2002 Season
Review Page


Jason Wright running toward a spot in NU's rushing shrine,
during the win over Indiana.       AP Photo.

2002: The Season Review
What follows are excerpts from comments posted on this site, during the course of the 2002 season.

Spring Practice: Full Speed Ahead [posted April 7]

Randy Walker and the NU football team have begun the spring season, holding three practices the first week of April.  Practices the weeks of April 7th and 14th will be open; sessions during the final week of the season will be closed.  NU's spring practices will continue through April 26, with the spring game slated for Saturday, April 27.  Last year the Northwestern Gridiron Network's annual spring dinner and auction was held on the same day as the spring game.  This year, however, the NGN will hold the dinner and auction a week earlier, on April 20.

This spring, one of the crucial questions to be answered is who will replace Damien Anderson at tailback.  In an article in The Daily Northwestern , Coach Walker reinforced the fact that the running back position is key.  "I call it the throne," Walker said.  "When you're the tailback on our offense, you're a special guy.  Well, the throne is vacant. . . We're going to have a heck of a competition this spring."   In the NU Spring Football Guide, Walker states, "The competition at this position is going to bring out the best in every one of them.  I doubt if we anoint just one of them as the guy.  It could be a position by committee this year.  We'll have to wait and see how things shake out."

How things have shaken out for running back, coming into spring practice, is very interesting.  Kevin Lawrence is still recovering from a knee injury.  He will not practice this spring, and is not on the official spring depth chart.  The official chart lists the remaining running backs in the following order: 1st-- Torri Stuckey; 2nd-- Jason Wright; 3rd-- Jeff Backes; 4th-- Louis Ayeni.  My guess is that the position will, indeed, become a committee position-- the throne will become a couch, and a rather long one at that.  Stuckey, Wright,  and Backes could conceivably be first and second down backs, with Lawrence and Ayeni playing primarily third and short downs.  Look for Backes' playing time to gradually increase.

If you are at all able, be sure to head to Ryan Field on Saturday, April 27 for the 2002 spring game.  The game is free and is an excellent opportunity to watch the 'Cats during their final chance to shine before fall.  In addition to the running back spot, the quarterbacks-- led by Tony Stauss, Matt Danielson and Brett Basanez-- and several other positions will be wrapping up fierce competitions.  It will also be a great chance to see how the Wildcats' brand new offensive and defensive coordinators line up their troops for battle.

NGN Dinner Draws Record Crowd;
NFL Takes Harris in First Round [posted April 21]

Over 430 members of the Northwestern Gridiron Network attended the group's spring dinner and auction, held last Saturday, April 20.  Among the highlights of the evening was a live auction, hosted by Randy Walker, Ted Albrecht and Dave Eanet, which raised thousands for the Wildcats.  One item up for bid, singing the National Anthem at this fall's Texas Christian University game and one other game, raised $16,000.  Northwestern's hero running back and former ESPN announcer Mike Adamle made an appearance as Willie the Wildcat, and auctioned off-- among other things-- his spandex pants.  Words fail at moments like that; fortunately, the bidders did not fail.

The evening, as always, was a wonderful success, in no small part by the efforts of Jean Yale and NGN president Neil Rowe.
When the Oakland Raiders chose him at the #24 spot in this year's NFL draft, Napoleon  Harris became Northwestern's first first round NFL draft pick since 1983.  Harris joins eight other Wildcat graduates in the rookie NFL class.  

NU's All-Time First Round NFL Picks:
  • Otto Graham, 1944, Lions
  • Vic Schwall, 1947, Giants
  • Ron Burton, 1960, Eagles
  • Fate Echlos, 1962, Cardinals
  • Cas Banaszek, 1967, 49ers
  • Chris Hinton, 1983, Broncos
  • Napoleon Harris, 2002, Raiders

Final Spring Scrimmage Played in Trienens Hall [posted April 28]

Because of foul weather, Northwestern's spring game was moved indoors, to the Wildcats' Trienens Hall facility.  The spring game, whether played indoors or out, was not to have been a traditional Purple-White "game," but a controlled scrimmage for 80 plays, with a mix of offense (in white) rosters vs. defense (in black).  With the move indoors, the field was cut in half and the scrimmage became more, well, "controlled."  Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the facility (Trienens is fantastic for practices, but is not accommodating to spectators, who are restricted to one end of the field, with no seating), it was difficult to judge much of the action on the field.  Being very close to the one end, indoors, truly gives one a feel for just how fast NU's players are now, and how hard they can hit-- a very different perspective from the stands, outdoors-- but it is difficult from that level and angle to get a read on plays and true performance.

Some things stood out, however.  NU's offense still appears very potent, despite the loss of Damien Anderson and Zak Kustok.  The quarterbacks all had a few "off" passes, as well as flashes of great play.  Stauss appears to be the clear starter, going 7 for 12 for 95 yards and a touchdown.  He did suffer a couple of interceptions.  Basanez and Danielson showed arms as strong as Stauss, and both launched touchdown strikes.  Alexander Webb, the freshman who was a high school player just three weeks ago, turned in one of the most impressive displays of the afternoon.  Webb managed to complete 85% of his passes, and scrambled for more yards.  His speed is a real weapon, and his scrambling performance sent a buzz through the audience.

The running backs also looked very good.  Stuckey and Herron showed great power, bulling through for extra yards.  Wright showed very good hands and good speed.  Again, however, it was a young player that made the biggest impression.  Jeff Backes looked rather small compared to the other backs, but his speed and decisions on the field were fantastic.  Backes led all rushers with 64 yards and two touchdowns.  Not discussed as much, but just as impressive, was the wicked block Backes executed during one of the touchdown drives. 

Some Early Media Predictions of NU's Big Ten Finish [posted June 16]

It's mid-June, and the (early) verdict is in.  Most experts are picking NU to finish 10th this fall in the Big Ten, only ahead of lowly Indiana.  Looking at the college football trade annuals and the numerous Web sites that have so far expressed an opinion, one commonality (aside from the 10th place prediction) surfaces: everyone believes that losing Zak Kustok and Damien Anderson will break the back of NU's explosive offensive backfield.  "Gone are the two players Northwestern relied on the most the last two years," mourns Athlon Sports.  "The Wildcats don't have any skill position stars," sniffs Fox Sports.

No skill position stars?  Maybe so, but how about a whole constellation of excellent running backs, any of whom would likely start during any other season.  Yes, Kustok, the quarterback with the iron will to win, is gone, but his replacement has experience on the field and a fifty-calibre arm.  Stauss will have no want for targets, either: the 'Cat receiver stable is full, and full of thoroughbreds.  The line before them will be big, experienced and at an All-America level.

Yes, but what about the defense?  Didn't NU lose its stars on "D" as well?  Yes it did.  But the Wildcats return many skilled players at the cornerback and safety positions.  And, frankly, any change on defense from last year will be an improvement.  Expect improvement.

And Expect Victory.  These players are hardened by tremendous adversity.  They will not be encountering three teams each coming off of a bye week, as was the case last year.  They will not be short a practice for a half-dozen weeks, as was the case last year.   And they will not win just four games, as was the case last year.

"4-7 NEVER AGAIN" the Wildcats' shirts read this Spring.

So let it be written.  Now let it be done.

The HailToPurple.com early season prediction:  'Cats go 7-5, 4-4 in the Big Ten, clinching 6th place and a trip to the Music City Bowl.  Book it, Dano, bank on it, and set 'em up-- drinks in Nashville are on me.

Oh, and one more thing: one of those four Big Ten wins will snap a certain thirty-one year streak.  You heard it here first.

Some of the other early predictions for NU:

  • Athlon Sports: 10th in the Big Ten, 81st in Div. IA.  "The Wildcats must work out the kinks in the transition to ambitious new offensive and defensive coordinators."  Athlon Sports, by the way, yet again got the name of NU's coach wrong, calling him "Gary Walker."
  • Lindy's: 10th in the Big Ten, 74th nationwide.
  • The Sporting News:  10th in the Big Ten, 69th nationwide.
  • Street & Smith's: 10th in the Big Ten.
  • Pigskin Post: Highest prediction, so far-- 9th in the Big Ten.  The esteemed Peg Wolfe writes, "The pending BMOC in Evanston (the... much-lauded OL, Loren Howard) is still an unseen cipher.... Will Tony Stauss be the new model of the 2000 Zak Kustok?"
  • Fox Sports / collegefootballnews.com: 10th in the Big Ten.  "Dunbar will move away from the spread formation and no huddle and start to run a more conventional offense."  If so, this is news.

