern's turnovers figure to shoot up. Probability and common sense declare that their takeaways will travel in the reverse direction. Presto: likely two-game swing to the bad.

This is all terribly unfortunate for one of college football's most likeable programs. Northwestern churns out a steady supply of moxie-filled quarterbacks, glass-eating linebackers, and dramatic instant classics full of last-second twists M. Night Shyamalan would dismiss as implausible. But the facts are the facts, cruel as they may be; one can only hope that this year is the opening act in a tale of redemption that culminates in the two years Northwestern is off Michigan's schedule.


Last Year: A machine led by Basanez with plenty of help from Sutton, Herbert, Strief, et al. Talented and forced to get every point available from first play to last by the nation's worst defense, Northwestern churned through its opponents to the tune of 500 yards per game, finishing 26th nationally in rushing and 7th in passing.


Rating: 1. The only thing anyone knows about Northwestern's starting quarterback is that he isn't Brett Basanez. Sophomore CJ Bacher and his six career completions are projected to start, and this concludes the Bacher scouting report. I've scoured the Internets for any information on him and every preview -- every preview -- says "Bacher is in competition with Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka." Some venture to guess he will start, probably because Kafka keeps turning into a beetle. None deigns to speculate on his strengths aside from CFN's usual "this stud has incredible accuracy and blazing speed but is still searching for consistency. If he finds it he could be nasty."

So. Bacher was a three star recruit a couple years ago with offers from an array of Mountain West and WAC schools plus Arizona, Oregon State, and Northwestern. He committed to the Beavers, visited Northwestern, and switched. Though he was listed as a dual-threat QB by Rivals he ran for a mere 170 yards as a junior (senior rushing stats were not mentioned). Over the last two years of his high school career he completed 64% of his passes for over 3,000 yards. The always excessively positive scouting reports mention an extremely accurate arm and "improved decision-making," which is a backhanded compliment at best.

The projection? Bacher's going to get an opportunity to live up to that dual-threat designation. Northwestern ran the zone read years before Vince Young made it cool and if you remember the early days of Basanez back when the horseless carriage was new, he was more likely to grit out a first down by absorbing a punishing blow from a linebacker than by actually completing a pass. With Tyrell Sutton in the backfield, one experienced wide receiver, and a veteran offensive line all signs point to a rush heavy version of Northwestern's spread chameleon in '06. If Bacher's arm is as accurate is reputed he'll get the opportunity to toss a lot of short throws to possession receiver Sean Herbert and Sutton, but Northwestern is going to revert from hoping their quarterback wins games to hoping he doesn't lose them.

Running Backs

Rating: 5.
Pint-sized Tyrell Sutton's first collegiate season was a hit. Reminiscent of fellow miniature powerhouses Mike Hart and Brian Calhoun, Sutton's quick cuts, excellent vision, and surprising power after contact were good for 1474 yards at 5.9 per carry and freshman All America teams far and wide. His 44 catches out of the backfield were vital icing in Northwestern's offense of a thousand papercuts. Lest you believe that Sutton's numbers were a mirage of cheap yards against terrible defenses, he picked up 112 against Penn State and 93 versus Ohio State (on only 14 carries!). Sutton is poised to be a thorn in Big Ten sides for the next three years.

However, without Basanez's arm keeping safeties honest Sutton may find the sledding significantly tougher as a sophomore. If we make the safe assumption that whoever the starting quarterback is can't approach Basanez's efficiency and command of the offense, the only way to keep that eighth man from finding his way into the box will be to establish someone, likely Kim Thompson, as a deep danger. That requires not one but two untested players to step up -- unlikely. All eyes will be on Sutton* in '06.

He'll have more backup this year as Brandon Roberson and Terrell Jordan both return from injuries. They'll share the load, but this is Sutton's show.

*(As long as he's not standing behind anyone bigger than him, e.g. a six year old girl.)

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 3. Northwestern returns Sean Herbert, their leading receiver a year ago with 79 catches, but loses Mark Philmore and Jonathan Fields, who combined for 115 catches of their own. The departees should be relatively replaceable: combined they averaged barely over ten yards a catch and were summarily ignored by the NFL. While Herbert is likely to meet the same fate upon graduation ( he wasn't much of a deep threat either with just 862 yards on his 79 catches) he is a reliable cog in the offense and a player many teams could use.

Kim Thompson, suspended for academics before the Sun Bowl, is eligible once more and will no doubt be referred to as the "X factor" by dozens of analysts, color commentators, and pundits by the time the season ends. His 19 catches a year ago came with 326 yards and he was one of many to burn the Wisconsin secondary, catching a 53 yard touchdown in a wild 51-48 Wildcat win. Thompson has speed few Northwestern skill players do and could, given the right confluence of circumstances, emerge into a feared weapon.

