2004 Season
Review Page


2004: The Season Review

Northwestern's 2004 season split the fan base in two, just as the 'Cats split their season, winning six of their twelve games.  The perceived outcome of the season truly did depend on whether fans saw NU's six victories as "half full" or "half empty."  The Wildcats finished their fifth non-winning season out of the last six, and they did fail to earn bowl eligibility.  However, their five Big Ten wins were enough to earn them an unshared spot at fourth in the conference.  Aside from the championship seasons, this was the best finish in 33 years.

The 2004 season, however, will be remembered for one thing.  When a few years tick away and a couple more seasons play out, the thought of the last-minute tossing away of what would have been an invitation to the Music City Bowl will be dimmed.  The kicking woes at TCU, the win in Happy Valley, watching Ron Turner take his final exit as a head coach through the doors at Ryan Field-- these too will fade out.  What will remain is the one moment that should serve as a template for all Wildcat games from now on: NU's landmark victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes.  The Wildcats now have a guide to show them just what they can accomplish when they function at maximum, and function as a team.  Even if 2004 proves to have been half empty, the Ohio State win (and how the 'Cats prepared for and executed during that fight) should be enough to prime the pump for 2005 and beyond.
What follows are excerpts from some of the comments posted on this site during the course of the 2004 season.

NU Takes to the Air in Spring Game;
Offense, Defense Deliver Crisp Final Practice [posted April 25]

Northwestern concluded its 2004 Spring Practice with an exciting aerial attack in its annual Spring Game.  As with all previous Spring Games under Coach Randy Walker, the "game" is actually a scripted series of plays and includes various and limited special teams situations as well. 

Brett Basanez, considered the solid starter going into the season, was given the first series of plays, then was moved to the sidelines to give redshirt freshman Chris Malleo time to move the ball.  While Basanez spent all of his time on Saturday wearing the green "no hitting" jersey, Malleo spent only the first half of the scrimmage protected by the "lucky charms" shirt and wore a standard white one for the second period.

Both quarterbacks looked very good, especially at this point in the year.  Of course, it helps that the offensive line and the receiver corps also appear to have improved.  As he did for much of the rest of the spring practice sessions, redshirt freshman Kim Thompson provided the receiving highlights.  Thompson hauled in a spectacular 30 yard pass from Malleo for the first touchdown of the day.

There would be more touchdowns, including a catch by tight end Taylor Jones and a short run by Noah Herron.

Herron had limited time with the ball-- the script for the scrimmage clearly favored showing off the Wildcats' air game.  However, the running plays that did use Herron featured what he had become known for during the last two seasons: a bruising style that shows less slashing than it does dragging defenders with him.  Most of the remaining ground plays were given to freshman Nathan Shanks, who was one of the most surprising players in the game.  Shanks showed good bursts of speed and knew where to run.

The scrimmage showcased the offense, but the defense had a good practice as well-- there were a few key defensive players who were out of the mix at the end of spring practice, nursing injuries.  The defensive highlight definitely was an interception by linebacker Nick Roach.  John Pickens also had some great plays and showed a renewed aggression.  Colby Clark is huge, and successfully harassed the quarterback several times.

It was refreshing to see the spirit and enthusiasm of the team this high, and the scrimmage presented a team that is on the verge of cohesion, power, and success.

The scrimmage followed the traditional "Stretch with the 'Cats" event, as well as a full-blown Wildcat Alley event and a fan reception above the locker room.  Given the washout of the spring game a year ago (and the athletic department's reaction at the time), the effort that NU put into this year's events was wonderful.  Perhaps just as encouraging as the improvement shown on the field, the quality of the Spring Game activities showed a willingness by NU to continue to advance the program and to increase its appeal to fans.

Sports Publications Offer Their
Preseason Predictions and Previews [posted July 11]

The sports media are releasing their annual college football season predictions and previews.  The slate of previews typically begins with the annual magazines from Athlon and Lindy's and concludes with the Big Ten's August media event, when the conference announces its official front runner. 

Most of the print sources have released their views, and-- as expected-- NU is not forecast at the top of the league.  Of course, most of these previews are written by magazines trying to sell copies, and favoring the biggest teams (that is to say, the teams with the biggest followings) is a profitable strategy.  However, NU has recently bucked that trend and the conventional thinking once before: in 2001, coming off its Big Ten title, NU was a Big Ten favorite in many of the preseason predictions.

Here is the list so far, showing where NU is predicted to finish nationally and within the Big Ten:
  • Fox Sports - CollegeFootballNews.com: CFN ranks NU 66th in the nation and ninth in the Big Ten, over Illinois and Indiana.  The brain trust at Fox Sports predicts the Wildcats will finish 3-8, even though NU plays twelve games this year.  Go figure.  CFN ranks three of NU's non-conference opponents higher: Arizona State at 30th, TCU 35th and Hawaii 58th.
  • Athlon also ranks NU 66th nationally and ninth in the conference.  This is a considerable step up from Athlon's 2003 pre-season ranking, which was 86th in the country and dead last in the Big Ten.
  • Lindy's has a rosier picture for NU as well.  Last year Lindy's essentially copied and pasted their 2002 prediction for NU (74th in the country, tenth in the Big Ten).  This year they have NU at 57th, ninth in the conference.
  • As of the beginning of July, Jim Howell's Website was predicting NU ninth in the conference and 68th in the country, ahead of Illinois (82) and Indiana (100), but behind Penn State (57).
  • Perhaps the most exhaustive, best written NU preview so far comes from Andy Gamm and his Final Score site.  Gamm predicts a 5-7 record for NU and a ninth place finish. 
  • OK, you might ask, but what about Phil Steele?  Everyone knows that Steele's last six or so predictions have been the most accurate.  Well, Phil doesn't show NU as much love as he did last year, putting NU 61st in the country and ninth in the conference.  Steele points out the strength the Wildcats possess along the lines and gives quarterback performance as a pivot position for this year.
  • The Sporting News also predicts NU will finish ninth in the Big Ten, but with a lackluster 4-8 record.  TSN has never been favorable to the Wildcats' chances (last summer TSN predicted that NU would finish dead last in the conference and wrote "...until we see results, we say 'phooey.'"  Apparently, after seeing results they're still saying phooey.).  Strangely, though, TSN wraps up its preview by proclaiming that NU "...has a chance to go bowling for a second consecutive season.  And it should do better than the Motor City Bowl."  So which is it?  The Sporting News just might be the magazine that talks more out of both sides of its mouth than any other.
  • Most of the bettin' rags aren't out yet, but the Annual Gold Sheet magazine is, and it predicts that NU will finish-- drumroll, please-- in ninth.  Bet you didn't see that coming?
  • Eight previews so far, and eight predictions that NU will finish in ninth place in the Big Ten.  Look no further than Street & Smith's to buck the trend.  The magazine that offered the highest pre-season prediction for NU in 2003 (eighth, when all others had NU in ninth, tenth or eleventh) now offers the lowest pick for NU: tenth place, beating out only the Hoosiers.
  • The highest pick for NU so far this season goes to NationalChamps.net, who pick the Wildcats eighth in the conference.  NationalChamps.net last year predicted that NU would go 0-12 and have a disastrous year.  Attempting to recover from his 2003 blunder, Tim Chapman writes this summer "don't look now, but the last time the Wildcats returned this many starters and balance on both sides of the ball, NU won eight games and finished as one of the top offensive teams in the country.  Compare this year's squad with the 2000 team and you'll find them eerily similar."
[Ed. note: Each season review page includes the preseason predictions.  This year, the best predictions were from Andy Gamm and his Final Score site, and from NationalChamps.net.  The dog this year was Street & Smith's, which missed NU's ranking in the Big Ten by SIX places!]

NU Scrimmages at Carthage College;
Camp Kenosha Concludes this Week [posted Aug 22]

For the first time,  the Wildcat football team played its annual pre-season scrimmage under lights, as NU held its biggest Camp Kenosha event last Friday night at Carthage College in Wisconsin.  Northwestern made the switch to a night practice since three of the 'Cats' games early this year will be played at night. 

According to reports from those present at the practice, the Northwestern defense looked solid, and the punt return squad returned a couple of simulated punts for touchdowns.  The Wildcat starters got very little playing time, leaving the field for the second and third team players. . . .

