Lowes Line
2008 Posted


The Complete 2009 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 2009 season it returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Towson Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Towson Tigers (0-0, 0-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (0-0, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, September 5, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: Big Ten Network
Makeshift Line: NU (-27) (Difference in Sagarin ratings plus 3 for NU being the home team)

It's football season again, 'Cats fans, and so with it, the Lowes Liners return for an eleventh season.  (It's like ten, it's just one more)

It's been a long eight months since NU was on the losing end of what was arguably the most exciting bowl game of the 2008 season, coming up short in overtime against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl following a strong 9-3 regular season.  While last year ended on a sour note, there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into 2009:  Coach Fitz has three years under his belt and seems to have the program moving in the right direction, the Barnett-era slogan "Expect Victory" is actually something being believed in, and the quality of the defense appears to be improving year over year.

Once again, the non-conference portion of the schedule sets itself up for NU to have a few wins under their belt ahead of the conference schedule.  Aside from the visit by Towson, Eastern Michigan comes to Evanston and the 'Cats visit Syracuse before Big Ten play starts.  They jump into the conference schedule with a visit by Minnesota and a trip to Purdue, and close out the non-conference slate with a home game against Miami (Ohio).  The balance of  the schedule includes home games against Indiana, Penn State, and Wisconsin, along with road trips to East Lansing, Iowa City, and Champaign.

It's tough to improve on a 9-3 record, and I can't say I'm confident NU will equal that mark, much less beat it.  The returning defense is solid, with eight returning starters and a secondary that's considered by some to be in the top two in the conference, a seemingly unfathomable thought for NU fans as recently as three years ago.   The question marks are on offense, where virtually all the skill positions have new personnel.  At the helm will be QB Mike Kafka, who showed signs of brilliance in the Minnesota game last year.  He can move the ball on the ground very effectively, but the passing game will be a question mark.  Stephen Simmons will be the main option at tailback, likely giving up his effective role as a kick returner. 

NU needs the running game to be effective in order to be successful.  Since 1999, the 'Cats are 43-16 when rushing for more yards than the opposition. When passing for more yards in a game over that span, they're only 31-30.  What does that tell us?  It remains to be seen, but it could be that Kafka's running ability may be more valuable to the team than his throwing ability.

Defensively, all eyes will be on Corey Wootton, the preseason All America at defensive end who is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Alamo Bowl.  He can be a difference maker on the field, a big end that can rush the passer and is agile enough to make interceptions as well (four in three seasons).  He has the ability to take over a game, and force the opposing quarterback into poor decisions.  There to pick up the slack is a secondary that returns four starters, all of whom earned postseason recognition last year.  The unit is led by team captains, cornerback Sherrick McMannis and safety Brendan Smith.  This quartet in the back should be strong enough to carry the team through parts of the schedule where the offense is likely to struggle, keeping games close and low-scoring.

This week, though, scoring should not be a big concern.  The Towson Tigers are not really on the map as far as a big (or little) time program.  They're part of a group called the FCS, which stands for Football Conference Subdivison, whereas NU is a member of the FBS, the Football Bowl Subdivision.  The difference?  Too hard to explain, but I have an idea how.  Let's just say that NU is a member of the major group of schools playing college football.  We'll call this group something simple like Division 1-A.  Towson, is part of a less major group of football-playing schools.  For the sake of ease and argument, we'll call this group Division 1-AA.  Isn't that simple?  I thought so.  So in straightforward terms, NU is playing a Division 1-AA school this week, and one they should beat handily.

Like last season, anything less than 7-5 and a bowl bid would have to be considered a disappointment. Is this the year NU ends the 60+ year bowl drought with a win?  We'll see.  They'll have to get at least six wins, which is very doable.  The first of those comes this weekend, where Kafka shows what he's capable of against a team NU should trounce, while the defense keeps the clamps on Towson.

Pick:   Cat's pre-game reading material: Tiger Beat.

NU 34, Towson 3.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.

EMU Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: Eastern Michigan Eagles (0-1, 0-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-0, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, September 12, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: Big Ten Network
Makeshift Line: NU (-21) O/U 53



Apologies, 'Cats fans, for the late Lowes Line.  There was a scheduling snafu at our questionably organized head office, leaving this game uncovered.  But fear not, your heapin' helpin' of 'Cats predictions are here in plenty of time for kickoff.

What did we learn from last week's drubbing of Towson State?  Well, that nerds can turn into a bully when an inferior opponent shows up.  NU had little trouble dispatching the FCS (read Division I-AA) Tigers 47-14.  NU built up a 30-0 lead in the first half, scoring touchdowns on each of their first four drives, and cruised from there.  Quarterback Mike Kafka had a good outing, going 15 of 20 for 192 yards, no touchdowns but no picks (he was a non-factor in the running game).  Backup Daniel Persa saw some action, and both of his passes were complete.  One to Eric Brewer for a 72-yard touchdown.  The other to a Towson Tiger defender.  Oops.  NU running game consisted of tailback by committee, with four backs getting 5 or more carries.  Three of those averaged more than 4 yards per carry, with junior Scott Concannon at the head of the class, averaging a sparkling 8.0 yards per carry, and tossing in 2 touchdown runs for good measure.  All told, the NU offense rolled up 485 yards of total offense.  Certainly a good start to the year.

We also learned, via post-game conversation with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, that $52,000 doesn't seem to buy enthusiastic sideline cheerleaders.  Look for more energy on the sidelines this week.  If anyone can motivate more energy, it's Mr. Fitzgerald.

On the defensive side of the ball, the 'Cats held the Tigers to a touchdown in each half, limiting them to 205 total yards, including a measly 65 yards rushing.  The Tigers were 5 for 13 on third down conversions, and the NU defense won the turnover battle, picking off 2 Tiger passes v. the one pick thrown by Persa.

