Lowes Line
2002 Posted


The Complete 2002 Lowes Line Predictions

The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  During the 2002 season HailToPurple.com began posting the column, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Air Force Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup:   Northwestern (0-0) at Air Force (0-0), Saturday, 8/31, 12:00 pm EDT, ABC regional coverage (aka pay-per-view for yours truly and most of the country)
Line:  Pick 'em


Welcome back to the Lowes Line for another season of NU college football.  When we last left our Wildcats, they were getting their giblets handed to them on Thanksgiving Day in Champaign, falling to the Illini and ending the 2001 season with a six-game losing streak to finish up at 4-7.  Quite a downer considering the preseason hype.

Northwestern has a twelve-game schedule this year, with this weekend's game at Air Force followed by non-conference home games against TCU and Duke, and one at Navy prior to the eight-game Big Ten slate that excludes Michigan and Wisconsin.

The expectations are not too high for this year's squad, and that's a surprise to no one.  NU lost 11 of 24 starters, and is very young on both sides of the ball.  On offense, gone are the likes of Kustok, Anderson, and Simmons.  The 'Cats start the year with Tony Stauss at quarterback, a sophomore who saw some time in four games last year.  He's a bit bigger physically than Kustok, with a better arm but less mobility.  Don't bet on seeing 50+ yards of rushing out of him each time out.  The good news is that he should have a solid group of receivers available.  Returning wideouts Jon Schweighardt and Kunle Patrick are
the starters while Ashton Aikens, who spent a good deal of time last year returning kickoffs, will see extended time.  NU is deep at tight end, with freshman Joe Wohlscheid as the starter.  Did NU hoops coach
Bill Carmody miss this guy, and he wound up on the gridiron instead of the hardwood? Could be.  He goes 6-7, 280, and will hopefully be a routine target for Stauss, as NU plans to get the tight end more involved in the offense. In the backfield, Kevin Lawrence, who backed up Damien Anderson last year, has not yet fully recovered from off-season knee surgery.  Junior Jason Wright and freshman Jeff Backes look to get most of the reps.  Up front, NU is led by seniors Austin King at center and Jeff Roehl at left tackle, both of whom have received preseason All Big-Ten accolades.  This offensive line is young, starting a freshman and a sophomore, but they're also big, averaging over six-four and 305 pounds, led by freshman Zach Strief, a right tackle who comes in at a whopping 6-7, 335.  New offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar will have a tough chore in living up to the numbers of last year's squad, who averaged 442 yards per game of total offense. 

On the other side of the ball, NU also replaced their defensive coordinator, hiring Greg Colby to replace the oft-ridiculed Jerry Brown, who was somehow "elevated" to assistant head coach and secondary coach.
I guess it beats "leaving to pursue other business interests", the age-old euphemism for having your ass sh*t-canned, which many argue should have happened.  It's nowhere to go but up on defense, as NU finished 11th in the Big Ten last year in both scoring defense (34.4 pts/gm) and total defense (467.5 yds/gm).  Consistency should be one of the goals of this squad who, although armed with future NFL draft picks Napoleon Harris and Kevin Bentley last season, couldn't seem to catch a cold, much less an opposing running back.  As with the offense, this troop is as green as an enraged Bill Bixby, the only starting seniors being preseason All Big-Ten linebacker Pat Durr and left cornerback Raheem Covington.  The tackles are sophomores Colby Clark and Thomas Derricks who played in every game last year, and the ends are a pair of redshirt freshmen, David Thompson and Loren Howard.  Sophomore Marvin Ward is back at right corner, one of the more athletic of the bunch.

The 'Cats will be taking on an Air Force team that went 6-6 last year, and as is normally the case, will win games on the strength of its running game.  Air Force only returns 10 starters from last year, but year in and year out they manage to put up a lot of points and win consistently in the Mountain West.  The offensive line is predictably small, but the Falcons make up for that with speed and agility, which allows their wishbone attack to be successful.  Quarterback Chance Harridge leads the option for the Falcons, which tends to give NU fits.  The Air Force defense tends to struggle, having actually surrendered more points per game last year (35.1) than did the Wildcats.  But seven of their ten returning starters are on defense, including safety Jeff Overstreet, who was heading towards an All-Conference season before getting injured in the fifth game last year.

You'd expect Northwestern to see this game as an opportunity to pick up large chunks of yardage on the ground as the offensive line has their way with the smaller, inexperienced Air Force defensive front.  That may be true, but look for NU to get the passing game involved as well.  The 'Cats will need to do more than merely show up on defense, as they did most of last year.  Look for some sloppiness at times, considering the youth of both teams and the fact that it's the season opener.  Also look for some points, as the defensive issues for both sides may not have been completely resolved yet.

As I'll be out of town for the Labor Day weekend, the search for a watering hole with a satellite dish near where I'll be staying has already commenced.  I'm told the place I found is a biker bar.  We'll see if I can convince the locals to put NU on the tube and switch off the Hells Angels Telethon, which stars Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds.  Possessing a full set of teeth and no tattoos may work to my disadvantage here, but I'll do my best.

Go 'Cats.

Lowes Line Pick:  Northwestern 34, Air Force 30.

TCU Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:   Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (0-1, 0-1) v. Northwestern University Wildcats (0-1, 0-0)
Line: Frogs by 5.


There are several images that arose out of the ashes of the 'Cats' shellacking at the hands of the Falcons of Air Force. NU's afternoon on defense can by epitomized by two clips: 1. LB Pat Durr (arguably the best returning defender) with his leg taped and iced, early in the first quarter, and 2. LB Vincent Cartaya running and waving his arms in a futile effort to distract a wide open Falcon receiver as the ball sailed over his head into the receiver's open arms for TD #3 of the afternoon. You know you had a bad day when the best the media website can come up with concerns the lone field goal you kicked late in the third quarter. Reminds the Lowes Line of the wonderful undergrad days when, to make a team look bad, we simply had to score on them.

Back before I reported to NU for work week in '89, I attended the Wisconsin-Miami (Fla.) game at rainy Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers fell, 51-3, yet at the end of the game, the student section cheered proudly, "We scored first!" (They had.) I suppose, in a similarly optimistic fashion, we can look at it as "We scored last!" and hope the momentum carries into this week's tilt with TCU.

As you may recall, TCU handed NU a big loss in 2000.  Soon-to-be-first-round-pick LaDanian Tomlinson of the Frogs led TCU to a 41-19 victory. NU's defense couldn't stop him, and couldn't even hope to contain him.  If the clock hadn't run out on the game, he'd probably still be running. This will be the theme this week as well. The names will all be different, but the results should be the same.

The big question mark entering every Wildcat season is the defense. As the Lowes Line pointed out last week, the defense lost several starters from a squad that underwhelmed in 2001. Adding to that is Durr's likely absence from the TCU game due to aforementioned knee injury and Raheem Covington's loss due to a concussion, also suffered in the first quarter. Air Force ran up (quite literally) 523 yards of total offense, 476 of which came on the ground. The Falcons scored on their first 5 possessions and led 38-0 by halftime. One of their first half scores resulted from a blocked NU punt.