Big Ten Media Day Held Last Friday [posted July 28]

The Big Ten Conference's 31st annual football kickoff media day and luncheon was held Friday, July 26 at Chicago's McCormick Place. Representing Northwestern at the event were Coach Randy Walker and players Pat Durr and Jeff Roehl.

During the luncheon, Walker addressed several issues facing the Wildcats this fall, including changes to the offense and defense (quotes pulled from the Big Ten's official site):

"We have a lot of newcomers in our program and maybe most importantly, we are starting with two new coordinators. The most notable difference on our team will be defense because we will take a different approach on that side of the ball. We are going to do a lot of the same things on offense and stay fast-paced and attack.

". . . We have recruited [quarterbacks] well, and that started with Tony Stauss. He has apprenticed under Zak for two years and has studied with one of the best. He will be different, but he is ready to step up and take the challenge.

". . . We return two guys (Jon Schweighardt and Kunle Patrick) who have had a lot of experience and that’s a good start. Maybe the most exciting aspect of our offense this year is we are going to have more than one tight end in the game at a time. We have a couple of young tight ends who are going to step up.

"Defensively we return more starters but will have a new scheme. We are going in a different direction with our defense. We have a really solid group of guys in the backfield and played a number of guys at safety last year."

Camp Kenosha XI:  Strength Through Cheddar [posted August 18]

Northwestern is wrapping up its annual preseason camp, held at the University of Wisconsin - Parkside, near Kenosha, Wisconsin.   The 'Cats have several practices, all closed to the public, this week before returning to Evanston this Thursday, August 22.

The team held its public scrimmage last Saturday.  According to nusports.com, about 350 fans attended.  The scrimmage, held in humid, windy conditions, was a scripted set of plays that included special teams for kickoffs and punts, and limited field goal plays.  It is difficult to get a feel from the scrimmage as to how NU will fare this year-- much of the script for the scrimmage was used to cycle through players, giving many of the non-starters playing time.  And, since the practice was open to the public, one can assume that there are some formations and plays that weren't used, but will show up during the season.  Even so, the team did show a few new wrinkles during the scrimmage which might prove very exciting this Fall (but will not be discussed here...).

Freshman wide receiver Mark Philmore made his mark at the scrimmage.  Philmore was exceptional, both on special teams and on offense, running crisp routes, making great catches, and tearing up for good YAC.  He will be a potent weapon in an already full receiver arsenal.  Another standout on offense was another freshman: Alexander Webb, who had practiced with the 'Cats (and caused quite a sensation) in the Spring.  His poise, passing, and rushing were all strong suits at the scrimmage.  It is unclear if Webb will play this fall; Walker has the enviable decision to make either to unleash Mr. Webb this fall or keep him in the wings, possibly becoming NU's offensive future into 2006-'07

"I'm sure Tony (Stauss) wished he had a better day, but I think we have a good situation at quarterback," Coach Walker was quoted as saying. "We have three quarterbacks who are getting better and better, and that is really reassuring."

The defense looks much improved from last year, and, again, many young players stood out, including freshman linebacker McGarigle, who demonstrated some of the newly-found speed 'Cat fans have heard so much about during this off season.

NU Prepares for Its Falcon' Opener [posted August 18]

"This is what you're getting."
--Loren Howard, in a note to the rest of the Wildcat team, accompanied with a photo showing Howard, pumped up and primed.

NU has a lot of talent, perhaps more talented players than the team has ever had at one time.  Coach Walker has claimed this summer that the 2002 team will be the fastest 'Cat team ever.  And, if sheer quantity means anything, NU has that too, sending over a hundred players across the Cheddar line this month, more than ever before.  Fred "The Hammer" Williamson once mused, "[when NU played Ohio State, the Buckeyes] would have eighty-five guys on the sideline.  We'd have twenty-five guys suited up.  We couldn't afford to get injured."  Those days are thankfully long gone.  Scholarship parity and NU's renewed athletic commitment have seen to that.  However, a thousand guys suited up aren't necessarily going to help NU if they aren't the right ones to knock out wins.

And most prognosticators this summer don't think NU's 102 players are the right ones--at least not yet.  Their reasons have some substance.  NU enters its 119th season with a six game losing streak, including a three-game stretch that offered up some of the worst football NU has played in any of its previous 118 seasons.  What players the 'Cats lost at the end of last year comprise nearly the entirety of the list of NU players that outsiders knew: Anderson, Kustok, Simmons, Harris, Bentley. 

The Wildcats are the youngest Big Ten team this fall, replacing the most starting positions.  Take a look at a list of just some of the freshmen (redshirt and true) that will be taking the field in major roles, most starting: Zach Strief, at right tackle; Trai Essex, at left tackle; Loren Howard, at defensive end; Barry Cofield, at defensive tackle; Brandon Horn, at wide receiver; Mark Philmore, at wide receiver; Jeff Backes, at running back; and Brett Basenez, at quarterback.  Freshman quarterback Alexander Webb might also see playing time.

Throw onto this list two new coordinators, an entirely new defensive scheme,  an expanded offensive play set, and uncertainty abounds.

So, back to Howard’s boast, just what are we getting?  Speed, talent, youth, uncertainty, and—win or lose—almost certainly the brand of Wildcat football to which fans have become addicted, though it’s bad for their health: wildly entertaining, unpredictable Cardiac ‘Cat football.

First Up: Air Force

Air Force, also coming off a disappointing season, is quick to point out that 2001 was only the third non-winning season under Coach DeBerry, and his other two duds were followed by eight-win seasons.  Will 2002 be similar?

The Falcons’ 6-6 finish in 2001 was deceptive.   Take a look at the six games Air Force won last year:  (Div. I-AA) Tennessee Tech, San Diego State, Navy, Wyoming, Army, and Utah.  Not exactly an elite group.  What about Air Force’s losses?  Understandably, they dropped games to Oklahoma and Colorado State, but also lost to UNLV, BYU (giving up 63 points), Hawaii (giving up 52 points), and New Mexico (giving up 52 points.  To the Lobos.).   To quote Richard Dreyfess, “This means something.” Air Force only returns ten starters, but seven of them are on defense.  Northwestern’s young and uncertain offense should be able to find scoring opportunities.  Expect the Wildcat line to win trench battles most of the day, with Roehl, King, Strief, and Essex opening lanes for Northwestern’s quadruple-headed running back threat.

Even with NU’s advantage on offense, and with the offensive line, I expect the line’s youthfulness, especially on the outside, will result in quite a few holding calls and false starts.  This might be the best game to work out those problems; however, if there are too many, at inopportune times, this might be a serious issue, especially later in the game.

With only three starters returning, the Falcons’ offense is even less experienced than NU’s.  Air Force has two experienced quarterbacks, and the Falcons’ passing game should be improved from last year.  As with their defense, the biggest weakness in Air Force’s offense is the line.  If NU can stage an effective pass rush, the Falcon QBs could find themselves dodging ‘Cats more often than launching bombs.

The Wildcats should also have the edge on special teams.  Air Force’s kickers have struggled during the off season, to the point that DeBerry has joked that anyone who could kick for the Falcons would not only get a starting spot, but an F-16 as well.

Despite these challenges, Air Force seems confident in its opener, seeing the Northwestern game as part of its “favorable schedule.”  The Falcons might not find so much favor in that schedule after August 31.  Prediction: NU breaks out with an early lead in an ugly first half, and the defense holds the Wildcat lead in the second.  This is what we’re getting.

NU Adds Games, Dates, Locations to its Official History [posted August 25]

Prior to the 2002 Northwestern media guide, NU's official game-by-game football history was missing many early dates and game locations.  There were also over a dozen early "unofficial" games that were recorded in other documents, but not in NU's game list.  Over the last two years I've collected many of these missing pieces of information and have posted them on this site.

With the 2002 media guide, NU has added a wealth of information to its team history.  It has "fleshed out" the dates and locations of over 330 of Northwestern's early games, from 1888 through the late 1930s.

More significantly, however, NU has added eleven of those previously "unofficial" games to its official history.   With these changes, NU's season records for 1890-1902 have changed.

