"It's been a tough year.
But I know his spirit was with all of our young men throughout the
year-- through the ups and downs. You just have to trust in the plan,
but first you have to trust in yourself. I'm so proud of those guys in
that locker room. I know that they trust in themselves, I know that
they trust in this program. I'm just really excited in the future. . .
I think about Coach all the time."
With those words, spoken just minutes after Northwestern beat Illinois
and finished its 2006 season, Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald
described his team and its challenging and emotional year.
Everyone knew 2006 would be a year of transition even before the last
seconds of 2005 ticked away: the 'Cats would have to find a replacement
for quarterback Brett Basanez, the heart and soul of the offense for
the last four years. But, obviously, what no one could imagine
was that the signal-caller transition would be minor-- trivial-- to the
changes that lay ahead for the program.
Between the end of the 2005 campaign and the 2006 kickoff, Northwestern
football would go through some of the darkest and most challenging
moments in its history. The sudden, devastating loss of Coach Randy Walker at
the end of June defined the season and transformed the program.
With that transformation came regeneration and response. NU, in a
bold and gutsy move, named 31-year old former Wildcat star Pat
Fitzgerald as its head coach. Fitzgerald, himself dealing with
the loss of his mentor, faced a daunting task that would have given
even the most seasoned head coaches pause.
And that task was not without moments of setback. The 'Cats
suffered two landmark defeats in 2006: a whipping at the hands of
Division I-AA New Hampshire at Ryan Field, and a 41 to 38 loss to
Michigan State, which came back from an NCAA-record 35 points down.
NU won just four games, but-- given the awful circumstances with the
program transition, the emotions involved, the quarterback changes, and
a string of unfortunate injuries before and during the season-- those
four games represent a response to adversity that should give Wildcat
fans comfort and hope for the next season. NU showed that it can
compete and-- through gutsy and determined performances against Iowa
and Illnois-- win.
The season is over, the sorrow surely remains, the memories build onto
legend and tradition, and the Wildcats grow, transform, and prepare to
carry Coach Walker's legacy of relentless pursuit of excellence into
What follows are excerpts
from some of the comments posted on this site during the course of the
NU Announces New Coaches [posted Feb. 23]
on February 23 officially announced that former wide receivers coach
Garrick McGee will succeed Mike Dunbar as the Wildcats' offensive
coordinator. Replacing McGee at wide receivers will be former
running backs coach Kevin Johns. Johns' spot will be filled by a
new hire, Matt MacPherson. NU's offensive line coaching position,
vacated by James Patton, will also be filled by a new staff member,
Coach Dunbar left Northwestern to become the offensive coordinator for
the University of California. Dunbar had left his position as
Northern Iowa head coach in 2001, becoming an assistant coach and
special teams coordinator for NU. In 2002 Wildcat offensive
coordinator Kevin Wilson left, and Walker named Dunbar to succeed
On February 6 the University of Oklahoma announced that it has hired NU
offensive line coach James Patton to the same position on the Sooner
football coaching staff. Oklahoma's offensive coordinator is
former Wildcat offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who has also been
coaching OU's offensive line.
Patton was the last remaining member of Coach Walker's staff who had come with him from Miami of Ohio in 1999.
NU Extends Walker's Contract [posted Apr. 25]
announced on April 23, a day after the Spring Game, that it has agreed
to extend Coach Randy Walker's contract as head coach through the 2011
season. Coach Walker's current contract had previously been
extended in 2000, when the 'Cats won the Big Ten title, and ran through
Athletic Director Mark Murphy, announcing the extension on Monday,
said, "I'm really pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with
Randy on a contract extension. I have tremendous respect for the
way he runs the program. We've enjoyed great success in recent years.
Just as significantly, we've seen this improvement while continuing to
be one of the nation's leaders in football student-athlete graduation
rate and winning the AFCA Academic Achievement Award three of the past
Should Coach Walker remain at NU through the period of the new
contract, he will have coached the 'Cats for 13 seasons, which would
give him the school's record for longevity (Pappy Waldorf coach at NU
for 12 seasons, from 1935 through 1946). Of course, Walker is
closing in on another of Waldorf's records: Waldorf is NU's winningest
coach. His teams won 49 games, and Walker's have so far won 37,
giving him sole possession of second place.
Sports Publications Offer
Preseason Predictions and Previews
[posted May 29 & updated through June 25]
As summer arrives, we can expect 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.
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 has occasionally
bucked that trend and the conventional thinking: in 2001, coming off its Big Ten
title, NU was a Big Ten favorite in many of the preseason
During the past three preseasons, however, almost all of the
magazines picked NU to finish ninth in the conference, and almost all of the
magazines grossly underestimated the 'Cats. Of the 2005 previews, the most
accurate was by NationalChamps.net, which picked NU to finish seventh in the
conference (only four spots under NU's third-place finish...). Phil Steele, the
most honored football prediction guru in the country, again blundered
miserably. He picked NU ninth in 2004 (NU finished fourth), and then turned in
a prediction of 10th place for NU in 2005. That was the lowest pick for the
'Cats last year, and it gives Mr. Steele sole possession of last year's least
accurate NU prediction. Let's hope he keeps this particular crown in 2006,
since he's picked NU to finish ninth.
Here is a recap of what the larger
'Net and print publications have predicted so far for NU in 2006. There are
only a few so far-- this page will be updated throughout the summer as more
previews and predictions roll in.
The 2006 Wildcat Predictions:
note: Each year's Season Review Page includes the preseason
predictions. The predictions are typically updated right until
the season kickoff. Due to the events surrounding NU at the end
of June, however, I stopped updating the predictions page. I also
usually point out on the Season Review Page which media sources had the
most accurate prediction, and which had the least. This year,
strangely, each of the media sources had at least one part of its
prediction for NU turn out to be very accurate, so no winner is
declared for 2006.]
- The first magazine out this spring is Lindy's, and it upgrades its usual ninth-place
prediction, raising the 'Cats to eighth place in the conference, ahead of
Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. However, Lindy's keeps NU at 62nd nationally,
the same spot it placed NU in the 2005 preseason. It does give credit to Sutton
and Cole, naming them to its first-team All Big Ten. Inevitably, Lindy's will
make at least one glaring factual error each year in its NU preview (in the past
it has referred to NU's head coach as "Gary Walker."), and this year is no
exception. It lists 2002 as "the last season that the Wildcats did not go to a
bowl." Apparently, the folks at Lindy's showed up at NU's 2004 bowl game, even
though no one else did.
- CollegeFootballNews.com has released its full
preseason preview, and it puts the 'Cats in 56th place nationally, and ninth in
the Big Ten (behind MSU, and ahead of the usual suspects). It also notes
Sutton, calling him "fantastic." The Wildcat offensive line, even with the loss
of Strief, "has the potential to be among the Big Ten's best." It docked NU
because of the effect of losing Basanez and McGarigle, and it sites NU's
punishing schedule and road games.
