Lowes Line
2003 Posted


The Complete 2003 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.  For the 2003 season it returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Kansas Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern (0-0) at Kansas (0-0)
Date: Saturday, August 30, 6:00 p.m. CDT

None.   www.wgnradio.com for die-hards that are near a PC.
NU minus 6

Well here we are again, back at it at The Lowes Line.  The 2003 campaign marks the fifth college football season during which we've remembered Marcus through a continuation of what he started in 1996 as a somewhat objective and certainly humorous weekly column on the state of Northwestern football.  Hopefully we schleps that write this season can continue the attempt to make the weekly read as enjoyable as Marcus made it.

After an absolute horror of a 2002 season, one in which many were calling for the head of Randy Walker, the 'Cats look to the 2003 season with a little more optimism.  Their 3-9 season last year was marred by a run defense that had more holes in it than a pincushion at a needle convention.  Significant losses to graduation include solid wideout Jon Schweighardt, as well as the two mainstays of the offensive line for several years, Austin King and Jeff Roehl (picked up by the NJ Giants!).

After the season opener at Kansas, NU plays nonconference games at home against Air Force and Miami (OH), and finishes the pre-Big Ten portion of the schedule at Duke.  The conference schedule gets serious quickly, as the 'Cats open the slate at defending national champion Ohio State, who, even without Maurice Clarett, looks like the team to beat in the conference.  The 2003 season for NU also has Big Ten road games at Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois, while they host Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan in Evanston.  For those making the trip in September to Columbus for the game against the Buckeyes, I offer some friendly advice in the form of an analogy, and based on my trip there in 2001:  Woody Hayes is to people in Ohio as God is to normal people.  The takeaway:  When in Columbus, don't f--- with Woody or his memory and expect to get away unharmed.  The corollary to this, sadly also learned firsthand, is the following: Don't talk smack about Ohio State while in line for the Porta-Jon and expect to walk out before some Buckeye Buffoons try to tip the damn thing over.  But what should I expect from a mob that requires 104,000 people to collectively spell O-H-I-O?    

On to Week 1.  I always find the first game of the year has me brewing with optimism.  Where did it get me last year?  A pick 'em game against Air Force ended up in a 52-3 disgrace (and it wasn't that close).  So what to make of NU's chances against the Jayhawks?  Here's a Big 12 school that has a focus on basketball and not much else.  Does Kansas even have a gridiron squad?  Rock, chalk, Jayhawk?  What's that all about?  Could that be the way they play rock, paper, scissors in Lawrence?  And an immortal hoops coach named Phog?  Overshadowed by the likes of conference foes Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas State, the Jayhawks have not seen much success on the football field, going winless last year in Big 12 play.   Kansas is led by senior QB Mark Whittemore.  Who he leads is another story.  While the Jayhawks return wide receivers Derick Mils and Brandon Rideau, their roster is composed of 13 junior college signees.  Don't look for them in the Big 12 championship game come December.

For NU, nine starters return on defense, hopefully with more experience.  Linebacker Pat Durr is back as well, after missing all but a few minutes of last season following a knee injury in the opener against Air Force.  As the saying goes, the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.  Look no further than the defensive side of the ball to see this one in action.  The 2002 squad surrendered over 313 yards a game on the ground.  In order to be even remotely competitive, NU has to prove they can stop the run.  Their pass defense numbers were admirable last year, only because teams didn't bother to throw the ball.  Overall there
has to be a quantum leap of progress from the team that allowed 502 total yards and 41 points a game last season.  Youth and injuries only go so far as excuses.  This defense needs to step it up.

On offense, sophomore QB Brett Basanez and senior RB Jason Wright, both of whom led a high-scoring offense last year, are back.   Basanez led all freshmen in the country last year in passing yardage, even while missing two games with a broken fibula.  Wright is an exciting back with All-America potential.  He ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage last year with over 2,000 yards.  While his time as a kick returner will be small this year, his impact will be big.  Senior wideout Kunle Patrick is back this year as well.  Patrick has a 34 game reception streak and will be the main target for Basanez.  Joining Patrick is Ashton Aikens, a junior speedster that has the ability to be a gamebreaker.  Up front is an offensive line that averages over 6-5 and 315 pounds, and will have to be as effective as last season if the 'Cats are to continue their high scoring average of 22+ points a game like last year.

This team has the ability to put points on the board, and is exciting to watch when on offense.  The question is whether the shootouts they're sure to engage in will result in victories.  While I think the team will be much more competitive than last year, certainly on defense, I'm not convinced that the record will be appreciably better.  As for a season-long outlook, I think 3-9 on the low side and 5-7 on the high side is what we can expect.  You'll see better than that only if Randy Walker emerges from the locker room one Saturday with Lazarus.

This week will be one of the W's, however.  The Kansas defense doesn't impress anyone, and NU is actually a more talented team, if you can believe it.  There won't be many of these opportunities this season, 'Cats fans, so take 'em where you can.

Pick:  NU 31, Kansas 21.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.

Season to date: 0-0.

Air Force Preview and Prediction
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup: United States Air Force Academy Falcons (1-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-0)
Date: Saturday, September 6, at noon CDT.

Nope.  Maybe next week...
NU plus 7.5

There is no joy in rehashing the debacle that was last season's opener in Colorado Springs.  The score (a 52-3 whipping) was not indicative of the game itself--most witnesses believe the Zoomies could have scored 152 points against the 'Cats.  Before kickoff that day, however, nobody would have predicted such a disaster, either for the game (Vegas sent the 'Cats into the game at even odds) or for the season.   Unfortunately for Northwestern, the loss set the tone for the rest of the 2002 campaign.  NU lost Pat Durr six plays into the game, and the Wildcat defense never recovered, giving up Manifest Destiny-scale chunks of real estate for the rest of the season.   Making matters worse was the Wildcats' uncertainty on offense, as they had not yet settled on Brett Basanez at QB.  The offense sputtered badly in the thin air of the Rocky Mountain foothills (a paltry 12 first downs on barely 200 yards total offense, and only 37 yards rushing).

Coming off Saturday's win in Kansas, it is very tempting to ignore the past.  After all, what a difference a year makes, right?  Northwestern's defense looked a heckuva lot better than it did last season, allowing only one TD in Lawrence, and that on a busted play.   In this case, NU's best defense was a good offense, as it dominated time of possession in wet conditions that ranged from a refreshing drizzle to a downpour that saw the Jayhawk cheerleaders pairing off to board an ark.  Kansas managed to stay in the game thanks to an interception return off a bad bounce and a return off a bobbled snap on a punt.   Jason Wright carried the ball 41 times for 196 yards (144 in the first half) and notched 4 TDs, earning his fourth career Big Ten Player of the Week honor.  Basanez had an efficient evening in the rain, passing for 219 yards.  Kunle Patrick also picked up where he left off in 2002, hauling in 7 receptions.   But the story was the defense, which forced 5 turnovers and gave up a single score in sloppy conditions.  Most impressive is that NU only surrendered 106 yards rushing in the game, which is about 700 yards better that their per-game average of a year ago.

