2001 Season
Review Page


2001: The Season Review
What follows are excerpts from comments posted on this site, during the course of the 2001 season.  Except where cited, the posts were written by the Senior Editorial Staff of the GoUPurple Site (i.e., GoUPurple).

Spring Practice Begins [posted March 29]

NU began spring practice Thursday, March 29 in Evanston.  Local media had the opportunity to interview Damien Anderson (who reiterated that the Nebraska fiasco was a primary reason he chose to return to NU), Zak Kustok, and Kevin Bentley.  Practice will continue for the next few weeks and will conclude with the annual Spring Game, which will be held at noon, Saturday April 21.  The game will be played on Ryan Field at Dyche Stadium and will be open to the public.  The practices, however, will not be open.  In fact, the staff is going to be rather circumspect regarding the training, in order to keep as much of its game plan as close to the chest as possible. 

One detail that did come out as the beginning of practice neared was that the main defensive scheme will remain a 4-3; there has been much speculation that NU would take advantage of its arsenal of linebackers and move to a 3-4 for the first time in years.  According to the Sun-Times, Randy Walker denied this, saying "They're not going to change their defensive scheme because there's nothing wrong with their defensive scheme." 

Walker also commented to the Sun-Times about the offense, and-- particularly-- quarterback Tony Stauss' chances of successfully challenging NU wunderkind Zak Kustok: "I'm not placing him ahead of anybody, but . . . yeah, I am... I told Tony, if he doesn't plan on beating Zak out, I don't know why he's coming out. But quite frankly, Zak will have to let him do it, and I don't know if that's going to happen."

Purple-White Game Saturday [posted April 18]

Northwestern will hold its annual public scrimmage this Saturday, April 21, at noon.  This is Randy Walker's second open Spring Game event-- 1999's scrimmage was closed to the public and the media.  So far, NU has had two working scrimmages during this spring's practice.  Neither has been open to the media, but the Northwestern official site reports indicate that NU's offense is firing on all cylinders.  Defense and special teams are conspicuous in the dearth of information concerning them.  We should know more about them, and much more, after this Saturday. . . . 

The Spring Game: White Beats Purple 21-9 [posted April 23]

No, make that 28 to 3.  Hold on, the Chicago tribune reports the score 30-0.  The game might have set a record for possible final scores.  One thing that's certain: the score did not matter.  NU's gridiron trust came out Saturday and performed for the last time until Camp Kenosha '01, this August. . .

We did not expect to see Damien Anderson practice, and were not surprised to see Anderson ride pine for the whole game.  Anderson did, however, keep his helmet on for almost the entirety of the game, which was a little amusing (I could almost hear, "Just in case they need me.  If Purple threatens too much, they might have to burn my 'Spring Practice' redshirt!").  Kevin Lawrence's performance made up for Anderson's absence.  Lawrence showed speed and surprising strength, and bulled through the defense continuously. 

Sam "Damn!" Simmons was also very impressive.  Simmons was a powerful presence and made a couple of circus catches.  If anyone is going to step up to take Teddy Johnson's place as NU's wide receiver long threat, Simmons is the one.  Of course, Witherspoon's potential is still not quite known, since he was sidelined this Spring with a broken foot.  Hopefully 'Spoon will be able to make the impact this fall that everyone hopes he will. 

All of the quarterbacks looked good.  Tony Stauss' accuracy was a little off, but that will certainly improve.  More importantly, Stauss showed that he has tremendous strength; he launched several bombs that were marvelously thrown.  He and Zak Kustok could be the greatest one-two quarterback combination NU has ever had. 

The defense, as promised, had some new looks, going to multiple 4-3 / 3-4 formations.  Randy Walker has commented that NU will feature as many as five linebackers on the field.  The D. performed well in general.  Napoleon Harris, in his new line role, was effective, and Pat Durr is going to be a star.  His interception was one of the day's most exciting moments. 

The NGN auction and dinner after the spring game was a great time, and provided an opportunity to meet with coaches and many rabid, die-hard fans.   Of particular interest were comments Coach Walker made after the dinner.  Walker was asked why he decided to come to NU, considering that NU was 0-8 in the Big Ten the prior year.  Walker said that he attended the game that decided the 1998 national championship and thought to himself, "this is my goal.  I want to coach in this game."  He knew that he could never achieve that goal at Miami.  Could he at Northwestern?  Walker wasn't sure that NU was truly committed to building and maintaining a winning program, back-to-back conference titles notwithstanding.  He expressed this to NU and Rick Taylor.  Taylor convinced him by showing him the contract for the renovations to Dyche Stadium.  The contract was signed in 1994-- the year before the Dream Season.  The fact that the administration had committed such resources to the program before it showed signs of success persuaded Walker that the program meant business, and that he could win at Northwestern and NU would allow him to win, and both would do so while maintaining incredibly high standards.  The coach has a drive and a passion for the sport that is unrivaled. 

Preseason Polls Favor NU [posted June 8]

Preseason college polls aren't typically worth the paper they are printed on (especially if they are on the internet....).  However, it is telling that nearly all polls released so far have the Wildcats ranked nationally and have them at or near the top of the Big Ten.  The consensus of the polls and NU's place on them is something most 'Cat fans haven't seen in their lifetimes-- even most preseason rankings in 1996 and '97 did not favor NU to this extent.  Here is a sampling of polls from this Spring: 

  • The Sporting News ranks NU 13th. 
  • Athlon: 18th. 
  • CBS: 15th.  CBS also projects NU into the Orange Bowl as conference champs. 
  • College Football News:  Ranks NU 4th in the Big Ten.  However, how much credence can you give a sports source that also claims, "The season will be a success if [NU] wins the Big Ten. After coming so close last season, they're shooting for the title with Wisconsin and Michigan off the schedule." Mm-hmm.... 
  • CNN / Sports Illustrated: 17th and Big Ten champs. 
  • Fox: 15th. 
  • Phil Steel's magazine predicts NU will finish 9th in the conference.  Phil Steel's magazine is perfect for wrapping fish, or to use as kindling, assuming you don't mind the stench that it would surely produce. 
  • PigSkinPost.com: 16th. 
  • Lindy's: Big Ten Championship. 
  • Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook: 12th. 
[Ed. note-- as difficult as it is to admit, I obviously owe Phil Steel an apology.]

Fitzgerald Returns to NU [posted July 10]

Northwestern has reported that Brad Bollinger is leaving NU, and Pat Fitzgerald will replace him as the Wildcat defensive backs coach.   Fitzgerald was to begin as a defensive backs coach at Idaho this fall.  NU is bringing back to Central Street not only a very popular player, but another link between the current staff and NU's legendary 1995 awakening.  Fitzgerald was a key motivator on the '95 and '96 teams, and his enthusiasm, energy, and dedication will be a valuable strength for an already-strong staff and team. 

Fitz is a two-time All-American and the only player in NCAA history to win the Bronko Nagurski Award in back-to-back seasons.  According to NU sports, Fitzgerald recorded 299 tackles with the 'Cats (20 for loss), forced five fumbles and intercepted three passes. 

Welcome back Pat! 

[posted August 4]

1979 - 2001
The Northwestern athletic family, no strangers to recent tragedy and grief, mourn again.  Asthma has apparently claimed the life of the Wildcats' starting safety, Rashidi Wheeler, Friday, August 3.  He was 22 years old.  Wheeler died after taking part in preseason conditioning drills on a practice field east of Ryan Field.

Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor said the initial medical report "makes it apparent the death was not heat-related.'' 

Our prayers and thoughts go out to the Wheeler family and to the Northwestern staff and football team.

NU to Retire Wheeler's Number [posted August 19]

The Trivia Question of the Week which I had slated to post today had to be replaced with a different question.  I had originally intended to post, "How many numbers has the NU football team retired?"  The answer is zero-- at least, that will be the answer until September 15.  Prior to the NU home opener against Navy, Northwestern will retire Rashidi Wheeler's number thirty.  The ceremony will be the first such retirement ever for the team.  Rashidi died August 3 after taking part in preseason conditioning drills on a practice field east of Ryan Field.  He was 22 years old

Camp Kenosha Heads toward Scrimmage [posted August 23]

The Wildcat team is now halfway through Camp Kenosha, and it sounds like so far, so good.  Practices started on August 17 with a two hour session.  Accounts are that the players show little rust and have hit the field running.  Napoleon Harris said, "It felt great to be back out there, kidding, competing … I love to compete. That's the biggest thing I enjoyed about being out here today. Just competing. It seemed like an eternity for this day to come. I'm glad it finally did." 

