Lowes Line
2005 Posted


The Complete 2005 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 2005 season it returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Ohio Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Ohio University Bobcats at Northwestern University Wildcats
Date: Saturday, September 3, 11:00 a.m. CDT

NU minus 14.5

We're back at it again at the Lowes Line for another season of Northwestern football. The 2004 campaign ended with NU dropping their final game at Hawaii, leaving themselves ineligible for a bowl game at 6-6.  Although no bowl game, the 'Cats had several things to build on from last year, including a big win against Ohio State, and the first ever wins both at Penn State and against a Joe Tiller-coached Purdue squad.

The Wildcats come into the 2005 season with only eight returning starters, four on each side of the ball.  Senior quarterback Brett Basanez is back for his fourth year running coach Randy Walker's offense, and is only 529 yards shy of becoming the all-time NU leader in passing yards.  He'll likely also become the school leader in completions and total offense before the year is out as well.  Senior wideouts Mark Philmore and Jonathan Fields are back and should be reliable targets for Basanez, as long as there's time to throw.  The O-line lost four starters from last season, retaining only senior Zach Strief, who at 6-7 and 335 lbs. could count for both right tackle and guard.  While the passing game seems to be in good shape, the running game is a big question mark for NU.  With senior Terrell Jordan out indefinitely with a hamstring injury, NU has little experience to turn to.  Sophomore Brandon Roberson will likely be the one to whom Coach Walker turns, although his fifteen career rushing yards doesn't inspire much confidence right now.  Roberson will be competing against true freshman and Ohio's Mr. Football Tyrell Sutton for carries.  These two will have to really step it up for Northwestern to have any shot at a winning record.  You have to be able to run the ball in the Big Ten to be effective, and while the passing game appears fairly solid, a poor running attack will leave the 'Cats near the bottom of the league.

On the defensive side of the ball, the 'Cats return senior middle linebacker Tim McGarigle to anchor a fairly young bunch.  McGarigle led the nation in solo tackles last year (8.5/game) and needs 114 tackles to break the all-time NU record.  A true contender for the Butkus award as the nation's top linebacker, McGarigle's got great football instincts and a nose for the ball, a trait that hopefully rubbed off on his teammates during the preseason camp in Kenosha, Wis.   Joining McGarigle in the linebacking corps are juniors Nick Roach and Adam Kadela.  The defensive line starts two freshmen, and all eyes will be on Corey Wooten, a 6-6 frosh who looks to take the place of Loren Howard, a standout from last season who has decided to transfer to Arizona State after suffering a season-ending injury.   Wooten could become the first true freshman to start for Randy Walker since McGarigle three seasons ago.  The secondary has four new starters this season and could be difficult to watch against teams with strong passing attacks.  The coaching staff is hopeful that junior cornerback Marquice Cole, who sat out last season with an ankle injury, will be the playmaker they need following the departure of cornerback Jeff Backes to what became a career-ending injury.

Up first this season for NU is Ohio University.  Don't confuse the Bobcats of Ohio University with their in-state rivals the Buckeyes.  The similarities end after the word Ohio.  The Bobcats, fresh out of Athens, Ohio, play in a stadium a quarter the size of their in-state brethren in Columbus, and are not what you would call a big-time program, posting only two winning records since 1982.  First-year head coach Frank Solich is looking to turn things around in Athens for a squad that has been perennially near the bottom of the MAC.  Solich followed legendary coach Tom Osborne at Nebraska, and knows what it takes to build a serious program.  He'll have his work cut out for him with the Bobcats.   Randy Walker is known to get up for teams from his native Ohio.  He'll have no problem getting the troops ready for this Solich-coached team.  Last time these two coaches went head-to-head was following the 2000 season in the Alamo Bowl, when Solich coached the Nebraska squad that thoroughly embarrassed the Wildcats.

While the 'Cats are young and inexperienced in many facets, this is a game they should win.  They'll need to get a running game going in order to compete with the majority of their schedule, but this is a game where a strong, efficient, one-dimensional passing attack should be enough to get the victory.   This Ohio squad just doesn't have the horses to compete, and if NU avoids the big mistakes than can be common in season openers, they will walk away with the W.

ESPNU, ESPN's all-college sports station, is televising the game, supposedly to a "national audience."  Is that the one guy in Bangor, ME and the other guy in Salem, OR that actually have this station?  Both of them should enjoy the contest.  Actually, if you have DirecTV you should get the game.  For the rest of us, it's pay-per-view for the season opener. 

The 'Cats have a pretty tough schedule in 2005, and are picked by most of the major publications to finish no higher than eighth in the Big Ten.  Likely because nine of NU's eleven opponents are either ranked in the preseason Top 25 or received votes.  After Ohio, NU takes on non-conference opponents Northern Illinois at home and has a trip to Arizona State.  The Big Ten schedule includes home games with Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa, and road trips to Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State, with the annual Sweet Sioux Tomahawk game at Illinois to close the regular season. 

Pick: Bobcats are more like Tom cats -  Feline Feast for NU.
Northwestern 27, Ohio 10.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.

NIU Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: Northern Illinois University Huskies at Northwestern University Wildcats
Saturday, September 10, 2005, 3:00 pm CDT
ESPN Classic
NU minus 3

First a recap of last week’s game

First, a tidbit to temper our optimism: Ohio University went 4-7 last year.  That said, NU looked very good on its way to a 38-14 win, including gaining 550 yards on offense while only giving up 239 yards on defense.

Basanez looked outstanding while throwing for 353 yards and two touchdowns.  With another 176 yards, Basanez will surpass the current career NU passing yardage leader, Len Williams (a blast from the not so distant past, '90-'93).  It appears that the hype over the summer about NU trying to pass more is true.  While game starter at RB Brandon Roberson was injured and is likely to miss Saturday’s game, his replacement as RB 1A, Tyrell Sutton proved more than adequate as a replacement.  He ran for 104 yards and caught two passes for another 23 yards.  Basanez and his backup distributed their passes to 9 different receivers with the bulk of the yards going to junior Shaun Herbert and sophomore Kim Thompson (Mark Philmore was limited with a sprained ankle and may miss this week's game). The Wildcats had the game well in hand by halftime.

On defense, things look better than last year, even with the young squad.  Ohio didn’t score against the defense (its lone first half score came on a fumble return) until the fourth quarter with second string on the field, and it only gained 62 yards rushing.  Tim McGarigle picked up where he left off by leading the team with nine tackles.  The defense was undoubtedly helped a great deal by the huge lead the offense gave them, but against lessor opponents, this may be a common occurrence.

A Look at the NIU Huskies

The Huskies are a solid program that has been at the top end of the MAC the last few years.  Although the MAC is generally considered the second tier of Division I-A schools, the conference has had a history of producing prominent upsets of better-known programs including the Central Michigan upset of Michigan State a few years ago.   Last year, NIU was 9-3 and went to a bowl game.  

