2012 Lowes Line


The Complete 2012 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 2012 season returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Vanderbilt Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (0-0) at Syracuse Orange (0-0)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 1, 11:00 am CDT
Where: Carrier Dome
Line: NU (-1.5)

Welcome back again to The Lowes Line for the 2012 season, where for a 14th year we'll hopefully provide both an insightful and humorous weekly preview of Northwestern football, akin to and in memory of that originally provided by this column's namesake, Marcus Lowes.

This game has been billed as the Battle of Journalism Schools, Northwestern's Medill and Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse. Newhouse is actually referred to as a “school of public communications.” To use a technical journalistic term…whatever. No offense to Syracuse, but Medill is not only a double digit favorite in this matchup, but they also easily cover. We’ll give you Bob Costas, who emerges from his lair every couple of years with an extra shot of Botox to host the Olympics, and Mike Tirico, who does a very good job with ESPN’s coverage of Monday Night Football and golf. But NU has ESPN Radio’s morning show host, Mike Greenberg, PTI’s Michael Wilbon, the Trib’s Teddy Greenstein, ESPN hoop analyst J.A. Adande, and of course, Mr. Twitter himself, sports business reporter Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell). It’s no contest. Medill produces professional sports journalists like the Cubs produce meaningless Septembers.

As we head into the 2012 Northwestern campaign, we NU fans are in an all too familiar position...again entering the new season on the heels of one that ended in disappointing fashion, a fourth consecutive bowl loss. What to expect in 2012? It would be very easy to say more of the same. An offense that should be able to move the ball, a strong receiving corps, some questions at running back, concerns over the defensive front. Sound familiar?

Aside from this week’s game at Syracuse, the non-conference schedule includes the home opener next week under the lights against Vanderbilt, along with home games with Boston College and South Dakota, the FCS team on the slate. The conference schedule has Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois coming to Evanston while the ‘Cats visit Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State.

Let me put on my Rose (Bowl) colored glasses and get completely ahead of myself. This team could potentially start 7-0. There, I said it. When did NU last start with seven Ws out of the gate? Put it this way: Not only was Twitter not around, nor was the fax machine, the Internet, nor color TV...1936. Depending on how Vandy deals with South Carolina in their home opener this week, it’s not too crazy to think NU could actually be a favorite in their first seven games: vs. Vandy, vs. BC, vs. South Dakota, vs. Indy, at Penn State, at Minnesota. Seriously? Undefeated in late October as Nebraska comes to Evanston for a game that’s already sold out? We can dream, right? While NU usually manages to lose a game they should win, and often tends to create at least one upset along the way, we should all be very disappointed if this team is worse than 7-5, and playing in a bowl for the fifth consecutive year.

One of the more anticipated pieces of news surrounding the NU program in the offseason was the transfer of WR Kyle Prater from Southern Cal. The NCAA granted Prater immediate eligibility, and while Prater’s time at USC was not the stuff of legend, given his limited catches and a significant injury, it’s hard not to get at least somewhat excited at the prospect of having a really big time playmaker on the field. Prater was the # 1 WR coming out of high school at Proviso West in Maywood, IL, and a physical specimen, standing 6-5 and weighing 215. He’s not (yet) listed as a starter, as the ‘Cats are pretty deep at WR, with senior Demetrius Fields and junior Rashad Lawrence leading the way, but is expected to significantly contribute. What we wouldn’t give for a jump ball fade pattern to the corner of the endzone for a TD.

Junior Venric Mark has emerged as the starting running back. On the surface, I think this is a great move. For too long already, we’ve been hearing about how Mark “can break one at anytime”and is “a true speedster.” The problem has been that his touches have been limited, the focus being on kickoff and punt returns. His high for receptions in a game is two and rushing attempts is four. Getting him more involved in the offense is a logical and exciting next step. How will he handle the duties of a starting running back in the Big Ten? Time will tell. Junior Mike Trumpy is returning from ACL surgery as well so the jury is still out on whether he’ll be a significant contributor out of the NU backfield. I can assure NU fans that during this season you will be uttering (screaming?) the following phrases at least once during a Venric Mark rushing attempt: “It’s not a loaf of bread! Protect the ball!” along with, “Get up...PLEASE get up!” following a solid hit to the incredibly athletic but only 5-8 Mark.

All eyes initially will be on junior Kain Colter, NU’s starting quarterback, and leading passer, receiver, and rusher last season. Is Colter going to be the QB needed to take advantage of what many experts consider the best WR corps in the conference? It’s possible. Colter’s ability to effectively run the ball has outshone his ability thus far to throw it. The word on Colter is that his throwing has significantly improved, but the best thing you can say about him is that he is exciting, and sure to give opposing defensive coordinators fits. A true triple threat like Colter gives the ‘Cats multiple options, including making some use of sophomore QB Trevor Siemian on some plays while keeping Colter engaged in the offensive gameplan. I wouldn't expect to see Colter on the sidelines very often when the offense has the ball. And you have to love the size of NU up front. The offensive line boasts three seniors and has an average size of 6-5 plus and 307 lbs. This unit is likely a bit underrated, but will need ensure Colter has time to operate and keep the hits he takes to a minimum.

Defensively for the ‘Cats, there’s room for improvement from the 2011 campaign, which may be as big an understatement as saying LeBron James is mildly unpopular in Cleveland. The defensive line produced 17 sacks in 13 games last year. To be blunt, that’s simply not going to cut it. Without any significant pressure placed on opposing QBs, it could be a long year for this squad. It may be the most critical unit on the team to get the success this team is seeking. The linebackers are anchored by 5th year senior and captain David Nwabusi, along with 1stteam All-Name returnee, Chi Chi Ariguzo, who will be selling his endorsement services to the high bidder of Chipotle, Qdoba, or Taco Bell following graduation. The secondary is led by Ibraheim Campbell, only a sophomore, who might be the breakout star of this entire squad. He led the team in tackles last year, and while that’s not a good metric for a member of the secondary, this guy has a nose for the ball and has the potential to be a big time playmaker.

All told, the ‘Cats only return 11 starters from last year, and Coach Fitz has hinted that as many as 10 sophomores or younger could be in the starting lineup Saturday against the Orange. That could be the X-factor right there. This team is young, but the freshman and sophomores playing for NU now are not of the same caliber as the ones that used to see marshmallows tossed around in the stands in Evanston.

On to Syracuse, who finished a disappointing 5-7 last year, and are led by fifth year senior QB Ryan Nassib. The passing game will likely be the way that the 'Cuse come after NU, looking to take advantage of the inexperienced secondary. Nassib isn't a QB that can tuck it and go like Colter, but is a very accomplished passer, with 44 career TD passes. His main targets are a pair of seniors, Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales, and the NU secondary will have their hands full. The Orange running game is not a strong suit, but Syracuse freshman Ashton Broyld, who goes 6-4 and 230, is highly regarded and believed to be a playmaker. He's big enough to inflict punishment on the NU defensive front, but nimble enough to be a threat out of the backfield as well.

You've likely heard about the comical irony of this game being played in a dome named for an air conditioning company, the Carrier Dome, yet this building does not have any air conditioning. Given the temperature in Syracuse scheduled to be in the mid 80s, fitness could be an issue as it's likely to be hot and sticky inside that crock pot of a stadium. Look for the 'Cats to establish Colter's receiving targets early and then proceed to get Venric Mark engaged on the ground. Syracuse will be looking to throw early and often, with Nassib licking his chops based on the video he surely saw of last year's ineptitude in the NU secondary. I see NU's ground game being the difference here, moving the ball more effectively than NU fans are used to.

Pick: Orange crushed... Northwestern 30, Syracuse 27. Take the ‘Cats and lay the points.

Vanderbilt Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (1-0) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (0-1)

Date: Saturday, Sept. 8, 7:00 pm CDT

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: Northwestern (+3.5)


While last week’s game may have been the Battle of Journalism Schools, it certainly was nothing to write about for NU. As if stuck in 2011, the ‘Cats built up a huge lead by scoring 28 straight points, only to have the defense surrender 28 straight in the second half to fall behind. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian played hero, however, rescuing the ‘Cats with a late touchdown drive to put Northwestern up by a point, the final margin of victory.