Air Farce.
NU Trails Falcons 38-0 at Half; NU's Streak Hits Seven [Posted Sept. 1]

Mucho guano did litter the field at Colorado Springs, but it wasn't coming from the Falcons.

Northwestern opened its 2002 campaign in horrific, devastating fashion, getting destroyed by Air Force 52-3.  The game went beyond just youthful first-game jitters: the Wildcat program showed that it is foundationally weak, and has a very long way to go this season to improve and work toward competitiveness.  In particular, line work (both offensively and defensively) and coaching seem to be in terrible need of improvement.

After the game, Pat Durr commented that one good sign coming from the game was that the Wildcats "finished the game strong."  They have the Air Force coaches and players to thank for that.  Air Force played with absolute class and grace, putting in subs, freshmen, children, and passers-by once the outcome was certain.  The Falcons refused to kick field goals that would add to their score, choosing to execute vanilla run plays on fourth down.  Air Force's high road prevented what could easily have  been a final score of 70 or more to three (or zero).  This game was as lopsided as they come, and was as bad as the 1998 Duke game and the 2001 Indiana, Iowa, and Bowling Green spectacles.

Here's another take on NU's finish, this coming after the game, from Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge: "They really didn't want to play anymore by midway through the third quarter."

Another post-game comment came from Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry: "I think this proves that it's sort of hard to get ready for the option offense in a short period of time."  He is correct, but five months just might have been enough for some teams.  NU appeared as if they had no clue coming into the game that Air Force was an option team.  Here's some under-the-table, insider info: it is.

NU's level of play was equally appalling on offense, defense, and special teams.  Since this site chooses not to criticize individual players for game performance, little more can be said.  David Wasielewski did kick a fifty-one yard field goal, and Brian Huffman looked good on punts-- a lot of punts, except, of course, for the punt that was blocked and immediately returned for a touchdown.

Among the nightmarish events for the 'Cats on August 31:

  • NU's starting defensive lineman Thomas Derricks has left the team (and perhaps Northwestern), the team finding out Thursday afternoon, and Derricks gone by Friday, the day before the season opener.  NU called the reason for Derricks' departure "a personal situation."  Walker said he is hoping Derricks "will return to the team in time for next season," which means that he is gone for this season at least.  NU's game of lineman musical chairs continued, but now the music switched from Perry Como to Metallica.
  • Pat Durr, within minutes of the start of the game, suffered a serious knee injury.  He is likely out for the TCU game and might be gone for (much) longer.
  • Raheem Covington also left the game with an injury (concussion) and is doubtful for TCU.
  • NU never came close to the opponent's end zone.  NU's offense gained 37 yards total rushing.  NU punted eight times.
  • Duke (2001 record: 0-11), Navy (2001 record: 0-10), and Houston (2001 record: 0-11) all won on Saturday.  With all of last year's doughnut teams now posting 1-0 records, Northwestern's current seven-game streak is close behind Tulsa's skid as the nation's longest.  Duke's win snapped its 23-game streak and ensured that NU would retain the all-time Division I-A streak, set during the Wildcats' previous Dark Ages.  Duke and Navy, of course, are on NU's schedule this year, and look to be real threats.  And Duke recruits frequently against NU.  Saturday's events for both teams bode poorly for the 'Cats' recruiting efforts.
Two positives emerged from the Air Force game-- lack of turnovers and penalties.  Turnovers weren't a major problem.  NU fumbled the ball only once, on a bad snap to Stauss.  That resulted in a back-breaking Falcon TD, but it obviously was not going to determine the game's outcome.  NU suffered no interceptions.  The Wildcats also only had one penalty during the game.  No holding calls, no delays of game.  And no late hits or cheap shots given in frustration, which we've become so accustomed to seeing.  Maybe it's hard to lather up frustration when you "really don't want to play anymore by midway through the third quarter."

This is just one game, but it is one game that follows a season that saw some of the worst performances by the Wildcats since 1979-1982-- when NU had another streak.  This is a truly ill omen.

The path to improvement begins today.  It looks to be a very long, very painful path indeed.

NU Braces for TCU [posted Sept. 2]

There is a lot riding on Saturday's TCU game; strangely, whether Northwestern wins or loses is no longer among the most important  issues at stake.  How NU returns to the field after last Saturday's catastrophe at Air Force will be very important.  The unity of the team and any hope for improvement, recruiting, or respectability rest with how the 'Cats respond at Ryan Field.

They will be challenged.  Their defensive captain, Pat Durr, played only a few downs last Saturday before being injured.  Durr damaged three ligaments and is out for six weeks.  The only other senior on the defense, Raheem Covington, suffered a concussion during the game, but is expected to play against TCU.  The Wildcats' offensive and defensive lines are in tatters.  As the lineup stands right now (Monday night), NU will start Derek Martinez at right tackle, Jeff Roehl at right guard, Austin King at center (backed by Matt Ulrich), Matt Ulrich at left guard, and Trai Essex at left tackle (backed by Jeff Roehl).  Freshmen David Thompson and Loren Howard, and sophomores Luis Castillo and Colby Clark will start on the D-line.  There is now virtually no room for further injury to the lines.  

The starting linebackers will be a junior, a sophomore, and a freshman.  The defense starts Covington and two juniors.  All remaining starters are sophomores and freshmen.  A win might not be critical; finding a way to force TCU to punt at least three times during the game, and holding the Frogs to under 475 total yards will be top priorities.

NU will start its second quarterback in as many games.  Brett Basanez has taken the starting job from Tony Stauss, after Basanez replaced Stauss late in the second quarter at Air Force.  Basanez will need to invoke Kustokian scrambling abilities to elude TCU's superb linebacker, LaMarcus McDonald.  This game will be a great test of Basanez, his poise, and his arm.  The Wildcat receivers, who did not look great last week, need to show crisp route running and greater discipline this week.

NU faces for the second straight game a team with an effective option package.  Will the Wildcat coaches have NU better prepared than they did for Air Force?  Will they be better able to inspire and "fire up" the players than they did for Air Force?  Much is riding on the answers to those questions.

TCU is a strong team that is coming off  a close, bitter loss on the road.  They looked good against Cincinnati, a very strong team, until the fourth quarter.  TCU is angry, and they are at full strength.  The Frogs are working with a short week, having played Cincinnati on Labor Day Monday.  This should not affect them, or their performance this Saturday, significantly.  TCU's coach, Gary Patterson, remarked, "It doesn't make any difference to us because we prepare like we would any other week.  I don't think it bothers you as much right now at the beginning of the season as it does when you do it in the middle of the season."

Prediction: NU is overmatched against TCU, but could make this game respectable by showing a will to play vigorously and focused, a more creative game plan, some aggressiveness, and at least a few breakout performances by some of the freshmen and sophomores.  If they can manage that, the Wildcats will help take a few steps toward saving what is really at stake: the future of the program.

'Cats Fall to TCU [posted Sept. 8]

For the second week straight, Northwestern football suffered a blowout loss in a gaudy, embarrassing fashion, getting humbled by Texas Christian, 48 to 24.  It was the eighth straight loss for the Wildcats.  However, unlike the Air Force game, there were several encouraging signs from the Wildcats, and a number of good performances.

NU began the game by setting a school record.  NU starting running back Jason Wright took the Horned Frogs' opening kick 100 yards for a touchdown.  It was the first kickoff returned by NU for a score in ten years, the last having been scored by Lee Gissendaner against Michigan State, on a 90 yard runback in 1992.  The previous longest kickoff return was 99 yards, set by Curtis Duncan against Indiana in 1984.

Wright looked fantastic, and the entire NU kicking team was impressive, running their assignments, and executing textbook blocks.  In fact, special teams looked much improved, with one huge exception.  NU's punt return crew helped give TCU two of its scores, and showed a lot of improvement opportunities.

While turnovers were not a factor at Air Force, they certainly were against TCU, as NU notched seven, six on the ground.  The 'Cats put on a clinic on how not to retain possession of the ball.  The good news: most of these came from stupid mistakes that should be relatively easily corrected-- it's just unfortunate that the lesson needed to teach this had to prove so costly.  

One encouraging sign from this game was NU's marked improvement on defense.  Yes, the 48 point TCU tally doesn't exactly point to a steel curtain, but seven turnovers will do that.  The defensive line was impressive, stuffing nearly everything TCU could put in the middle.  The corners, Raheem Covington in particular, looked great, and the linebackers all played well.  A few big plays got away from the Wildcats, but-- of all NU's platoons-- the defense made the clearest improvement from game one to game two.