All indications are that the team is 100% behind Coach Walker.  ''I respect coach Walker a lot,''  Damien Anderson is quoted as saying. ''He treats us as men, and he wants us to act as men. He doesn't treat us as children, where everything's a surprise. So we're ready to perform in adverse situations. He tries to prepare us in every aspect of the game-- physically, mentally. That's why we've had a lot of success.''  Anyone who knows Walker knows that he is about as straightforward as they come-- what he says is from the gut and players know this. 

Among those who appear strong so far are Tony Stauss, who is reported to have fired off some fantastic passes; Harris, in his new position as defensive end and "rover"; and Zak Kustok and Damien Anderson.

2001 Wildcat Odyssey Begins in the Desert [posted September 2]

"Oh yet we trust that somehow good 
Will be the final goal of ill!" 
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson 

Reporter: "Why do you like the Desert, Major Lawrence?" 
Lawrence: "It's clean." 
--Lawrence of Arabia 

The desert may, in fact, be clean, but the plot lines leading to Northwestern's desert debut are anything but clean.  They are tangled, complicated and unpredictable.  The Wildcats travel to a sun-baked field, but they are already tanned from media lights after the most highly covered and scrutinized preseason in NU history.  UNLV will host from behind a wall of riddles-- is this an over-hyped team stuck in the desert with a solid gold John Robinson canteen that's full of dust, or is it a very good, well-coached squad that has made a tactical blunder and has now retreated into the desert to retool, regroup, and wait to take its vengeance on the unexpecting? 

From Northwestern's standpoint, there's bound to be a great deal of relief just through the act of playing a game.  Still reeling from tragedy, a sandstorm of publicity and distraction, the 'Cats must be clawing their insides out waiting to take the field.  And what can we expect to see when they do? 

For one thing, we should see some indicators as to how the team may react to all that they've been through in one month.  Expect to see passion, mission-focus, and professionalism.  Expect emotion, but tempered with discipline.  Expect anger and hard hits, but focused through a lens of maturity that has been ground and polished with pain and compassion. 

And, yes, Expect Victory. 

Sports columnists and analysts have said that the Wildcat offense is anything from the best in the nation down to a gimmick that will not work the second time around.  Here is where there is one desert-clean line to be drawn: NU's offense is fully loaded and will surpass last year's performance.  Expect school offensive records to be broken this year often, and by large margins.  With veteran and dominating linemen, a smart and versatile starting quarterback and two rifle-armed backup QBs, and a back field with more weapons than a Quentin Terrantino movie, there is no soft spot. Damien Anderson and Zak Kustok have received much of the press, but Sam Simmons, Jon Schweighardt and Kunle Patrick will be electric this fall.  Austin King should finish the season as the center for the All-Big Ten team and will have a great shot to be an All-American, and I expect David Farman to invigorate a position that has been almost overlooked for the last two seasons.  Look for Farman to be a third and short go to guy in an effort to capitalize even more on all the attention that has been put on Anderson. 

Are there questions and doubts concerning the NU defense?  Of course, but there were just as many doubts last year about the offense.  When fans heard about the changes to the offense last year, many were skeptical.  There will be skepticism with the defensive changes now as well.  The 'Cats lose Missouri and Emmerich.   The line has been questioned.  However with Konopka, Chapman, Simon, and Grimes starting and with Harris filling the ominous and dreaded new rover role, the defensive front should fare quite well.  Reports indicate that the defense has abandoned its much-maligned "bend-don't-break" philosophy and is more of an attacking unit.  With Durr, Silva, and Bentley racing to the line, this is really good news. 

Success might very well hinge this year, more than ever, on special teams.  Any improvement over last year's kick coverage will be a colossal step forward, and could be the difference in as many as two games.  Walker has said that he is very happy with the job new special teams coach Mike Dunbar has done so far-- will Dunbar's new direction for special teams be enough to put NU's play quality over the top and take it to the next level? 

We'll start to find answers in the desert, this Friday.  And we'll find them against a team that many fans are starting to write off, given its disastrous performance against Arkansas last Saturday.  UNLV's offense was horrid.  The Rebel's own Heisman candidate, QB Jason Thomas, completed only four of sixteen passes.  He threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for Arkansas' winning touchdown.  UNLV chalked up only two first downs in the first half.  They missed two field goals from 29 yards.  "We died in our own mistakes,'' UNLV coach John Robinson said. "We could've won the football game if we would've just done the things that you normally think a team should do, and we just didn't do them." 

Robinson is absolutely right, and don't think for a second that UNLV won't do the things a team should do, two weeks in a row.  Thomas played much better ball last year; last week is a fluke, and Friday he'll be a genuine threat.  NU's cornerbacks are in for a very grueling evening.  The Rebel defense, the only UNLV unit that looked good against Arkansas, will give our veteran O-line as much as they can handle.  Zak Kustok will have a very short time of protection.  And, needless to say, their defense will be gunning for Anderson all night. 

Robinson is right, but if NU does not make similar mistakes Friday to what UNLV did last Saturday, the 'Cats have the talent to break the game open.  But will we have a Wildcat desert storm, a first salvo toward accomplishing the first NU non-conference sweep since 1963, or is it a mirage-- are the 'Cats walking into another TCU, another Iowa?  Did the Alamo Bowl stem for good any overconfidence?  This week, we'll all know. 

"A desert is a place without expectation." 
--Nadine Gordimer 

-Victory in Vegas- 'Cats Pull out 37-28 Win [posted September 7]

Northwestern returns to Evanston with a hard-fought victory against John Robinson's UNLV Rebels.  The Wildcats beat Vegas Friday night 37-28 for their fifth opening game win in the last seven seasons, and their second against the Rebels.  The match was a critical opener for NU, which has been under tremendous pressure, and which now faces two non-conference opponents who should provide easier matchups than UNLV. 

The game was an absolute showcase for Zak Kustok and Sam Simmons.  Zak threw two touchdowns and ran for three more.  His five scores and 30 points breaks Otto Graham's greatest remaining school record, for individual points in a game (Graham had 27 vs. Wisconsin in 1943).  Sam made NFL catches and torched Sam Boyd's field.  His performance was on par with the very best we saw from NU last year.   Kustok and the rest of the offense looked hesitant (and at times confused) during the first half, but exploded later to give NU the win.  Damien Anderson was completely shut down in the first half.  UNLV's surprisingly fast defense keyed up on Anderson, the Wildcat O-line failed to create holes, and Anderson had just over a dozen yards after two quarters.  Once Zak and Sam opened things up in the third, Damien began to find some ground.  He finished with 113 yards and broke Darnell Autry's record to become Northwestern's leading career rusher. 

The first quarter started haltingly, with the teams swapping punts.  The Wildcat line had some trouble blocking, and DA found nothing.  An enormous clutch catch by Simmons allowed NU to threaten, and Zak punched the ball in by crossing the line like a madman.  Kustok showed no fear in his execution; he made gutsy play after gutsy play.  With 20 seconds to go in the half, Simmons had another incredible catch and set up a 45 yard field goal by David Wasielewski.  The second half saw Zak simply run wild, firing perfect bullet passes to Sam and scrambling for great chunks of real estate.  The blocking also improved, especially Mike Souza's, who looked great. 

The defense also had its share of strengths Friday.  Pat Durr had several tackles for loss that were monstrous.  Harris was fantastic.  His interception came at a point when the D. looked like it was going to gift wrap a Rebel touchdown.  With his new rover role, he truly seemed to be all over the field at once.  Bentley's fumble recovery and 46 yard run was a back-breaker for UNLV and gave Zak & Co. wonderful field position. 

As expected, though, the defense did show some soft spots.  The line continuously popped open, and coverage was really spotty, although there was an occasional flash of brilliance.  The Wildcats seemed to have forgotten how to tackle opponents: basic tackling was not accomplished with any success.  One lucky break for the 'Cats was that, even though UNLV quarterback Jason Thomas had a better game than he had against Arkansas, his receivers (with one big exception) did not. 

Special teams have been a concern, and showed a few first-game flaws.  NU's kickoff return crew allowed an 87 yard scamper near the end of the game (during which several NU players were juked practically off the field), and Wasielewski missed his first kick, a P.A.T.  However, Wasielewski looked good on the 45 yarder, and J.J Standring was excellent both on punts and kickoffs.  Standring boomed at least one punt over 60 yards and was very consistent, reminding me of Paul Burton. 

NU's penalty problem is perhaps the area of greatest concern from the game.  The 'Cats lost well over 100 yards in penalties, including the usual cheap shot, late hit nonsense that occasionally plagued last season.  How much better would this team be if they dropped the trash talk and the late hits?  There were actually several cheap shots that NU delivered that, while clear on TV coverage, were not called. The team can do much better here. 

Overall the game was a quality win-- against a respected opponent, on the road.  It also has given the staff a wealth of information to use for adjustments as the Wildcats head toward their conference title defense.