Last week, the Huskies lost in a rather lopsided game to No. 3 Michigan.  While the analysts seem to be making a big deal out of the lack of Michigan scoring in the second half and the 411 yards of total offense given up by Michigan, in reality the game was over at halftime.  The game revealed a few things about the Huskies…  First, they lack a viable passing attack.  Even when far behind the entire second half (when they should have been airing it out), they were only able to muster 200 yards in the air with no touchdowns.  Second, they have a two back system that showed mixed results.  On one hand they had over 211 yards rushing against Michigan including a 76 yard touchdown; on the other hand, down 27-10 at halftime, Michigan was content to let NIU run out the clock and the Huskies couldn’t do anything about it.  Third, although one game is hardly an indication, it appears that their school record of one offensive fumble last year will not be repeated as they put the ball on the carpet four times.  Names to watch on offense are the QB Phil Horvath (serviceable), two good RBs in Garrett Wolfe and A.J. Harris, and WRs Shatone Powers and Jake Nordin.

On defense, the jury is still out.  They were unable to stop Michigan on any of their first three possessions with marches of 70+ yards, but that’s against an arguably premier offense.  It does appear that they are not as good as last year due to the loss of several seniors on defense, and that they are susceptible to a balanced attack.  Names to watch on defense are safety Ray Smith and cornerback Adriel Hasbro.

Outlook for this week

Again, Ohio is bad, but NU looked very good, so cautious optimism is appropriate.  Unlike in past seasons, it appears that the defense is good enough to allow the 'Cats to shut the door on lessor opponents instead of constantly playing to the level of the competition.  For one, I won’t mind a little less stress on the old ticker at the end of the game…not getting any younger.  Do not look for a sub-100 yard rushing performance by the Huskies, but their anemic passing attack shouldn’t hurt too much against NU’s young secondary, particularly if the D-line and linebackers can pressure Horvath.  A balanced NU attack should be too much for the NIU defense, particularly if Basanez continues to distribute the ball similar to last week.  With a lead by halftime, look for the Wildcats to hold the Huskies at bay in the second half.

Pick: NU gets no respect and the Huskies won’t keep up…Wildcats by a touchdown.
Northwestern 31, NIU 24.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.
Record for the Season:  1-0 (1-0 against the spread)

ASU Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Northwestern University Wildcats at #18 Arizona State Sun Devils
Saturday, September 17.  9:00 p.m. CDT
Television: None.
NU plus 15.  Over/Under: 64

To quote my colleague from last week "For one, I won’t mind a little less stress on the old ticker at the end of the game…not getting any younger."  YEAH RIGHT!!

This year's 'Cats also seem to like to beat up the fans and keep them on the roller coaster ride NU fans have grown accustomed to during the Walker era.   Last week, NU quickly fell behind 14-3 but stormed back to take a 24-14 lead into the half.  Behind another impressive performance by Brett Basanez who efficiently threw for 221 yards without an interception and NU's new star Tyrell Sutton (Ohio guys can just play football) who rushed for 214 yards on 30 carries and scored 4 touchdowns.  But an all too familiar theme busted out in the second half as the Huskies stormed back.  Thankfully, NIU's coach must not be a rocket scientist and went for the 2 point conversion and his player fell down and the attempt sailed high.  Coach Walker commended NIU's coach for "going for the victory on the road".  Who wouldn't commend him when the guy just makes a huge blunder of such magnitude allowing your team to escape with a victory. 

Bright points of this young season are obviously the offense led by Basanez and the finding of Sutton to run the ball.  Walker seems to know what he is doing on that side of the ball.  On the other hand, the defense was just shredded again giving up 37 points to a mid to upper level MAC team.  Can NU's defense stop anyone?  Have all of the defections and injuries taken their toll? 
On to the Sun Devils, who managed to hand their ballgame last week over to the 5th ranked LSU Tigers.  Mind you, LSU IS A REALLY GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM, but the Sun Devils had this game in the bag.  The Sun Devils were up 17-7 going into the 4th quarter and the special teams just fell apart.  LSU blocked a field goal try for a touchdown and then 1 minute 20 seconds later blocked a punt for touchdown.  OOPS, score 21-17.  The Devils made a run back led by All-American candidate and future Sunday afternoon QB Sam Keller who threw for 461 yards and 4 TD's against one of the better defenses in the country.  Keller throws to another All-American in Derek Hagan who has 191 receptions for his career.  The Sun Devils almost came all the way back before falling 35-31 last week and from comments to the media were tasting a rather bitter pill afterwards.

This week will be a different story.  Let's see if this sounds like a recipe for disaster.  First road game for NU this year in a rather hostile environment.  ASU is rather PO'd after losing a game they should have won last week..  ASU  has a great vertical passing game and NU has a young small secondary and no pass rush.  This could get ugly quickly. 

Devils torch the 'Cats.
ASU  42, NU 24.  Take the Over and the Devils and lay the points.

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Penn State University Nittany Lions (3-0) at Northwestern University Wildcats (2-1)
Saturday, September 24, 2005, 11:00 pm CDT
Line: NU plus 7.5

NU returns home to Evanston this week after a debacle in Arizona where the Sun Devils accumulated 773 yards of total offense versus our defenseless Wildcats.  Arizona State scored at will against the ‘Cats, mostly through the air on their way to a 52-21 victory.  As many of us here at the Lowes Line predicted last week, and even before the season started, NU’s young and inexperienced D-Line and Secondary could be exploited by a quality passing attack.  Unfortunately ASU proved us correct, really, really, correct.  Even in the good old days of ‘95 and ‘96 NU could be beat by a quality passing attack (see Rose and Citrus Bowl games), and the trend has not gotten any better.  When will the ‘Cats get a couple of shutdown corners?!?!  Why am I yelling?!?  Luckily we are still in the Big 10 (not the MAC as was thrown out in last week’s LL) where more teams run the ball than pass it.

This week marks opening of the Big Ten season and brings Penn State to town.  PSU is undefeated at 3-0, but has played all of its games at home and has not played a quality team yet.  Surprisingly the Nittany Lions have had more success this year throwing the ball than running it (hey where did that background music come from…).  They are lead by QB Michael Robinson and have been averaging 9 yards per pass attempt.  The ground game has been solid but not spectacular as they are averaging about 5 yards per rush against the aforementioned talent.   These numbers are also what the NU defense has been allowing so unless something changes, PSU should expect to put up about 30-35 points. 

The Wildcat offense has also been averaging about 9 yards per attempt and 5 yards per rush.  Decent numbers as their opponents have been a little tougher than PSU’s.  The problem for NU is PSU’s defense.  They have only been allowing one measly yard per rush and 5 yards per pass attempt.  Now hopefully the fantastic freshman Tyrell Sutton and Basenez can improve on those numbers but will it be enough?