Let’s be frank about this. Northwestern’s pass defense is atrocious. On 5 deep passes, the NU secondary committed 1 defensive holding and 3 pass interference penalties. The 5th pass resulted in a 50-yard touchdown. (NU also committed another pass interference penalty on a 2-point conversion attempt.) Syracuse senior quarterback would win the Heisman hands down if he played the NU defense every week. He finished 44 of 65 for 470 yards, all Syracuse records. Before the 50-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Orange’s best plays were heaving the ball downfield, certain in the knowledge that a 15-yard penalty was sure to follow.

That NU’s defense seems incapable of protecting a lead is all the more frustrating when you consider that NU’s head coach is a defensive player. It is inexcusable to suffer through a season like last year involving repeated blown leads and not make some improvements. True, the defensive secondary has always been NU’s Achilles heel; witness the Rose Bowl loss to Rob Johnsno and Keyshawn Johnson (no relation) a decade and a half ago. But some scheme improvements have to be made so it’s not as much of a disadvantage as it was revealed to be last Saturday.

On the offensive side of the ball, Northwestern has found its next stud in the person of Venric Mark. Mark ran for 82 yards at a 5.9 yard-per-carry clip, and also showed off his insane acceleration when he took a punt back 82 yards for a score. Kain Colter was reasonably efficient, completing 67% of his passes for just over 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. As highlighted in this column last week, NU has a strong receiving corps, and that was on full display in the puzzlingly air-conditioning-less Carrier Dome. The only black mark on the offense is that Colter seemed to get a little banged up, causing Fitz to bring in Siemian for a relief appearance. It is unknown whether a possible injury caused the audible to Siemian on the closing (and winning) drive in the 4th quarter, but the gut feeling of the Lowes Line staff is that it was more that Siemian is a better passer and less that Colter was unable to perform. Not a good sign for the starting quarterback.

Last week’s “rosy” prediction of a 7-0 start was laid bare in the Carrier Dome as a pipe dream. All NU needs now is to face a team that has played a tough game against a superior opponent, and NU’s dream start would be erased in the blink of an eye.

As if on cue, usher in the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vandy typically struggles in the football-crazy Southeastern Conference, but given that regular opponents like Alabama, LSU, and Florida fill their schedule, it’s understandable that the Commodores aren’t challenging for the SEC crown every year. But Vanderbilt does play some of those foes pretty tough, as illustrated by a narrow loss to heavy favorite and 9th-ranked South Carolina on opening night. The Gamecocks squeaked out a 17-13 win, and needed a 4th quarter touchdown to score the winning points.

Before too much panic sets in, a couple of notes about the game in Nashville. First, the game started off in a rain, making offense more difficult. Second, and perhaps more importantly, starting Gamecocks quarterback Connor Show injured his throwing shoulder early in the game during a run, and was spelled a couple of times during the course of play. It was so painful for him that he couldn’t high-five with his right hand. That certainly limited his effectiveness, and in part explained the Gamecocks’ paltry 67 yards passing. Before his injury, Shaw was moving the ball reasonably well with a spread offense similar to what NU employs. So Vanderbilt’s defense might be somewhat vulnerable against NU’s running attack.

On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt presents a pretty scary proposition. The ‘Dores are led by Jordan Rodgers, a senior quarterback and younger brother of NFL stud Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers wasn’t particularly efficient with the ball, going 13 for 23 with one touchdown and one interception. His main target is Jordan Matthews, who caught 8 balls for 147 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown. This is where the NU defense should start sweating. Matthews is 6’3” and would have had more catches and more yards had Rodgers been more accurate. If they get in sync, they could be a scary combination. On the ground, Vanderbilt features junior running back and 5’9”, 210-pound bowling ball Zac Stacy. Stacy ran for only 48 yards on 13 carries, but was limited somewhat by the stout Gamecocks’ defense and Vanderbilt’s anemic offense.

So which team in this “brain battle” will come out victorious? Can NU outscore Vanderbilt and hold on, or will the Commodores launch an aerial attack that will result in innumerable touchdowns and yellow hankies? It must be noted that too large of a portion of Northwestern’s points against Syracuse came as a result of “lucky” plays on which NU cannot count week in and week out. The interception that set up a 1-play touchdown drive, and fumble returned for another touchdown, and Mark’s punt return all were lucky plays and accounted for half of NU’s points. Throw in NU’s dismal record of night games at home, and it appears the oddsmakers are likely right in setting Vanderbilt as the favorite.

Look for Jordan to Jordan to shred the NU secondary, and for the back judge to require Tommy John surgery after the game from all the hankies he throws for pass interference. NU will score, but the defense will let them down again.

Pick: Vanderbilt 30, Northwestern 24. Take the Commodores and give up the points.

Season to Date: Straight up, 1-0. Against the spread, 0-1

Boston College Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:  Boston College Eagles (1-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (2-0)
Date:  Saturday, Sept. 15, 2:30 pm CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
Line:  Northwestern (-3.5)
“Look up in the sky….it’s a bird….it’s a plane…it’s SUP---, I mean an NU DEFENSE!”
First let me say that I was strangely confident watching the last quarter of the win against Vanderbilt.  NU’s defense seemed to be largely in control of Vandy’s offense with no real threat by that time, while NU’s offense seemed close from scoring several times, even when they went three and out.  Having grown used to skipping my normal exercise routine on Saturdays in order to conserve my strength for the inevitable heart-wrenching, gut-stomping free for all that is NU football, (what’s that you say?  I don’t exercise anyway?  I have my story and I’m sticking to it!), it was unnecessary this past Saturday.  I definitely felt like NU should win the game during the 4th quarter.  This was largely due to the aforementioned defense play, but also perhaps the evolution of my acceptance of the two-headed quarterback situation in all its sister-kissing glory.  Even on the last NU possession, when it appeared the Cats would have to punt the ball back with little time left, I felt good about an NU stop and then, Voila, Colter provided his magic and the game was over. 
A little more on the QB situation…I must admit, I’m not on the Colter as QB bandwagon completely. I think he’s a phenomenal player, easily the best all-around athlete on NU’s team for years if not decades, but occasionally the offense looks truly pathetic with him at the helm.  I think this is partly because the defensive game plan against him on obvious run or dump options (the bread and butter of this offense) has become pretty basic.  Cover the running back and stay disciplined enough not to over pursue and he’ll have nowhere to go because he almost never looks downfield in those situations.  On the other hand, Siemian may be the best downfield passer NU has had ever (ed. note: hyperbole in full effect), but his running is mediocre at best.  All passing is not going to be a long-term winning strategy with an offensive line not quite as talented as others, even given NU’s excellent wide receivers.
And so, here we are…a potential Heisman candidate split between two people, but neither may be enough to carry us to victory on their own week to week.  At the end of last year, I would have said move Colter to RB/WR and go with Siemian, but it now looks like Fitzpatrick’s plan to use both depending on situation and the opponent’s success or lack thereof against one or the other is a stroke of genius (ed. Note: second hyperbole in two paragraphs).  I’ve taken a big drink of the Kool-Aid and I want more, more, MORE I SAY.  Go to Siemian earlier to evaluate the other team’s defensive strengths and weaknesses.  Sub the QB on obvious 3rd down situations (Colter for short third downs and 4th downs, Siemen for long third downs) even if the other quarterback started the series.  Generally make life hell for the defensive coordinator of the other team (which NU started to do during the Vandy game).   This crazy plan just might work!
This week the Cats face the Boston College Eagles and are moderate favorites.  The point spread is -3.5, but has moved down from -4.5, suggesting that the BC fans are big bettors.  Undoubtedly, the odds makers anticipated and believe the spread is actually a little more than the initial -4.5.
The Eagles are 1-1 so far this season, having lost to Miami (FL)  in a game they lead three different times and beating Maine (I didn’t know they played football there) in a rout.  Hard to say much from these games.  BC’s defense couldn’t stop Miami, but demolished Maine (as expected).  The offense scored over 30 points in both games, but couldn’t score when it really needed to in the 4th quarter of the Miami game against a defense that go obliterated by Kansas State the next week.
They’re lead by quarterback Chris Rettig, who threw for 440 yards in the Miami game while playing from behind for much of the game, and a two headed running tandem of Andre Williams and Rolandan Finch who have averaged 100 yards per game combined (yes, 50 yards per game each).  Their wide receivers highlight two downfield threats in Alex Amidon and Tahj Kimble, who both average over 15 yards per reception.  Looking at BC’s relatively anemic production against Maine (considering the competition) and Miami’s subsequent dismantling by Kansas State, it appears that BC’s offense is not as good as the Miami game might otherwise suggest and the defense is average to slightly below average with a tendency to give up long runs.  Take that with a grain of salt considering they’ve only played two games and one against an overmatched opponent.
Putting on my recently repaired prognosticator cap (the tin foil was starting to peel around the flashing LEDs), I think we can expect to see BC start with a fairly balanced attack with a quick change to heavy passing if they fall behind similar to the pattern that they showed during the Miami game.
For NU’s part, the question will be whether last week’s defensive showing was an aberration or the sign of great improvement.  As always, the true answer is probably somewhere between the two extremes.  The one major advantage is that the Wildcats have played two games against strong opponents.  For those that don’t know…Syracuse played a reasonably strong game against #2 USC last week and Vanderbilt lost a very close game against #9 South Carolina in their first game.  This team has been tested and shown itself to be tough enough and versatile enough to win.  BC doesn’t have that luxury.  Furthermore, classes start next week for NU, so there should be more home team fans than the last game.
The one huge plus for NU is what appears to be the development of a star in Venric Mark.  Partially hidden amongst the designed QB revolving door, Mark had 281 total yards in the Syracuse game and 158 yards last week and showed big play ability that has been missing from the running back corps the last few years.  BC showed a penchant for giving up big running plays against Miami, so don’t be surprised to see Marks turn in a long score this week.
The other offensive player to watch is new transfer Kyle Prater.  Clearly, NU is trying to get him more targets and the reason is easy to see.  The guy is big (6-5, 215), something NU’s good receiving corps has been missing since Dwayne Bates graduated.
On defense, the big difference last week seemed to be better penetration by the defensive line and linebackers.  In 15% fewer total defensive plays, NU had 14 TFLs, sacks or QB hurries compared to 11 the week before and causing Vandy to lose 59 total yards.  That pressure kept Vandy’s passing completion percentage to 51%, a marked improvement over Syracuse’s 68% completion rate.  More of the same is needed and we can only hope that a scheme change caused the improvement, not the quality of the opponent. I'm optimistic as it does appear that NU rushed a linebacker more frequently than in the past, though I haven’t compared the numbers to last year in detail.
The emerging player to watch in pass penetration is sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo.  So far this season, he already has one sack and 4.5 tackles for a loss and is second on the team with 17 tackles (13 solo).
What to Expect:

Per normal, NU is likely to start with Colter the first few series, particularly given BC’s potential weakness at run defense.  If Colter or Mark can break a big TD run early, or a wide receiver makes a play with BC overcommitting to stop the run, we may not see much of Siemian this week.  More likely we’ll see a fairly even game as NU starts conservatively and then a few big plays in the second half break this one open.  I expect to see a slight reversion to the mean on defense, but still an improvement over last year and the Syracuse game that will be enough to create the turnovers needed to ensure the victory.  Look for NU to win by a touchdown.
Pick: Northwestern 35, BC 28.  Take the Cats and give up the points.
Season to Date:  Straight up, 1-1.  Against the spread, 0-2

South Dakota Preview and Prediction
By Galloping Grapes

Matchup:  South Dakota Coyotes (1-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (3-0)

Saturday, Sept. 22, 2:30 pm CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
Line:  Northwestern (-3.0) **See Note Below
The coyote is “a living, breathing allegory of Want.  He is always hungry.”  - Mark Twain, Roughing It.
Witness the native coyote of the western United States.  Twain’s description of the coyote as a long, scrawny, sorry-looking skeleton conjures a photorealistic image in the mind’s eye.  They are, and always have been, a scourge to the ranchers and farmers of the American West.  In high school, we used to get a dollar for each coyote tail delivered to the state wildlife department.  Considering the number of barn cats (and even a puppy) lost to the mangy scoundrels, and the real danger they represented to newborn foals, not many tears were shed over another tail-less coyote carcass left to rot on the prairie.  But here’s the thing.  They are dang tough little basterds—I’ve seen a coyote run a half mile on three legs after having a foreleg shot off by a .270—and a pack howling and yipping outside the bedroom window on a cool autumn night will make a 12-year-old boy’s blood run ice cold.  Particularly if that boy recently saw The Howling for the first time just a week before…
Oddly, this tough, mangy carrion-eating scavenger of reality enjoys a much richer allegorical existence.  He is the trickster of many Native American mythologies, and often represents both a physical and psychological conduit between the worlds of the living and the dead.  Coyote is Christ and Anti-Christ, depending on the storyteller’s purpose.  He is destruction and starvation and desolation, the allegorical Wanting described by Twain.  He is also the eternally beaten, smashed, eviscerated object of humiliation in dozens of Chuck Jones shorts, destined to fail in his eternal quest to capture and eat that damned Roadrunner, only to be resurrected anew after each cartoonish fall off a high desert cliff in an endless mobius strip of animated pain for the entertainment of children.  Oh, gravity, thou art the Coyote’s greatest enemy!  In both fiction and the Real, the coyote is an object of fear, scorn, hatred, amusement and, ultimately, pity.
Well, pity the South Dakota Coyotes.  They are playing their first full season in the FCS (former D I-AA) after moving up from D-II a couple years back.  They are not a terrible team, within their Division, but they are not in NU’s class.  Going back to the allegorical coyote, South Dakota is very much like Wile E. Coyote, soooper-genius (aka, Carnivorous vulgaris, aka, Eatibus anythingus).  South Dakota has the ability to run with their main tailback Marcus Sims (who definitely has a football name), but the Coyotes may need an extra helping of ACME Triple Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins if they intend to keep up with NU’s own three-headed Roadrunner of Venric Mark, Mike Trumpy and Kain Colter.  The real risk in this game is if the ‘Cats get lazy and sloppy, allowing a pack of carnivorous varmints to hang around the ranch and pick off a wandering calf.  But Pat Fitzgerald has been radiating just a bit of a pissed-off vibe the last couple weeks, despite being 3-0 and on the verge of a national ranking, and I suspect he will bring the thunder down on the Wildcats if they do not take care of business from the gun on Saturday.  NU and Fitz will not run up the score, but they will make sure not to leave any doubt who the real predators are in this matchup.  Remember the cartoon where poor ol’ Wile ends up plastered across the front of a bus driven by that mutated blue ostrich known as Velocitus delectiblus?  Yeah, that’s what we expect to see, allegorically speaking, by halftime of this one.
**A note on the Line.  As a matchup between FBS/FCS teams, neither Vegas nor the offshore books provide a formal point spread.  Sure, we have lots of ways to set our own Line, and NU should be favored by 36 (but likely won’t keep the hammer down enough to run up the score and cover that kind of a line).  Therefore, out of respect for poor misunderstood and maltreated Famishius fantasticus, and in the interest of padding our ATS stats, we are arbitrarily and perhaps even unfairly setting this week’s Line at NU (-3.0).  Complain all you want, but this assures that we head into the B1G schedule even for the year ATS.  It’s a super-genius move.
Pick: Meep!  Meep!  Pbbb-bbb-bbbt!  Coyotes stay hungry and file a massive products liability action against ACME Corporation.
Northwestern 34, Hungrii fleabagius 9.  Take the Cats and lay the arbitrarily assigned points.
Season to Date:  Straight up, 2-1.  Against the spread, 1-2

Indiana Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Indiana Hoosiers (2-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)

Date: Saturday, Sept. 29, 11 CT

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: Northwestern (-11.0) O/U 59

Alright, Alright, the ‘Cats have taken care of business winning 4 games out of conference, where they were favored in all of their games.   They won at Syracuse and home games vs. Vandy, BC and then last week the Coyotes from South Dakota. I have been genuinely impressed by the businesslike nature with which Fitz has these players ready each week. Each seemingly accepts his role and plays for the “TEAM.”  Everyone knows that a QB controversy never works out (ask the Jets), but Colter and Siemian truly seem to cheer for each other.  You wonder how much the offense has left in the playbook so far as Colter hasn’t lined up anywhere but behind the center yet, a situation that this writer thinks will change as the season progresses.

Last week, the Cats walloped the Coyotes by running the ball. NU has found a dynamo by the name of Venric Mark who ran for 117 yards and 3 touchdowns. They stampeded out to a 28-0 halftime lead and coasted from there. The only concerns were some solid hits that Colter and Siemian each took from the Coyote defensive line.