[posted September 9]

For this week's preview, GoUPurple presents: 

"The Wreck of the Navy Midshipmen" 
[To the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald"] 

The legend lives on from Annapolis on down 
Of a ball team they call "Fighting Purple" 
The 'Cats, it's agreed, never give up the lead 
When the skies of September turn gloomy. 
With its worst scoring game and its defense still lame 
Here the Navy Midshipmen came calling 
That good team and crew was a bone to be chewed 
And the 'Cats of September are ready. 

The Navy was dreck against the Ramblin' Wreck, 
They were slaughtered,  seventy to seven. 
As the big blow-outs go, it was bigger than most, 
At the half it was forty-two, zero. 
They fumbled and lapsed and their defense collapsed 
A week after they got trounced by Temple! 
The Owls beat their hides, twenty-six, forty-five, 
The Midshipmen aren't good, plain and simple. 

But their offense can roll, their quarterbacks: 
Craig Candeto and Ed Malinowski 
Are rifle-armed fast and are bound to have passed 
For a touchdown 'gainst the Wildcats' D-Backs. 
Their kicker is fair, but with no defense there 
...Well the Navy Midshipmen can't win this. 
Sam Simmons and Zak will unleash an attack, 
And Damien's shoes will be worn out. 

The press and the wires made a tattle-tale sound: 
Are the Wildcats now over-rated? 
And every man knew, as Rock Walker did too, 
That the Middies would try for the upset. 
But the 'Cats will come in, a-ready to win, 
They've fine tuned, and are ready for slashin' 
And later this week all the headlines will shriek: 
The Third Wreck of the Navy Midshipmen!

UPDATE - September 12, 7:00 pm CDT: 
Navy Game Canceled [posted September 12]

Northwestern University announced Wednesday afternoon that the school and the U.S. Naval Academy have agreed to cancel their game, which was to be held at Ryan Field Saturday at noon, CDT.  It is apparently the first time that NU has canceled a scheduled football game since the Purdue train disaster that claimed several Boilermaker players' lives in 1903.

Regardless of whom NU was to play, the decision is the appropriate one; considering that the 'Cats were to play a service academy, there is no question. 

"As we go to press, the world is sorely troubled, the horizon darkened with the clouds of war.  It is a good time to pause and remember that sport has kept the flag of idealism high on the masthead, flying as Galsworthy said, 'With its spirit of rules kept; and regard for adversity, whether the fight is going for or against.'  The love of sport has been woven into the very fabric of our national life in the sure knowledge that the boys of today may become stronger physically, nobler spiritually because they learned to play the game.  In every hour of crisis the men who learned to play hard in a free land have fought hard to preserve that freedom." 
-- James C. McLeod, Northwestern University Chaplain, 1951 

Duke Preview [posted September 16]

The Blue Devils' losing streak is at 14.  It would be 15 now, but Duke's game with Clemson was postponed because of the events of last week.  Duke last tasted victory in November 1999 when they smacked Wake Forest around en route to a 48-35 win.  It's been a tailspin since, and last week's universal bye week is a necessary chance for Duke to catch its breath, regroup, and focus on getting win #1 of the new century. 

Enter the Wildcats. 

A surreal, brutal, bewildering, and grievous year for NU's football team keeps getting less predictable.  Fresh from the win in Vegas, Northwestern appeared back on track.  Now the team is as shocked as everyone else, and they are facing a season with only two non-conference games and only four chances to play at home.  They've shifted their game focus from what would have been a light at-home scrimmage against Navy and an opportunity to give nearly everyone some playing time, to a real challenge against a cornered and starving team, on its own turf.  Many fans were afraid of an ambush by UNLV-- there is a greater chance for an ambush when the Wildcats go into Wallace Wade Stadium. 

True, Duke was demolished in their opener by Florida State, 55-13.  However, the Blue Devil defense successfully confused FSU and threw its offense out of whack for much of the first quarter.  The Blue Devils' defensive backs, especially Ronnie Hamilton, will offer some very difficult challenges for the 'Cat receivers.  Hamilton also returns punts, and ran one back 68 yards for a touchdown against FSU. 

The Blue Devils dropped their second game this year 15-13 to a not-too-bad Rice team.  Duke had a chance to tie the game, but the two point conversion failed due to a fumbled snap.  Earlier, Duke's quarterback D. Bryant (nicknamed, "D. Bryant") completed a 33-yard pass to Calen Powell.  Bryant and Powell are a competent pair, and stand to test NU's secondary again. 

As much of a threat as Duke is, especially because they will certainly have red-circled this game some time ago, it should be noted that Duke has lost 16 straight games to ranked teams dating to 1994 and is 3-62 in its last 65.  Northwestern knows Wallace Wade Stadium, they know this team, and they've had time to make the adjustments suggested by the UNLV game.  Look for NU's defense to be aggressive.  D. Bryant is a good quarterback, but he isn't the scrambler we saw at UNLV.  D. will take a few sacks Saturday. 

Prediction:  Duke's losing streak will come to an end, but not until the Devils host Wake Forest October 13 [or, maybe not....].  NU 28, Duke 20.

Devils Exorcised: NU Thumps Duke 44-7 [posted September 23]

NU re-started its 2001 season by rolling into Durham and rolling the Duke Blue Devils, 44-7, in a game that showcased the Wildcat's Heisman front-runner, Damien Anderson.  Anderson, the focus of the Duke defense the entire game, ripped off 189 yards rushing and 61 yards receiving-- just three yards short of Kunle Patrick's receivers-leading total.  Damien found the endzone four times.  ESPN and other sources have said that this ties the NU scoring record, so it isn't known whether Zak Kustok's five touchdowns vs. UNLV will be an official school record.  Anderson's performance was on par with what fans have come to expect: a fumble-free (surprisingly, there wasn't a single fumble by either team), work horse, smart, punishing ground campaign. 

Anderson's backup, Kevin Lawrence, also had a solid evening, grinding out short yardage and bursting occasionally, including a 45 yard kickoff return.  Kustok gave his usual, spectacular performance, hanging 318 yards on Duke and suffering no interceptions.  Kunle Patrick stepped up to expectations and dwarfed them by pulling in several clutch, fantastic catches and piling on yards after the catch.  Sam Simmons, NU's regular go-to receiver, suffered a concussion and a broken finger in the game.  Anderson said after the game, "We came out great . . . but Sam went down.  Hopefully we'll get him back. That's what I'm worried about right now. He's an intricate part of our offense, he really makes things click, especially for me.''  Losing Sam, even for the next few games, would be a tremendous blow for this strong offense. 

The offense was expected to perform (as it always is), especially against the Blue Devils' horrid defense.  However, the special teams and defense were expected to be at least somewhat tested during this game.  They passed, showing real improvement since UNLV, and great strides since last year. 

Among the standouts on D. was Billy Silva, who recorded two interceptions and is distinguishing himself as one of the all-time great 'Cat linebackers.  On special teams, David Wasielewski made all his field goals (28, 36 and 47 yards) and, unlike at UNLV, was consistent on PATs, which is nice considering how many there were in the Duke game.  Waz is now demonstrating just why he is the Wildcats' number one kicker. 

If there is one weakness with NU football that still shows a desperate need for improvement, it is the 'Cats' susceptibility to penalties.  NU suffered seven penalties and lost 75 yards.  NU was set back 113 yards due to penalties at UNLV.  The Wildcats almost certainly stand to lose at least one game this year, if only due to all the yellow thrown onto the field. 

After the game, the Durham, NC, Herald-Sun announced, "Maybe history can debate this, but Duke’s football program never had such a miserable day. By the time the data had been accounted for and the scores were all in, it was difficult to tell which was the lowest moment for the Blue Devils: Was it Northwestern’s well-balanced offense embarrassing Duke’s defense with 638 total yards offense (just 26 shy of the school record 654 set last year against Michigan) in a 44-7 blowout Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium? How about the Wildcats converting 8-of-16 third downs and their marquee players, running back Damien Anderson and quarterback Zak Kustok, looking more like master chess pieces on a board of doom for Duke?  Could it be the fact that defeat is becoming an all too familiar scene for those in royal blue?"  For some NU fans, the Herald-Sun opinion will be somewhat ironic, since many feel that one of NU's worst ever performances came in 1998, at Ryan Field against the Blue Devils. 

The Duke University Athletics Association announced that it will donate a percentage of proceeds from ticket sales for the Duke-Northwestern football game to relief efforts in New York, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.  Unfortunately, that isn't likely to be much: barely over 18,400 fans showed for the game, with the bulk of those in attendance consisting of NU fans, announcers, concession workers, security guards, and passers by.

