Lowes Line 2019


2019 Lowes Line Previews

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, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2019 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Stanford Preview and Prediction


By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (0-0) at #25 Stanford Cardinal (0-0)
Date: Saturday, August 31, 2019, 3:00 pm CDT, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA
Line: Northwestern (+6.5)
Over/Under: (48)
Money line:  Northwestern (+195), Stanford (-245)


Welcome back, Lowes Liners! This year’s season opener is eight months to the day after one of the most exciting games in recent NU history, as the ‘Cats overcame a 17-point halftime deficit against a solid Utah team to win their third bowl game in a row, capturing the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. 
The reigning Big Ten West champion Wildcats return to California to kick off the 2019 season.  The venue this time is Palo Alto, as NU completes its home-and-home with Stanford that started in 2015 with a game in Evanston.
The schedule this season is a brute, with six of the first seven games against teams in the AP preseason top 25.  In addition to this week at #25 Stanford, the ‘Cats have #18 Michigan State, #5 Ohio State, and #20 Iowa at home, while traveling to Camp Randall for #19 Wisconsin and Lincoln for #24 Nebraska.  Add to this the annual September inability to show up against non-conference opponents at home, which could make the tilt with UNLV in two weeks more of struggle than it should be, and NU could be looking up at the rest of the B1G West come late October.
Fitz needs four wins to get to 100 at the helm of NU.  This is truly a remarkable stat, and one never thought achievable.  Over the course of his 13-year tenure in Evanston, Fitz has three 10-win seasons, four bowl wins (currently three in a row), and has averaged more than seven wins a year.  No other coach in the history of NU has more than 49 wins.  In fact, Fitz has as many wins in his 13 years than the five coaches who led NU in the 28 seasons from 1978-2005.
If you’re like me, you cringe at the times Fitz fails to step on throats when he has the chance and put a game out of reach, but you take the good with the bad, and the good has simply outweighed the bad over the past decade-plus.  Fitz has had the uncanny ability to win close games.  Sometimes this is great (see Iowa & Nebraska last year), and sometimes it’s maddening (Rutgers and Illinois).
After four years with Clayton Thorson at the controls of the offense, it’s time to turn the page. Thorson left NU as the all-time school leader in nearly every statistical category for a quarterback and stands fourth all-time in Big Ten career passing yards.  Now the reins are turned over to Hunter Johnson, the much-heralded transfer from Clemson we’ve been hearing about for over a year, with three years of eligibility remaining.  Yes, we can all look at the depth chart and see the familiar “OR” with regard to Johnson or senior TJ Green, as Fitz again plays the nonsense game of not naming a starter.  But make no mistake, if NU is going to be successful this year, it’s not with TJ Green under center.
Sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser is looking to build on the successful first season he had as the feature back, after being thrust into action due to the injury and subsequent retirement of Jeremy Larkin.  Bowser averaged more than 100 yards per game in his eight starts last year and will be running behind a line that’s lost a few starters.  A notable returning offensive lineman is junior Rashawn Slater, who has started 26 straight games at right tackle and now moves to the left side for 2019. 
Senior wideout and co-captain Bennett Skowronek will be the primary target for Johnson.  NCAA rules be damned, Skowronek has surely still not paid for a drink after his catch-of-the-year worthy TD against Iowa last year that helped secure the B1G West for NU. 
Defensively, it will be the front seven who set the tone.  Senior Joe Gaziano is the man up front, having recorded 16.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Brothers Alex (senior) and Samdup (junior) Miller will be anchoring the defensive line alongside Gaziano.
Junior middle linebacker and co-captain Paddy Fisher is the heart and soul of the defense.  A 3rd Team All-America last year as a sophomore, Fisher has a nose for the ball, having recorded over 100+ tackles in each of his first two seasons as well as four forced fumbles last year alone.  Juniors Blake Gallagher, who led the Big Ten in tackles last year, and Chris Bergin are the other starting linebackers
The secondary is more of a question mark and will be tested right out of the gate against Stanford.  The starting corners are senior Trae Williams and sophomore Greg Newsome II and the safeties are juniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock.  This group tends to be overlooked due to the studs up front who garner the accolades, but their play will be key to the success of the Wildcats this season.
So, what are we to expect this year? You have to think more of the same. Chris the Cook changed the Mel-Fry more often than Fitz changes assistant coaches, so we should go by what we’ve seen, which is simply this:  the defense, especially the line and linebackers, will play well enough to keep NU in close games, and the offense will find a way to pull some of them out.  Even if Hunter Johnson is the second coming of Drew Brees, it stands to reason the play calling will continue to focus on running the ball first, and likely a fairly conservative ball-control offense. 
Stanford is led by senior quarterback KJ Costello, who threw for 29 TDs and over 3,500 yards last season.  His primary targets will be juniors Connor Wedington and Osirus St. Brown.  Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love are no longer roaming the backfield in Palo Alto, which is great news for NU fans, but solid fifth year senior running back Cameron Scarlett will be the guy in the crosshairs of the NU defensive front.
It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats come out on offense.  Given the athleticism of the Cardinal secondary, running the ball might be the best option. Look for Bowser to pick up where he left off in 2018.  Defensively, there’s a fair amount of confidence in the Wildcat front seven being able to contain the Cardinal rushing attack, but the effectiveness of the NU pass defense will determine the outcome of Fitz’s 14th season opener.
In the Fitz era, NU has never lost a season opener on the road, going 6-0 versus Miami (OH) in 2006, Vandy in 2010, BC in 2011, Syracuse in 2012, Cal in 2013, and Purdue last year.  This is a somewhat surprising stat, but one that makes sense when you consider how the ‘Cats tend to play away from home in general.  Maybe they should play every game on the road until October.  I think the successful road season opener trend continues.
Pick: ‘Cats don’t get stuck in a tree.  Northwestern 20, Stanford 17.  Take the NU and the points.