On to the BIG 10 slate and the Indiana Hoosiers. This is a huge game as the loser of this game (as reported by @sippinonpurple) becomes the all time leader in losses for a FBS team. A fact that the Hoosiers dispute, but the facts are tough to ignore as each team has 632 losses. This season, the Hoosiers are 2-1 with opening wins against Indiana State and UMass, but were defeated 2 weeks ago by the Cardinals of Ball State, 41-39. Don’t laugh, Ball State is playing in a very tough MAC league. Ball State’s only loss is to Clemson and they defeated South Florida last week. The Hoosiers are missing their leader and overall best athlete, Tre Roberson, who is out for the season with a broken leg. Cameron Coffman led the Hoosiers against Ball State but was replaced in the 4th quarter by true freshman Nate Sudfeld. The Hoosiers run an up tempo no-huddle offense led by former NU Offensive Coordinator Kevin Wilson. They will score points and score quickly. In three games this season, the running back who leads the team in attempts has only 36 carries, telling us that this team will be putting the rock in the air. The key to this game may be the revamped NU secondary and how much playing time true freshman Traveon Henry receives. Fitz burnt his redshirt two weeks ago and Henry played mainly special teams. The hits he placed on BC were loud and felt through the TV.  If he can continue the hard hits, the IU receivers will be a little trepidatious crossing the middle. The front seven is much improved after a suspect beginning in New York. They played extremely well against Vandy and BC, stuffing the run at every turn. Pressure and making the Hoosiers one dimensional has to be on their "to-do list."

IU’s defense is suspect at best, and I expect NU to score and score often. Mark and Colter should get their yards and Siemian will throw some touchdowns this week. Limiting turnovers will be key and I expect Fitz to treat this game as businesslike as possible.

Pick: The Hoosiers have lost 8 straight Big Ten games and haven’t won in Evanston in 19 years. Expect this to continue.

Northwestern 38, Hoosiers 24. Take the Cats and lay the points, while taking the over.

Season to Date: Straight up, 3-1. Against the spread, 2-2

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: #24 (AP) Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) at Penn State Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-0)

Date: Saturday, Oct. 6, 11:00 am CDT


Line: Northwestern (+3)


Well, NU fans, here we stand at 5-0, and ranked in the Top 25, yet remain a three-point underdog against a 3-2 Penn State team. Five games into the season, and I think most 'Cat fans would say they're not really sure who this team is. Everyone thought this team could put up some points, but questions remained about the defense. The surprise so far has been winning games against Vandy and BC while only scoring 23 and 22 points, respectively. It's surprisingly been the defense that has gotten the job done in large part so far this year.

But don't let the undefeated record fool you. You've read all about NU beating teams from the Big East, SEC, and ACC. True enough, but outside of their games against NU, those teams and Indiana have won one game between them against Div 1-A competition, the lone win coming against MAC doormat UMass. Not exactly Murderer's Row, maybe more like Petty Larceny's Row. When the other shoe drops for Northwestern, it's not usually a feathery bedroom slipper. It's a steel-toe boot creating a rather audible thud.

That being said, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and Indiana was up in the Big Ten opener for both squads. Last week against the Hoosiers was the Kain Colter Show at Ryan Field. Colter was doing everything...throwing the ball, running the ball, catching the ball, leading the band, and even serving up dogs at Mustard's Last Stand on the way to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. NU put on a clinic on offense, racking up a school record 704 yards. Colter rushed for 161 yards and caught 9 balls for another 131 in the 44-29 victory. His ability to use the read option as a true offensive weapon kept Indy on their heels and allowed NU to get out to a 27-0 lead shortly after halftime.

For the first significant time this year, the 'Cats utilized a scenario on offense which got their best 11 on the field at the same time. This is not an unexpected approach, and as I mentioned in the season-opening Lowes Line column, Colter will likely be on the sidelines infrequently when NU has the ball. Trevor Siemian did most of the passing, accounting for 300+ yards in the air. This time it was the defense and special teams that were under scrutiny, as Indiana used some big plays, including a kickoff return, to put up 29 points in just over 10 minutes to make it a one-score game before the 'Cats pulled away.

For Penn State, it appears they're in the process of righting the ship after starting the season with a couple of bad losses to Ohio and Virginia. Solid wins over Navy and Temple, along with a crushing of Illinois last week, have the Nittany Lions sitting at 3-2.

Is Illinois that bad, or did Penn State have some added incentive to lay waste to the memory of Chief Illiniwek? My guess is it's a bit of both. Illini coaches were the ones seen on the Penn State campus in the wake of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA, ready to poach any Nittany Lions looking to transfer away. As the Illini were getting whipped, two Illinois assistants were seen in the Penn State locker room in Champaign during halftime, hoping they could get a few to switch teams during last week’s game. Not to be.

Penn State’s running game is down, with the departure of Silas Redd to Southern Cal, and who can blame him? Great team, great weather, and of course, Song Girls. Not to digress too much here, but seriously…How does USC not get every single recruit they want based solely on simply incorporating the Song Girls into an official visit? Seems like a no-brainer. White Sweater (-3) over Black Leather.

Even with the several transfers, this Nittany Lion team can still play defense, sitting 14th in the Div 1-A in points against with 13.6. While they haven’t encountered anything the likes of NU to date, keep in mind that the ‘Cats didn’t exactly blow the doors off Vandy or BC either. This should concern you. I’ve got a Han Solo-esque bad feeling about this game. Nittany Lion QB Matt McGloin has been a Wildcat killer over the years, spoiling NU's homecoming last year, and spearheading an incredible Penn State comeback in Happy Valley in 2010, overcoming a 21-point deficit. He's a gamer, and while not the most talented quarterback you'll ever encounter, has that ability to do just enough to get the job done.

This game is truly a litmus test for Northwestern. A 5-0 NU team having displayed some pockets of brilliance, but far from perfect in any contest. The ‘Cats finally have to go on the road after being at home for over a month, having feasted on competition that's been less than impressive. They travel to a place where they’ve had historically little success, against a team that has a chip on its shoulder and one who has had their number over the years.

The 'Cats are 1-6 at Beaver Stadium and 3-12 overall against Penn State since they joined the Big Ten in the early '90s. Not a great track record, and Fitz is 0-4 against the Nittany Lions. And since Fitz has been head coach, NU has never won the week after being put into the Top 25 (four times).

For the 6th time since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten, I'll be in attendance in Happy Valley for a Northwestern/Penn State game. My record is a dreadful 1-4 to date, being present for losses in '94, '96, '98, & '06, while seeing a lone victory in 2004. I feel like the guy Mush in a Bronx Tale who gets thrown in a closet by Chazz Palminteri because he's a jinx.

Can NU win this game? Yes, of course, and if they run the ball like they did against Indy, it could be a signature win that could spur NU to great things for the remainder of the season. Since the Dark Ages of NU football and "The Streak," NU has started 2-0 in the Big Ten only three times. You got it: 1995, 1996, and 2000, the years NU won or shared the Big Ten title. Does this mean a conference championship awaits should NU emerge victorious? Too early to tell, but the Big Ten is certainly down this year. I'm the one who said NU could start out 7-0, and it's still possible, but Penn State has showed me something after a rough start.

What do we expect to see? The third quarter will be a telltale sign in this game. In four tries so far against Penn State under Fitz, NU has been completely shut out in the second half each time. Not one second half point in four games against the Lions. That's simply not gonna do it. I again expect NU to jump out to a lead, again utilizing the running skills of Colter, but the Lions won't be put away. Penn State has historically redefined the term “winning ugly." I see that continuing, with the Penn State defense hanging tough, and an offensive output for NU akin to what was seen in the wins over Vandy and BC. Listen for the broadcast team to use the phrase, "another drive stalled in the red zone" more than once.

Pick: Lions declaw 'Cats. Penn State 21, NU 20. Take Northwestern and the points.

Season to date: Straight up, 4-1. Against the spread, 3-2.