- Writing for ESPN, Ivan Maisel has submitted his post-spring top
25 list, on which he places four Big Ten teams. Although NU is not one of them,
it is on his short list of seven teams also receiving consideration for the top
25 (Wisconsin is also on the "also receiving consideration" list). This is one
of the highest preseason mentions for NU in the last few years...
- ...but it isn't the highest. No, that goes to the list posted
by Greg Amsinger (from CBS Sports' "Off
Prompter with Greg Amsinger" on cstv.com). Amsinger puts NU at 25th in the
nation on his preseason list. He has four Big Ten teams ahead of the 'Cats,
with OSU at #1. This is by far the highest prediction for NU since
- Webmaster James Howell calculates weekly "Power Rankings"
during the season. His 2006 preseason power ratings have NU in 43rd place
nationally, and eighth place in the conference, ahead of Michigan State (52nd),
Indiana (90th) and Illinois (97th). NU is ranked above all of its
non-conference opponents. Miami (O) is 51st, Nevada is 72nd, and EMU is 110th
(New Hampshire is Div. I-AA and is not represented on the power
- Hot on the heels of Lindy's, Athlon released its annual during the first
week of June. It seems as if there is a threshold for these annuals and their
ratings for NU: if they feel good about the 'Cats, they'll rank NU just above
57th place in the nation (but not much higher). If the magazines feel NU's
talent is off from previous seasons, they'll drop NU below 57 (and possibly a
lot lower). This threshold-- the "Heinz
Line" at 57-- seems to be the same for NU every year. Athlon clearly likes what
they see for NU this fall: they have the 'Cats at 56 in the nation-- above the
Heinz Line. Athlon also puts NU at eighth in the conference, ahead of Minnesota
and the basement Hooslini. It predicts that NU will beat New Hampshire, Eastern
Michigan, Nevada, and Illinois, and that the Miami and MSU games are too close
- The Sporting
News offers a similar win/loss prediction as Athlon, but ranks NU
considerably lower. TSN predicts that NU will go 5-7 in 2006, and 2-6 in the
Big Ten, winning against New Hampshire, Eastern Michigan, Nevada, Michigan State
and Illinois. TSN also ranks the Wildcats #3 in the conference for strength of
schedule, but ranks them overall at only 77th nationally (the worst of the
national predictions so far) and predicts that they'll finish ninth in the Big
Ten, ahead of only the Hooslini. TSN cites the usual losses (Basanez, etc.),
and the killer schedule stretch of Michigan, Iowa, and OSU. It is glowing and
to the point, however, with its opinion of the Wildcat coach: "Randy Walker is
the best coach in the Big Ten."
- The much-anticipated annual from Phil Steele also slots NU at ninth in the Big
Ten. As with most of the preseason magazines, Steele's annual states that
Basanez's replacement will potentially make or break the season: "If their QB
play is solid in B10 play, the Cats have a good shot at getting back to a
bowl." Steele absolutely loves the Wildcat offensive line, ranking it fourth in
the nation: "Randy Walker has done a fine job producing solid O-lines. They had
to replace three starters last year and then lost [center] Trevor Rees prior to
the year. The line, with one starter back, only allowed 11 sacks (2.1%!), while
the Cats average 5.0 ypc rushing. This year four starters return, as does Rees,
so basically five starters are back." Steele ranks Rees the #11 center in the
nation. He also ranks Tyrell Sutton the #17 running back. However, he looks
with dread at NU's conference and road schedule.
[posted June 30]
Coach Walker's Memorial Service Set for July 6 [posted July 4]
Northwestern football program, saddled with a decade-long series of moments of
grief and loss, mourns again. Head coach Randy Walker died suddenly of a heart
attack on June 29.
Coach Walker was 52 years old.
funeral for Northwestern football head coach Randy Walker will be held
on Thursday, July 6 at 10:00 a.m. CDT at the First Presbyterian Church
in Evanston. The service is open to the public, but seating will
Whether or not you are able to attend Coach Walker's memorial,
HailToPurple.com urges you to wear your colors on Thursday. Wear
purple to work. If you have an NU flag, fly it. If you have
an NU car flag, display it.
Please note that the front page of HailToPurple.com will be taken
off-line from Thursday morning, July 6, through Friday morning, July 7,
in tribute to Coach Walker.
[posted July 6]
NU Names Randy Bates to Wildcat Staff: Reports [posted July 21]
[posted July 7]
FRIDAY, JULY 7-- Mark Murphy has selected current linebackers coach Pat
Fitzgerald as the new head football coach of the Northwestern Wildcats.
Mr. Murphy, NU's athletic director, announced his decision at a news
conference Friday afternoon in Evanston. Coach Fitzgerald
succeeds Coach Randy Walker. Mr. Murphy announced that Coach
Fitzgerald is not an interim coach, but the long-term choice. NU
President Henry Bienen stated, "this is something that Randy would have
Selected comments from Mr. Murphy:
"It wasn't practical to conduct a full search outside of the program...
The program is stable, [which] is a tribute to Randy. . . Ultimately an
interim coach would have hurt recruiting [and] create turmoil.
This will be part of the healing process. . . When we looked at
the current staff, one person really stood out, and that was Pat
Fitzgerald. He has all the qualities you look for in a head
coach. . . He is a natural leader. . . He has a tremendous
knowledge of Northwestern.
"In 2004 Randy started to think about the end of his career. . . we talked about the future of the program.
Randy has tremendous respect for Pat. . . Randy told me, 'I want him to succeed me.'
"Pat is young. He's 31, but that's just a number. . . He's mature
beyond his years. I've seen him grow tremendously. "
Selected comments from Coach Fitzgerald:
"It has been a roller coaster of emotions. I'm very humbled and very honored to continue Randy's legacy of success.
"This isn't about me; it's about us-- a Northwestern family that is
grieving deeply. . . Walker would tell me to trust the
"It's a dream of mine to be head football coach here, but not under
these circumstances. Walker [said to me] 'in 2012 I'll turn it
over to you.'. . . This wasn't in the plan.
"I Have a call to duty. The staff has a call to duty. The players have a call to duty.
"I believe in the plan. Once we get to August 3 the plan is set.
Come August, we will be prepared to compete for the Big Ten
"I am going to rely on my staff and their mentors. I am going to rely on my staff to coach.
"I am going to ask the entire Wildcat Nation to get involved."