NU Opens Season at TCU [posted April 29, updated Aug. 29]


According to some writers TCU could beat half of the teams in the NFL this fall.  They are expected to be the odds-on favorites to win the Conference USA title, and they probably should be ranked very high later this fall, but a cream-puff schedule won't help their rankings, nor their BCS hopes.

On offense they have a full stock of veteran talent at every position, and they return eight starters.  Their o-line is terrifying, with the tackle position simply loaded to the hilt.  They also have deep experience at quarterback.  However, the QB situation is up in the air, even in the days leading up to this game.  It looks like this will be a two-headed Frog that NU will face, which could work to the Wildcats' advantage.

The Frogs' defense needs to replace more talent than their offense, and the positions aren't quite as stocked.  Its linebacker corps could be a little thin; however, middle linebacker Martin Patterson will anchor the squad solidly.  The defensive secondary is outstanding, and will threaten to return picks all day.  


The first game of the season, and this one is the toughest.  To phrase it bluntly, NU can expect a lot of trouble.

This isn't meant as a knock at NU.  The 'Cats are coming into this season with somewhat low expectations, are underrated, and will shock some people.  However, TCU really is at a different level right now, and there are probably only two teams in the Big Ten that would be favored to beat the Frogs-- and neither of those games would be guarantees.

NU should have a couple of advantages in this game.  The Wildcat offensive line is experienced (and simply enormous) and should overwhelm the TCU d-line.  Herron should also be able to punish the Frogs.  But will these advantages be enough?  NU's line and ground offense will generate yards and points, but so will the TCU offense.   Key position: the Wildcat linebackers.  If they can contain TCU's ground game and pressure their excellent QBs,  NU could have a shot.

'Cats Fall to TCU in Epic Heartbreaker [posted Sept. 2]

Northwestern's offense, particularly quarterback Brett Basanez and wideout Jonathan Fields, turned in a shocking performance in the Wildcats' season opener, rolling up 641 yards.  The 'Cats were just 13 yards shy of the NU team offensive record, set against Michigan in 2000.  Basanez passed for 513 yards,  setting a Northwestern all-time record.  Including his 35 yards on the ground, Basanez notched 548 individual yards of total offense, also a new NU record.  Fields had two long-range touchdown strikes, including a stunning 69 yarder.  However, a terrible defensive performance in the first half, combined with a disastrous night for the Wildcat special teams,  tempered the wild offensive display.

At several times during the game NU seemed to be on the cusp of defeat, only to roar back on the arm of Basanez and the hands of Fields and Mark Philmore.  After over three and a half hours NU managed to tie the game with nine seconds left.  Two overtimes later the Wildcats bowed, and NU suffered its only overtime loss in history, falling 48 to 45.

The first half of Northwestern's season opener against TCU saw the Wildcats with more scoring opportunities than most fans could have imagined, but NU only came up with two touchdowns.   The scores weren't enough to stop the Horned Frog juggernaut, which blew up NU's secondary and shattered its defensive schemes.  The Wildcat secondary was staggered, and the middle of the field remained exposed and unprotected for the entire night.  The exception in the first half was the fantastic heads-up play by Dominique Price, who hustled to take possession of a Frog fumble and shift a little momentum to NU.

The NU offense looked very impressive from the start.  Noah Herron, after a cold beginning, warmed up with a few nice ground plays and a terrific catch for first down, but never found a rhythm.  The offensive line, while spectacular with pass protection, did not do Herron a lot of favors initially.  Another reason for the slightly stunted run game was the TCU defense, which loaded the box early and dared Basanez to throw.  Bas did, and with authority.  Philmore and Fields each had stellar catches and tremendous gains.  But the most pleasant surprise was the great play of Brett Basanez, who looked in control and loaded for bear.

Unfortunately, three fantastic field positions in the first half produced no points.  Northwestern's aerial assault in the second half brought the 'Cats into overtime, but kicking woes eventually ended NU's chances.  That NU was forced to rely on its terrific punter, one of the best players on the team, to handle placekicking duties as well, is a circumstance that is solely the fault of the coaching staff and their special teams recruitment efforts.  The coaches also are to be questioned for all of the calls in the second overtime: forsaking the red-hot air game in favor of a couple of runs up the gut, followed by another kick attempt was mystifying.

The outcome of this game was about as hard to take as any in the last few years, but the play by the Wildcats was inspiring.  Particular kudos must go to the offensive line (particularly for its pass protection), Basanez (who has been named the Big Ten's offensive player of the week), and the wide receivers.  The defense, especially the defensive line, are to be commended for bouncing back from a brutal first half and locking down TCU in the third quarter, holding the Frogs to just a field goal. 

NU Vs. Sun Devils in Home Opener [posted April 29, updated Sept. 6]


Better than last year.  ASU had high hopes for 2003, but ran into a buzz saw at Iowa early in the season.  The Sun Devils didn't fully recover, and limped to a 5-7 finish.  Most people expect ASU to be improved, but only enough to nudge past the .500 mark.

The Devils' offense is explosive and returns outstanding talent at quarterback and wide receiver.  ASU's offensive star, a fullback, graduated.  Rather than try to replace him, they've completely revamped their offense this spring, trashing the fullback position and setting up new H-back formations.  How will this work out for ASU?  No one knows, but it likely won't change what will be their bread and butter this fall: pass, pass, pass.  The Devils should roll through the air, and on the scoreboard.  QB Andrew Walter will likely be directly responsible for several of ASU's wins this fall.  He has ample experience (and needs just eight touchdowns this year to break Jake Plummer's school record) and is deadly accurate.  He showed some of that accuracy last Thursday when he passed for three more touchdowns against UTEP-- this during a "down night" for Walter.

The ASU defense gave up over 400 yards per game last year.  Its improvement this year will probably be only modest.  The key position to watch, however, is linebacker.  Returning starters Jamar Williams and Justin Burks are being joined for the first time by a third linebacker on the field, in another formation change for ASU.  The Devils are loaded on linebacker, and Williams and Burks are among the best defenders in the Pac-10.


One thing we shouldn't expect is for the 'Cats to have an advantage by playing TCU on a Thursday and having an extra two days to rest and prepare for ASU.  The Sun Devils also played on Thursday, September 2, and they destroyed UTEP with ease, 41 to 9.  However, NU will be the first real test for ASU, and the 'Cats will already have had their jerseys dirtied in Texas.

For the second straight week NU will face a very strong offense, and the 'Cat defense-- particularly the secondary-- will be tested to its limit.  For NU to have even a remote shot at beating the Sun Devils, the NU linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties with have to improve their performances by a factor of ten over what we saw against TCU.  Otherwise, Walter will eat the 'Cats alive.

If the NU secondary can protect the middle of the field and keep their game sharp, particularly in the first half, these teams should match up very well.  Expect a close game, though maybe not as close as the Horned Frog game.  Who has an edge?  NU and ASU appear even when one looks at each team by position.  The Wildcats have an advantage at running back, offensive line and defensive line.  ASU seems to have the edge at wide receiver and defensive secondaries.  No team has a clear edge with coaching.  As for quarterback, if Basanez plays this Saturday like he did last Thursday, I'd give the edge to NU over ASU's stellar QB.  If NU gets another performance like that out of Bas, and if the 'Cats can exploit an edge on the lines, it might make the difference.

'Cats Fail to Tackle Devils
As NU Remains Winless [posted Sept. 12]

Northwestern, for the second straight game this season, refused to roll over when faced with a substantial point deficit and lost a close one, this time at home to Arizona State.  For as much fight as the 'Cats showed Saturday, NU still could not overcome below average performances by many of its squads-- particularly the lines and the defensive secondary, and fell 30 to 21 to Arizona State.

Arizona State, and particularly Devil quarterback Andrew Walter, also did not play very well; in fact, Walter started the game in poor form, connecting only on two of his first eleven throws.  However, ASU made plays when needed.  As Coach Randy Walker said after the game, "They made some big plays and those always hurt.  They made plays and we didn't."  One such play was a bizarre fake punt that the Wildcat coaches called after poor clock management took NU out of field goal range.  On fourth and thirteen, with three points removed from the available options, the 'Cats could have pinned ASU deep.  Instead they spotted the Devils a position near midfield, from which ASU eventually scored.