UNLV Preview and Prediction

By Galloping Grapes

Matchup:  University of Nevada-Las Vegas Rebels (1-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (0-1)
Date:  Saturday, September 14, 2019, 2:30 p.m. CDT
Place: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Line:  Northwestern (-19.5) [o/u:  54, money line: NU (-1115), UNLV (+750)]


Let’s get right into it.  Stanford QB K.J. Costello took one to the chin, the Wildcats took one to the gut, and the Lowes Line bettors took it in the tailpipe.  It was a true shocker in the end.  I’ve spent the last 12 days with a 1-song playlist on an endless loop pounding in the back of my head, and you all know that this time of year my blood runs Deep Purple…


(with really big apologies to Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan and Roger Glover)

Sweet Willie was a dancer

That the Lowes Line took a chance at

Because he was a Wildcat

He made electric shadows

Based on our betting tips

But none of us would beat that Line.

We even bet the teaser

Thought the ‘Cats would win a squeezer

Enjoy a little paradise

The lock was in our pocket

Then Hunter met the rocket

We never knew the reason why.

I can't deny it

When the point spread was blown

Oh, it's not the cover

But that we all should have known…

Feel it coming

It's knocking at the door

You know it's no good betting

Fitz doesn’t know the odds

The parlay doesn‘t pay

And now you see the score

And now you're learning

What's knockin' at your back door!

The 2-deep looked so fancy

The money line was chancy

‘Cats were B1G West aristocracy

The bloggers that Fitz toyed with

At closed practice in poor diplomacy.

Stanford’s QB got the quiver

Of a massive forearm shiver

Lost TJ to an injury

So no easing Hunter gently

Thrown in the deep end consequently

Suddenly he looks so young.

I can't deny it

When the point spread was blown

Oh, it's not the cover

It’s that we all should have known…

Feel it coming

It's knocking at the door

You know it's no good betting

Fitz doesn’t know the odds

The parlay doesn‘t pay

And now you see the score

And now you're learning

What's knockin' at your back door!

I can't deny it

With that scowl on my face

Oh oh, that f*ing cover

It was the hard coup de grace.

Feel it coming

Knocking at your door

You know we’re gonna bet the under

Now it's knocking at your door

Ah ha, knockin' at your back door.


Until I started working on this, I had no idea that the Runnin’ Rebels moniker refers to just the UNLV men’s basketball team.  Football and other sports are just known as the Rebels.  Who knew?  Ironic too, as it appears that runnin’ is one of the few things this Vegas team can do well.  The Rebs were a top-20 team last season in rushing, although their star RB graduated.  Still, that dude has been replaced by another good one, junior RB Charles Williams.  He set a school record for rushing yards by a freshman 3 years ago, then sat for a year with an injury.  In two games so far this year, Williams has logged 155 yards/game, for a 9 yards per carry average, and 4 TDs.  He’s got wheels, just the kind of fast and elusive back we hate to see in the open field cutting through the NU defense.  Similarly, the Rebel QB, Armani Rogers, is the kind of run-pass-option guy that we hate to see lining up across from the ‘Cats.  Rogers actually might be a better runner than Williams--but to be fair, for all we know Williams could be the better passer.  Rogers probably isn’t nearly as inept as he showed last week, when UNLV got crushed by Arkansas State.  But if he does get a pass off, his main receiving weapon is a transfer from the USC Trojans, WR Randal “Grimey” Grimes.  He’s not just another runner; he’s a big, tall, strong runner.  You know, the kind we hate to see matching up against the NU secondary.  So, yeah, those are three guys who could hurt the Wildcats pretty badly, and I expect to be shouting “Get that guy!!!” at my television a lot on Saturday.  On the bright side, if the ‘Cats do get those guys, there is not a lot else to worry about.  All NU needs to do is make open field tackles.  Uh, which they seemed to have a hard time doing against Stanford.  Maybe it will settle our raw nerves to look at the other side of the ball…

Unfortunately, that last paragraph might have exhausted my limited football knowledge and insight into the UNLV Rebels for the week.  Or, it’s possible that there just isn’t much to say about the Rebel defense.  That’s good, right?  I guess so, except apparently the big secret Fitz was hiding during spring practice and summer camp was that he and his coaches were farting around with two starting QBs (again), rather than just picking a winner and getting that guy ready.  I will freely admit that Fitz knows more about football than I do about anything, and he’s already earned his on-campus statue, but these mind games aren’t fooling anybody, as demonstrated by the now-annual pooping of the bed in early season non-conference games against opponents who frankly do not give a tinker’s dam about Fitz’s secret strategy.  Hey coach, from the cheap seats behind an anonymous Twitter account it doesn’t seem like coaching genius, it’s looks like onanism.  Maybe it’s not a mortal coaching sin, but it’s become a venial pain in our collective asses.  (Zing!!)

Anyway, UNLV’s defense might suck, but the Lowes Line lacks faith that the Wildcats will take full advantage of that to tune Hunter Johnson up for what promises to be a rough ride once they enter the B1GTen slate.  Much more likely, and frustrating, is that Fitz gives Hunter and the offense just enough reps to start hitting his receivers in the numbers rather than the antlers, then close up the playbook and let the backups smash into the Rebel lines until the clock winds down.  Fitz will be perfectly happy with an ugly and unsatisfying win (see, Rutgers 2018), and will believe (wrongly) that by slowly driving the Porsche with the hazard lights flashing, like Joel Goodson on the way home from the shop after dunking it into Lake Michigan, he’s pulling one over on next week’s opponent from East Lansing.  Of course, Guido the killer pimp still stole all of Joel’s sh*t, sold it back to him and cracked his mom’s egg, and I expect Mark Dantonio and the Spartans to be similarly unimpressed.  Whether that’s all worth it to end up in a tenuous “relationship” with a hot blonde hooker with a train fetish is a philosophical question that exceeds the scope of this now totally off-the-rails preview, but may be revisited if the Wildcats back-door their way into another trip to Indianapolis in December.   Bottom line--sometimes Fitz needs to say what the f*** and see what the Porsche can do.  But I can’t help but worry that we’re going to be screaming WHAT THE F***?!??!?!? more than once this weekend.