Fitzgerald, an All-American at NU and the only two-time winner of
national defensive player of the year, is among the most honored
players in Wildcat football history. At 31, he becomes the
youngest head coach in the nation, and the youngest NU head coach since
Rick Venturi, who was also 31 when John Pont selected him for the
job. Fitzgerald is also the first NU alumnus to lead the Wildcats
The similarities between Coach Fitzgerald and Coach Venturi end there,
however. Rick Venturi came into his position at a time when the
Northwestern administration offered no real support to its athletic
department and there was a five-year legacy of departmental
decay. Coach Fitzgerald, to be sure, will face tremendous
challenge, but he does so with the support of an administration that
has perspective and a good strategic vision, an athletic director who
has a track record of success, players of a stable and solid team, and
the fans, who are galvanized by this bold and inspired choice.
Pat Fitzgerald has answered a call to duty. We wish him all good
luck in fulfilling it.
and Scout.com both reported Thursday evening that Northwestern has
selected current Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Randy Bates to
fill Pat Fitzgerald's former spot as the Wildcats' linebackers
coach. As of early Friday morning there is no official word of
According to the Louisiana Tech Website, Bates is the Bulldogs' inside
linebackers coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in Spring
2005. Last year Bates "led the Bulldogs to one of the program's
top [defensive] performances in the last decade." The Bulldogs'
defense gave up the fewest points since 1994.
Bates had served as linebackers coach at New Hampshire from 1992
through 1997 and at Kent State from 1998 through 1999. He began
coaching at Louisiana Tech in 2000, where he has also coached the
Guess the Coach! [posted Aug. 2]
OK, so the trivia question of the week
is being mothballed this season. Well, to make up for no weekly trivia, here's
a gem of a trivia question.
See if you can guess the Northwestern coach
I'm describing in the following statements...
And the answer is.....
- He was named the Wildcats' head
coach after NU unexpectedly had to find a replacement in the
- NU's former coach had won the Big
Ten, in part due to innovations he made to the Wildcat offense. The former
coach was known primarily as a mentor, and had directly mentored this new
- NU thought about conducting an
internal and external search for its new head coach, but decided to go with the
former coach's recommendation: it turns out that, in earlier discussions with
NU's athletic director, the former coach essentially hand-picked this coach to
be his successor.
- The new coach was just 31 years old
when he took the top job at NU.
- He had experience as an assistant
coach, but no experience as a coordinator or head coach.
- He was a Wildcat alumnus, the first
alumnus to serve as NU head coach in roughly 30 years.
- As a Wildcat player, he was named
- As a Wildcat player, he led the
team to the Big Ten championship.
Voigts! Voigts was named NU's head coach in the spring of 1947, succeeding
Pappy Waldorf. During his first year as head coach, his team won three games.
The following season Voigts' Wildcats won the Rose Bowl.
'Cats Open at Miami of Ohio [posted Aug. 6]
HOW GOOD IS MIAMI SUPPOSED TO
Last year Miami
went 7-4 under first-year head coach Shane Montgomery, but they did so loaded
with senior talent. The RedHawks return five starters on offense, but only two
They must replace quarterback Josh Betts. The likely
successor to Betts is junior Mike Kokal, who appears to have the starting job
locked up given his performance in Miami's practices this month. Kokal has
started one game in his career and is light on experience. Miami does, however,
retain running back Brandon Murphy. Murphy ran for over 1,000 yards last year
and is similar to NU's Sutton: Murphy is small (5'8", 188 lbs.), but explosive
and very fast. The RedHawk offensive line will be very new, but if they can
offer even modest blocking Murphy should have another great year.
RedHawk defense is starting from scratch. The defensive line lost three
starters and could be a weak spot early on. The linebacker corps lost a similar
amount of experience to graduation and will need a couple of underclassmen to
step up. However, Miami's defensive backfield does feature safety Joey Card and
the rest of the corners and safeties appear strong.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
NU will be
breaking in a new quarterback, and will be doing so against a decent RedHawk
defensive backfield. The Wildcat air attack will likely be held to a minimum.
However, the Wildcat offensive line should overwhelm the Miami trenches, and
NU's ground game should have wheels and road to burn. Sutton should have at
least 100 yards, and Jordan should also approach the 100-yard mark. In fact, it
wouldn't be a shock for both of them to exceed 100 yards by a wide
On defense, Northwestern faces a similar challenge to Miami's:
the 'Cats should be able to control the new RedHawk quarterback's passing game,
but Miami will approach NU's yards on the ground. Miami wide receiver Ryne
Robinson is good, but who will get him the ball?
The answer is
Northwestern's punter. Robinson is a good wideout, but he's a better punt
returner. NU has has, um, problems with its punt return coverage lately, and
Robinson will likely rip up yards on NU's punt team. Expect Miami to start
several drives in Northwestern territory and to rely on Brandon Murphy to grind
toward the goal.
Will the 'Cats be able to slow down Murphy? Probably
not, but NU just has more weapons than Miami right now.
should finally be able to shake off the curse that Miami has posed for this
team. Prediction: NU 28, Miami 20.
'Cats Beat Miami 21-3 [posted Aug. 31]
Wildcats beat Miami of Ohio. Northwestern might have bigger wins
in its history, but not many can vie for the amount of history, drama,
and backstory tied into a single game. Not with the landmark
losses NU seemed to find inevitably at the hands of the RedHawks.
Not with Coach Pat Fitzgerald making his debut in one of the most
emotional and surreal set of circumstances. And certainly not
with the memory of Coach Randy Walker filling the minds and hearts of
everyone watching, regardless of which team they supported.
Before the game, the first NU has ever played at a MAC stadium,
Northwestern and Miami honored Coach Walker by dedicating a plaque at
the Cradle of Coaches Plaza near Miami's stadium. NU athletic director
Mark Murphy spoke at the dedication. "This is really going to be
a special evening, to see the two programs that Randy built, squaring
off against each other." Both teams wore the same helmet
decal in honor of Walker, a very unusual move in any sport. Of
course, not much was usual about this game, which was to be Coach
Walker's great homecoming in Oxford. Instead, it was the site of
two universities paying their respects to a man to whom both owed a
And it was also the opening of the Pat Fitzgerald Era for the
Wildcats. "I just have pride," Fitzgerald exclaimed after the
game. "I'm a Northwestern Wildcat."
The current Wildcat players finally got a chance, after two agonizing
months, to play ball. NU's offense, helmed by a brand new
coordinator, led on the field by a brand new quarterback, played
tentatively at first, keeping the ball mostly in the hands of its
rushers. Miami expected this and loaded the box, keying on
sophomore Tyrell Sutton. The RedHawks held Sutton to 63 yards on
the ground. However, Sutton had a good game and would later find
success outside of the rushing lane.
Due to both team's early reliance on the run, the solid performances by
both defenses, and the new NCAA clock rules, the first half took only
an hour and ten minutes to play, and it ended in stalemate for the
teams. NU's defense, dabbling in 3-4 and 3-3-5 formations, looked
to be much improved from last season. The highlight was Demetrius
Eaton's crushing sack of Miami's Kokal.