Rasheed Ward and Ross Lane will platoon at the third wideout spot. Lane was mostly quiet a year ago before torching UCLA for seven catches and 136 yards; Ward had seven catches in the first three games and zero the remainder of the season.

Offensive Line

Rating: 3. Despite the departure of longtime right tackle Zach Strief, Northwestern returns five starters of a sort. Center Trevor Rees, the starter in '03 and '04, has resolved the academic issues that kept him out last year. That allows poor, poor Austin Matthews, he of the four-second half holding penalties versus Gabe Watson, to move out to Strief's old spot where he will be given the opportunity to hold the various defensive ends of the Big Ten.

Matthews' presence in the starting lineup sounds a note of concern. He was bewildered and overmatched most of last year, losing his starting spot partway through the season before reclaiming it for the Sun Bowl. The offseason losses of Thomas Bemenderfer (transfer) and Tyler Compton (academics*) stripped the staff of options; now Matthews is going to try a switch similar to the one that Rueben Riley did and Michigan fans feared. This does is not likely to work out well.

The rest of the line is experienced and competent. There's no star to build around and they'll have to do a lot more run-blocking, but survey says they will be decent.

*(Northwestern's dedication to suspending the hell out of any athlete who so much as looks at a professor funny is the true mark of an academically rigorous program.)


Last Year: Typically repulsive: better than only Illinois against both run and pass in conference in total yardage terms and the worst in the entire country when the two are combined.

In reality, it probably wasn't quite as bad as all that. Northwestern's defensive numbers have long been depressed by their frenetic style of offense, which leads to more drives against. In terms of yards per play Northwestern was a shiny tenth in conference, 0.4 better than Illinois. Their pass efficiency defense, fifth in conference, was downright average. They probably weren't the worst defense in the country.

So they've got that going for them.

Defensive Line

Rating: 1. Starting tackles Barry Coefield, second-team All Big Ten a year ago, and Trevor Schultz are gone, leaving little in their wake. Sophomore John Gill got seven starts a year ago -- Schultz was in and out of the lineup with injury and academic issues -- but he's the only player with anything more than spot plays. Redshirt freshman Adam Hahn has leapt into a starting spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Colby is frank about his expectations:
"We feel like we have to do more of that (play a 3-4) simply because it's hard for anybody to find those Loren Howards out there that can pass rush on the edge," said Colby. "But we can find a lot of those 6-2, 6-3, 250 pounders that are kind of 'tweeners,' between linebacker and (defensive) end. It's easier for us to find those kids.

"We don't enough (ends) to play 3-4 exclusively and we don't have enough linemen to play 4-3 exclusively, so we're going to play them both next year."
(And it's a punch in the guy when you do find those Loren Howards, but they decide to screw off to Arizona State for their senior seasons.) It's fairly easy to read between the lines of this quote: "we don't have anybody and will attempt to confuse opponents into thinking otherwise." Linebacker Nick Roach has said that the 3-4 will be a situation defense employed exclusively on passing downs in an effort to get a pass rush.

Sophomore end Kevin Mims was pretty bad last year, but as a true freshman he has an excuse. Junior David Ngene, who was clearly not as good as Mims despite being a year older, steps into the starting lineup with 12 tackles from last year. The Colby quote above indicates that he isn't expecting either Mims or fellow starter to provide much in the way of disruption; Mims might improve on his two sacks as a freshman but Northwestern's pass rush is going to have to come from a creative array of blitzes.

This is probably going to be the worst defensive line in the conference other than Indiana.


Rating: 3. Far down the list of Northwestern's offseason losses is "Best Nickname in College Football," which belonged to middle linebacker Tim "Angry Irishman" McGarigle. Northwestern will probably feel the loss of McGarigle's 548 career tackles -- the all-time NCAA record -- more keenly.

Northwestern does return starters Nick Roach and Adam Kadela; the pair were functional a year ago but at least partially to blame for Northwestern's ugly run defense. With only seven TFLs and two sacks between them, the stats paint a picture of a lot of tackles eight yards downfield. A mitigating factor: Roach broke his tailbone in the Iowa game and played through the pain for the last portion of the season.

Senior Demetrius Eaton steps into a starting spot on the outside (Kadela moves inside to replace McGarigle), but at 250 pounds he joins a remarkably uniform group: both other starters are 245. No one is particularly athletic -- giant fast guys generally attend places best described as "not Northwestern" -- and if they find themselves out of position they will not get back. The linebackers will be solid up the middle but vulnerable to play action, misdirection, and plain old outside running.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 3.