Playing at Ryan Field will benefit the ‘Cats but it will hard for them not to be thinking about last week’s beating for a long time to come.  PSU has now seen how to beat the ‘Cats by throwing the ball deep as the secondary can not keep up and the D-Line can not sufficiently pressure the QB.  Even if the ‘Cats do get pressure on PSU’s Robinson look for him to scramble out of trouble and to some big gains.  NU’s only chance is to play inspired Defense, force several turnovers, hope that PSU overlooks them, and complete several deep passes.  If NU continues to rely solely on the dink passes, it will be a long day. 

Pick: My heart would love to pick the Wildcats but my head says “did you read anything you just typed?”  Unfortunately the Nittany Lions are too much for our over-matched Wildcats’ defense.
Take PSU minus the 7.5.
PSU by 12: PSU 35, NU 23
Lowes Line Record (3-0 overall, 2-1 against the spread)

By Galloping Grapes

Northwestern’s dream of a BCS championship in ’05 is now officially over.  Sure, none of you really had that dream to begin with, but until the Nittany Lions beat the Wildcats at Ryan Field last week, we still had a statistical shot, with only a single loss to a top 20 ASU team blemishing our record. 

(Hey, scarecrow!  Stay away from that curtain!  Don’t point out that we’re one NIU brain fart away from being 1-3!  Take solace in the even worse football misfortunes of others, like those poor Pitt football fans who watched their team lose to Rutgers (Rutgers!!) last night.)

I foolishly decided to watch the PSU game last week with a Penn State alum.  Most of the game was great, with me making Mr. Magoo jokes about JoePa throughout the first half (my favorite JoePa coaching move was when he narrowly escaped disaster in the construction yard thanks to the fortuitous appearance of a rising steel beam).  How depressing is it to lose to a team led by an alleged “quarterback” whose main claim to fame is that he is the first player in Penn State history to both rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a career.  What is so impressive about that?  [Hint: nothing!!]

At least we have a good kicker this season.  Not sure I would have traded our defense for a kicker, but who am I to question Randy Walker?  And for the record, none of my disparaging remarks apply to Tim McGarigle, who is unquestionably a stud. 

By the way, when did NU sign a backup quarterback named Kafka?  By choosing an elite academic institution such as NU, he doomed himself to four years of cockroach jokes.  If he had just gone to Indiana, nobody would have bugged him.  (You see, that’s both a play on words AND a crack at IU.  Good for me.)

(On a completely unrelated note, why is San Diego State exempt from the NCAA’s PC police?  Doesn’t SDSU still have a fake Montezuma, in full Aztec war gear, spinning around at midfield at every home game?  You NCAA pinheads are aware, are you not, that Aztecs are also Native Americans?  Or does the clammy grip of politically correct shrewishness not extend to Native Americans who aren’t actually American?  Hypocrites.  No wonder the NCAA can’t deal with real problems facing colleges and student-athletes, like gambling, drugs or Colorado’s high school sex-parties.  Wait a minute, forget I mentioned gambling.) 

Anyway, with the bye week I really had only two options for this week’s Lowes Line.  One was to spend nine paragraphs making fun of that poor S.O.B. at Texas Tech who has the unfortunate job of ringing the spirit bell, the video of which has been making the rounds of e-mail inboxes across the nation.  Leave it to Jersey Cat to make the astute observation that just as “ringing the bell” has now entered the Texas Tech lexicon , the Northwestern equivalent must be “painting the Rock.”  (And if you work for the NCAA, it’s called “holding a press conference.”)

Unfortunately, with no NU game to watch this weekend, the Little Grape and PurpleCatDog and I have had some time on our hands.  Little Grape is amusing himself by throwing things down the stairs to see what breaks and what survives, and PurpleCatDog is amusing himself in the yard, probably by chasing fireflys and eating his own poop (which reminds me, I need to go buy some doggie breath biscuits, and some chicken for dinner—those are unrelated thoughts, by the way).  As for me, I spent my Bye Weekend working on a recap of what we’ve seen so far and what we can expect for the rest of this Wildcat football season.  Without further ado, and with apologies to legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg, I present the first ever Wildcat beat poem….


For Willie the Wildcat

I saw the (not quite) best Wildcats of my generation destroyed by a loss to Penn State, starving hysterical for a win,

dragging themselves through the Evanston streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of Air Willie,

angelheaded hipsters burned by a Michael Robinson connection to the starry dynamo in the end zone,

who secondary in tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking and burned in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating a Bye Week,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Arizona State Sun Devils still pouring on the points on scoreboards illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating  an easy opening win over Ohio, an Alamo Bowl-like tragedy averted among the scholars of Solich,

who saw NIU coach Novak expelled from the academies of D-I coaching for crazy & downright obscene odes to going for two,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their defensive schemes in wastebaskets and listening to the Ladycats cry through the wall,

who ate fire in Buffalo Joe’s or drank turpentine at the Keg, Tommy Nevin’s, or Streeters night after night

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward bars of Rush & Division, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists (and would-be Big Ten football champs) jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off the bandwagon,

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars, [note: this stanza remains unedited, as it perfectly describes the average NU fan during the last two games]

whole intellects disgorged in total panic for seven more games with Big Ten foes, meat for the conference cast on the pavement,

who wandered around and around at midnight in the fraternity quads wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who loned it through the streets of Skokie seeking visionary football coaches who knew how to coach defense,

who thought they were only bowl game contenders when the opening win over Ohio still gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

who lounged hungry and lonesome after two straight losses, seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the enigmatic Loren Howard to converse about staying at NU to lead them to a bowl game, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Arizona,

who disappeared into the volcanoes of Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten schedule, leaving behind nothing but the shadow of predominantly purple uniforms and the lava and ash of preseason predictions scattered in fireplace Chicago,

who reappeared on Sheridan Road investigating the D.P.S. in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their brown polyester duds passing out incomprehensible parking tickets,

who burned cigarette holes in their playbooks protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of the spread offense,

who distributed women’s lacrosse national championship t-shirts at the Rock, weeping and wearing flip-flops while the alumni of NU wailed them down, and wailed down the 1941 fencing championship, and the football team (no national championships) also wailed,

who broke down game film crying in Patten gymnasium sweating and trembling before the machinery of other Big Ten offenses,

who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations of “Go U NU!” which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish,

who barreled down the highways of the past conference championships journeying to each other's Motor City Bowl watch or Music City Bowl invitation,

who threw potato salad at NU lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of political correctness, demanding elimination of native mascots and instantaneous lobotomy,

and who were given instead the concrete void of a 2-2 early season start requiring hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia,

returning years later truly bald except for a wig of purple, and tears and fingers raised “We’re Number 1!”, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of Ryan Field,

ah, Randy Walker, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you're really in the total animal soup of time--

to recreate the syntax and measure of parodied human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of helpless and hopeless NU fans,

with the absolute heart of this poem butchered beyond recognition, but still good to eat with Cocoa Puffs.

[Adapted without any permission whatsoever from Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems. (San Fancisco: City Lights Books, 1956).]