The hero on offense skipped his High School prom this year to practice with the 'Cats, and had a meteoric appearance on the Field Saturday.  As the game slipped away from the Wildcats, Randy Walker made the decision to play true freshman Alexander Webb at quarterback.  Webb was in for four brief series, but made a statement with the ball.  Webb showed fantastic poise, unbelievable speed and good accuracy.  However, on his fourth drive, Webb was hit by two defenders and went down, apparently having had the wind knocked out of him.

It was revealed that Webb suffered a lacerated liver.  The latest report from the athletic department is that Webb will not require surgery, but will be out of action for at least eight weeks.  His status is now uncertain, as is whether he will take a medical redshirt for 2002.  However, one thing is clear: Wildcat fans saw a glimpse of the future, and it looks to be surfing down the field on the Wildcat Wide Webb.

We wish Alexander Webb the best as he begins what is hoped to be a speedy recovery.

NU vs. Duke [Posted Sept. 9]

The ESPN Gameday and other pundits might sneer at NU vs. Duke.   However, make no mistake: Saturday's game will be among the most important NU games of the last decade.  If NU wins, the losing streak is snapped, the Wildcat record is 1-2 and could be brought to even against Navy, and NU could enter the conference season with enough intact to eke out a couple of Big Ten wins.  Lose to the Dukies, and NU spirals, its streak hits nine, recruiting will take a body blow, and a record breaking 0-12 season (with a streak at 18) becomes a likelihood.  This game is the pivot point, the switch between a merely disappointing rebuilding season and an utter, colossal disaster.  The ramifications of this one game will affect not just this season, but potentially the next several.  Its significance simply cannot be overstated.

It is time for anger.  And it is time for a heartfelt, passionate effort by coaches, players, and fans.

How passionate can the Wildcats be right now, all things considered?  I don't know, but I do know how much passion, how much enthusiasm, how much desire to be a part of the team and to help the team to victory is possible , and it-- the level of heart with which a Wildcat can play-- is considerable.  For a benchmark, look to five years ago at a game the Wildcats played at Soldier Field, when Matt Hartl played while in cancer remission, with the use of one lung.  He took oxygen on the sidelines after plays, but during the plays he gave his all and made plays.  He would not be stopped.  That is passion.  That is what is possible, and if that is possible, anything is possible.

The Wildcats should be angry right now.  They should be angry about what has happened the last two weeks.  They should be angry about the mistakes that were made against Texas Christian.  They should be angry that Blue Devil fans, who should have no room to talk, mock the team and expect Duke to walk over them.

'Cats Defeat ACC Refs, 26-21 [posted Sept. 15]

Northwestern beat a lackluster, but determined officiating squad from the the Atlantic Coast  Conference today, 26-21, winning an ugly game marked by record-setting penalties.  The win snaps an eight-game losing streak and sends the 'Cats to a 1-2 record-- with a win against Navy next week, NU would enter the conference season with an even record.

The game started inauspiciously, as the ACC Crew jumped out to a 7-0 lead.  NU was stymied by the ACC's penalty defense, which shocked the Wildcats with a school record-tying 16 penalties, and a school record-breaking 146 penalty yards.  Most of the penalties came from ACC Official trick plays, which no one-- not the 'Cats, not the announcers, not any of the fans-- saw coming.  The ACC crew nearly shot itself in the foot, calling a Wildcat touchdown when the scorer had had his knee make contact with the ground before breaking the goal line plane.  However, the ACC Refs redeemed themselves when they shrewdly negated a brilliant NU pass play by simply declaring the completed pass "incomplete."

The pass play in question began with NU QB Brett Basanez handing off to Jeff Backes.  Backes handed off to Kunle Patrick on a reverse.  Patrick then surprised everyone in attendance, including the ACC Crew (who apparently had not practiced for such a play this week), by unloading a beautifully-executed bomb pass to Jon Schweighardt.  Schweighardt appeared to catch the pass, and the catch appeared confirmed on the replay.  However, the ACC Crew's "incomplete" defense was just too much, and almost won them the game.  This is the second time in three years that the ACC crew has fought valiantly at Ryan Field for a win, but come up empty-handed.

For NU, there were many mistakes, including several well-earned penalties.  There was also suspect clock management as the first half dribbled to a close, with the 'Cats needlessly clutching onto two times out and kicking a field goal, rather than playing for a touchdown to take the lead.  However, a win is a win, and this win is particularly satisfying, considering that the Wildcats had to defeat two teams on the field at the same time. 

In addition to Basanez and Patrick, running back Jason Wright and wide receiver Jon Schweighardt had strong performances during the game.  Schweighardt racked up 104 yards receiving, not including the yards ruled "incomplete."  Patrick had a couple of impressive catches, but will be remembered for stunning everyone with how well thrown the reverse flea flicker was.  Who knew Kunle had an arm?  Jason Wright built on his record-setting performance against TCU, breaking 100 yards rushing on Saturday, and catching the ball for 25 more yards.  On defense, Loren Howard is coming into his own, and was a force on the field.  There were still some problems with the team's performance, but those problems came in the course of a win, and the improvement on offense, defense, and special teams is measurable from the previous week and shows that the 'Cats are on track toward competitive play.

Air Basanez!  AP Photo.

'Cats Escape Navy 49-40 [posted Sept. 22]

The Wildcats survived Navy, as the Middies riddled themselves with turnovers and NU quarterback Brett Basanez threw for 260 yards.  After the game, Coach Walker said-- for the second straight week-- "It wasn't a work of art, that's for sure."  Maybe not, but it was Northwestern Football, and apparently Wildcat football this year is as ugly as your Junior Prom date, but with just as just as good a punch.  The team has found a way to eke out wins, and has momentum going into the conference slate.

According to those who were at the game, Basanez showed confidence and poise, mixing the Wildcat attack and using a variety of weapons.  For the first time this season, NU's tight ends were an important element, as Eric Worley and Taylor Jones both had nice receptions.  Worley caught four passes and tallied 57 yards.

The running backs also had a good game, and Jason Wright is coming to the fore as the Wildcats' premier ground gainer.  Wright found the end zone three times and gained 186 yards on the ground, becoming NU's first runner to get back-to-back 100 yard games since a year ago.  Noah Herron is also a force of one.  Herron also notched three touchdowns and ran for 95 yards, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry.

Rounding out the offensive talent on display Saturday, NU's receivers were used early and often.  Basanez completed passes to nine different receivers during the Navy game.  Jon Schweighardt picked up 64 yards on five completions and Kunle Patrick caught four passes for 85 yards.  Schweighardt and Patrick have the potential to be the Musso and Bates of the 2002 'Cats.

The MSU Game: Q&A [posted Sept. 25]

Q: Oh no, every time the "Q & A" format has been tried, this page has degenerated into utter stupidity.  Is there any chance we could stay on topic this time?

A: About as much chance as NU's defense has of holding the Spartans to under 150 yards this Saturday.

Q: Speaking of which, how well will MSU's offense do this weekend?

A: Well, that really is the sixty-four dollar question, isn't it?  Most pundits think that Smoker to Rogers will smoke the 'Cats as well, and that the Spartan ground attack will burn through NU's admittedly tissue-thin run defense (currently nowhere to go but up, ranked a well-publicized 117th in Division 1-A).   However, Mssrs. Smoker (Smoker? I hardly know 'er!) and Rogers came up short against Notre Dame, an undefeated but nauseatingly overrated team.  And they came up woefully short against Cal, which slapped the Spartans around like a lab assistant that just walked in with an "Abby Normal" brain.  The long and short of it is that the MSU offense is capable of terrifying effectiveness and could notch ten touchdowns on us (or several other Big Ten teams, for that matter).  However, they are not infallible, and are also capable of a meltdown.  Both the Wildcat and Spartan teams have been victimized this year by spotting coaching; if Bobby W. and co. have another lackluster plan in place, it won't matter if the MSU offense is headed by John Elway and Jerry Rice-- they will have an uphill battle.  Of course, the flip side is NU's defense.

Q: Yeah.  What about NU's defense?