Minnesota Preview and Prediction

By MO'Cats

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) at Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1, 0-1)
Date: Saturday, October 13.  11:00 am CDT
Line: Northwestern (-3)

I cannot even talk about last week. Every year, the 'Cats lose to a team they shouldn’'t.  This year it was Penn State.  To have an 11-point lead in the 4th quarter and lose, is just plain heartbreaking.   Hence, this week will pay homage to one of the true “rockumentaries” out there.  See if you can catch on. The game was just too much, fans were asked afterwards about the game and responded, “it'’s like, how much more black could this be?  And the answer is none-- none more black.” While the players stated, well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation.”  The reviews came out in the press and all it said was “S&*%t Sandwich!!”
Everyone keeps saying “I really think you're just making much too big a thing out of it.”..  While Coach Fitz stated, “making a big thing out of it would have been a good idea.”  He was so disappointed by the game where-- in his words-- NU was outcoached, this conversation was overheard: “You know what I want you to do? Will you do something for me? What? Do me a favor. Just kick my a&*, okay? Kick this a*& for a man, that's all. Kick my a&*. Enjoy. Come on. I'm not asking, I'm telling with this. Kick my a*&””.
When the game tape was brought out to be shown, Fitz just wanted to move on.  “Look... still has the old tag on, never even played it. You've never played...? Don't touch it!  We'll I wasn't going to touch it, I was just pointing at it. Well... don't point! It can't be played.  Don't point, okay. Can I look at it?: No. no. That's it, you've seen enough of that one.”
“It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh...: Clever. Yeah, and clever.” The Penn State week is over and NU has to move on.  NU needs to reestablish itself.  Siemian was overheard asking Colter and Marks, “Can I raise a practical question at this point? Are we gonna do "Stonehenge" tomorrow? *NO*, we're not gonna &*$% do "Stonehenge"!  Colter and Marks want the ball and NU must run and run often.   The weather sounds as if it very well could be awful.  Thunderstorms with a 70% chance of rain could make for a sloppy game (remember, Minnesota plays outdoors now).    The offensive line is going to have to step up and push themselves even higher.  They may want to employ this philosophy. “The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder? Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?: I don't know.: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?: Put it up to eleven.: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder? These go to eleven.”  The 'Cats need to pound the Gophers into submission by pushing themselves to eleven.   

Minnesota is coming off a bye (as was Penn State last week) and a just utter pasting by Iowa 31-13.  They were run all over and never were in the game.  However, they were missing their senior leader,QB Marqueis Gray, who has been rumored to be back on the practice field this week.  It is unsure if he plays but given this is homecoming, I expect him to get into the game.  The NU defense has played well this season and will have their work cut out.  They need to make sure Gray isn'’t a factor and maybe just maybe, he will spontaneously combust. I mean dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It's just not really widely reported.”  Look for the defense to step up and Mark and Colter to run wild.
In the words of Viv Savage: “Have… a good time… all the time”.

Pick: No more “Patron Saints of Footwear”, the 'Cats bounce back composing a virtuoso entitled “Lick My Love Pump”.  NU 27, Minnesota 13  Take Northwestern and give the points.
Season to date:  Straight up, 5-1. Against the spread, 3-3.  “Money talks and bull*&^& walks.”

Nebraska Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-2, 1-1)

Date: Saturday, 20 Oct, 2:30 pm CDT

TV: ABC regional / ESPN2 (see ESPN.com for coverage map)

Line: Nebraska (-6.5)

The buildup for this game started almost a year ago when Northwestern went into Lincoln and defeated a Top 25 Nebraska team.  Nebraska was ripe for an upset as they just came off big wins over OSU and MSU.  They, like the many fans we encounter on our road trip, gave NU little consideration.  NU was due for a big game and it all came together in front of 60,000+ Husker fans and a few hundred Wildcat faithful.  The NU Defense stepped up to stop the Nebraska rushing game and created turnovers.  Dan Persa was injured in the 2nd quarter so Colter took over and ran the show.  On that day Colter was the best runner and passer on the field.  NU wore down Neb and produced a game clinching 4th quarter TD drive of 80 yards without ever throwing the ball.

This year is different.   The venue has changed to Ryan Field.  Nebraska is coming off its bye week.  They have had two weeks to enjoy the bile taste left from their flop in the Horseshoe, losing to OSU 63 to 38.  They will be fired up and ready to go.  They will not overlook the ‘Cats this year.

The teams are evenly matched.  If you just looked at the stats you would think that the Wildcats would be the favorite being at home, but that is not the case as Vegas puts the ‘Cats as a 6.5 point underdog. 

Why Nebraska will win:

·  They are going to be hungry and seeking revenge.

·  They are a strong running team that might follow the PSU model and simply run the ball for  4 straight plays grinding out a first down, and then another, and another.  They might not even need 4 plays as Burkhead is averaging over 9 yards per carry.  His back-up is averaging 6.

·  Neb almost blocked a punt at OSU and NU has gotten close to getting one blocked on several occasions.

·  NU’s cornerbacks are not good enough to capitalize on the ducks that will be shot putted at them by Martinez.

·  NU has won several games (Syracuse, BC, Vandy, and Minnesota) that could have gone either way.  They played well even in the loss to PSU.  They are due for a bad game.

·  The bringing in of Siemian on 3rd down is not working.  Both quarterbacks know they have to produce some completions down the field.  They both could start pressing to make a throw that is not there. 

·  NU’s Defense is statistically good, but the jury is still out if they are truly good or they have just beaten a bunch of poor teams (NU has not beaten a team with a winning record).   The pass rush still must be improved to be labeled a “good D.”

·  NU never does well against a mobile QB.  Martinez should have over 70 yards rushing.  NU would have needed a last minute drive to win last week at Minn. if Marquis Gray did not go down in the second half with an ankle injury.

Why Northwestern will win:

·   For the first time since Dennis Lundy was in the backfield, NU ran a screen pass to a tailback against Minnesota.  When Siemian is in, they should throw a screen every 6 passes to keep the defense honest.  The screen does not even have to be successful in gaining yardage as it will make the Defense think in the future.

·   NU should have experimented enough with the 2 QB system to find a way to make it work.  I think starting off each possession with Colter, then switching to Siemian at times for several plays in a row is best.

·   Colter will still be the best athlete on the field.  He is not banged up.  This is the game to ride him.

·   The emergence of Ventric Mark.  He is a good runner who can run it right at the Neb defense.

·   Taylor Martinez is not a good quarterback.  Yes, he can run but he cannot throw.  He will not beat NU with his arm.

·   NU has a really good kicker.  For the first time since the historic ’95 and ’96 teams, we have a kicker we can count on.

·  Nebraska’s Defense is not that good.  They do poorly on the road and poorly against mobile quarterbacks.  They were completely exposed by OSU.

What will happen:

NU has yet to show it can stand up when the pressure is on.  Every year they steal a game from someone who is overlooking them, but they do poorly when an average to good team gives them a fight.  They also do not play well on nationally televised games.

 I see Nebraska getting out to any early lead.  Hopefully NU will not panic and abandon the run game.  The ‘Cats will claw back and even it up.  I do not think this game will be decided by turnovers, even though I predict all 3 quarterbacks throw a pick.  This will come down to who makes and who prevents the big plays.  Both teams will have some long runs for TDs, but the killer will be a blocked punt for Nebraska.   It will be close and a very exciting game, but the intangibles break Nebraska’s way.

Here’s to hoping I am wrong.

Pick: Nebraska 33, Northwestern 27

Nebraska wins but Northwestern covers, barely.

Season to date:  Straight up, 6-1. Against the spread, 4-3. 