Pick:  NU-31, UNLV-17.   Wildcats win, but they drop the soap and fail to cover.

Season to Date:  0-1 ATS (ouch), 0-1 Straight up

MSU Preview and Prediction

By Eric Cockerill

Matchup:  Michigan State University Spartans (2-1, 0-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-1, 0-0)
Date:  Saturday, September 21, 2019, 11:00 a.m. (CDT)
Place: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Line:  MSU (-8.5) [o/u:  36, money line: MSU (-370), NU (+300)]

I apologize for the late Lowes Line.  I only just returned from the land of lingonberries, reindeer, and tall, blond white people and am still catching up.

Recap:  Northwestern captured its first win of the season last week 30-14 over the UNLV Rebels.  The game was close through the first half with the Cats pulling away in the second.  There were several bright spots during the game, including two important ones.  First, two running backs showed promise of depth:  Drake Anderson (146 yard on 28 carries) and Jesse Brown (8.8 ypg).  Second, and most surprising, at appears that Fitz now trusts an actual, real live kicker.  Charlie Kuhbander is building confidence with three field goals, with a long of 44 y.  The not-so bright spots mostly involved a continuing mediocre performance by Hunter Johnson despite a poor opponent.  He did run 10 times for 50 yards plus a touchdown.

This week, NU plays its first conference opponent in Michigan State.  The Spartans lost a close game last week to ASU after previously winning easily against Western Michigan and Tulsa.  The end of the Arizona State game was marred by poor officiating in both directions.  Not much was learned from the first three games, except Sparty is capable of rolling over poorer opponents and played ASU (undefeated) close with a chance to tie as time expired.  That said, ASU is not ranked, nor is MSU.
So far, the Spartans have produced a balanced offense and a stout defense.  Quarterback Brian Lewerke, running back Elijah Collins, and wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr are the leaders on offense.  After gaining a lot of momentum versus their first two cupcake opponents, their offense suddenly ground to a sputtering crawl last week.  Frankly, the Arizona State game is likely more indicative of their future performances than the first two games.

Defensively, they are getting contributions across the board, with defensive end Kenny Willekes leading the way with 4 sacks in the first three games.  Without a doubt the defense may cause problems for NU’s offense.

Meanwhile, in two contests, the Cats have shown that they too have a stout defense, but the offense has not been impressive so far.  The pessimistic view point is that Hunter Johnson simply looks below average with poor accuracy and decision-making.  However, an optimist would say if the problem is a single player, there could be marked improvement on the agenda for the whole offense as that player improves, plus it looks like Fitz has given Johnson the green light to run more if in trouble, one of his relative strengths. 

Prediction:  Expect another grinder in this one as two good defenses muck up the works for both teams.  This game practically screams out for one of Fitz's patented super conservative game plans.  NU is looking ahead to four tough opponents (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Iowa), so this game should be considered within reach and critical for a successful overall season.  Meanwhile, MSU’s been dealing with some recent bad press, which has their Coach Dantonio’s “Mr. Frowny-Face” visage more grumpy than normal.

The safe bet is a Spartan win, but with a close game anything could happen.  To expect victory, the Cats will need to win the turnover battle and Johnson will need to use his legs to keep the chains moving in critical situations instead of throwing the ball away.  While I think we’ll see overall improvement from the Cat’s offense (which may be tough to see in a low scoring game), unfortunately, I think they fall just short.


Pick:  MSU-20, NU-17   Sparty pulls out a big play or two to win, but can’t cover the spread.


Season to Date:  1-1 ATS, 1-1 Straight up

Wisconsin Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) at #16 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0, 1-0)
Date: Saturday, September 28, 2019, 11:00 a.m. CDT, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI

Gambler's Anonymous
Line: Wisconsin (-24)
Over/Under: 45.5
Money Line:  NU +1,100; WI -2,500

Last Week, Today:

The cycle keeps on turning, Northwestern fans.  While top programs in the country are able to reload and avoid ups and downs, Northwestern seems unable to find that magic formula for sustained excellence.  Given what the Lowes Line staff experienced as undergraduates (no more than 3 wins in any season, and one 0-11 campaign), we probably should be positively giddy with what has happened starting with the magical 1995 season.  But, success breeds expectations (as do pithy slogans like "Expect Victory").  Looking back over the Fitzgerald era, NU has had 8 winning seasons, 1 6-6, and 5 losing.  Compared to teams all the way back to Ara Parseghian, that's a pretty impressive run.  Inevitably, though, we cycle to a down year.  That has been true since Barnett.  Most don't realize his first three seasons produced little change from the mythical Francis Peay teams until we snuck up on everybody except USC in '95.  Another good season in '96, but then two losing seasons and Barnett was off to coach in Colorado.  Walker took over, got us back to respectable, but had only 2 winning seasons out of 7 before his untimely death.

Perhaps the good news for Purple Patriots is that our ups are becoming longer, and the lows shallower.  Before this season, Fitz had the Cats bring back 4 winning seasons in a row, and 3 bowl victories in a row.  Our losing seasons have gone from 2-9/3-8 to 5-7.  Not great to end up with a losing record, but at least we are competitive and aren't the doormat of the Big Ten.  Perhaps sustained excellence is just around the corner.  Or, a little less rosy, maybe this is what sustained excellence will look like for Northwestern.  While we won't challenge the 6 rings Nick Saban wears in his extremely creepy Aflac commercial, it beats the hell out of leaving before halftime because the game is already well over, and at least there are tequila shots in the parking lot.  But I digress.