The NU offense had some fundamental difficulties, including a momentum-shifting fumble.  The offensive line had a terrible day overall, and Brett Basanez found himself scrambling for his life on a few occasions, and not having time even for that on other plays.  Baz took a beating, but hung in and turned in another very strong performance.  The running game also seemed to have improved from last week, and Noah Herron cracked the 100 yard mark.

However, the offense's problems were overshadowed by the breakdowns by all the units on defense.  The 'Cat defense simply could not finish-- neither a play nor a drive.  There were too many rushing plays to count during which Wildcat defenders would successfully streak to an ASU ball carrier, wrap him up, and then let him gain another five yards or let him slip away entirely. And the defense did have some terrific plays on first and second downs, only to give up vast yardage on the third down call.   NU appears to miss lineman Loren Howard as much as many fans feared it would.  Also, for the second game this year, opponents' receivers streaked to the middle of the field and were wide open.

The Wildcats can take some lessons from both games so far and build on their will-not-quit performances.  However, they need to make some significant adjustments soon, particularly on defense, or the non conference slate might be nothing more than a telling omen of what record NU can expect when it hits the Big Ten.

NU Hosts Revenge-Minded Jayhawks [posted May 16, updated Sept. 16]


Like many teams NU faces this year, Kansas expects to be better than they were last year.  However, they've lost one of their key weapons, quarterback Bill Whittemore.  Whittemore wasn't all that impressive against the Wildcats last year, but the NU game was arguably his worst game of the season.  It was Whittemore who drove the Jayhawks through the second half of the season and on to a bowl appearance.  His replacement is not decided.  Among a couple of contenders, sophomore quarterback Adam Barmann is a likely starter.  Much of Kansas' fortunes rest on how well Barmann (or whoever does end up with the starting job) steps up and leads the team.  A lot also rides on how well the junior college players Kansas recruited for last year's incoming squad have matured and integrated into Coach Mangino's system.

September update: we now know just how effective Barmann is as Whittemore's replacement.  Barmann absolutely shredded Toledo during the first half of last week's game, throwing four touchdown passes and going for 310 yards through the air.  The Jayhawks went on to hang 63 on the team that had been favored to win the MAC, and broke the Rockets' record for the most points surrendered in a half.


Back in May, I wrote that NU and Kansas match up well, and that the Wildcats have an advantage at quarterback and on both the offensive and defensive lines.  NU still has the edge on the o-line, but the defensive line has been hit hard, and the Jayhawk offense should be able to blast through NU's line at will.  Basanez still has an edge on Barmann, but the Kansas quarterback will be formidable.  If Kansas' receivers come to play, look out: the Jayhawks have the potential to run completely wild over Northwestern's secondary all day.

As of Thursday afternoon, it looked like neither Noah Herron nor Terrell Jordan (both received injuries from helmet hits in the ASU game) will start-- NU's running game could be in serious trouble.

With its ground game in tatters, its special teams coverage and tackling at an all-time low, its defensive line running on fumes, its defensive secondary recovering from two abysmal performances, and a home "crowd" that might measure in the single thousands, Northwestern will come to kickoff already in a substantial hole.  Coach Walker spoke of passion after the Sun Devil game.  Coming out of the Kansas game with a Win (and not just another oh-so-close, but still a Loss with a capital "L") is going to take passion, all right.  It's going to take passion, a real desire to win which has been absent so far, and it's going to take a team effort that is normally reserved for the biggest games on the Big Ten schedule.  That's what this game is, after all: with the non-conference slipping behind NU, and with Minnesota and Ohio State looking hungrily at the Wildcats, the Kansas game has unfortunately become the biggest game of the year for NU.  We should expect a shootout, a fight to the last man, because if NU wins this game, there is still hope for a redemption.  Not a bowl game, likely, but at least a shot towards a respectable season and a few more wins.   A loss, however, shuts the door, nails it sealed, and posts the Wildcat basketball schedule on it.

Northwestern Picks up Win in Close Game Vs. Kansas [posted Sept. 19]

Northwestern spent one half of its football game last Saturday at Ryan Field stuck in a strange quagmire with the University of Kansas, as both teams' defenses showed vulnerabilities, but neither offense could find a way to open up scoring.  As both teams emerged from the 3-3 halftime tie, the question was which team found the better set of adjustments.  The answer turned out to be the Wildcats, but just barely, as NU edged the Jayhawks 20 to 17 and avoided their second overtime game this season by a matter of a couple of feet.

The Wildcat defense showed the same areas of concern that marked its performance against TCU and Arizona State; Kansas, however, failed to exploit its opportunities and botched what could have easily been explosion plays against the 'Cats.  Even so, the Jayhawks did scorch NU in the air, notching 303 yards passing.  Surprisingly, Kansas only converted five of its 15 third downs, although those five seemed like ten, given at what points in the game they occurred.  The defense did stiffen when it counted, shutting down Kansas' final drive and batting down what would have been the winning pass for the Jayhawks.

Brett Basanez continued his series of strong performances this year, launching 192 yards in the air and a touchdown strike, and no interceptions.  Basanez showed moves reminiscent of Zak Kustok, bursting several times for big rushing gains, taking punishing hits, and immediately resuming control of the offense.  The offensive line, running backs and wideouts had hit or miss plays throughout the day-- when they hit, however, they hit spectacularly. 

After two quarters of futility, NU struck with a solid touchdown drive and a 21-yard Huffman field goal.  However, Kansas came back by dominating the ball during an exhausting twelve-play, fourteen minute possession.  After Adam Barmann's pass brought Kansas to within a field goal of NU, the 'Cats failed to convert, and Kansas scalded NU through the air again to take a four point lead.  The Wildcats, looking like the quick strike offensive power of 2000, then tore across the field to re-take the lead, using four plays to slash across 81 yards.  Kansas' last offensive drive came up short, and the Jayhawks had to depend on a 43 yard field goal try, which was wide right.  NU dodged a bullet and concluded their home and home series with Kansas undefeated.

NU Opens Big Ten at Minny [posted May 30, updated Sept. 20]


Good, but not great.  The Gophers no longer have their primary weapon, Asad Abdul-Khaliq.  His successor, Brian Cupito, seems capable, but is relatively untested (having attempted one pass in 2003).  Cupito is a small quarterback, but he'll be protected by an offensive line that will battle with Northwestern's to be the best in the Big Ten.  Minnesota's running backs stable is the best in the conference, and its wide receiver corps is above average.  Expect the Gophers to light some offensive fireworks throughout the season.

Expect Minnesota's opponents to do the same as well.  The Gophers' defense is average at best, and-- like Northwestern-- their line should be the centerpiece of their defense.  Darrell Reid will likely be the playmaker for Minnesota's D, and Reid has the potential to be All Big Ten.  Minnesota is also trying to fill its middle linebacker position, and the Gophers are short on power and experience, but strong on speed.

September update:  Minnesota didn't skip a beat with their replacement of Abdul-Khaliq.  Cupito has proven to be an exceptional quarterback and has shredded the Gophers pre-conference warmup opponents.  The Minnesota ground game has been as fantastic as we predicted back in May.  With their balanced and talented offensive, Minnesota is set to be a scoring-- and winning-- machine for the rest of the year.


An upset.  Heading into Minneapolis, NU should be more than a touchdown underdog.  The 'Cats, however, should want to avenge the ridiculous, embarrassing loss they suffered last year, and should be enraged when they kick off under the dome.  NU has a clear advantage over Minnesota with coaching, quarterback, the defensive line, and at linebacker.  The 'Cats even have a slight edge over Minnesota's offensive line.  Minnesota holds an edge only at wide receiver, running back, and special teams.  If NU's defensive line plays on all cylinders and if the Wildcat defensive backs step up, this could be a statement game for Northwestern.

September update:  NU's edge at linebacker and defensive line has suffered terribly recently due to injuries.  However, the rest of what we can expect still holds: it's up to the Wildcat defense, which held and held well when it had to against Kansas, to take this game from the Gophers.  Unlike Kansas, which couldn't take proper advantage of the 'Cats' mistakes, Minnesota will come out firing against the NU secondary.  If the defensive backs can play lights out, keep the ball in their sights, and avoid giving up more than a couple of big plays, NU could pull off the upset.