Cole with the tackle.
Long Northwestern's glaring weakness, it would be folly to expect sudden improvement from this unit but for the first time in a long time there is something resembling a flicker of hope. Senior cornerback Marquice Cole was actually kind of all right last year, though his second-team All Big Ten award came from the media and is largely attributable to his shiny 5 in the interception column. Cole is limited by his size, generously listed as 5'10", but is incredibly fast and more than capable of covering smaller wide receivers man-to-man. He's the closest thing to a good corner Northwestern's had... well... ever. He could get drafted(!)

The catch is that opposite Cole is a giant question mark and question marks, lacking arms, are distinctly poor in coverage. Junior Deante Battle was coming along nicely until being hit with an academic suspension before the Sun Bowl. His status for the upcoming season is still in question. The other options, senior Cory Dious "Mio" and sophomore Eric Peterson, do not inspire confidence. Peterson was a wide receiver until spring practice; now he is the leading candidate to start at corner. As frequent readers will no doubt recall, position-switcher-to-potential-starter is a primary MGoBlog panic heuristic. Wildcat fans should be holding prayer vigils for Battle.

[Update: Battle is eligible; rating bumped up to 3.]

Senior strong safety Bryan Heinz is the other solid player in the Wildcat secondary. He returned for the Sun Bowl after blowing out his knee right before the '05 season. With two years of starting experience under his belt and some mild regional buzz before his knee injury, he'll do his best to slow the horde of running backs and wide receivers threatening the endzone.

Brendan Smith and Reggie MacPherson are competing for the other safety spot. Both started four games a year ago, but Smith, a freshman, would have started more but for a midseason injury. Both will play; Smith will play more.

Special Teams

Kickers & Coverage

Rating: 1. You may remember kicker Joel Howells from disasters like "Missing two extra points, having a field goal blocked, and two onside kicks so incompetent that the same guy returned them for touchdowns against UCLA" and "going 11 for 21 despite attempting only short field goals." He's not good. He's better than Brian Huffman, who singlehandedly sabotaged the '04 TCU game, but that's not much of an accomplishment.

Punter Ryan Pederson was no better. Despite averaging under 40 gross yards per kick, he (and the coverage units) allowed teams to average eight yards a return. Northwestern was 103rd in net punting.


Non-Conference: Soft but not terrible. New Hampshire is a good I-AA team but still a I-AA team; Eastern Michigan would probably be a bad I-AA team. Two weird road games will pose challenges: Nevada and a team Blue Ribbon describes as "MAC power Ohio," by which they mean "MAC Power Miami(Ohio)."

Miami-Northwestern might not seem like must-see TV, but Walker attended then coached there before arriving in Evanston. As the season opener for both teams it'll no doubt be Randy Walker's unofficial testimonial game and quite moving despite ESPN's best efforts to ruin it.

Conference: Ugly. Off the schedule are Indiana and Minnesota. The road slate, well...
  • @ Penn State
  • @ Wisconsin
  • @ Michigan
  • @ Iowa
Adding injury to throbbing, pulsating injury: the first two and last two games are back-to-back.

We're Sure About

Sutton. He's good and, like Javon Ringer, has found an offense perfectly suited to his talents.

The Defensive Line. Will be terrible.

We Have An Idea About

The Offensive Line. By now they've established themselves for what they are: all right, but nothing more. The situation at right tackle gives this unit some bust potential, though.

The Secondary. They could be all right, but first they'll have to find a corner other than Cole.

We Have No Clue About

The Quarterbacks. Ciphers all! Whoever gets the start will no doubt be the proverbial heady winner who makes the most of his ability despite physical limitations, but he's not going to be first team All Big Ten.

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

There isn't much upside in this team without giving the Wildcats quarterback, whoever he is, way more credit than is reasonable. Sure, Bacher or whoever could be fantastic out of the gate, but realistically this is going to be a season to watch and learn. 5-7.

Worst Case

The quarterback situation degenerates into farce, leaving Sutton staring down eight- and nine-man fronts the bulk of the year. The defense performs like one expects a Northwestern defense to perform. At some point, they throw the towel in. 3-9.

Final Verdict

The defense should improve statistically -- it would be hard not to -- but probably not meaningfully. There's no one to rush the passer and blitzing leaves whoever isn't Marquice Cole on an island with a big neon sign that reads "toast." The rush defense was ugly despite the presence of three veterans right up the middle; now those veterans are gone. The linebackers should be serviceable but there won't be much contribution from the line.

The offense will drop off some without Basanez. He was quietly outstanding a year ago, one of the more underrated players in the country, and there's no replacing his experience. Tyrell Sutton and a veteran offensive line should keep the Wildcats competitive, but it will be a rough year for a program that deserves better.

Wins: EMU, New Hampshire
Probable Wins: Illinois
Tossups: @ Miami(OH), Purdue, @ Nevada
Probable Losses: @ Wisconsin, @ Penn State, MSU
No Chance: @ Iowa, @ Michigan, Ohio State

It looks like 4-8.