Wisconsin Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: #14 Wisconsin Badgers (5-0, 2-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1)
Saturday, October 8, 2005.  11:00 a.m. CDT
ESPN or ESPN2 (should know Thursday)
NU plus 7

It was touch and go for much of Saturday, but the Lowes Line is happy to report that the Wildcats did not lose to their opponent, bye week, as had been widely reported.

Going into their bye week, it's likely Randy Walker and his defensive assistants began to plan on how to slow down the potent running attack for which Wisconsin became known under Barry Alvarez.  After Wisconsin's 41-27 pasting of Indiana, Walker et al. are now largely screwed.  Wisconsin faced an inspired Indiana run defense that held the team to barely 100 net rushing yards (star running back Brian Calhoun rushed for 101 yards on 26 carries).  However, Wisconsin pounded the Hoosiers in the air, with junior quarterback John Stocco going 13 for 27 for 254 yards and three TDs against 2 picks.  Receiver/punt returner Brandon Williams had a monster game, catching 6 balls for 113 yards and two touchdowns.  He completed his hat trick with a punt return for a touchdown, all of which earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.  For a team like NU that has a very questionable secondary, that does not bode well.  And with that aerial attack, NU must now go back and retool the defensive plan to account for Jonathan Orr and Brandon Williams, the speedy wideouts.

Two question marks exist for Wisconsin's offense.  The Lowes Line attended the UW-IU tilt and witnessed very poor blocking, especially on pass plays, by the UW offensive line.  If NU can mount any sort of pass rush, it might help out the corners covering Williams and Orr.  And the Badgers dearly miss fullback Matt Bernstein, a stalwart blocker who might as well be a lineman lining up in the backfield at 6'2" and 266.  It was clear from the running game that Bernstein's leadership in the backfield is sorely needed.

Wisconsin's defense performed admirably, with one IU touchdown coming on a long pass play in which a UW corner slipped and fell on their turf.  Take away that score and a special teams snafu that lead to an IU field goal just before the half, and the UW defense held IU to one touchdown.  The other touchdown IU scored came with little more than a minute left in the game, when the Badgers were lining up the waterboys and ballboys on defense.  Overall, IU had 375 yards of offense, but could do very little with them.  IU hurt itself repeatedly with penalties, often starting drives from inside their own 10.

NU enters this contest fresh from their bye week and still suffering from a case of the "what ifs" against Penn State.  The Lowes Line staff believes that the 'Cats should have beaten the Lions.  Hopefully the coaching staff used the extra time to prepare for the offensive prowess of Wisconsin.  Traditionally, the NU defense has not excelled against teams that pass the ball well, or that require a lot of tackling of fast or particularly large running backs, running behind solid lines.  Wisconsin apparently has both a good passing attack and a tough running game.  Back Calhoun is a very darty running, often bouncing plays outside and relying on his speed to reach the corner, which is often effective.  Substitute Booker Stanley is a change of
pace as a more north-south runner.  Stocco is a good passer with some running ability, but he resembles Steve Schnur in some ways that it is his job to complete the occasional pass and keep mistakes to a minimum.  The newly discovered two pronged attack of the Badger offense should give the NU defense fits.

Wisconsin's defense acted a little more "bend but don't break" than it has in past years.  Coming into 2005, the Badgers had to replace their entire defensive line, as all starters graduated.  The Badgers are 4th overall in the Big Ten in yardage allowed, and second in rushing defense, allowing a paltry 77 yards/game.  After a disastrous opening game against Bowling Green that saw the UW defense scorched for 42 points, the Badgers have vastly improved.  However, NU's spread offense has done well against the Badgers in past years, and given some of the youth in the UW defensive corps, this should continue.

Brett Basanez leads the Wildcats' attack, and is supported by Tyrell Sutton.  Sutton has been a real find this season and is averaging 132 ypg, first nationally among freshman in this category.  Wideout Mark Philmore returned to the team for the game against Penn State and caught three balls.

One factor that could help NU is that the next game for the Badgers is against hated rivals and 18th ranked Minnesota.  Perhaps NU can sneak in and steal one with the Badgers looking a week too far.

Another point in NU's favor is that Dyche Stadium/Ryan Field has been a house of horrors for the UW in past years, especially when they come in riding a winning streak.  Will this be enough to counter Barry Alvarez's swan song?

In a "tweener" upset special, the NU defense follows IU's example on run defense and also contains Williams through the air.  UW scores, but NU scores more.  Basanez has his finest game as a Wildcat and leads the 'Cats over the Badgers.  Last team with the ball wins.

Pick:  NU 38, Wisconsin 31.  Take the Cats and lay the points.
Season to date:  Straight up, 4-0.  Against the spread, 2-2.

Purdue Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (3-2, 1-1) at Purdue Boilermakers (2-3, 0-2)
Saturday, October 15th, 2005. 12:00 CDT
NU plus 7.5

WOW, what a game.  In a big upset (predicted here at the Lowes Line last week), NU exploded for 51 points against previously unbeaten Wisconsin.  All of this begs the question, is NU better than originally thought, losing only to a tough Arizona State team and the now eighth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (mind you, they should have won that game, stupid fourth and 13), or did Wisconsin overlook the so-called Mildcats.  The offense just exploded in the second half, scoring 27 points in the third quarter alone.

Come on now, that is just downright impressive.  I commented while watching the game with Jersey Cat last week that Sutton is a stud and "the first guy just seems to bounce off him".  Sutton then reaffirmed this himself by stating after the game, "I don't like being tackled by the first guy."  The guy would just run over people.  I would love to see the stat about yards after first contact for him.  Of his 244 yards last week (a nice 8.4 avg per carry), I would wager that 175 were after first contact.  Basanez was just unstoppable, converting big play after big play with the 'Cat offense racking up 674 yards of total offense.  The offensive line was impressive, and with Strief leading the way, Sutton should continue to have huge games this season.

On to the bad news, the NU defense was again atrocious.  I know some NU fans like to point out they actually looked OK at times this weekend, but come on-- 48 points.  Thank goodness for Tim McGarigle.  The guy was just huge with 25 tackles and two sacks. Without him, Wisconsin may have put up 100 points.  We may just have to face it that NU's defense is just plain awful.

This week the 'Cats face an angry Purdue team.  Purdue returned 20 starters from a 7-5 Sun Bowl team last year and have fallen on hard times this season.  After winning 49-24 and then 31-24 over Akron and Arizona, the Boilermakers have given up 42 to Minnesota, 49 to Notre Dame, and 34 points last week to Iowa all in losing efforts.  The Boilermaker offense is led by QB Brandon Kirsch who is averaging just over 283 yards per game in total offense and big time receiver Dorien Bryant, who leads the Big Ten in receptions (8.4 pg) and ranks second in receiving yards (103.0 ypg).  Their running game isn't much to talk about and as you can see from the above scores, their defense may be as bad as NU's.

