2005 Season
Review Page


The Wildcats in 2005 continued to be a team focused entirely on offense, and it paid dividends.  NU averaged over 32 points a game, powered by senior quarterback Brett Basanez, All-American offensive lineman Zach Strief, and freshman running back Tyrell Sutton.  While the defense and special teams continued to struggle, the team still won seven games-- its third straight season with six or more wins, and its third bowl season under Coach Walker.

NU dropped its Big Ten opener with eventual champ Penn State in heartbreaking fashion and sported a 2-2 record.  The 'Cats then ripped off three stunning conference wins, over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State.  All three games featured explosive offensive performances, and NU achieved a national ranking for the first time since 2001.  After the 'Cats lost their marquee game of the year (a sold-out night game with Michigan at Ryan Field), they staged a stunning comeback against Iowa and secured a winning season.  After defeating Illinois, NU tied for third place in the Big Ten and earned an invitation to play in the Sun Bowl.  Although NU lost its fifth straight bowl game, the season was a success and the bowl helped strengthen NU's future postseason hopes (especially considering that the Sun Bowl sold out and NU fans snatched up over 8,000 tickets).

What follows are excerpts from some of the comments posted on this site during the course of the 2005 season.

Nine Wildcats Join NFL in 2005;
Castillo Taken in First Round [posted May 1]

Nine Northwestern football players signed NFL contracts in 2005.  Three were drafted and six made free agent deals with the league.

The San Diego Chargers drafted Luis Castillo in the first round of this year's NFL draft.  Castillo was the 28th overall pick, and is the eighth Wildcat ever picked in the first round, the second 'Cat during the Randy Walker era.

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
  • Luis Castillo, 2005, Chargers
Wildcat tackle Trai Essex was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round, and the Steelers also drafted running back Noah Herron in the seventh round. 

The six new NFL free agents from NU are: defensive tackle Colby Clark (to the Rams), guard Ike Ndukwe (Saints), linebacker John Pickens (Jets), safety Dominique Price (Cowboys), guard Matt Ulrich (Colts),  and cornerback Marvin Ward (Bills).

Sports Publications Offer Their
Preseason Predictions and Previews
[posted May 31 & updated during the summer]

As summer continues, we can expect the rest of the annual college football magazines to appear at newsstands, offering their picks and predictions.  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.  This year, the Big Ten announced that Michigan is the frontrunner, followed by Ohio State and Purdue.

Typically, the print prognosticators do not favor NU.  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 did buck 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.

During the 2003 and 2004 preseasons, almost all of the magazines picked NU to finish ninth in the conference.  Of the 2004 previews, the most accurate was by NationalChamps.net, which picked NU to finish eighth in the conference (NU, of course, finished fourth, but with a .500 record that eliminated them from the postseason).  Phil Steele uncharacteristically blundered, putting NU ninth in the Big Ten.  However, his pick was not the worst of 2004.  No, the worst picks go to Fox Sports (which predicted that NU would finish 3-8, even though the 'Cats were slated to play 12 games!) and to Street & Smith's (which put NU in tenth in the Big Ten, behind Illinois).

Here is a recap of what the larger 'Net and print publications have predicted for NU in 2005.

The 2005 Wildcat Predictions:
  • The Sporting News is out of the gate first this year, releasing their magazine in late May.  Of course, it's easy to rush out a magazine of predictions when you cut & paste most of your picks from last year.  And, like last year, TSN predicts NU will finish ninth in the conference, going 3-5, and 5-6 overall.
  • The second magazine out this spring is Lindy's, and they also pick NU ninth in the Big Ten, and they also had picked NU ninth last year.  Can't any of these companies make a risky pick, either high or low?  Lindy's drops NU to 62nd in its national rankings, from 57th in 2004.  They cite the graduation losses to both lines.
  • So Lindy's has tabbed NU to finish ninth in the conference and 62nd nationally?  Guess what Athlon predicts.  That's right!  Ninth in the conference and 62nd nationally!  Quelle suprise!  Athlon predicts the 'Cats will win anywhere from one game (Ohio) to five.
  • Prediction guru Phil Steele has NU down this year, in tenth place, ahead of just Indiana.  Again, graduation losses top the list of concerns.
  • It may have given NU its lowest pick last year, but Street & Smith's offers one of the highest picks for NU for '05.  It has tabbed NU eighth in the conference, ahead of Illinois, Indiana, and-- drum roll, please-- Wisconsin!  S&S offers the most praise for starting linebacker Tim McGarigle, who it believes is poised for a landmark season.
  • Betting mag Gold Sheet follows the herd this fall, placing NU ninth in the Big Ten.
  • Webmaster James Howell calculates weekly "Power Rankings" during the season.  His 2005 pre-season power ratings have NU in 64th place nationally, and eighth place in the conference, ahead of Penn State (69th), Illinois (90th) and Indiana (97th).  NU is ranked below two of its non-conference opponents (Arizona State is 23rd and NIU is 49th), but is above Ohio University (103rd).
  • NationalChamps.net puts NU at seventh in the Big Ten, the highest prediction for the 'Cats so far.  NU is ranked ahead of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State, and just behind Penn State.  NC calls Basanez the Big Ten's "best unsung hero" and praises the wide receivers, LoHo, McGarigle, and Cofield.  It lists defensive secondary, kicking and--strangely-- quarterback depth as concerns.
  • Coming out just before CollegeFootballNews.com's NU preview, parent company Fox Sports has picked NU ninth in the conference and 53rd nationally.  Fox points out the receiving and linebacker corps as the team's strengths.
  • ...and on the heels of Fox's preview, CollegeFootballNews.com released its full preview for NU.  CFN also has NU in ninth place in the Big Ten, tied with Illinois and above only Indiana.  CFN, in addition to the ninth place prediction for the 'Cats in conference play, predicts that NU will finish the season 4-7, winning four of its first five games, before sliding through the rest of the slate.  CFN is the first mainstream media source to recognize the loss of Jeff Backes and Trevor Rees in its assessment of the 'Cats: "...To say the loss of these two returning starters is a big time dagger to the Wildcats' hope for another bowl game this season is quite an understatement."  However, CFN does admit the possibility that the 'Cats will still manage to string together a winning season and land another bowl game.
  • CBS follows the pack, with a 9th place pick.
  • The annual Sports Illustrated college preview issue also places NU ninth in the Big Ten, and 55th overall.  If there's any consolation to that pick, it's seeing NU in print directly over Nebraska, which takes S.I.'s 56th spot.  As with most of the other print sources, S.I. highlights McGarigle and his expected contributions.
[Ed. note: Each year's Season Review Page includes the preseason predictions.  The most accurate 2005 prediction turned out to be from NationalChamps.net.  NationalChamps.net has now beaten the other preseason predictions two years straight!  The dog this year was... drumroll... Phil Steele, who missed NU's third-place finish in the Big Ten by SEVEN spots.]

Loren Howard Leaves NU;
'Cats To Scrimmage Saturday [posted Aug. 14]

Wearing a yellow, "no practice" jersey, NU star defensive lineman Loren Howard remained on the sidelines at Camp Kenosha this week, and it is now clear that Howard will never again take the field as a Wildcat.  Northwestern announced over the weekend that Howard will undergo knee surgery.

After leaving Saturday's practice session at UW - Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Loren announced that he plans to enroll at Arizona State.  "I would like to become a Sun Devil," the Arizona East Valley Tribune quoted Howard as saying.

Loren Howard is one of a string of losses and personnel setbacks the 'Cats have suffered since the end of spring practice.  Among the other hits the team has weathered:
  • Starting cornerback Jeff Backes: Backes' football career was ended by a persistent injury.  Having already graduated from NU, Backes decided to enroll in Northwestern's Medical School for the coming year.  Not surprisingly, Jeff was a three-time Academic All-Big Ten, and was named Academic All-America last year.  Backes holds the Wildcat all-time career record for kickoff return average yards (26.5)
  • Starting center Trevor Rees: Rees is out for the season.
  • Possible starting running back Terrell Jordan: a hamstring injury has taken Jordan out of the lineup indefinitely.
  • Starting receiver Brandon Horn: Horn, a senior, is out for the entire season. 
  • Backup cornerback Cory Dious: Dious has been suspended for the first game.
  • Starting linebacker Nick Roach: A hernia could keep Roach out at least for the first game.
The 'Cats seem to have suffered an unusual attrition this summer, with up to five starters who will not make it to the field this year.  NU has the depth to fill their spots, but just barely: there isn't a whole lot left in the well for the balance of the season.  The 'Cats will have to enjoy a big turnaround soon in their luck with injuries, suspensions and departures, or the second half of this season will be very, very long.

Some fans might get their first sneak preview of the players who will make it to the field when the 'Cats play their scrimmage this Saturday at Carthage College.  NUSports.com has directions to Carthage, which is just a few miles away from Camp Kenosha's usual grounds at UW - Parkside.

Initial reports from Kenosha have mentioned that senior quarterback Brett Basanez is in command and that backup quarterback C.J. Bachér looks very good.  Also making standout plays so far are apparent starting running back Brandon Roberson and wide receiver Mark Philmore.

Court Orders Settlement in Wheeler Case [posted Aug. 15]

From Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, and CBS sources:

Cook County Circuit Judge Kathy Flanagan today approved a $16 million settlement offered by Northwestern University in the legal case stemming from the death of Wildcat Rashidi Wheeler in 2001.

The settlement comes against the wishes of Wheeler's mother, Linda Will, who sought a jury trial in the case.  However, Flanagan ruled that since Will is not the only plaintiff in the case, the needs of the other family members should not be left out of the decision to settle.  According to the AP, NU spokesman Alan Cubbage said that Northwestern agreed to the settlement to end the legal battle, but that "Northwestern continues to believe strongly that Mr. Wheeler's death was caused by supplements containing ephedra that he took on the day of his death."

Northwestern was not found at fault in Wheeler's death.

Will wanted the school to fire the coaches, provide counseling to Wheeler's teammates and erect a memorial in his name.  Flanagan sited that it is "undeniable that much of the relief sought by Mrs. Will could never be awarded to her on the estate by any jury, since requests for memorials, counseling expenses for non-party players and witnesses, etc., are not allowable as damages under Illinois law."  Flanagan added, directly to Will, "And what I have been able to glean from this four years of watching you and observing you and observing what has gone on in this case, it is my considered opinion that your wishes and desires for the direction of this case and the ultimate result achieved are unreasonable, they are unworkable and they are unattainable. That's the end."

'Cats Scrimmage at Carthage;
Kenosha Finishes Early [posted Aug. 21]

Northwestern held its annual pre-season scrimmage last Saturday at Carthage College, climaxing Camp Kenosha XIV.  The practice, although showcasing the effective ground offense provided by Brandon Roberson and Tyrell Sutton, was overshadowed by the news that Wildcat starting safety Bryan Heinz has been lost for the season.

Heinz apparently suffered an ACL injury earlier last week.  He joins Jeff Backes, Terrell Jordan, Trevor Rees, Brandon Horn, and Loren Howard among the starters expected to return who-- since spring practice-- have either left the team or are out for the year.  Heinz's absence leaves no returning starters in the NU defensive backfield, and it also leaves only six returning starters on the team, the fewest among Big Ten schools.