That said, this season has all the markings of a return to the Dark Ages of the Francis Peay era.

Over the last few seasons, we at the Lowes Line have remarked how bland and conservative the Cats' offensive scheme is.  I'm not even sure that "scheme" is the right word here, as it I think its use oversells Northwestern's offensive game plan.  The fact is, Mick McCall's offensive is about as imaginative as a "Three's Company" script.  You know there's going to be some misunderstanding, some slapstick physical comedy by the late John Ritter, and by the end the misunderstanding will get worked out.  At least Randy Walker's offense scared the crap out of DCs around the Big Ten; McCall's...not so much.  In the last 5 years, have you seen a "snap clock" on any NU offensive series?  Perhaps Fitz and Co. aren't recruiting the types of players that can run such a manic offense.  But what is becoming clearer and clearer is that the offensive scheme doesn't put the playmakers we do have in a position to succeed.

Enter Michigan State.  A look at the game statistics paints it to be a far more even contest than the score might lead you to believe.  NU was only outgained by about 70 total yards.  NU actually lead in time of possession.  NU out-rushed MSU.  But Sparty led in one critical stat (besides the score):  turnovers.  NU's quarterbacks threw 3 picks.  As good as a turnover, NU also whiffed on 2nd and goal at the 1, turning it over on downs after 3 attempts to jam the ball in failed.  Good for Fitz for going for it on 4th and 1, but maybe call something that has a chance to succeed against a team known for their physical defense?  Overall, NU ran the ball reasonably well, with Anderson rolling up 91 yards and over 5 ypc, and Bowser contributing 39 more.  Passing...that's where the NU offense struggles.  All eyes are on Hunter Johnson the heralded transfer from Clemson.  But watching closely, Johnson seems to be severely hampered by a receiver corps that cannot get separation from defensive backs.  No matter how good a quarterback you have, if your receivers can't get a step, the quarterback will have impossibly tight windows into which to fit the football.  That's a recipe for incompletions or, worse, interceptions.  And disaster.  31-10.

Despite the statistical parity, the score was another matter and shows just how punchless the NU offense is.  The one touchdown was scored in garbage time late in the 4th, when the outcome was all but written in stone.  Positively, the NU defense kept the Spartans somewhat contained on the ground, allowing 109 yards total to Michigan State.

Our Next Opponent:

That one small bright spot on defense becomes pretty important this week, as Northwestern heads north to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison to take on the Badgers.  The Badgers and their faithful are riding high, fresh off dominating the Michigan Wolverines, 35-14.  This Lowes Line staffer was there and, believe me, the game wasn't that close.  Michigan scored its points after the game was essentially over.  Wisconsin built up a 28-0 halftime lead, stretched it to 35-0 in the third before the Wolverines managed any points.  It took Michigan until the 2 minute mark in the 3rd quarter to get their first touchdown, and until under 5 in the 4th to get their next one.  Shea Weber, the transfer on whom Michigan was basing their lofty aspirations (including a national championship) was benched at the end of the second quarter, only to return late in the 3rd when his substitute suffered a concussion on a vicious hit by the Wisconsin secondary.  The Wolverines offense had 3 turnovers, including a deflating fumble in at the Wisconsin 3 as the Wolverines were on the verge of answering the Badgers' opening, smashmouth drive.

By now, we are used to the concept that Wisconsin wants to run the football.  Ever since Barry Alvarez took over the program, they have placed a high priority on having a skilled, big offensive line and gifted running backs carrying the ball through the holes punched the line; that formula even resulted in a Heisman for Ron Dayne.  But, if possible, Jonathan Taylor is even better.  Taylor has over 4,000 yards his first two seasons, and he may be on the way to a third straight 2,000 yard campaign.  Against Michigan, Taylor had 143 yards rushing.  With 2:43 remaining.  In the first quarter.  Whether pounding through the line on the first drive, or running away from the Michigan defense on the third, the Wolverines had no answer for Taylor.  Taylor ended with over 200 yards rushing (he left the game in the first with cramps, and played sparingly afterwards).  The rest of the Badgers picked up the slack, rolling up almost 360 yards on the ground.  When needed, Jack Coan threw accurate passes, finishing 13/16 for 128 (a Wolverine fan behind me remarked to his friend earlier in the game, "Why are they even throwing the ball?  It's not like they need to.  We can't stop them.").  Cats fans might remember Mr. Coan from last year's game, which which his mediocre play helped the Cats to beat the Badgers in Evanston.  This year, the Badgers won't have to rely on Coan as much, it appears.  In goal-to-go situations, look for the Badgers to line up 7 (!) offensive linemen PLUS two tight ends...talk about your jumbo package.

The Wisconsin defense was stout against the Wolverines, too.  Michigan gained a paltry 40 yards on the ground, and its leading rusher was the backup quarterback.  Shea Weber posted a subpar stat line of 14 for 32 for 219, with two touchdowns and one pick.  Neither he nor Dylan McCaffrey could keep the Wolverines' offense on the field, as Michigan held the ball for less than 20 minutes.  After the game, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh admitted, "We were outplayed, out-coached, out-prepared."  He's right.  They were.  The result has led to many thinking the Badgers are the best in the Big Ten.  Despite the result Saturday, I think that's a bit of a stretch.  I think that road still goes through Columbus.