It's hard to believe the score was that low. Watching the game revealed that NU was more outplayed than the score demonstrated. As with last year's squad, tackling apparently isn't taught at NU. Every Air Force play resulted in at least two missed tackles. The Air Force faithful might as well have cheered "Ole'!" in the stands.

On the offensive side of the ball, it was just that - offensive.  Stauss finished 5 of 10 for 22 yards. Basanez, a freshman, replaced Stauss in the first quarter and finished 14 of 26 for 158 yards. Northwestern managed only 12 first downs and 37 yards rushing (on 27 attempts, no less).  On the one drive NU did score, kicker David Wasielewski had to boot a career-long 51 yarder because the 'Cats offense could get him no closer.

TCU comes to Evanston stinging from a 4th quarter swoon in which it lost a 12 point lead to Cincinnati and lost 36-29. TCU led most of the game and looked like Cincinnati primed for the kill stroke. It never came.  Instead, Cincinnati scored two touchdowns (and one 2 point conversion) in the last 6 minutes of the 4th quarter to pull even, and scored the lone touchdown in overtime to complete the comeback. TCU's secondary was very erratic throughout the game, looking brilliant at times (4 interceptions) and ineffective at others (opening play was a 75-yard touchdown pass).  TCU's defense surrendered almost 300 yards through the air, and another 122 on the ground. They just could not stop the Bearcats from coming back.

On the offensive side, the Frogs showed that they could drive the ball against a capable defense. Sean Stilley stepped in to lead the offense and did an admirable job. While not as mobile has his predecessor, he proved to be an accurate passer (20-31-2-253). TCU gained only 97 yards on the ground and the failure of the ground game is, in large part, to blame for the Frogs' inability to keep Cincinnati from coming back. One bright spot for TCU was its special teams play, returning kicks for a total of 120 yards, while surrendering only 64 yards.

When they get together this Saturday at Ryan Field, look for the Frogs to be hopping mad at losing the week prior. The Frogs' offense will run through and pass over the Wildcats' defense. The 'Cats demonstrated that they are utterly lost without their leading run stopper (Durr) and pass defender (Covington). The offense should have more success this week than last, not because the Frogs have an inferior defense, but because it simply can't get much worse.

Lowes Line Pick: TCU 28, 'Cats 17. Take the Frogs and give the points.
(Season to-date: 0-1 straight up, 0-1 against the spread)

Duke Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup:   Duke University Blue Devils (1-1) vs. Northwestern University Wildcats (0-2)
Line: 'Cats minus 6.


It is difficult to find the motivation to complete this week's Lowes Line.  The Wildcats are 0-2 and they are, they are... they are not good.  On Saturday two very young teams will compete to see who is "less bad".  From all accounts NU has slipped back to the glory days of the late 80's.  The offense is non existent and the tackling even worse.  Fortunately, Duke is not any better.  Earlier this year the Blue Devils won their first game in 2 (or 3?) years. Last week they were soundly beaten by Louisville 40-3. 

Since both NU's offense and defense stink and Duke's offense and defense stink, it is going to come down to special teams, turnovers and intangibles.

Special Teams
NU: 0     Duke: -1

NU gave up a safety on a high snap, Duke a touchdown, and NU had a kick return for a TD.

NU: -7    Duke: -2

NU had 6 fumbles and an INT last week; hard to win if you keep giving away the ball...

Starting Seniors
NU: 5     Duke: 1

Home field Advantage
NU: +3    Duke: 0

NU: +1   Duke: -1

Lowes Line Pick: The 'Cats should win (unless the New Trier HS team shows up and whips up on both NU and Duke) but not by much, say 25-23.  Take the Blue Devils plus 6, but NU straight up. 

Hopefully we will all be able to celebrate an NU win this weekend.  If not the 'Cats only have one more chance to avoid going 0-12 for the first time ever.

Lowes Line record (1-1, 1-1)

Navy Preview and Prediction
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup:   Northwestern (1-2) at Navy (1-1), Saturday, 9/21/02, 12:05 pm EDT
None, unless you have a High Definition TV and a DirecTV dish, in which case you should check out channel 199 (try your local sports bar, or even the nearest Circuit City/The Wiz/Tweeters--those stores typically show the weekly college game on their HDTV demos, but they may not let you hang out for 3 hours with a six-pack and a giant bag of Cheesy Poofs).   The game will also be broadcast on tape delay on Comcast Channel 8 (for you Maryland locals), date & time TBA.
Navy by 3.


The fact that Navy is favored in this game speaks volumes.  After getting smoked by the Zoomies in their season opener, the Wildcats probably shouldn't expect to be favored against another military academy's triple option attack.  The key, however, is that Navy is nowhere near as good as Air Force.   Because Vegas typically gives three points to the home team (more on that later), the odds makers are guessing that NU and Navy are equally poor football teams at this early stage of the season.  Will the 'Cats prove them wrong?

Northwestern has some momentum going into this game.  The 'Cats showed some stones on Saturday in Evanston, coming from behind to post a gritty, ugly win over Duke.  NU's offense, which showed signs of life against TCU, began putting things together against the Blue Devils.   QB Brett Basanez had 245 yards passing and two rushing touchdowns.  WRs Kunle Patrick and Jon Schweighardt also had big days, led by Schweighardt's 104 yards receiving.  Both Patrick and Schweighardt now have 100+ career receptions (102 each, to be exact), and are tied for 9th on the NU career list.   Patrick made the highlight reel with his leaping catch of a Basanez pass, jumping over three Duke defenders to make the grab for a 22-yard gain on the way to NU's second TD of the day.  NU's running game also showed a spark, as Jason Wright led the team with 107 yards rushing (his first 100 yard day as a Wildcat).   After trailing by 11 points, the offense put the 'Cats in front on one of their most impressive drives in recent years-- a 97-yard march that ended with Basanez diving for a 1-yd TD, his second of the day.  That drive was the longest scoring drive by the Wildcats in nearly 4 years (since 11/7/98, the 56-21 drubbing inflicted by Purdue at Ryan Field-- let us never speak of it again).

After taking the lead with nearly 11 minutes remaining in the contest, NU turned the game over to its defense, which has been a shaky proposition of late.  Not on Saturday, though.  NU forced three turnovers in the final 20 minutes of the game and the Blue Devils never really threatened from the mid-point of the third quarter forward.   Defensive stars for the 'Cats were LB Doug Szymul, who tallied 15 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception in only his second collegiate start, and Torri Stuckey, the tailback-turned-safety, who notched his first interception on Saturday.  A special shout-out to LB John Pickens, a prep teammate of Chris Simms at Ramapo H.S. in Franklin Lakes, NJ, the cross-town rivals of my lovely wife's alma mater.   The sophomore led the 'Cats with 19 tackles on Saturday.  Finally, all-world freshman recruit Loren Howard continues to make an impact, recording 14 tackles against Duke, including 3 tackles for loss.