Like I said, it's tempting to ignore the past, despite the admonition of George Santayana.  But the reality is that Kansas isn't exactly the class of the Big 12--NU should be able to beat teams like the Jayhawks and look good doing it.  I hate to knock over the bandwagon, but NU can be a 3-9 team and still be competitive with the likes of Kansas or Duke (or Indiana for that matter).   The question of the week is whether NU can be competitive with Air Force, a bowl team in 2002.  Seeing what the Falcons did to Division I-AA Wofford (a 49-0 whitewashing) doesn't make me feel any better.  Wofford is Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry's alma mater, and he might have shown a little mercy on his way to career win number 150.   Air Force is a scary team.  While the Falcons aren't much of a threat to throw the ball, they can run on anybody (they averaged 307 ypg on the ground in 2002, an average that was probably inflated by the 19,000 yards rushing they pinned on NU).  They return four starters on the offensive line, as well as senior QB Chance Harridge.   Frankly, the 2003 Falcons are a much more experienced team on offense than they were last season, which is bad news for Northwestern.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons return starters at most of the key positions, the major exception being the loss of LB Anthony Schlegel, who transferred to Ohio State.  The Falcons field a very aggressive defense that employs a flexible 3-3-5 scheme, with 2 defensive backs playing the role of LB/DB "Falcons" who on any given play will either drop back into coverage, blitz the quarterback, or help out on the run (NU will also play some 3-3-5 during this game).   Last year, the Air Force defense made NU look real, real bad.  The "Falcon" scheme reacted to NU's no-huddle spread offense faster than the Wildcats' own offensive players--in fact, during post-game interviews several Air Force players were quoted as saying that in practice their scout team ran the Wildcat offense better and faster than NU could, and during the game the Falcons defense often reacted to the called play before Stauss/Basanez even took the snap.

Obviously, Northwestern's offense should have better luck against the Zoomies this time around.  As we saw in the Kansas game, an effective offense will take pressure off the defense.  The Wildcats are a more experienced, more athletic, and more confident team than the one that was humiliated in Colorado Springs last season, and thank goodness for that.   Another violent drubbing would probably be too traumatic for all the youngsters expected to be in attendance at Ryan Field on "Take A Kid To The Game Day" this Saturday.  Unfortunately, this game will be another good recruiting tool for Air Force.   Don't count on NU winning with offense, as they did against Navy last year, because Air Force actually has a tough defense that should keep Jason Wright from claiming another Player of the Week honor.  And don't count on NU's defense to suddenly be able to stop the best multiple option rushing attack in the country.   This won't be an embarrassment, but it also won't be a win.

Pick:  Air Force 35, NU 24.  Take the Zoomies and lay the points.

Season-to-date: 1-0 (1-0 ATS)

Miami Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Miami University RedHawks (0-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-1)
Date: Saturday, September 13, at 11:00 am CDT

ESPN Plus (Regional)
Miami minus 3.5

Boy, what can you say about this past week's game.  I'm driving to Kalamazoo, MI for a wedding and convince my wife to let me listen for some college football scores on the radio, and I come across the 'Cats leading 21-7 on WGN.  I listen for the final 30 minutes of the car ride and head into the hotel to check in with the 'Cats still leading, but only by 8.  Next thing I know the ticker says Air Force 22-21 Final Score.  How did this happen??  Well, some bad turnovers occurred and as Carl would say, "and that's all she wrote."  On the bright side, Northwestern seems to have acquired a defense.  The vaunted Air Force Triple Option only scored two TD's (a significant improvement over last year's debacle), and Marvin Ward was named a DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK in the Big 10.  Alongside former Mr. Ohio Jeff Backes, NU boasts the strongest secondary I can remember since a player who shall remain nameless was caught toking it up before a bowl game.  On the negative side, Jason Wright sat out much of the 3rd quarter with a "tight" hammy but per report should be ready to go.  Let's hope so as he still is the best option on offense, especially if Basanez struggles again.

On to the Redhawks.  Miami and NU are linked over the years.  Parseghian and Walker are coaches who left the friendly confines of Oxford, Ohio to head to the shores of Lake Michigan and Northwestern University.   Who can forget 1995 when the fumbled punt attempt led Miami to a winning score as time expired for NU's only loss before their Rose Bowl appearance.  Again in 1999, the 'Hawks came a calling in Evanston during Walker's inaugural season and pounded the 'Cats 28-3.  This season, Miami is the preseason favorite to win the East Division of the MAC (many are starting to believe it is no longer a second rate conference, just ask Purdue about Bowling Green).  They are led by Heisman candidate Ben Roethlisberger (hate to be the announcers for his games) who became Miami's career passing leader 2 weeks ago against Iowa despite a rough week. The RedHawks rushing attack comes from the duo of seniors Luke Clemens and Cal Murray, who combined for 1,262 yards last year.  Despite losing 21-3, the game was significantly more competitive than the final score.  Several miscues in the redzone halted 3 drives for the Redhawks without a score.  Their rushing defense did seem a little porous as Iowa ran over them for 232 yards as Fred Russell hit them for 161 of those yards.  With the bye week, Coach Hoeppner will have the Redhawks prepared for NU.

But what would college football be without a little controversy.  Place kicker Jared Parseghian (great grandnephew of the aforementioned Ara Parseghian) was suspended from the football team Friday for stealing artwork and signs from the city park.  I'm saying this comes back to haunt the 'Hawks as the ghost of Ara comes down* and punishes them for suspending his nephew.  Wright and Basanez explode and Roethlisberger's Heisman hopes go up in smoke as Durr and the new 'Cats defense holds Miami to 17 points.

Pick:  NU 27, Miami 17.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to date: 2-0 (1-1 ATS)

* [Ed. note: yes, MO'Cats is being figurative.  There is no cause for alarm: Ara is still quite alive.]

Ohio State Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (2-2) at The Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0)
Date: Saturday, September 27, at 11:00 am CDT

N/A some places, others OSU -21 or 22.

The Wildcats open their 2003 Big Ten season with a trip to the Horseshoe in Columbus to play the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes.  The 'Cats are coming off of a solid 28-10 road victory over the Duke Blue Devils.  The Buckeyes advanced to 4-0 by holding off a late rally by the Bowling Green Fighting Falcons.  NU's defense has done relatively well this year against the run, not so against the pass as evidenced by their defeat at the hands of the Miami Redhawks.  Ohio State continues to do just enough to pull out a victory each week. 

NU will always have a difficult time with the big boys of the Big Ten just due to the sheer number of talented guys they can throw at us.  Even if the starting talent is even, the reserves from OSU, UM and PSU usually are far superior to ours.  NU's best shot comes when they have an experienced team, especially at QB, O-line and def. secondary.  Unfortunately the O-line has yet to gel, our QB is still green and the secondary is young and beat up.  OSU will be using a back-up QB this weekend, so it should not be a blow out (knock on wood).  The weather will be a factor as the field will be wet.  In all likelihood the game will be close in the first half, but the Buckeyes will wear us down in the second and pull away.  Our hope relies on the bounces (and many of them) finally going against OSU.  They have lived on the edge now for over a year.  They are due.  That being said, I still would not bet against them.

Pick: Take the Buckeyes but by 10.  The 'Cats should be able to hang close.

Season to date: 2-1 (1-2 ATS).

Minnesota Preview and Prediction
Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-3) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-0)
Date: Saturday, October 4, 11 a.m. CDT
Television: ESPN Plus
Line: Minnesota -11.5


The Good (relatively any way):

The NU defense is decent.  They held OSU in check many times.  They can stop the run but are suspect against the pass.  A good passing team might blow out the 'Cats.