Michigan St. Preview [posted September 23]

Remember what Ryan Field looks like?  Well, neither do I, but we'll find out this Saturday, when the Wildcats hit their home field for the first time this year.  There will be some noticeable differences, of course: the new video scoreboard should definitely be up and running by now, Wildcat Seatbacks will dot the arenascape, and there may well be more red, white, and blue in the stands than purple or green.  What will be familiar is this 'Cat team, with its inconsistent defense and special teams (which appear to be on the rise) and an offense that is the most entertaining in all of football. 

Also familiar will be the Michigan State Spartans.  When we last met MSU, they were a ranked team that had just knocked off Notre Dame and were shifting around weapons on offense.  This Saturday the Spartans will come to Evanston ranked (for the first time since the 'Cats demolished them in 2000), confident, and swinging around more Irish loot, after pillaging Notre Dame yet again.  Michigan State played well, but it's difficult to gauge, since they played a clearly inferior opponent.  Notre Dame and Duke might have been the better matchup last weekend. 

The Spartans have two quarterbacks who each are capable and show flashes of greatness, but neither is great.  Smoker completed half of his passes and picked up 59 yards against the Irish.  VanDyke wasn't much better, going 9 for 15, but he did end up with 149 yards.  Their receivers, however, are great-- especially Rogers and Flowers.  NU's secondary simply does not match well against them.  Duckett, MSU's own running back Heisman candidate, should be much improved over his performance last year.  He might rack up 125 - 135 yards on the 'Cats, and if he does, watch out.  This game is likely to be an "Instant Classic" style shootout as NU focuses on Duckett and MSU takes to the air. 

Two achilles' heels that plague the Spartans (yes, I know that Achilles wasn't Spartan, but the metaphors are mixed freely on this page) so far are familiar to Northwestern fans: special teams and penalties.  During the Notre Dame game MSU was called for 14 penalties for 101 yards, including 10 for 71 yards in the first half.  This game could get rather sloppy.  During their first game, against Central Michigan, the Fighting Wombats (or whatever the lovable scamps at Central Michigan are calling themselves these days) scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  Both scores came from blocked Spartan punts run back.  If the Wildcat D. can force at least a few fourth and long situations, we could have some fireworks. 

Prediction:  Will depend on penalties.  If both teams are fairly even with flags received, it's NU 38, MSU 31.  If NU pulls in more infractions, MSU takes it, 34, NU 28. 

ZakAttack Stuns Michigan State 27-26 [posted September 30]

It was like Michigan 1996.  A tendril of hope as NU trailed 16-0 in the fourth quarter.  The game ended with NU winning 17-16 after Brian Gowins successfully kicked the clutch field goal twice.  A fourth down conversion kept NU alive, albeit barely. 

It was like Michigan 2000.  A tendril of hope as NU watches the game winning touchdown slip through the fingers of its star on a brilliant fourth down play.  The game ends in pandemonium and a flood of purple. 

It was like Minnesota 2000.  A tendril of hope as NU puts its fate on the arm of Zak Kustok, and fans watch in disbelief as college sports dwarfs Hollywood for emotion and fairy tale endings. 

It was like all of these and many more, and it was like none of these and nothing else.  There was no tendril of hope.  There was NU, apparent game winner, watching a Spartan streak, a white flash run with a ball he received as a result of one of the most bone-headed calls in recent Wildcat history.  There was NU, would-be game winner, letting the streak go by, letting him make fools of an already weak 'Cat kickoff coverage team, letting him dazzle highlight reels everywhere.  There was NU, and dejection, and 18 seconds.  You can't even say, "Holy living yak crap, what was that?  Did you see that?  What were we thinking?" In 18 seconds. 

And the game ends in madness, Wildcat glory, and another feature length ESPN Instant Classic. 

Don't ask how.  What's the point when you are watching, and rooting for, and praying for the most exciting team in college football?  You just enjoy it. 

Ceremonies, Silence, and Reverence 

The pre-game agenda Saturday was obviously unlike anything before seen at Dyche / Ryan.  As Northwestern's marching band looked on, the Great Lakes Naval Station band played The Star Spangled Banner, and a procession of uniformed fire fighters and police solemnly took the field carrying a large American flag.   After a moment of silence honoring Rashidi Wheeler and the victims of the September 11 terror attacks, the public address system played Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful."  During the song a montage of images from New York and Washington were shown on Northwestern's new video screen. 

As Ray Charles' singing came to a close, the muffled sound of a jet engine could be heard swelling in the distance.  At first those in attendance thought it might be a military fly-by.  Looking overhead, they were overwhelmed at what they saw:  a single commercial jetliner, the first in sight over Evanston that day, soaring from O'Hare and bounding its way toward skies over Lake Michigan.  It carried itself directly over Ryan Field just as the music came to an end and stunned fans look on, and up, in silence again. 
The Defense's Finest Hour 

A clear message from the game itself is that, while NU's special teams still have serious weaknesses, the defense continues its improvement, and can now actually help win games for the Wildcats.  The defensive unit gutted it out the whole game.  MSU's 31 minute time of possession does not tell the whole story of the challenge the D. faced for much of this game.  There were several grinding MSU drives that punished the Wildcats, yet they stuck it out, and yielded only 111 rushing yards to a team that has star-calibre rushing talent. 

More telling were the seven sacks NU recorded on the day.  It is not yet known how close this might be to a school record; NU does not release an official record for sacks in a game. The linebacking corps, particularly Bentley and Silva, was stellar.  Raheem "The Glove" Covington was the bright spot in NU's defensive backfield, and Napoleon Harris ran rampant all day.  There were several times that, from the stands, it appeared that Spartan players were afraid of Harris, and hesitated a little in their play because they were unsure just where Harris was. 

Victory Right Redux 

The game was a defensive match until five minutes before the end of the fourth quarter.  Then all Hell cut loose, and NU's special teams allowed two critical scores.  With four minutes forty-two seconds left Northwestern led MSU by the score at halftime, 17-14.  NU's offense ground to a halt.  The Spartans had been effective all day in shutting down NU's running backs, and were successful in powering past the 'Cat offensive line.  J.J. Standring was having a great day, booming punts for a nearly 46 yard average.  His last punt, however, was returned by Charles Rogers 64 yards for a touchdown.  The point after, however, was not good, surprising not one soul in Ryan Field: MSU's kicking game was perhaps the most brutal I've ever seen by a Big Ten team (with the possible exception of Iowa's hilarious performance at Ryan Field in 1997). 

MSU 20, NU 17. 

It was time for Zak Kustok to slip out of the huddle and into his own on-field phone booth, to remove his pads and put on his cape, to take the "10" off his chest and put on his "S" (or is it a "Z"?).  It was time for Kustok to become once again this team's super hero and save the day. 

Zak led the charge across the field, climaxed by a gutsy 24-yard run.  Then time and hearts stopped.  NU confronted a fourth down near the Spartan 20 yard line.  Michigan 2000, Michigan 1996, Minnesota 2000.  Michigan State 2001, with just over a minute left. 

For Walker, there was no choice, and the tendril of hope wrapped itself, clung to Kustok. 

Zak got the first down, of course, and then unloaded to Kunle Patrick in the end zone with 29 seconds left.  For Patrick, it was the best play of a very strong game.  With Sam Simmons recovering from his injuries sustained during the Duke game, some one had to step up to make the Sam "Damn!" catches.  Patrick eagerly did just that. 

NU 24, MSU 20.  An apparent final.  Appearances and assumptions have never been as deceiving as they were in this game, which was like so many games, and like no other.  From here on out, appearances were not to be trusted, and lessons were to be taught.  The first lesson was about hubris and tragic flaws; the second lesson was about will. 

Northwestern's hubris, its tragic flaw, is its attitude toward personal fouls.  Fans have seen a distressing increase in the number of late hits and personal fouls from NU over the last three years, and the Wildcat staff don't seem too concerned.  It is as if the 'Cats are too important to worry about trivial matters, like clean play.  They really should be worried.  Besides other, more fundamental reasons, it nearly (and should have) cost them the game.  After yet another personal foul after the extra point, NU was forced to kick off from its own 20, with under 29 seconds to go.  Without the penalty, the Wildcats could have considered kicking the ball out of bounds and starting the final MSU drive on the 35 yard line.  With this no longer an option, the 'Cats could either squib kick or give a standard and very returnable kick.  They could only choose the squib with any degree of safety. 

So they went for the standard kick and nearly broke every Wildcat fan's heart.  Walker, to his infinite credit, nostrificated the blame for the call.  He wanted the squib, his players wanted a standard kick, and Walker changed his mind and ordered the kick.  That kick, and that white streak, flew backward (via Herb Haygood) 84 yards with 18 seconds to go.  Any tendril of hope that might have been near the field was well-hidden within the players and with Walker. 