A: You've heard the adjectives: young, inexperienced, thin, porous.  You've seen the stats: 678 yards handed over to Navy, which isn't going to challenge for a Fiesta Bowl spot this year; 532 yards per game, and 317 yards per game rushing.  This last number is the one that stings. It is one yard more than Northwestern's  Mike Adamle rushed against Wisconsin in 1969, when he set NU's single game individual all time rushing record.  Worsening matters, defensive tackle Luis Castillo has torn his MCL.  The 'Cats need as many horses as possible at 100% on the defensive line, because it is going to be tested sorely Saturday.  However, there is a bright side to NU's defense.  In fact, there are three bright sides.

Q:  Go on.  I'm all ears.

A: That's not a question.

Q: (muttering under breath)  What... are... the ... bright... sides...?

A:  Better.  First, there is one stat of which NU's defense has been on the good side, and that's turnovers.  The 'Cats have started to force fumbles, and they've had three interceptions so far, which is nice, so they got that goin' for 'em.  MSU and Wunderkind Smoker have tossed five picks so far this year.  Who's to say that the NU game won't see more return-to-senders from Smoker.  Second, there have been players on D. who have shown great talent this year, even flashes of excellence.  Howard, Covington, Pickens, and others have looked solid.  If they and, of course, a few others, all had a great game Saturday, we might be pleasantly surprised by this unit.  And third, because of the latent talent on defense, this team just may be due.  So far, the team has looked to be taking one step forward and one step back.  I think they might just have two (or three) steps in them for a game (steps forward, I mean...).

Q: "Rolling barrel of butcher knives?"  What the hell's up with that?

A: Don't know, but who cares?  It has a real AC/DC, Megadeath ring to it.

Q: Any area where NU has the edge coming into this one?

A: According to The Sporting News, the 'Cats only have a clear advantage with special teams (try not to do too dramatic a spit take when reading that).  However, feel free to load up on the intangibles with this game-- MSU was a clear fave walking into Ryan Field last year.  Oh, yes, they were a clear fave when we met them last at Spartan Stadium.  If there were a row titled "The Force," I'd put a check in NU's column.

Q: Will you give your sure fire cure for a hangover?

A: No.  I've posted that with the last two Q & A sessions, so it's time to retire it.  Besides, including it for a game for which NU is a 23.5 point 'dog might seem defeatist.  However, here is my personal recipe for a fantastic martini:

Things you need to keep in the freezer: the gin, the glasses, ice.
Things you need to keep in the refrigerator: the vermouth, the olives.
Things you need to keep at room temp: the mixer, with strainer.

Fill the mixer with ice.  It is important to have the mixer at room temp., since this will help to melt the ice just a little.  Pour in a generous amount of gin.  The gin should be kept in the freezer for at least three hours before pouring, and should come out of the bottle almost syrupy.  Add vermouth-- don't measure, but figure about an eyedropper full for every glass.  Add olives to the chilled glasses, shake mixer vigorously, pour and enjoy immediately.  Voila!

Q: As?

A: Eeltraps, lobsterpots, fishingrods, hatchet, steelyard, grindstone, clodcrusher, swatheturner, carriagesack, telescope ladder, 10 tooth rake, washing clogs, haytedder, tumbling rake, bilihook, paintpot, brush, hoe, and so on.

Q: Womb?  Weary?

A: He rests.  He has traveled.

Q: OK, no more Joyce.  The Lowes Line states this week that NU could go down by as many as 28 points.  Is this possible?

A: Sure, anything could be printed in the Lowes Line.  Seriously, NU could very well be lit up with a five or six touchdown margin.  NU could also very possibly win this game.  Who knows?  These two teams have been the least predictable teams in a conference that is becoming less predictable by the week.  Anything's possible, and that's one reason why this is likely going to be a very fun game to watch.  MSU is feeling tongues of fire, and they're standing at the abyss.  Northwestern has already giddily leapt in, and has nothing whatsoever to lose.  And yet, both teams have the same record.  If they're ready for this game, the 'Cats could come out ready to unscrew some heads and play Twister on the Spartans' new end zone sod.  It's a crap shoot.

Q: No mention of NU's offense?

A: There might be a surprise in store, but the focus should probably be on how well the 'Cat defense will perform.  NU's offense, make no mistake, will be in for resistance fourfold as fierce as it has met so far this season.  However, with Basanez gaining confidence and control at a good clip each week, NU's receivers and running backs having looked good, NU should put up points.  There's just that tiny matter of the line.....

Q: Do we have to talk about the line?

A: No, we don't.

Q: Prediction?

A: Just this: as is often the case with MSU, and with NU, it might come down to who has the lead after the first quarter.  If NU can somehow take the lead early, MSU's last two games might just weigh a little too heavily, and they might collapse under the weight.  If MSU slaps NU around during the first two drives, turn out the lights, kiss the kids goodnight, and put the 'Cats out: it's all over.

Buckeyes, Clarett Head to Evanston [posted October 2]

Northwestern and Ohio State will tangle this Saturday in a rare night game at Ryan Field.   If Ohio State beats NU this Saturday, it will achieve a 6-0 record.  The last time the Buckeyes boasted a 6-0 mark was after their last trip to Ryan Field, when they earned their sixth win of the 1998 season by beating the ‘Cats 36-10.  Much has been written about NU’s losing streak to the Bucks, dating back to 1971.  That last win was in Columbus.  If NU pulls out the win Saturday, it would be the first win over OSU in Evanston in 44 years.

For the ‘Cats to have a prayer at such a feat, NU’s offense will have to rely on air power: the Buckeyes have only allowed 73 yards rushing per game this year.  Much will depend on Basanez’s rhythm and how much time and protection the Wildcat line can provide him.

Ohio State’s offense, on the other hand, very likely will not bother with a major aerial assault.  Maurice Clarett, the freshman running back wonder, promises to be a one-man highlight reel.  Clarett comes into this game averaging almost 6.9 yards per carry.  Even in 2000, when Damien Anderson was busy shattering nearly every Wildcat record (except for the one in the sound booth, with the annoying Penn State growl), he averaged only a 6.5 ypc.  My guess is that Ohio State will complete a few deep passes, just to shake around the Wildcat defense, but will run Clarett almost continuously—nearly every single play.

Why so much running?  Three reasons.  First, NU’s run defense, coming into the Michigan State game, was ranked dead last in Division I-A.  After the Michigan State game, it is not only still ranked last, it has given away 31 yards per game more than the nearest other Div. I-A school (342.5 yards rushing for NU, and Eastern Michigan has allowed 311.4.  Tulsa, by the way, has managed to become the most atrocious team in the universe this year, while only allowing 287 yards rushing per game).   The Buckeyes should be able to run at will.  Second, running at will should tip the time of possession very heavily in OSU’s favor.  NU’s air show will already be light on possession if they suffer a few three-and-outs.   With the Buckeyes chewing the clock with the run, the ‘Cats’ offense won’t see the field very much.  Third, and most importantly, this game will be Mr. Clarett’s Heisman Candidate Coming Out Party.  What better way to broadcast a running back’s Heisman chances than by padding his stats as much as possible against NU’s run defense?  The road to the Heisman has an on ramp cutting right through Ryan Field.

Last week, after the Michigan State loss, many fans felt disappointed, but relieved.  The ‘Cats had lost and had made some critical mistakes in the second half, but they were competitive and weren’t immediately taken out of the game by the Spartans.  Coach Walker said, “I'm tired of talking about getting better.  I'm tired of measuring success based on improvement because that's a copout.  From this point on, I'm not going to measure success in this program based on improvement.  It's going to be measured simply by wins and losses.  I was getting [from fans and parents], 'That wasn't bad, that was pretty good.’ It was like they were shocked. It was like, 'You guys looked better in some things.'  . . . As well-meaning as all that is, it's like a lack of respect. It's like you didn't think we could win!”

Coach Walker is correct: most fans did not think NU could win.  Sadly, right now many fans do not measure success the same way the coach is.  Improvement and strides to competitiveness will remain the benchmark for now, not wins.  In an period when NU has not been competitive at all in the conference, has been outscored in its last seventeen games 463 to 644, has dropped eleven of those seventeen, and has been outscored in those eleven losses by an average margin of 22.5 points, the Moral Victory is back.  NU could return to expecting to win, but it will take a lot of time and a lot of improvement.  For now, and against a team like Ohio State, the necessary steps are very large, but they are steps to improving communication, to building fundamental playing technique, to playing disciplined and well-coached defense, to fortifying the lines, and—most importantly—to eliminating thoughtless behavior, especially all after-the-play penalties.  These are the keys to the game.  If NU can successfully execute these steps against Ohio State, even if Ohio State scores more points, the ‘Cats will come away with a victory—not just a Moral Victory, but a strategic victory as well.  The team could take another step to being in a position to bag a couple of Real-Honest-to-God Victories in the conference during the second half of the season, and to being on the path to Expecting Victory again.