Roberson ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's scrimmage.  Returning quarterback Brett Basanez also had a big day, throwing for 141 yards and two touchdowns and running for 24 additional yards.  Walker was quoted after the scrimmage as saying, "Brett Basanez is everything I thought he was going to be.  I thing he is going to be a special player."

There were reports from the scrimmage that the revamped offensive line, consisting of Zach Strief, Ryan Keenan, Austin Matthews, Joe Tripodi, and Dylan Thiry, played well, and that Strief appears to be at top form.

The defense was riddled with holes during the scrimmage due to minor injuries.  "The defense is a little depleted," Walker said. "We need to get our front-line guys back, and our first line of linebackers healthy. I think they should be back rolling next week but we missed them in there today."

In an unexpected move, Coach Walker called Camp Kenosha to a halt two days before it was scheduled to end, moving Monday and Tuesday's practices to Evanston.

'Cats Host Ohio To Open Season [posted Mar. 20; updated Aug. 14]


Ohio has recently struggled to stay out of the MAC's cellar.  The are light on material right now, but with former Nebraska coach Frank Solich taking the program over during the off season, things are certain to turn around, even if Solich doesn't start with the players he needs.

This is not to imply that the Bobcats couldn't come out of the gate firing, and winning.  Last year Ohio trounced Kentucky and waxed Buffalo; then again, winless and hapless UCF took the Bobcats to overtime.  Yecch.  Solich will certainly have made some improvements, if only in morale.  And Solich does have a few really good players in 2005, including wide receiver Scott Mayle, who boasts almost 21 yards per carry.  Defensive backs Dion Byrum and T.J. Wright are top tier as well.  Sophomore running back Kalvin McRae could have a big season as well.  And Ohio is loaded at linebacker.

What about the Bobcats' quarterback?  This is a big question, since Solich is typically an option oriented coach.  Will starting junior starting quarterback Austen Everson take to the option?  Will he remain the starter?  Will Ohio switch to an option offense at all?


One thing is certain: many fans at Ryan Field for this game won't be wearing green or purple.  They'll be wearing red.

An army of current and former Nebraska fans have taken their Frank Solich fan club and bandwagon east.  They are new fans of the Bobcats, even though many have never set foot in the state of Ohio.  Expect a lot of 'Huskers to invade Evanston, and the likelihood that they'll be rooting for the Wildcats is about the same as it would have been for them to root for the 'Cats in the Alamo Bowl in 2000-- nil.  These people are fanatical about Solich, and they've transferred their unhealthy adoration onto The (Other) Ohio State University.  Well, if you wanted to see these 'Huskers cry in their beer in 2000 but were disappointed, you'll soon be able to exact some small measure of revenge.

For all of NU's losses to its lines, both due to graduation and to off-season attrition, the 'Cats still have more returning experience than Ohio.  The Bobcats have only one returning defensive lineman and only two returners on O-line.  The 'Cats should have the edge on both sides.

Basanez is entering his fourth year as the 'Cats' signal caller, and he is in complete command of Walker's system.  NU sports a decisive advantage at quarterback.  A very important matchup in the game could be NU's well-stocked and talented receiver corps against Ohio impressive corners.  If the 'Cats can open up its air attack, the game should be in hand early.

The game will be a good one for Walker to take out some frustrations on his Alamo Bowl opponent.  This won't be a feel-good reunion.

'Cats Shell Ohio 38-14;
Ryan Field Winning Streak: Six Games and Counting
[posted Sept. 5]

Northwestern opened its 2005 football campaign by easily handling the Ohio Bobcats at Ryan Field, spoiling Frank Solich's debut as Ohio coach.  The 'Cats, en route to a 38-14 win, exploded for 28 points in the second quarter.

Engineering the second quarter spectacle was quarterback Brett Basanez, who connected twice with Shaun Herbert for touchdown passes.   Basanez also ran for a TD late in the quarter.  For the day Baz tallied 353 yards through the air-- leaving him just 177 yards short of the Northwestern career passing record.  Coaches Walker and Dunbar wisely pulled Basanez very early in the fourth quarter, giving backup C.J. Bachér valuable field time.

Basanez looked poised and worked efficiently, especially after having a few drives under his belt.  However, Basanez himself thought his performance could stand improvement: "Personally, I don't feel like I had a good game.  I missed my targets at times . . . I have to get better next week, but it's good that we were able to come out with a win."

Basanez's highest-value target for the day, Herbert, notched seven catches for 93 yards.  The receiving crew was as good as advertised, and also delivered some impressive blocking.  Kim Thompson made five catches for 99 yards in an outstanding effort, and freshman running back Tyrell Sutton even caught two passes for 23 yards.

Sutton also ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns.  While Sutton's rushing yardage doesn't break a record (the most rushing yards gained in the first game of a player's career is 192, set by Bill Swingle in 1961), Sutton did tie the record for touchdowns by a freshman.  The last time a freshman scored two TDs was when Damien Anderson found the end zone twice against UNLV in 1998.

The Wildcat defense showed some aspects that need to improve before the team faces NIU, but overall the defense played a good game.  One of the great frustrations with NU's defense during the last couple of seasons has been its tendency to give up the third down conversion.  Against Ohio, however, the 'Cat defense stopped them nine times on nine third downs, an outstanding effort.  Tim McGarigle had nine tackles, Marquice Cole had eight tackles, Adam Kadela notched a sack, Frederic Tarver had an interception, and Barry Cofield recovered a fumble by Ohio quarterback Austen Everson.

THE Illinois Showdown [posted Mar. 20; updated Sept. 6]


NIU may have lost to Michigan last Saturday, but so likely would have 110 other Division I-A teams.  The Huskies are solid, and will be motivated this Saturday at Ryan Field like few teams we've recently seen.  Their main weapon will be running back Garrett Wolfe, who rushed for 148 yards against the Wolverines and scored one touchdown.  If NIU can open a decent passing attack against the 'Cats, it should stretch the defense enough to allow Wolfe access to large chunks of 'Catland. 

However, opening such an attack will be a tall order for NIU quarterback Phil Horvath.  Horvath did notch 200 yards against Michigan, but he failed to find the end zone and he suffered one interception.  If the NU line can pressure Horvath and the secondary can step up their coverage, NIU's attack will fail.

The Huskie defense should have its hands full with AirBaz and Company.  Michigan was able to convert 11 of 17 third downs against NIU; if Sutton can put in a similar performance this Saturday to what he showed against Ohio, the 'Cat offense will be robust enough to roll up similar third down efficiency, and should keep the 'Cat defense in their seats for a while.


We can expect, simply and arguably, the most important game of the year for Northwestern.  This is the ultimate turf battle, a fight for Chicagoland media, attention and recruiting.  NIU is a program on the rise.  The Huskies are building tremendous new football facilities, they are coming off a bowl game, and they've recently displaced the Illini on WSCR 670-AM in Chicago.  A win by NIU over Northwestern would seal the deal for them and announce formally that they have arrived as Chicago's team, and since no further game with Northwestern is on the schedule, the Huskies would enjoy bragging rights for some time to come.  A Wildcat victory, however, nips that in the bud.  An NU win over Northern would demand Chicago media attention, however grudging the Huskie and Domer-lovers of the Chicago press would be in giving it.  The win would also bring national respect that the win over Ohio could not, and it would focus all eyes on NU's game at Arizona State the next week.  Given who will be at Ryan Field this Saturday (i.e., swarms of high school players), no game will be more important for local recruiting.  None.

Let's not forget the historical importance of this rivalry, either.  When NU suffered its record-setting losing streak, it was a win over NIU that ended it.  A win over NIU also ended the "mini-streak" of 1988-1990.  NU has never lost to the Huskies.  It would be unfortunate indeed to do so now.

The pressure is most definitely on.  If NU wins just one more game this year, it must be this one.  If NU loses just one game at all this year, it cannot be this one.

Not only is the pressure on, so is the challenge.  This should be a war between nearly perfectly-matched teams.  NIU and NU have virtually the same offensive and defensive talent levels, though NIU enjoys a little more depth.  Expect this one to go to the wire, and as such, expect the 'Cats to squeeze out this very important win in as close a fashion as possible.

'Cats Survive NIU 38-37;
Basanez Gains 220 Yards, Breaks NU Career Passing
and Total Offense Yards Records;

Sutton Runs for 4 TDs, 214 Yards
in a Spectacular Performance;

Ryan Field Winning Streak: Seven Games and Counting
[posted Sept. 11]

Northwestern got its much-needed win over the Northern Illinois Huskies in about as dramatic fashion as possible, watching a double-digit lead erode and NIU score what looked to be the tying score with just over eight seconds to play.  Rather than kick the point after to tie, however, NIU coach Joe Novak went for two.  The attempt failed when the intended Huskie receiver slipped, and the Wildcats emerged with a wild win, their seventh straight victory at Ryan Field.

Northwestern was able to stay in the shootout thanks to a spectacular performance by freshman running back Tyrell Sutton.  Sutton broke the NU record for freshman scoring in a game by notching four TDs, which ties the school rushing touchdown record as well.  In doing so Sutton rolled up 214 rushing yards, and he is now averaging 6.8 yards per carry.  Sutton's spin move baffled the Huskie defense, and much of Sutton's output came after first contact.  He has 682 yards to go to become the latest 1,000-yard rusher under Coach Walker.

Quarterback Brett Basanez also had a productive day, with 220 passing yards-- more than he needed to break the Northwestern career records for total offense, passing yards, and passing completions

ASU cruises to easy 52-21 win.
'Cats have no defense for 'Devils. [posted Sept. 18]

Northwestern jumped out to a 7-0 lead over 18th ranked Arizona State last Saturday, but ASU stormed back and quickly flattened NU, rolling over the 'Cats in a 52-21 rout at Sun Devil Stadium.

Most fans were unable to enjoy NU's brief lead: the road game was not televised, and WGN's Internet Webcast was defective until late in the first quarter.  By then the Sun Devil offense was beginning to get to work, and would eventually rack up a school-record 773 yards of offense.  ASU piled up 532 offensive yards in just the first half, averaging a mind-boggling 12 yards per play!  The Wildcat defense had no means with which they could have slowed down the 'Devils, much less stop them.  This was particularly evident in the fatal second quarter, during which ASU loaded 31 points onto the scoreboard and effectively ended any chance the 'Cats might have had.

The 773 yards allowed by the Wildcat defense is also an NU record, surpassing the defense-free spectacles of the early 1980s.

While the Wildcat defense was grossly mismatched, the NU offense also faced serious challenges.  Mysteriously, NU chose to limit its effective running game early; running back Tyrell Sutton had relatively few carries, though he was productive as usual when he had the ball.  Sutton finished just two yards shy of having a third straight 100-yard game.  Without a ground-heavy attack, NU lost the battle for time of possession and left its defense to be sacrificed on the field.  Brett Basanez had a solid game, passing for 224 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to overcome the production by the ASU offense and the lost battle for possession time.  What is really telling was the difference between the teams' aerial production: NU and ASU completed virtually the same number of passes-- NU went 25 for 38, for a total of 236 passing yards, while ASU went 27 for 39.  However, Arizona State's 27 completions gained 483 yards, slicing deep into the Wildcat secondary.