MSU 26, NU 24.  The lesson about hubris was far from over, though.  The MSU players, both on the field and on the sidelines, went ape, celebrating their "win."  Players leaped.  Players piled on each other.  Players raced from the sidelines like they were going to be interviewed by Keith Jackson.  Players did everything except prepare for the point after, and flags flew.  The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty threw the Spartan's miserable kicking team back 15 feet.  When they missed yet again, the tendril edged back, then faded when Kevin Lawrence's knee hit the grass at the NU 15 yard line on the last kickoff. 

The final lesson was about will.  Kustok said after the game, "I go into every game thinking it's going to come down to me having to win the game and having confidence in myself to do that." 

"I didn't know how we were going to get it," Kustok said. "But I knew we were going to get it." 

I was sitting near Kustok's parents at the game.  After the game, I looked at Zak's father and said, "your son is absolutely incredible!"  Al Kustok laughed and shook his head and said,  "This TEAM is incredible."  What a statement, and what class. 

"I didn't know I could throw the ball that far," Zak Kustok said. "That's what [teammates] were telling me. I tell them I save it up in practice. As far as I had to throw it, I was going to get it there." 


Kustok unleashed Victory Right, the same weapon of mass destruction we saw last year in Minnesota.  Fifty-six yards down the field Kunle Patrick tipped the ball, and Jon Schweighardt made as heroic a catch as any Wildcat receiver ever has. 

With three ticks left on the clock, NU's David Wasielewski kicked the field goal of his career.  Forty-seven yards of glory. 

Northwestern might have had the retirement ceremony for #30's jersey before the game, but that number was still on the field and a part of this game long after the moment of silence.  It was there for every second, in a game like no other. 

Three and Oh, My Gosh! 

With the win, Northwestern is now 3-0 for the first time since 1962, when the Wildcats eventually crested at first place in the Associated Press poll.  Even during its three recent Championship seasons, NU has stumbled at least once out of the gate: 

1995: NU blows 21 point lead, loses 30-28 vs. Miami in game two; 
1996: NU stunned by Wake Forest, 28-27 in game one; 
2000: TCU whacks NU 41-14 in game three.

NUTS! Buckeyes Overwhelm Hapless 'Cats [posted October 6]

For thirty years Ohio State has owned Northwestern.  Saturday night OSU showed that they've kept their mortgage payments current by knocking around a stunned, confused NU team 38-20.  There were few bright spots in a game which featured: 

  • An even more porous NU defense than fans are accustomed to watching.  Silva and Durr looked decent, and Martin did have a nice interception, but that was it.  Ohio State bulled its way through the 'Cat defensive line at will.  The Buckeye full and running backs had their way with the 'Cats, dragging them around like they were dolls.  NU's defense could never adjust. 
  • The worst offensive performance by Northwestern since 1999.  Everyone on offense had a horrible night.  Everyone looked like they'd rather be somewhere else, from the very start of the game. NU did muster a few good plays in the fourth quarter, however.
The very start of the game was also the end of the game, as Ohio State needed just two plays and fifty-three seconds to sprint into the Wildcats' unguarded end zone.  NU suffered fumbles, turnovers, and explosion plays, and folded like a Japanese lampshade.  Was it really such a bad night for the 'Cats, or is OSU really good?  OSU also made many mistakes, and Steve Bellisari did not impress.  It really was such a bad night for NU.  The coaching for the game seemed off.  It's typical to see the Wildcat defense start out of sorts and remain so after the half.  It is disappointing to watch Wilson's plan fail and have no successful adjustment. 

Hey, it could be worse: we could have watched the Hurryin' Hoosiers hang 63 points on our team, like the Badgers suffered Saturday. [Ed. note-- was this Karma?  I really, really should not have mentioned the Indiana - Wilconsin game.  Little did fans know just how similar our game with Indy would be.]  The Ohio State game was uncomfortable to sit through, and it was a particularly bitter loss because of the history NU has with the Buckeyes.  However, it was one game.  Northwestern has lost one game in every season it has ever played football.  Every single one.  This was one game, and NU has one loss.  It had one loss in 1936, it had two in 1948, it had one in 1995, it had two in 1996, it had three in 2000, and it has one now.  The Wildcats have a week to prepare for Minnesota, and when they beat the Gophers in Evanston at Homecoming, they will be right back in the conference race. 

But of all the single games to lose, why did it have to be this one? 

NU Holds 4-1 Record after Beating Minnesota 23-17 [posted October 15]

Sure, fans are saying that the game was ugly, that Northwestern still wasn't playing at 100% and let Minnesota remain in the game long after they should have been given first-class tickets to Garbage Time.  Two points, however, must be made: 

1. NU's play, for the most part, was actually quite good when reconsidered, and when considering... 
2. ...the game wasn't nearly as ugly as the weather, which was horrific.

The rain was relentless during the Wildcat's 23-17 victory over Minnesota.  In fact, sitting through this might actually have been worse than the great monsoon of the Michigan 1998 game, since at least the rain let up for a few minutes in 1998.  Saturday it was constant.  I'm still not fully dry. 
Damien Anderson rushed for one touchdown, the 36th rushing touchdown of his career.  This breaks Darnell Autry's career record, felling one of the last standing rushing records from the Pre-Damien Era of NU football.  Unfortunately, Damien still did not have the spectacular ground game that he so often produced last year.  He was held to 86 yards, and the 'Cats often employed Kevin Lawrence, who was again effective running the ball. 

The two best players on offense Saturday, however, were Sam Simmons, and Jon Schweighardt.  Zak Kustok was his usual unbelievable self as well, mixing crisp short passes with typically bold rushing plays.  Schweighart simply has the ability to catch anything thrown near him.  He runs routes like they've been burned into his brain.  Jon has the potential to be among the best receivers ever at NU.  Sam "Damn!" Simmons provided the highlights.  Simmons found the endzone twice, once after a 71-yard punt return, another time after a 29-yard pass. 

Simmons' punt return capped the best day for NU's special teams this year.  Kickoffs were handled well, Minnesota's on-side kick never had a chance of succeeding, and J.J. Standring was consistent and outstanding. 

The Wildcat defense had a better day than the offense, with the secondary, linebackers, and line looking solid.  In the backfield, Marvin Ward had a fantastic game and Covington had a good game as well, until giving up the final Gopher touchdown. 

Billy Silva and Kevin Bentley continued to roll, and Salem Simon and Napoleon Harris won most of their battles on the line.  While it might seem that Minnesota's offense had the edge and was able to move (they racked up 257 rushing yards), they just were not able to convert those gains to points.  Part of this was the defense's effectiveness, but the Gopher play calling also played a role.  Minnesota's coaches squandered their rushing gains, switching inexplicably to a weak passing game at the worst moments. 

Penn State Preview [posted October 15]

Maybe more than any other this year, this Saturday's game is going to be a battle of tangibles versus intangibles.  There are aspects of football that can be quantified, measured, analyzed, processed, and predicted-- the "tangibles."  Nearly every single one of these items points to a Wildcat victory over Penn State.  Northwestern is right now (Monday) an eleven point favorite over the Lions, and not without reason.  Statistically, Penn State (0-4) is performing horrendously on both sides of the ball.  Their turnover margin is currently ranked 97th in the nation (out of 115 Division IA teams).  This is the bright spot for PSU. 

The Lions' rushing defense is 100th.  If Damien Anderson needs a team on which to take out any existing frustrations, the team in Blue and White is the one.  Their total defense ranks 103rd.  Expect a more balanced attack by the Wildcats Saturday.  The Lion's linebacking corps is unusually thin, and should be out of its league trying to handle Zak, Damien, and the rest of the weapons flying out of the Purple backfield.  The Wildcat O-line has had two off games in a row; assuming they are "up" for the game Saturday, they should completely blow the Lions off the ball. 

Penn State's quarterback, Matt Senneca, has not had a world-class season so far, having been roundly abused in every game.  Suffering a shoulder sprain, he sat out against the Wolverines, and redshirt freshman Zack Mills took over, and actually performed better than Senneca had so far.  After the Lions' shutout loss against Michigan, PSU's passing efficiency ranked 101st nationally.  Again, this is a highlight.  The Lion's rushing offense is so bad (dead last in Division IA) that it drags Penn State's total offense ranking to last in Division IA.  Reflect on this for a second-- dead last.  115th, in a division that includes Duke, Navy, Louisiana - Monroe, and Troy State.  On average this season, Penn State has gained more yards through opponents' penalties than by its ground attack-- in fact, over twice as many yards.  If NU's defense can't smell blood in the water here, they have no noses. 

While every tangible factor points toward a Northwestern win, every intangible favors the Lions-- at least the main four intangibles: the officials, the schedule, Penn State's current record, and Joe Paterno himself. 