So, what to make of this week's game in Madison?  The key will be Northwestern's offense.  If NU can sustain drives against a resurgent Badger defense, it might hang around enough so it could steal one.  For whatever reason, NU always seems to play Wisconsin tougher than people expect, and NU does have a history of stealing games in Madison.  Drake Anderson and/or Isaiah Bowser need to find creases and pick up yards.  The weak link for the Badgers defense is their secondary, so maybe this is the week that NU receivers finally get some separation and give Hunter Johnson a target he can hit.  Counterbalance that with the fact that the Badgers defense did not give up a point in 2019 until 2 minutes left in the 3rd quarter against Michigan (the scoreless streak actually went back to a field goal given up in the 1st quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl following last season).

If NU can keep its defense off the field by sustaining drives, its defense might hold up for 60 minutes against the monster UW offensive line.  Despite having lost 4 starters from a year ago, the line is still blocking with road-grader efficiency.  And if the Cats can play solid defense and contain Jonathan Taylor, including avoiding one of his 80-yard sprints to the end zone, they might hang around enough to make the Badger fans sweat at the end.

But those are big "ifs".  Too big, I'm afraid.  While I think there will be a letdown after the massive victory over Michigan last Saturday, I don't think this is a trap game for UW (the Badgers line up against Kent State next), so their attention will be fully focused on Northwestern.  NU will put up a valiant effort against the Badgers, but I think the Badgers just have too much power for the Cats to overcome.  Contrary to what Bucky did to the Wolverines, I see this less as a game where Wisconsin jumps out to a big lead and takes its foot off the gas, and more as a game in which the relentless pounding of the Badger offensive line wears down an NU defense that's been stranded on the field too long, and the Badgers pull away in the second half.

Oh, and Fitz, here's some bulletin board material for you:  ESPN's Football Power Index gives Northwestern a minuscule 5% chance of victory.  Cue Lloyd Christmas.

Pick:   Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 15.  Wisconsin has a bit of a lull after its emotional victory, and the Cats play them tough like they usually do, so Wisconsin won't cover.

Season to Date: Straight up (2-1); Against the Spread (1-2)

Nebraska Preview and Prediction

By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten) at Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-2, 1-1)
Date: Saturday, October 5, 2019, 3:00 p.m. CDT, Lincoln Nebraska
TV: Fox
Line: Nebraska -7

Last week the Wildcats traveled to Wisconsin to face the #16 ranked Badgers as a 27 point underdog.  As Joel predicted the 'Cats hung tough and kept it close until the second half when strip sacks and interceptions provided the Badgers with 2 touchdowns that NU could not over come.  NU's offense was offensive until it was too late.  NU ran 82 plays but only totaled 250 yards for the day.  Many in the NU media have started again calling for Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall to be fired.  Granted the offense is not imaginative and just barely does enough when they do win (and many times not enough when they don't), but that is what Fitz wants.  He wants his defense to win the game.  If he wanted more from the offense don't you think they would be doing that?  He and McCall have been together now for numerous years.  Firing McCall won't change anything.  And don't even talk about firing Fitz.  As Joel also pointed out last week in this space, Fitz has done at NU what no other coach has ever been able to do.  That is win consistently.  Fitz might not be the best coach but expecting him to outsmart the opposing coaches every week is too much to ask.  Take a look at the coaches in the Big Ten.  Tell me where the weak links are?  Fitz is good and he is the best we could ever hope for.  If you want to see what it looks like when a fan base gets greedy and is not happy with consistent winning take a look at the dumpster fire that is the University of Tennessee in 2019.

After the game and at his weekly press conference Fitz was asked how the defensive players felt since the offense was not doing their part.  He replied that they are pissed about it.  When several defensive players were all asked the same question they had a much more mellow response and said that they just were concentrating on their jobs.  I take this to mean Fitz is pissed.  He knows the offense needs to do better to give the team a chance to win.  I think he will get that message across in practice this week and we will see a much better performance against Nebraska.

Nebraska was throttled last week by Ohio State on national TV.  They will still be thinking about that game this week.  The 'Cats and the Huskers are similar in talent level so it should be a close game but I think the 'Cats figure out a way to win.

Yes this is a year of rebuilding.  We can't all be Alabama but would we really want to be?  You can't take the National Championships without taking ownership for living in Alabama...


Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24  'Cats win it outright.

Season to Date:
Straight up (3-1); Against the Spread (2-2)

OSU Preview and Prediction

By MO'Cats

Matchup: THE Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten)
Date: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, October 18th, 2019, 7:30 pm CDT, Evanston, Illinois
TV: BTN (this is utter garbage, the game was moved to Friday night completely for the purpose to fulfill agreement with Fox.  However, given the rainout in NY last night, FS1 will be televising the Yankees final game of the season against the Astros, fingers crossed)

Line: Northwestern +28

Well, we have had nearly two weeks to digest the inedible.  The UNL-NU game was awful to watch and ended with a walk on kicking a field goal to end the game giving the Conhuskers a 13-10 win.  It was ugly and not worth much of a recap.  Smith started at QB (Hunter is a better quarterback with more athletic ability and more skills, do not argue this point.  You are wrong if you think Smith should start).  Bowser is hurt.  The offensive line is bad and our defense is good but not great.  Uggh

This week, Ohio State comes to town.  Yes I purposely left the the off just to annoy my dad and brother.  Ohio State is 6-0 and have humiliated teams like Nebraska, Michigan State, and Cincinnati (who is currently ranked).  They have yet to play a close game winning by 24, 42, 41, 71, 41 and 24.  They score points in bunches and Justin Fields may be the best quarterback to wear the Scarlet and Grey since Art Schlichter.  Their running backs include JK Dobbins (will play on Sundays), Master Teague III (seriously, not only is his first name Master but his father and grandfather also carried the same name) and a freshman named Steele Chambers (wow!).  The WR corps is fast and will be a huge problem for the Wildcat secondary.  Now, we get to the defense.  Chase Young is NOT NORMAL.  The guy is 6’5” and 265 pounds.  He has 8.5 sacks already and this number will go up.  The rest of the DL and linebackers are all supremely talented.  The secondary will again have a 1st round pick this year with Jeff Okudah who will be blanketing Riley Lees all night. 