In comes Eastern Michigan.  At least this time the 'Cats are playing an FBS opponent, though Eastern Michigan will likely be in the half of FBS that makes the top half possible.  The Eagles faced the vaunted attack of the Army Black Knights, losing 27-14.  Army is back to running the option, and it revealed that that Eagles are very vulnerable to a running attack.  The Black Knights rolled up 300 yards on the ground (they passed for only 8...I guess they leave that to the Air Force?).  EMU is led by senior quarterback Andy Schmitt, who was generous with the ball against Army, throwing two picks against one TD pass.  The other offensive playmaker is junior tailback Dwayne Priest, who compiled 83 yards rushing on 19 carries.  Schmitt can be deadly with the ball, however, as his 58-of-80 for 516 yards and 5 TDs against Central Michigan last year proves.  That was under a spread offense scheme, and this year the Eagles have moved to a pro-style offense under first-year head coach Ron English

The 'Cats and the Eagles have played twice prior, once at Ford Field in Michigan and once at home.  Neither game was a thing of beauty.  NU defeated the Eagles 14-6 at Ryan Field in 2006, and completed the home-and-home sweep 26-14 a year later.  NU should have no problems continuing its dominance against EMU in 2009.  Hopefully this will be a better game than those two clunkers.

The Eagles defense will struggle to contain NU's spread offense.  Not only do they have to completely switch schemes, facing a spread offense a mere week after Army's triple option, but they no longer practice against a spread team, now that the Eagles offense is a pro-style setup.  Look for NU to run early and run often, with some plays looking like jail breaks.  There should be plenty of yards to go around for all NU backs, and Kafka should improve over last week's meager rushing effort.  On defense, NU's improved secondary contains Schmitt, and prevents the Eagles from getting a foothold in the game until it's too late.

Pick:  NU 42, EMU 17

Take the 'Cats and give the points.

Season to date:   Straight up, 1-0; Against the spread, 1-0

Syracuse Preview and Prediction
By Galloping Grapes

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-0, 0-0) at Syracuse Orange (0-2, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, September 19, 2009, 6:10 pm EDT
Television: ESPN Gameplan and ESPN 360 (i.e., no TV for me)
Line: NU (-4)

Sadly, I can’t do a song parody for this week’s Lowes Line.  Nothing rhymes with Orange.  Or with Syracuse.  An allegorical preview that makes strained allusions to the Glorious Revolution, Scottish protestants and the Dutch seems too pedantic, even for me. 

On the other hand, one would think that there is a wealth of potential material to be mined from the vapid history of Syracuse mascots.  I imagine that a mascot dust-up this weekend would involve little more than a perplexed Air Willie trying to decide how to react to a giant orange beachball whose primary offensive attack consists of running into a wall, Mr. Kool-Aid style, only to bounce back in a spray of pulpy citrus.  And this is the mascot that replaced the oddly offensive “Saltine Warrior” who held sway over Syracuse athletic events for more than 40 years.  I can see where the average Native American might be offended by the comparison to a lightly-salted, dry (and somewhat bland) cracker.  But it never seemed to bother the Syracuse football team, whose play over the last few seasons could be fairly compared to said crackers.

Wins against Towson and Eastern Michigan tell us next to nothing (other than inciting some nervous jitters after letting EMU back in the game last week).  Coach Fitz has basically limited the Wildcats to the covers of their playbooks, and has taken the opportunity to go deep into his positional rotations in both games.  Unlike NU’s first two opponents, however, the ‘Cuse has some real talent, is from a BCS conference, plays in a tough home stadium (the non-air conditioned Carrier Dome) and has already played more of a Big Ten schedule than has NU this season.  [Syracuse lost in OT to Minnesota, and was outclassed by Penn State last week.]  Fitz will need to crack open his playbook this weekend.

As hard as it is to believe, the Orange will put some legitimate talent on the field tonight.  The headlines are all about former Duke guard Greg Paulus, who looked downright frisky against Penn State.  He won’t threaten the Heisman lists this year, but after 4 years in the Duke basketball cauldron, he has much more poise and maturity than most first-year QBs.  Paulus will win a game or two for the Orange this season, you can book it.  It helps that he has a top flight WR in Mike Williams.  Williams can keep a drive alive, and NU’s top corner, Sherrick McManus, has a gimpy hamstring that could keep him out of the game. Also, Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey are solid running backs.  There isn’t a true “44” on campus, but Syracuse isn’t an empty cupboard.  The main problem for the Orange on offense is their line, which (in the words of one of my colleagues who is a Syracuse alum) “sucks, sucks, sucks.”  I didn’t think they looked that bad against Minny and JoePa, but I’ll trust the opinion of the only breathing Syracuse fan I know.  Hopefully, NU’s defensive line will eat ‘em up.

Speaking of eating, the Syracuse defense in recent years has been stinkier than Swedish surstromming (trust me, that’s pretty stinky).  The defense is still not exactly good, but it is anchored by a future NFL tackle named Arthur Jones.  Frankly, I can’t get a read on NU’s offense yet, which worries me.  Have they been handcuffed by a “just enough to win” strategy in the first two games?  Once the playbook opens up a bit, will the offense be ready and clicking?  I hope so.  The key to this game will be NU’s offensive efficiency – control the ball, no turnovers, dominate time of possession.  The Wildcats shouldn’t need big play flash against this weak sister of the Big East.  Steady, mistake-free game management should get the job done.

My biggest fear is that the Wildcats come out flat, expecting to sleepwalk to a win against another crummy opponent.  A big play or two from Paulus/Williams, an off day by Kafka and Co., and NU could be looking at a disappointing loss.  Syracuse has the benefit of intangibles:  home field (the Carrier Dome is not a good place to visit), and a desperate need to win this game.  The Big (L)east is down, down, down this year, and a lousy team like Syracuse could make some unexpected noise.  Also, the Orange have a Div-IAA/FCS team on their schedule next week, and they would love to be 2-2 going into conference play.  The players, coaches and fans view tomorrow night as a pivotal game for their season.  I suspect the Wildcats are thinking about this game as a win, but so is Syracuse.

Pick:   I hate to do this, but a Dookie and Oranges makes for an unappetizing combo.  The Wildcats stumble on the road in an upset.