Assessment:   So what will Coach Walker do?  He somehow has to find a way to keep his defense and Purdue's offense off of the field.  This will likely be the strategy of Joe Tiller as well.  This writer says to load up the wagons and tie them to Tyrell.  Sutton should see the ball 35 times on Saturday as this is a huge game for the 'Cats and their bowl chances.  Follow Strief and the rest of the O-line to the promised land of TD's.  Can the 'Cat offense score enough points to overcome NU's defense?  That is the big question.

7.5 points?  Come on Vegas: a little respect!  I know we are on the road but Purdue shouldn't be favored by more than a fieldgoal.  I know the Boilermakers are mad but they also don't have a defense.  KEY STAT FOR THE GAME.  Purdue is actually worse statistically on defense, surrendering an average of 348 yds/gm in the air, second to last in Div 1-A.  (NU is 3rd to last).  I go the other way and Baz lights them up throwing for 350 and 3 TD's with Sutton maintaining his average of 155 and 2 scores himself.  Look for the 'Cats to pull another win out after a roller coaster ride.

Pick:  NU 41, Purdue 35.  Take the 'Cats and the points.
Season to date:  Straight up, 5-0.  Against the spread, 3-2

Michigan St. Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) at #22 Michigan State Spartans (4-2, 1-2)
Saturday, October 22, 2005. 11:00 a.m. CDT
NU plus 12

The Wildcats had another exciting victory last week at Purdue, topping the Boilermakers 34-29, and taking the 'Cats to a 2-1 conference record.  Led by quarterback Brett Basanez, the offense continues to get the job done.   Baz was shooting fish in a barrel last Saturday in West Lafayette, going for 462 yards and three TDs in the air, while running for a fourth score.  Some credit must go to the offensive line.  Despite allowing one sack of Basanez last Saturday, the line continues to provide ample opportunity for him to find the open receiver.  Basanez completed passes to nine different Wildcat receivers against Purdue, including a first quarter touchdown pass to fullback Frayne Abernathy, which seems like the first TD reception by an NU fullback since the late Matt Hartl made a grab against Michigan in the Rose Bowl season of ten years ago.  Basanez opened the scoring with a 67-yard strike to freshman wideout Eric Peterman.  When asked for comment on his first touchdown reception, Peterman said, "Slipping the surly grasp of an opposing defensive back and heading for my initial trip to pay dirt was euphoric, especially clad in a fine, cross-stitched NU road jersey by adidas, where violet numerals across the back capture the blissful warmth of the autumn sun's rays.  Available in large, XL, and double XL for portly lineman types."  Uncle J. would no doubt be very proud.

Freshman running back Tyrell Sutton was held to 90 yards on the ground in West Lafayette, but showed his versatility as a receiver out of the backfield, catching ten passes for 89 yards.  Sutton scored the winning touchdown on a fourth down one-yard plunge with under two minutes remaining, capping an impressive 75-yard drive. 

NU held a 28-9 halftime lead that was quickly cut into as Purdue ran back the opening kickoff of the second half for a 95-yard touchdown.  The NU defense let the Boilermakers back into it, and Purdue ultimately took a 29-28 lead before Sutton's aforementioned winning score.  The secondary actually looked improved over the prior week's effort against Wisconsin, but after surrendering 378 yards against Purdue, it's clear this Wildcat unit still can't cover a twin size bed with a king size sheet, and at times look as confused as a hungry baby in a topless club.

Marquice Cole, thy Delta Tau Chi name is "Jason Sehorn."  You're very athletic, and every so often you make a highlight reel play, such as the game-clinching interception versus the Boilers, or raising your arm in celebration 55 yards from the end zone on a punt return for a TD against NIU, but you have room to improve as a cover guy in the secondary. 

This week the Wildcats travel to East Lansing to take on a tough Michigan State team that is arguably a couple of plays away from being undefeated.  Michigan State is coming off a game at Ohio State that was all about momentum.  Up 17-7 with under a minute to go before halftime and with no timeouts, Spartan QB Drew Stanton was dropped for no gain, setting up 3rd down from the Buckeye 17.  Rather than spiking the ball to stop the clock and set up an orderly field goal attempt, the Spartans opted for chaos, resulting in confusion where only ten Spartans were on the field for a field goal try that was ultimately blocked and returned for a Buckeye touchdown as time expired in the first half, turning a potential 13-point lead into a 3-point lead at the half.  Michigan State coach John L. Smith was beside himself on the sideline, and that offensive coordinator and special teams coach should not expect the Thanksgiving dinner invite from the boss.  The Spartans never recovered, and Ohio State went on to win, 35-24.

This game presents a difficult task for NU.  Michigan State has an offense that puts up even more points than do the Wildcats, averaging almost 42 points a game, while their defense surrenders an average of just over 25.  The Spartans' ability to stop the run will be put to the test by Tyrell Sutton, but MSU has done an admirable job to date, currently third in the Big Ten against the run at 123 yards per contest.  Stanton leads the Spartan offense, and has been doing a great job thus far, averaging over 300 yards a game in the air, with 15 TDs against only 3 picks.  Javon Ringer is the leading rusher for MSU and, like NU's Sutton, is a true freshman from Ohio.  The Spartans have a trio of solid receivers in seniors Kyle Brown and Matt Trannon and junior Jerramy Scott.  At 6-6, and 225, Trannon will look to feast on the vertically challenged NU cornerbacks.  Beware the inevitable end zone fade route, Mr. Cole!

In other news, MSU mascot Sparty, long suspected of juicing, failed his drug test and will be unavailable for the sideline antics against Willie.  Don't ask how his failed sample was retrieved -- trust me, you don't want to know, especially since his arms can't even reach his waist. 

The hope here is that the Wildcat secondary finds a way to somehow contain the Michigan State receiving corps.  If not, this game could get ugly.  Although ugly, the Wildcat secondary play is not completely without positive benefits -- rumor has it that on weekend nights the staff in Evanston Hospital's Emergency Room shows looping game footage video of the NU secondary to overserved coeds who have been brought in from the fraternity parties on campus, thus removing the need for use of the stomach pump.

Air Baz will again need to be hitting on all cylinders for NU to pull the upset, as it will take north of 30 points for the 'Cats to win.  The running game will need to be solid to keep the Spartan offense off the field, but the question mark is the defense.  Some semblance of a pass rush would be nice, and containment of the Michigan State  passing game is crucial.  Can NU take this game?  History is not on NU's side - the 'Cats are 7-18 in road conference games during Walker's tenure, and have won the second game of back-to-back conference road games only once since 2000.  

Pick:   Not this time.  Cardiac Cats expire on the gurney.  'Cats cover, Spartans win.  Michigan State 38, Northwestern 28.  Take the 'Cats and the points.
Season to date: Straight up, 6-0; Against the spread, 4-2.