Ok enough of the Ohio State bragging.  This team is great.  The Silver Bullets are back and the offense is awesome.  Northwestern is going to do the best they can to make this a game.  The grounds crew sent a picture measuring the grass at 9 inches in height.   A former player for the Buckeyes who is currently a BTN commentary mentioned that NU has used this ploy in the past and it was the highest grass he had played on in his entire career.  Can Northwestern slow down the Buckeyes to make this a game, that's the question.   Emotions will run high given the Friday night atmosphere.  The ‘Cats are wearing the grey, black, purple and yellow highlights with gothic letters in hopes of throwing off the Buckeyes (maybe Fields will get confused).  The completely new basketball team will be announced before the game and undergrads attending the game will receive an awesome looking sweatshirt.  All of this in hopes of outnumbering the Buckeye fans in the stands.  Well, the scarlet will be plentiful and points will be the same. 

Pick:  Let’s just hope Hunter does not die
  Ohio State 41, Northwestern 10 Uggh, give the points if you are a Buckeye fan (you know if gambling were legal)

Season to Date:
Straight up (3-2); Against the Spread (2-3)

Iowa Preview and Prediction

By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Iowa Hawkeyes at Northwestern Wildcats (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 26 11:00 a.m. CDT, Evanston, Illinois
TV: The Deuce
Line: Northwestern +8.5 (really only 8.5?!?!)

So this is what rebuilding and some bad luck looks like for NU in 2019.  Due to graduation the 'Cats lost their 4 year starting quarterback, their leading receiver, and several multi year starters on the offensive line.  Then their returning superback retired due injuries.  Replacing all those players on offense would be difficult and that is why many at the Lowes Line were just hoping for a 6-6 season.  That is not to be.  The last few years NU has been fortunate to win some of the games it has.  Two great long TD passes are all that allowed NU to beat MSU last year.  NU had to convert several 4th downs to beat Nebraska last year.  Skowronek made a miracle one handed diving catch to beat Iowa (plus Iowa fumbles twice in the last 10 minutes).  This year the luck has turned.  Not during the game but in the injury department.  NU has lost 2 quarterbacks, their leading running back for most of the season, their leading receiver (Skowronek), and two tackles.  NU is just not strong enough to recover from that.  Name another team that could.

Many are critical of the play calling and yes it is very very conservative, but it is not radically different than the past.  The difference is lack of execution and NU just simply has less talent right now than the teams they are lining up against.  The O-line does not give whoever is the QB time to make any reads other than the first option before he is under pressure.  The receivers cannot get any separation.  The running backs are decent but they are undersized and simply running into linebackers bigger than they are.

In last week's game versus OSU the only question was whether OSU would cover, by Halftime.  The answer was yes with a 55 yard field goal right before the half.  Final score 52-3.

The Iowa game is usually a close match between two teams that play similar ball.  Rely on your defense, run the ball, throw to the tight end.  This year it will not be close.  Enjoy Homecoming.  Relieve your glory days as a NU student.  Stay in the Parking lot and tailgate.

Look at it this way.  The young guys are getting experience for next year...

Have a good one and do a keg stand for me.

Pick:  Iowa 34, NU 10

Season to Date:
Straight up (4-2); Against the Spread (3-3)

Indiana Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (1-6, 0-5 B1G) at Indiana Hoosiers (6-2, 3-2 B1G)
Date: Saturday, November 2, 2019, 6:00 p.m. CDT
Line: Northwestern (+10.5)
Over/Under: (43.5)
Money line:  Northwestern (+340), Indiana (-455)



Enjoy a cold beverage at the Huddle.
Dance the night away at 1999.
Order a gyro with extra meat, cheese fries, and a Doctor at Jim’s Char-broil.

What do these things have in common? You could do all of them since the last time Northwestern scored a touchdown.  Not really, but it kinda feels like it though, right?

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.  The Lowes Line from Week 1 gave a glimpse at how tough the first half of the schedule was: 

“The schedule this season is a brute, with six of the first seven games against teams in the AP preseason top 25.  In addition to this week at #25 Stanford, the ‘Cats have #18 Michigan State, #5 Ohio State, and #20 Iowa at home, while traveling to Camp Randall for #19 Wisconsin and Lincoln for #24 Nebraska.  Add to this the annual September inability to show up against non-conference opponents at home, which could make the tilt with UNLV in two weeks more of struggle than it should be, and NU could be looking up at the rest of the B1G West come late October.”

NU is indeed looking up at the rest of the B1G West at the end of October.  But losing games to tough opponents is one thing.  Not even competing and absolute ineptitude is another.  In the month of October, Northwestern has scored one touchdown, and even that came against a Nebraska team who has surrendered 38 points to both Illinois and Indiana.

The crack Lowes Line staff has managed to get some footage of Fitz, on the left below, speaking with offensive coordinator Mick McCall, after the two reviewed the Iowa game film:

As Fitz likes to say, stats are for losers.  As such, we should talk about a few:  Pass efficiency, the college equivalent of passer rating in the NFL.  NU’s team pass efficiency is more than 20 points worse than ANY other FBS team right now.  DFL, as they like to say in golf terms.  Worse than Rutgers last year.  On pace to be the worst of the last ten years in all of college football except for Army in 2017, a team that attempted 65 throws in an entire season.


I realize Hunter Johnson has been out following a minor knee injury and due to a serious health concern for his mother, which is understood to be trending positive.  Best wishes to his mother for a speedy recovery, and props to Fitz for running the team in a way that allows a player to focus on his family at a difficult time.