The gridlock came to an end soon after halftime, courtesy of
Northwestern's ramped-up special teams. The squad that was a
disaster the last time it took the field-- in El Paso-- was fantastic
against Miami. Kicker Joel Howells offered workmanlike precision
on kicks, and Slade Larscheid returned to the field-- this time to
punt, and punt very effectively. But it was the heretofore
sporadic punt coverage team that came up with the play of the game, and
what would be the game winner.
As Miami was about to punt, super back Erryn Cobb broke through to
kicker Jake Richardson and slammed the ball to the ground. As the
ball bounced, Cobb then caught it, and-- in a flashfire-quick trifecta
of a play-- streaked eight yards into the endzone.
Miami answered with a field goal, kicked by Nathan Parseghian.
Parseghian is the great-grandnephew of Ara Parseghian, the former coach
of... Miami and Northwestern.
Northwestern's defense had come to play, its special teams were making
heads-up plays, and now it was time for the offense to respond.
And respond it did. Mike Kafka, who tore off several runs in the
first half (he would finish with more ground yards than Sutton), began
to throw with power and accuracy. One of those powerful throws
was a 19-yard bullet to Mr. Sutton for a touchdown.
Another Wildcat running back was also ready to respond. Terrell
Jordan lunged into the endzone for NU's third touchdown, finishing the
scoring and sealing NU's 21 to 3 win. Jordan, plagued with so
much bad luck and health problems in recent seasons, ran for 44
yards in the game, including the short touchdown run as well as a
spectacular 27-yard explosion earlier.
The three poins NU allowed is the best defensive scoring performance for the 'Cats since the Barnett Era.
After the game the players and Coach Fitzgerald presented the game ball to Tammy Walker.
"A lot of emotion was spent all game long," said Fitzgerald, "You kind
of got the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders, and you can
For Northwestern, moving on will be done in steps. Thursday night was the first step, and Northwestern took it with class.
Coach Walker to Be Honored During New Hampshire Game [posted Sept. 6]
released the details of its plans to honor Coach Randy Walker's memory before
and during the Wildcats' home opener with New Hampshire.
tributes actually began last week at Miami, when Northwestern wore patches above
their hearts, inscribed with the phrase "WALK." The team and staff will wear
these patches for the rest of the season. In addition to the uniform patches,
NU will display the "WALK" logo on the field this year.
Northwestern is renaming the throughway between the stadium and
Nicolet Center "Walker Way." Coach Fitzgerald and the players will institute a
new tradition when they will leave the team bus and walk to the stadium,
inviting fans to line Walker Way and "Walk with
- There will be a
moment of silence and a ceremonial coin toss with the Walker family prior to
- Prior to and
throughout the game, fans can stop by Touchdown Terrace and sign a large card,
which will be given to the Walker family after the game. Fans can also
contribute to the Walker Fund on Touchdown Terrace.
- A limited
number of Walker visors will be distributed to fans who attend the game. Visors
will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
Marching Band will perform a special halftime show in honor of Walker. One of
the songs the band will play is "Amazing Grace."
is Heroes' Day, and fans can email Northwestern's marketing office at
email@example.com and share their thoughts on why Coach Walker
was their hero.
UNH Is Ryan Field Opener [posted Sept. 4]
HOW GOOD IS NEW HAMPSHIRE SUPPOSED TO
Hampshire is supposed to be better than Division I-AA colleagues Montana State,
Richmond, and Portland State. Note that last week Montana State beat Colorado
(a win that did not even help Montana State in the Div. I-AA polls: MSU dropped a spot), Richmond beat Duke (helping
Richmond climb just four spots in the I-AA polls), and Portland State beat New
Mexico (granted, New Mex. is terrible, but Portland State remains unranked in
the I-AA polls). The point is that a Division I-AA opponent should never be
considered an automatic win, and New Hampshire is as good a Division I-AA team
as there is in the nation right now.
UNH is the preseason favorite in the
Atlantic 10 Conference. Among the team's preseason all-conference picks: wide
receiver David Ball, defensive back Corey Graham, quarterback Ricky Santos, and
offensive lineman Tucker Peterson.
Ball is five touchdowns shy of tying
Jerry Rice's all-time NCAA record for career touchdowns. He and Santos are on
the watch list for this year's Walter Payton Award, given to the best player in
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
written the glories of New Hampshire, we should still expect NU to win, and win
convincingly. UNH has a decided strength with its air attack; its quarterback
and receivers are good enough to play nearly anywhere. However, Northwestern
has overwhelming size, skill, and depth advantages on both offensive and
defensive lines, which should be enough to turn this game.
Northwestern's defense plays this Saturday like it did last Thursday, NU should
win this game in a rout. NU's defense, which scored five sacks at Miami, should
have Santos in its sights all afternoon. On the offensive side, NU's line
should be able to give Kafka and company all the time and space they
The only real question here: does NU look past UNH? Assuming
Northwestern comes out jacked up and ready to play (and there is absolutely no
reason to suspect that it won't), the Big Ten 'Cats should handle the Atlantic
Ten 'Cats. Prediction: NU 42, UNH 24.
NU Falls to New Hampshire [posted Sept. 9]
Hampshire defeated Northwestern 34-17 in the Wildcats' home opener at
Ryan Field. It was NU's first-ever defeat at the hands of a
Division I-AA team. New Hampshire jumped to a 13-0 lead after a
methodical UNH opening drive and a muffed NU kickoff return that set up
another UNH score. NU came back, taking a brief 14-13 lead, but
New Hampshire controlled the rest of the game and coasted to the win.
Genyk Returns to Ryan Field [posted Sept. 14]
HOW GOOD IS EASTERN MICHIGAN SUPPOSED TO
The Eagles are
struggling to improve their program, and they are succeeding, albeit gradually.
EMU went 4-7 last year, but Coach Jeff Genyk is making strides to turn things
around, especially on defense. Many of those losses last year were to good
teams, like Michigan and NIU, or were very close.
On defense, the
Eagles have a decent linebacking corps, led by middle linebacker Daniel
Holtzclaw. This unit is not very big, but they are quick and they are the
playmakers of the EMU defense. The Eagles' defensive line and secondary are
works in progress: the line is very small and the D backs lack
The EMU offense is led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Jones
and wide receiver Eric Deslauriers. Last week's quarterback and wide receiver
duo from New Hampshire gave NU fits; EMU's pair might not be quite as menacing.
Deslauriers is fantastic, but Jones is troubled by injuries and is questionable
for Saturday. The offensive line is experienced and is very good at giving
Jones and company time to pass. The running game needs improvement,
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
The question has
been bandied about all week: was the New Hampshire game this year's equivalent
of the 1995 Miami game-- the game NU should win but loses, which serves as a
wake-up call? Or was the loss to UNH a sign of things to come? We can expect
the answer to take shape this Saturday.