Iowa Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:  Iowa Hawkeyes (4-3, 2-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 2-2)
Date:  Saturday, October 27, 11:00 am CDT
TV: The Deuce (ESPN2)
Line:  Northwestern (-6.0)
Dear Coach Fitz:
I have to admit, I feel a little foolish writing this open letter to you, like some sort of South Bend Stater who needs his football team to win so he can feel good about himself.  And let’s be honest, when the staff of the Lowes Line walked the hallowed Northwestern campus as wide-eyed undergraduates, Northwestern football was nothing but a punchline.  Sure, we didn’t have to suffer through The Streak, but in my 4 years there the ‘Cats won 7 games.  Total.  And one year we had to suffer through an 0-11 season.  That made for more marshmallow tosses and ever earlier departures from Dyche Stadium to hit the parking lot to drink.  And I think, overall, we were okay with it all.  We still could find solace (perhaps smug solace) in the cheer that implied that the fans on the other side would be our future employees.
Then this guy Barnett got hired and promised to “take the purple to Pasadena.”  We all thought he was a lunatic.  And then he started recruiting better talent, guys who could compete with the best the Big Ten had to offer.  Guys, well, like you, Coach.  Players that wanted more from their college football experience than simply being a doormat for the traditional Big Ten powers.  We snuck up on teams (see, Dame, Notre and Michigan, University of), even beating them on their own field.  And we pasted the previous Rose Bowl winner, Wisconsin.  A Big Ten title ensued, and a trip to the Rose Bowl.  You know, the place we hadn’t seen (other than in pictures) since 1949.  Yes, we lost to USC, but we fought and took the lead, and we looked like we belonged.  Perhaps it was easy for the SC fans to say, because they had just won, but they were very impressed with Wildcat football.  And, to top it off, we earned a share of another Big Ten title the following year.  Big Ten doormats no more.
And expectations continued to rise.
But that’s the funny thing about expectations.  When you set them and start to achieve them, your fans will let you settle for nothing less.  They “expect victory” to quote a phrase. Perhaps I’m starting to sound spoiled by the wondrous success that NU has had over the last decade and a half, and that’s a fair statement.  But, still, you have kept the expectations high and we are just on the cusp of achieving them.  Which is why writing this letter is so hard.
Defense is killing us, Coach.  There, I said it.  But it’s true.  And you, with your defensive pedigree and Big Ten defensive player awards, have to know this.  All season, Northwestern runs out to big leads, only to let the other team come back and win the game.  Against Syracuse, we were lucky and took back the lead just in time.  But the two losses, Coach, have been painful.  Losing leads late in the 4th quarter to a team decimated by a molestation scandal and to the University of Nowledge just isn’t acceptable, not for a “good team”.  Not for a team with such high expectations.  The record at the top for NU ought to read 8-0, 4-0, not what it does.
True, we have a good offense, with Venric Mark tearing up defenses on the ground.  I’m sure you know NU ranks 18th in the country overall for rushing yards, and Mark ranks 5th for all-purpose yards.  The two-headed hydra at quarterback works, sometimes.  Colter is an insane athlete and keeping him on the field at all times is a great idea, but having Siemian come in for passing downs, cold, just really isn’t all that effective.  Either Colter needs to get back to throwing the ball a little better and be trusted to do so, or line him up at wideout or running back and have Siemian take the snaps fulltime.  Some consistency behind center might lead to a few first downs after half.  That would really help the bottom line.
By some statistical measures, NU has a decent defense.  We are 43rd overall in points against, so close to the top third of all defenses.  Beats the Swiss cheese we sported during the vaunted Francis Peay era.  But that doesn’t measure WHEN we give up those points, and we’re giving them up at the worst possible times.  It’s not all the fault of the guys who line up on that side of the ball, though.  The offense is wheezing to 3 and outs at a remarkable rate in the second half of games.  I know we’re in the lead, but our defense needs rest, so you can’t get too conservative.  They need the offense to get first downs.  That keeps the opponent’s scoring group where they belong, on the bench.
But, Coach, all hope is not lost.  You have a great opportunity to “get healthy” this week.  The Iowa Hawkeyes visit Ryan Field and, while they have a winning record in Big Ten play and overall, they haven’t blown anyone out (I’m not counting Minnesota because, well, it’s Minnesota).  Iowa’s season has been completely up and down.  Their two wins during non-conference play were not impressive wins, either by score or considering the opponent.  Their two losses were downright embarrassing.  In conference, they needed two overtimes to defeat Michigan State, who has been unmasked as a bit of a paper tiger, and, like I said before, they beat an unimpressive Minnesota squad.  However, where we kept up with Penn State until the end (see above), the Hawkeyes got blasted by the Nittany Lions.  At home.  They are 103rd in the nation in scoring offense, but their defense is pretty stout, ranked 20th. 

A little tip for you here, Coach:  as Iowa quarterback James Vandenburg goes, so go the Hawkeyes.  When he completes 60% or more of his passes, the Hawkeyes are 9-2.  When he throws for over 220 yards, the Hawkeyes are 7-2.  He’s hit those numbers in 3 of their 7 games this season.  So, simple math dictates that they lose games when he doesn’t.  I know our secondary is a bit depleted and weak, but I think you’d better plan on seeing the ball in the air against your defense, and adjust accordingly.  They do have a running back averaging 6.1 yards per carry with 8 touchdowns, one Mark Weisman, but we have performed reasonably well against the run all year.  So make sure that continues.  And one item that may help is that they just lost a starting tackle to leg surgery.  Sure, they’ll probably have another corn-fed Iowa boy to plug in there, but he will lack experience.  It would be a great idea to exploit that weakness.
I have faith, Coach.  For whatever reason, we seem to have Iowa’s number lately.  They’re coming into Evanston with their tail between their bird legs, and we are smarting from two disastrous let downs.  I think you can do it, and you can inspire the defense to stand tall in the 4th against this Hawkeye team.  But to do that, you will have to get them to channel 22-year-old Pat Fitzgerald.  And you will have to get the audience to channel him, too, so they continue to post first downs after the intermission.  If you can do that, and can inspire your charges to do that, then Northwestern will right the ship and get back to its winning ways.  Otherwise, Coach, you’ll put your faithful through another agonizing week of “what ifs”.
Don’t do that to us, Coach.  You set the expectations.  Live up to them.  It says here you will.

The Lowes Line

Pick:  NU 30, Iowa 20.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to Date:  Straight up, 7-1; Against the spread, 5-3

Michigan Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) at Michigan Wolverines (6-3, 4-1)

Date:  Saturday, November 10, 11:00 am CST


Line:  Michigan (-9.5)


Most of you probably know that I grew up in Michigan, so I have found the entire “honey badger” phenomenon to be rather humorous.  That’s because my first thought upon seeing said honey badger was “that’s just a small version of a wolverine”.  So if you think a honey badger is vicious, try one at about three times the size with a propensity for chewing off other animals' faces.



If you look around you'll see more of wolverines attacking bears and references to documented cases of a wolverine killing a polar bear.  Now that's serious.


On to the game.  Northwestern enters this week in the interesting position of being #24 in the BCS standings but -9.5 point underdogs to Michigan in Ann Arbor.  The Wolverines have three losses to Alabama, Notre Dame and Nebraska in a game in which their superstar was hurt in the game.  At this point in the season, NU and Michigan have two shared opponents…Nebraska and Minnesota (loss and win respectively for both).  In fact, if one accounts for the loss of Robinson in the Nebraska game, it is easy to draw comparisons between the results.
For the past three seasons, Michigan’s fate has rested almost solely with play of QB Denard Robinson.  Robinson is a mobile, fast quarterback with a big arm similar to Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III.  He’s electric when running the ball and can show flashes of brilliance when passing.  The problem is that he often shows poor decision-making (throwing into tight or double coverage, inability read zone defenses) and can be woefully inaccurate at times.  In three of their games this year, Michigan has not scored a touchdown (two losses and the win against MSU), so Robinson is not a lock for scoring points.  Exhibit A for the Robinson case is the Northwestern game last year.  The first half resulted to multiple interceptions as he insisted on taking risks when on the run and was thoroughly confused by NU’s zone scheme.  NU lead at the half.  Unfortunately for Cats fans, the Michigan coaches made adjustments at halftime and started calling shorter passes to the outside of the field rather than downfield in the center.  The result, along with zero points scored by the Cats in the second half, was a Michigan win.

Of course, one major issue is whether Robinson is healthy enough to play after missing last week’s game with elbow nerve damage suffered during the Nebraska game.  Unlike the NFL, college coaches are not required to reveal the status of players before the game and Michigan coach Brady Hoke is taking advantage.  This past Sunday Hoke insisted that Robinson was fully prepared to play this week…today he refused to comment on Robinson’s status or who would be the quarterback this week.  It will either be Robinson or third-string QB Devin Gardner, who filled in adequately last week when the Wolverines took advantage of a mistake prone game by the Minnesota Gophers.  However, a quick look at the stat line shows that Gardner was being given a short leash by Hoke, only completing 12 well timed passes in the win.  It’s also appropriate to mention that 3rd-string doesn’t really describe Gardner, as he prepares for and plays wide receiver when Robinson intends to play.

On defense, Michigan continues to display a long-term commitment to that side of the ball interrupted only by the short-lived disaster proceeding Hoke (forever to be referred to as the “the coach who shall not be named”).  They rank #1 in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed and firmly in the top half in rushing defense.  By comparison, NU is firmly in the bottom half for passing defense (yards allowed) and just outside the top 25 in rushing defense.