By the last few minutes of the third quarter, Northwestern had raised the white flag and rested Basanez and many of its other starters.  After the game, Coach Walker remarked that NU "got what it deserved," and bluntly criticized himself and the team, mentioning that the 'Cats had a terrible week of practices leading into the ASU game, and apparently suffered a meltdown in Tuesday's practice, from which they never recovered.

Hopefully the team can recover from Saturday's meltdown and regroup for the Big Ten season.

PENN STATE EDGES 'CATS 34-29 [posted Sept. 27]

For a game that seemed to come down to nearly a dozen separate plays, any of which could have decided its outcome, one stood out in last Saturday’s 34 to 29 loss to undefeated Penn State.  With under two minutes to go, Northwestern had the Nittany Lions checked inside their own territory.  Penn State faced with a rough fourth down and 15 yards to go.  When the Wildcats brought the house, putting rare pressure on Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, and Robinson still managed to fire a perfect pass, just enough for a first down, NU’s fate was sealed.  What had been a game that NU led 23-7 became a gut-wrenching loss for Northwestern. 

Suffice it to say that the Wildcat defense did not have the best day ever at Ryan Field.  There's no need to pick apart a performance that has been analyzed to death this past week, and it does no good to hammer on the obvious: that the defensive secondary, the pass rush, the special teams return coverage, and offensive playcalling all had moments that eventually doomed Northwestern's chances against Joe Paterno's rising team.  Instead, let us mention three players who did have strong games and deserved a win against the Lions.

One may debate NU's success or failure with its offensive performance in the red zone and the fact that the 'Cats tried for six field goals (several after drives stalled within the PSU five-yard line); however, Joel Howells' performance was unquestionably brilliant.  Howells successfully kicked five out of six field goals Saturday, setting a Northwestern record.  The record had belonged to three Wildcats (Valenzisi, Gowins, and Long) who had kicked four field goals in games.  Howells was named the Big Ten's special teams player of the week and was also named to the Lou Groza Stars for the Week.

Senior quarterback Brett Basanez also had a solid day, throwing for 229 yards.  His only interception came at the very end of the game, when NU was in a desperate position.  It was Basanez's only pick this year.  And Tyrell Sutton continued to wow fans and observers across the country, notching 112 yards, including two touchdowns (setting an NU school record for freshman rushing touchdowns in a season).  Sutton also delivered some impressive blocking as well.

Royale With Cheese [posted Mar. 27; updated Oct. 2]


Well, they're 5-0 good right now, and at times this year they've looked spectacular-- watch their victory over Michigan again if you need proof of it.  Their quarterback, junior John Stocco is good, but has struggled from time to time.  Against a solid Wolverine defense, Stocco went 15 for 32 and gained just 147 yards and no touchdowns; however, against Indiana last week he tallied 274 yards and three scores.  If Stocco's hot, the Badger offense is electric.  If he's not, Wisconsin still has junior running back Brian Calhoun to tear up opposing defenses.  And Calhoun is a master at it: he ripped Michigan for 155 yards.  Ironically, the only game so far in which Calhoun did not achieve 100 yards was Wisconsin's 65-0 ax-handle beating of Temple.  Calhoun is also a threat in the air.  He's the Badgers' second-most productive receiver right now.  Most productive is Brandon Williams, who could very well spend most of next Saturday terrorizing NU's defensive backfield.  The Badger offensive line is first-rate as well.

Except for the shootout win over Bowling Green at the start of the season, Wisconsin's defense has been simply awesome so far.  Against Michigan and Indiana, the Badgers forced key turnovers and produced the big stops they needed to.  The entire Badger defensive line is new; their '04 line was a wall of seniors, now playing in the NFL.  However, the rookies have transitioned well, and they're supported by a linebacking crew that's every bit as good as Northwestern's excellent LB crew.  The Badger secondary is solid.


If I had answered this question a week ago, I'd have been tempted to write that NU could expect a gaping loss in a game likely decided by the middle of the second quarter.  The letdown against Penn State and the Badgers' shocker against Michigan had made our match with Wisconsin seem like too great a challenge.  However, NU's loss to the Lions now doesn't seem quite so bad: Penn State absolutely demolished Minnesota, 44-14.  The Wildcats rose 11 places in the Saragon ratings last Saturday, despite being idle.  And, even though they blew out Indiana, Wisconsin did show some vulnerabilities. 

Plus, this is only Wisconsin's second road game of the year, and the first was an anemic 14-5 win at North Carolina.  Granted, over half the fans at Ryan Field will be wearing red, but there are a lot of intangibles with the Northwestern / Wisconsin series, and home field advantage will be more important for the 'Cats in this game than for most. 

NU's offense will have its hands full with the excellent Badger D-- and hopefully it will keep its hands full: the 'Cats can't afford to turn the ball over like so many of Wisconsin's foes this year.  Turnovers could play a key role in deciding this game.  If the 'Cats' line can exploit Wisconsin's front four and bang out ground and clock control, it could free up Sutton to have a nice day.  The 'Cat defense, as it will for the rest of the year, will be tested.  If the defense can stage a breakthrough and put pressure on Stocco, the Wildcats might have a shot at the upset.

[posted Oct. 9]

Many Northwestern fans wondered how the Wildcat football team would respond to adversity following the 'Cats' close loss to Penn State.  The team informed them Saturday, roaring back from a ten-point deficit against undefeated and fourteenth-ranked Wisconsin to beat the Badgers 51-48 in a weird, wild shoot-out.  NU fans watched as the Wildcat offense broke or extended several school records and proved that it is one of the top units in the country.  However, with the state of the Wildcat defense, and given Wisconsin's own high-powered offense, the stage was set for a close, exciting offensive bananza, similar to the 2000 game against Michigan.

Quarterback Brett Basanez; freshman running back Tyrell Sutton; receivers Jonathan Fields, Mark Philmore, and Shaun Herbert; and the rest of the NU offense combined for 674 yards, a new Wildcat record.  The offense performed with balance and precision, with every position playing to capacity.  The offensive line blew apart Wisconsin's young D-line, shutting them down completely and giving Basanez and Sutton all the time and distance they could ever need.  Zach Strief blocked as if the Badger defensive line were rag dolls, moving them around at will.  Wisconsin never got to Basanez behind the line.

The 51 points NU rang on Wisconsin is the most NU has ever scored against Wisconsin.  The 674 yards that produced those points are the most a Wisconsin team has surrendered.  To anyone.  Ever.  The NU offense produced 11 "explosion" plays (20 or more yards), which just might be a record of some sort as well.  NU's 27 points in the third quarter were just a touchdown shy of the school scoring record for a quarter (34 in the second quarter vs. Wake Forest in 1991).

Basanez gets the first down.       NUSports.com / AP Photo

Basanez showed why he should be considered one of the best quarterbacks in college football, punishing Wisconsin in the air for 361 yards and three touchdowns, and scrambling for another touchdown and 69 net rushing yards.  Basanez showed moves on the ground that most starting running backs in the Big Ten would be challenged to equal, including a fearless 20-yard sprint that sent the Badger defense spinning.

If Brett Basanez's performance was stunning, it was equaled by Tyrell Sutton, who once again put on a clinic for his elders at Ryan Field.  He said after the game, "I don't like being tackled by the first guy," which was like A.J. Foyt saying, "I don't like driving slow."  Sutton looked like a Badger magnet, picking up linemen, linebackers, assistant coaches, Madison bartenders and anything in red not nailed down, and hauling them along on his five foot, nine inch, 185-pound frame for however far he cared to run.  More often than not, that meant hauling his Badger cargo to a first down or a touchdown.  Sutton ground up 244 yards of turf, a top-ten all-time performance by an NU running back and the best ever by a freshman, and giving him the freshman running back season record-- in game five!  Sutton averaged 8.4 yards per carry against Wisconsin, just short of the record (8.8 by Damien Anderson at MSU in 2000).  Sutton's scoring was the inverse of Basanez's: Sutton ran for three touchdowns and caught for another.  196 of Sutton's yards came in the second half, which also might be a record for a half.

The NU defense, which has struggled through much of the five games so far this season, showed its vulnerabilities, but did have some outstanding moments.  The line, led by Barry Cofield, looked good, putting some pressure on Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco.  Brendan Smith returned a Stocco interception 23 yards in the first half.  And, of course, the defense came up big when it had to: on the last significant play of the game, when Reggie McPherson picked off Stocco with a minute and twenty seconds left to seal the win for NU.  However, the biggest contribution to the defense came from its leader.  Linebacker Tim McGarigle was a madman, flying all over the field and hammering the Badger ball carriers for 25 tackles (just six shy from NU's record, set by Chuck Kern in 1979).  McGarigle sacked Stocco twice, and afterwards said, "I haven't blitzed too often in the past.  They called my number a couple of times today.  It felt good getting in there."

Special teams also had several highlight moments, from Joel Howell's momentum-building field goal at the end of the first half, to Gerard Hamlett's 81-yard kickoff return (which looked more like something one would see in a Playstation simulation than in real life: Hamlett bounced around and out of pockets of Badgers as if he were programmed to), to Ross Lane catching both of Wisconsin's onside kicks, to Ryan Pederson's perfect punt at the end of the game that penned Wisconsin to their three-yard line and forced them into desperation.

The coaching staff worked this game superbly as well.  While offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar might have made some insufficient adjustments in the second half against Penn State, his plan against Wisconsin was brilliant, and the offensive adjustments after the half were spot on.  Coach Walker is again establishing himself as one of the great offensive-minded head coaches in the country, and despite the areas of concern on defense, he took Barry Alvarez to the shed once again.  It is the last such trip for Barry, who is retiring after this season to attend solely to his role as the Badgers' athletic director.  Against Coach Walker, Alvarez takes away a losing record-- two wins to Walker's three.  That Walker was able to take his team and, in two weeks, bring them to this level of intensity and cool under fire says a lot.

Now It Gets Interesting  [posted Oct. 12]


Well, geez, they were supposed to be very good.  But Boilermaker fans, dreaming at the beginning of the year of a Big Ten title and a BCS bid, have watched their team lose in spectacular fashion to Notre Dame, Minnesota and Iowa, and fall to 0-2 in the conference.

Purdue's heralded offense has been having a few problems, but the big issue is its defense, which nationally ranks ahead of only three other Division I teams.  Unfortunately, one of those three is Northwestern.

Purdue is down, but the Boilers are not out, and they still have loads of weapons and are about as safe as a mad, wounded dog.  On offense they have junior quarterback Brandon Kirsch (junior?!  I swear Kirsch has been there at least eight years), who struggled in Purdue's overtime loss to Minnesota, but improved in the Notre Dame and Iowa losses.  When Kirsch is on and when his line gives him time he is devastating, but he is prone to a few mistakes.  If NU's defensive line (which has also shown some recent improvement) can put some pressure on Kirsh, the 'Cat secondary could be in line for an interception or two.  Will NU's defensive backs be up to the task of watching the ball and snagging a couple of gifts?

The normally air-happy Boilermakers have lately been trying to establish the run, and they've relied on two good backs,
senior Jared Void "Where Prohibited by Law" (who dislocated his shoulder earlier this season) and the voided Void's replacement, freshman Kory Sheets (who showed flashes of greatness in the Minnesota effort, running for 101 yards on 10 carries).