Of course, Saturday's victory can't hide all of the ugliness that is NU football in 2002.  The defense, while stout when it counted, gave up 134 yards rushing to Duke's Alex Wade.  Of greater concern were the penalties--16 of them (tying the record set against Indiana in 2000), for a total of 146 yards, a new team record-- yay.   NU saw more than it's fair share of yellow flags from the ACC officiating crew, with 8 of them thrown in the first quarter alone.  Were many of those flags unfair?  Yes.  But the fact is that NU's young team has shown a propensity to draw penalties, and their execution and discipline must improve if they hope to even their season record with a win in Annapolis this week.   And in the spirit of kicking a team when it's down, it looks like LB Pat Durr is lost for the season--after going in for arthroscopic surgery on Friday the 13th (why tempt fate like that?), he learned that he has a partial tear to the ACL in his right knee.   Hopefully Durr will apply for (and receive) a medical redshirt and return to lead the defense in 2003.

Now to Navy.  This game was originally scheduled as the back-end of a home and home series between these two programs, but last year's tilt was canceled in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  NU and Navy have only played twice before, in the 1950s, with NU holding a 2-0 series lead.   Let's cut to the chase--after Saturday, that record should stand at 3-0.  Navy stinks.  I mean, they are a really bad football team.  They opened the season with a fairly easy win over a pathetic SMU squad, but got hammered 62-19 the following week by N.C.State, a top-25 team.   Navy had an off week last week, and will have had an extra week to prepare for the Wildcats.

QB Craig Candeto, who is the key to Navy's triple option attack, leads the Midshipmen.  If the 'Cats get to Candeto, he'll pitch it to one of three pretty good runners: FB Kyle Eckel, SB Eric Roberts, or SB Tony Lane.  Eckel is a load, but he can be stopped short.   The 'Cats won't see Navy's senior team captain, SB Donnie Fricks, who is out with a busted clavicle, but Roberts and Lane can still break off those long runs typical of a successful option offense.  NU's defensive backs had better get ready to play in the box--the Middies don't throw the ball much.   Navy is 114th out of 117 Division 1-A teams in passing offense, averaging less than 70 yards per game (Candeto only had 33 yards passing, on 2 completions, against the Wolfpack two weeks ago, and is 6-of-15 for 139 yards total in 2 games this season).   Navy is 7th in the nation in rushing at 268 yards per game (note: almost 100 ypg fewer than the Zoomies, who lead the nation at least in part on the strength of the whipping they put on Northwestern 3 weeks ago).

On defense, the Mids are hapless.  They are allowing 412.5 yards per game (granted, that stat is skewed a bit by the brilliant play by NCState QB Philip Rivers 2 weeks ago).  Given the improvement by NU's offense after the debacle in Colorado Springs, the Wildcats should be able to move the ball.   The key will be keeping the Navy running game in check and giving the offense a chance to control the game.  NU's young defensive playmakers can't afford to relive the nightmare against Air Force, and the offense needs to build on the confidence it gained against Duke and just ram it over, through and past the undersized Midshipmen defense.   Look for the Wildcats to gain some momentum by forcing 2 or 3 big turnovers--I'll even go out on a limb and predict a defensive touchdown for the 'Cats on Saturday.

About that home field advantage:  forget it.  The Mids haven't enjoyed a home field advantage in years.  Navy has lost 10 straight at home, and 15 of the last 16.  The last home win for the Middies was in November 1999, when they beat Tulane.   The home field will be further diluted this weekend, when yours truly and Mr. & Mrs. Jersey Cat (happy anniversary, kids!) infiltrate Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

I know what you're asking: if the Mids are so lousy, why are they favored?  Well, honestly, you can't really blame the Vegas bookmakers.  NU has historically struggled when facing a triple option offense.  Navy has had an extra week to prepare.   Worse, NU has so far this season been prone to penalties and turnovers.  The Wildcats are young, and whatever latent talent rests within these freshmen and sophomores, there is still a real question whether Randy Walker is the coach that can coax it out of them (for the record, I think he is).   This is exactly the kind of game a struggling NU team could lose.  While the 'Cats are coming off a good win against Duke, let's remember that the Blue Devils are themselves a pretty bad football team that had an 11-point lead at Ryan Field until Basanez put NU ahead in the third quarter.   In the glory days of Northwestern football, this game would have been a walk in the park.  But in 2002, NU still must prove it is the better team.  It says here that the Wildcats are getting better, and that NU will even its record with a solid road win.

Pick:  Northwestern 37, Navy 20.  Take the 'Cats and the points.
(Season to date: 2-1 straight up, 2-1 against the spread-- good call last week, Charlie)

MSU Preview and Prediction
By Brian Ullery

Matchup:   Northwestern (2-2) at Michigan State (2-2), Saturday, Sept. 28, 1:05 pm EDT
Michigan State by a whopping 23.5 points.


Northwestern is an underdog by over three touchdowns-- holy cow.  Only six other games in all of Div. 1-A have a higher point spread (one other Big 10 game, OSU 24.5 over IU).  Northwestern has taken the last two in this series, with last year's shocking game with MSU returning a punt to go ahead 20-17 with 4:42 left.  NU, not to be outdone, drove down and scored with 29 seconds left to regain the lead 24-20.  Amazingly to all of us watching the game on the little score update at the bottom of ABC's screen, MSU returning the ensuing kickoff for a TD to lead 26-20.  A clutch blocked PAT by Napoleon Harris left NU with a chance to win.  They called the now infamous "Victory Right" and moved into field goal range.   As David Wasielewski kicked the game winner with no time left, NU fans thought the season was going to be another magical one.  Oh, we were so mistaken.

NU has won two straight, posting a 49-40 win over the Midshipmen last week.  But come on, 40 points by Navy (their largest output in way too many years)!  NU's offense posted 545 total yards and was led by RB Jason Wright with 186 yards and 3 TD's.  NU may have found a QB in Brett Basanez, who went 20-26 for 260 yards and a touchdown.  Kunle Patrick and Jon Schweighardt posted solid numbers last week and need to keep getting open for NU's offense to succeed.  The defense gave up the stunning 40 points to Navy but even worse a total of 678 yards.  Sure you can look on the bright side and say "they forced 5 turnovers," but either way you have to admit that this defense is terrible.

Michigan State is coming off a heart-breaking loss to Notre Dame, where two of their defenders fell over each other and ND scored the winning touchdown.  They are lead by Jeff Smoker and Charles Rogers.  Smoker is third in the conference with 233 yards passing per game and 1st with 10 TD's.  Rogers is the best WR in the country and made one of the best catches I have ever seen last weekend against the Irish.  On average, he catches 7.25 receptions/game for 158.3 yards.  He currently has tied a NCAA record with 12 straight games with a TD along with Marshall's Randy Moss, Michigan's Desmond Howard and Pacific's Aaron Turner.  The last time he did not catch a TD was against the Wildcats last year.  He'll break the record this weekend.

My colleagues think NU is improving, and maybe they are.  But this week, MSU is going to lay the smack down.  Can NU score enough to beat the spread?  Tough call because MSU is going to have the 2nd team in by the 3rd quarter.

Pick:  MSU 52 Northwestern 24.  Take the Spartans and give the points.
(Season to date: 3-1 straight up, 3-1 against the spread)

OSU Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:   The Ohio State University (5-0) at Northwestern (2-3), Saturday, 10/5, 6:00 p.m. CDT.
ESPN2 (it'll be like watching a car crash).
OSU by 24 (and rising) over NU.


