2006 Season
Review Page



"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 2007.

What follows are
excerpts from some of the comments posted on this site during the course of the 2006 season.

NU Announces New Coaches [posted Feb. 23]

Northwestern 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, Bret Ingals.

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 Wilson.

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]

Northwestern 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 2007.

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 four years."

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 Their
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 predictions.

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:
  • 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 2001.
  • 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 rankings).
  • 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 to call.
  • 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.
[Ed. 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.]

[posted June 30]

Randy Walker

The 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.

Coach Walker's Memorial Service Set for July 6 [posted July 4]

The 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 be limited. 

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]

[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 supported."

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 plan. 

"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 championship.

"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 since Venturi.

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.

NU Names Randy Bates to Wildcat Staff: Reports [posted July 21]

Rivals.com 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 the hire.

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 defensive secondary.

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...

  • He was named the Wildcats' head coach after NU unexpectedly had to find a replacement in the off-season.
  • 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 coach.
  • 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 an All-American.
  • As a Wildcat player, he led the team to the Big Ten championship.
And the answer is.....

Bob 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]


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 on defense. 

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.

The 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.


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 margin.

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. 

The Wildcats 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]

The 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 great deal.

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 move on."

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]

Northwestern has released the details of its plans to honor Coach Randy Walker's memory before and during the Wildcats' home opener with New Hampshire.

The 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 Us."

Also, according to NUSports.com:

  • There will be a moment of silence and a ceremonial coin toss with the Walker family prior to kickoff.
  • 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.
  • Northwestern's Marching Band will perform a special halftime show in honor of Walker. One of the songs the band will play is "Amazing Grace."
  • Saturday is Heroes' Day, and fans can email Northwestern's marketing office at wildcatmarketing@northwestern.edu and share their thoughts on why Coach Walker was their hero.

UNH Is Ryan Field Opener [posted Sept. 4]


Well, New 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 Div. I-AA.


Having just 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.

And if 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 need.

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]

New 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]


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 experience.

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, however.


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.

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 ground game.

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 lockdown.

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]

The 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]

On 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 Bowl.


Actually, Nevada 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.

All 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 blitz.


“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 NU's squads.

PISTOL-WHIPPED: NU Falls to Nevada 31-21 [posted Sept. 24]

The learning process for the Northwestern Wildcat football team continues.

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]

The 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 after try.

A second-quarter field goal by Joel Howells put the Wildcats within one point.

The rest of the game was purple-free.

PURDUE BEATS 'CATS 31 - 10  [posted Oct. 15]

Northwestern, 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 and Minnesota.

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 the Boilers.

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 game.

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 seven-yard return.

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."

Their opportunity 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]


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.

MSU Exacts Revenge [posted Oct. 22]

"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.

And 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 remarkable resurgence.

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 B
achér?  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.

Did the 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 better.

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."
--Pat Fitzgerald

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.

This game 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.

The win, 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.  B
achér 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 sticker.

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 1995.

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.

Later in 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.

The '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 go.