Don't expect Purdue to look past NU this week.  Any hopes that the Boilermakers might take their third home game in a row for granted and gear up mentally for their coming road game at Madison have been beaten into vapor by the World's Biggest Drum.  Purdue almost certainly considers this game as The One On Which What's Left Of Their Season Rests, and they will come out motivated and screwed on tight.  NU should come out equally motivated: after last week's confidence-builder, the 'Cats should smell blood in the water, and catching this prey would give Northwestern a 4-2 record and put them in official bowl contention. A letdown right now would...  well, it would suck, wouldn't it.

While no one knows how this will play out-- and this game could head in any direction-- a safe bet is a shootout of the lock your children, hide your doors variety.  50 points?  56 points?  How much could one of these two teams score and still lose?

If Northwestern's offensive line, Basanez, and Sutton play like they did last Saturday, and if Northwestern's defense can execute and keep at least respectably close coverage, and-- here's the key-- if the 'Cats can get past the Wisconsin game and come into West Lafayette focused and loaded for bear, NU stands a great chance of being on the high end of this knife fight. 

Basanez: 463 Passing Yards; Offense: 600+ Yards [posted Oct. 15]

Wildcat fans were treated to what they've come to expect from NU football when the 'Cats beat Purdue 34-29 in West Lafayette: an entertaining shootout in which NU couldn't hang on to a big lead, only to pull the game out at the last moment.  It was Northwestern's first win in West Lafayette since the Big Ten title clincher in 1995.

The Northwestern Wildcat offense worked wonders during the first half, hanging 28 points on the Boilers before the intermission, while NU's defense held Purdue to just nine points.  However, the Wildcat offense, defense and special teams all found ways to let Purdue back into the match, and the Boilers took a late fourth quarter lead.  Quarterback Brett Basanez was brilliant, throwing for 463 yards, second only in NU history to Basanez's own 513-yard record, set last year at TCU.  He rushed for 43 more yards and one touchdown and threw for three more scores (and no interceptions).  His longest play was a first half bomb to quarterback-turned-receiver Eric Peterman, who took Basanez's throw 67 yards for a score.

In all, five 'Cats scored touchdowns: Basanez; Tyrell Sutton, who was held to 89 yards for the day but scored the game winner; Peterman; running back Brandon Roberson on an 11-yard catch; and fullback-- yes, fullback!-- Frayne Abernathy.

The scoring festival effectively ended at halftime, however, and Purdue's defense made several key adjustments and limited the Wildcat O.  The Boilers had focused on Sutton all day, which left Basanez and his receivers free to raise hell.  Unfortunately, while Basanez had no trouble raising hell, his receivers couldn't catch it, or anything else, for too many plays.  NU suffered more dropped balls than a nearsighted circus juggler.  However, Shaun Herbert came up with several great catches, and Sutton equaled his rushing yards through the air.  The Boilers' work on Sutton, combined with those mistakes by the receiving corps limited NU in the second half.  However, the NU playcalling continued to be smart and aggressive, and Wildcat offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar had another impressive day.

For a while in the fourth quarter, however, it looked like Dunbar's, and all Northwestern's day would be ruined.  Ahead 28-23, NU had the ball on the Purdue two-yard line.  However, Roberson fumbled and Purdue ground out an agonizing 18-play scoring drive to go into the lead for the only time during the game-- this despite the sterling defensive effort shown by linebacker Tim McGarigle. 

Calmly, NU's offense answered, methodically driving down the field and retaking the lead with Sutton's score.

While the NU defense, particularly the secondary, continued to show some weaknesses (giving up over 500 yards yet again), it did make the stops when they were absolutely necessary for the outcome of the game.  Most notable was the last significant play of the game, when Purdue, down by five with under a minute to go, lined up to begin what they hoped would be the game-winning drive.  Instead, just as Wisconsin had a week before, they threw the ball to a Wildcat and threw the game away.  This time Marquice Cole came up with the game-saving pick for the 'Cats.  The corners and safeties all registered some jaw-popping hits on the Boilermaker ball carriers with an aggressiveness that we haven't seen until now.  Battle and Henderson each had several outstanding plays.

The win is NU's second straight over Purdue and gives the 'Cats a 2-1 record in the conference.  With Penn State's loss to Michigan Saturday evening, all Big Ten teams now have at least one conference loss, and NU remains in the thick of the Big Ten title hunt.

Offense, Defense, Special Teams and Coaching Produce a Masterpiece
[posted Oct. 22]

This game never seemed like an upset.

Technically that's what it was-- NU was, after all, a 12-point underdog playing 22nd-ranked Michigan State on the road.  However, from seven minutes into the first quarter through the last play of the game, Northwestern absolutely dominated the Spartans on offense, defense, and special teams, and dismantled MSU 49 to 14 in front of a stunned homecoming crowd and a national audience.  The 47-point difference between NU's winning margin and what NU was expected to do (the 12-point spread) makes this game-- at least in points-- the largest upset in Northwestern history.

To many fans, however, it seemed at first like the game would go the other way.  Michigan State began the first quarter with the ball, and they didn't need possession for long.  On the very first play from scrimmage Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton connected with Kyle Brown on a 53-yard bomb; two plays later Stanton torched NU's secondary, and MSU took a 7-0 lead.

It was the only lead the Spartans would hold all day, and it lasted just seven minutes and 45 seconds.

MSU tried to extend their lead after NU punted the ball away, but the 47-yard attempt was wide right.  And so the Spartan woes began.  They would compound manifold as the day progressed.

Wildcat quarterback Brett Basanez tore down the field, and running back Tyrell Sutton raced toward the end zone, putting the ball on the MSU one-yard line.  However, Sutton fumbled on the next play.  Fortunately, MSU was unable to take advantage of the turnover, because the Wildcat defense chose that very moment in the year to come alive and become a raving gridiron terror.  MSU's offense, the third most powerful in the country, staggered and went three and out.  Despite a young line and a young, paper-thin secondary, the NU defense found its game and began to play lights-out.  Coverage?  Tight as a drum skin.  Run defense?  The best we've seen this season.

Now with offensive and, shockingly, defensive momentum, Basanez and company went to work and feasted on Michigan State.  Powered by an offensive line that showed complete mastery of the Spartan defensive front, sure-footed work by running back Brandon Roberson, and terrific catches by Jonathan Fields and Shaun Herbert, NU scored in six plays.  Michigan State responded with a 16-yard monster drive that ended when true freshman safety Brendan Smith picked off Stanton in the Wildcat endzone and returned the ball 37 yards.  Stanton tackled Smith, who went down with a knee injury, but appeared to recover.

Basanez continued his reign of terror with passes to Kim Thompson and Herbert, culminating in a 41-yard explosion pass play to Sutton that set up Sutton's go-ahead touchdown.  Basanez had the number all day for the MSU secondary, and he effectively used a whole toolbox of passes-- to the outside, long vertical passes up the middle, you name it-- and worked MSU's vulnerabilities with scary precision.  The Sutton pass and resulting punch into the endzone put NU ahead for good.

MSU was down, but it wasn't truly out until the next drive.  Starting at the MSU 42-yard line, Stanton drove his team to the NU 9.  On third down and five to go, Wildcat freshman defensive end Kevin Mims popped Stanton and forced a fumble.  In an incredibly heads-up play, former linebacker and converted defensive lineman Demetrius Eaton picked up the fumble in stride and bounded 86 yards, untouched, for a wild, spirit-breaking defensive touchdown.  The Spartans' body language as they tried to catch the lumbering Eaton whispered frustration and defeat, and from that point on, Michigan State spent the day trying to get off its field.

That end would come, but not before another spectacular turnover.  Getting the ball back, Stanton again drove into Wildcat country, and again gave the 'Cats the ball, this time getting a pass rocked by Herschel Henderson, who simply denied the Spartan receiver the ball and took the play from him.  It was the type of pass defense NU hasn't truly enjoyed since the days of Chris Martin and Hudhaifa Ismaeli a decade ago.

The 'Cats enjoyed a 21-7 lead at the half, but how could fans help but wonder: would it last?  Would NU find a way, as it had so often this season, to squander a big lead and either lose or fight like mad to scrape to the win?  Could this team, could this defense, follow through and keep up this level of performance?

Basanez took the first possession in the second half to show that this was not the Wildcat team of the first half of the season, this was the new and improved Wildcat team that will not take its foot off the accelerator until Lou Holtz cries on the postgame show.  Baz completed five of his next six throws, including a wicked touchdown pass to Eric Peterman to put NU up by three scores.

MSU's next drive stalled when cornerback Marquice Cole stopped Jeremy Scott short of midfield and a first down, and Basanez's assault recommenced.  This time he was helped with huge plays by Sutton, and Baz punched through a winded and wounded Spartan defense to take a 35 to 7 lead.  Deante Battle's fantastic coverage on the next drive ended MSU's shot at a score, and the 'Cats began yet another drive to the endzone, highlighted by Roberson's 31-yard rushing play.  On the next play, Sutton raced nine yards for the score, and most of the remaining 74,000 Spartan fans raced for the exits.

Those fans missed the crowning moment.  MSU drove into Wildcat territory, but on a first down from the NU 34, Stanton fired a pass to the two-yard line.  It was greeted by Henderson for his second interception of the day.  Henderson rocketed 47 yards to midfield, and from there Basanez and Sutton finished NU's scoring, giving the 'Cats a 49-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.  (well, Baz and Sutton didn't quite finish the scoring.  Joel Howells kicked his seventh PAT, an NU record).  Coach Randy Walker by this point had pulled many of his defensive starters, and now sportingly benched offensive lineman Zach Strief (who utterly dominated MSU all day), Sutton and Basanez.  Facing mainly a second-string defense, MSU wrapped up all scoring with a short rush for touchdown.

Walker's preparation and execution of the plan for this game was sparkling.  The NU coaching staff outperformed Michigan State at all levels, to a degree almost never seen against a ranked team.  MSU had no answer to anything NU threw its way.  Much like NU's win over Ohio State last year, the victory over MSU was complete: every position on the field played at maximum.  Walker should very well get some looks for NCAA Coach of the Year.

The offense was just terrifying, and Brett Basanez made a case for the Heisman trophy that can't be ignored by the media, no matter how hard they might try.  Baz put up another 331 yards passing, with two touchdowns through the air and no interceptions.  He rushed for two more scores continues to pad his school records.  The MSU win gives Basanez his 20th win, an NU quarterback record.  Sutton also rushed for two touchdowns and gained 109 yards for the day, putting him just 30 yards shy of becoming Northwestern's newest member of the 1000 Yards Club.

As for the defense, what can you say?  Here is a unit that is one of the most maligned in the nation, that had been unable to stop anyone, that found itself on the road facing the #3 offense in Division I Football.  To play with the focus, preparation, intensity, and will that it showed against Michigan State is a monumental achievement, and we can hope that it marks a turning point.  If it does, if Northwestern's defense can maintain this level of excellence, then anything-- anything-- is still possible this season for the Wildcats.