'Cat fans are concerned that, with JoePa still looking to tie Bear Bryant's major college record of 323 victories, the officials will want to be a part of the feel good story by (at least subconsciously) giving an edge to PSU.  To be honest, there is little reason to fear such a conspiracy.  For the past two seasons Big Ten officials have had enough trouble just calling a good game, let alone steering one.  It can be said that Penn State is currently the third least penalized team in the conference.  And it can again be said that they have no wins so far to show for it. 

The Lions have had a week to think over their season, and to make a new start of it.  They are the first of three teams on NU's schedule that play the 'Cats after a week off, and it could really hurt NU this time.  Penn State will have had two weeks to focus entirely on NU, study them, and build up the importance of this game.  The Wildcats are probably still waterlogged from their naval battle against the Gophers.  Fortunately, the team did not look to be too banged up during the Minnesota game, with no significant injuries. 

Penn State's 0-4 start is the worst start in the school's history, and one cannot imagine that streak growing much longer.  The Lions will not, cannot go winless, even considering their abysmal stats.  You can safely bet that, after two weeks to mull things over, every single Penn State player will be set to beat the Wildcats by any means available.  Seventy-four year-old Paterno is under fire, and the players see this as the Battle for JoePa.  They will not come into Ryan Field as a broken team but as a very angry and hungry team, and Paterno will not come into Ryan Field without the best game plan the Wildcats have faced so far (including in Columbus)-- he is, after all, still Paterno, and he will have some surprises for the 'Cats. 

End the end, though, intangibles can only sway an outcome; they cannot be the basis for a team or a game.  As long as the Wildcats are prepared and Walker has done his job this week, Northwestern should prevail.  Prediction: NU 35, Penn State 20.

'Cats Bow to Penn State, 38-35; Paterno Earns Career Win Record [posted October 20]

The good news from Saturday night's game was that Penn State's Joe Paterno has tied Bear Bryant's Division IA career win record, with 323. If any working coach deserves this honor, it is Paterno.  The Grand Old Man of the Big Ten is to be sincerely congratulated.  And he is to be congratulated not just for the record, but for his coaching versus Northwestern.  Yes, the PSU offense looked confused at times, with neither Matt Senneca or Zack Mills all that efficient at quarterback, but they were "up" for this game, and they stayed in it until they found victory. 

For NU, this is a game without much merit.   The offense played fine, and their 35 points should have been sufficient.  Jon Schweighardt performed well, and Zak Kustok's ground attack was typically sparkling.  He compiled 115 yards and three touchdowns rushing, and passed for 298 yards.  Kustok now leads the Big Ten in total offense. Sam "Damn!" Simmons caught seven passes for 168 yards. 

The running backs continue to have problems shaking the attention placed on them by the opposition.  The special teams were more spotty than last week.  Several kickoffs were pooched with somewhat poor results, and the onside kick that NU used to begin the second half made me think that Gary Barnett circa 1998 had somehow returned to Ryan Field. 

As for the defense, what is there to say?  The only thing anyone connected to the defense should be practicing now is tackling.  That is all.  Nothing else.  Tackling.  Tackling. Tackling.  There were countless times during this game that the defense did a fantastic time getting past blocks and getting to the ball carrier, only to wave him through.   There were so many plays in which a Penn State player found himself surrounded by purple and black, and then found himself scott free.  Tackling was all that was missing, but Saturday it was everything. 

With the loss, NU is 4-2, but has the talent to win out.  It showed that talent this year in flashes and drives and quarters at a time, and if the Wildcats turn around after their Penn State game and use the experience as a building and learning process, and face the second half of the season determined, that talent will convert to victory.

Purdue Preview [posted October 23]

This is it, 'Catfans: the most talented team Northwestern has faced so far, and will face until Thanksgiving.  Purdue has not overly impressed with its performance so far.  Its four wins were lackluster, and its loss to Michigan was not close.  But make no mistake, they have played below their potential, and Northwestern-- coming off their heartbreaking loss to the previously winless Lions-- is in a world of trouble.  This is Week Two of NU's Bye Week Conspiracy Tour (Northwestern faces three opponents in a row that all enjoy a week off before playing the 'Cats), and Purdue will be relatively injury-free, rested, and focused. 

It is also Purdue's Homecoming.  Since Joe "I AM WILFORD BRIMLEY!  I AM WILFORD BRIMLEY!" Tiller took over in 1997, Purdue has not lost: 

  • a Homecoming game, nor 
  • to Northwestern. 
  • Crap. 
As some thought would have been the case with Ohio State, this match up should pit strength (NU's offense) versus strength (the Boiler defense).  Purdue's defensive line is very good, especially Matt Mitrione, who promises to pick the Wildcats' pocket all day.  NU's offensive line performed very well against Penn State, and they will need to play at that level or better Saturday, or Zak Kustok will spend much of the game on his back.  Get used to hearing Schweigert's name after a lot of plays-- that's Stuart Schweigert (not Jon Schweighardt, the 'Cats' talented receiver), Purdue's safety and free-ranging hitman.  Kustok will need to be very careful throwing the ball to the same side of the field that contains Schweigert.  He will make a pick given any opportunity. 

With the departure of Drew "Barrymore" Brees, Purdue's offense was a question mark coming into this season, and it remains so.  Brandon Hance appears to be a worthy successor to Brees, but he has a very young offensive line to step up to.  That showed against Michigan, when Hance was molested continuously, and sacked seven times.  Purdue had fifteen penalties against the Wolverines, and to date have suffered more penalty yards than the Wildcats, which is saying a great deal. 

Purdue likely will storm out of the gate in this game and shut our offense down early.  If the Boiler offense can hold up their end and throw a couple of scores up on the board in the first quarter or by the middle of the second quarter, the Wildcats will be done by halftime.  If, however, the NU defense can attack Purdue's green line and-- at the least-- hold the Boilers, or-- best case-- get an opportunistic turnover, NU should be able to adjust the offense at the half to stay in the game, and perhaps pull it out.  Prediction:  objectively, a Boilermaker win.  However, that's the beauty of having a personal page: I answer to NO ONE.  NU 28, Purdue 24. 

Purdue Bolts Past NU 32-27 [posted October 29]

As Randy Walker described it, the Wildcats have been dancing around fire lately.  For the second week straight, they were burned.  This time the team holding the torch were the Purdue Boilermakers.  Did the defense cost NU the game?  Did the offense just not have enough to pull it out?  Maybe, but it's more to the point that the 'Cats just haven't caught the right breaks recently.  They've stumbled into the fire, and they've fumbled into losing three of their last four games-- quite literally.  Every loss so far for the Wildcats has involved a key turnover that resulted in an opponent score. 

Handing the Boilers a bonus touchdown within seconds of the game's beginning was very similar to the start with OSU, except that NU hung in the game in West Lafayette, and did not quit.  This is an important distinction to make, because Purdue has more talent than OSU or Penn State, and the Wildcat loss Saturday really cannot be blamed on the players or the coaches primarily, but on the fact that they faced a stronger team with a very good plan.  However, had the breaks gone their way, the Wildcats very well could have taken the game.  The coaching did not cost NU the game, but it wasn't going to help them take it either.  NU's decisions and play calling during the final two minutes of the first half, and the decision to attempt an onside kick (at a point when NU really should have tried to gut it out on defense and taken the ball back) didn't show a killer instinct, but an attempt just not to fall into the fire. 

Still, the players did not let up, and two players stood out.  On defense Herschel Henderson was great, and delivered a glancing tackle for loss.  Henderson is a true freshman, who played with Roger Jordan in high school.  On offense Kunle Patrick flawlessly executed the new, modified "fumble rooskie!" play, scurrying 11 yards into the endzone, undetected.  He also had six completions, several of them wild circus catches that were very impressive. 

Unfortunately, the 'Cats suffered a devastating injury when Gilles Lezi left the game with a broken leg.  The Canadian fullback will miss the rest of the season. 

"We have no reason to hang our heads. The team played hard, but obviously we made mistakes. Purdue is a well-coached team, and we didn't make the plays we needed to. Overall we gave up some big plays. The turnover in the beginning was big. Our idea was to come out and play fast. And that play hurt us." 
--Randy Walker 

NU Overwhelmed 56-21 by Mediocre Hoosiers; Indy Led 42-0 at Half [posted November 4]

This one was a spectacle, and there is no point in analyzing and picking through the painfully obvious. It should simply be written that Northwestern's abused defense gave the (now 2-5) Hoosiers 562 yards, and that NU's opponents are now averaging 420 yards in offense.  To compete next year, the defense will need to make major adjustments.  The unit has some great players returning, including Henderson and Clark.  There is potential for the defense to improve, but the unit's style of preparation, motivation, game plan, and execution must all change. 