Not good.  OSU is currently ranked #5 in the AP and Coaches Poll.  They probably don't deserve to be quite that high, based on their inconsistent defense and lack of a real passing threat.  Their defense almost allowed Cincinnati back in the game two weeks ago and their passing attack is mostly short stuff to keep the opposing defense honest.  Their real strength is their run blocking and Maurice Clarett, who is averaging 6.9 yd/carry and has 9 TDs in four games.  The question will be whether their defense and passing attack will hold up against the other national offensive forces when they get to a bowl game.

Northwestern on the other hand is not ranked (big surprise, I know).  They have actually showed some sparks of things to come last week against MSU.  The O-line is jelling much better than at the beginning of the season and Jason Wright is running for a surprising 134 yds/game.  Basanez is still terribly inconsistent, particularly under pressure, so its doubtful that he can pull a miracle off on Saturday.  As for the defense...let's just quote the rushing yards allowed per game (308) and leave it at that.

For Saturday, the conventional wisdom is that OSU is going to run all over the Wildcat defense that is allowing 40 points per game and NU is going to have trouble scoring early against an OSU defense only allowing 16 points per game.  Late points by NU are likely as the OSU defense loosens up after they have a big lead. 

How might NU beat the spread (I'm not even considering actually winning)...Basanez needs to relax and hit his open receivers, particularly early in the game when the pressure is on and NU is still in the game.  Also, the NU defense needs to take away the short passing game (since they're not going to slow Clarett down) and get OSU in some 3rd and 4 or greater situations.  Then, maybe OSU will make some mistakes by trying to take too much.  Sad when you're hoping the other team is over-confident.

Pick:  OSU 49, Northwestern 20.  Pick OSU and give the points.

Minnesota Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:   Northwestern Wildcats (2-4, 0-2) at Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-1, 1-1), Thursday, October 10, 7:00 p.m. CDT.
Minnesota favored by 16.5.


This matchup provides interesting questions.  Is Minnesota as good as its 5-1 record might indicate?  Would beating NU prove that?  Is NU on the rise after a good showing against Ohio State, or was last week just blind luck?

The 'Cats come into this game after a particularly strong showing against Ohio State.  Yes, they lost 27-16, but who among us thought it would be even as close as the 24-point spread?  Indeed, we at the Lowes Line
predicted the Buckeyes would more than cover the spread.  Quarterback Basanez, after a slow start of two for nine, finished the game against OSU 24 for 45 for 283 yards.  Jason Wright continues to be NU's main threat, with 199 all purpose yards.  NU had numerous chances to build leads that were snuffed out by both misfortune (two missed field goals and two more field goals after driving inside the 10) and a bad call (an NU touchdown catch was ruled incomplete by officials).  Review by Big Ten officiating supervisors demonstrated the catch had indeed been made.  On the defensive side of the ball, NU's normally porous defense did not play too poorly, holding OSU to "only" 27 points (after all, this unit gave up 40 to Navy) and limiting superfreshman Maurice Clarett to 140 yards on the ground.  Since Clarett is the type of back that normally runs right though NU's defense, this is particularly encouraging.  It should be noted, however, that thus far this year, OSU has not shown itself to be a strong road team, so that must be taken into account in evaluating Saturday's game.

Thus far, Basanez has established himself something of an offensive leader, as his 111.2 rating would attest.  Yes, that's not a typo.  He has completed 54% of his passes for almost 1200 yards, throwing 3 touchdowns against 3 interceptions.  Jason Wright is a threat to go over 1,000 yards, sitting at 575 on 112 carries, for a respectable 5.1 yards per carry average (keep in mind that NU plays 12 games this year).  Wright has rumbled for 4 touchdowns.  Jon Schweighardt, who desperately needs a couple more vowels for his last name, and Kunle Patrick have split NU's receiving duties, each snaring 26 passes and each taking it to the house once.

Lest you think this is a rosy picture of NU's fortunes, remember that these are just offensive statistics.  The defense, while playing acceptably against OSU, is still questionable at best.  If allowing Navy 40 points is not sufficient to prove this point, the NU defense has surrendered an AVERAGE of 39 points per game.  Most times NU defenders look like they're trying to tackle the wind.

There was a time during the last decade when teams in the Big Ten might think twice about scheduling NU as their Homecoming game.  Not so any more.  As you may have guessed, it's Minnesota's Homecoming this week.  The game is being played Thursday night due to some scheduling quirks that might have had the Twins play on Saturday in the ALCS.  Although they are not (they have home field and will be in Anaheim), the game is still scheduled for Thursday night.  It will not, however, be the ESPN game of the week.

As indicated earlier, the Gilded Hamsters enter this game with an impressive looking 5-1 record.  Are they that good?  Well, let's see.  They beat Southwest Texas State,  Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo, and Buffalo during their non-conference schedule.  Toledo among them has shown any prowess whatsoever in the past few years, though it's only from a mid-major conference.  Once the Big Ten season started, Minnesota promptly lost to Purdue 26-15, showing that the Gophers do not hold up to even decent competition.  Minnesota's Big Ten victory was against Illinois, which has a realistic chance of being the first school to go from worst to first to worst in the Big Ten.  Ever.  The Lowes Line thinks that proves Minnesota's gaudy record is misleading.

Minnesota is led by a very mobile (and hence dangerous to NU) quarterback, Abdul-Kaliq.  His quarterback rating is 136.8 and he has thrown for 12 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions.  He has also rushed for  233 yards and three more touchdowns, including a 47 yard scamper.  He's the third leading rusher on the Gopher roster.  Minnesota uses a two-headed approach to its ground game, with Terry Jackson II running for 554 yards and a 5.9 yards per carry average, and Thomas Tapeh tallying 401 yards and a 4.9 yards per carry average.  Of the two, Tapeh at 6'1" and 223 pounds is more likely to give NU defenders fits.  Three Gopher receivers, including senior tight end Ben Utecht, have 15 catches or more.  It's hard to predict just how good the Gopher defense is, since they've been playing high school teams for much of the non-conference season.  In Big Ten play, they lost to Purdue (a middle-of-the-pack team at best) and held Illinois to 10 points.  Given Illinois' season, that's not all that impressive.

The 'Cats enter this game with a three game winning streak at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (subtitle:  the worst place to watch a sporting event in North America) and have won five of the last six games between the two, including last year's 23-17 victory at NU.  NU is a popular opponent for Minnesota's Homecoming (you asked for a guaranteed victory, and I give you Northwestern), and the Gophers are 8-5-2 against NU on Homecoming.

What does all this mean?  Both offenses should click and move up and down the field.  NU's defense, despite its outing last week against the Buckeyes, has not proven itself capable of stopping a strong running attack like the one NU will face tomorrow night.  Any questions regarding that can be answered by revisiting the Air Force box score.  Of particular concern is the fact that, like the Falcons, Minnesota sports a very mobile quarterback in Abdul-Kaliq.  Minnesota should be able to move the ball something like voting in Chicago...early and often.  On the same token, NU should also be able to move the ball against Minnesota's defense, which is by and large unproven ("Ya know, we sure pitched a shutout against those pesky Bobcats of Southwest Texas State, eh?"...if not said with the "Fargo" accent, you won't get the full flavor).  I would look for a shootout with Minnesota coming out on top, but not by as big a margin as the experts predict.  NU will score its points, but in the end the Golden Gophers will prove just too strong.  Its defense will make the one stop the 'Cats cannot.