'Cats 21st in the BCS
Also 21st in AP Poll; Coaches Rank NU 23rd
[posted Oct. 24]

Northwestern football has broken into the BCS rankings.  Following the Wildcats' commanding win over ranked Michigan State, 5-2 NU is now ranked 21st in the latest BCS standings.  This marks the first time the 'Cats have appeared in the BCS since 2000, when NU made it to 15th in the BCS for one week.  NU is currently ranked above Cal, Colorado, and Auburn.

And, for the first time since October 15, 2001, NU is ranked in the standard polls.  On Sunday, the Associated Press gave NU a 21st place ranking, with 240 points.  NU was ranked just behind TCU and just above Fresno State.  Other Big Ten teams in the AP Top 25: Penn State at 11th, Ohio State at 12th, Wisconsin at 15th, and Michigan at 25th.  Minnesota is unranked in the AP Poll.

The USA Today Coaches' Poll placed NU at 23rd in the nation with 179 points, just behind Minnesota, and just ahead of Fresno State.  The other ranked Big Ten teams are: Penn State at 12th, Ohio State at 13th, and Wisconsin at 15th.  Michigan is unranked in the Coaches' Poll.

This Is the Big One: Michigan Preview [posted Oct. 26]

Short of stepping onto a ball field in early January, the moment cannot get any bigger than the one on Saturday night when Northwestern and Michigan kick off.  Northwestern is ranked and one game shy of bowl eligibility.  Michigan is ranked and is just as white hot in their last two conference games as the 'Cats.

And this is... this is Michigan.

And if NU wins...

Well, just look what that might mean.  Look at the last three years NU beat Michigan:


Do those years hold significance, besides being the only three seasons in the last 40 that NU prevailed over the Wolverines?  Of course they do: those years are painted across the west side of Ryan Field's overlook, along with 1903, 1926, 1930, 1931, and 1936.  You know, it's the end of October, and yet there's still paint in the can to slap up a nice, big "2005" up there at the end of the year.

But Michigan is standing in the way.

And they are not going to be easy to push aside.  This is by far the toughest team NU has yet faced, and they are going to give the 'Cats all that they can muster.  Michigan has already done what NU could not: they've beaten Penn State.  They will play for 60 minutes-- and maybe even a couple of seconds more, if Lllloyd Carrr can work his Jedi Mind Tricks on the refs ("You blew your whistle before he fumbled."  "...I blew my whistle before he fumbled."  "You may go about your business."  "You may go about your business."  "Move along."  "Move along...").

Last week Michigan took a very talented Iowa team to the wall, and to overtime, in Iowa City.  The Wolverines' go-to rusher, Mike Hart, injured his right ankle and left the game.  No matter: Michigan is of course stacked at any position, and running backs Jerome Jackson and Kevin Grady cut up well over 100 yards between them.  Hart is questionable for the Northwestern game.  If he is back to 100% he will test the Wildcats' defense.  Jackson and Grady will continue to pound as well, both to chew as much time of possession as possible (and therefore keep Brett Basanez's lethal attack contained on the sideline) as well as to keep the NU defense concerned with the run, in order to free up their main attraction...

Henne to Avant

Get used to that call; you'll hear it all Saturday night.  Michigan will live and die at Ryan Field based on how this duo performs.  Quarterback Chad Henne is 143 for 249 so far, with 15 touchdowns and 1,685 yards.  More importantly, he has shown over the past couple of weeks that he is cool under fire, and he will not feel pressure.  If the Wildcat defense is counting on a Stanton-like pants-soiling from Mr. Henne, it is sadly, comically mistaken.  Henne will just shred NU's secondary if he spots a weakness, and as for wide receiver Jason Avant...  
Two years ago at Ryan Field Mr. Avant showed just how fun he can make impossible catches look.  What awaits you, gentlemen, is a pigskin magnet in yellow pants.

Finally, the national media is having a field day with Northwestern this week-- surprising considering that NU is by far the second-biggest sports story in Chicago right now.  Many pundits are predicting a Northwestern victory.  I'm not buying it, and I sure hope that the players aren't packing bongs full of their press clippings and toking up either.  The 'Cats have the talent to win this game, but they're going to need to come out of the gate with their helmets on fire, and play lights-out the whole way.  But, then again, why on earth wouldn't NU do just that?  They should charge into this game loaded for bear.  This is their finest hour, the one moment to prove to the entire country, live and on prime time, that they command respect and that no one, not even Michigan, can deny them the chance to put their mark forever on Ryan Field's wall.

'Cats Fall to Michigan 33-17;
NU Scoreless in Second Half [posted Nov. 4]

Northwestern spotted the Michigan Wolverines 14 points very quickly in the Wildcats' homecoming game, seven of those points coming off an NU fumble as the 'Cats themselves were threatening to score.  NU's offense, so potent for much of the season, was put on ice for the second half, and the result was a 33 to 17 bust against #25 Michigan.

Basanez found himself under a lot of pressure, and the Wildcat offensive line did not provide much comfort, leaving Baz scrambling for much of the evening.  When Basanez was able to fire off a good shot, it was dropped more often than it should have been.  It should be noted, though, that receiver Mark Philmore did have 139 receiving yards.  Also, despite a critical fumble in the first half that Michigan returned for a score, and despite only getting ten rushing attempts in the game, Tyrell Sutton joined the 1,000-yard club, the only freshman in NU history to notch 1,000 rushing yards in a season.

The capacity crowd (the third sold out home game for NU in the Randy Walker era) did get to see a spirited performance by the Wildcat defense.  The 'Cats shut down Michigan several times in the third quarter, but NU's offense just couldn't execute properly and could not take advantage of the opportunities opened by the D.  Linebacker Tim McGarigle and defensive backs Herschel Henderson and Marquice Cole each intercepted a Wolverine pass.  It was Cole's fourth pick for the season; he leads the Big Ten.  McGarigle had 21 tackles and is on pace to set the NU tackling record.

Down 24-7 at the half, NU storms back in the last three minutes to edge Iowa 28-27.
'Cats Still in Big Ten Title Hunt [posted Nov. 6]

For much of Saturday's game against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Northwestern seemed flat, getting pushed on the lines and having trouble following through on drives.  That is, until the final three minutes of the game.  In a sequence of plays reminiscent of the 2000 Minnesota and 2001 Michigan State games, NU staged a spectacular end-of-game rally, lighting up the Hawkeyes with back-to-back touchdowns and stunning Iowa by coming back from a 24-7 halftime deficit to win, 28-27.

Just as it had with Michigan a week before, NU promptly spotted Iowa 14 points in the first quarter.  The Hawkeyes torched NU's defensive backs en route to an opening-drive score, which was followed by a Wildcat three-and-out.  The Wildcat offensive line was not able to give quarterback Brett Basanez much time, and the receivers continued their woes from the previous week.  Iowa then continued to shred NU's defensive backfield and found the endzone again.

By the second quarter the offensive line began to show increased effectiveness, and running back Tyrell Sutton and wideout Mark Philmore notched a pair of critical first downs before Basanez connected with Shaun Herbert to bring NU to within seven points.  Iowa, however, responded immediately, showing a great mix of rushing and passing, culminating in quarterback Drew Tate's acrobatic endzone leap that put the Hawkeyes up 21-7.  Iowa would add a fieldgoal before the half to take its biggest lead of the game.  It is crucial to note that a Hawkeye touchdown at this point would have eventually given Iowa the ballgame.  However, Wildcat linebacker Nick Roach came up with a monstrous sack midway through the Iowa drive, which caused the Hawkeyes to burn their last timeout of the half.  Although Iowa continued to drive to the Northwestern two-yard line, without a timeout the Hawkeyes had to settle for the kick after a second down attempt into the endzone failed.  Roach's sack significantly contributed to NU's win.

Basanez was able to connect with both Philmore and Herbert at the start of the third quarter as NU drove methodically and effectively into the Iowa red zone.  Sutton, showing some of the phenomenal moves he had shown earlier in the season, broke loose and found the goal line, and the 'Cats put themselves within ten points of Iowa.  Sutton's run was the only scoring of the quarter.

NU's defense, which held beautifully in the third quarter, continued its strong performance into the fourth, with great plays by Eddie Simpson and Kevin Mims to force Iowa to punt.  However, the NU offense couldn't take advantage, and was forced to punt.  When Iowa was called for roughing kicker Slade Larscheid, the 'Cats got another chance, but watched it evaporate when Basanez threw an interception.

Again Iowa began a drive with terrific field position, and again the Wildcat defense rose to the occasion, as Deante Battle broke up Iowa's third down pass.  Iowa was forced to settle for a field goal, which put the Hawkeyes 13 points ahead.  NU's offense remained flat, going three and out.

When Iowa's third attempt at a field goal sailed wide left, it gave the 'Cats a chance to come within a touchdown of Iowa with roughly five minutes to go.  However, Basanez suffered his second interception and snuffed the drive.  At this point, two groups of people at Ryan Field had decided they'd seen enough, and checked out of the building.

The first group was the bulk of Wildcat fans.  Despite their team demonstrating time and again that they do not ever quit, that anything can happen in a Northwestern football game, and that the Wildcat offense is about as dangerous as a loaded rifle propped on top of a washing machine out of balance, the fan base fled the stadium.  The ESPN commentators were aghast at the sad stream of purple leaving the stands, as were the few real Wildcat fans who remained in the stadium and got to watch history.  This team has fought like true Wildcats through this entire season; they deserve so much more support than the fans and the local media have been willing to show.

The second group of people who left Ryan Field were the Iowa players-- at least mentally.  Hawkeyes began high-fiving each other on the sidelines and calculating where they would be in December.  There were plenty of Hawkeyes left in the stadium, of course, but they were in the stands.

In the final Iowa drive, during which NU coach Randy Walker wisely burned two of his timeouts, the Wildcat defense came up with the supreme stop.  Trevor Schultz broke up Iowa's third-and-eight pass, and Basanez and company got the ball back at their own 23-yard line, with just over three minutes to go.

When Basanez's first two pass attempts fell incomplete, it did indeed look like Northwestern would fall short in this game.  But that's just the point: unless NU is down by 40 and the ESPN sideline reporters are already interviewing the winning coach, you simply cannot count the NU offense out of a game, and Basanez is as cool under fire as any quarterback in the country.  Basanez began zinging balls to Jonathan Fields and Philmore, quickly driving the 'Cats across the field.  Basanez's 15-yard scramble put NU at the Iowa one-yard line, where Sutton quickly punched in the ball.  Northwestern was now less than a touchdown away from victory, with a little over two minutes left.

The onside kick itself was a given, but the question was: would it be a standard onside kick or one of the pooch kicks NU had perfected in recent seasons?  Kicker Joel Howells made a traditional onside kick, which bounded high and was perfectly executed.  Marquice Cole and Reggie McPherson both leapt for the ball, and McPherson caught it at midfield, in one of the greatest Wildcat plays of the season.

From the moment McPherson sprinted around with the ball, there was no doubt what would happen next.  Iowa's players had totally checked out, and the Wildcat offense was as fired up as they'd ever been.  Passes to Ross Lane and Philmore took NU close to the Iowa red zone.  Basanez picked up six yards and a first down on a QB keeper.  However, after the play Iowa's Chad Greenway socked Basanez with his helmet, the last of a string of dirty shots the Hawkeyes had taken at Basanez during the game.  The resulting personal foul gave NU a first-and-goal at the Hawkeye nine-yard line.  Two plays later Basanez fired a bullet to Lane in the endzone, and Howell's point after kick gave NU a stunning one-point lead.