Offense, Defense Stumble;
Walker: "We were just outplayed and outcoached
by a better football team." [posted Sept. 25]

Northwestern came into Saturday night's game at the Metrodome having played nothing but close games during the 2004 season.  That trend has ended: the Wildcats were blown off the field by Minnesota 43 to 17 in a game that was 33 to 10 -- and over -- at halftime.  The game was the fifth straight loss for NU when on national television, and almost ensured that Northwestern will not participate in a bowl game this year.

NU seemed composed at the beginning, stopping Minnesota on its first drive and marching down the field to take a 3-0 lead.  It was NU's last glance at the lead, however, as the Gophers unleashed, as expected, a balanced ground and air attack, taking advantage of their superior running game and NU's weak passing defense.

The Wildcats already had a tremendous challenge, facing the 19th-ranked team in the country and one of the most potent offenses in college football.  Unfortunately, NU wasn't up for the task and suffered breakdowns in its offensive line, wide receivers, and every spot on defense.

The offense was stymied by penalties, dropped balls, evaporating pockets, and bad playcalling.  Even when they were down big, early in the game, the 'Cats did not attempt a long vertical pass.  There were attempts at screens and ticky-tack throws, but no bombs.  What did NU have to lose by chucking a few balls downfield?  Is NU simply incapable of even attempting a long pass?

Noah Herron had a good game, for the limited number of plays in which he was used.  The Sun-Times reported after the game that Herron said, "I felt [during the game] that we could do anything running the ball.  I guess they say we're rotating.  I just go with the flow."  "They" are the NU coaches, and "we" are Herron and Terrell Jordan.  "We just want to play Terrell , and that's going to be the plan all year," Walker said afterward.

As for the Wildcat defense, only one stat needs to be mentioned: the Gophers were an incredible 12 for 19 on third down conversions (the 'Cats were 3 for 13).  If NU is to be competitive and avoid catastrophe during the remainder of the conference slate, the defensive secondary must be revamped entirely.

The bright spot for NU was its special teams play.  Colby Clark blocked two point after attempts (this might be the first time in NU history that a single player has notched two blocked kicks in a game).  Brian Huffman had a good night and Joel Howells continued to kick off into the endzone.  Jeff Backes' 97-yard kickoff return in the first half was probably the highlight of the game for the 'Cats, and inspired the Minnesota fans to hurl garbage at Backes as he raced through the endzone.

NU wore its old-style black pants in the game for the first time since 2002.  Unfortunately, the similarities between this season and the 2002 season don't end with the wardrobe.  In fact, NU's record this year is worse than at this point in 2002:  NU hasn't been faced with a one and three record since 1992.

High Hopes [posted May 30, updated Sept. 28]


A better question might be, "how could they not be good?"  This team is so stocked and deep with talent that it's virtually impossible for OSU win less than nine games a year.  2004 is not an exception.  However, by OSU standards this might not be a stellar season.  The Buckeyes have a good offensive pair in quarterback Justin Zwick and running back Lydell Ross, but they aren't All-World playmakers.  The starting wide receivers are excellent and quick, but they are also young and an experienced defensive backfield could exploit some vulnerability in their routes. 

Any slight weaknesses that OSU might have to work through on offense might not matter, since the Buckeyes' defense is once again simply terrifying.  OSU's line is above average, but with some major holes.  Its secondary also has some holes, a big one coming from Chris Gamble's decision to trek to the NFL.  Still, with the Buckeyes' depth, they should be able to fill the gaps by this fall.  The linebacker spot is not only the best in the Big Ten, it is possibly the best in the country.  OSU also has lost talent here, but who cares?  They've filled it with returner A.J. Hawk, who will almost certainly take All-American, and several others who could vie for the same honor.

September update: this outlook, which posted in May, would change very little as of now.  The Buckeye offense has shown itself to be good, but not yet overwhelming, even against underwhelming competition.  That OSU defense, however, is just as formidable as advertised.  OSU could be in a tight race with Minnesota and Purdue for the conference title.


Yes, this game should be a Northwestern loss, but happily that's not guaranteed.  Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot to avoid loss number four this Saturday.  Not only will NU have to play its best football of the year so far, Ohio State will have to make mistakes-- big mistakes.  If the Buckeyes bring their "A" game to Evanston, the Wildcats do not have a chance.  This is just as much OSU's game to lose as it is NU's to win.

For NU to win, it must, absolutely must, solve whatever ailed its running game last week.  The Herron-Jordan rusher combo must be used effectively this time, or NU will fail.  Brett Basanez continues to nurse his shoulder injury from the Minnesota game.  If Baz is not at 100 percent for this game, the 'Cats could be in for a world of misery, and NU will fail.  The offensive line must deliver the performance every fan has waited for throughout this season-- they must dominate the Buckeyes, or NU will fail.  And the defense must have a game like they had against Ohio State the last time the Bucks were at Ryan Field, or NU will fail.  Special teams must execute coverage with a focus and determination unlike what we've seen so far.  They must prevent Buckeye drives from starting at mid-field, or NU will fail.  If all these things happen, and if the Wildcats pressure OSU into making mistakes, into swerving from their plan and their comfort areas, NU cannot fail.

Everyone knows that "The Ohio State Streak" is now at 33 years and counting, and everyone knows how much this game means to Northwestern fans and to NU players, past and present.  That sense of importance won't be lost on the team, which should come out firing, as it did two years ago.

OSU has an edge with its special teams, all its defensive 'backers, its quarterback, its coaching, and its wide receivers.  However, NU has a slight potential advantage at running back and-- as will be the case in many games this year-- holds the edge on both lines.  OSU has enjoyed being able to slip along with minimal offensive effort, grinding away at teams with its punishing defense.  If NU can match OSU at its own game and use the Wildcat line and Herron like a short-yardage battering ram, the Wildcats just might win the time of possession, and with it a shot at history.

Wildcats Beat Ohio State
Thirty-Three Year Streak Ends


NU Stuns Ohio State 33 - 27 in Overtime [posted Oct. 4]

In one of the most stunning upsets in college football this year, Northwestern dominated sixth-ranked Ohio State on both sides of the ball, beating the Buckeyes 33 to 27 in the very first overtime game ever played at Ryan Field.

The game's opening drive was an omen for Ohio State of what lay ahead.  The Wildcat defense, burned so many times in the first four games this season, did not allow the Buckeyes to convert on a third and long.  The OSU three-and-out was due in large part to the first snap of the game, during which Justin Zwick was sacked by Luis Castillo for a five yard loss.  Castillo, who has played admirably all season, was part of a defensive line that stoned Ohio State for most of the evening.

NU's offense then went to work.  When also faced with a third down and long, Brett Basanez connected with Ashton Aikens for a 21-yard pass and a drive-saving first down.  NU methodically moved the ball on the vaunted OSU defense.  Six plays later Brian Huffman booted a 41-yard kick, Northwestern took the lead, and the Wildcats never looked back.  Ohio State would even the score several times during the game, but the Bucks never managed to pull ahead.

OSU evened the score before the end of the first quarter.  However, NU stormed back with a ten-play touchdown drive, featuring an eight-yard run by Basanez, two nine-yard passes to Mark Philmore, and a fourteen-yard pass to Noah Herron for the score.  The following Buckeye drive was again slammed shut with a three-and-out.  Tim McGarigle, who played inspired football all night, caused a fumble on third down and forced the OSU punt.

The momentum of the game seemed to shift with the next set of drives.  NU, buoyed by three electric pass plays in a row (including a 22-yard explosion for Mark Philmore), seemed to be seconds away from going up by two touchdowns.  However, Basanez was intercepted at the Buckeye eight yard line.  The Wildcat defense, as it did for much of the night, responded, forcing OSU to punt.  NU, stymied on its resulting drive, also punted, but suffered a complete breakdown in coverage and allowed a 63-yard Buckeye touchdown return.

The 'Cats were held to three-and-out on the following drive.  The fired-up NU defense then swarmed the field and regained the momentum for NU.  After allowing a Buckeye pass that put OSU at midfield with a first down, a tied score, and just over a minute to go in the half, the NU defense could have folded.  Instead the defensive line destroyed Ohio State's protection, and John Pickens sacked Zwick and forced a fumble.  Dominique Price recovered the ball, and with it the Wildcat inertia heading toward halftime.