Michigan Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: #25 University of Michigan Wolverines (5-3) at #21 Northwestern University Wildcats (5-2)
Saturday, October 29, 2005, 6:00 p.m. CDT
Television: ESPN (woohoo!!)
NU plus 3

It feels like 2004 all over again... the 'Cats are exceeding preseason expectations of the so-called "media experts," the offense is rolling, the defense hands out yards allowed like candy at Halloween, and the Lowes Line staff have begun dreaming of bowl games in warm weather.  All this optimism is actually well founded this year however.  Riding the arm of four year starter Brett Basanez (who is a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for the best college quarterback) and a defense that is showing improvement and a knack for forcing turnovers, it is very reasonable to predict the Cats going at least .500 the rest of the year, with 3-1 within reach.  With remaining games against Michigan, OSU, Iowa, and Illinois, 4-0 is unlikely, but it would be foolish to think it impossible, particularly if the 'Cats' defense continues to show improvement week to week.  This year the Motor City Bowl (a likely destination if the Cats went 1-3 by only beating Illinois in the last game of the regular season) would be considered a disappointment.

The media, both local and national, are becoming believers as well.  A recent article in the local papers reported on Joe Paterno's positive comments after the PSU game earlier this year without the hint of sarcastic journalism that often accompanies NU stories.  Apparently, Joe Pa expressed his respect for NU after the game and specifically singled out Basanez and DT Barry Cofield for praise when speaking to the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.  More interestingly, that owner replied that the Colts were watching the two carefully in preparation for the next NFL draft.  That should be taken with a grain of salt, but it's likely that Basanez will be a mid to late-round pick as a potential backup.  That may not sound like much, but considering that Tom Brady started the same way and no NU quarterback has been sniffed at by the NFL in recent memory, it would be a success story for NU's program.

But enough looking into the distant future with rose-colored glasses, let's look ahead only as far as Saturday and NU's homecoming game against the Wolverines.

A Look at the Wolverines:
Michigan's season can only be categorized as a flop so far.  Ranked #4 in the preseason AP poll, Michigan promptly lost to Notre Dame followed by losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota the next few weeks and dropped out of the rankings altogether.  The driver for these high expectations was the assumed improvement of the offense behind sophomores Mike Hart (RB) and Chad Henne (QB), both of whom were impressive as true freshman starters last year, and a defense that has been above average for several consecutive years.  Both Hart and Henne got off to slow starts (the dreaded sophomore slump??), although the real culprit is a defense that was not performing as it has in years past.

Since the loss to Minnesota, Michigan has defeated previously unbeaten PSU and then Iowa to claw its way back into the top 25.  Michigan's offense has remained unspectacular, scoring average of 27.8 points per game (9th in the Big Ten.  On a side note, what happened to Big Ten football that almost 28 points per game is only good enough for 9th?!?!) and achieving only 398 ypg (8th).  The defense seems to be turning itself around and is currently ranked 3rd in the Big Ten for Total Defense.

It seems like Michigan always has NFL caliber players at the skill positions and this year is no different.  Henne and Hart are playing adequately despite the drop off from last year.  Meanwhile, the loss of Braylon
Edwards has not been an issue as Jason Avant has taken over as the "go-to" receiver and is averaging almost 100 ypg.  As always, the strength of programs like Michigan is depth and any injury to role players is barely felt.  Michigan's OL is anchored by four returning starters and all five lineman are over 300 lbs (NU has four, but three are listed at exactly 300...and I'm 5'-10").

Scarier is that every single backup on OL is also over 300 lbs.  Lay off the chips guys!

A bigger question mark may be what might be wrong with Hart.  He carried the ball only 5 out of the 37 rushing attempts last week.  He was injured in the first series and did not return. While his backup is good, Jackson is not a premier runner.  It will be interesting to see if Hart plays a major part in the game.

On defense, the team's leading tackler is cornerback Grant Mason...and that's not a good thing.  This is reflected in their poor rushing defense and the 153 ypg allowed on the ground.  Other than Mason, Michigan is lead by linebackers David Harris and Prescott Burgess.  Their pass defense is better but still in the middle of the pack.

Overall, this year's Michigan team is underperforming their preseason expectations, but does not have the defense or a prolific enough offense to do better.

A Look at the 'Cats:
Last week's game was a surprise to most...not the 49 points scored by NU, but the 14 points scored by the Big Ten's #1 offense, MSU.  NU continued to demonstrate an offense that can score against any opponent, lead by Basanez and freshman Tyrell Sutton.  NU's offense is ranked #2 in the Big Ten with almost 530 ypg and 37 points per game.  Most impressive is the offense's ability to adjust to changing defensive schemes.

While most of the attention has been on Basanez, the emergence of Sutton has played as much a part of the 'Cats' success as anything.  Sutton is currently ranked 5th in the nation in rushing yards per game and follows only Maroney of Minnesota in the Big Ten.  His current streak is five straight games with over 100 total yards. As was noted elsewhere, what is most impressive for a freshman without the benefit of several years in the weight room is his yards after first contact.  Shaun Herbert continues to lead the receivers after Mark Philmore's injury, but several other players are also contributing.

On defense, NU is ranked dead last in the nation in total defense based on total yards allowed, and that's after last week's game.  However, that can be a misleading statistic as NU has faced very strong offenses all year.  What's more important is their turnover ratio which stands at +1.29 per game and includes 20 total turnovers and 12 interceptions.  That has a lot to do with an improved pass rush and the pressure NU's offense puts on the opposing team.  Opponents' QBs tend to be rushed into forcing plays, which turns out well for NU.  As in years past, NU's strategy appears to be to take risks to create turnovers.  If it works, great... if not, lots of yards are given up.  The defense is lead by DT Barry Cofield, LB Tim McGarigle, and CB Marquice Cole.  Cofeild is doing an excellent job of clogging the middle and demanding double teams while Cole is leading the team with 3 interceptions.  McGarigle continues to be a dominant force from the middle LB spot.

Outlook for this week:
This is the first time NU has faced Michigan with a higher ranking since 1959.  That is deserved.  Michigan's defense is not good enough to stop the 'Cats and Henne has shown that he's not good enough yet to light up the scoreboard.

Look for the game to remain close through the first half.  By the second half, the pressure to keep up with NU's scoring will become too much for the Wolverines and mistakes will do them in.

Pick:  Halloween tricks come early for Michigan as NU qualifies for a bowl game by beating the Wolverines...Wildcats by ten.
Northwestern 45, Michigan 35.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.
Record for the Season:  6-1 (5-2 against the spread)

Iowa Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup: University of Iowa Hawkeyes (5-3) at the Northwestern University Wildcats (5-3)
Saturday, November 5, 2005, 11:00 am CST
Television: ESPN
NU plus 2.5

Last week Michigan spoiled Northwestern's Homecoming as the 'Cats lost 33-17.  It was a game where just about everything that could go wrong on offense, did.  Basanez threw two interceptions and Sutton fumbled and had the ball returned for a touchdown.  In the 3rd quarter, three drives were stopped when a first down gaining play was called back due to a holding penalty.  Another drive was stopped on a pass interference that was not called against UM.  And no matter how many times Bob Davie praised the offense and said how rare this is to see these miscommunications, there were numerous miscommunications between Basanez and the receivers that seemed to become worse as the game went on.  There were some bright stops though.  The first was the ability of the 'Cats to throw the ball downfield.  In the first half Basanez had a 62-yard and a 34-yard touchdown pass to Mark Philmore.  The second touchdown came on a perfectly executed drive that covered 80 yards in 47 seconds. 