That lead converted into a Wildcat win when NU's defense provided one last spectacular stop.  On third down defensive lineman David Ngene put enough pressure on the Hawkeye QB to disrupt the pass, and Iowa's fourth-down desperation pass also fell incomplete.  For the 10,000 Hawkeye fans still in attendance, it was the unthinkable ending to a good Iowa performance.  For the few hundred remaining NU fans, it was blissful bedlam on par with any of Northwestern's great victories of the last ten years.  After the game, Basanez ascended the NUMB conductor ladder and led the band through "Go U Northwestern."  Just as the fight song says, the Wildcats-- as they have so many times this season-- "fight for victory."

Still a Shot at a Big Ten Title

...And, who knows; maybe those remaining NU fans saw the last home field moments of the Wildcats' next Big Ten championship team.  With the NU win, there are now only three variables left in determining whether or not Northwestern will claim a share of the conference title.  First, NU must win next week at Ohio State.  By doing so not only would Northwestern claim its fifth Big Ten win, it would hand OSU its second conference loss.  Second, NU would have to beat Illinois, which would give the 'Cats a 6-2 final record in the conference.  And third, Penn State would have to lose at Michigan State.

Is this a long shot?  Who can say: after all, wasn't NU a long shot in its game against Iowa, with four minutes to go?  Welcome to Northwestern football.  Anything can happen, and you can bet it will be entertaining as hell.

Ohio State Preview:
Can NU Extend Its Winning Streak Vs. the Buckeyes? [posted Nov. 9]

So, the question is, do you remember the last time NU actually lost to Ohio State?  How old were you?  Well, here is some perspective: George W. Bush was a youthful first-termer, gas was only $1.92 a gallon, and the White Stripes had just released Elephant.  Ahh, feel those waves of nostalgia!

Seriously, the boys in scarlet and gray still aren't too happy about last year's tilt with the 'Cats, and you can bet they'll want to dominate Northwestern this Saturday and get back to the way things were, from 1972 through 2003.  And they have the talent and depth to make it so.  Add to this the fact that it will be Senior Day in Columbus, and add in the trivial matter of a possible Big Ten title for OSU, and you get a heap of motivation for the Buckeyes to pound the 'Cats into dust.

But can they?  Tenth-ranked Ohio State has been playing lights-out this month, and, yes, they can beat just about anyone in the country right now.  Granted, Illinois is a down team right now, but did you catch what OSU did to the Illini?  Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith toyed with them before throwing three TDs and coasting to just under 300 passing yards, and the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-and-so-on Bucks slapped up 40 points.  "We're not opposed to scoring, contrary to popular opinion," Coach Tressel smirked, after the game. 

And OSU won't be opposed to it against NU, either.  The Wildcat defense has shown significant improvement during the season; the third quarter against Iowa was as good a defensive performance as we've seen from NU in the last few years.  However, the defense will face a world of pain against this surging Buckeye attack.  Smith is rolling, and their receivers are first-rate.  Ted Ginn, Jr., is averaging nearly 17 yards a catch, but that's peanuts compared to Santonio Holmes and his 19 yards.  Holmes has scored seven touchdowns in the last four games; he'll score at least two against Northwestern.  The running game, led by Antonio Pittman, is menacing, and is helped greatly by Smith's rushing (Smith has 433 rushing yards for the year, over a hundred more than Basanez).  The Wildcat defense has had trouble putting pressure on the quarterback.  It got the job done against the Hawkeyes, but the Buckeye O-line puts up a kevlar pocket, and Smith will have ample time to peruse his options after the snap.

Ohio State should score at will, but can Northwestern?  The Wildcat offense, so white-hot early and midway through the season, has sputtered occasionally during the last two games. 
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in rushing defense, passing defense, and scoring defense.  The offensive line will have a tremendous challenge.  OSU's veteran defensive front features star Mike Kudla, who has notched eight sacks so far this year.  A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter are still dominating the linebacker positions, where they've been for the past twelve or so seasons.  The key to this game, however, might be within the Buckeye secondary.  The Buckeyes will likely take a page from Michigan and Iowa's game plans and will try to stop NU running back Tyrell Sutton and dismantle the rushing threat, leaving Basanez with just the pass.  However, the Ohio State defensive backs, despite leading the league, do have some vulnerability.  If NU can get its passing attack into high gear, and the Wildcat receivers hold onto what is thrown their way, NU might have a shot at sticking around in this game.  And, as we've seen, if NU can stick around, anything can happen.

Buckeyes Rout NU 48-7 [posted Nov. 12]

If, as they say, revenge is sweet, the Ohio State Buckeyes had better check their blood sugar levels after their game Saturday.  The Bucks exacted revenge-- and then some-- for their loss last year at Ryan Field by humiliating Northwestern in Ohio Stadium, 48 to 7.  Ohio State simply proved too much for Northwestern, piling up a 28-7 score by halftime and cruising the rest of the way.  While Ohio State was helped by a disastrous Wildcat special teams performance, the Buckeyes were a team playing at a different level, overwhelming both the NU offense and defense.

The game began with a promising start for the Wildcats.  Quarterback Brett Basanez and company quickly and methodically drove on their first possession and scored a touchdown to open a 7-0 lead on OSU.  But from there on Ohio State completely dominated.

Northwestern's punting unit was abysmal, giving OSU fantastic field position on one kick, and then, on the next punt, suffering a spectacular block.  The Buckeyes promptly ran the blocked ball into the endzone and put the game out of reach for NU.

By the beginning of the fourth quarter Ohio State Jim Tressel had taken his offensive big guns out of the game, and Coach Walker wisely followed suit.  The game was clearly lost, and Basanez was saved for next week's showdown with Illinois, while C.J. Bachér gained a quarter more experience behind center.

While the Wildcats had a dismal day, their failure was mostly due to the quality of their opponent.  The Buckeyes looked like a BCS team and a Big Ten champion, while the 'Cats watched helplessly as their Big Ten title hopes were officially snuffed.  It was NU's misfortune to catch Ohio State at a point where they are clearly unstoppable; if Penn State had played OSU on Saturday instead of earlier in the year, the Buckeyes would be undefeated in the conference.

It is a testimony to the quality of this Wildcat team, however, that their Big Ten title hopes did in fact last until November 12, which only a handful of fans would have predicted in August. 

And it is crucial that the team now focus at once on one thing and one thing only: the Illini.

NU Defends Sweet Sioux [posted Nov. 15]

So, after last week's trip to the Buckeye woodshed, chances are the Wildcats are going to be just a little bit ticked off this Saturday.  Enter the Illini, who are 0-7 in the conference and are now backed into a corner and sniffing at a winless Big Ten season.  Both teams are likely to come into this one foaming at the mouth and ready to take out some frustrations.  Expect a physical, tough game.  And if Northwestern is still suffering a letdown from the Ohio State loss, or-- heaven forbid-- is looking past Illinois to the bowl game, expect this game to get ugly in a hurry.

The 'Cats, however, aren't likely to be looking past Illinois.  Zook's team is about as primed to strike an upset as any squad in the country.  However, to do so the Illini will need their opponent's help, and they aren't going to get if from Northwestern. 

The Wildcat offense, stymied in its last three games, should easily get back on track this Saturday.  Illinois' defense has been simply brutal this year.  In their last eight games-- all losses-- the Illini have given up 35, 61, 35, 36, 63, 41, 40, and 37 points.  The 61 pointer was against MSU's spread, and against the Wildcats' current spread line-up the Illini will be at sea.  NU should score at will.  It will be very interesting to see if the 'Cats can get their ground attack back into high gear, and offer up a balanced attack again.  If Tyrell Sutton rushes for over 100 yards, this should be a blow-out.

The key to this game, therefore, is whether or not Illinois' offense can keep up with the whirling scoreboard.  In their last two games the Illini have been ice cold on offense, failing to score against the Buckeyes and mustering only a field goal against Purdue-- whose defense hasn't exactly been on fire this year.  Junior quarterback Tim Brasic is a good thrower, but again he's struggled to score, especially lately.  Brasic has recorded nine touchdowns for the season (and ten interceptions).  The Illini ground game has also had some problems, mostly due to issues with the line.  Pierre Thomas, Jr., has rushed for 567 yards so far, and he leads the Illini in touchdowns for the season (with just four).

NU should look for a quick strike early and take the Illini out of this one as soon as possible.  If NU doesn't play "not to lose," and produces aggressive, mistake-free football, the 'Cats should keep Sweet Sioux and beat Illinois by at least three scores.

'Cats Finish Regular Season with 7 Wins;
Bowl Berth Assured [posted Nov. 19]

The Illini defense proved to be the tonic that Northwestern's recently-stalled offense needed, as the Wildcats cruised to a 38 to 21 win over hapless Illinois to keep the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and notch a seventh win for the season.  The win assures NU of a winning season and a strong bowl berth.

The game began with a play that NU fans have not often seen recently: a Wildcat kickoff carried through the end zone.  A strong wind throughout the game, coupled with a lessened threat that the Illini would run back a kickoff return, helped ensure that most of NU's kickoffs were touchbacks.  The Wildcat special teams in general were much improved, and they contributed one of the three key plays of the game-- a spectacularly executed fake field goal (or was it a fake punt?) early in the third quarter.

NU led by seven after two long, methodical drives by both teams resulted in a missed field goal for the Illini and a Brett Basanez touchdown.  Basanez and Tyrell Sutton both tore up rushing yards on NU's opening drive, while the Illini also found little trouble getting their running game in gear.  Illinois would end the day with just under 200 rushing yards, while the 'Cats would explode for 356 ground yards, led by Sutton's 212. 
Sutton's 24-yard run from midfield on NU's opening drive helped break the running game wide open, and was the first of the three key plays of the game.  Basanez tallied 119 yards rushing.  It was the second time in three seasons that two NU players rushed for over 100 yards in a game. 

Of course, Basanez also proved to be something of a threat through the air.  His 240 passing yards put him over 10,000 for career passing yards (at 10,164), an ongoing school record.  Basanez is just the third Big Ten quarterback in history to reach this mark.

Illinois soon responded against the Wildcat defense to even the score (the Illini's first touchdown in their last three games), and the teams settled into a first half shootout, with NU scoring and Illinois answering.  With just over ten seconds left in the first half, kicker Joel Howells nailed a field goal to give the Wildcats a 24-21 halftime lead. 

Walker Surpasses
Hanley, Parseghian
in Total Wins

Coach Randy Walker continues to rise among the ranks of NU's all-time coaching greats, winning his 37th game as the Wildcats' head coach.  Two weeks ago Walker surged past Gary Barnett's 35 wins at NU and landed in a three-way tie with Dick Hanley and Ara Parseghian.  Hanley and Parseghian each notched 36 wins at NU, and each coached for eight seasons (this is Walker's seventh season at NU).  Walker needs 12 more wins to catch up with Pappy Waldorf, NU's all-time winningest coach.  At this rate Walker should overtake Waldorf in 2007, his ninth season.  Waldorf led NU for 12 seasons.