That said, is it unrealistic to think third string QB Aidan Smith could be somewhat capable?  Yes, Sparty, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are likely the three best defenses on NU’s schedule, but 1 TD against 6 INTs with a 48% completion percentage?  Not winning too many games with those numbers.  


I mean, seriously, do other schools ever truly have capable third string QBs?  Sorry, that’s my trick ear, what’s that you say?  Cardale Jones, is it?  What’d he ever do besides step in and win the Big Ten Championship 59-0, then beat top-ranked Alabama in the national semi, and then go on to top Oregon for the national championship?  An unfair and exaggerated comparison, I get it.  But we’re not asking for a national championship.  We’re asking for a touchdown against Iowa. 


There’s talk Hunter Johnson might be back for Indy this week, which is nice, but as long as Mick McCall is calling the offense, it may as well be Al Czervik.  Add to this that wide receiver JJ Jefferson and running back Isaiah Bowser are out for the game and it doesn’t bode well.  


Indiana is on a three-game winning streak and already bowl-eligible.  For a team that’s had one winning season in 25 years, they have a solid chance at getting to 8 wins and the potential to put up some serious points on NU, even though we know it’ll only take about 7.


Would love to be proven wrong, but there’s nothing that leads me to be remotely optimistic.  NU needs to run the table to avoid a losing season.  Throw that in the category of possible, not probable. 


Pick:  Indiana 20, Northwestern 6.  


Season to Date:  Straight up: (5-2); Against the spread: (4-3)

Purdue Preview and Prediction

By Patrick O'Briant

Matchup: Purdue Boilermakers Purdue (3-6, 2-4 B1G), at Northwestern Wildcats (1-7, 0-6 B1G)
Date: Saturday, November 9, 2019,11:00 AM CST
TV: Big Ten Network (Does it matter? Do you really want to watch?)
Line: Northwestern (-2) (wow, this is surprising)
Over/Under 39.5

I don’t know where to begin. In these days of fever pitched social media, I have decided to take page from the Trump era playbook. I am writing this Lowes Line using actual Tweets – throwing “virtual marshmallows” at our beloved Wildcats. #sad

Our offense is _________________ .

When it comes to the general concept of an offense, let’s just state for the record that Northwestern has not accomplished much success in 2019. It is not exactly the days of “Expect Victory” under Coach Gary Barnett or the complex offenses of Coach Walker. Just based on the abysmal performance over the past month, this may be one of the WORST POWER 5 OFFENSES OF ALL TIME.

Smaller story, but Northwestern has gone from reaching the Big Ten championship game last year to fielding possibly its worst team in 20 years. Now 1-6. Scored a combined 13 points in three October games.
How bad is Northwestern’s offense? The Wildcats have 8 touchdowns this season.
Rutgers has 15.

Northwestern will go at least 34 days — and 44 offensive drives — without a touchdown (four games and counting).

The Wildcats remain squarely at 4.1 yards per pass attempt after Saturday, which, as a reminder, would make them not only by far the worst passing attack of 2019 by that metric, but the second-worst since 2003 behind only 2008 Army, a triple-option team

Northwestern last 3 games combined score: 106-6

This is the lowest scoring three game stretch for Northwestern Football since 10/17 - 10/31 1981. Historically bad season continues... #B1GCats #GoCats #IDontCare @WildcatReport @insidenu @ellabrockway @TeddyGreenstein

good job @NUFBFamily. Very modern offense you are running here in the 1949 season. #FireMcCall #NOW

Hoosier Dilemma

Let’s look at the Indiana game.

Northwestern's drives tonight:

Here is your Northwestern game summary: 6 penalties (some questionable), 0 TDs (indisputable

This reminder the only B1G team not to score at least 28 on IU so far this season is Rutgers.
So far.

Offensive Coaching

So what is Northwestern doing to address the offensive [sic] gap?

On what he [Coach Fitz] told the team after six straight losses: "Can't lose the turnover ratio. I thought we had a pretty good offensive gameplan that we failed to execute. It starts and ends with me and I have to take responsibility for that."

That Fitz thought that they had a good offensive game plan is proof that he should be no where near the offensive game planning. He needs to get a new offensive coordinator and get out of the way. #FireMcCall

There’s one easy way to respond to this pathetic season. #FireMccall. It’s not the 1940s anymore. Teams are allowed to score points. Having the worst offense out of 130 FBS teams is inexcusable. Make it happen or there will be a lot more games I just won’t watch.

So how is Coach Fitzgerald addressing the problem? And more importantly, so address the coaching staff?

“I understand there are 40,000 experts on Twitter that can call plays for me. My email address is hashtag I don’t care.” - Pat Fitzgerald

Yeah, Control-Alt-Delete just ain't cutting it.

If anyone is listening please #FireMcCall

who do I email with complaints again?

Will Coach Fitzgerald take some personal responsibility and make some major coaching changes after this season? Yes, firing people is hard – one of the most difficult things one can do in a career – but he is also one of the HIGHEST paid “teachers” at any private university in the United States. Suck it up, buttercup.

Mick McCall makes $600k a year. That’s the most atrocious thing I’ve heard in my lifetime. Lock his ass up for robbery. #FireMcCall #Felon

Not so much a question for Fitz, as for Dr. Phillips: we know that Fitz will never willingly #FireMcCall, but is a 2-10 season enough for the AD to intervene, or should I keep hoping that we go 1-11 this year, so that you’ll force him to make that move?