Electrified after the fumble recovery, NU took the ball with less than a minute to play and carried out twin twelve yard air strikes to get to field goal range.  Brian Huffman then delivered again, connecting from 40 yards as time expired.  To the delight of Wildcat fans everywhere, NU raced back to the locker room with a three point lead.

That lead grew as soon as the second half opened.  The Wildcats blazed down the field, as the NU offensive line gave Basanez considerably more time in the pocket than he's used to.  The Buckeye huge defensive line, so commanding in their previous games this season, were manhandled with authority by the 'Cats.   Basanez completed three passes in a row, then connected again with Mark Philmore for a wild scoring play that put NU ten points ahead of the team most experts predicted would run away with the conference.

NU's defensive secondary, which had been under fire so often this season, came out in the second half and denied OSU another third down conversion.  The secondary play, with few exceptions, was phenomenal during the game.

The secondary's play was also good on the next OSU possession.  Unfortunately, good wasn't quite good enough this time.  Buckeye receiver Roy Hall made one of the most spectacular catches of the year, picking up a 50-yard bomb in double (and well-done) coverage.  The 'Cat defense did everything right; the catch, however, was one in a million.  Six plays later, OSU cut the NU lead to three.

As they did for the entire game, NU did not show any letup in intensity or desire.  The 'Cats launched a thirteen-play march to the goal that seemed to destroy the Buckeyes' will.  Jonathan Fields, Shaun Herbert, and Noah Herron piled up yards as the 'Cats went eighty yards to regain their ten-point lead, 27 to 17.

After a Buckeye field goal on the next drive, NU and OSU traded interceptions, with the most critical being Jeff Backes' thrilling pick in the endzone.  The Bucks then forced a punt, landed three fantastic passes, and-- with just under two minutes left--  scored and tied the game.

For the first time in history, Dyche / Ryan hosted a game that played beyond regulation time.  NU won the toss and put its defense-- by this point exhausted, but having played some of the best football ever by the Wildcats-- on the field for one last stop.  The 'Cats delivered, taking the Buckeyes to a fourth down and forcing them to bring in Mike Nugent, their fantastic kicker.  In any other game Nugent would have responded and Ohio State would have taken its first lead of the game.  This, however, had been Northwestern's night.  NU had played with enough fire, passion, and talent to beat anyone in the country.  Somehow, it would not have been right to have that kind of all-out performance end in yet another close loss.  Nugent missed.

The Wildcats fans on hand, though outnumbered in their own stadium, went wild.  Suddenly, like an electric arc, the reality of what it was watching shot through the crowd.  Noah Herron plowed ahead for a yard on the first down.  At first it looked like NU was positioning itself for the game-winning kick by Huffman.  Then Brett Basanez became a madman, took the ball, and shot twenty-one yards to the Buckeye three-yard line.  As the fans in scarlet began slowing heading for the exits, the 'Cat fans turned Ryan Field into a screaming, surreal stage, waiting for what was now inevitable: the end of a streak that stretched a third of a century.

Noah Herron took the ball and lunged forward.  No call.  No score.  Less than one yard to go, and three plays left in which to travel it.  NU, however, only needed one more play: with the next snap, Baz shoved the ball to Noah, who unloaded his way into the endzone and at the same time into the NU history book.  The game will occupy an honored spot in that book, likely starting at page... 33.  Noah, player number 33, scored the game winner on his thirty-third carry.  NU finished the game with 33 points, one for every year that Wildcat fans had waited for this moment.


Personal Notes from the Ohio State Game [posted Oct. 4]

Last Saturday's game just might be the most exciting I've ever witnessed in person-- and not just because of the performance of the Wildcats or the game play itself.  The game was not only a night game, but a sold out one, the first fully-packed night game since the 1998 Homecoming game versus Michigan.  Unlike that game, however, which was played during a monsoon, the weather against Ohio State could not have been better for a football game.  It was, simply, the perfect environment for what would turn out to be close to the perfect game.

I'll freely admit that I didn't think it would turn out that way when I entered the stadium.  After the way the season opened, I had real doubts that this team could put a dent in Ohio State.  Thank goodness the players themselves did not doubt.  After the game one of the coaches returned from the locker room with a sign that said "Trust Yourself."  That must have been the mantra of the team prior to this match.  They showed that trust, and a lot more, in their performance.

This game was special for a variety of reasons, but a fundamental one is that for the first time in nearly a decade, we saw Northwestern put on an outstanding display at every position.  The Michigan 2000 game, until now arguably the most exciting home game in history, was thrilling to watch as a fan and it was a tremendous win, but it was an offensive display, a gun battle to see who would have the ball last.  This win over Ohio State was complete.  The offense, defense, special teams, and coaching all performed at a level that could have beaten any team in the country.

The coaching staff must be commended on their finest hour.  I've never seen a better coached game by Coach Walker and his assistants.  To a man they were prepared for this game, fired up the players like never before, and adjusted to anything the Buckeyes could even consider throwing at them.  OSU coach Jim Tressel is a tremendous coach, one of the best to head the Buckeyes.  Last Saturday Walker coached circles around him.  Walker just might be the biggest riddle in college football: when this team is down, no team can help but win against the 'Cats; when Walker's approach to a game and its players clicks, the Wildcats are a terrifying and unstoppable force. 

. . . . I don't think I've ever seen the Wildcat players so excited on the sidelines.  It was heartening to see this much energy and passion and to witness such a disciplined, focused effort.  If NU can even approach that level of drive and determination in each of the remaining games this season, a bowl game is still very possible.  That it is so is a testament to the tenacity of the this year's Wildcats. . . .

(Instant) Classics IV   [posted Oct. 6]

ESPN announced on October 5 that the Ohio State game will be an Instant Classic.  This is the fourth Northwestern Instant Classic since ESPN Classic began the program in 2000 (the others were the "Victory Right" game vs. Minny in 2000, the win over Michigan in 2000 and the last-second upending of MSU in 2001). . . .

. . . . NU has also announced that the live ESPN2 national broadcast of the OSU-Wildcat game was the network's  most-viewed college football game ever!  The game averaged 2,028,000 households and a 2.3 rating.  It was the fifth most viewed program of any kind in the history of ESPN2.


Win Against OSU Ranks #14
on HailToPurple.com Greatest Games List  [posted Dec. 5]

HailToPurple.com has ranked NU's victory against Ohio State this year #14 on its list of the greatest Wildcat games ever.  For the past four years HailToPurple.com has kept a list of the 25 greatest games in Wildcat history, updating it at the end of each season.  Games are judged based on many factors, including HailToPurple.com reader responses, buildup to the game, importance of the game (to the season and to the future of the program), the quality and excitement of NU's play, and the strength of its opponent.

It was obvious immediately after the game that the Wildcats' tremendous victory over Ohio State should be among the 25 greatest games NU has ever played, but it wasn't clear just where to rank it.  There were several questions still unanswered: how would this win affect Northwestern's season?  And just how good was Ohio State?

There were compelling reasons to rank this game near the very top of the all-time list.  First and foremost, the game shattered the unbearable thirty-three year losing streak against the Buckeyes.  The Bucks were undefeated coming into the game and ranked sixth in the nation.  Many OSU fans were seriously talking about the possibility of returning to the national championship game.  The buildup to the game was huge: NU made it a night game, it sold out and was broadcast nationally.  The game was among the most thrilling ever played at Dyche Stadium / Ryan Field, and the overtime finish was talked about across the country.  Finally, and most importantly, the game showcased some of the finest performances ever by Wildcat players.  Players at every position performed spectacularly, and the game was perhaps the finest hour for Coach Walker and his staff.

Eventually, there were a few drawbacks to ranking the game higher.  Ohio State proved to be a good team in 2004, but by no means a great one, dropping several more games as the season progressed.  And Northwestern was able to capitalize on its big win to a limited extent, capturing momentum through the middle of the season, but losing it in the final few games.  Unlike the the 2000 Michigan and 1995 Penn State games, for example, which were among featured games in title seasons, the 2004 Ohio State game did not lead to a title, or even a bowl appearance or a winning season.

Still, it was one of the most memorable moments in NU history, a wonderful example of the realized potential of a team when it comes together and plays a great game in every aspect.

For the complete HailToPurple.com list of NU's greatest games, click here.