Syracuse 20, NU 17.  Take Syracuse for the outright win.

Minny Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-1, 0-0) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-1, 0-0)

Date: Saturday, September 26, 2009, 11am CDT

Television: Big Ten Network

Location: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL

Line: NU (-1)



Last week at the ‘Cats game in Syracuse; NU was missing several defensive starters.  Coach Fitz hoped his offense could make up for the potential defensive let down.  It almost did.  Mike Kafka was 35-for-42 for 390 yards and four touchdowns, including a 3-yard TD run and TD catch.  The 35 for 42 set a new NU single game completion percentage record. Unfortunately one of those misfires was intercepted in the closing seconds of the game allowing Syracuse to kick a FG for its first victory of the year.

This week NU hosts the Gophers of Minnesota.  Historically NU and Minnesota have been very evenly matched teams.  The last two games between NU and Minn. have been especially exciting with the outcome being decided on the last play of the game.

In 2007 in Evanston, the Gophers blew a 35-14 lead to allow the ‘Cats to take the game into OT. In the second overtime, Minn. went for two points after a touchdown run by quarterback Adam Weber.  Weber's pass fell incomplete and NU won 49-48.

Last November at the Metrodome, Minnesota entered 7-1 and ranked No.20 in the nation.  After opening 5-0, the Wildcats lost two of three and trudged north without quarterback C.J. Bacher, running back Tyrell Sutton and linebacker Malcolm Arrington.  Somehow, backup Mike Kafka crafted a dream game. He galloped for a Big Ten quarterback record 217 yards, threw for another 143 and had a hand in all but three yards of the Wildcats' total offense.  In final 5 minutes of 17-17 tie game both teams were trying not to lose.  Then Minnesota decided to try and win the game and lost it.  Minn QB Weber threw late over the middle. Safety Brendan Smith intercepted it and weaved his way for 48 yards and a touchdown to give NU a 24-17 victory.

Of course the best ending between NU and Minnesota was 2000.  There are no words that can compete with the video, so here it is:



Last week the Gophers fell to eighth-ranked California 35-21 after being tied with the Golden Bears 21-21 early in the fourth quarter.   Cal running back Jahvid Best tied a school record with five rushing TDs and went over the 100-yard rushing mark for the seventh straight game.


This year should prove to be another close and exciting game as the teams are once again evenly matched as evidence by Minn. beating Syracuse in OT and NU losing to Syracuse on the last play of the game.


Minnesota is led by their All-American receiver Eric Decker.  He is a man among boys on the field.  NU must be aware of him at all times and keep him double covered on third down if they expect to win.  The stat of the game should be third down completions for first downs to Decker.  If NU can hold the Gophers to three or fewer the ‘Cats can win.  More than three and the Gophers will roll (or dig or whatever Gophers do). 


The Minnesota defense is decent but not outstanding.  I would say the same about NU’s but now I am starting to wonder.  The defense was supposed to be the strength of NU’s team this year but giving up 34 to Syracuse turns that notion on its head.  Sherrick McMannis, NU’s shutdown cornerback does appear healthy enough to start.  He must have a big game for NU to contend. 


On Saturday look for the points to come early and often as both offenses should be better than the respective defenses.  After close losses in 2007 and 2008 I think the sun will finally shine on Minnesota and they will squeak out a win.



Pick:   The law of averages catches up with the ‘Cats allowing the Gophers to pull out a close one.


Minnesota 30 – NU 27.  Gophers win outright.


Season to date: 3-0 outright, 2-1 against the spread.

Purdue Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) at Purdue Boilermakers (1-3, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, October 3, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: Big Ten Network
Line: Purdue (-8); Over/under 57


The 'Cats slink into West Lafayette on a 2-game losing streak. I think all we've learned about the 'Cats thus far is that they're a good bully when inferior opponents come to call, but revert to the Mildcats when any sort of decent opponent arrives. Which team will show up today against the Boilermakers?

Mike Kafka has not been the running threat he showed against Minnesota last year. His throwing has been uneven, resulting in a sparkling 72% completion percentage, but only 5 TDs against 3 interceptions. He needs to get started and be more effective with the football. This was highlighted last week against the Gophers, as Kafka's two fumbles late killed any chance the 'Cats had to come back against the Gophers. The 'Cats are running the ball by committee, with 3 backs having more than 20 carries (Simmons, Schmidt, Fields). Andrew Brewer has been the receiving leader with an 18.7 yards per catch average (that statistic is somewhat inflated by his 72 yard TD reception).

The Boilers open their Big Ten season fresh off a heartbreaking loss against Notre Dame, losing the game in the waning seconds of the game. That has been a recurring theme for the Boilermakers this season, as each of their three losses have been by three points or less (one of those losses was at home to Northern Illinois). The Boilers represent the 4th team in 2009 (out of 5 opponents) led by a first-year coach, in this case Danny Hope. Under center is senior quarterback Joey Elliot who tends to be as generous with the football as Kafka. Elliot has thrown 7 TDs, but completed passes to guys in the wrong uniforms 6 times; not a good ratio. Sophomore sensation Ralph Bolden leads the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 122.0 yards per game.

The key to this game will be the defenses of each team, and how they stop the threat posed by their opponents' offenses. Can the 'Cats contain Bolden and prevent him from running wild? Can they do this while giving proper respect to the passing attack posed by the Boilers (while Drew Brees and Joe Tiller are gone, it is Purdue after all). Can the Boilermaker defense contain Kafka's arm and the three-headed backfield of NU?

Neither team's defense has played consistently well against quality opponents. The Boilers allowed the Fighting Irish to march down the field and score the winning touchdown late in the 4th quarter. The 'Cats defense couldn't hold the Gophers off the board after scoring to close the third quarter (in fairness to the defense, the second TD surrendered to the Gophers came after a turnover deep in Cat territory). In case it's not apparent, smart money takes the over in this game.