PICK:  Minnesota 38, Northwestern 31.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to date:  5-1 straight up, 3-3 against the spread.

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup:   # 84 (Sagarin rating) Northwestern Wildcats (2-5, 0-3) at # 21 Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2).   Saturday, October 19, 2002, 12:00 noon EDT
ESPN2 National
Penn State favored by 23 [ed. note: line had jumped to NU plus 25 by Wednesday]


Scene: Randy Walker Press Conference dialogue with a Tribune reporter before the Penn State game. (Apologies to Jack Nicholson)

You want analysis?
--I think I'm entitled to some.
You want analysis?
--I want the truth.
YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!  Son, we live in a world that needs run defense, none of which exists on my squad in Evanston.  Who's gonna stop Penn State?  You?  You, Mr. Trib reporter?  I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.  You weep for NU fans and curse the coaching staff.  You have that luxury.  You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that NU run defense is a misnomer.  And our entire defense's very existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, is a misnomer.  You don't want the truth because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want the Rose Bowl glory days of 1995.  You NEED the Rose Bowl glory days of 1995!  We use words like appalling, repulsive, odious...we use these words as the backbone of our description of the rushing defense.  You use 'em as a punchline.   I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very quotes I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide them!  I'd rather you just covered the Fighting Illini and went on your way.  Otherwise I suggest you pick up a headset and see what you could do with these buffoons on D.  Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to!

And so it goes for NU in 2002.  On to Week 8.

The 'Cats go into Happy Valley this week following a terrible loss at Minnesota.  How did they drop that one to the Gophers?  After all, those fuzzy little rodents are the lowest members of the food chain, and they'll probably be replaced by the rat, or at least so says Bushwood Country Club assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler. 

Northwestern has never won at (Nice) Beaver (Thank You, I Just Had It Stuffed) Stadium, dropping contests there in 1994, 1996, and 1998.  Having been eyewitness to those three defeats, I'm trying a different approach, akin to switching the order in a golf game of better-ball: rather than make the seven-plus hour round trip, I decided to put my four tickets up for auction on eBay, and watch the contest from home.  I figure maybe by not going, I'll at least give the 'Cats a chance.

This week the 'Cats are the -- shocker -- Homecoming opponent of the Nittany Lions.  The way NU has been playing as of late, their designation as the "Classmates.com Official Homecoming Opponent of Big Ten Football" is imminent.

As for last Thursday's contest in the Metrodome, what a mess.  It all started with my wonderful wife asking me, "So let me get this straight.  You're going to actually listen to an entire football game on the PC?"  It went downhill from there.  Sure, NU football on wgnradio.com ain't exactly Must See TV, but hell, I gotta get my 'Cats any way I can.  As it turned out, ER was just ending as the game concluded, which was appropriate, since I thought I heard Randy Walker on the post-game report scream, "Get me a friggin' run defense, STAT!"  You could use the term "porous" to aptly describe the NU rushing defense.  Minnesota shredded the 'Cats on the ground, rushing on 70 out of 79 offensive plays.  You could also use the phrase "poor us" to very aptly describe those sorry bastards such as myself who sat in front of their computer listening to the game for three hours as this train wreck unfolded. 

Minnesota opened the game with an on-sides kick, recovered it, and scored after 1:16 to take the early lead.  NU answered, and actually had a 21-14 lead late in the second quarter.  Then the wheels fell off.  In a span of one minute and eleven seconds, the Gophers scored a touchdown and blocked an NU punt leading to another score, and went into halftime with a 28-21 lead.  It continued after intermission, as Minnesota scored another two TDs and added a field goal, giving them a 45-21 edge early in the 4th quarter.  How bad was the rushing defense?  Gopher backs Terry Jackson II and Thomas Tapeh combined for 415 yards rushing.  That's right, 415.  As in the area code for San Francisco.

NU did make a game of it, scoring three touchdowns in the 4th quarter to cover the spread and get us excited near the end. But like the captain of the high school cheerleading squad on Prom night, they teased us and didn't close the deal, leaving us, well, blue, so to speak.

NU back Jason Wright had another fine game running the football, going for 148 yards on 21 carries.  'Cat QB Brett Basanez looks like he could be a solid QB after another high-quality outing, throwing for 216 yards
on 21 of 35 attempts.  However, just off the wire is news that his fibula is anything but solid, having fractured it on a successful two-point conversion against the VarmintCong, leaving Tony Stauss to handle the signal calling this week.

Penn State dropped a close game at Michigan last weekend, falling in overtime 27-24.  Both of the Nittany Lions' losses have come in the extra session as they came up short at home against Iowa three weeks back.   PSU is led by sophomore quarterback Zack Mills, who leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game, having thrown for 264 yards and 2 TDs against the Wolverines. 

Penn State's biggest weapons are their Johnsons.   Of course, that would be tailback Larry Johnson and wideout Bryant Johnson.  Both had big games against Michigan, and odds point to a Johnson rising to the occasion this weekend for the Lions in what I expect to be a very tough game for NU. 

Question: Why does Joe Pa never seem to show any emotion on the field, good or bad?  Clearly it's due to those damn Coke bottle glasses!  Those things don't help, and the old man can't see a bloody thing.  The recommendation here would be for Randy Walker to get hold of that prescription and don a pair of Joe Pa specials, at least when the NU defense takes the field. 

From the "Yeah, that and a quarter will get you a Busch Light in the Kave" file: NU's press release this week states that Northwestern is 13-1 when a Randy Walker-led squad has taken a lead into the 4th quarter.  Big deal.  With what we NU fans have been treated to most of this year, the more meaningful stat is this: NU is 0-24 under Walker when they trail after four quarters.  How 'bout a W in Big Ten play?

Sorry folks, not this week.  All told, this game looks like a recipe for disaster.  A Finlandia Swiss defense.  A starting QB out with a broken leg.  Homecoming in State College, PA.  A Top 25 team at home in front
of 107,000 looking for blood after a tough overtime loss.   Mix thoroughly and bake at game time temperature for sixty minutes.  Bon appetit, 'Cats fans.  And don't forget the antacid.

Pick:  Penn State 42, Northwestern 17.   Take Penn State and lay the points.

Season to date: Straight up, 6-1; against the spread, 4-3

Purdue Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup:   Northwestern Wildcats (2-6, 0-4) vs. Purdue Boilermakers (3-5, 1-3)


It is late October, and that means it is homecoming time.  Time to return to campus and the carefree, glory days of our youth.  Time to watch the home team crush the perennial weakling.  As you would expect Purdue has scheduled Northwestern to be their sacrificial lamb. The Boilermakers   What?   NU's Homecoming?!?   Oh, I am sorry Ladies and Gentlemen.  It appears that this is Northwestern's Homecoming.  Oh my.  That changes things...