A lot of readers wrote to discuss their opinions about where the OSU game should rank on the list.  Some also described what the win meant to them.  A couple of days after the game wildcattmatt wrote:

"It was a true family affair for me and a very emotional one as well.  My grandfather, Don Guritz, was an honorable mention All-American at NU (1936-1940); he played with Haman and Voights. I remember my first game in 1973 or '74 when NU played Oregon. I was four or five years old.  We drove to the Big House in the mid 70s when the cats started 3-2, but then got crushed by go blue 69-0. Both my parents went to NU as well as my uncle, and great grandfather for law school. I wanted to play football in college and played at Carleton in Minnesota, but my allegiance to NU has always been my great genetic curse and glory. We lost my grandfather to diabeties this summer at age 88, but we still had 3 generations in the stands on Saturday, and like the Packers-Bears game a few years ago after Walter died, I like to think my grand-dad helped push Nugent's kick just a little right to help our players realize that this was our turn to beat the Bucks. Anyway, it was a beautiful, fun, emotional, and thoroughly glorious night."

...and the following came from another reader:

"I think I'd tie Saturday night's glorious win for fourth with the win over Michigan, though that rank could change depending on how the rest of the season goes -- it's significant for finally beating the Buckeyes, but if it sparks a big season and a bowl trip, it may be more important (also to Randy Walker, who may be on the way to cementing long-term job security).

"Right now, the Notre Dame game I still think is No. 1 (I can still see Ron Powlus stumble on the two-point try). Can't argue with the Rose Bowl win or the nutty Michigan win as two and three, either.  The win over Michigan in '95 was a statement game and locked in NU's place as a national power, erasing the bad taste from the Miami loss and confirming the ND win was not a fluke.

"Saturday night's win also was a statement, providing the missing piece from the past nine-plus seasons -- we never played OSU in '95, '96 or 2000 -- and showed what this team can do when firing on all cylinders. The defense was superb -- in that way, a flashback of sorts to '95 -- and the passion and emotion perfect.

"Living in Louisville and working most weekends, I can only get to one or two 'Cats games a season. I was at the 27-16 loss to the Bucks two years ago. This season, there was no doubt which game I wanted to see -- the most risk but the best payoff.

"Not much in the way of stories from section 232; we were probably about 50-50 OSU and NU fans. One really obnoxious fan vanished soon after the winning score; most were polite and (not unexpectedly) subdued...

"I'm a Medill '78 grad, so from where NU was a quarter-century ago to this continues to be amazing...

"Now we've got to see if we can build on this win. The next three games should tell us all how good this team is."

Indiana: The Watchout Game [posted May 30, updated Oct. 5]


Um, yeah.  If "good" is relative and means improved from last year, then yes-- Indiana will be good.  If "good" means "not finishing tenth or eleventh in the conference," then no, Indiana again will not be good this fall.  This team is still undermanned and young.  Coach DiNardo is a step up from Cam Cameron, which isn't saying too much.  He has made some changes in the right direction, but the Hoosiers still have light years to travel.  Specifically, their defensive backs and linebackers are undersized and outmatched in the Big Ten.

Quarterback Matt LoVecchio and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis return from troubled outings as starters last year.  If they have improved greatly during the off season, Indiana could actually surprise some people.  If they struggle, Indiana is simply doomed.

October update: Indiana has surprised at least one team, slapping Oregon down on the road.  They have at least one more upset in them before calling it quits this year.


Here is a team that Northwestern dominates at all positions except special teams.  NU has a clear edge in coaching, all offensive positions and all defensive positions.  With the game at Ryan Field, NU should be a clear favorite.  Yet, this is the watchout game.  If ever a game had letdown and upset written all over it, here it is.  The Wildcats had better take Indiana seriously, because if they don't the Hoosiers could easily upset NU.  However, as long as NU plays at full strength and at full intensity, expect the 'Cats to tear the lid off Indiana.

October update: That last paragraph, written back in May, is even more to the point now, with NU still giddy from the titanic win against Ohio State.  The word letdown, written in neon before, is now blazing across this game in letters ten feet tall.  Indiana will be absolutely jacked coming into Ryan Field, considering first that knocking off this week's media darlings will make them media darlings, and second that the Hoosiers are looking for a special kind of revenge against NU for the close, frustrating losses the 'Cats handed them in 2002 and 2003.

Oh, but the 'Cats are ten and a half point favorites in this game?  Well, folks, so was Ohio State last week.

Again, if NU comes out flat, expect the Wildcats to spend all day putting out fires all over the field.  If NU plays even remotely like it did last Saturday however, this could get u-g-l-y -- in the good, Las Vegas, Paint the town Purple kind of way.

NU 2004: We'll Sell You the Whole Wildcat Seatback,
But You'll Only Need THE EDGE!

NU Nudges Past Indy 31-24 in Double Overtime [posted Oct. 10]

As some fans feared, NU did indeed face a letdown game after its monumental win over Ohio State last week.  However, the 'Cats were able to pull up from a nosedive and avoid what would have been an embarrassing loss to a mediocre Indiana team.  In spectacular fashion, the Wildcats came from behind with two minutes to go in regulation.  Basanez connected twice with Ashton Aikens, and NU tied the game with a dramatic kick that hit the uprights and bounded in.  The 'Cats then scorched the Hoosiers in the second overtime period to win 31 to 24.

Noah Herron drove in the game winner just as he did against the Bucks.  Herron powered his way to 196 yards and three touchdowns.  The last gasp by the Hoosiers was snuffed when Demetrius Eaton sacked IU quarterback Matt LoVecchio on the last play of the afternoon.

With the win, Northwestern's season record is even, and the Wildcats' chances for a bowl game have survived.  NU's winning 2-1 Big Ten record marks the first winning record for Northwestern in the conference since NU beat Minnesota in 2001.

Royale With Cheese [posted May 30, updated Oct. 19]


May 2004 preview:
The previewers are all over the map this summer with Wisconsin.  Some are calling the Badgers an excellent team with enough firepower to give Ohio State and Michigan a run for their money, and their title.  Others say this is a team in decline, no longer able to nurture the talent and win the big games it could just a few years ago.

Wisconsin still has enough talent and depth to beat any team in the conference on any given weekend.  The Badger ground attack, which was so prominent a few years back, will again be the focus for this team.  Anthony Davis is poised to lead Wisconsin with a rushing campaign that will garner national attention.  The Wisconsin defense is led by its line and its experienced secondary.  Sophomore quarterback John Stocco has experience in only three games, but is accurate.  The linebacker spot is also relatively inexperienced and might be the team's one weak spot.

October 2004 update:
Did I say that the linebacker spot might be the team's one weak spot?  Oops.  There are no weak spots on the Badger defense, period.  Wisconsin has looked majestic on defense so far, and their undefeated record and top six ranking are due to the solid, outstanding defensive coaching that they have exhibited.


A rough time of it in Madison.  Just as NU should be fired up when it travels earlier to Minneapolis, Wisconsin will be just as loaded when the 'Cats step into Camp Randall.  Last year's loss stung savagely for the Badgers, and they'd like nothing more than to dismantle NU surrounded by 77,000 fans in red.

The 'Cats will have to pull out all the stops for this one; another "fastball" wouldn't hurt here.  NU will also need a balanced attack, successfully passing against Wisconsin's secondary just enough to loosen up room for the Wildcat ground game to test Wisconsin's middle defense.

October 2004 update:
Well, the 'Cats weren't exactly fired up in Minneapolis, but I bet they will be in Madison.  This rivalry has not so quietly crafted itself over the last twelve years as NU's fiercest (yes, beating out games with trophies, Big Ten schedule protection and 33 year streaks).  Loren Howard returns to the team, giving the 'Cats' defense a morale booster.  This game might be a loss for NU, but the 'Cats should go down swinging.

No Slowin' the Badgers! [posted Oct. 24]

Northwestern hoped to build on its two game Big Ten winning streak and its momentum from the Buckeye game earlier this month by stunning another top ten, undefeated team.  This time it was not to be, as the top ten team was Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is for real.  The Badgers slammed shut NU's offense and lit up the Wildcat secondary en route to a 24 to 12 win in Madison.  Northwestern's offense had a rotten first half, "highlighted" by a series of dropped catchable passes.  The 'Cats' defense and special teams also had monumental problems, giving up several huge plays and suffering a blocked punt and a missed easy field goal (that, due to the UW score, eventually led to two missed two point conversions later in the game).