On Northwestern’s side of the ball, the last game was much more encouraging than the losses to Penn State and Nebraska.  NU easily handled the Hawkeyes by focusing almost entirely on the running game with only 10 passes attempted the entire game, and only one by Siemian.  It remains to be seen whether this reflects an adjusted plan by the coaching staff to play to NU’s strong running game, or whether it was a one game strategy to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness.  Unfortunately, Colter’s faults as a quarterback continue to show little improvement as he threw one interception in only 9 attempts and called his own number 26 times to only 18 rushing attempts by Mark and Trumpy.

All in all, Michigan’s QB situation makes the result difficult to gauge.  Assuming Robinson does not play, I believe NU has a fairly even chance to win.  Clearly Michigan relies on the run with Gardner behind center, which is NU’s strength on defense.  That suggests that the pressure would be on NU’s offense to score and force Gardner to the air where the mistakes of inexperience are bound to happen.  That’s a big challenge for Colter and company though, as Michigan’s defense is tough and NU has demonstrated a propensity for the dreaded “three-and-out” against above average defenses, which is why I’m not more optimistic even with Gardner playing.

If Robinson plays, I think the onus shifts to the defense…they simply must press him into scrambling so he is moving when trying to throw…this is where his problems with accuracy are particularly apparent.  If the defense can deliver interceptions through the pass rush, they have a chance to make it interesting.  Considering that Robinson may be rusty and almost certainly is not yet 100% recovered, that may be more likely than most believe.

On Northwestern’s side, I’d like to see continued defensive pass rush improvement and a better, more flexible offensive plan.  A few less uncharacteristic penalties might be nice as well.  It appeared in the early games this season that the coaches played the hot hand between Colter and Siemian.  In both losses, it seemed as if they feel in love with their analysis of the opponents weaknesses and never backed away even in the face of obvious ineffectiveness.  Clearly, the offense must help the defense by keeping the time of possession even or in the Cats favor so the defense has time to recover during the game.

All in all though, I just don’t see enough to warrant an almost 10 point spread for this game.  Too many factors suggest it could be close including the potential run-first approach if Gardner plays, the high variability in effectiveness exhibited by Robinson even when he is fully healthy, the fact that he isn’t fully healthy anyway, and the fact that NU had a bye week to prepare for the Wolverines (finally our turn).  Obviously, if Robinson is full strength, it could be a long day for the Cats.  I expect a close game though for the reasons I gave, but Michigan’s defense makes the difference.  NU will have to look for wins against MSU (who is in the process of collapsing) and Illinois (who already did) for the two additional wins to get to 9 for the season.

Pick:  Michigan 21, NU 17.  Take the Cats and the points.

Season to Date:  Straight up, 8-1; Against the spread, 6-3

MSU Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup:  Northwestern Wildcats (7-3, 3-3) at Michigan State Spartans (5-5, 2-4)

Date:  Saturday, November 17, 11:00 am CST


Line:  Michigan State (-7)


Walk back from the ledge Wildcat fans, it is not that bad.  Yes, it was a heartbreaking loss but sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  NU and Michigan were evenly matched and Michigan just caught a very lucky bounce on one play that allowed them to send the game into overtime and win.  NU caught a similar bounce years ago against Minnesota where one Wildcat receiver batted the ball to another one for a touchdown on the last play of the game.

There have been many people on various message boards complaining about poor coaching decisions but in my opinion NU ran the correct strategy in trying to run out the clock.  They got one first down against UM by running the ball and taking the risk to go for it on 4th down.  They ran the clock down to 30 seconds and then punted.  That should have been enough.  The chance of UM coming back and scoring are less than 1 in 10.  Unfortunately that is what they did.  The punt should have been kicked out of bounds to prevent a fluke run back for a score.  It wasn’t and UM ends up with decent field position.  On the Hail Mary pass NU had 2 safeties deep but one went o the left to help a CB in single coverage and the other went to the side with the 3 receivers where the Michigan QB was looking.  As the inside UM receiver peeled more to the center he was covered by a NU DB who had good position.  Both players went up for the ball and knocked it into the air.  It came down and  just happened to bounce ever so softly into the UM receiver's hands.  From that point it was basically game over as UM had the momentum and finished NU off in OT.

For the people complaining about Fitz I wonder how they justify their expectations.  NU is never going to be a year in, year out, football powerhouse.  NU has academic standards that the football players have to meet, NU’s cost prevents many marginal football players, who may turn out to be great, from enrolling as students on their own dime and "walking on".  We have a small fan base.  Our facilities are improving but we don’t have the limitless funds generated by having 100,000+ paying fans 7 Saturdays each fall.  Fitz is a good coach for NU.  Why?  He knows the game of football, is intelligent, is an NU alum, and is SUPER enthusiastic?  Not enough for you?  Chew on this.  Fitz and company are NOT going to “out coach” the opposing team each week.  The opposing coaches are also very good.  All of them have more experience than Fitz.  Fitz also has had a very limited amount of networking.  He has not been on many staffs other than his own.  He doesn’t have a lot of coaches to call on for reference, but I still think he is the best NU will ever have and I hope he stays for a looooooooong time.  “Replace him with a rising star asst coach” you say.  Ask Tennessee how that is going.  They hire Lane Kiffin.  He turns out to be a good coach though you would not trust him any further than you could throw him.  He leaves after 1 year.  They hire Derek Dooley.  Good family name, coached under Nick Saban.  He has not recruited well and his game day coaching is poor.  Tennessee is on the verge of their second year in a row of staying home for the Holidays.  Dooley will be gone before Tork finishes the Turkey Day leftovers.  Hire an older experienced coach.  Ask Arkansas how that is going this year.  Or last?  I think the chances of finding a better game day coach than Fitz are 50/50 but  I think the changes of finding a better coach to recruit kids to NU is less than 10%.  Finding a better game day coach, recruiter, and someone who will stay at NU is less than 1%.  If you like those odds follow Kanvik to Vegas and have at it.

On to this week’s game versus Michigan State:  I almost crapped my pants when I saw the line.  I had to read it 4 times to make sure it was correct.  NU is a 7 point underdog to 5-5 Michigan State?  That is friggin’ nuts.  MSU lost to Iowa who is terrible this year.  MSU has a strong defense but they have underperformed this year.  On offense their strength is rushing the ball with workhouse Lavon Bell, but they have a first year QB who has played poor to average so far.  MSU will run the ball but they aren’t strong enough to run all over the ‘Cats.  The ‘Cats defense has done well shutting down opposing rushers this year.  MSU’s QB is not strong enough to beat the ‘Cats.  The interesting match-up will be when NU has the ball.  Expect MSU to hit NU HARD.  If Colter and Mark continue to get up after each lick the ‘Cats will be OK.  NU has finally figured out what it wants to do on Offense (run, run, use run to set-up pass).  It worked well against Michigan and it should work against Michigan State.  NU has to watch out for a trick play or two from MSU but besides that NU should win going away.  No 4th quarter collapse in this one as NU outscores MSU by 10 in the 4th quarter to win convincingly.

If not, then we can all commiserate about what a season this could have been. 

Take the points but they are unnecessary.

Pick: NU 30, MSU 17

‘Cats win out and head to Florida to celebrate the New Year.

Season to Date:  Straight up, 9-1; Against the spread, 7-3

Illinois Preview and Prediction
By Galloping Grapes

Matchup: Illinois "Fighting" Illini (2-9, 0-7) v. Northwestern WIldcats (8-3, 4-3)

Date: Saturday, November 24.  11:00 am CST


Line: NU (-19.5)

The Lowes staff made this pick last week, when Charlie picked the 'Cats to win out and play in Florida on January 1. So, my work here is done.





I don't do real football analysis in these things anymore, largely because I can only think or talk football in 140-character bursts since the advent of Twitter. So here's a summary of the tweets I have preloaded for today's tilt again the pathetic Illini.

Game Day at Ryan Field! #GoB1GCats! Don't forget it's #NUnotNW

Hey loyal tweeps, here is a picture of my NU tailgate meal: twitpic/lookatmyfood.com

Great season/career NU Seniors! RT @coachfitz51 Proud of our senior players today.

@IlliniRule1972 Stop trolling me jackwagon...