MSU Exacts Revenge [posted Oct. 22]
Eastern Michigan has a chance at disrupting NU's offense. If the
Wildcat offensive line plays slowly and without focus, the Emus' quick defensive
linemen will cause chaos in the NU backfield. As long as the NU line shows some
speed, NU should be able to establish an offensive rhythm and re-establish its
With Jones a question mark, the EMU offensive is a riddle as
well. Even so, the NU defense simply must perform better than it did last
week. Expect better execution, and with it a return to
The New Hampshire
game showed with nauseating clarity that no team can be taken for granted.
Neither can Eastern Michigan. If NU comes out soft against the Eagles, with the
same level of execution we saw against New Hampshire, the 'Cats will lose
again. However, if NU plays its game and plays it without the blunders we
watched last week, NU should get back on track. Prediction: NU 35, EMU 27.
'Cats Down EMU Eagles 14-6 [posted Sept. 17]
Wildcats chalked up their first home win of the season by beating
Eastern Michigan 14 to 6 in a game highlighting Northwestern's improved
defense. It also marked the return to Ryan Field of former NU
coach Jeff Genyk; the EMU head coach left NU in 2003. With the
win over the Eagles, Northwestern has won four straight over the MAC
Conference (Ohio, NIU, Miami and EMU). However, the game also
showed that the Wildcats are "a work in progress," and have several
steps they still need to take to be ready for Big Ten play.
"It's a lot better feeling to sit up here today with a victory," coach
Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. "As a coach you have two goals …
you want to win, and you want to play well. We have a long way to go
with number two."
Fitzgerald started quarterback Mike Kafka, but went with Andrew Brewer
in the second half. Kafka completed 10 of 18 passes for 76 yards
and ran five times for 33 yards. Kafka seemed to have no problems
after the game with the coaches' decision to put in Brewer: “Right now,
I feel great. To get the ‘W,’ that’s the main part of the whole
game. The coaches have confidence in me and Andrew, and the rest of the
quarterbacks. We’re just here to win.”
Both of Northwestern's touchdowns were scored on quarterback runs-- the first by Kafka, the second by Brewer.
The Wildcat offense in general, and the offensive line particularly,
however, seemed challenged. Tyrell Sutton, who rushed for 91
yards and 5.1 ypc, expressed the frustration afterwards: "We have to
focus a lot more. We know we have to put up some more points."
The defense, on the other hand, shut down Eastern Michigan
completely. Northwestern didn't allow a touchdown for the second
time this season. The last time NU held two opponents in a season
to six points or less was 1995.
Junior defensive end David Ngene was a madman, playing an
inspired game, but he was modest about his contribution to the Wildcat
defensive effort: "I guess everybody had it going. It's not just me. We
were all working off each other, working together as a team. I guess me
being out there didn't really have that much effect because everybody
was playing together as a whole."
And as a whole, NU's defense held the Eagles to just 134 yards. EMU was
an abysmal 2 of 15 for third down conversions (NU was 8 of 17).
Another defensive end, Corey Wootton, provided the play of the game,
notching NU's first interception of the year, with six minutes to go in
the game. Linebacker Nick Roach (who led NU's defense with nine
tackles) said of Wootton's pick, "We called a blitz and forced him to
get the ball away probably faster than he wanted to and make a bad
pass. Fortunately we had our defensive end in the right place and he
caught the ball."
On EMU's final drive the Wildcats made their second, and game-winning,
interception, when Deante Battle made the catch after the ball tipped
off the hands of Eagle receiver Travis Lewis. "The defensive line
was getting a lot of pressure, like on the last play," Battle said.
"[EMU quarterback Jones] threw a high ball and the receiver tipped it
and it just came right to me."
Coach Fitzgerald aptly summed up the situation in his post-game
commentary: "We are a young team and we're growing. You try to strive
and get one week better. But, at the same point, we need to go out
tomorrow right away and fix the things that are not working. The best
thing I saw from my players is that they are happy we won, but they
aren't satisfied. That means their attitude is in the right place."
Nevada Hosts First Game With NU [posted Sept. 17]
the heels of the New Hampshire and Eastern Michigan games, this is the
third series debut game in a row for the Wildcats, the longest string
of debut games for NU since 1905 (when NU played its first games with
Marquette, Ohio Northern, and Michigan State three weeks in a row).
And, looking into the realm of the completely trivial, this is believed
to be the eleventh game NU has ever played on a Friday. Of the
ten previous Friday games, NU has won five, lost four and tied
one. The most recent game NU played on a Friday was the 2005 Sun
HOW GOOD IS NEVADA SUPPOSED TO
should be pretty darn good. The 'Pack took the WAC championship last year.
Nevada unveiled its "pistol" offense last year (QB lines up in a "mini
shotgun"), and quarterback Jeff Rowe lit up opponents for 2,925 yards through
the air. Rowe is back, and he should be a pistol-packing terror this year.
Caleb Spencer, one of the best wideouts in the WAC, will be on the field to
catch Rowe's bullets. Don't overlook Nevada's ground game either: runningback
Robert Hubbard (former JUCO) has been dogged by injuries, but he should be at
100% early in the season, and is a difficult-to-slow ground threat, especially
with Nevada's very experienced offensive line escorting him forward.
of Nevada's defensive units appear to be solid. Watch out for linemen Charles
Wilson and Matt Hines, and linebacker Ezra Butler, who are superb. The star of
the defense could be cornerback Joe Garcia. The defensive line is very
powerful; Hines recently became the first player in Wolf Pack history to bench
500 pounds. Nevada, like NU, is switching to a 3-4 defense, having begun the
transformation last year.
Against Colorado State last week, Rowe and the
Wolf Pack offense were electric, thrashing the Rams 28-10. Rowe went 19 for 22
and 210 yards. Colorado State tried to rely on its ground game and screen
passing, both of which failed, as Nevada produced an effective and lethal
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
“I’ve got a
great problem,” Fitzgerald is quoted in the Daily Herald. “I have great
competition [at quarterback] and I’ve got great talent with both quarterbacks.
We kind of have a two-headed monster right now and I kind of like where we’re
going against Nevada."
For the monster's two-heads to work effectively
this week, its guts-- the line-- will have to step up. The offensive line will
face what should be its biggest test so far. With Hines bruising through at
nose and speed and size flanking him on the end, the 'Pack defense will be
gunning for Kafka and Brewer. Nevada's experienced linebackers will provide a
further nightmare for the NU ground game. When the 'Cats have the ball, expect
Nevada to continue the blitz fest that was evident against Colorado State, and
the 'Pack to bring the house and dare NU's dynamic duo to throw. NU's defense
won't have to dare Nevada to throw: Rowe will be airborne immediately.