Of course, the upcoming bowl will be Coach Walker's third with NU, a new record for an NU coach.
The 'Cats opened the half with terrific pass receptions by Shaun Herbert, Jonathan Fields, and Sutton, and drove to the Illinois 28-yard line.  However, the drive stalled, and NU sent out its field goal team.

Nearly everyone in the stadium suspected a fake, none more so than Illinois coach Ron Zook.  However, Coach Walker didn't have just any fake on deck: he had the classic fumblerooskie play in store. 

With Howells on the field, the initial thought was field goal (or fake).  However, when no Wildcat appeared in position to take the hold, chaos resulted, and most fans thought the 'Cats might punt (or fake).  Before Illinois knew what was happening, or could call a time out, NU snapped the ball to Chris Malleo, who slyly slipped the ball forward to Gerard Hamlett.  While Malleo streaked left like a man possessed, Hamlett proved a better model of inaction and quiet contemplation than any Shakespearean Danish prince.  Hamlett, marking off time and thinking, "to run, or not to run," finally raced right and leapt into the end zone.

Now the big question was: would Illinois, as it had throughout the first half, use a balanced attack to respond and keep the game within less than a touchdown?  At first, it certainly seemed it would, as the Illini drove with ease to the Northwestern nine yard line for a second down and seven.  However, in the second key play of the game, lineman Barry Cofield intercepted Illinois quarterback Tim Brasic's pass and rumbled 16 yards to the NU 30.  With this one turnover, Northwestern's defense woke up and momentum shifted fatally against the Illini.  Illinois, so prolific in the first half, failed to score in the second.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, with NU still up by ten points, the 'Cats began looking for the score that would salt away the Illini and give NU win number seven.  They found it after a series of great catches by Mark Philmore and Ross Lane, and a key 19-yard pickup by Sutton to midfield.  Positioned on Illinois' eight-yard line, Basanez kept the ball and punched it in, giving NU a 38-21 lead.

The win meant Northwestern, the second youngest team in the conference, finished its regular season in a four-way tie for third place in the Big Ten, NU's best finish in the conference since winning its last title in 2000.


Northwestern has formally accepted an invitation to play in the 2005 Sun Bowl, where the 'Cats will face the UCLA Bruins.  This will be the sixth bowl appearance in school history, and the first in the Sun Bowl.  NU Athletic Director Mark Murphy, upon accepting the invitation to El Paso, said, "We're extremely excited about the opportunity to play in a bowl game, and especially in El Paso at the Vitalis Sun Bowl.  Everyone who has had an affiliation with this bowl has raved about the Sun Bowl's organization and hospitality.  Northwestern is proud to represent the Big Ten this year in one of the country's most tradition-rich bowls."

Wayne Thornton, president of the Sun Bowl Association, said in a statement, "It will be very special to have our final representative from the Big Ten Conference to come from such a prestigious school as Northwestern University.  Randy Walker is one of the true up-and-coming coaches in America, and we are excited to be a part of Northwestern's recent success.  We look forward to hosting a team that has never been to the Vitalis Sun Bowl before and giving them the same hospitality that El Paso is so famous for providing.  And even more so, we look forward to having another offense showcase from our Big Ten parnter."  Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas seconded that thought, noting that "with the offenses that both of these teams bring to El Paso, this could make for a very high-scoring and memorable game."

Some historical info concerning the Sun Bowl and the NU-UCLA series is posted below.

UCLA is currently 9-2, and ranked third in the Pac 10.

The History of the Northwestern-UCLA Series:

Northwestern leads this series, which began in 1931, three games to two.  The results of the five games played so far against the Bruins follow below.
  • 1931 The UCLA football team made its first-ever trip east of the Mississippi River when it traveled to Dyche Stadium to take on the Wildcats on October 17, 1931.  Unfortunately for the Bruins, they chose to make their historic trip at a time when NU was at the peak of its power.  The 'Cats barely lost the national championship to Notre Dame the prior season, and were undefeated coming into the game with UCLA.  NU actually began its reserve team against the Bruins, and cruised to a 19-0 win.
  • 1947 The Bruins returned to Dyche Stadium on October 4, 1947 and found a more vulnerable Wildcat squad.  The team had lost its legendary coach, Pappy Waldorf, to Cal at the end of the '46 season, and new coach Bob Voigts was looking at a rebuilding year.  Voigts' squad would win only three games in 1947, but one of them was against UCLA.  Frank Aschenbrenner returned a UCLA kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, and the 'Cats edged out UCLA, 27-26.
  • 1948 By 1948, however, Voigts' squad had adjusted and was ready to tear through its schedule on the way to a Rose Bowl championship.  The first victim for this veteran team was UCLA.  The 'Cats traveled to Los Angeles and handed the Bruins another 19-0 defeat.
  • 1969 The 'Cats and the Bruins did not meet again until October 4, 1969, when NU hosted UCLA at Dyche Stadium, the first of a two-game series for the teams.  During the previous week USC had obliterated the struggling Wildcats, 48-6, and UCLA followed suit, scoring their first win against NU, a 36-0 rout.
  • 1970 NU and UCLA wrapped up their two-game series in Los Angeles, where UCLA notched its second straight win over NU, 12-7.  The 'Cats would drop all their non-conference games, then shock the Big Ten by winning six of seven conference games and finishing second in the league.

Strief Named All-American [posted Dec. 11]

The Football Writers Association of America has named NU offensive lineman Zach Strief a first-team All-American.  The FWAA's pick was formally announced on December 10.

Strief is the first Wildcat named to a major first-team All-American lineup since Damien Anderson in 2000, and the first NU lineman since Chris Hinton in 1982.  Congratulations Zach!

Sun Bowl, UCLA Preview [posted Dec. 13; updated Dec. 19]

OK, I'll admit it: if anyone had told me at the end of September that NU and UCLA would meet in a bowl game this season, I'd have advised them to give up building model airplanes as a hobby, since the glue fumes had obviously gotten to them.  The Wildcats were licking their wounds from being ripped by Arizona State and losing a heartbreaker to Penn State.  UCLA was undefeated, climbing to an eventual peak at #7 in the rankings, and was seen as a realistic dark horse for the BCS title game.  NU had lost a slew of players the previous month to injuries and lost one of its key defensive players-- to Arizona State.

Of course, Northwestern proceeded to reel off consecutive wins over Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State, and the Wildcat offense has gone on a record-setting tear.  And so the 'Cats clawed their way to a winning season, a bowl berth, and they're facing an opponent that was a national champion contender early in the season.  Seems like old times-- this is what NU has faced in five of its six bowl games.  In 1949, the upstart and underdog Wildcats faced an undefeated Cal team that was looking to secure a national championship in the Rose Bowl.  In 1996, the 'Cats played USC, the preseason #1 team in the nation.  In 1997, the 'Cats played Tennessee, the preseason #1 team in the nation.  And in 2000, NU faced Nebraska-- you guessed it-- the preseason #1 team in the nation.  Northwestern has, with fair consistency, faced up to bowl competition that has been in the national spotlight and has either still been in the hunt for glory or has recently slipped up and is looking for redemption.  And the results have been mostly unfortunate.

Put UCLA in the latter group of Wildcat competitors.  The Bruins were simply a juggernaut for most of the season, but could never crack the top five, and many observers waited for the other shoe to drop.  And drop it did, in Arizona, where UCLA suffered a 52 to 14 humiliation at the hands of a far less-talented Wildcat team than NU.  The Bruins rebounded by spanking Arizona State, the same team that dumped Northwestern in September.  But then came the USC game.  UCLA's fatal flaw, its run defense, was exploited in tragic fashion.  UCLA, once looking at the BCS, now eyes El Paso, and it is searching for redemption.

To achieve it, the Bruins will rely on the very same thing that NU will rely on to stop them: a multi-weaponed, balanced offense that puts up as many points as quickly as possible.  UCLA and NU are in many ways very similar teams, and those similarities begin with their fantastic quarterbacks.  Their senior quarterbacks, the #14s, are the clear commanders of the offenses and have been shattering school records throughout 2005.  The Bruin #14, Drew Olson, is phenomenal.  Olson's efficiency rating prior to the USC game was 172.5, by far the best in the country.  Olson has completed two-thirds of his passes, has notched over 3,000 yards, and has thrown an eye-popping 31 touchdowns, blowing away the UCLA record, which was held by a little-known signal caller named Cade McNown.  The Bruin offense is averaging 282 passing yards per game and 8.5 yards per pass-- not per catch, per pass.  Olson still leads the nation in touchdown passes per game, and he was one of five finalists for the Manning Award for best college QB.

Olson has no lack of talented players to which he can toss the leather.  The Bruins have a strong brace of receivers and tight ends, led by tight end Marcedes Lewis, a finalist for the Mackey Award.  Lewis, recently named All-American by the FWAA, has had 58 catches for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Of the wide receivers, Joe Cowan stands out with 34 catches, 458 yards and three touchdowns.

The Bruin air game will be the best Northwestern has seen this year, and we should expect the Wildcat defense to be tested to its limit.  So far NU's defense has seemed to rely on the opposing offense eventually making a mistake: hang around, bend but don't break, don't give up too many points, and eventually the opposing quarterback will throw one your way-- be ready.  Or so the NU philosophy seems to have been this year, and it's worked: in several games the Wildcat defense has come up with a game-changing interception.  However, that approach will be dead on arrival in El Paso.  Olson has given up three interceptions this year.


Olson is just drop-dead accurate, so if the defense waits around for him to make a mistake, it will have to stick around to see if he utters a gaffe in his post-game victory interview, because that's NU's only chance of finding one with Olson.  No, the Wildcat defense is going to have to gut this one out, covering the UCLA receivers so that every square inch of powder blue is draped in purple, and applying as much pressure as possible on the Bruin pocket.

Getting to Olson will be very difficult; the UCLA line is very good.  Senior Mike McCloskey is fantastic, but he has been plagued with ankle and shoulder injuries.  If McCloskey is back to normal he will be a formidable obstacle for the NU defense.  [Update: McCloskey's injuries will prevent him from playing.  Backup center Robert Chai suffered a knee injury in practice last week.  His status is not clear, and the center position is becoming a concern for the Bruins.]  Senior Ed Blanton is also very dependable on the line.

As mentioned earlier, the UCLA offense does have balance, and its rushing game is led by junior Maurice Drew.  Drew, named an All-American for his kick return efforts, has rushed for 900 yards, averaging a respectable 4.9 yards per carry.  Drew's scored 20 touchdowns so far and has set a UCLA record for all-purpose yards.  But his most dangerous talent is punt returning.  Of his touchdowns, six have come from taking a punt return to the goal.  So far he's averaged 29 yards per punt return (compare this to the 8.5 yards UCLA's opponents have averaged returning Bruins' punts).  This is a key to the game: NU must execute flawlessly on its punt downs, and it must kick the ball away from Maurice Drew.  In fact, if NU is in a fourth and short situation and there is a question of whether or not to go for a first down, the 'Cats should default to the offense: UCLA's defense has given up 18 of 24 fourth down attempts by their opponents this year.

And there lies another similarity with Northwestern.  The UCLA defense has had trouble with the fourth down conversion, and it has obviously been challenged to stop opponents, period.  With the Bruins, that challenge obviously comes from its run defense, which has allowed 239 rushing yards per game.  Assuming Tyrell Sutton plays with focus (and the Wildcat line brings its top-tier game), he should have a spectacular day.