The Bad:
The offense was not impressive.  The scheme once again is to run and make short throws out of the spread formation.  The main problem as I see it is that NU does not use the middle of the field or try to go down field with their passes.  I saw exactly 2 passes thrown to a receiver between the hash marks, and not a one thrown down field.  Both were to the tight end and both were terrible.  Without using the center and deep down field it makes it very easy on the defense to clamp down on the run.  Opponents can put 8 guys in the box the stop the run and then have the DB's play 7 yards off the ball.  Since EVERY pattern NU runs is a 3 yard curl or 4 yard out, the DB's have plenty of time to close on a ball that is thrown 25 yards east/west for a 5 yard gain at best.

The offense put together two drives by running for 3 yards each on 1st and 2nd and throwing for 4 yards on third but there is not room for error with that approach.  One sack, penalty, stop for no gain and NU is stuck.

The Ugly:

The special teams play was embarrassing for a Div. 1 school.  I really have seen a better job by several high school teams from the Buckeye state.  Two missed field goals where the snap bounced back to the holder.  One kickoff return that was received a yard deep in the end zone, bobbled and bounced to the one, then picked up and downed back in the end zone.  How that is not a safety against the 'Cats I still do not know.  Another kick off was slicing out of bounds inside the 5.  Instead of letting it go out of bounds or into the end zone, Jason Wright catches it at the 3 with one foot out of bounds. Just dumb.

It reminds me of my days at NU in the early 90's.  The only hope for beating even a middle level team is that EVERYTHING has to go NU's way to win.  That is not as catchy a slogan as Expect Victory.

I am trying to keep the faith but it could but a rough year.  Is Minnesota really a top 20 team?  No one knows yet.  They are a top 50 team though and NU is not.

Prediction: As much as I hate to say it, Take Minnesota, minus 11.5.

Record (4-1 straight-up, 2-3 against the spread)

Indiana Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (2-4; 0-2) at Indiana (1-5; 0-2)
Date: Saturday, October 11 at 11:00 am CDT

NU minus 3.5


For 21 minutes, the Northwestern defense held Minnesota (the highest scoring offense in the Big 10) without a first down.  Suddenly, the game turned sour quickly.  It seemed as if the 'Cats gave up and couldn't answer (let alone stop) the Minnesota offense, while the 'Cat offense wasn't moving the ball at all.  Mercifully to all of those in attendance or watching on TV, the game ended with a final score of 42-17.  What the heck happened.  This was supposed to be the 'Cats' best defense in several years.  The offense was supposed to be able to move on anyone (at least anyone not wearing scarlet and gray).  The defense allowed the BIG PLAY Gophers (I can't believe I just wrote that) 241 yards on the ground and an additional 331 in the air (two
plays accounted for 178 yards).  The 'Cat offense amassed 10 first downs in the first quarter alone but then was held to FIVE first downs for the rest of the game ("That's all we got was five *&! first downs.  You can't post *&!.  Who cares: no one is reading anyway.").  Walker states, "We got it rolling in the first half, then had a couple of setbacks ... then the air come out of the balloon."  Isn't it his job to see what the bleep is going on and plug the hole before all the air escapes?  He has veteran leaders on this team and they just gave up.  Come on, the coaching staff has to do better.

Anyway, on to the Hoosiers with Norman Dale and Jimmy Chitwood starring.  This team is terrible and would need Jimmy Chitwood to run the Picket Fence to score.  IU will probably be NU's last chance for a victory this season.  The Spartans smoked (literally with Jeff Smoker) them last week 31-3 giving up almost 400 yards passing and over 100 in rushing.  If I was the coach last week for the Hoosiers, I would have run Shooter out there carrying his flask and handing it to Smoker to see what happened when those two partied.
Indiana's only victory this season came at the hands of their fierce (I'm trying not to laugh at that last proclamation) state rivals, the Indiana State Sycamores, who they beat 33-3.  They have not had another game where their defense has not given up over 30 points, while their offense has managed 17 points twice-- losing to Michigan St., Michigan, Washington, and those powerhouses of college football, Kentucky and Connecticut. They are led by Junior QB Matt LoVecchio and 2 young TB's, sophomore Chris Taylor and freshman BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who average nearly 4 yards per rush between the two of them.

The 'Cats should be able to put up some offense against this porous defense.  Wright needs to have a breakout game to take some pressure off of Basanez who is going through a sophomore slump.  Look for the 'Cats to establish the run early, getting an early lead and Basanez to finally start showing some poise in the pocket (he lost something at the end of that Air Force game).  If the special teams do not kill the 'Cats, they should win this game.  If they don't win this game look for Walker's head on a platter at the end of the season and NationalChampionSomeday's plans on heading to Pasadena (or even a bowl game) again before he turns 40 go up in smoke.

Prediction:  'Cats 33  IU  24  Take the 'Cats and give the points

Season to date:  5-1 (straight up)  3-3 (ATS)

Bye Preview and Prediction
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (3-4; 1-2) at Bye Week Nobodies (7-0; 0-7)

Date: Saturday, October 18, 11:05 am CDT

Site: Erehwon Memorial Stadium, Onamata, IA

Television: None.  Rumor has it that "Iowa" will be enjoying the benefits of 20th Century technology within the next decade, but until then there ain't no dang teevee.

Line: None.  (You thought I'd go for the cheap laugh, favoring the bye week by 3.5, didn't you?  Didn't you?  Well, for your information the game is off the board due to the questionable status of Bye's starting QB, to say nothing of the questionable status of NU's entire offense.)


Hey gang, Northwestern won a Big Ten road game!  Never mind that it was Indiana, just revel in the Wildcats' first conference victory away from Ryan Field since "Victory Right" in 2000.  Especially sweet was the fact that Indiana had targeted Northwestern as its Homecoming patsy, hoping to squeeze out a win for the Hoosier alums. (Chitwood takes the pass at the top of the key!   He waits, watching the clock wind down, he waits some more, building dramatic tension, he drives!  He shoots!  He misses!  D'oh!  Hoosier Daddy!)  Frankly, it's hard to read much into last weekend's victory.  Indiana is a bad team, but they actually feature some talent, including former Notre Dame (and Franklin Lakes, NJ product) Matt LoVecchio, not to mention one of Division I-A's homeliest coaches in Gerry "Face Like a Pan of Worms, Bless His Pea-Pickin' Heart" DiNardo.   On a completely unrelated note, when the ESPN+ camera focused in on a Hoosier cheerleader before going to commercial late in the third quarter, I couldn't help but wonder aloud whether she had transferred to IU from Northwestern.  What I mean is, she, uh, looked familiar.   From previous broadcasts.  Or something.