The offense was also woeful, and incredibly frustrating when one considers three drives NU made inside the Indiana five yard line, which resulted in: 

  • A fumble! 
  • An interception! 
  • Turnover on downs! 
  • F&&&! 
Even with those three touchdowns put hypothetically into NU's scoring column, that only gives the 'Cats 42 points (and the third turnover came with seconds left in the game, deep into garbage time, a.k.a. the second half), which would not have been enough to confront 562 yards being burned the other direction.  NU's offense did record three touchdowns in the third quarter, but those scores were against an overachieving team still in the clouds after waxing the "defending" Big Ten Champions by scoring twice as many touchdowns the first half. 

After the game, Coach Walker said, "It was almost hard to believe while it was happening.  The sideline was in a state of shock. . . It got out of hand quickly. . . . I saw no sign of the guys going in the wrong direction this week.  In fact, I had as good a feeling about this game as I've had. I felt good about our week, the practices we had. I didn't see one (indication) of it going the wrong way."  Walker is a fantastic coach, but this comment is deeply concerning. 

Considering that NU was favored in this game and considering Indiana's lack of talent, both on the field and on the coaching staff, the game must be judged Northwestern's worst since at least 1989, the midst of the Peay era.  Therefore, the key this week is to forget it.  Move on.  Move on to Iowa, now the most important game of the year, since it will likely determine if 2001 will be a winning season for the Northwestern Wildcat football team. 

On to Iowa, the most important game of the year, pitting a 4-4 and desperate NU team against another desperate 4-4 team.  On to Iowa, the team that slugged the Purple around last year, ruining the 'Cat's Rose Bowl hopes.  If there is one game that should anger the Wildcats, this is the one.

On to Iowa, also coming off a road loss (the Hawkeyes have not won on the road yet this season) to the cryptic Badgers.  Brad Banks might start at quarterback, but it will more likely be Kyle McCann.  Almost every time he takes the field, the beleaguered McCann is booed -- by Hawkeye fans.  Forgetting that they aren't watching WCW Wrestling, but student-athletes, the fans make their feelings for McCann known.  And that is really too bad.  Because (besides the sheer classlessness of it) McCann isn't that bad.  In fact, his passing appears to be incredibly accurate.  If McCann holds onto the ball, doesn't make ridiculous mental errors, and if his receivers hold up their end of the deal, McCann is top-tier, and he may well slice up the Wildcat secondary just as badly as did Indiana.  If the NU secondary plays this Saturday like they did last Saturday, a 42 point half might be in order again. 

Ladell Betts will be the main ground threat, and he won't need to do anything remarkably fancy to get the job done, just run it up the gut.  Betts will not be stopped, and should easily get 150 yards Saturday.  If NU keys on Betts, the secondary will have to have the game of their careers. 

Like nearly every game this year, NU's chances will hinge on its offense.  Iowa will score at least 35, and the Wildcat offense will have to have everything going its way.  Damien Anderson might not play, due to a separated shoulder he suffered during the Indiana game.  Kevin Lawrence has been decent running the ball, and should start for the 'Cats.  Simply avoiding red zone turnovers will help incredibly, and keeping penalties down to a minimum will also bode really well.  What Northwestern truly needs boils down to: 

  • its offensive line to come out pissed off, fired up, and playing to win; 
  • Kevin Lawrence to step up as a starter and perform to his level; 
  • Kustok and NU's core receivers to have an average (for them) performance, at the least 
If these needs are met, NU wins, goes to 5-4, and is in a place to salvage its season and-- perhaps-- still capture a bowl berth.  Prediction:  the Wildcats realize that this game is their season, and the needs are met: NU 45, Iowa 42. 

November 10: "Saint Leo's Day" [posted November 7]

Saturday November 10th, besides being the date of the Iowa game, is also the Feast Day of Saint Leo the Great.  Leo reigned as pope in the fifth century, and led a maligned, recently defeated troop to meet Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome.  Leo repelled Attila from the gates, and later prevented the Vandals (a.k.a Hawkeyes) from pillaging the city. 

Almost exactly one thousand years later, King Henry V led a maligned, recently defeated English troop into battle against a seemingly overwhelming French army.  The French, aware of Henry's soldiers' weakening condition because of previous battles and the attacks of Dysentery that had plagued the dwindling band, moved between King Henry and Calais, the port he needed to reach in order to return to England. The troops followed Henry's band along the rivers, preventing their crossing and daring them to a battle they thought they could not win. 

Henry's "St. Crispin Day" speech, rallying his men before the battle of Agincourt, was crafted and immortalized by Shakespeare.  That speech might be a fitting rallying cry for our Wildcats, with a few liberties to the text, including replacing St. Crispin with November 10th's Leo the Great (and apologies to the Bard).

The scene is (now) the morning of the battle of Iowa. The Wildcat forces are badly outnumbered and, moreover, are tired, wounded, and hungry, coming from three defeats.  Their greatest knight has fallen to injury.   The Hawkeyes are well armed, and confident. One of Randy's lieutenants complains, "Oh that we now had here but one ten thousand of those men in the Midwest who do no work today." The young coach responds:

"...The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one Wildcat more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my jerseys wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from Chicago;
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I have. O! do not wish one more:
Rather proclaim it, Tribune, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not lose in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to lose with us.

This day is called the feast of Saint Leo:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the singing of the Alma Mater.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Leo':
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Leo's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did this day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Randy the coach, Harris and Covington,
Bentley and Silva, Durr and Henderson,
Kustok and Roehl, Schweighardt and Simmons,
Standring and Waz, King and Patrick,
Be in their flowing Bowls freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Leo Leopold shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentleman in Evanston now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Leo's day."

Damien Anderson: A Retrospective [posted November 7]

It is now apparent that NU's star running back, Damien Anderson, is lost for the season with a dislocated shoulder.  Much has been made of Anderson's struggles this year.  However, we should be reminded why Damien got so much press this pre-season: he annihilated most of Northwestern's rushing records in 2000, and he deserved every single accolade he received.

Here is a look back at last year, and Damien Anderson's wonderful run(s) as a Northwestern Wildcat. 

At the close of the 2000 season, Damien was named NU's 2000 MVP, was given All Big Ten honors, and became NU's 36th consensus All American.  Damien was named a 2000 First Team All American by:

The Associated Press
CNN/Sports Illustrated
Football Writers Association of America
Football News Magazine
The Walter Camp Foundation
The Sporting News

He was one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back.  And, of course, he was considered for the 2000 Heisman Trophy.  Damien received six first place Heisman votes, 20 second place votes and 43 third place votes for 101 points.

School, Conference Records Crumbled

Anderson tore up the season rushing records.  Including the Nebraska game (NU and the Big Ten both count bowl game stats when determining records; the NCAA does not.), Anderson rushed for 2,063 yards last season.  Northwestern's previous best season was 1,895, set by Darnell Autry in 1995 (and the 1996 Rose Bowl).    Anderson racked up 171.9 yards per game, also beating out Autry's 1995 record (of 148.8).   If regular season games only are considered, Anderson's yard per game average increases to 174.0.


# Player Year Att. Yards Avg.
1. Damien Anderson 2000 293 1914 6.5
2. Darnell Autry 1995 387 1785 4.6
3. Darnell Autry 1996 280 1452 5.2
4. Bob Christian 1989 277 1291 4.7
5. Mike Adamle 1970 304 1255 4.1
6. Damien Anderson 1999 306 1128 3.7

Darnell Autry also set the previous mark for touchdowns in a season in 1995, when he ran into the endzone 17 times.  Anderson blew past the record with 23 touchdowns in 2000 (22, regular season).  Autry holds the career record for rushing touchdowns with 35 (37 total touchdowns).  Anderson's Alamo Bowl TD brought his career total to 30, well on course to break this record as well.  Anderson broke that record in the Purdue game, with his 38th career touchdown.  Anderson was just 65 yards shy of Autry's career rushing yards record (3,793) after 2000.  If the 2001 Indiana game is, indeed, his finale, Anderson ends with an astounding 4,485 yards rushing.  The record is truly his.

In 2000 Anderson broke Lorenzo White's 1985 Big Ten records for rushing yards (1,549) and rushing average (193.6) in conference games.  Even Heisman winner Ron Dayne failed to break White's marks.

Damien also erased the NU record for yards per carry in a season.  Autry's 1996 record was 5.2 yards per carry; Anderson posted over 6.5 yards per carry, which approaches the unbelievable. 
Anderson rushed for 200+ yards in four games last year:

  • Michigan St. 219 yds.
  • Indiana 292 yds.
  • Minnesota 230 yds.
  • Michigan 268 yds.
...which shattered the previous NU career record for the number of  200+ yard games (two, by Autry, 1994-'96) and decimated the season record (one game, set seven times, most recently by Autry vs. Iowa, 1996).