Hopefully Deante Battle and the rest of NU's D-back crew will have the type of
game that they had last week. This will be a very tough challenge for all of
PISTOL-WHIPPED: NU Falls to Nevada 31-21 [posted Sept. 24]
The learning process for the Northwestern Wildcat football team continues.
PURDUE BEATS 'CATS 31 - 10 [posted Oct. 15]
And the lessons are coming fast and furious.
The Wildcat defense put up a valiant effort against Nevada's successful
pistol offense Friday night, showing that they have indeed improved
from last year and are nearing the needed final lessons to achieve true
competitiveness. The NU offense, however, showed that its course
work is ongoing. The offense displayed moments of brilliance and
potential, but self-destructed in a hail of turnovers and miscues as
Nevada cruised to a 31-21 win.
NU's three interceptions and two fumbles were the story of the
game. Add to them a missed field goal, a blocked field goal, and
a muffed return, and NU's self-inflicted wounds began to look like the
papercut contest in "Jackass: The Movie." While it made for an
unpleasant viewing experience, there is hope here: these mistakes were
just that: mistakes. They can be corrected. They can be
taught away. Fundamentally, the Wildcats showed some tremendous
potential in the Nevada game. Running back Tyrell Sutton ran for
94 yards, but he was the second-leading rusher on the team to
quarterback Mike Kafka, who took 111 yards on the ground (including a
stunning 55-yard rush).
Kafka also had 122 yards passing, and showed some great leadership and
flashes of solid play. Of course, he also dialed "Reno 911" by
tossing up three picks. The final interception was returned by
Joe Garcia for a touchdown with just over two minutes to play.
Kafka was injured by then, and the situation brought back memories of
Brett Basanez's performance his sophomore year against Air Force, when
he also was playing injured and also threw a string of
interceptions. But Basanez regrouped and continued his progress
toward greatness. There's no reason to think that Kafka is not on
a similar path. The offense's potential might be seen later this
year, or it might take until next season, but it is definitely there.
Northwestern also had its share of defensive playmakers-- Deante
Battle's amazing hit on Nevada quarterback Jeff Rowe snapped the ball
from his grasp and appeared to give NU possession (after Kevin Mims
recovered). However, the play was ruled out of bounds, and Nevada
came up with a first down. Brendan Smith's interception, however,
stood, and Smith raced 35 yards with the Wolf Pack pass. And
Battle, Eddie Simpson, John Gill, and Nick Roach all managed sacks.
NU Falls 41-9 [posted Oct. 8]
Wildcats were able to make a game of it in Madison for one half of
football, but could not hang with the Badgers for the full 60 minutes
and fell 41 to 9. NU was helped in the first half by three Badger
turnovers, but got no such support from Wisconsin later in the game.
The game began as a Badger fantasy on grass: NU won the toss, deferred,
and then attempted an onside kick, which Wisconsin recovered, giving
the Badgers midfield position. The opening play was eerily
reminiscent of the opening of the 2002 game at Iowa. In that game
NU also won the toss and elected to send out its porous defense onto
the field, surprising no one (and certainly not the Hawkeyes) when it
orchestrated a (botched) onside kick. The message in both games
was brutally clear: NU did not expect to win the game, and would do
anything to stop the bleeding even before the wound had been
created. In both games NU actually created the wound, and NU lost
both in disastrous fashion.
Wisconsin, after recovering the ball, took just two plays to reach the
Wildcat end zone, including the 61-yard scamper by P.J. Hill for the
score. Hill went on to a personal best day against NU, burning
his way through the Wildcat defense.
After a Badger field goal gave Wisky a 10-0 lead, NU tore back when
Sherrick McManis raced the kickoff return back for 47 yards, putting
Andrew Brewer in position for the QB sneak touchdown. However,
NU's special teams woes continued: Wisconsin easily blocked the point
A second-quarter field goal by Joel Howells put the Wildcats within one point.
The rest of the game was purple-free.
true to its play in its last two Big Ten games, held close to Purdue
last Saturday for one half before losing pace and falling to the
Boilermakers 31 to 10. The loss is NU's fourth straight, and--
with Indiana's upset of Illinois and shocking win over Iowa, it puts
the 'Cats in the Big Ten basement with surprise guests Michigan State
The Wildcats kicked off the scoring with a touchdown run by Brandon
Roberson. Roberson's seven-yard run was set up by a spectacular
37-yard bomb from Andrew Brewer to Shaun Herbert. Purdue
responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive to tie. The Boilers took
the lead for good in the second quarter on a 19-yard touchdown
pass. Wildcat kicker Joel Howells put Northwestern within four
points by sending a 43-yard field goal try just over the
crossbar. From there, however, the rest of the scoring came from
Northwestern's offense, which has been hampered
this season with uncertainty at quarterback, trouble fully utilizing its running
backs and receivers, and surprising levels of problems at the line, remained
ineffective. Even against Purdue's defense (ranked 115th in the nation before
last Saturday's confidence-builder), the 'Cats could muster only 251 yards and
12 first downs.
Brewer had a rough day, partially due to a line that
offered no protection and playcalling that put a bullseye on him all day (please
note: QB draws and third-and-long screen pass attempts do not a playbook make).
He was sacked five times, but did not give up the ball on the ground and threw
only one pick. However, NU has not thrown a touchdown pass since the Miami
Tyrell Sutton: remember him? Mr. Highlight Reel
2005? Well, we got to see a flash of what made Sutton
so exciting last season, when he was actually given the ball at last and ripped
54 yards through the Purdue defense. Unfortunately a minor injury seemed to
limit Sutton's carries, and he finished with only half the rushing attempts that
Brewer got. Of course this was mostly due to the 'Cats unloading the QB
Drawathon in the second half.
On defense, Marquice Cole provided the
show-stopping highlight with an absolutely jaw-dropping
sack for a ten-yard loss. Deante Battle also notched a sack, one of three
tackles for loss for Battle. And Corey Wootton caught a Boiler ball for a
But the story remains the same: with the Wildcat
offense going three-and-out so often (NU was a hapless 3 of 13 on third downs)
and with the persistent problems faced by the defense, the defense just could
not avoid getting worn down as the game progressed, and the second half did not
offer 'Cat fans much hope.
Coach Fitz addressed the second half drop-off
after the game: "One week of preparing for the third quarter obviously didn't
make a big difference and we didn't come out today and accomplish what I hoped
we would in the third quarter. But, at the same time, we have a locker room full
of guys who trust and believe in each other. We will find a way to get this
thing going in the right direction. We're going to find a way to win and we have
another opportunity to do that next week here at home."
is against Michigan State, and it's their last, best opportunity to get
unstuck. Just as NU provided the necessary tonic to Purdue's recent woes, so
MSU has been the pharmacist to the rest of the Big Ten lately. Let's hope the
Spartans have NU's prescription as well.
MSU Seeks Revenge [posted Oct. 17]
HOW GOOD IS MICHIGAN STATE SUPPOSED TO BE?