Anyway, despite LoVecchio and DiNardo and the lovable Hoosier cheerleaders, Indiana still isn't any good.  In the plus column, NU's offense showed signs of life.  Brett Basanez managed to shake off the effects of his sophomore slump for one afternoon, showing flashes of the efficient, turnover-free QB we remember from last season.   Jason Wright also had a great game (141 yards rushing, 4 TDs).  For the second week in a row, the defense looked good in the first quarter, but then they coughed up a 17-point lead not once, but twice.  While overtime was great, watching the second half on pay-per-view was excruciating; the only saving grace was that it was on Jersey Cat's nickel.   Just think of it: in exchange for one sliced chicken sandwich, I swindled Jersey Cat out of a Coors Light and a Wildcat overtime win on ESPN Gameplan.  Combine that with the fact that he didn't make me help remodel his bathroom, toss in a big Cubs win, and I'd say I had a pretty good Saturday.   Of course, my day wasn't as good as the one enjoyed by my puppy, who on game days I refer to as PurpleCatDog, and who on Saturday pooped three times (all outdoors!), ate a bug, slept for 6 hours, and made sweet, sweet love to my sofa.  Good boy, PurpleCatDog.

The same cannot be said of NU's next opponent, the mercurial Bye Week.  Bye Week got its ass kicked last week by Washington State, who moved up in the polls from #12 to #6 thanks to their matchup with the Empty Slate.  Bye Week doesn't really have any offensive or defensive stars to speak of, and new coach Lou Saban (no, really, he's coaching Nobody!) hasn't had much to talk about in his first year at Erewhon Memorial Stadium.   While the Bye Week alumni are justifiably restless, there are rumors that the Big East is seriously considering inviting the Bye Week to join the conference as a full member.  Maybe as two full members, so they can have a conference championship game.

Oh, another thing.  It will come as no surprise that, following a popular trend in the Big Ten, the Bye Week has scheduled Northwestern as its Homecoming opponent.  Opportunistic bastards. 

Believe it or not, NU actually has a losing record in recent years against the Bye Week.  Under Randy Walker, NU is 2-2 when they have an extra week to prepare (in fact, the Victory Right win over Minnesota in 2000 came the week after NU faced the Empty Slate).   Against the Bye itself, however, Walker and the 'Cats have had tough luck, going 0-1-3.  The lone loss came in 2001, when NU's Zak Kustok rolled up 532 yards of offense his ownself, only to see the 'Cats lose 42-43 on a successful two point conversion by Bowling Green.   For the record, that game took place during NU's scheduled Bye Week, when NU filled the gap on their schedule left by the canceled Navy matchup.

Trying to predict the outcome of this week's contest is nearly as difficult as trying to predict how NU's offense will play.  Seriously, what the hell is up with the Wildcat offense this season?  Yeah, they put up some points against Indiana (yawn), but on the whole the offense has lacked the fireworks we all thought we'd be seeing this season.   Basanez should be improving on his great play of last year, and Jason Wright should be one of the most dangerous tailbacks in the conference.  It's not that the offense stinks, but I was hoping we'd steal a game or two by winning a shootout.  Instead, NU has actually relied on their defense in all three of their wins, and even in two of their losses.   I mean, what the hell is wrong with this picture?  Combine last year's offense with this year's defense, and this team is 4-3, with winnable games against Penn State and Illinois (and thus potential Bowl eligibility) still to come!  OK, that last sentence made me laugh a little bit.

Without any real transition whatsoever, here is a song parody that came to mind while driving home from work last week (it was a long day, a late night, and I had just polished off a Forrest Gump--that's 14 Dr. Peppers to all you rookies out there):

Randy Walker Way
by GallopingGrapes, with apologies to J.Walsh

Spent the last year
Randy Walker Way
Could the scores get higher
After Air Force
Think it's safe to say
NU ain't on fire
And we don't need the LadyCats
Crying 'cuz the D's so bad
'Cuz the Randy Walker Way
Is better than the Peay we had

[wah-wah guitar solo by Asst. Head Coach Jerry Brown]

Well he's callin' a blitz
And we're all screamin' "Pass!"
Changes it every play
So what the hell's the matter
Offense was loaded and Basanez's at bat
Playin' it play by play
Our record should be better
And we don't need the LadyCats
Crying 'cuz the D's so bad, uh huh
'Cuz the Randy Walker Way
Is better than the Peay we had
Hey, hey, hey, hey

Have I exhausted the meager material of the Bye Week?  Really?  About four paragraphs and one song parody ago?  Are you absolutely sure you don't want a dissertation on the brilliance of Ian Paice's drum solos on the "Made In Japan" album?   You might not think it has anything to do with Northwestern football, but you'd be wrong.  Just listen to "The Mule" while you read this column backwards.  (That's "Mule" forwards, column backwards)

Pick:  Northwestern 2, Bye Week 0.  In a mind-bending display of irony, nobody shuts down the Wildcat offense, which goes scoreless.  NU wins by forfeit.
(Season to date: 6-1 straight up, 4-3 against the spread)

My 揃yene: GallopingGrapes.  Go Cubs!!

Wisconsin Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup:  # 17 Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at Northwestern Wildcats (3-4, 1-2)
Saturday, October 25, 2003, 11:00 am CDT
Television: ESPN2 – ooh, will we get to hear the eloquent voice of Chris Spielman again?  Please?  Chris, we know you were a stud at Ohio State.  And we know he had a cheesy mustache while there.  Enough already.  Just call the damn game.
 NU plus 11.5


Saturday is Homecoming at Northwestern, and the 'Cats take on their Big Ten cheesehead rivals to the north, Wisconsin.  Brie on the Badgers!  The 'Cats are coming off a win at Indiana, and with an extra week to prepare for the Badgers, plus a homecoming crowd cheering behind them, this game presents as gouda chance as any to get a second conference win.

Badger head coach Barry "Mascarpone" Alvarez leads a 5-2 Wisconsin team that had delusions of muenster at the outset of the season.  The Badgers had been feta'd with preseason accolades, such a Top 25 ranking, but after a September non-conference loss to the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV, the Wisconsin faithful could be heard uttering a collective groan of "Jarlsberg!" in much the same way Seinfeld used to show disdain for his mail carrier.  Normally, play like that will give a coach a lot of gruyere, but Alvarez is already pretty much bald, so the effect has been minimal.

The Badgers have battled back from the Vegas defeat to stop Ohio State's 19-game winning streak, before bowing to Wilford Brimley look-alike Joe Tiller and Purdue last weekend, 26-23.

The NU defense has improved significantly this season, but there was only one way to go after last year.  Although only 95th in the country against the run this year, NU's average of 185 yards per game is quite a step in the right direction from the 300+ they surrendered per game on the ground last year.  Appropriately, look for none other than Colby Clark to step up and make a few big plays Saturday.  After sitting out the Minnesota game while on academic probation, Clark boldly commented before the Hoosier game on his role within the Wildcat defensive unit, "Asiago, so go the 'Cats."

NU should take advantage of an overrated Wisconsin secondary.  When asked for his thoughts on the Badger cornerbacks, NU quarterback Brett Basanez said, "We expect to throw the ball effectively on them.  Not to sound too confident, but we expect to edam for lunch."  Ooh.  Bulletin board material.   Basanez will be taking the snaps this weekend out fromunda 'Cat freshman center Trevor Rees, who is part of an offensive line without a senior in the starting lineup.

The Cats have had to regroup from some truly unspectacular play against Minnesota.  NU held an early 14-0 lead against the Gophers, before being strung out like mozzarella, and falling 42-17.  After that contest, Randy Walker wanted nothing more than to escape by himself to his little-known retreat in northern Utah.  His wife intervened, "Don’t go to Provolone. Take me with you."  Although Walker wanted some solitude, he decided against the trip to the Beehive State and went back to campus to study film for the upcoming game versus Indiana, a contest the Wildcats won 37-31 in overtime.