NU Fights the Good Fight [posted Oct. 7]

On Saturday night, the Wildcats played their best football game in over a year, as they fell to Ohio State 27 to 16. 

Last week I wrote, “Improvement and strides to competitiveness will remain the benchmark… For now, and against a team like Ohio State, the necessary steps are to improve communication, to build fundamental playing technique, to play disciplined and well-coached defense, to fortify the lines, and—most importantly—to eliminate thoughtless behavior, especially all after-the-play penalties.  These are the keys to the game.  If NU can successfully execute these steps against Ohio State, even if Ohio State scores more points, the ‘Cats will come away with a victory—not just a Moral Victory, but a strategic victory as well.  The team could take another step to being in a position to bag a couple of Real-Honest-to-God Victories in the conference during the second half of the season, and to being on the path to Expecting Victory again."

With the exception of eliminating the after-the-play penalties, the Wildcats improved on every step, and improved more than most fans could have imagined.  In fact, no Northwestern team has made such leaps in execution and teamwork during a season since perhaps 1970.  NU now seems back to competitive form and to a place where they can find a way to win.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the way against Ohio State.  The ‘Cats had numerous chances.  What should have been Wildcat touchdowns become field goals, and what should have been field goals became opportunities missed.  The coaching and game plan, while light years ahead of what had been seen at the beginning of the year, seemed to play many drives safe, rather than going for a “kill shot.”  Against the fifth ranked team in the nation, when one has the chance, one has to risk it and take the kill shot.  Fourth and one wasn’t time to put special teams on the field.

Still, Coaches Walker, Dunbar, Colby, Fitzgerald, and everyone else must be congratulated for a job well done.  NU went after Clarret, dared OSU to throw, and made plays.  The ‘Cats continued to force turnovers.  Coverage was spectacular, particularly Covington, who has come into his own and had a marvelous game.  Pickens also played well and was a force to be reckoned with.  And the lines, both offensive and defensive, played beyond expectation.  When they are focused and fired up, the linemen are able to carry the ‘Cats.

For the third time this year, questionable officiating has been an issue with a Wildcat game.  ESPN, The Magazine, went so far as to post:

“Not a good week for Big Ten officiating. With supervisor of officials Dave Parry in attendance, the crew working the Ohio State-Northwestern game appeared to botch what should have been a Wildcat touchdown. Instead, Mark Philmore's beautiful one-handed, toe-dragging catch for a score was ruled incomplete. Upstairs in the press box, Parry and another Big Ten officials evaluator looked at the replays and said the same thing: touchdown. Instead of taking a 13-7 lead, the Wildcats had to settle for a field goal and a 9-7 lead.”

Even so, NU had its opportunities, and missed them.  But, more importantly, the opportunities were there, and few thought they would be.  Thank the ‘Cats and their Heart for those chances.  Walker doesn’t want to hear about a Moral Victory, but this game was just that.  It is a clarion call that NU is now back on track, once again a team, once again ready to find a way to win, and—once again—fans should expect nothing less.

'Cats Head to the Dome [posted Oct. 7]

NU's decision to bow to the wishes and interests of the Big Ten, Minnesota, and Illinois will come to bear when the Wildcats travel to Minnesota to take on the Gophers this Thursday night, after three days of practice.  Minnesota, which picked apart Illinois 31 to 10 last Thursday, is celebrating its Homecoming and is one win away from bowl eligibility.  NU is an angry team, having lost a close match to Ohio State.  They have very little rest, and little time to prepare for an energetic Gopher offense.

Minnesota's veteran quarterback, Abdul-Khaliq, and its running backs, Thomas Tapeh and Terry Jackson, will present a different challenge from the one NU faced against the Buckeyes.  The Gopher attack will be balanced and precise.  However, Minnesota has encountered very little resistance on its way to a five and one record.   The Gophers have played the bottom of the NCAA barrel, including Division I-AA opposition.  What meager firepower did confront them came from Purdue (which had just been outgunned by Wake Forest), and the Boilers beat them by nearly two touchdowns.  Illinois doesn't really count at this point in the season, since the Illini are struggling to find which way is up.

In many ways Thursday will be the greatest test for Minnesota this year, and the Gophers come into the challenge with the worst coach and coaching staff in the Big Ten.  Glen "I'm really a Buckeye at heart" Mason must be looking at tapes of the OSU-NU game and scratching his head into a bloody mess.  His team will be more rested than the 'Cats, but will be twice as confused.

Vegas has NU as a 17 point underdog.  That could be the most grotesque underestimation of a team this year.  Assuming the 'Cats are able to bring the level of play they displayed at Ryan Field last Saturday with them into the Humpty Dome, NU could beat Minnesota convincingly.  Look for Jason Wright to run for 125 yards, Basanez to find a good rhythm and complete to Schweighardt and Backes for about 210 yards, and the defense to continue its improvement, with at least two sacks.  NU should go to three and four, with a 35 to 24 victory.

Minnesota Coasts to Win [posted October 16]

Minnesota began the game Thursday night with an onside kick, recovering the ball and driving quickly to a touchdown.  The 'Cats responded on the next drive, with Jason Wright scoring the tying touchdown.

Tapeh wrapped up the first quarter with an enormous gain to put the Gophers in scoring postion to open the second quarter.  Minnesota did just that with a short TD pass.  Noah Herron answered for the 'Cats, punching the ball in to tie it.

Herron proceeded to run 34 yards with six minutes left in the second quarter to give NU its only lead, 21-14. It was all downhill from there.  Not wanting to spoil the tension, NU's defense gave up a TD on Minnesota's next drive, tying the game at 21 all with two minutes to go in the half.

NU's offense was unable to take advantage of a drive with under two minutes to go, and had to punt.  The punt was blocked and run back for the Gopher go-ahead touchdown.  Minnesota held the 'Cats, then shredded the Wildcat defense to open the second half with a touchdown, widening their lead to 14.  Minnesota  continued to control everything in the third quarter, punctuating the game with a third unanswered touchdown to make the score 42 to 21 in an atrocious third period.  

The Gophers then opened the fourth quarter with a field goal.  NU answered with three straight scores, capped by a 32 yard touchdown run by Jason Wright and a two-point conversion keeper by Basanez.  Unfortunately, the Wildcats' furious comeback and great offensive performance was just too little, too late.  NU falls, 45-42.

NU Crushed by Penn State [posted Oct. 19]

Penn State's Homecoming proved to be exactly what most sports pundits predicted it would be: a bye week for the Lions.  PSU got to rest a week between games with Michigan and Ohio State, and-- in between 'Cat naps-- they absolutely hammered Northwestern 49-0.  Until today, NU had managed to avoid suffering a shutout during the Second Dark Age.  The game was NU's first shutout loss in three seasons and was a complete embarrassment for the university.  NU failed in all aspects, including the most fundamental: it failed to provide an even remotely competitive challenge.  Worse, NU continued to commit personal fouls and uncalled cheap shots.

Fourth and two, on the Lions' 22-yard line.  Four missed field goals in a row going into the game.  Your team is down seven points, to a heavily favored team, in their house.  If you are the Wildcat coach, what do you do?  Just curious.

Are changes needed to this team?  Just curious.

A championship trophy in the last four seasons.  Three last place finishes in the last four seasons.  Just plain curious, indeed.

Homecoming: It's Payback Time [posted Oct. 24]

After two harsh weeks on the road, the Wildcats return to friendlier ground this Saturday, as NU celebrates Homecoming and hosts Purdue.  When fans last saw the team play in Evanston, the 'Cats produced a valiant effort, with both offense and defense showing strength in a very close loss to (still undefeated) Ohio State.  This Saturday's against the Boilermakers should be just as exciting; however, this time NU should prevail.  The Wildcats are due.

NU has had some kicking woes during the last two games, but Wildcat kicker David Wasielewski is capable of much better kicks than we've seen lately, and should end his slump this week.  Purdue's kicking, however, has been consistently bad: Lacevic has hit just three of ten field goals this season.