Pick: It's a shootout, last team with the ball wins. I think the Cats have it last. The Boilers' close game woes continue.

NU 34, Purdue 31.

Season to date: Straight up, 4-0. Against the spread, 3-1

Miami (O) Preview and Prediction

By MO'Cats

Matchup: Miami Redhawks (Redskins until recently) 0-5 at NU Wildcats  3-2

Date: Saturday, October 10, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: Big Ten Network
Weather: Sunny, high of 56F
Line: NU (-18.5); Over/under 55.5

WOW!! Are the cardiac 'Cats back?? After a dismal beginning that included a fumble on their first play from scrimmage and a 21-3 hole, NU then went on a 20 play 9:30 minute drive and came away with nothing, nada, zilch, zero. Stopped on 4th and 1, many a NU fan walked away disgusted. BUT WAIT, an int and a quick scamper from Arby Fields-- who appears to be the heir apparent to Sutton-- made it 21-10. A fumble on the subsequent kickoff led to a Demos field goal, and it was 21-13. Kickoff again and Purdue went out to run out the clock. Purdue fumbled again and the 'Cats kicked a field goal to end the half down only 5, 21-16.

13 points in the final 1:31 has to be putting some serious gray in the Boilermaker coach. Of course he deserves it after calling a timeout as time was running out against Notre Dame the week before. Seriously, the Irish had 4th down with about 30 seconds to play on Purdue's 3 yard  line, needing a touchdown. Notre Dame lacking a timeout was scrambling and PURDUE calls timeout to set up their defense. WHAT!!  Needless to say the stinking Irish score and win, but I digress. 

The 3rd quarter was punctuated by defense and NU kicking another field goal. Trailing 21-19, NU forced the 6th turnover by the Boilermakers and Kafka made them pay. With 2:09 left, Kafka scored and the 'Cats went up 27-21. Purdue wasn't done and it took a 4th and goal stand as time was expiring for the 'Cats to hold on as they won their first, much needed Big 10 victory.
The Redhawks from Oxford, OH (a great campus in a good college town) were manhandled by Cincinnati last week, falling to 0-5, and have lost their last 10 in a row. Miami has been shut out by the likes of  Kentucky and Boise State, and it was beaten soundly by Western Michigan, Kent  State and the aforementioned Bearcats. The Redhawks are led by QB  Zac Dysert who leads the team in passing. He also leads the team in rushing with a whopping 135 yards in 5 games (that can't be a good stat).

This game shouldn't be close. Fitz needs to get the 'Cats to come out and take the Redhawks out of the game early. A comfortable 24-3 halftime lead should be exactly what Fitz should be shooting for in this game. Kafka has to limit mistakes and Arby just needs to pound the ball down their throats. Enough of the analysis, if the 'Cats plan on getting to a bowl, this is a must win and the 'Cats need to make a statement. This will get the 'Cats to 4 victories, needing 3 more to get to a bowl.

Pick: It shouldn't be close.  NU 34, Miami 13. Take the 'Cats and the points
Season to date: Straight up, 5-0. Against the spread, 4-1. Vegas here we come.

MSU Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: Northwestern University Wildcats (4-2, 1-1) at Michigan State University Spartans (3-3, 2-1)
Date: Saturday, October 17, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: ESPN2
Weather: Partly cloudy, high of 48F, slight chance of rain
Line: NU (+13.5); Over/under 51.5


“Underwhelmed” is probably the best way to describe a Northwestern fan’s reaction to last week’s game.  Against a substantially weaker opponent, Northwestern controlled the game, but failed to deliver a knockout blow and allowed the Miami RedHawks to remain within striking distance throughout the game.   NU’s defense clearly overmatched the Redhawks.  However, the concern is the team’s offense that seemed unable or unwilling to take advantage of a weaker team.  Kafka went 15 for 31 for only 191 passing yards, but also limited critical mistakes that have hurt the 'Cats in their previous games.  Hopefully, the team was experiencing a temporary letdown against an inferior opponent and will turn up the intensity this week.
Next up are the Spartans of Michigan State.  What is it about this team?  Since I grew up within spitting distance from the MSU campus, I usually cover this game for the Lowes Line, and each time I shake my head at the Spartan’s failure to reach their potential.  Year after year, they enter the season with high hopes only to fail in big games by the end of the season.   The big knock is usually a lack of discipline and that trait has been a constant for as long as I’ve been following football… regardless of coach, players, or opponent.  This year seems to be no different.  On one hand, they beat Michigan two weeks ago in OT (always a big game), they’ve been in every game so far, and have shown flashes of a powerhouse offense.  On the other, their three losses were by 8 or less and they lost to Central Michigan University in a game they were clearly supposed to win.  For NU, that means if they can get ahead or stay close, MSU may fold under the pressure.  


Northwestern enters the game as a two touchdown underdog and based on the Spartan’s ability to score, I can see the underdog tag, but two touchdowns seems a bit high.  The Wildcat defense is significantly better when Sherrick McManis is on the field, as he should be for his second straight game on Saturday.  The secret may be NU’s ability to slow down an above average MSU rushing attack and force them to throw into the NU defense’s strength.  Let’s hope Corey Wootton is able to continue his progress and contribute a sack or two to the cause.  On offense, it’s the same old story.  MSU is clearly vulnerable if Kafka can avoid the drive killing interceptions and fumbles that can cost them dearly before.  


NU is rightly an underdog, but the game is definitely winnable if the 'Cats can avoid falling behind early.  The more pressure on MSU at home, the better.  Still, I’m calling for the 'Cats to lose the game by less than the two touchdown spread and I’ll be happy to have underestimated them if they can pull out a win.