In that game two weeks back at Bloomington, senior tailback Jason Wright was spicier than a slice of habañero pepper jack, scoring four touchdowns, including the overtime game-winner, while rushing for 141 yards.  Mark Philmore got his gorgonzola up against the Hoosiers too, returning a 4th quarter punt sixty yards to the Hoosier six yard line that set up the tying score.  Wideout Kunle Patrick also extended his NCAA-leading streak of consecutive games with at least one reception to forty-one with a first-quarter grab.

The NU defense, shredded earlier this year by Miami (OH) and Minnesota like cheddar atop a taco, didn't exactly rebound against the Hoosiers, putting on an equally unimpressive display against former Golden Dome QB Matt Lovecchio.  But they managed to make a play when it counted, with Bryan Heinz picking off Lovecchio in overtime before getting the win.

How to attack the Badgers?  Their run defense is strong, and the offensive line will have their hands full in creating space for Wright and Herron.  Basanez needs to throw early and often, short passes on first down to set up second and third downs with short yardage situations.   Get everyone involved on offense.  Where has the team been that used to score almost at will last year? This Badger squad can be thrown on.  Purdue ran up 411 passing yards on Wisconsin last week.  Boilermaker QB Kyle Orton was both effective and efficient, completing 38 of 55 attempts against the UW defense.  Is NU's offense as smooth as Purdue's?  Hardly.  Yet Basanez & Co.  should be able to have a marginally good time against the Wisconsin defense.

On defense, stopping Badger tailback Anthony Davis is the key.  The other keys, which I've asked Curtis to throw down, are applying pressure to the quarterback and simply showing up for the second half.  The Wildcats tendency to lose a lead cost them against both Air Force and Minnesota, and nearly did against Indiana.

Can NU pull the upset?  If so, the students will charge the field, headed for the goalposts, and we’ll see the likes of DPS attempt to restore order, clad, of course, in the brown polyester that engorges many reading this.

Pick:  Smile, 'Cats fans, but don’t say cheese:  NU covers, Badgers win.
Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 20.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to date: 6-1 straight up, 4-3 against the spread.

Purdue Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (4-4, 2-2) at Purdue (6-2, 3-1; #18 AP Poll)
Saturday, November 1, 2003.  Kickoff 11:00 am CST
Television: ESPN.  Coverage begins at 11:00 am, with Mark Jones and Bob Davie covering (and, having listened to Bob Davie on color commentary, I understand fully why his tenure at South Bend State was so short).  Radio on WGN 720 in the Chicago area, or on the web.
 NU plus 18.5


This Lowes Line contributor is at a loss as to how to follow up the previous Line's recital of the cheese family.  Unfortunately, "Boilermakers" does not lend itself to much in the way of humor, except the entirely appropriate curiosity of exactly why a university chose to nickname itself after such manufacturers.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that such craftsmen tend to wield sledgehammers and are thereby intimidating.  But that is not for small minds to ponder.

The Wildcats enter this Big 10 tilt on the heels of a surprising victory over the Badgers of Wisconsin, then ranked 17th in the country.  Northwestern brings its 2 game Big 10 win streak (first time since 2000) into Ross-Ade Stadium to face Purdue, which was routed by Michigan 31-3 on a regionally televised game on ABC.  Embarrassing.  That does not bode well.

NU's 16-7 victory over the Badgers came from a very unusual occurrence:  NU's defense shut down the Badgers running game.  The NU offense out gained its Wisconsin counterpart 245 to 135.  In fact, Wisconsin's leading rusher was Brett Schabert, the quarterback, and he rushed for only 57 yards.  Schabert also threw for less than 200 yards and tossed one pick.  All in all, an impressive defensive performance by the 'Cats.  NU's defense, led by Pat Durr, never let the Badgers get into any sort of offensive rhythm, and the defensive line consistently penetrated the line of scrimmage and prevented running plays from getting started.  Surprisingly, NU's defense leads the Big 10 in red zone defense.

On offense, NU seems to have found a new weapon against Wisconsin.  NU's leading rusher was not Jason Wright, though he did end up with 97 yards on 18 carries despite being hampered by an ankle sprain.  Noah Herron stepped up and took up the slack, gaining 104 yards on only 11 carries, including 20 yards on a fake field goal that moved NU down to the 3 yard line and set up a touchdown to put NU ahead 16-7.  Basanez was not as impressive, going 10-22 with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.  Basanez's touchdown pass covered 53 yards to Jason Wright, though Wright did most of the work.  However, it was a very well thrown ball.  Kunle Patrick kept his streak alive, catching 1 pass and extending his streak of consecutive games with at least one reception to 42.

The only down side of the UW game, other than Wright's injury, was the placekicking game.  NU's #1 kicker was out with a hip injury and is still day-to-day, so his backup managed to tag his offensive line in the back twice with kicks, once on an extra point and once on a field goal.  These kicks did not even come close to clearing the line.  He was later replaced by punter Brian Huffman, who successfully converted a field goal to put NU up 9-7.

A great victory over the Badgers, true.  However, before you get too enthusiastic about NU's prospects this week against Purdue, it bears mentioning that Wisconsin was without its starting quarterback (Jim Sorgi, knee injury) and its scary good starting running back, Anthony Davis, who was severely limited by a high ankle sprain and carried the ball only 5 times (gaining almost 40 yards).

NU Fun Fact:  this season, 3 of NU's 4 victories have come on the road.

Purdue was embarrassed last week by Michigan.  The Boilers managed only a measly field goal in getting drubbed 31-3.  And it was never really that close.  Two weeks ago, Purdue went to Wisconsin and beat the Badgers 26-23 to spoil Wisconsin's homecoming, and looked like the Boilers of Drew Brees in passing over 50 times and picking apart Wisconsin's mediocre secondary.  The Wolverines held Orton to 18 of 37 passing for only 184 yards and 2 interceptions, which is remarkable given that Purdue has a talented receiver corps led by Standeford and Stubblefield.  Michigan shifted defenses frequently and seemed to confuse the Boilermakers.  Also, Michigan held Purdue to 58 yards rushing.

Purdue's defense took the brunt of the Wolves' attack.  Prior to Michigan, Purdue had the 8th ranked defense in the country, surrendering only 14.4 points per game.  The defense did hold Michigan's standout back Chris Perry to less than 100 yards (28 for 95).  Going into the game with NU, Purdue boasts the 6th ranked defense in terms of yards surrendered per game, and a particularly stout run defense.

Against NU's somewhat suspect secondary, expect Purdue to pass like a Chicago voter:  early and often.  Purdue coach Joe Tiller has already shown a tendency to put the ball in the air (see the Wisconsin game), and given NU's success against the vaunted running attack of Wisconsin, that might spur him to air it out.  The Wildcats will likely wilt under the barrage and Purdue will be able to run and pass later in the game.  Look for wideouts Standeford and Stubblefield to have big games, and for Orton's completion percentage to be far better than the results against Michigan.

On the other side of the ball, Jason Wright & company might have trouble gaining yards against the Purdue defense, one that knows how to stop the NU spread (last year's 42-13 thrashing as Exhibit A).  In fairness, this team is much better than last year's debacle.  However, I don't think they have what it will take to go into West Lafayette and upset the Boilermakers, who are looking to get back in the race for the Big Ten title.  While there is a mild chance that Purdue will be thinking about their next opponent, Iowa, I don't think it will be enough to allow NU to sneak in and steal a win.