Although Coach Walker has said that injured quarterback Brett Basanez will see time on the field Saturday-- two weeks after breaking his leg at Minnesota-- Tony Stauss should get the nod to start.  Stauss set a Northwestern school record during last week's Penn State game for passing completions.  He was hurried all day, sacked repeatedly, but stayed "with the game."  He should face similar pressure Saturday with the Boiler defense, but with one week under his belt, playing at home, and with his potentially fantastic weapons still at the ready (arm strength, passing accuracy), Stauss could show significant improvement and succeed in moving the Wildcats down the field.  NU may have had a terrible game last week, but it still has an arsenal of talented receivers and two high calibre running backs in Wright and Herron.  Purdue has shown a good attacking defense, but also a defense that can give up vast chunks of real estate (and points) at clutch moments in games.  If Northwestern can hang with Purdue into the fourth quarter (and they should), the Wildcat offense has the talent to salt the game away in the closing drives.

NU's run defense has resumed its place at the bottom of the division.  Expect that "honor" to go away this week, and the 'Cats to shut down effectively Purdue's ground attack.  NU's line has failed to stop gains up the middle and has not gotten off blocks most of the year.  However, they match up well with Purdue's O-line, and if the preparation is solid for this game, they should have a breakout afternoon.  Tiller may try to take to the air, but he'll be relying on true freshman Brandon Kirsch at quarterback, after benching Drew Brees' heir apparent, sophomore Kyle Orton.  NU should apply maximum pressure to Kirsch all day.  

The Wildcat's defense has been very effective this season causing turnovers.  Purdue, meanwhile, leads the league in coughing up the ball, losing it 23 times.  Both trends could very well continue this Saturday.  If NU's defense can cause at least three turnovers, the 'Cats should be on the way to the win.  If NU does win, it would snap a nine-game losing streak in the conference.  The last Big Ten win for the 'Cats came on October 13, 2001, when NU beat Minnesota-- at the Wildcats' Homecoming.  However, Purdue has now lost six road games in a row.  The last road win for the Boilermakers was September 29, 2001, when Purdue won... at Minnesota.

Of course, there's one more streak to consider: NU has not yet beaten Joe Tiller.  That streak is well past due, and should come to a merciful end Saturday.  The Wildcats are due to surprise, and Purdue is just the Halloween guest to shock-- they're down, yet they'll still be looking past this game.  Prediction: tricks AND treats-- NU in a stunner, 38 to 21.

Belly Flop
Purdue Slaps NU, 42-13 [posted Oct. 27]

Northwestern came out from under the purple awning and promptly spotted the Purdue Boilermakers twenty-one points, sending many Homecoming celebrants scurrying for the Tums, the Rolaids, or the exits.  The Wildcats again came up short on all fronts: offense, defense, special teams, and coaching (motivation? discipline? play calling?  The mind reels...) all were trumped by the Boilermakers.

One of NU's few bright spots was the running back play.  Both Jason Wright and Noah Herron performed well.   Wright cracked 100 yards and scored a touchdown, while Herron continues to be a dependable short-yardage back.   Brian Huffman also looked good, averaging 42 yards on his punts, including a 52 yarder and one that pinned Purdue near its five yard line.  And the offensive line played decently, especially center Austin King.  

The details of the game need not be picked apart here. The team did not seem prepared or motivated.  It has been years since a Wildcat team has taken the field for Homecoming with as little visible energy, emotion, and vibrancy as did the team this Saturday.   It was depressing to watch the sideline for much of the afternoon.

With the loss, NU falls to 2-7 for the year and is now officially enduring a losing season, the third in four years, and the 28th in the last 32 years.  The loss to the Boilers brings NU's conference losing streak to ten.

Redemption at Hand?
--Here Come the Hoosiers [posted Oct. 30]

Northwestern hosts the Indiana Hoosiers at Ryan Field this Saturday, and when the Wildcats take the field, they'll be about as desperate and hungry for a win as we've seen in recent years.  Coming off a devastating loss to Purdue, the 'Cats have slid considerably since their strong showing at the beginning of the month, against the Buckeyes.  Enter the Hoosiers, themselves coming off a throttling delivered by another desperate team: Illinois.  This will be Gerry Dinardo's first game against Northwestern, and he will be in for a challenge.  Dinardo is a good coach, but he arrived in Bloomington to find the cupboard bare-- wonder-QB Randel-El had graduated, and the Hoosiers barely had five dozen players on scholarship.  They have struggled as a result, and have not yet won a game on the road.  

Indiana's main weapon is its quarterback.  Fifth year senior Gibran Hamdan leads the Big Ten in completion yards.  Stopping Hamdan and his passing attack will be essential.  What about the run, you ask?  Isn't Northwestern's rushing defense still on the ropes?  Shouldn't stopping the run be the key?  Fortunately for the Wildcats, this will finally be the week that the Purple run defense steps up, and steps up with maximum effect.  The Hoosiers' ground attack is the weakest in the conference, averaging only 117 total rushing yards per game.   No, the key will be to fix the cross hairs on Mr. Hamdan and make his day at Ryan Field a miserable one.

As for the NU offense, there has been much ado this week over whether Tony Stauss or Brett Basanez will start as the 'Cats' signal caller.  Either quarterback should be able to move the ball against the Hoosiers; Tony should get another crack at the start-- this might be the game in which he turns a corner.  However, the  focus will not be on Stauss or Basanez, but on running back Jason Wright.  Wright has had five games so far this year during which he has rushed for at least 100 yards.  This Saturday should make that count six.  Look for Wright to run wild on Indiana's ground defense, a unit that is as troubled as NU's.  

If the line can give Wright a head start, and if either Stauss or Basanez can take advantage of the ground gains by mixing up the action with (vertical!  vertical!) passes, NU should be well on its way toward getting back on track to finish the season in an exciting and hopeful fashion.

You're Damn Wright We Won!
Northwestern Outlasts Indiana 41-37 [posted Nov. 2 ]

The streak is over: Northwestern has notched a Big Ten victory, its first of the year and the first after ten unsuccessful tries.  The Wildcats weathered self-inflicted wounds and a fourth quarter Hoosier comeback to defeat Indiana 41 to 37 at Ryan Field.   Brett Basanez reclaimed NU's offense, three weeks after breaking his leg against Minnesota.  Basanez threw for 257 yards and 20 completions, while wearing a brace on his leg.  He stayed in for all of the game, except for one series that featured true freshman Derrell Jenkins.  In a (somewhat) surprising move, NU chose to burn Jenkins' redshirt during the tenth game of the season.  Jenkins showed promising mobility as he moved the offense to a first down.  Basanez is, however, apparently the Wildcats' leader for the present and near future, and-- considering his condition-- he looked very good today behind center.

However, the true star of today's game was Jason Wright, who-- to appropriate a Randy Walker quote-- keeps filling his barrel with butcher knives and rolling it with abandon.  Wright piled up 219 yards rushing and 59 yards receiving.  Wright's rushing mark ties him for ninth place for single game ground gains for a Wildcat (tied with Damien Anderson, who rushed for 219 against Michigan St. in 2000).  Wright also now has over 1000 yards rushing for the year, becoming only the eighth Wildcat in history to record that achievement.

Wright's four touchdowns against the Hoosiers ties a school record for rushing touchdowns during a game.

Wright slashed and picked his way through the Hoosier defense with skill and finesse, and was a real pleasure to watch.  Walker has always demonstrated a gift for instructing and nurturing running backs, and that tradition has definitely continued with Wright.

The rest of the offense had a productive day as well, with most of the wide receiver crew getting at least one catch.  In addition to Wright, Noah Herron also mixed it up between ground attack and receiving, and had 77 yards for the day.  Mark Philmore continues to step up as a receiver, and is well on his way to being a great and dependable weapon in the Wildcat offense.  The offensive line also played quite well.

The NU defense, under so much scrutiny this year, performed near its high water mark for the year, set against Ohio State.  Of Indiana's 37 points, 12 came directly from Wildcat turnovers.  The 'Cat defense had a great day, with the defensive line turning in its very best performance of the year. Freshman David Thompson played inspired ball and picked off Gibran Hamdan, recording the game's only interception.   At linebacker, Vince Cartaya got his first start and did not disappoint, with a sterling performance.