Unfortunately the Lowes Line was eerily accurate predicting the Nittany Lions would run all over our beloved 'Cats.  Larry Johnson had 257 yards rushing (a new PSU single game record) before most of the PSU fans had gotten back from the hot dog line at halftime.  As Kev put it earlier this week in a telephone conversation, "Penn State actually started throwing the ball more trying NOT to run up the score."  It was that bad.  Whenever Northwestern WOULD appear to stop Penn State (early in the game) they would be flagged for pass interference and the PSU drive would continue.  After PSU's first score NU had a chance to answer back.  They perfectly executed a reverse on the kickoff and returned the ball into PSU territory.  They moved into field goal range where the drive stalled.  They kicked a 34 yarder to bring it to 7-3.  Unfortunately there was a procedure penalty on the 'Cats and they had to try again.  Was there anyone out there who did not see the miss coming?  Even the camera angle was perfectly set-up for a wide right kick.  The 'Cats did not score, PSU got the ball back, 14-0.  Since they had such good luck on the reverse after the first touchdown, "why not try it again?"  Why!  Why,  because you don't fool Joe Pa twice on the same play within five minutes.  The 'Cats returned the ball to the 5, their own 5.  From there it continued to go down hill.  I don't remember any more details (I started reading the newspaper, cleaning the kitchen, anything to get away from the slaughter) except for one:  NU's defense seemed to be at the right place at the right time, they just could not tackle.  It looked like the PSU players were greased mackerel slipping through the arms of the NU defenders time after time after stinkin' time.

Enough about last week.  This week Purdue is in town along with several thousand Alumni (though not enough to cause a sellout...).  The Boilermakers are an OK team.  Nothing fancy but generally sound.  All of their losses this year have been by 8 points or less.  They lost by 2 to a very average Michigan team.  On paper Purdue should probably win by 7-10 (though surprisingly as of Tuesday night there is no line on the game.  Is Las Vegas afraid of the 'Cats? Or does no one really care?), but this game will be decided upon the grass of Dyche, I mean Ryan Field.  It is homecoming so the stands should be relatively full.  NU has played fairly well at home (I am so glad the game is not at West Lafayette, I am so sick of seeing the damn world's largest drum.  Who gives a @#@#.  But I digress...) and Stauss did a fine job subbing at quarterback last weekend.  I just keep going back to all the missed tackles.  If NU had made two out every three they missed last week, it would have been a game.  I think (hope) Randy Walker and staff emphasize wrapping up this week and the Wildcats execute on Saturday.  If so, I think NU will make a game of it.  And, with a little luck (they are due for some), they just might pull out the Victory.

Pick: Wildcats 26, Purdue 24

What the heck, you got to have some hope, don't you?

Season to date: Straight up, 7-1; against the spread, 5-3

Indiana Preview and Prediction
By Brian Ullery

Matchup:   Northwestern Wildcats (2-7, 0-5) vs. Indiana Hoosiers (3-5,1-3)
Ryan Field, Evanston, IL

Tough to find a line, but Vegas has IU giving three

Outlook: Wow, my colleague last week must have been delusional picking a Wildcat victory.  He was obviously hoping for a homecoming victory to go along with the presentation of the Marcus Lowes Scholarship to make his weekend a joyful one.  But, Purdue obviously did their scouting, throwing only 10 passes all game while rushing the ball 69 (yes you read that correctly) times for 407 yards.  The Boilermakers crushed the 'Cats on homecoming 42-13, with the only bright spot being Jason Wright as he tallied another 100 yard rushing game (101 yards on 15 carries).   Stauss struggled again and the only thing 'Cat fans hope for is an early return of freshman QB Brett Basanez.  Basanez is listed as questionable this week as he has missed the last two games due to a fractured fibula (come on Brett, it's a non-weight bearing bone, Jack Youngblood played with a broken tibia in the NFL).  But I digress, the offense has shown promise under his direction and a Big 10 victory is not out of reach if he returns.  Does Northwestern even have a defensive line to absorb the hits of the opponent's offensive line and blocking back?  Every game I have seen, the other team's offensive lineman are running rampant downfield blocking LB's and DB's.  Where is the D-Line?  Oh yeah, now I remember, on the griddle about ready to be served at the local IHOP (or train if you are in Summit, NJ).  No team in the nation is going to throw the ball the rest of the season against the 'Cats.  But on with the analysis.

Last season, IU with Antwaan Randle-El devastated the 'Cats scoring 42 unanswered first half points cruising to an unbelievable (at the time) 56-21 victory.  The game was ugly and one hopes it had more to do with Randle-El than anything else.  The WHO'S YOUR DADDIES are lead this season by first year coach Gerry DiNardo who directs a west coast style offense for the visiting team.  IU has an impressive victory over the Badgers at home this season but otherwise has not been impressive with their two other victories coming at home against Central Michigan and William & Mary.  IU averages 397 yards per game but 280 of those yards are through the air led by 5th year Senior QB Gibran Hamdan who leads the conference in passing yardage per game.  Brian Lewis and Yamar Washington share the running duties avg. 76.3 and 59.6 yards per game respectively.  IU is coming off a big loss against at Illinois 45-14 who exposed their rushing defense led Antoineo Harris (for 'Cat hopefuls insert Jason Wright's name here) who rushed 28 times for 176 yards scoring 4 TD's.

Look for Walker to rush Wright all day and the 'Cats offense to put up some points keeping the defense off the field.

Can the 'Cats win a Big 10 game this season??  Maybe.  IU has not won a game on the road since November of 2001.  If Basanez plays, I say yes.

Pick:  Wildcats 42  Hoosiers 38.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to date: Straight up, 7-2; against the spread, 5-4.

Iowa Preview and Prediction
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup:   Northwestern Wildcats (3-7, 1-5) at # 6 Iowa Hawkeyes (9-1, 6-0)
Iowa City, Iowa

ESPN2 National
NU plus 28


It's always fun to write the Lowes Line after a win; it's (nearly) impossible not to be optimistic.  Never mind that deep pool of cold reality lying in wait in Iowa City.  Don't look at it!  Focus on the positives.  For example, even if Northwestern gets smoked this weekend (as expected), the NCAA football deities have given us a final chance at redemption, one long putt for birdie after a terrible round, another bite at the apple, a chance to go out with a win and the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy--a twelfth game!  Of course, first NU must play that pesky eleventh game out in the western wilds of Iowa.  It's far too late for NU to expect to turn its football fortunes around this season; I suggest they follow the advice imparted by John Madden to his team before every game:

"Don't worry about the horse being blind.  Just load up the wagon."

(By the way, Madden admits that he had no idea what those words of wisdom actually meant.  For some reason, they just seem appropriate for this Wildcat team.)