Pick:   Boilermakers 40, Wildcats 23.  Take the Cats and the points.

Season to date:  Straight up 6-2, Against the spread 5-3

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By Joel W. Kanvik

Matchup:  Penn State Nittany Lions (2-7, 0-5 Big 10) at Northwestern Wildcats (4-5, 2-3)
Date:  November 8, 2003.  Kickoff at 11:05 a.m. CST
Television:  ESPN 2
Line: Northwestern plus 5


The cliche is that the only statistic that ultimately matters is the one reflected on the scoreboard.  Last Saturday, that statistic showed NU losing 34-14 to Purdue.  A review of almost all the other statistics bears out this cliche:

Total yards:  Purdue 390, NU 326
Total Plays:  Purdue 74, NU 79
Rush yards:  Purdue 178, NU 161
Pass yards:  Purdue 212, NU 165
Completions:  Purdue 14 for 24, NU 14 for 24
Punts:  Purdue 4, NU 3
Time of Possession:  Purdue 28:30, NU 31:30

A fairly even game from those statistics.  The one statistic that isn't listed above is that apparently the Northwestern offense came down with a case of tuberculosis reminiscent of the 19th century.  NU coughed up the ball 5 times, losing the ball 4 times.  Somebody give them one of those TB tests!

The postgame interview with the NU offense must have gone something like this:

Reporter:  "So your 4 fumbles didn't have any effect on the outcome of the game?"

NU:  "Not if one of those other guys jumped on the ball.  I can't do everything."

Reporter:  "There's no 'I' in 'team.'"

NU:  "There ain't no 'we' either."


For their encore, the members of the NU offense will run around and scream, "Whazzzzup!!" after every play.

Brett Basanez was the Typhoid Mary of the offense, putting the ball on the ground 3 times.  He finished up 12-20 and was sacked 4 times.  Alexander Webb mopped up in the 4th and went 2 for 4.  He did not put the ball on the ground.  Hopefully he is learning by negative example how to play quarterback for NU.  Terrell Jordan led the NU rushing attack, carrying 16 times for 87 yards.  He, too, put the ball on the ground.  However, this time the ball bounded NU's way into the arms of Noah Herron (or, as Purdue coach Joe Tiller said, "Herring"), who braved the strong undertow and scored a touchdown after recovering the fumble.  Jason Wright was severely limited on a bad ankle, and carried only 7 times for 28 yards, also fumbling once and ending a streak of 383 consecutive touches without a fumble.  Kunle Patrick caught 3 balls, extending his consecutive streak to 43 games.

On the defensive side of the ball, the NU defense did not play poorly, despite the lopsided score.  Orton was held to only 212 yards passing, and standout wide receiver John Standeford caught only 4 balls.  NU's run defense was similarly stout, denying the Boilermakers a 100 yard rusher.  Compared to where the defense was a year ago, NU has improved exponentially.

Fun NU fact:  this weekend happens to be Family Day (probably the successor to Parents Day).  So all the parents get to come to town and see exactly how bad the football team at their son's or daughter's university is.

Penn State is a program in trouble.  Questions are being raised about Joe Paterno's continued ability to coach in the 21st Century, and JoPa's charges have experienced more losing seasons in the last few years than in his career.  The Nittany Lions lost a heartbreaker to the Buckeyes last week, 21-20.  Penn State led until OSU scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:35 remaining.  A last ditch 60-yard field goal attempt missed just short.  In the game, Penn State rushed for only 33 yards, a far cry from the glory days of Lion football in which they bowled over opponents with the running attack.  Zack Mills led PSU with 27 of 42 passing for 253 yards, one TD and one pick.  The loss to OSU guaranteed JoPa another losing season.

Defensively, PSU played well, holding the Buckeyes to 300 net yards.  What most thought going in was a rout by OSU turned into a nailbiter.  OSU's quarterback Krenzel did leave in the 2nd following a hard hit.

NU coach was heard to say that his NU Wildcats is a better team than they showed Saturday.  Apparently he's the only person that thinks that, as odds makers have installed Penn State, the visiting team and winless in the Big 10 in 2003, as a 5 point favorite.  Look for NU to run the ball somewhat effectively against Penn State.  Jason Wright will heal more this week and be more effective, recapturing the Noah Herron - Jason Wright 1-2 punch.  With less pressure, Basanez will be more effective through the air.  And NU will hold onto the ball better.  I think that Penn State will move the ball some, but NU will likely be able to be effective in stopping PSU more than PSU will stop NU.  Last week NU showed it could limit the pass, and all Penn State seems to have is a moderate passing attack.


Pick:  Wildcats 24, Penn State 14

Season to date:  Straight up 7-2.  Against the spread:  5-4

Michigan Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:  Michigan Wolverines (8-2, 5-1; #5 AP Poll) at Northwestern Wildcats (5-5, 3-3)
November 15, 2003.  Kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CST
Television: ESPN (yeah, the main one, not the sickly cousin ESPN2)
 Northwestern plus 19 (from USA Today as of Monday, November 10)


The annual matchup that pits my two alma maters against one another and I have to choose between them.  Nostalgia fills the air as I remember tailgating at Dyche Stadium (back when it was fun to say the name) and occasionally locking colleagues in the Blazer so they could sleep it off while we actually went into the game.  More often than not, we just stayed at the tailgate and wandered to the south end of the parking lot to look at the scoreboard.  Ahhh… college.

At any rate, I digress… I find myself rooting for the Wildcats on every occasion, which shows where my true heart is.  Luckily, when I actually attend the games, NU is 2-1, including an outstanding game at U of M my last semester in grad school (1995 if you couldn't guess).

Michigan is a great team, though a little one dimensional on offense.  It took two losses before Carr realized that his team could run on anyone, and that opens up the long passes to really break the opponent's back.  The defense is definitely strong, though better against the pass than the run.

Carr seemed to believe Tom Brady was still at U of M instead of John Navarre and tried to air it out early and thus almost ended Michigan's BCS hopes (currently number 8 and needing a win against OSU in the last game).   Since then, he plays traditional Michigan football: run, run run, score, run, run, score, run run, pass, score.  In their two losses, they passed too much early, got behind and Navarre couldn't shoulder the pressure.  In those losses, running plays to passing plays were 41-104 (or 28% running plays).  In the rest of their games that same statistic is 331-263 (or 56% running plays).  The game plan is run it down their throats without the QB making errors until we get ahead, then pass to put the game out of reach.  Let's just call it the Griese Strategy.   

NU on the other hand has been performing erratically lately, but this year it's because of the offense instead of the defense.  The defense is ranked 88th out of 117 Division I-A schools, definite improvement, and has been keeping the team in most games. 

Basenez on the other hand has 4 TD passes and 10 interceptions.  However, Basanez is not getting great protection.  A recent article in the Trib quoted the NU offensive coordinator saying that the O-line’s strength is run blocking and the play calling has been reflecting that in recent weeks (hence the lack of no huddle).  The translation is “We can't pass block for s***”.