The two most significantly positive takeaways from this game, however, were:

  • Even after the 'Cats saw two fumbles converted to Indiana touchdowns, and even after a poorly-advised attempt at a field goal was unsuccessful, NU never slacked.  The Wildcats soldiered on, focused on winning the game.  They showed great heart.
  • Northwestern played four hard-fought quarters of Big Ten football, and the Wildcats did not suffer one personal foul, did not suffer one stupid after-the-play penalty.  The discipline the team showed was vastly improved and superior to all other games this year.  Very, very well done!

Garbage Time.
Iowa Juggernaut Pounds NU 62-10 [posted Nov. 9]

The sixth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes wasted no time taking a two touchdown lead on Northwestern and never looked back, as they waxed NU 62-10.  Iowa was helped by the Wildcats at the beginning of the game, when NU won the coin toss, deferred, and then-- surprising absolutely no one-- attempted a weak onside kick.  The Iowa sideline almost looked bored: "NU deferred?  Hmm.  Must be trying the onside kick.  OK..." The message sent was clear: the Wildcats expected to lose, and were prepared to try anything to stop the bleeding-- before the gun had even been fired.

After the sloppy start, NU hung tough with the Hawkeyes for the rest of the first quarter.  Brett Basanez  looked great for much of the game, and was able to throw well against  the Iowa defense.  Derrell Jenkins took over for Basanez later in the second half.  Jenkins ran the ball well, but everyone knew Jenkins was going to run, since all of his plays were runs until well into the fourth quarter.  When Jenkins did throw, he was intercepted.  Twice.  Jason Wright ran 11 times for 32 yards.  The offense was not spectacular, but was still the strongest Wildcat unit on the field.  Special teams gave up another touchdown on a punt return, although it should be mentioned that Brian Huffman did a great job earlier with his punt from the absolute, very back edge, not one blade of grass left from stepping out of his own endzone punt to midfield.  

And that NU defense.... The Iowa offense proved just too much for the 'Cats, who looked overwhelmed against a superior force.

Although play calling was not anything to write home about (cf. the "tricky" onside kick to start the game, going for it in the first quarter on fourth and three by passing the ball behind the line of scrimmage, not going for it in the second quarter on fourth and three inches, etc.), it really didn't matter this time around.  NU could have had Steve Spurrier, Ty Willingham, another Kirk Ferentz, and the ghost of Vince Lombardi all  on its sideline,  and it would not have made any difference.  Ferentz, who showed that he alone possesses more class than every one of his team's fans combined, pulled his starting quarterback, his starting running back, and-- in a move rarely seen in Division I-- his entire offensive line, midway through the third quarter.  For those wondering what that means, it is not a good sign.

Yes, the Northwestern defense is young,  but  youth and a few injuries should not excuse a defense that is solidly the worst in the country, and is now just  43 points from being the worst in Northwestern history.  That would be a low water mark that most thought unattainable, yet it will likely happen in two weeks.  The pressure is on: Randy Walker must, absolutely must make breathtaking improvements in his defense during the off season, or this program will slide so much further into the Dark Ages that it might not be recoverable.  If that improvement requires an entirely new approach to the defense, including all new defensive coaching personnel, so be it.  If that improvement can be made with the defensive staff at hand, so be that as well.

The program is past critical.  Indiana was a much-needed win and broke NU's conference losing streak, but it does little for the condition of the program.  The program is in meltdown, and Walker should not be afraid of meltdown-level decisions on November 24, if not sooner.

In many ways the 2003 season begins now.  Decisions must be made that will influence this team for years to come.  Let's hope those decisions are faced with the courage needed right now.

NU to Conclude Season Vs. Illinois [posted Nov. 17]

"To measure the man,
measure his heart."
--Malcolm Forbes

The Northwestern Wildcat 2002 football season will conclude this Saturday at Ryan Field, as the Wildcats write the final chapter in what has been a very disappointing year.  Earlier, during the off-season, players sported shirts that read, "four and seven, never again."  Fans now can only hope that the shirts' declaration proves false, at least the four wins part.  NU needs to win its final game to avoid falling to its worst record, both overall and within the conference, since 1999.

That win will be difficult to get.  For its finale, NU hosts Illinois, and the Illini have weapons that will challenge the 'Cats at every turn.  Illinois is certainly an angry team, having lost in overtime to the top BCS team in the country, and having lost its bowl eligibility as well.  Reporters are also quick to point out that Illinois is "resurgent" right now, which must mean that Illinois is 2-2 in their last four games.  Sure, the Illini lost close ones to Ohio State and Penn State, and looked really good doing it, but let's look further.  Their last two wins?  Those came against Indiana and Wisconsin, teams that are in veritable free fall right now.  Not only has Illinois dropped seven games, they have only won once on the road so far (and that win was the one against Wisconsin-- it's a shame NU couldn't have played the Badgers earlier this year...).

Still, Illinois is playing better ball now than at the start of the season, when they looked wretched.  Their defense has picked up the pace, and will strain the 'Cats' offense and quarterbacks to the breaking (no pun intended!  please, no pun intended!) point.  The Illini tallied four sacks against the Buckeyes, the third time that the team has notched at least four sacks in a game.  Seventeen Illini have made tackles for loss so far this year, twelve of them accounting for 21 sacks total.

As to their offense, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd is a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, averaging 94 yards per game.  Quarterback Jon Beutjer now has a year of experience under his belt, after replacing the irreplaceable Kurt Kittner.  Beutjer is averaging 309 yards per game.  And the Illini line is lead by fifth year senior and ironman offensive tackle Tony Pashos, a preseason All-American, who is starting his 47th (!) straight game.

However, the offensive player that should cause the greatest concern for Northwestern is Antoineo Harris, who has rushed for 1,152 yards so far this year, and has notched eight touchdowns.  So Mr. Harris is one of three keys to the game-- if NU can shut him down and keep him to 100 yards or less, it could hang with Illinois.  Of course, this also means getting off blocks and not letting Tony Pashos have his way with the line.  This leads to the second key to the game: NU must have one good, old fashioned, look at what we did against Ohio State back in October, defensive stop in the first quarter. If the 'Cats can pull off one great defensive stand in the opening period, they just might keep their confidence up long enough to make it a contest.  Finally, Northwestern must get the ball as soon as possible and must score as soon as possible.  If Basanez and company can find a rhythm quickly, NU should be able eventually to produce four or five good touchdown drives.  Four that to happen, though, the Wildcat O-line must play with their helmets on fire.

If all these things come together, NU should not only win, they should stun the Illini by a couple of touchdowns.  But can it come together?  Can the Wildcats provide a team like the one that took the field against Ohio State last month?  It's up to them.  Do they want to?  Does a fourth win mean that much to them?  Do they want to take the first step to the offseason having won their last game, something that hasn't happened at NU in four years?  The talent on the team is important, but the disadvantage of NU's youth is softened by the Illini's shortcomings and their problems on the road.  The most vital component now is will.  The Wildcats will have to will this one to come together and will have to will the win.  There are only four quarters left; let's hope the 'Cats play every one of them with an iron will and write a hopeful final chapter to this season.

NU Falls to Illinois 31-24;
Wildcats Finish Season 3-9 [posted Nov. 23]

"To measure the man,
measure his heart."
--Malcolm Forbes

Northwestern found itself down by 21 points, late in its game with Illinois Saturday.  The Wildcats were down, but by no means were they out, nor did they show an ounce of quit. The 'Cats, playing with exceptional heart and overcoming ridiculously inept officiating and mind-numbingly bad play calling, tore back into the game to come within a touchdown before succumbing to the Illini 31 to 24.  The game wraps up the 2002 season for NU and concludes the college careers of seniors  Vince Cartaya, Raheem Covington, Brandon Evans, Onaje Grimes, Ben Kennedy, Austin King, Kevin Lawrence, Jeff Roehl, David Wasielewski and George Woods.

" I thought our coaching staff did a good job and gave our kids a chance to win," said NU coach Randy Walker.

"Coach Dunbar doesn't believe in it." -- Brett Basanez, referring to the crucial and missing quarterback sneak play.

And from Jason Wright: "It's a mentality.  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't know how to win....."

Jason Wright Earns Academic All-America Honors [posted Dec. 2]

NU's athletic department announced December 2 that Jason Wright has been selected as a first-team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America.  Jason is the first Wildcat since 1995 to earn this honor, and the fifteenth Wildcat ever to make first-team.  Congratulations to Jason for this well-deserved honor!