The #B1GCats are in black jerseys and purple pants today. Thanks @UnderArmour! #LookingSharp

Kickoff! And a score by VMark already! #Northwestern

Purple defense is dominating. Illini suck on offense. #GoCats

Turnover! GO #B1GCats!

Like seeing @KainColter_2 running the read option.

Touchdown! #Northwestern already on the road to a cover! #LowesLine pick.

Illini doing nothing on offense, or on defense. They stink.

I guess #LOL refers not only to the trophy #Northwestern is taking home, but also the Illini offense.

Another #B1GCats touchdown. #GoNorthwestern

Another #B1GCats touchdown.

Another #B1GCats touchdown.

Another #B1GCats touchdown

Halftime. #Northwestern dominating, and I've lost track of #B1GCats TDs already.

What's the line again? #NU +79? Easy cover. #Northwestern #LOL

Nice to see @coachfitz51 running up the score. #B1GCats now up late 3Q by 13 TDs.

Here is a funny picture of a kitty dressed like a pirate. instagram/kittyarrgh.com

Wow the Illini are not too good at all. @NU_Hoops won't score this many points all season.

Late 4Q, and the #B1GCats allow the Illini a mercy FG. NU winning 119-3.

Congrats to @coachfitz51 on the all-time #Northwestern win record. #Pappy #secondplace

Hope #Rutgers is ready for their regular beatings. Welcome to the #B1G time Scarlet Knights! #GoB1GCats

Somebody wake up @TeddyGreenstein! He hasn't tweeted in almost 45 seconds!

Game over. #Northwestern covers the spread easily.

Next stop Tampa for the @OutbackBowl! Party at Chad's house!

Pick: Uh, NU covers easily. In case you got bored with the gimmick and missed that part. Brought to you by @TheRealTork. Yes, I sometimes tweet pictures of my food. What are you, the Twitter police?

Season to date: 10-1 SU, 8-3 ATS

Mississippi State Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Before we get into the analysis of Northwestern and the Gator Bowl, I wanted to pass along an exciting piece of information very relevant to The Lowes Line.  Thanks in large part to the efforts and donations of many who regularly read this column, The Marcus J. Lowes Memorial Scholarship has become a permanently endowed scholarship at Northwestern, to benefit annually a Medill graduate student with a focus on sports journalism.  Specifically, the Board of the Lowes Trust would like to recognize and thank Amy Koplow and The Eades Foundation for their enormous generosity in making this become a reality.  While The Lowes Line is a weekly reminder of Marcus during the football season, the permanent scholarship in his name will have a greater and lasting impact on a Northwestern student.  Thanks very much.

Matchup: # 20 Northwestern Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC)

Date/Time/Place: Tuesday, 01 Jan 2013, 11:00 am CST. Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, FL


Line: Northwestern (-1)


First off, let's get the nomenclature thing out of the way.  Anyone who follows the Big Ten and sees "MSU" in print will be first thinking of our conference foes in East Lansing, and not the Bulldogs from Starkville, MS.  Similar to how when you read "USC," you first think "those bastards who beat us in the Rose Bowl," before the team led by the Head Ball Coach in Columbia, SC.  As such, there will be only "Miss St" to identify Northwestern's foe for its fifth consecutive bowl game.

Second, let's address "gator" as a part of speech.  To most folks,  it's a noun, and an abbreviation of the term "alligator."  However, its usage as a verb cannot be understated.  For example, "y'all gator?" is fairly common speak in places where the tooth/tattoo ratio is much less than 1.0, and is a question many of you have been asked at one point in your lives, most likely in Panama City, FL.  It's some form of hillbilly breakdancing.  All you need is a wooden floor and a pair of Wrangler's with the Skoal circle in the back left pocket.  For any NU fans attending the game, you may want to make a side trip  75 miles southwest of Jacksonville to Cactus Jack's in Salt Springs, FL to check out the real deal:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYL3Hz5uM18 [editor's note: sweet Baby Jane, am I sorry I clicked this link.  No amount of Clorox to my eyes will burn this image away. -L. ]

The 'Cats finished the regular season at 9-3, topping nearly all preseason expectations.  It was the second nine-win season for Coach Fitz in his seven years at the helm of the program, and he is currently tied for the all-time number of wins by a Northwestern coach with 49, a figure that will likely double before his current contract expires following the 2020 season.  It also should be noted that a win in the Gator Bowl will give Fitz a tie for the all-time NU record for postseason wins.    It was an interesting regular season for NU.  They  struggled for their season opening win at Syracuse, but didn't have too many issues until blowing an 11-point fourth quarter lead at Penn State in the sixth game of the year.  Heartbreaking losses against Nebraska and Michigan followed, but NU was able to manage a 5-3 conference record, something that didn't seem likely in late August.  The good news is that NU was in position to win every game on the schedule, and held a fourth quarter lead in each.  The bad news is that against top tier competition, the 'Cats folded down the stretch, leaving a host of "what-ifs" for 2012. 

A stated goal of the program is to win a bowl game, something they have been unable to do in nine tries since the 1996 Rose Bowl.  To relive some of that, here's the history in addition to the Rose Bowl debacle:  1997 Citrus Bowl, 2000 Alamo Bowl, 2003 Motor City Bowl, 2005 Sun Bowl, 2008 Alamo Bowl, 2010 Outback Bowl, 2011 Ticket City Bowl, 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. All losses, some worse than others.   NU had been an underdog in each of those previous bowls since the '96 Rose Bowl, and started out as a 2-point dog in this game as well, only to become the favorite as of late. 

If you're looking for a reason why NU came together as a squad and ended with a better record than may have been expected, you can point to the maturing of Kain Colter, a defensive front that applied more pressure than last year, leadership at linebacker, and an improved secondary.  All those would be true.  But they pale in comparison to the emergence of Venric Mark as a playmaker at running back.  Mark had been utilized primarily as a punt and kick returner in his career before this season, and was named a 1st team All-American at punt returner this year.  It was his move to running back in the offseason, however, that changed the dynamic of this team.  Mark ran for over 1,300 yards and averaged 6.2 yards a carry, becoming an offensive weapon, and not only complementing the option play of QB Kailn Colter, but augmenting it significantly. 

Mississippi State, out of powerhouse that is the SEC, started off the season 7-0, mostly against light non-conference opponents and SEC foes who were towards or at the bottom of the league.  They put up nearly 38 points per game in their 8 wins, but were a different team in their 4 losses, averaging just over 15 a contest.   To be fair, Miss St's losses came against the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, and Ole Miss.  Not exactly a bunch of chumps in that list.   The Bulldogs are led by junior QB Tyler Russell, who had a solid season, throwing 22 TDs against only 6 INTs for over 2700 yards passing.  Russell was injured in Miss St's regular season finale against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.  Reports indicate he will be available and ready to go against NU.  Russell should keep the Wildcat secondary on its toes, and may be the best QB the 'Cats face this year.

On the defensive side of the ball, Miss St is loaded with speed and skill.  Bulldog cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back, and is considered to be a top prospect in the next NFL draft.  Interestingly enough, Miss St has had its share of troubles defending opponents' passing games. 

That noise you might be hearing during the game is the clanging of cowbells by the Miss St faithful.  The ringing of cowbells is a tradition at Miss St., and no doubt as the Bulldogs are making plays on New Year's Day, you'll be hearing an audible clanging.
NU's secondary has improved this year, and the solid play of Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose is a big reason why.  This pair will need to be ready to go against the Bulldogs.  Expect Miss St to try and establish the passing game early, and to get NU on their heels.  When the 'Cats have the ball, look for them to exploit the Colter/Mark option combo that's been so successful this year.  That said, I expect Trevor Siemian to spend some time under center as well, in an effort to challenge the Bulldog secondary of those not named Banks.  I see this game turning by a big play on defense, and look to see the NU linebacking corps led by David Nwabusi and Chi Chi Ariguzo involved in that gamechanger. 

PICK: I got a fever, and the only prescription is Less Cowbell!  'Cats muzzle Bulldogs to get elusive bowl victory.  Northwestern 31, Miss St 28.  Take the 'Cats and lay the points.

Happy New Year, 'Cats fans!

Season to date: Straight up, 11-1; Against the Spread, 9-3

2012 Lowes Line Season Final: Straight up, 12-1; Against the Spread, 10-3 ( ! )