By the time the Wildcats regained their composure and began executing properly, it was far too late, and Wisconsin is on a level that allows for no errors whatsoever.  NU did have a good second half, and overall played a fair game, but it wasn't close to what would have been needed to stop a superior Badger squad.

There were some outstanding plays by NU, even during the dismal first half.  Marvin Ward picked off John Stocco on the Badger offense's second play, and Wildcat receiver Shaun Herbert played  well, eventually catching four balls and tallying 54 yards in the air.  However, with few exceptions it wasn't a good day for Wildcat receivers.  True, they were going up against a tremendous secondary defense, but there were far too many passes that hit receivers in the hands or numbers, only to find their way to the plastic grass.

Noah Herron continues his rushing reign of terror-- when he is allowed to, that is.  Herron ran for over 100 yards and achieved 5.7 yards per carry, but he had, as with previous games this year, "limited playing time."  Maybe someday, when the season comes to an end, we'll all understand the wisdom of occasionally sitting the player who is tearing up great chunks of yardage on one of the greatest defenses in the nation.  Until then, let's keep the faith.

Even with Herron, the offense was not productive enough to overcome the Badgers and their defensive power.  NU did notch more first downs than Wisconsin, but most of these were not at game-changing points.  The Badgers' first downs, however, were mostly back breakers.  Wisconsin went eight of fifteen for third down conversions, and those eight were critical, and most were from third and long.  NU's defensive play calling, particularly on third down, was badly wanting.  Despite the unfortunate defensive tactics and the woes within the Wildcat secondary, there were bright spots on D.  Tim McGarigle had fourteen tackles, one for loss, and flew around the field well all day.  David Thompson scored NU's lone sack.

Boilers Look to Spoil Another Homecoming [Posted May 30]


Similar to how good NU ended up being in 2000: an explosively high octane offense and a suspect defense.  Quarterback Kyle Orton is ready to light up the conference and the country after considering and rejecting the chance to bolt for the NFL after last year.  Orton has it all: accuracy, distance, and mobility.  As long as his line and receivers-- both just above Big Ten average-- play at their expected level, the Boilermakers will be scoring machines.  The defense is about average for the conference, but there are big holes to fill on the line and at linebacker.


A lot of fans talk about NU's legendary losing streak against Ohio State, but the Wildcats' recent record against Purdue has been just as disturbing.  Quietly Northwestern has amassed its second longest current losing streak against Purdue, one of its protected rivals.  At seven games and counting, ending this cold streak needs to become Big Ten priority number one for NU.  Add to this the fact that this year's Purdue game is Homecoming and the attention this will bring, and the Wildcats should have this game on in a red circle an inch thick on their calendars.

Expect a shootout, with Orton slicing up NU's backfield, and the 'Cats pounding away at the Boiler line.  Purdue has clear advantages at quarterback, wide receivers, and special teams.  However, everything else is up for grabs, and NU has an offensive line that should be able to give Basanez some extra time and give Herron room to run.  For NU there will be strong shades of the 2000 season in this game-- the big question is, which game in 2000?


Wildcat Defense, Wild Wind Stone Orton, Boiler O;
Herron Runs Amuck, Scores Game Winner in Final Minute

Northwestern upended a ranked team for the second time in October, upsetting Purdue 13 to 10 at Ryan Field.  As with the Wildcats' earlier victory over Ohio State, Saturday's win over the Boilers concludes a long losing streak-- NU last beat Purdue at Dyche Stadium in a game that sealed NU's 1996 Big Ten title.  This year's Wildcat win was the result of a tremendous effort by NU's defense and a hammer-down performance by Noah Herron. 

. . . . The game was marred by a fierce windstorm which sent passes, kicked balls, and anything not cemented six feet deep into the turf flying with abandon.  The action was also marred with occasionally flat performances by both teams.  Purdue especially seemed to have had the wind knocked out of them-- so to speak-- from their last two games, both crushing home defeats.  The Wildcat offense also sputtered occasionally, although Herron tore ahead throughout the game.  The game seesawed for much of the second half, with the teams in a sort of stalemate.  During the last five minutes, however, the lid came off, and both teams slugged at each other in an exciting finish.

Will the 'Cats Finally Find Happiness in the Valley? [posted June 3]


Well, they have to be better than they were last year, right?  They're not likely to repeat their 3-9 spectacle.  The two biggest names back from last year are quarterback Zack Mills and ... Joe Paterno.  Paterno might be past his prime, but he's still Paterno, and his sense for the game has to be respected.  He'll have this squad turned around from the doldrums of last year.  Joe has shaken up his staff, and the combination of a lot of returning starters combined with new life from the assistants during the off season might be the spark needed to get things running.

Still, there's only so much room for improvement.  How much room might rest with Mills, who didn't exactly light up the world last year (six touchdowns, five interceptions), and who must show significant strides this fall. 


There are some real similarities between NU and Penn State coming into 2004-- both lost talent at wide receiver and will be anxious to see how this position turns out; both have an experienced quarterback who had a slump in 2003 and has high expectations for a rebound; both have a lot of new faces on their football staffs. 

However, NU has something that Penn State and Uncle Joe don't have right now: momentum.  The 'Cats are coming off a pleasantly surprising season and are in a position to build with confidence mixed with healthy caution.  Penn State has an air around it that smells a little like desperation.  In addition to questions surrounding their wide receiver corps, the Lions also have vulnerabilities with their offensive line, linebackers and special teams.  By this time in the season, if things have gone well for Northwestern (wins where expected, few injuries) then the Wildcats should be in great shape to take their very first win in Happy Valley.

Happy Valley at Last
NU Barges Past Penn St. 14-7; Wildcats Earn Win #5 [posted Nov. 11]

In a season that has seen nearly as many streaks of futility broken as were witnessed in 1995, the Wildcats achieved another milestone last Saturday: they won in Beaver Stadium for the first time ever.  NU "upset" Penn State, inexplicably a four-point favorite, 14 to 7 in a game that lived up to its billing as a defensive battle.

Noah Herron added 176 yards to his ground campaign this season, and averaged 5.8 ypc.  As they did against Purdue the week before, Herron and Terrell Jordan each ran for a touchdown, with Herron's proving the game winner. 

NU edged Penn State in nearly every facet of the game, leading on the ground and in the air.  Brett Basanez put up 205 yards passing.  The Lions, however, won the time of possession.  And NU coughed up the ball three times, but PSU failed to capitalize on the opportunities.

The Wildcat defense, facing a struggling Penn State offense, did not let down.  Dominique Price intercepted Penn St. on its very first offensive snap.  Nick Roach and Colby Clark each notched sacks against Lion quarterback Zack Mills (and the Associated Press also credited David Thompson with a sack, although he is not given credit in the official stats).  Tim McGarigle dominated the field, turning in twelve tackles.

The win is the fifth for NU this season; the Wildcats' magic number for bowl eligibility is two. . . .

NU Returns to Ann Arbor After Five Year Absence [posted June 27, updated Nov. 11]


As with Ohio State, Michigan is a team whose mediocre seasons still put it in the top three teams in the conference.  The Wolverines have an arsenal of talent to replace along their lines, at quarterback and at running back.  They will look and play significantly differently from the Rose Bowl team of last year.  However, they have enough vets left, with remarkably good younger players, to put together another title team.

Avant, the man with the golden arm versus NU last year, is back to take his place among a stellar wide receiver group.  If whoever steps up to take the Michigan quarterback spot (and right now that position is up for grabs) does even an average job at getting the ball where it should be on the field, the Wolverine receivers should be capable of ripping defenses to ribbons. 

The Michigan defense will again feature an NFL-caliber backfield, but a slightly softer line.

November Update: True freshman quarterback Henne has done better than "an average job," going over 2,000 yard for the season as of last week.  Michigan's passing assault has not let up.  Let's not even mention their ground attack, nor their 1,100-plus yard rusher.  No, let's just leave this whole disturbing topic in peace...


At the beginning of the season I thought this game, along with the TCU match, were the two games closest to an "instant lose" for NU.  With Michigan showing occasional vulnerabilities, however (replay that triple overtime win against Michigan State.  How many times could the Spartans have nailed that one shut, only to let it slide?), and NU having won four of its last five, hope has kindled for Northwestern.