Last week, Northwestern notched its first conference win of the season, over a pretty terrible Indiana Hoosiers squad.  The Wildcat offense continued to impress (mostly).  I say mostly because the 'Cats lost two critical fumbles in the fourth quarter to give the lead back to Indiana with just over 3 minutes remaining in the game.  Jason Wright rushed for a career-high 196 yards on Saturday; the original stats, which had Wright rushing for 219 yards, incorrectly credited Wright with a 23-yard rush that was actually a pass from Basanez--it's still a career-high, and it leaves Wright as the eighth Wildcat to rush for 1000 yards in a season.  Wright also tied a school record with 4 rushing touchdowns.  He finished with 308 all-purpose yards, only 16 yards shy of Bob Christian's school record, and was named the Big-10 Offensive Player of the Week (with Penn State's Larry Johnson) for the third time this season.  QB Brett Basanez returned after a two game layoff to rest his broken left fibula (as Doc Ullery points out, it's a non-weight bearing bone), and played well (18-27 for 233 yards and 1 TD).  Basanez played in a soft cast covering his entire lower left leg, which limits his scrambling ability, but with Wright and a steady receiving corps, he did the job.  Again.  On the down side, it was Basanez who lost 2 fumbles in the 4th quarter, which led to back-to-back IU touchdowns and the lead (the first fumble was returned 9 yards for a TD--you've gotta hang onto the pill inside your own 20, Brett!).  To be fair, Basanez has protected the ball fairly well this season, and has the fewest INTs (3) of any starting QB in the Big Ten (Iowa QB Brad Banks is second, with 4 INTs on the year).  'Cats fans are glad to have Baz back. [Side note: Coach Walker has indicated that the QB position will be up for grabs again next spring, as NU has several young signal-callers with great potential.  The bet here is that NU will look to Baz again in 2003.  Look for the studious Tony Stauss to transfer to a program better suited to his playing style, where he will probably blossom.]

Amazingly, NU's defense did some good things against the Hoosiers.  Sure, they gave up 100 yards rushing in the first quarter, but they actually slowed the IU attack after that, holding the Hoosiers to only 123 yards rushing over the last 3 quarters.  IU only scored 15 points in the first half.  The defense's finest moment of the season came after NU missed what would have been a game-tying 22-yard field goal late in the game.  Knowing that another Hoosiers score would mean curtains for the 'Cats, the defense held Indiana to 4 yards and a shanked punt, giving the offense a short field for the winning score.  Kudos to the defense (I never thought I'd say that this season) for making a stand in the clutch.

As I said, it's easy to get excited about the team after a win.  But the Indiana game was a game NU was supposed to win.  This week's matchup with Iowa is going to be rough.  Last year, Iowa completely dominated Northwestern in Evanston, rolling up over 600 yards of offense in a 59-16 whipping.  NU's nightmare actually began before the game with the loss of Damien Anderson to injury, and only got worse when Anderson's replacement, Kevin Lawrence, went down in the third quarter with a knee injury.  It was a low point for NU, but despite the problems this year's squad has had, we don't expect them to fold up quite as badly in this year's rematch.  This will be the last matchup between NU and Iowa before the rivalry goes on a 2-year hiatus.

Nobody really expected much out of Iowa this season.  Despite their victory over Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, it looked like the Hawkeyes would have too many holes to fill on offense, especially at wide receiver.  Well, so much for the pundits.  For the first time in school history, Iowa has started 6-0 in the conference.  Give credit for Iowa's national ranking (#6 in both the AP and Coaches/ESPN polls, and #8 in the BCS) to coach Kirk Ferentz and QB Brad Banks.  Banks has turned a suspect group of receivers into viable threats, and he is the top ranked QB in passing efficiency in the nation.  Banks has 20 TD passes in 2002, and should finish the season behind only the legendary Chuck Long (27 TDs in 1985) for most TDs in a season by a Hawkeyes QB.  Unfortunately for NU, the key to Iowa's success has been its rushing attack. Iowa has a very, very good offensive line, which has allowed junior tailback Fred Russell to rank 4th in the Big 10 in rushing, despite missing 2 games (including most of last week's win over Wisconsin with an injured hand).  If Russell can't go on Saturday, the Hawkeyes will turn to Jermelle Lewis, who led the team with 81 yards against Wisconsin last weekend.  Frankly, Iowa's running backs aren't great, but the Hawkeyes still have outrushed their opponents by a huge margin (2055 yards to 639 yards on the season).  Given NU's terrible rushing defense (still dead last in the country, by a lot), we can expect yet another long day on the ground. 

By the way, don't expect Iowa to forget about the passing attack.  The Hawkeyes are committed to a balanced offense, and Banks is making a late-season Heisman push.  NU's passing defense is ranked #12, but that is extremely misleading.  NU's opponents have only attempted 16.8 passes per game, and NU is giving up 8.8 yards per attempt, by far the most yards/pass among the top 50 or so passing defenses.  Iowa is a good comparison.  The Hawkeyes have one of the lowest ranked passing defenses in the country (#112 out of 117), but that can be attributed to the fact that teams cannot run against the Iowa defense, which is the nation's best, statistically, giving up only 63.9 ypg and a measly 2.1 yards/carry.  So, while NU's opponents rarely take to the air, Iowa has faced an average of over 43 pass attempts per game--and they still have a significantly better yards/attempt average (6.6) than NU.  Bottom line:  look for Iowa to pin well over 400 yards of offense on the 'Cats, with more than 200 yards both on the ground and through the air.  NU's offense may make a game of it early, but expect the frustration on defense to continue. 

Pick:  Iowa 45, Northwestern 14

Take the Hawkeyes and lay the points.  James Tiberius Kirk will be an insufferable bastard for another three years.

Season to date: Straight up, 8-2; against the spread, 6-4


While the football 'Cats are away, the hoops squad will play.  Saturday night marks the debut of the 2002-2003 Northwestern basketball Wildcats, in an exhibition game against the EA Sports All-Stars.  My 13-year-old nephew tells me that the EA Sports All-Star team is pretty awesome--he coached them to 7 consecutive undefeated seasons, winning each game by an average margin of nearly 40 points.  Personally, I'm unconvinced--my nephew won't be on the sidelines for Saturday's game, so the 'Cats should have a shot. 

Hold on a second.  I just ran a Google search and it turns out that NU is playing a real team, made up of real former college players, not the virtual juggernaut captained by my nephew on his Playstation.  Thanks goodness.  The real All-Stars lost by 20 to Kansas last weekend, and other than former Jayhawk Adonis Jordan, I didn't recognize a single name on the roster.

I do, however, recognize a few names on the Wildcat roster, and I'm excited.  NU returns 3 starters from last season's surprise squad: F Winston Blake, G Jitim Young and C Aaron Jennings.  Young and Blake are good, solid players who have thrived in coach Bill Carmody's ball control, backdoor offense.  Blake was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in 2001-02, and he's one of NU's all-time best three-point shooters.  I was excited about Jitim Young going into last season, and he didn't disappoint.  Young is a ferocious defender, and going into his junior season he's already ninth on NU's all-time steals list.  Aaron Jennings started 20 games at center last season, but he really hasn't blossomed into the inside presence the Wildcats need if they want to compete on the boards. 

The 'Cats will miss their graduated starters, Tavaras Hardy and Collier Drayton.  Hardy is an especially heavy loss, and the 'Cats will rely heavily upon 6-8 sophomore F Verdun Vukusic to fill his shoes.  Vukusic can shoot the lights out--if he is over the shoulder woes he battled last season, he should be able to make up the scoring that left with Hardy.  He'll be the second-biggest player on the court for the Wildcats (most of the time), so he will need to step up his rebounding.  Collier Drayton was steady at the point over the last two years, but his main strength was on defense.  Drayton's successor is the real reason to be excited about this team.  NU will be handing the reins over to a true freshman, TJ Parker, the younger brother of the San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker.  Like his big bro, TJ is quick, and he can score.  If he can play defense, the 'Cats won't miss Drayton.  The pieces are in place for an exciting, fast-break offense, but only if NU can improve its rebounding.  I'll say it again--rebounding, rebounding, rebounding.  No boards = no fast break = TJ Parker trapped in a slow halfcourt offense.  NU already boasts the Big Ten's best defense (no, really!), and if they can just tune up that offense a bit, this could be a fun team to watch.