Pick: MSU

MSU 30, NU 27. Take the 'Cats and the points
Season to date: Straight up, 6-0. Against the spread, 4-2. Vegas

Indiana Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Indiana Hoosiers (4-3, 1-2) at Northwestern Wildcats (4-3, 1-2)
Date: Saturday, October 24, 2009, 11:00 am CDT
Television: Big Ten Network
Line: NU (-6)


What can you say about this year’s Homecoming game for the ‘Cats? It’s an absolute must-win if a bowl game is in the cards, period. No two ways about it. The question out there is whether this team is good enough to really warrant a postseason berth at all. Look at the results to date: Losses at Syracuse in giving the game away down the stretch, at home where they folded in the second half against the Gophers, and at East Lansing, where the defense played for 3 quarters against Michigan State. Wins in beating up on a Div 1-AA team, needing a last second field goal against Eastern Michigan, turning six turnovers into no more than 27 points in a close one at Purdue, and only putting up 16 points against a winless Miami (OH) squad. Hardly impressive. They say you are what you are, and NU is indeed 4-3, but it has not been pretty to date. Best case scenario, do we really need to spend Boxing Day watching a 6-6 NU squad get the crap kicked out of them by a MAC team in, of all things, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl? Bottom line, this Lowes Liner doesn’t think the 'Cats have the special sauce this year to pull an upset that gets them to a guaranteed postseason berth. I’d love to be proven wrong, and it all starts with Indiana this week in Evanston.

Last week against the Spartans, NU showed pockets of brilliance, putting on a stoic display on the defensive side of the ball for the first thirty minutes, holding MSU scoreless. Then the third quarter happened, and Sparty & Co. never looked back. Kafka played well, completing a high percentage of his high-percentage passes in going 34-47 for 291 yards and two TDs. What is somewhat unclear is why the offensive line continues to struggle. The running game for NU is almost non-existent, and it results in Kafka throwing the ball quite a bit, which is fine as long as it yields something. The spread offense for four yard completions is the gameplan, and in the words of Dr. Ullery, is "the new three yards and a cloud of dust."

Indiana comes in fresh off a win over what has become a joke of a team in Illinois. How did that Illini program do a 360 so quickly? (No, not a 180, but a 360, in bad to good and back to bad again). Never underestimate the influence Chief Illiniwek had. Anyway, the Hoosiers have gotten to 4-3 by beating up on inferior competition, losing games they would never likely have won, and taking one of their few chances for a conference win. Indy is led by junior QB Ben Chappell, who has had some impressive outings, most notably last week against Illinois where he threw for 333 yards and three TDs. But he also has the tendency to throw 'em away as well, as his 7 INTs in the seven games attests. The running game is by committee for the Hoosiers, mostly split between senior Demetrius McCray and freshman Darius Willis. The defense is not impressive, and NU should be able to move the ball on this squad. The lingering question isn't whether the 'Cats can move the ball successfully, which they have been doing all year, but whether they can put points on the board.

NU's defense should be able to contain the Hoosier offense. A question mark is in the secondary, which had periodic lapses last week. Once again, Kafka's 'Cats will move the ball up and down the gridiron, but will they take advantage of what will likely be several trips to the red zone? Hopefully the 'Cats get the running game going, and that Arby "Beef n' Cheddar" Fields provides a little more of a balanced offensive attack.

Point to Ponder....those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it -- last time Indiana won in Evanston, a newly elected Democratic president was also nine months into his term, with grandiose plans to revamp the healthcare system and giving millions of voters buyer’s remorse, scratching their heads and saying they can’t believe they voted for this guy.  The year: 1993.  Hopefully the Evanston drought continues for Indy.

After all the negativity, you'd think I'd go against the 'Cats.  Not on Homecoming.  Not with household name and Bears linebacker Nick Roach as the parade's grand marshall.  But not with the spread.

Pick: 'Cats win, Hoosiers cover: NU 24, Indy 20. Take the Hoosiers and the points.

Season to date: Straight up, 7-0. Against the spread, 5-2.

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: #12 Penn State Nittany Lions (7-1, 3-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (5-3, 2-2)
Date: Saturday, October 31, 2009, 3:30 pm CDT
Television: ESPN
Line: Penn State (-15)


What a game last week for homecoming.  The 'Cats spotted the Hoosiers 21 points before blinking an eye (scoring on 1st play from scrimmage), managed a field goal, and then on the ensuing kickoff gave up a 93 yard kickoff return for a touchdown.  The Cardiac 'Cats cut it to 28-17 by halftime after Kafka threw to Zeke to finish out the half.  The 3rd quarter was marked by a blocked punt for a safety (could have been a touchdown) and then Indiana marched down the field.  Up 28-19, Bill Lynch (the IU coach) decided to go for it on 4th and goal from inside the 3.  The Hoosiers didn't make it and the 'Cats had some life.  Lynch could have gone up 2 touchdowns with a chip shot field goal.  Needless to say, they didn't make it.  Early in the 4th quarter, Kafka hit Brewer for a huge play and the 'Cats pulled to within 2.  This set up the final drive.  As time expired Demos kicked a 19 yard field goal to give the 'Cats 29-28 homecoming victory.  A collective sigh of relief from every 'Cats fan as the Lowes Line stays perfect straight up and moves to 6-2 against the spread.

This week is going to be a challenge.  The once-beaten Nittany Lions come visiting the 'Cats as 15 point favorites after a convincing victory at the Big House-- 35-10.  The Wolverines opened the game with an 11 play 70 yard touchdown drive but were held to 180 yards and 3 points the rest of the game.  The Lions are led by senior quarterback Daryll Clark.  Clark is the Big 10's leading passer with 148.4 rating and has 17 touchdowns on the season.  Junior running back Evan Royster handles the smash duties with a nice 5.7 yards per carry average but most of the damage will come through the air.  Penn State's defense is 18th in the nation in interceptions with 10 and if Kafka isn't careful, they very well could pad those stats this weekend.  Kafka leads the Big 10 in passing yards but his 3 interceptions last week almost killed the 'Cats.  NU has to find some consistent rushing attack.  Is Scott Concannon the answer?   Last week, he carried 16 times for 73 yards and hopefully he can provide some consistency in the backfield.  The NU defense is struggling with injuries and CB Sherrick McManis left the game last week with an injured leg and is doubtful this week. 