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
This question is probably more appropriate for Michigan State than any
other NU opponent this year: MSU is supposed to be just fine, but--
like so many recent MSU teams-- what is and what is supposed to be are
about as far apart as they can get. Coach John L. Smith's team is
always an enigma, and one that is always one choke job from
collapse. This year's cough-fest unhappily came during the Notre
Dame game, and Sparty has been in a tailspin since, losing a terrifying
game to the Illini and getting absolutely spanked by Ohio State.
And during that beating by the Buckeyes veteran quarterback Drew
Stanton took a severe personal beating as well. Stanton suffered
neck and back injuries, but will start against NU. MSU's running
game is also banged up: the Spartans lost their starting tailback to
injuries in the Illinois debacle. Still, the Spartan offense is a
capable one, and Stanton might be hurting, but he is still capable of
delivering pain as well.
Both teams are a
surprising 0-3 in the conference-- who wants it less? For the loser, the recent
slide will get a whole lot more steep, while the winner will get a chance at
turning things around, at least in terms of morale.
The 'Cats are down, but they aren't out. No one
thought this year would be easy, and Coach Fitzgerald's challenge is as daunting
as advertised. However, there's a lot of talent here-- both on the field and on
the sidelines. NU has three quarterbacks who each have some remarkable skills,
an offensive line that has talent and-- if it gels and puts together the
performance of which it is capable-- could be exceptional, and proven rushers
and receivers. Its coaches are finding their way, but look at the other side of
the field: MSU's coaches have no excuse. Fitzgerald and company are getting
experience and control; Smith has experience, yet is losing control. If I were
a player, I know from which sideline I'd want to take the field Saturday.
Wildcat fans have been waiting this year for The Statement Game. They
thought they saw it in Oxford. My guess is that they'll witness it this
Saturday. It's time to break one off, to uncork this team's creativity, passion
and frustrations, and to let them explode. It's time, for this week at least,
to Expect Victory again.
"Stop State at 28!"
That was the slogan
students and fans cheered on November 7, 1981-- 25 years ago-- when NU hosted
Michigan State. NU even printed and distributed buttons inscribed with the
slogan. NU had lost 28 games in a row, tying the NCAA record. When NU lost to
MSU it gave Northwestern the record for consecutive losses; the 'Cats would
eventually lose 34, still the record.
And so last Saturday NU again set
an unfortunate NCAA record, and again MSU was the guest to cause it.
again NU couldn't stop State at 28.
Michigan State, down by 35 points to
Northwestern with seven minutes to go in the third quarter, staged the largest
comeback in NCAA Division I-A history to beat NU 41 to 38. Having made up 28
points of this historic deficit in just 15 minutes of game time, MSU was poised
with four minutes to go in the game to tie it up, and-- for some fans in the
stands-- the call of "Stop State at 28" was heard once again. Drew Stanton
threw a touchdown pass with 3:43 to go, to even the score. NU's offense,
fantastic for most of the day until then, was intercepted on the very next play,
and MSU kicked a field goal to take the contest and the record. The Spartan
comeback erased the success that NU had found with its reinvigorated offense and
spectacular performances by its offensive backs and line, and it demonstrated
the chronic vulnerabilities within the Wildcat defense that we've witnessed for
the last several seasons.
Northwestern not only lost the game, it lost
its star linebacker. On a punt coverage assignment, Nick Roach went down with a
broken leg, an injury that will almost certainly end his career at NU. The loss
of Roach on defense was just one of a series of events that swung momentum back
to Michigan State and set the stage for their win.
Of the NU collapse and
the Spartan comeback, little more needs to be said-- the national press has
already covered the story to death, and we'll hear much more from them this
week. However, comment should be made concerning the Wildcat offense and its
Fans got a glimpse Saturday of just how much
potential the team has and what it is capable of with just a few key element
changes. The "surprise" return of quarterback C.J. Bachér and a couple of
changes to the line turned the Wildcat offense around. Coach McGee's playbook
also seemed to spring open-- was this due to increased confidence because of
Bachér? Was it part of continuous
improvements by the staff as they and the team evolve? Whatever the reason, it
worked and NU scored. Despite the vast chunks of yards NU's defense gave up to
the pass, the 'Cats still outgained MSU in total yards. Bachér
looked poised an in command for much of the game, and Tyrell Sutton (who was given 21 carries for the
day) finished with 173 yards, an impressive 8.2 yards per carry.
offense have a couple of bad breaks and a few bad plays in the fourth quarter?
Absolutely, but 38 points should have been enough to win this game. The
meltdowns came from special teams and the defense, and those problems can be
corrected. The corrections, however, come with sacrifice. After the game Coach
Fitzgerald simply said, "This is as difficult of a loss as I've ever been apart
of." The implications of this loss, however, and the solutions involved in
righting the program are also difficult, but Coach Fitzgerald must make the
difficult decisions required to handle them.
And the sooner the
Michigan Beats NU 17-3 [posted Oct. 28]
The NU defense
tightened up quite a bit after its soft performance against MSU, but the
Michigan Wolverines simply proved too much for Northwestern this year, defeating
NU 17-3 in Ann Arbor. The Wildcats were again plagued by turnovers, suffering
two lost fumbles and three interceptions.
Michigan's Adrian Arrington
opened the scoring, catching a Chad Henne pass for a 14-yard touchdown. The
Wildcat defense held the Wolverines to a field goal in the second quarter.
After staring at first and goal from near the four-yard line in the middle of
the third quarter, NU settled for a field goal to come back to within a
touchdown of Big Blue. However, Michigan finished the scoring late in the third
quarter with a short TD run by Mike Hart, and Michigan, ranked #2 in the
country, won its homecoming game and remained undefeated. For NU it was the
sixth straight loss.
Several Wildcat defensive players had a great game,
including Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith.
TRIUMPH IN IOWA [posted Nov. 5]
"This is the expectation of our football program."
Northwestern put an end to its six-game losing
skid on Saturday by trouncing the Iowa Hawkeyes 21 to 7. Before Saturday Iowa
had lost only two home games out of its last 30, including a close defeat this
season to top-ranked Ohio State. However, the Wildcat win was not that close:
NU, for the first time this season, enjoyed maximum performance from nearly all
positions and came away with a convincing and important win.
was a landmark for several reasons, and it was fitting that the win should come
against Iowa. It was against the Hawkeyes that Randy Walker notched his first
Big Ten win as NU head coach, back in 1999. It was against the Hawkeyes that
Coach Walker got his final home win. And now it is against Iowa that Coach Pat
Fitzgerald has his very first conference win as NU's head coach.
while certainly not enough to salvage the season as a whole, assuages the
frustration that has stemmed from several of the team's losses so far and-- it
is hoped-- gives fans a glimpse of what might be in store for this team in the
next two weeks and into next season. That glimpse was of a team gunning against
the odds, overperforming and showing relentless will. That is Wildcat football, and it's refreshing
to have seen it return for a game. Coach Fitzgerald was quoted after the game
as having said, "People better get ready for it, because this is what we are
going be like in the future."