On paper the game actually doesn't look too bad: Michigan has a clear advantage at defensive back and wide receiver; neither team has a significant edge at linebacker, quarterback, offensive line, defensive line, or special teams; and Northwestern might have the upper hand at running back.  However, given the home field advantage and considering how late the game is in the season (which clearly favors Michigan's nearly endless depth and ability to absorb injuries during the year), the advantages and tools the Wolverines possess probably will be just too much for the 'Cats. 

'Cats Hang with Wolverines in First Half,
Michigan Goes into Overdrive in Second
Michigan 42, NU 20 [posted Nov. 13]

Northwestern, powered by a fantastic performance by Noah Herron and a spirited initial effort by its defense, took an early lead in Ann Arbor, shut down the Wolverine "balanced attack," and trailed Michigan by just one point at halftime.  But Michigan made the requisite halftime adjustments and NU went into a shell, as the Wolverines went on to pound NU 42 to 20.

Herron had 156 yards for the day, five more than Michigan's freshman star rusher, Michael Hart.  Herron  also scored on a breakaway run early in the third quarter-- one of only a handful of standout plays by the 'Cats in the second half.  Brett Basanez also tallied more yards than his Maize and Blue counterpart, throwing for 211 yards and one touchdown.  The 'Cats felt the loss of wideout Mark Philmore, though.  There were several bobbled and dropped passes throughout the day.

The NU defense looked good early, playing up to its competition and offering terrific coverage and a withering assault on Michigan QB Chad Henne-- the 'Cats sacked Henne three times.  But the Wolverines came out of the locker room for the second half and showed just why they are a top-ten team, torching the Wildcat defense-- particularly its safeties-- and scoring touchdowns on their next five possessions in a row.  While NU was stymied by poor tackling and a few holes in their coverage, Michigan just had too many weapons to handle.

NU Defends Sweet Sioux [posted June 27, updated Nov. 18]


June 2004 preview: Illinois was as bad as Indiana last year, but should see more improvement in 2004 than the Hoosiers will.  Illinois suffered several key injuries last year that worsened an already bad year.  If the Illini manage to head into 2004 at full strength, they could press into the middle of the conference.  Quarterback Jon Beutjer is back for what seems like his thirteenth season, and many are starting to wonder if his AARP benefits violate NCAA rules.  If Beutjer has a good season it could be enough to fire up Illinois and drive a couple of wins.  If Beutjer puts this into the toilet, so goes the Illini season (and Mr. Turner).

The other key to Illinois' season will be its ground defense, which was tremendously bad last year. Turner has a new coordinator to try to bring life to this weak unit, but that might be a year away.

November 2004 update: Illinois has lost some games in very close calls, but let's face it: the Illini are not a good team, period.


Illinois is brutal this year, but this game is NEVER a given.  The Illini would like nothing more than to do what they failed to do last year: take a Wildcat team on the cusp of bowl eligibility and send them home for Christmas.  Add to this motivation the fact that this game will likely be Ron Turner's last on the Illini sideline, and you end up with a very, very fired up Illinois team.  If NU comes onto the field even a little overconfident, the Illini will beat it out of them.

NU Edges Illinois in Another OT!
Can Your Heart Take More??? [posted Nov. 20]

NU Sets NCAA Record for Overtime Games in One Year;
Wildcats Now Guaranteed Agasinst Losing Season

Northwestern survived a somewhat sloppy, penalty-plagued slugfest with its state rival, and watched its bowl hopes survive as well, as the 'Cats beat Illinois in overtime, 28 to 21 at Ryan Field.  The Illini threw everything they had at the Wildcats, but NU held on, powered by another solid performance by Noah Herron.  Herron only had 20 carries, but powered his way for nearly 100 yards and two touchdowns.

Instrumental to the Wildcat win was a 73-yard punt return for touchdown by Jeff Backes that tied the score late in the fourth quarter.  Just after Backes' run, Illinois returned the kickoff deep into NU territory and drove to the ten yard line.  With just nine seconds to go, the Illini lined up to kick the game-winning field goal, a 31-yard chipshot.  Illinois' freshman kicker sent the ball sailing wide left, and sent the game into overtime, to the heart-stopping shock and relief of 'Cat fans everywhere.  Jonathan Fields caught Brett Basanez's seven-yard touchdown pass in overtime to seal the game for the Wildcats.

The game set an NCAA record for the number of overtime games by a team in one year.  NU had lost to TCU in the season opener in overtime, but beat Ohio State and Indiana in OT.  The win also secured the Sweet Sioux trophy for NU for the second year straight, gave NU a perfect Big Ten home game record, and ensured that NU cannot have a losing season this year.

'Cats Say 'Aloha' (Hello or Goodbye??) to Bowl this Saturday [posted June 27, updated Nov. 23]


June preview: Hawaii's offense last year was spectacular, and there is no reason to think that it won't be so this fall.  The Warriors' returning quarterback is set to break the NCAA record for career passing yards.  He is inconsistent, but when he is "on," he lights up the field.  Hawaii's wide receivers are top-notch.  Its ground game is thin, but with the passing attack moving at full speed, no one cares about rushing.  Still, the running back talent that returns is experienced and should be able to give the air attack needed balance.  Hawaii should be an offensive powerhouse.

The Warriors' defense was troubled throughout 2003, and suffered the same problems that NU faced from 2000 through 2002: with a high-octane, rapid-fire offense that scored (or went out) quickly, the defense was on the field constantly and wore down quickly.  This year nearly all starters return, and they all have the "trial by fire" experience that helped NU's defense so much in 2003.

November update:  Timmy Chang did, indeed, break the collegiate passing record-- and the NCAA interception record.  Chang has been inconsistent, but he has ample experience.  If he (and his talented receiver corps) has a good night, NU's offense had better be ready to match him stride for stride.

The Warrior defense has at times been downright awful, and they don't match up well with the Wildcat ground game.


NU seems-- as it did with many teams this fall-- to have the edge on both sides of the line.  The Wildcats should also have an advantage with defensive backs, special teams, and running back.  Which quarterback, however, will be hot?  If Brett Basanez has a good night, the 'Cats could break this open, since that would free up Herron to run amuck and give NU a critical time of possession advantage.  Possession will be particularly important in this game, as will forcing Chang to make a few more turnovers.  If Chang rolls and is able to establish a medium-range passing game, this could be NU's bowl.  Prediction: this will be NU's bowl, but it won't be this team's last bowl-- the 'Cats should win yet another close one and seal their trip to Nashville.

Hawaii Hangs 49 on 'Cats;
NU Season Ends [posted Nov. 28]

Northwestern came into Aloha Stadium needing one win for bowl eligibility.  Instead, it got a loss in a dogfight as Hawaii outplayed NU to a 49 to 41 last-minute finish.  The Wildcats had a sloppy start, having to kick off three times because of penalties to start the game.  However, they soon found a groove and built a 20 to 7 lead over Hawaii.

From there it was all Warriors-- Hawaii came back to take a lead with only a couple of minutes left in the first half, then extended its lead to eight with seconds to go before halftime.  NU never recovered; the Wildcat defense simply collapsed, and NU's special teams' coverage was as bad as it's ever been.  NU's tragicomic failure to stop Chad Owens'  76-yard punt return, even after Wildcat defenders did everything but give him a full physical exam on the field, will provide a "highlight" clip for TV sports shows for at least a week.

The Wildcat offense put up a valiant effort, but came up short in the last two minutes, as Hawaii intercepted NU's last gasp.  Replays showed the interception hit the ground, but with no instant replay the play ended NU's season.  Shockingly, Hawaii coach June Jones argued with the refs after the game, while Coach Walker strode onto the field to shake hands.  Walker, left by himself at midfield, eventually walked away.  For a coach who had just won, and won thanks in part to some very questionable officiating calls, Jones showed a remarkable lack of class.

Even without the penalties (13 for Northwestern, some earned, some not, and totaling 116 yards lost), NU would have lost this game, primarily due to the defense's complete breakdown from the middle of the second quarter on, the offensive line's timid play, the punt coverage, and an apparent lack of focus.

The loss finally ends NU's long-enduring bowl hopes and relegates 2004 to a .500 season, the fifth non-winning season in the last six.