Late afternoon start on ESPN, the tailgates will be open all day and the beverages will be flowing (wait a minute, NU doesn't want the undergrads to have fun anymore, scratch that).  Late afternoon start, the alumni will have the wine and scotch flowing.  It will be a raucous crowd (do you think attendance might break 25,000?) on the big stage.  Can the 'Cats pull out a huge victory???

Pick: Nope.  Nittany Lions 31 - Wildcats 17.  Lions win but 'Cats cover barely

Season to date: Straight up, 8-0. Against the spread, 6-2.

Iowa Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (5-4, 2-3) at No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0)

Date: Saturday, November 7, 2009, 11:00 am CST

Television: ESPN

Line: Iowa (-16) O/U 45

Weather:  60s, Mostly Sunny, Very Slight Chance of Rain


Things looked good early last week as NU lead the PSU Nittany Lions 10-3 in the second quarter, but an injury to Kafka seemed to take the wind out of the team’s sails and they ended up losing 34-13.  Kafka’s backup, Dan Persa, was unable to lead the offense to additional points, settling only for a single field goal.  Persa’s post game quotes suggest he was not mentally prepared for the adversity of facing a tough defense, but there were glimmers of hope for the future.  The defense held up reasonably well for the majority of the game, but lapses in the fourth quarter lead to three Penn State touchdowns in four minutes when the game was tied at 13-13.  Fortunately, Kafka is expected to play this weekend since Persa demonstrated he needs a little more maturing before taking the reins.

If last week was a challenge, this week is approaching a suicide mission.  Iowa enters the game ranked No. 4 with no losses.  Although they’ve trailed their opponent in 8 of 9 games and trailed in the fourth quarter in 4 games this year, their relentless rushing attack, solid quarterback play, and strong defense have come back every time so far.  Statistically on both offense and defense, the two teams’ totals appear evenly matched (in fact, their average score per game is exactly the same at 25.7/game) but further examination reveals the only difference that matters:  Iowa has allowed 16 touchdowns (or 15.8 pts per game) against it this year…Northwestern:  29 tds (or 24.8 points per game).  The totals also hide the fact that Iowa’s tandem running backs Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher both average more than a yard per carry more than NU’s best rusher.

The Wildcats have shown that they can raise to the challenge and remain competitive with better teams (of course, they’ve also shown they tend to perform poorly against worse teams), so this should remain a watchable game, particularly considering the Hawkeye’s penchant for playing from behind.  Unfortunately, it would seem that Iowa’s consistent pressure on the defense will eventually wear the 'Cats down and lead to late mistakes, just as it did last week against Penn State.

My formula for success is simple...they have to avoid turnovers.  If they do that, then they have a chance to score more than 20 points and NU’s high risk, high reward defensive approach just might produce something magical as the Hawkeyes are susceptible to the interception.

Pick: But don’t bet on it.  Hawkeyes 34 - Wildcats 20.  Take the Wildcats and the points.

Season to date: Straight up, 9-0. Against the spread, 6-3

Illinois Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (6-4, 3-3) at U of Illinois Fighting Illini  (3-6, 2-5)

Date: Saturday, November 14, 2009, 11:00 am CST

Television: ESPN Classic

Line: Illini -4



Last week The Lowes Line had this to say heading into Iowa City:

My formula for success is simple...they have to avoid turnovers.  If they do that, then they have a chance to score more than 20 points and NU's high risk, high reward defensive approach just might produce something magical as the Hawkeyes are susceptible to the interception.

It wasn't an interception but a sack that turned out to be the magical play for the 'Cats' defense.  Early in the second quarter Cory Wooten sacked Iowa's Stanzi in the end zone.  The ball came loose and NU recovered for its first touchdown of the game.  Even worse for Iowa was that Stanzi's ankle nearly snapped in two on the takedown.  The life was sucked out of the Iowa crowd as Stanzi was helped to the sidelines, not to return. 

Kafka started at QB for the 'Cats but was ineffective as he could not run at all.  Third down conversions that he would have easily scrambled for were not to be.  He was replaced by Persa who looked better than last week and engineered and short field TD drive after another Iowa INT, but Persa is unwilling or unable to throw downfield.  Iowa quickly realized that and when dared to throw Persa would come up short.

NU led 14-10 at half and the second half remained a pillow fight as both offenses were ineffective.  Surprisingly Iowa was not able to run the ball on NU, even though NU was NOT stacking the box.  Later in the half Persa took a hard hit and was taken to the locker room for x-rays on his hand.  Kafka re-entered the game and engineered a FG drive with some pin point passing.  17-10 'Cats.  Iowa got the ball back one more time but the Wildcat D was too much for the inexperienced Iowa back-up QB.  Fitz gets his first signature victory as the Wildcats of Northwestern defeat the previously unbeaten Iowa Hawkeyes 17-10.  The SI cover jinx is REAL!  Oh yeah, and good luck to the Iowa back-up QB heading to the Horseshoe this weekend for the de facto Big Ten championship game.

This week the 'Cats head down state to Champaign Urbana to face the middling Illini.  This is the inaugural game for the "Land of Lincoln/Obama" trophy that replaces the Sweet Sioux tomahawk.  NU will have both Kafka and Persa available for the game but neither at 100%.  Kafka has unevenly improved as the year has
gone on and is the better choice.  Your quarterback must be able to throw the ball, at least occasionally, to win.

Illinois has plummeted from their Rose Bowl trip of a few years ago, and no one seems to know why.  Juice Williams is still there but it banged up and questionable for the game.  This game is really not about UI though as the 'Cats just need to play solid to win.  As always they must win the turnover battle.  Also the offense must have at least one long sustained drive each quarter to give the defense a rest.  The defense is decent but as shown in the PSU game if put back on the field repeatedly after several 3 and outs, they will break.

This is another must win game for the 'Cats if they want to go bowling.  Yes, they are bowl eligible but so will almost everyone else by the end of the season.  They need this game to guarantee a winning record and a bowl trip.

Earlier in the week I was very confident in the 'Cats but that feel has been dwindling.  Still after watching last week's game I have to believe in them.