The other bright spot was NU's bend but don't break defense.  The Wildcats were kept in the game by their defense even while the offense was continuing to go 3 and out.  The Michigan offense was on the field for 38 minutes compared to 22 for the 'Cats.  In this time the D gave up many yards but held UM to only 2 offensive touchdowns and 4 field goals.  They took the ball away from UM 3 times (additionally the offense also recovered a fumble of an intercepted pass), but the offense was unable to convert any of those take-aways into points.

This week the Iowa Hawkeyes fly into Ryan Field for a key game for both teams.  Both teams need this game to become bowl eligible. Both teams will be heavy underdogs next week as the 'Cats travel to Columbus and the Hawkeyes travel to Camp Randall to face the #14 ranked Badgers.  Iowa's last game was two weeks ago, where they lost in overtime to Michigan, 23-20.  Iowa has not looked much better than average all year.  They have not beaten a quality opponent yet, with their wins coming against Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, etc.

You can look at last week's game and come away with a bad feeling that the 'Cats have been exposed and that they were playing above their heads for the 3 game stretch of Wisc., Purdue, MSU, or you can take the positive outlook that they were due for some bad bounces and mistakes, but they still are a solid football team.  I choose to believe the Wildcats are a good team.  I think the emergence of a vertical passing game makes then a very dangerous team.  For several years they have run the spread offense but have rarely thrown the pass down field.  They would throw 3 yard outs all day long, get a holding penalty, and then be forced to punt.  This year, throwing the ball deep, even if it is not completed, opens everything else up.

Iowa has had two weeks to prepare for the 'Cats' offense so that will be an advantage for them.  But, with all due respect to Michigan's defense, if NU's offense does not shoot itself in the foot with stupid penalties, it becomes very difficult for any D to stop us.  The question is can the 'Cats get the magic back?  I believe they will as I am sure they got back to basics this week after spending too much time reading their own publicity last week.  Another good point is that the 'Cats will be at home as opposed to traveling to the unfriendly confines of Iowa City.  As long as they keep throwing the ball down field (and stop throwing the screen pass after it fails 4 times in a row), they will be fine.

Pick: Take the Wildcats and the points, but they won't need them as Basanez, Sutton and Company score more than enough and defeat the Hawkeyes.
NU 37 Iowa 27
Record for the Season:  6-2 (5-3 against the spread)

Ohio State Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: #25 Northwestern Wildcats (6-3; 4-2) at #10 Ohio State (7-2, 4-1)
Saturday, November 12, 2005, 11:00 a.m. CST
Television: ABC regional coverage; PPV on ESPN Gameplan
Ohio State -18

For about 57 minutes, it appeared that the 'Cats were going to undermine the previous Lowes Line prediction of a rebound from a lackluster performance against Michigan.  NU's offense sputtered, and got no real momentum against Iowa's surprisingly stout defense.  If you were like most of the Lowes Line staff, you turned the TV off to turn to better things once Basanez tossed that pick with 5 minutes left in the 4th.  Fools, all of you!  (Well, and me too.)  NU stunned the Hawkeyes by coming up with a defensive stop, scoring a touchdown with 2:11 left and then recovering the onside kick, which led to the Basanez to Lane TD pass with 42 ticks of the clock left.  The extra point is good, and NU leads by one.  The game was not over, and Iowa staged a last ditch effort to get in field goal range, but gave up the ball on downs.  All of Ryan Field began to breathe again about 15 minutes later.

NU's defense looked suspect much of the game, surrendering well over 400 yards to the Hawkeyes.  In fact, NU's defense is at the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of yardage surrendered.  Iowa did manage "only" 27 points, but by watching the game it seemed that NU's defense played even more poorly than the statistics indicate.  Often Hawkeye running back Albert Young was 5 yards downfield before he was so much as touched by a 'Cat defender.  Young ended up with 202 yards rushing on 38 carries, a hefty 5.3 average.  Iowa QB Drew Tate was just as effective through the air, passing for 273 yards and no picks.

As indicated earlier, NU's offense seemed unable to get on track and create any rhythm against the Iowa defense.  NU did finish with 453 yards of total offense, but much of that was concentrated on their 4 touchdown drives (80, 80, 77, 47).  Tyrell Sutton was held to a measly 3.8 ypc (17 for 65).  The game rested on Basanez's arm (31 for 51, 338 yds, 2 TDs, 2 ints.).  All in all, not a great game to write home about, other than the 'Cats answering the gut check with two touchdowns in less than 2 minutes. 

Ohio State's game was a much more relaxed affair, against NU in-state rival Illinois.  Ohio State crushed Illinois completely, winning 40-2.  That means that no points were scored by the Illinois offense.  With the 'Cats' offense coming into this game seemingly out of sync, that does not bode well.  Ohio State held Illinois to 160 total yards, while rolling up 526.  OSU is led by Junior quarterback Troy Smith, who went 13 of 21 for 298 and 3 TDs.  OSU does not have one go-to running back, choosing instead to platoon their backs.  Three backs saw significant touches, with Antonio Pittman carrying the ball the most, running for 96 yards on 22 carries.

Odds are the Buckeyes remember last year's game, a stunning 33-27 loss at Ryan Field.  Now that the Poisonous Nuts have the 'Cats back at the Shoe, look for them to try to avenge that defeat by tattooing the 'Cats, but good.  Ohio State is also in the running for the Big Ten title and the automatic BCS bid (though they need Penn State to lose next week), and a loss to NU would kill those hopes.  The only chance NU has to keep this game close and possibly win is the fact that next week the blue and maize of Michigan looms on OSU's schedule.  Perhaps the Buckeyes' full attention will not be on NU this weekend.

While that worked against Wisconsin, I don't think it works here.  Last year's defeat at NU's hands should keep enough focus on the work at hand.

Pick:  Ohio State 38, NU 24  Take the 'Cats and the points.  (Did I do that correctly, finally?)
Season to date:  7-2 straight up, 6-3 against the spread

Illinois Preview and Prediction
*Plus: Bonus NU Hoops Preview*

By GallopingGrapes

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (6-4; 4-3) at Illinois Fighting Illini (2-8; 0-7)
Saturday, November 19, 2005, 11:00 a.m. CST
Television: ESPN Plus Regional Coverage
NU (-15)

Curse you, Northwestern!  Curse you for that amazing comeback against Iowa two weeks ago!  That unlikely result planted the seeds of an unreasonable impulse, one that forced me to watch every excruciating moment of that debacle at Ohio State seven days ago, knowing it was becoming increasingly hopeless, and yet hoping nonetheless.  I will speak of it no more.