One player on the UCLA defense that will definitely give Basanez, Sutton and company fits is linebacker Spencer Havner.  Havner has 92 tackles (15 for loss), two sacks and two interceptions, and he was a semifinalist for the Butkis Award.  Senior safety Jarrad Page is another name to listen for.  Page has been one of the best defensive backs in the Pac 10 this year.

The Bruin defense, however, has made only five total interceptions this year, including Havner's two, and has not been very opportunistic.  With Sutton tearing up yards and the UCLA defense focused on the run, Basanez should be able to execute with authority.

Given the Bruins' efficient, accurate and effective offense and Northwestern's quick and high-powered offense, this game will hinge on which defense steps up.  It will also possibly hinge on special teams.  As mentioned, the punting game and fourth-down strategy will be very interesting to watch.  On the other side, UCLA's punter, Aaron Perez, is decent, averaging just under 40 yards per kick.

UCLA's terrific place kicker, Justin Medlock, has been suspended indefinitely from the program, and no one else on the team has handled a single kickoff or field goal try.  Medlock had averaged nearly 77% on his field goals, including a 51-yarder, and his loss is significant.  Who will replace Medlock?  It seems unlikely that Perez would, and there are two true freshman kickers on the UCLA roster.  [Update: the two walkon freshman kickers, Brian Malette and Jimmy Rotstein, are competing for the kicking spot in practice.]  This will certainly affect the Bruins' offensive strategy, especially as their offense approaches the NU red zone, where the Wildcat defense actually has had some nice success this season stopping opponents.

While NU will probably be able to avoid punting to Drew, the 'Cats might have a more difficult time keeping their kickoffs out of the hands of Chris Markey.  Markey is also lethal on kick returns, averaging 22.5 yards per return.  Hopefully the 'Cats will be able to boot a few out of the end zone.  If not, expect to see more pop-ups, and very good field position for UCLA.

The Wildcats, if they are to win this game, must [CAUTION: CLICHÉ ALERT!] play for 60 minutes.  Trite, but true, more so in this game than most.  NU likes to pride itself, especially under Coach Walker, as a fourth quarter team.  Well, UCLA is the fourth quarter team, bar none.  This season, the fourth quarter has been the best period for the Bruins, both on offense and defense.  In fact, UCLA has outscored its opponents so far 142 to 55 in the final period, and the Bruins have staged four spectacular fourth quarter comebacks in 2005: against Washington (10 points down), Cal (12 points), Washington State (17 points), and Stanford (a stupefying 21 points down).  As Northwestern well knows after this season, no lead is safe, and against UCLA, no lead-- no matter how big, no matter how late-- will mean anything until the teams walk off the field.  The Wildcat offense had better be well rested and ready to go, because they'll likely have at least two full drives in the last two minutes alone.

Of course, if NU's offense lays an egg it won't matter what the defense does-- the 'Cats will be blown out of the stadium.  If, however, both units play to their capacity (think back to how the NU offense looked in the Michigan State game and how the NU defense played in the second half of the Iowa game), then this should be one of the best bowl games of 2005, including the BCS matchups. 

Up 22-0, Northwestern Goes On to Lose to UCLA 50-38
[posted Dec. 31]

In the HailToPurple.com Sun Bowl preview, one warning that was mentioned was, "no lead is safe."

Yes, but twenty-two points?

That was the lead Northwestern found itself owning, and then wasting, as the 'Cats went on to fall to UCLA in the Sun Bowl, 50-38.  The game was Northwestern's fifth straight bowl loss, leaving NU's bowl drought as dry and as looming as ever.

To put NU's 22-0 start, and eventual loss, in perspective: no Northwestern football team, in the program's illustrious 129-year history, has ever come back from a deficit of 22 or more points to win a game.  Never-- not in 1996, and not in 2000.  But the Bruins did just that, thanks in part to a stunning turnaround for UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, a dramatic performance by Bruin running back Chris Markey, and disturbing breakdowns by the Wildcat ground offense and special teams.

The Wildcat defense, however, began the game looking like the Chicago Bears' defense.  NU forced UCLA to go three and out to start the match, with Barry Cofield and Kevin Mims providing key stops.  After a Joel Howells field goal, UCLA tried to answer, but Mims intercepted the usually-perfect Olson and ran the ball back for a touchdown.  The Sun Bowl crowd, just a couple hundred short of a sellout and overwhelmingly composed of Wildcat fans, went berserk, and Northwestern enjoyed a 9-0 lead.  However, the Great NU Special Teams Disaster of 2005 began in earnest on the point after try, which was blocked.

Before the Wildcat faithful could retake their seats, Olson threw another interception, this time to Bryan Heinz.  Heinz, who had just returned to the team from an injury that forced him to sit out the regular season, packed an entire season into one catch, coming up with the critical pick on the UCLA 36-yard line.  With a short field, NU quarterback Brett Basanez had little trouble carving up the Bruins, and Mark Philmore punched in the 'Cats' third score with just over six minutes to go in the first quarter.

Once again, Howell's extra point attempt failed, and the 'Cats' Special Teams Disaster had left two points on the field.  However, the 'Cats did have a 15-0 lead, their largest lead in a bowl game ever.

NU would add to that lead less than two minutes later.  Unbelievably, Olson threw his third interception, equaling his picks for the entire season.  This time Nick Roach grabbed the ball, and this time Roach streaked to the endzone and gave NU a 21-0 lead.  Howell's extra point was good, and NU had a seemingly commanding 22-0 lead and was clearly eyeing its first bowl win since 1949.

And then the Bruins turned off the lights.

On its next drive, UCLA methodically drove 80 yards in over four minutes-- all of its yards on the ground.  It took UCLA Coach Dorrel nearly the entire first quarter to figure it out, but when he did, the game was over: NU cannot stop the Bruins' rushers.  And so Chris Markey and Kahlil began vivisecting the Wildcats with abandon.  With the NU defense now panicking to try to stop the newly-launched Bruin ground game, Olson was free to regroup, collect himself, and start over.

Olson responded by throwing a 58-yard touchdown bomb, and NU's lead was slashed to eight.  The wheels were coming off.  Basanez and company drove down the field, but Basanez and his receivers never quite found the synch they had established and enjoyed for much of the season.  On the drive's ninth play, from the UCLA 14-yard line, Basanez was intercepted, and the Bruins resumed their deadly rushing game.

It took UCLA just five plays-- again, all of them on the ground-- to race 90 yards and erase Northwestern's lead for good.  Markey and Bell simply tore through the Wildcat defense, and NU had no answer, no means, no way to stop the bleeding.

NU's Special Teams Disaster continued on the following drive.  Gerald Hamlett muffed the UCLA kickoff and recovered on the Wildcat eight-yard line.  But Basanez, with help from Tyrell Sutton and wide receiver Ross Lane (who had a fantastic game), rallied the 'Cats and drove to the UCLA 20.  Predictably, Howell's kick for the lead was blocked.  The S.T.D. unit had now left five points on the field.

UCLA, however, was leaving nothing on the field.  The Bruins took the lead for the first time, and took it for good, on the next drive.  NU linebacker Tim McGarigle was impressive, flying around the field to make stops, but one player simply can't contain 11, and UCLA began to balance its attack, throwing and rushing effectively.  Northwestern had a shot at a field goal at the end of the first half, but with confidence in the S.T.D. unit scraping zero, the 'Cats were forced to take a shot at the endzone and came up with nothing.

A Sutton fumble in the third quarter set up the kill shot for UCLA, as the Bruins quickly scored and went up 36-22.  With NU's offense not firing on all cylinders, and NU's defense and S.T.D. reeling, the UCLA lead was, indeed, safe.

Basanez and the Wildcat offense then drove 72 yards but could not reach the goal.  Forced into another kicking situation, NU offered up redshirt freshman Amado Villarreal, who successfully booted a 31-yarder.  It looked like momentum might actually shift toward NU, and the Wildcat defense held UCLA to midfield on the next drive.  Faced with a fourth down and one from midfield, UCLA decided to go for the first down, but McGarigle stuffed Markey at the line of scrimmage for a huge turnover on downs.  Unfortunately, dropped balls to Jonathan Fields and T.J. Jones doomed the drive, and NU punted.

The 'Cats got another opportunity in the fourth quarter, when Adam Kadela forced Markey to fumble near midfield, but again the Wildcat offense stalled.  After swapping punts, the 'Cats were able to drive for a score with under three minutes left.  Basanez, Sutton and Philmore got into gear and moved the ball to the Bruin eight-yard line, where Basanez found Philmore for the touchdown.  However, Basanez was intercepted on the two-point conversion, and NU remained five points down.

That's when the S.T.D. took center stage.  NU's onside kick went straight to UCLA's Brandon Breazell, who returned it for a touchdown, and delivered what appeared to be a knife in the Wildcats' last shot at a bowl win.  The Wildcats, however, responded as they did so often this season, tearing up the field wildly on offense.  Basanez completed passes to Lane, Philmore and Shaun Herbert, and NU scored again to come within five points of UCLA.

However, this time NU had only 24 seconds left to perform a successful onside kick and throw a Hail Mary.  The S.T.D made its last appearance, kicking the exact same onside kick that it executed just two minutes earlier.  And, just like two minutes earlier, Brandon Breazell caught the ball and returned it for a UCLA touchdown.  With the extra point, UCLA posted 50 points and the win.  For Northwestern, the end provided an unfortunate finish to a remarkable season.

NU had put together a season with six or more wins for the third time in a row, the first such series of seasons since 1931.  It enjoyed wins over ranked teams, and-- for the first time since 2001-- it was itself ranked in the A.P. Poll, for two weeks.  It cracked the BCS rankings, stayed in them for four weeks and appeared in the final BCS rankings for the first time ever.  It offered up Zach Strief, the team's first All-American in five years.  It made it to the school's sixth-ever bowl game.  But then, it...

Twenty-two points.  A big number.  But not nearly as big as 57 years.

NU Sets School Bowl Records [posted Dec. 31]

The Wildcats' performance in the 2005 Sun Bowl set several records for Northwestern in a bowl game.  Among the major school bowl records that the team broke against UCLA are:

  • Most points: 38 (previous: 32 vs. USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl)
  • Most touchdowns: 5 (previous: 4 vs. Tennessee, 1997 Citrus; 4 vs. USC, 1996 Rose)
  • First downs: 33 (previous: 23 vs. USC, 1996 Rose)
  • Yards, total offense: 584 (previous: 475 vs. USC, 1996 Rose)
  • Passing yards: 416 (previous: 336 vs. USC, 1996 Rose)
  • Touchdown passes: 2 (ties with: 2 vs. Tennessee, 1997 Citrus)
  • Individual passing yards: Brett Basanez, 416 (previous: Steve Schnur, 336 vs. USC, 1996 Rose)
UCLA broke only one major record for a Northwestern opponent in a bowl game.  Chris Markey's 23 rushing attempts are the most by an NU opponent in a bowl game (the previous record was 21 by Josh Harris in the 2003 Motor City Bowl).  More NU bowl records can be seen by clicking here.