Anyway, on to the matchup.  NU needs one more win to be bowl eligible and I don’t think anyone is looking at this as the one win with Illinois on the way for the last game.   This is one for the loss column.  However…19 is a lot of points, particularly with Michigan looking ahead to their number one matchup of the year... the last regular season game against OSU.  In all likelihood, Michigan's BCS bowl appearance depends on beating OSU and that spells “conservative offense” for this game to me.  This isn't the Purdue game when they had something to prove…Michigan can only lose in this game.   Watch for Carr to run the clock out and avoid any last minute heroics. 

Pick:  Wolverines 28, Wildcats 14.  Take the Wildcats and the points.

Season to date:  Straight up 8-2.  Against the spread:  6-4

Illinois Preview
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (5-6; 3-4) at Illinois Fighting Illini (1-10; 0-7)
November 22, 2003.  Kickoff at 11:10 a.m. CST
Television: ESPN+ (WBBM-TV in Chicago; MSG in NYC)
 NU (-3.5)


This week's Lowes Line is late.  Real late.  But that's because I felt obligated to research and preview the USC/UCLA match-up for the benefit of an adorable second-year med student at USC who doesn't want to hear about our pathetic little NU football program.  Say, how about that Keyshawn Johnson fellow?  Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.  Anyway, USC is favored by about 23 points over a bad UCLA team (How bad?  Well, UCLA almost lost to Illinois.  That's pretty bad.)  Frankly, I don’t give a tinker's damn about USC/UCLA--I hope they end in a scoreless tie, just to totally screw up the BCS.

As long as we're talking about other lines, a word to the gamblers out there: think long and hard about Rutgers getting 26.5 from Miami.  Then just walk away, man.

Frankly, I'm having a hard time finding anything good to say after the whipping NU took last weekend against a Michigan team that is clearly on another planet.  Remember the movie "Jeremiah Johnson" with Robert Redford as the legendary Colorado trapper? (Don't fret, kids, this is tangentially relevant to Northwestern football)  Well, in the flick, Jeremiah Johnson makes the mistake of leading some palefaces through a Crow burial ground, causing the angered tribe to send brave after brave to try to kill Johnson.  Of course, since Robert Redford was a complete badass in the 1970s, he killed something like 30 Crow warriors that made the mistake of tangling with him.  My point is this--imagine that instead, every single Crow warrior (i.e., Michigan) managed to kill and scalp Johnson/Redford (NU) over and over and over again.  That's what watching the Michigan game last week was like.  The real pisser is that I'm pretty sure Michigan was, indeed, looking ahead to Ohio State, and they still made NU their bitch.  No wonder the Maize & Blue are favored by 7 over the Buckeyes.  Poor Jim Tressel could be this week's General Custer.

OK, so I've now probably offended about 20% of my audience.  Hard to believe you had to wait a week for this, isn't it?  Also, not a great image considering NU faces the spawn of Chief Illiniwek this week, and they're battling over a dimestore tomahawk named Sweet Sioux.  Bad karma, I wonder?

Here's the poop on NU's bowl eligibility.  Win, and the 'Cats are technically eligible for the Motor City Bowl, and nothing else.  That's because while NU can finish in a 3-way tie for 6th in the conference, they will definitely have only the 8th best overall record.  The Motor City Bowl has a deal for the Big Ten's seventh place team, and the NCAA won't allow a 6-6 team to go bowling unless there is a conference tie-in.  By the way, no Big Ten team has yet played in the Motor City Bowl, and even if the BCS takes both Michigan (if they beat Ohio State) and the Buckeyes (as an at-large) (thanks TCU, by the way, for laying that egg last night), the motorheads in Detroit aren't obligated to take an eligible Northwestern team that finishes with the 8th best overall record.

In other words, let me recount the following exchange between me and Jersey Cat about NU's bowl chances:

ME:  So, Jersey Cat, are you picking me up at four a.m. the day after Christmas for the drive to Detroit?

JERSEY CAT: Hell, yeah, but I figure it will take a Wildcat win, a Buckeye loss, an at-large BCS berth for the Bucks, and some people on crack in Detroit to get us into the Motor City Bowl.  I believe all those things are likely, but I wouldn't bet the ranch. 

ME:  Actually, the one thing I'm most sure about is that there are lots of people in Detroit on crack.  Don't know if any of them are on the Motor City Bowl selection committee, though.

PURPLECATDOG:  Woof, woof!

Hmmm.  I think I just offended another 10% of my audience.

Anyway, I guess those of you who have stuck around this long deserve at least a token game analysis.

Uhhh.  Well….

Illinois stinks on ice.  The Illini haven't beaten a Division I-A opponent all season, and they even lost to Indiana, for goodness sake.  That being said, this is exactly the kind of game NU would normally blow.  Illinois is starting their backup QB, Dustin Ward, for the fifth straight game, and he actually has looked decent.  Plus, Illinois had the Bye last week (which they tied, of course), so they've got that extra week of rest and preparation.  Normally, I would pick against our beloved Wildcats, predicting a brutal, soul-sucking choke job against our traditional rivals.

But I'm not gonna do it.  At the beginning of the season, I didn't think NU had a snowball's chance in heck of winning five, much less six, games.  I also didn't know Joe Pa would get caught by the Little League police with a birth certificate showing he's really a 110-year-old Dominican pitcher, or that NU's defense would bail on the witness protection program and show up in Evanston (and in Lawrence, and Durham, and even (a little bit) in Columbus).  Loren Howard is everything he promised he'd be, and after the Penn State game he was the third Wildcat this season to be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.  And despite the problems NU has had on offense, their O-Line hasn't been that bad at all, and NU has been able to gradually wean itself from the gadget no-huddle in favor of a slightly more traditional approach.  Despite seeing Lloyd Carr in full dominatrix mode, beating Randy Walker with a leather strap last week (oops, there goes another 5% of the audience), I'm still basically happy with NU's season.  NU has beaten the teams they should have beaten, and they've lost tough games (and a couple blowouts) to teams that are clearly superior.  I'm willing to give Randy Walker another year to build on what has really been some promising improvement over a horrible 2002.

Pick:  Northwestern 32, Illinois 17.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.
(Season to date: Straight up:  9-2.  Against the spread:  6-5)


Now in its third year, my gratuitous NU basketball preview, this year with exciting salsa flavoring!

I must warn all of you NU hoops fans--this is going to be a frustrating year.  NU is an improving, young team, but it won't show in the standings.  Senior G Jitim Young is a rock, having started all 88 games in his career for the 'Cats, and last year he paced the squad in scoring, rebounding and steals.  Young is a stud, and he's got a great sideman in sophomore PG T.J. Parker.  After last season's NBA Finals, everybody knows about Parker's big brother, Tony, and the Big Ten now knows that baby bro' has the family talent.  Parker spent the summer playing for the French national team (no jokes, please... ok, one joke: "Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion." Norman Schwartzkopf.) (There goes another 15% of my audience--and good riddance, says I.)

At any rate, NU has speed, athleticism, and excellent coaching (oh, if only Bill Carmody could coach football, too!).  Unfortunately, NU has no size and paltry depth.  The tallest player on the team is freshman C Vince Scott, who stands in at 6'10, and only three other players break the 6'5 barrier.  In short (rim shot!), rebounds will be hard to come by.  (For what it's worth, Vince Scott has looked pretty damn good in the 'Cats first two exhibition games.)  Last season, NU finished dead last in the Big Ten in rebounding, and the outlook frankly isn't good on that front in 2003, a deadly weakness in a big, bruising conference, particularly for a team that will rely on points generated on the break.