The Wildcats win by a hair, 26-24.

Pick: Take the 'Cats, they will win (or at least cover).
Season to date: Straight up, 9-1. Against the spread, 7-3

Wisconsin Preview and Prediction (Plus Bonus Hoops Preview)
By Galloping Grapes

Matchup: #16 Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, 5-2) at Northwestern Wildcats (7-4, 4-3)
Date: Saturday, November 21, 2009, 3:30 pm EST
Television: Big Ten Network
Line: Wisconsin (-6)

I had to settle for catching last week's rivalry game against Illinois on XM, which broadcast the Illini home feed.  It made the game seem to be a much closer affair than it really was (at least in the second half).  This was mostly due to a surprisingly poor day from kicker Stefan Demos.  Given the second tier broadcasting work from the Illini radio team, it was impossible to tell if NU's OL was doing great work protecting a still-lame Mike Kafka, or if the 'Cats were just amazingly lucky to avoid disaster on every single offense snap.  It was similarly difficult to discern how Northwestern's defense could possibly stop the reincarnation of the Joe Montana 49ers masquerading as the Illini offense (unless you consider the fact that the Wildcat 11 were aided by 5 extra defenders disguised as corrupt, biased or blind zebras).  As you can tell, I did not enjoy my limited choice of Wildcat football broadcasters last week.  I'm glad they will be watching Air Willie on tv from their cold, dank winter hovels in downstate Illinois this winter.
Today's tilt promises to be a massive improvement, thanks to BTN in HD.  The little grapes and I are already geared up, ready to cheer the boys on in a tough season finale against the 'Sconsin Rodents.  Even PurpleCatDog is so excited that he can't stop butt-scooting across the newly steam-cleaned family room shag.  Thanks to the unbalanced schedules in the Big Televen, NU hasn't faced their surly northern neighbors since 2006, when Coach Fitz was still working through his first year on the job.  History and karma on on the side of all that is pure and good (i.e., Northwestern).  The Badgers haven't won in Evanston in 10 years, and they will be facing a disgruntled former employee staring across the field from the Wildcat sideline (NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz).  The outcome is likely to have minimal impact on each school's post-season bowl prospects, so they can each just go play football without worrying about the Big Ten out-of-town scoreboard.
We are expecting a good, old-fashioned tussle between solid teams.  NU's defense and passing offense have proven to be just fine this season, and the offensive line really is coming together.  NU still has a hard time rushing the ball, which is not only frustrating, but likely fatal against a power team like Wisconsin.  Having watched a fair number of Badgers games this season (have I mentioned my passionate love affair with BTN-HD?), it is hard to be particularly scared or impressed.  They are a good team, not great, but solid everywhere.  They are the type of team NU could knock off if they hit on all cylinders, but they are also the type of team that will likely live up to a mid-teens ranking and take care of business in a game they are expected to win.  Look for Kafka to have a good numbers day, with not enough points to show for it.  Look for the NU running game... and just keep looking.  Look for NU's defense will keep it close for much of the day.  But most of all, look for Wisconsin to pull away a bit in the second half, just enough to cover.