The sneak preview fans got included NU's
quarterback continuing to ease into control of the Wildcat offense. C.J. Bachér
had a stellar game, throwing for 218 yards and a touchdown to Eric Peterman.
Bachér has thrown for over 200
yards in all three games he has started so far. His tally against Iowa includes
the 48-yarder he completed on the opening drive-- to fellow quarterback (and now
wide receiver) Andrew Brewer.
Running back Tyrell Sutton also dominated,
piling up 203 total and 168 rushing yards, and scoring a rushing touchdown.
Sutton's score came on a faked reverse, a sign that the 'Cats have reintroduced
misdirection into their arsenal. After the game, on ESPN's College Football
Wrap-Up, Lou Holtz recognized Sutton and awarded him an ESPN helmet
And the Wildcat offensive line came together to serve up its
best performance of the year, offering Bachér nearly flawless protection and creating vast openings in the
Hawkeye defense, including the yawning chasm through which Terrell Jordan
streaked on his way to a 34-yard touchdown.
As it previously showed in
the relatively close loss to Michigan, the NU defense continues to demonstrate
significant improvement. The 'Cat defense shut out Iowa in the first quarter,
and in the second Mark Koehn sacked Iowa quarterback Drew Tate, causing a fumble
that was recovered on the fly by Eddie Simpson. Simpson not only came up with
the ball, he motored 23 yards to set up the Peterman touchdown. Later in the
same quarter Brendan Smith intercepted Tate for a 14-yard return. Finally, with
just three minutes to go in the game, Reggie McPherson pulled in another pick to
ice the game for the Wildcats. For the third time this season Northwestern has
held an opponent to seven or less points, the same mark NU last achieved in
'CATS KEEP SWEET SIOUX!
DEFEAT ILLINI 27-16 [posted Nov. 19]
Northwestern concluded its emotional and
challenging 2006 season by sending its seniors out in style, beating Illinois
27-16 at Ryan Field. NU finishes the season with four wins total and two wins
in the Big Ten-- good enough for a tie with Iowa for eighth place in the
conference. And by winning its last game of the season, NU will illuminate the
Crown Clock Tower a nice shade of purple for the entire offseason, for the first
time since the 1998 season. The 'Cats and Illini played a rather sloppy first
half, but the Wildcat offense, defense and special teams combined for a series
of great plays in the second half to keep NU ahead for good and give NU its
fourth straight win over Illinois, the longest Wildcat winning streak in the
series since 1950.
The Wildcats drove into Illini territory during the
opening series, but fumbled the ball away on the Illinois 43-yard line.
Turnovers plagued the 'Cats throughout the season, and unfortunately this game
was no different. However, unlike teams such as Ohio State, Illinois was unable
to capitalize on the NU miscues. The Wildcat fumble at the beginning of the
game led to an Illinois field goal attempt-- that was no good.
the first quarter the Wildcat ground game kicked into high gear, and the 'Cats
held onto the ball and achieved some nice blocking. Tyrell Sutton began tearing
up the field, breaking off hard-fought gains of 12 and nine yards to help NU
down the field. At the two-yard line, running back Andrew Brewer (!) plugged
the line for NU's first strike, and the 'Cats led 7-0. On the resulting Illini
drive the Wildcat defense showed that it, too, had come to play, and stifled
Williams and the rest of the Illini offense. On third down Adam Kadela and
Reggie McPherson sacked Williams. Williams spit up the ball, which was
recovered by Brendan Smith at NU's eight-yard line.
What followed was a thing of true beauty: a
14-play methodical touchdown drive that balanced rushing by Brewer, Sutton, and
Terrell Jordan with passing by C.J. Bachér to Rasheed Ward. Unfortunately, the
next Wildcat offensive drive resulted in a rare safety, when the Illini caught
Sutton just behind the goal line.
NU continued its turnover troubles on
the next drive, suffering a fumble that set up an Illini score, giving the
orange-hats a two-point lead. However, a spectacular aerial assault by
Bachér, Herbert, Eric Peterman, Sam
Cheatham and Ross Lane put NU in the lead again, this time for good.
'Cats, nursing a one-point advantage at the break, opened the second half with a
completely unexpected and perfectly executed on-side kick, muffed by the
Illini. NU followed up this brassy decision by going for it on fourth down and
four yards to go from the Illini 36-yard line, nailing a short pass to Sutton
for the first down. A long pass to Herbert and a touchdown by Sutton gave NU
the pull-ahead score.
From that point on NU's defense also played
terrific football, limiting the Illini to three three-and-outs in a row,
followed by a turnover on downs.
Tyrell Sutton finished the game with 110 rushing yards, giving him exactly 1,000
yards for the season. Bachér threw
for 269 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions against the Illini, his best
outing to date. The NU defense notched three sacks during the match and allowed
only seven first downs. And the NU special teams also had a good performance,
benefiting from an Illinois muff on one punt play and going two-for-two on field
goal tries, not to mention the on-side kick. Joel Howells, in addition to
winning the team's 2006 Citizenship Award, was named the Big Ten special teams
player of the week, a well-deserved honor.
The game was the finale for
seniors Campbell Black, Erryn Cobb, Marquice Cole, Cory Dious, Demetrius Eaton,
Bryan Heinz, Shaun Herbert, Joel Howells, Terrell Jordan, Ryan Keenan, Slade
Larscheid, Nick Roach, and Joe Tripodi. This group of players helped put NU
into two bowl games, kept the Sweet Sioux in Evanston the entire time they
played for NU, and helped the 'Cats beat Ohio State in one of the greatest games
in NU history. They underwent some of the worst ordeals that can befall student
athletes, and played on, with spirit and perseverance. They are to be
commended. After the game, Coach Fitzgerald noted, "All 13 [seniors] are going
to graduate; four already have. When you choose Northwestern, you want the best
of everything and you want excellence. That's what they stand for-- excellence
in the classroom and excellence on the field. They are prepared for life after
football, and I couldn't be more proud of a group."
Fitz also looked
ahead to 2007: "We have a lot of young players, [but] they aren't freshman
anymore. It's time to go. We get to work right away. We'll hit the ground
running in the first week of January."
They'll be running with some
really good, experienced, tested players. When they get to work, it will be
with a Big Ten battle-tested quarterback, a corps of veteran receivers, three
returning starters to a strong offensive line, the entire 2006 starting
defensive line, both of the starting cornerbacks from the Illinois game, and
both of the starting safeties from the end of 2006. Oh, and of course, a
legitimate Heisman candidate running back.
It's time to