Last season, NU was decimated by injuries, the most damaging being the loss of F Vedran Vukusic before the Wildcats' first game last season.  Vukusic is back and healthy (so far), and NU will be relying heavily on him not only returning to his 2001 form, but improving on it.  Also sidelined all of last season was F Ivan Tolic, who will likely be asked to carry the load at center (the key position in Carmody's passing-oriented Princeton offense) until Scott is ready to take over.  Davor Duvancic will man the other starting forward spot, and will also spell Tolic in the middle.  Duvancic didn't set the conference on fire last season, but he should be improved, and might be this year's Jason Burke (i.e., a scrappy, underappreciated starter at forward).  NU bench is wafer-thin, led by speedy Mohamed Hached, a nice sub for Parker.  Sophomore G Evan Seacat will also see some minutes.  Senior G Patrick Towne fills out the bench, and will provide some desperately needed depth, but don't expect miracles from the former practice squad player.  Wait a tick, I think I said the same thing last year…and I was right, by the way.

In 2002-03, NU ripped though a cupcake non-conference schedule, then got pancaked in the Big Ten, finishing 10th with a 3-13 record in the conference (12-17 overall).  Frankly, the loss of Vukusic, combined with a major slip in defense and an inability to rebound, killed the 'Cats.  Last year, I predicted that NU would improve (it did, sorta), and might contend for its first-ever NCAA bid this season.  Unfortunately, I'm not drinking tonight, so I can't follow-up on that bold prediction.  NU still can't match up with the big rebounding monsters in the Big Ten, and if the 'Cats suffer major injuries like they did last year, it's over.  If they stay healthy, though, they will nevertheless be competitive, although their record frankly won't show it.  Carmody and the 'Cats are taking long-term steps to improve NU's competitiveness by toughening up the non-conference schedule.  They don't get to fatten up on Elon and Maryland-Eastern Shore this season.  Instead, they play 3 of their 4 city rivals (Chicago State, DePaul, UIC) and major-conference foes like Florida State, Arizona State, Rutgers and Colorado, against whom the Wildcats kick-off their 2003-04 season in about an hour from now.

Outlook:  NU's record may not improve, and in fact may be worse than last season's, but they are still a steadily improving team.  If you watch them through the season, you'll see a fast, disciplined, athletic team that is just some size and depth away from sneaking into the NCAA tournament.


Motor City Bowl Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup:  Motor City Bowl, Detroit -- Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 4-4 Big Ten) vs. Bowling Green Falcons (10-3, 7-2 MAC)
December 26, 2003.  5:00 pm EST
Television: ESPN
 Northwestern plus 7.5


Let’s start out with an oldie but goodie:  What’s the difference between Cheerios and Northwestern?  Cheerios at least belong in a bowl.   Cue rim shot.

For the fourth time in the last nine years, Northwestern will play in a bowl game.  The trend has been to play in a less prestigious game each time, and to get beaten by a greater margin each time.  If the trend is to continue, this trip to the Motor City Bowl will result in NU getting smoked by fifty points or more.   Let’s hope that’s not the case in beautiful Detroit.

Ah, Detroit.  What a fine place to play a game.  Thought by many to be the armpit of America, and a very screwed up place.  Consider:  from how many places in our great land is the shortest route to our “neighbors to the North” in Canada actually south?   Some would think a trip to Detroit in the winter is what you should get if you finish last in the Big Ten.

Northwestern takes on the Bowling Green Falcons of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in the Motor City Bowl.  The MAC is considered to be a second tier conference, and does not have a tie-in to the BCS.  However, if there were ever any doubt regarding the quality of the football played by the MAC, this season would surely have put it to rest.   Miami (OH), Northern Illinois, and Bowling Green were among the Top 25 for most of the season, and beat some quality opponents.  Bowling Green beat Purdue, damn near beat Ohio State, and lost twice to Miami (OH), currently # 14 in the country.

The line on this game is NU minus seven and a half.  Again Northwestern is an underdog in a bowl game, and again it’s more than justified.  Speaking of gambling, it’s a blessing if you’re planning on attending the game and have the problems likened to those of the 1-800-GAMBLER crowd.  The way I see it, you may as well go to Windsor, Ontario to hit the casino, since when you drop $100 at the craps table over there, you can at least take solace in the fact that it’s really only about $76, given the favorable exchange rate.

Although a 6-6 record is not usually thought of as being postseason worthy, to Northwestern’s credit, five of their six losses came against teams that are currently ranked in the Top 20 in the country, indicating that, for the most part, they have beaten the teams they should beat.  The ‘Cats played a reasonably tough schedule, and beat two teams (Kansas & Wisconsin) that will be playing in a bowl game.  Eight of their twelve opponents finished at .500 or better. 

Bowling Green is led by quarterback Josh Harris, a dangerous player who can hurt you by both running and passing the ball.  He ran for 12 touchdowns and passed for another 24 in a season that had him in the discussion for the Heisman at points throughout the year.  Stopping a mobile quarterback has not exactly been NU’s forte.  Containment will be the key, not giving up the back-breaking running play that demoralizes a defense. 

Harris’s favorite target when opting to throw has been Cole Magner, who had over 1,000 yards receiving for a Falcon team that finished the season ranked eighth in Division 1-A with over 290 yards a game passing.

Bowling Green and Northwestern last met during the 2001 season, when the Falcons were added to the schedule to make up for the game NU had postponed with Navy.  Bowling Green scored on a late two-point conversion to defeat NU 43-42.

From NU’s perspective, the game plan is clear.  They need to get a quick start from the offensive line in order for Jason Wright and Noah Herron to run the ball effectively.   Preventing turnovers is paramount.  They proved against Purdue they could move the ball against a strong team, but gave it away with fumbles.  For NU to win, they can’t turn the ball over.  Basanez doesn’t need to be a hero, just solid.  Getting short passes for 6-8 yards at a time on first and second down will keep the Bowling Green defense honest.  On defense, NU can’t give up the big play, which has a tendency to take the wind out of their sails.  Bend-but-don’t-break is the order of the day, containing Harris in the pocket and not letting him run into space.

NU safety Torri Stuckey will not play against Bowling Green, after being suspended for the game by Randy Walker for violating “team rules”, allegedly forcing the cashier at the Burger King in Evanston to bag his double cheeseburger, a scenario we all know is a no-no.

One way the ‘Cats can make a game of it is to pull a page out of Lawrence Taylor’s book, and send some ladies of the evening to the hotel rooms of the Bowling Green players.  No doubt they’d come from across the river in Windsor from establishments such as the one (reportedly) having a marquis that reads,”150 Beautiful Women…and 2 Ugly Ones.”  Love that brutal Canadian honesty.

In order to all but ensure defeat for the ‘Cats, fellow Lowes Line contributor Galloping Grapes and I will be making the road trip from Jersey to Detroit, leaving God’s country well before dawn on game day.  I can only hope that the journey doesn’t include a nine-hour rendition of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am”.

Pick:  Will Santa bring NU a bowl victory for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl?  No dice.  The  'Cats get coal in their stockings, and the bowl woes continue.   Bowling Green 31, Northwestern 20. 

Season to date: Straight up: 10-2. Against the spread:  7-5