Pick: Wisconsin 31, Wildcats 21.  The Land of Porn and Cheese covers.
Season to date:  10-1 straight up, 8-3 ATS.  Top that, professional handicappers.
This is a hard one to write.  I spent a couple of weeks thinking of clever and exciting ways to lead into the one hoops preview I've been wanting to write for years.  I was ready to make the call.  This NU hoops team was ready to break the seal and to make the school's first trip to NCAA nirvana.  I was even trying to figure out which first round site was the most likely place to host a 10-seed Northwestern team, so I could line up tickets now. 
Then Kevin Coble broke his foot last week (Lisfranc fracture, surgery, out for the season).  Then senior swingman Jeff Ryan shredded his ACL in the opening game against Northern Illinois.  Rat farts.
But here's the thing.  There are 5 stages of hoops disappointment (I am making these up as I go): 
- Denial (Kevin Coble can rehab it and make it back for the stretch drive! No.) 
- Rage (I stuffed all of my basketball preview magazines into the toilet for a massive flush.  A bad idea, by the way.) 
- Hunger (I missed breakfast this morning, and am taking the little grapes out for a Jersey Diner special to lay a base for the NU/Wisconsin game).
- Acceptance (I tuned in the Butler game on Wednesday night anyway.  I was glad I did.)
- Hope (NU is still making the NCAA field.  Book it.)
You read that right.  Even with our best player on the shelf, I'm still calling for the end of our basketball exile.  So there, fate.  You can shove those lightning bolts right up your tailpipe.
There is no denying that losing Coble is a massive, massive hit.  It's tempting to say that NU will need to wait a year, get Coble back from a medical redshirt as a fifth-year senior, and predict a NCAA berth in 2011.  But while Coble is the WIldcats' best player, he wasn't going to get them over the hump on his own.  The remaining players are darn good in their own rights.
If it weren't for Michigan State star Kalin Lucas, I wouldn't hesitate to name Michael "Juice" Thompson the league's top point guard.  Juice can be an assassin from behind the arc, and he runs Coach Carmody's offense with a steady hand, good head, and enough flair to make NU's system offense really fun to watch.  In Coble's absence, it will be Thompson that will need to lead this team.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have a true back-up, so he'll also probably need to lead the league in minutes played.  It's a tall assignment for the 5-10 Thompson, but you can tell Carmody believes he can handle it.
G-F John Shurna started all 31 games as a freshman last season, then spent the off-season playing on the gold medal United States U-19 team.  Shurna needs to raise every part of his game (especially his 3-point shot) if he's going to help fill the playmaking hole left by Coble.  It says here Shurna will shine as a sophomore. 
Guard and sixth man star Jeremy Nash was one of the most exciting players on the court for most of NU's games last season.  Nash thrives in the Wildcats' 1-3-1 zone defense, where sometimes it seems like he's a 9-foot tall dervish on springs (rather than the modest 6-4 guard listed in the program).  This is where the loss of Coble is most directly felt, as Nash will be pushed into a starting slot.  It's hard to imagine that he can bring the same energy throughout a long season as a starter as he does off the bench.  Nash will need to pace himself a bit, which hopefully won't also mean holding back too much. 
The Wildcats' two big freshmen last season, 7-0 Kyle Rowley and 6-11 Luka Mirkovic, are more experienced sophomores.  Rowley in particular already looks much improved since a year ago.  Both bring slightly different things to the table, and Carmody will go back and forth with them quite often through a game (Rowley typically starts, but Mirkovic will get more minutes). 
Coach Carmody landed two more excellent freshmen in this year's recruiting class.  G/F Drew Crawford was a bit of a coup.  The son of the veteran ref is from Naperville, and already this season it looks like he will play a major role, maybe even taking control of a starting spot.  Fellow freshman guard Alex Marcotullio is a shooter.  Maybe not Craig Moore, but he's got the talent to contribute right away this season. 
NU's bench is deep and experienced.  Forwards Ivan Peljusic, Davide Curletti and Mike Capocci will get plenty of minutes.  The loss of senior guard Jeff Ryan will hurt the team's depth, and more responsibility will fall on guard Nick Fruendt as a result. 
The Big Ten is a very good conference this season, especially at the top (Mich.St., Purdue, Ohio St., Illinois).  But the middle is a scrum of quality teams, and any of  Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and NU will able to make a good case for an NCAA bid in March.  So if the conference is that good, why do I think that an NU team without Kevin Coble can compete?  Well, for as deep as the conference is, every team has its flaws.  That gives Coach Carmody an opening in every conference game.  I'm not convinced that Michigan or Minnesota are any better than NU (even without Coble).  Wisconsin and Penn State lost too much from last season, and lack the experience enjoyed by the Wildcats.  NU has a very workable nonconference schedule, which includes enough RPI-boosting teams that a 8-2 record seems not only possible, but likely.  (By the way, make sure to go see Luke Harangody and Notre Dame next weekend.  He's good.)  On the flip side, losing any of those expected wins (say to NCSt or Stanford) would be an RPI-killer.
At the end of the day, I just liked the way NU played this week against #10 Butler.  Sure, NU lost by 13, and got blown off the floor early in the second half (when it was painfully obvious they really, really, really, really, missed a playmaking scoring machine like Kevin Coble, who could have kept NU in that game when Butler went on its run after halftime).  But NU showed toughness, resiliency and, weirdly, confidence against a very good Butler team.  The Wildcats are deep, experienced, good defensively, good shooters, and they have been thinking of themselves as a tournament team all this time also.  Darn it, I'm not giving up the dream that easily.  I'm sticking with NU as an at-large selection in March (probably as a 12, rather than the 9 or 10 I was hoping for).  When Coble comes back as a 5th year senior, he will need to help get the Wildcats to their first ever back-to-back tournament appearances.
Go 'Cats!

Lowes Line Outback Bowl Edition
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Outback Bowl - Northwestern Wildcats (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Auburn Tigers  (7-5, 3-5 SEC)

<>Date: Friday, Jan. 1, 2010.  10:00 am CST

Television: ESPN

Line: Northwestern +8


After what has to be considered by all NU fans as a successful season, the 'Cats end up playing in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in thirteen years.  Since 1995, NU has played in a bowl game on six occasions, losing them all.  This year, after an 8-4 regular season, NU is back in the postseason, taking on Auburn in the Outback Bowl. 

Back in August, plenty of ‘Cats fans were looking happily at the very weak out of conference schedule, yet being concerned at the fact that long standing skill position players, specifically at quarterback and tailback, had been lost to graduation in the form of CJ Bacher and Tyrell Sutton.  Although the non-conference schedule was not very intimidating, the Big Ten slate was.  In this Lowes Liners opinion, 7-5 would have been a successful year.  For the most part, NU won the games they were supposed to, except for the Syracuse debacle, and got the few needed upsets to make it a very good year.  In particular, the wins against Iowa and Wisconsin made the season.  It looked bleak after the second half collapse against Penn State, even though QB Mike Kafka left with an injury.  But  NU came storming back in November, finishing the season with three strong wins on their way to playing on New Year’s Day. 

Northwestern QB Mike Kafka has had a very solid year, hitting about 65% of his passes for close to 2,900 yards.  The passing game is definitely the strong suit of the Wildcat offense, and Kafka has a cadre of receivers to throw to, including four who have had over 30 receptions on the season.  The running game has been less spectacular, and the overall success the ‘Cats have had is actually impressive when you consider opponents are able to prepare more for the passing game, knowing it’s coming.  That said, this Auburn defense is not exactly the Steel Curtain.  They give up almost 27 points a game, and NU should be able to move the ball and score some points on this squad.

Defensively, NU gives up a fair amount of points, just north of 23 a game, and containing this Auburn offense will not be easy.  Tiger running back Ben Tate is a quality back, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on his way to over 1,200 yards for the year.  NU’s Corey Wootton, the standout defensive end who injured his knee in last year’s Alamo Bowl, finally started to come back into his own in November, and he’ll need to be in top form for the ‘Cats to get the victory.  Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is one who lays claim to inventing the “Wildcat” offense, and the Tiger spread will be in full effect in Tampa, something NU has not had to spend a lot of time defending in the Big Ten.

The field conditions could play a significant impact in this game.  Reports call for a 60-70% chance of rain during parts of the game, which could slow down the offensive attack for both teams, and holding onto the ball could become a challenge.  I like the experience of the NU secondary, and in all honesty, I can’t imagine a team wanting a win more than NU wants this one.  Coach Fitz has publicly stated that nothing short of a bowl victory should be the goal for the season, and ending the sixty-one year drought since the lone NU bowl victory is squarely in the crosshairs of the team. 

Pick: War Eagle talons clipped, 'Cats end bowl drought. 

Northwestern 34, Auburn 31.  Take NU and the points.


Happy New Year.