During his 293 carries in 2000, Damien Anderson did not fumble once.

Other school records tied or broken by Anderson in 2000:

  • Total points scored in a season (incl. bowls): 138
  • Total points scored in a season: 132 (previous mark: 108, Autry 1995 and 1996)
  • Points scored per game: 12.0 (previous best: 9.0, Autry 1995 and 1996)
  • Touchdowns in a game: 4 (twice! vs. Indiana and vs. Illinois) (record also by Autry vs. Iowa 1996, R. Edwards vs. NIU 1982, M. Adamle vs. Minnesota 1970, O. Graham vs. Wisconsin 1943)
  • Touchdowns in 2 consecutive games: 6 (vs. Mich. St. and Indiana) (record also by Autry vs. Iowa and Purdue, 1996)
  • Touchdowns in 3 consecutive games: 8 (vs. Wisc., Mich. St. and Ind.) (record also by Autry vs. Iowa, Purdue and Tenn., 1996)
  • Consecutive games scoring a touchdown, season: 9 (previous: 6 by Mike Adamle, 1970)
  • Consecutive games scoring a touchdown, career: 9 (previous: 6 by R. Buchanan 1987-'90, M. Adamle 1978-'70)
  • Most games scoring a touchdown, regular season: 10 (previous: 9, Autry 1995 and 1996)
  • Most games scoring 2 or more touchdowns, reg. season: 8 (previous: 6, Autry 1995 and 1996)
  • Most seasons gaining 1,000 yards or more: 2, 1999 and 2000 (record also by Autry 1995 and 1996)
  • Most yards gained in 2 consecutive games: 511, vs. Mich. St. and Ind. (previous: 352 by Autry 1995 vs. Air Force and Ind.)
  • Most yards gained in 3 consecutive games: 685, vs. Wisc., Mich. St. and Ind. (previous: 504 by Autry 1995 vs. Notre Dame, Miami (OH) and Air Force)
  • Most yards gained in 4 consecutive games: 845, vs. Ind. Purdue, Minn. and Michigan (previous: 664 by Autry 1995 vs. Notre Dame, Miami (OH), Air Force and Ind.)

  • Most yards gained in 5 consecutive games: 1,064 vs. Mich. St., Ind., Purdue, Minn. and Michigan (previous: 802 by Mike Adamle 1970 vs. Wisc., Purdue, Ohio St., Minn. and Ind.)

Bowling Green Preview [posted Nobember 12]

Saturday is Senior Day, the final game for many of Gary Barnett's final NU recruits.  It is also Redemption Day, a final chance to take to Central Street's playing field as a team, to put on purple and black and play football like Wildcats.  For two weeks straight bad breaks and frustrations have snowballed into catastrophe.  Here is a chance-- one last chance-- to unite as a team, claw and will to victory.  It is a chance, but it will be a very, very difficult one.  Northwestern is now a wounded, ragged team.  Its defensive line relies on freshmen and is paper-thin.  Its arsenal of running backs-- fierce and bountiful before the season-- lies in ruin.  Damien Anderson is gone, victim of a dislocated shoulder.  Kevin Lawrence is gone, victim of a knee injury.  Noah Herron is gone, victim of a stress fracture to his foot.  NU's last running back is Torri Stuckey.  Zak Kustok might be gone at quarterback, at least for the BGSU game.  NU's awesome yet troubled offense could be helmed by Tony Stauss. 

The 'Cats will face an underrated, unknown, good team in the Falcons (6-3).  BGSU has had six straight losing seasons; this year will break the streak.  First-year coach Urban Meyer has already guided his team to a winning season.  Now he will focus on a new goal, a goal he did not have at the start of the season: besting a Big Ten school, breaking into the Big Time.  The Falcon's offense also employs a form of the spread, and Bowling Green's sophomore quarterback Josh Harris has proven effective with it.  Last week, against Ohio, Harris racked up 304 yards of offense, including 148 yards rushing the ball.  One bright spot for the 'Cats is that at least the NU defense will be familiar with this type of attack. 

As if the Wildcat rushing game hasn't had enough bad luck due to injuries, it now faces in the Falcons the third best team in the country in terms of rushing defense.  Stuckey, Jason Wright, or whoever else might end up running the ball for NU, will face very stiff resistance.  Key to this game will be how well the Wildcat passing game will compensate.  What's left of the wide receiver corps will have to step up to handle the deep ball if NU is to have a prayer. 

The Wildcats have not quit.  They have played some exasperating ball, and they must be questioning everything.  They are capable of rallying-- we saw that after the Ohio State game, if only for one week.  They are capable of playing as a team.  Unfortunately, there are just too many missing pieces now.  With no defensive line, with Zak out, with the headlining running backs sidelined, with a depleted receiver squad, with freshmen starting in the defensive secondary, Northwestern just doesn't have the manpower.  There might still be a will; I'm not sure I see a way.  Prediction: NU 20, BGSU 28. 

Illinois Preview [posted November 19]

An assessment from Illinois' tactful Brandon Lloyd: "I feel Northwestern has a gimmick offense.   They call the signals for those spread formations after the huddle [sic!!], because they don't want to line up and play."  Exactly.  Just as NU cowered from play, while dismantling the Illini 61-23 last season.

Meanwhile, from Wildcat Jeff Roehl: "For me, and pretty much for everybody on the team, it comes down to pride. They're on their home field, defending their turf, and we have to go down there and make a statement about who we are and what we are as a program. 

"It has been a battle for us to try and stay positive and trust in who we are and what we do. But as far as this game, we're going in as confident as we've ever been. This is our bowl game. This is what we have left for the seniors, and it would be a disappointment to them if we didn't give it everything we have and play really well. We're going to get ready to play Illinois like we were 10-0 going into this game.

"But the seniors have given their hearts and their souls to this program, and I think we owe the seniors our best effort on Thursday. There'd be no better way to send them out than with a victory down in Champaign."

Regardless of the outcome Thursday, the seniors and the team deserve congratulations for the excitement of last season, and what they did accomplish this season: the first 3-0 start for a Wildcat team since 1962, the Michigan State finish (one of the most thrilling moments in 'Cat history), and-- most importantly-- persevering through the loss of a teammate and staying at NU and with the program, through feast and famine.

Trivial Trends for the Turkey-day Tussle

With the NU-Illinois game moved to Thanksgiving Day, I started looking at some of the prior games that were held on Thanksgiving.  This led to reviewing several other factors considering the game this Thursday.  What follows are some pretty useless but interesting facts about Northwestern's historic win-loss record.

Northwestern's win - loss record, when playing...:

  • On Thanksgiving Day: 2 wins, 8 losses, 2 ties*
  • On a Thursday (other than Thanksgiving): 5 wins, 1 loss, no ties
  • Illinois (all time): 40-49-5
  • At Illinois: 17-23-2
  • Illinois the last game of the regular season: 18-22-1
  • Illinois the season immediately after NU had beaten Illinois by more than ten points: 8-9-2
  • On November 22nd: 5-7-0 (the last time the 'Cats played on November 22 was 1986, and NU beat... Illinois)
  • The final game of a head coach's third season at NU: 4-11-0
  • Immediately following a one-point loss: 10-16-0
  • The final Big Ten game of the season (last 15 years): 7-8-0
  • The final game of the season, while holding a 4-6 record: 1-0-0 (!)
*Based on a partial list of all NU Thanksgiving Day games:
  • 1888 W DIVISION HS (W)
  • 1891 WISCONSIN (L)
  • 1892 WISCONSIN (L)
  • 1896 WISCONSIN (T)
  • 1897 WISCONSIN (L)
  • 1898 WISCONSIN (L)
  • 1900 IOWA (T)
  • 1901 PURDUE (W)
  • 1902 NEBRASKA (L)
  • 1903 CARLISLE (L)
  • 1919 RUTGERS (L)
  • 1942 GREAT LAKES (L)

Wildcats Finish 4-7; End Season with Good Showing Vs. Ilinois, Lose 34-28 [posted November 25]

Northwestern came close on Thanksgiving to surviving the #8 BCS-Ranked Illini and their masterful third quarter.  Kurt Kittner coordinated an assault that scored three touchdowns and appeared to give Illinois an insurmountable 34-13 lead.  NU stormed back in the fourth to come within six points, but fell 34-28.  The game dropped the Wildcats to 4-7 for the season and gave Randy Walker his sixth straight loss, the longest losing streak of his coaching career.  However, if there can still be moral victories at NU, this was one.  The offense fought heroically in the fourth quarter to try to take the game, and the defense never quit.  Even faced with Kittner and an Illini offense that was hell-bent for election to take the Big Ten Championship, the defense played up to their full potential and did not break.