NU hasn't lost successive Big Ten games in over two years, since 2003.  A win over Illinois tomorrow (at least, it's still tomorrow in this time zone) will give the Wildcats their second straight 5-3 conference record, and their first 7-win season since the 8-4 campaign in 2000.  Unlike last year, NU doesn't need to worry about bowl-eligibility in its season-ending matchup.  That doesn't mean, however, that NU doesn't need to worry about which bowl, if any, they will be playing next month.  Beat Illinois, and NU is likely to end up in Nashville for the Music City Bowl (probably against Tennessee).  Lose, and the Wildcats might find themselves hoping for an at-large bid to the Tupperware Bowl.

For those of you in a rush to make your New Year's travel plans, go ahead and book round-trip tickets to Nashville.  I've written three different previews of the Illinois matchup over the years for the Lowes Line, and in each of those years I've said the same thing...Illinois stinks on ice.  Heading into tomorrow's game, NU has had the nation's toughest schedule (according to the Sagarin computer index).  The Illini might knock that ranking down into the 20's.  Illinois actually won their first two games, including an overtime thriller against Rutgers to start the season, but it's been all downhill from there.  Illinois doesn't have a true offensive star.  QB Tim Brasic comes the closest to giving the Illini an identity on offense, and were he surrounded by a better supporting cast he might be one of the better QB's in the conference.  Unfortunately, he's a man on an island.  The Illini split their carries among three running backs (Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall), none of whom are making any best-of lists this season.  I can't even name an Illini wide receiver...the running back Halsey leads the team in receptions, and Pierre Thomas is probably the second best receiver on the team.  This may be overly optimistic, but I think there's a decent chance that Tim McGarigle will have about 97 tackles tomorrow.

While NU's defense should post one of their better games tomorrow, this will be the last great showcase game for the current version of Randy Walker's high-flyin' offense.  NU is ranked ninth in the country in total offense (482.4 ypg), even after being held to a season-low 251 yards last week in Columbus.  Meanwhile, the Illini are giving away 456 ypg, including 221 ypg rushing.  I know this is like saying "Expect the sun to rise tomorrow morning", but, um, expect Tyrell Sutton to have a big game tomorrow.  Mark Philmore has been on fire the last three games, and he should have a pretty fun time running up and down the field on those Illini cornerbacks.  However, the spotlight, as it has been all year, will be shining on Brett Basanez, who needs 76 yards passing tomorrow to become the 36th player in NCAA D-IA history to pass for 10,000 yards in a career.  I think it's a pretty safe bet Baz gets the mark and ends his regular season NU career on a high note.  Enjoy this offense tomorrow 'Cats fans.  It may be a long time before we see an offensive machine like this one again. 

Finally, as excited as we may be by the potential of Tyrell Sutton's tremendous freshman season, we at the Lowes Line want to take this opportunity to reflect on the great careers of all of NU's seniors:

Brett Basanez
Vince Clarke
Barry Cofield
Jonathan Fields
Herschel Henderson
Chris Horton
Terrell Jordan
Sean Mansfield
Tim McGarigle
Mark Philmore
Zach Strief
Frederic Tarver

Great job, guys.  See you in Nashville.

Pick:  Northwestern 45, Illinois 13.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.
(Season to date: Straight up:  8-2.  Against the spread:  6-4)


I'm actually writing this preview from the windy, wintry wilds of Wyoming, where NU's basketball squad opened its season with a strong showing in the BCA Invitational.  NU lost the championship game on Tuesday night, to the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, but, unlike last season's opening tournament appearance in Alaska (where will they open next year, a remote atoll in the South Pacific?), NU looked good in all three games.  Last season, NU was plagued by slow starts, often having to shoot their way back into games.  Hopefully this year, NU will have more of an inside presence that will help slow down opposing offenses and give coach Bill Carmody's offense a chance to play its own game. 

NU lost two key components from last year's 15-16, 8th place team.  Steady forward Davor Duvancic graduated, and point guard T.J. Parker left school with a year of eligibility remaining to pursue a pro career...in France.  Not that I'm questioning T.J.'s decision, but if my brother was bringing Eva Langoria to family dinners, I wouldn't move to France.  I'd host more family dinners.  And family pool parties.  And family lingerie shows.  What was I talking about again?

Oh, yeah.  Basketball.  Anyway, T.J. may be gone, but last year's most valuable player, by far, was F Vedran Vukusic.  Vedran averaged nearly 17 ppg last season, and he is a lock to make at least Third Team All-Big Ten this year.  While NU doesn't have a point guard read to step into Parker's spot (former walk-on Michael Jenkins may earn the starting position), Carmody's Princeton-inspired passing and cutting offense may very well benefit from the necessity of moving the ball around among a selection of streaky guards, including sharpshooter Mohamed Hachad, former St. John's transfer Tim Doyle, and long-time Lowes Line favorite Evan Seacat, a senior who earned his first career start in the Wildcats' opener against Lehigh last weekend.  Those returning guards will be supplemented by NJ prepster Craig Moore and redshirt freshman Sterling Williams.  Williams in particular has a chance to make an impact this season; Carmody called the Chicago native one of his best practice players near the end of last season, and the kid can play some mad
defense, something that has been sorely missed over the last 2 seasons.

Northwestern's frontcourt features its best and most reliable player in Vukusic, and also its most enigmatic question mark in center Michael Thompson.  The senior transfer from Duke only has one season left to prove that his enormous potential is more than just potential.  Thompson only played 13 games last season, due to eligibility problems and a broken foot suffered near the end of the season.  Thompson's slow start last year might have been attributable to the fact that he had to sit out for a year after riding the bench at Duke.  It wasn't a good sign, however, to see Thompson struggle in last weekend's opener against Lehigh, when he couldn't seem to grab a rebound when the 'Cats needed it.  Junior Vince Scott surprised filling in for Thompson last season, and if Thompson's struggles continue Scott should be able to hold his own again in a bruising Big Ten.  Many are looking forward to the emergence of Kentucky transfer Bernard Cote, but he seems likely to be more shooter than rebounder.  Northwestern's historic problems on the boards seem likely to continue, and will again be the main weakness of this team.

The Big Ten looks to be one of the top conferences in the country again, with Michigan State's Final Four run propelling them into the favorite's spot occupied by Illinois a year ago.  Dee Brown returns for the Illini, making them impossible to count out, and those two powerhouses will be joined in the national rankings by revitalized Iowa and Indiana teams.  NU likely falls near the back of the next tier of Big Ten teams, behind Wisconsin but competitive with Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota.  NU's nonconference schedule is tough enough that it won't kill their RPI, but not nearly as brutal as last season's turned out to be.  NU's strong start in Laramie this week gives hope that the Wildcats can turn a 6- to 8- win Big Ten record into a winning season and a post-season bid.

Unfortunately, I don't think this is the year that we finally see the 'Cats in the NCAA Tournament, but don't be surprised to see them getting a well-deserved NIT bid.