In addition to TJ Parker, Bill Carmody landed a few freshmen who should be important role players now and in the future.  F Jimmy Maley was all-state in Illinois as a schoolboy, and G Mohamed Hachad was voted Mr. Quebec (in basketball, I presume) in 2002.  Freshman G Evan Seacat also shows promise.  Coach Carmody likes to play his freshmen, so these guys will be an important part of the bench.  The leader off the bench will again be senior  F Jason Burke, who finished 4th on the team last year in assists.  Burke seemed to have big game after big game last year, and was a valuable sixth man.  C Thomas Soltau and F Davor Duvancic will also be important cogs off the bench.  Last year, depth was a major concern for the Wildcats.  This season, depth may be a strength.

This will come as no surprise, but Bill Carmody is one hell of a good coach.  After surprising many observers two years ago by taking an extremely young team to an 11-19 record, Carmody surprised everybody again last season by posting a 16-13 record, including 7 conference victories, over 7 different Big Ten teams.  During Carmody's first season at NU, the team broke a 32-game conference losing streak; since then, NU has gone 10-12 in conference play.  NU has set new marks in three-pointers each of Carmody's first two seasons, and a healthy Vukusic could help break that mark yet again.  A few years ago, Sports Illustrated called Carmody the best offensive coach in college basketball, and he is widely considered one of the top teaching coaches in the country.  But Carmody has really made his mark in Evanston with his team's defense.  Last year, Northwestern was first in the Big Ten (and fifth nationally) in scoring defense.  Although Drayton and Hardy were key defenders, this year's squad has the potential to be just as good, if not better, on defense and will keep the 'Cats in nearly every game.

Last year, NU became the first Big Ten team ever to post a winning record and not get a post-season tournament bid.  NU's RPI was terrible, so it's no surprise the NCAA passed, but the NIT had no business snubbing the 'Cats.  Unfortunately, this season's non-conference schedule might be even softer than last year.  NU only plays two power conference foes (both on the road): Kansas State (which probably doesn't qualify as a tough game considering how bad those other Wildcats are) and NC State (in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge).  The NC State game will be part of the nationally televised grudge match between the ACC and Big Ten, and a Wildcats upset in Raleigh would give NU a huge boost (in momentum and RPI) going into conference play.

Ok, so cut to the chase!  Is Northwestern a tournament team?  Probably not this year.  The 'Cats will miss Hardy at first, but once conference play begins (with a home game against Iowa on January 8) they will have made the adjustment to playing without him, and the freshmen will hopefully step up and give the Wildcats a deep, fast team that can score.  If the Wildcats can get the offense going, if TJ Parker can handle the pressures of running a still-young team in a tough conference, and if Carmody can get his squad to play 8 or 9 men deep, then the Wildcats might be surprise for the third season in a row and could sneak into the NIT.  Personally, I don't think NU will match its 7 conference wins from a year ago, and that (plus a weak RPI) will make it very tough to get a postseason bid.  BUT, I do believe this is only a minor transition year, and the foundation is there for NU's first NCAA tournament bid.  It won't be this year, but I think NU is no more than a year or two away from that long-awaited dance card.

In other Big Ten news today, Michigan announced a self-imposed 1-year ban on post-season tournament play, as atonement for several years of recruiting/booster violations.  Frankly, this is merely a shallow recognition of the great recruiting class brought in by Tommy Amaker.  The Wolverines will be better this year, and they might be great next year, so the school wants to sweep this nasty business under the rug ASAP.  Michigan's self-flagellation (if accepted by the NCAA) could open the door to a team like NU if they can post a winning record.

Prediction: 8th place, but nobody will want to play NU in the Big Ten tournament.

Go 'Cats!

Illinois Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:    Illinois Illini (4-7, 3-4) at Northwestern Wildcats (3-8, 1-6)
Saturday, November 23, 2002, 11:05 a.m. CST

 NU plus 14 (Over/Under 58.5)


Ahhhhhhh...the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk...what alumnus doesn't look back fondly at this tradition of instate competition.  (Cue the alma mater!)  The hard fought battles, the glorious victories, the bitter defeats, a rivalry that ranks among the most infamous in college...

Ok, so my co-worker said it all when he asked "Who was Sweet Sue and why did she have an ax?"  Actually, this rivalry does garner some attention from the local papers as an instate battle for bragging rights.  Before about ten years ago, it was Illinois's chance to pound on poor NU as payback for not admitting their cousins, neighbors, etc.  Lately, though, NU has been holding its own (winning 2 of the last 5).  Personally, I hope NU wins so I don't have to hear it from the folks in my office who outnumber me approximately 20-1.2 (there's an intern from NU that comes in once a week).  For the teams, there's not much beyond the rivalry to play for...NU has had a disappointing season that is ending with calls for Walker's firing (though curiously, this is mostly from alumni...the local papers have been pretty easy on him considering their general similarity to piranhas...I apologize to the media types on the list, but as for the local sports media, there's not much empathy here)  Illinois has had a mediocre season and was eliminated from post-season play last week. 

Illinois comes into the game with pretty much mediocre everything.  Their junior QB, Jon Buetjer, is filling Kurt Kitner's shoes fairly well (280 passing yards per game for first in the Big Ten), but the running backs and wide receivers are nothing particularly special.  On defense they're also mediocre, but compare their 28 points allowed per game to NU's 42 points allowed per game, and we begin to see a familiar story unfolding.  The key indicator here is their play versus previous opponents.  They crushed Indiana, beat Purdue and Wisconsin, and played tough against OSU.  NU barely beat Indiana, was crushed by Purdue, DNP Wisconsin and played tough against OSU (on a tangent, I stand by my previous opinion that OSU is not really as good as their record, though that doesn't matter.  But I say Michigan beats them this weekend).

NU, on the other hand, continues to improve on offense.  Wright and Basanez have given fans reason to be hopeful for next season.  On defense...well that's another story.  A typical NU tackle usually involves either falling down in front of the opposing runner or grabbing onto a shoelace as they're being knocked over by an offensive lineman four yards downfield.  I have a suggested diet for the NU D-line for the offseason.  It's beer (no lite ) and beef grown with steroids.  Lots and lots of both.  Also, any defensive player in engineering must transfer into something else so they can spend more time in the weight room. 

The real story here will be the weather, which will be like an extra defensive player.  The extended forecast is cold and rainy (much like the last two weeks here).  That makes things a little more interesting.  Suddenly, Illinois' long passing game is ineffective, and NU's short passing and misdirection running game become a lot more effective.  The score should stay relatively low as well (well, low for an NU game anyway) and won't hit 58.5.  I say Illinois will win by following the standard game plan against NU (screw the passing, keep running) as demonstrated by Purdue, but not by 14. 

Pick:  Illinois 24, Northwestern 17.  Take the Cats and the points, unless the weather forecast changes drastically.

Season to date: Straight up, 9-2; against the spread, 7-4