And my personal favorite (I didn’t even initially realize this was written by the Lowes Line's own Kevin Vedder:

Take responsibility by getting a new offensive coordinator


The Purdue Boilermakers are in a similar pickle. Head coach Jeff Brohm has to turn to third string to Aidan O'Connell (sound familiar, anyone?). He's completed 15 of 22 passes (68.2 percent) for 133 yards and a touchdown (6.0 yards per attempt). Wide receiver Rondale Moore (29 receptions, 387 yards, 2 TDs) injured his hamstring and has yet to return. Fellow receiver David Bell (51, 676, 4) and tight end Brycen Hopkins (42, 538, 3) have carried Purdue's passing game in Moore's absence.

Despite their injuries, the Boilermakers have proven one thing that the Wildcats have not: the ability to play despite injuries. Purdue will capitalize on Northwestern's lack of depth. Jeff Brohm will look to exploit Pat Fitzgerald's defense, which is also starting to reveal weakness, surrendering 106 points in their last three games alone. Given that Northwestern has only scored six points TOTAL in in the same timeframe, it literally takes only ONE TD to win.


Both offenses STINK. Purdue is better than the Cats, but the Boilermakers are now down to their third string QB. The Wildcats have a sizeable edge on defense, and that is where this game could be won for them. Northwestern is ranked 36th in total points allowed. However, despite being much more consistent on the defensive end, the Wildcats have been a bit soft up front, giving up close to 160 on the ground to opponents as well.

Northwestern has an opportunity to get back on track versus the Boilermakers. However, as we pointed out via “the 40,000 experts on Twitter,” the Wildcats have not been able to move the ball all season – they are ranked the worst in almost all major offensive categories. And OC McCall seems hell bent to play football like it is 1940.

Change their name to Northworstern.

The Mildcats may not score another TD all season.

Ugly, ugly, ugly game. Aiden vs. Aiden. The Cardiac Cats return (as in the 1940s Wildcats who also suffer from a heart condition), but they will finally score ONE touchdown.

Purdue 21, Northwestern 10. Take the Boilermakers and the points.

Season to Date: Straight up (6-2); Against the spread (4-4)




- Patrick O'Briant

UMass Preview and Prediction

By Chris Torkelson

Matchup:  University of Massachusetts Minutemen (1-9) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-8, 0-7)
Date:  Saturday, November 16, 2019, 12:00 p.m. (ET)
Line:  Northwestern (-40)

Outlook:  Be honest.  You aren’t reading this.  It showed up in your email, you saw 1-9 v. 1-8, and you immediately checked out and are now sitting there taking a Buzzfeed quiz to see which Fat Albert character fits your personality (spoiler, it’s Mushmouth, it’s always Mushmouth). Nobody is going to actually go to this game, where it’s going to be minus-eleventy degrees.  There might be more people on the sidelines than in the stands.  And sure as heck nobody is going to soil their television screens with this garbage.  The only clown show getting worse ratings this week is on all the cable news networks.  You know, that thing where all the hashtag warriors are taking alternating bites out of a giant turdburger in a desperate attempt to … #ImpeachMcCall.

In fact, let’s go live to non-HD BTN, where we join the low drama proceedings in progress.  Currently vamping at the podium is lead hobbit, Rep. Odo Cornbottom, in the midst of questioning his star “witness” [Name Redacted]:

Rep. Cornbottom: So, NU’s offense sucks, amiright?


Hobbit Mob:  Impeach McCall, Impeach McCall!!

Rep. Cornbottom: Mr. [Redacted}, please tell this august body how many NU games McCall’s sucky offense has ruined for you.

[Redacted]:  All of them.  Of course, I don’t actually watch football games, due to the violence and the CTE and it’s not as elegant as a real game, like quidditch, but McCall still has totally ruined the Northwestern football experience for me.

Hobbit Mob:  Impeach McCall, Impeach McCall!!

Rep. Marmaduc Fuzzyhead: Mr. Cornbottom, on behalf of the opposition party, may I butt in on your grandstanding for a grandstanding question of my own? Mr. [Redacted}, if you don’t even watch the games, how do you know that McCall’s offense sucks?

[Redacted]: Well, they are literally the worst offense, statistically, in all the FIve Realms, and they’ve scored 3, 0, 3 and negative-8 points in their last 4 games.  Not counting the 22 points they scored last week.  Ignore that last thing, it denies my own personal truth.  Purdue sucks, anyway.  As I said before, I prefer quidditch, to be honest.  I’m in a league.

Rep. Fuzzyhead: A-HA!! You are just another biased Ent, with no direct football knowledge and an impure motive!

[Redacted]: That seems kinda racist.  Quidditch is awesome, unless you trip and your broomstick gets shoved up your spine.  Which seems to happen a lot.  Seriously, it is a VERY FREQUENT occurrence.

Hobbit Mob:  Impeach McCall, Impeach McCall!!  Look, a squirrel!  Get the squirrel!  Get the squirrel!

Rep. Cornbottom: Can we please keep the focus on what’s important, which is  me?  As I was saying, Mr. [Redacted], do you agree that the squirrel sucks, too? 

[Redacted]: Yes, obviously the squirrel sucks.

Hobbit Mob:  Impeach the squirrel, Impeach the squirrel!!

Rep. Cornbottom: Attention all ridiculous fantasy creatures!  I see that Coach McCall is tweeting at this very moment, and it’s an outrage!  He dares, DARES I say, to defend his indefensible offense--actually it has been laughably defensible all year, in fact, it is a downright offensive offense!  What an outrage! Coach McCall is claiming that his offense helped the WIldcats to a B1G West title last year, a berth in the B1G Championship game, and a decisive bowl win over a ranked team!  What a buffoon!  I am outraged!  Where is my hobbit mob?

Hobbit Mob:  What squirrel, what squirrel??  Impeach McCall, Impeach McCall!!

Rep. Abracadabria Orcbutt-O’Cortez: Excuse me, I just want to say, you know, that Coach McCall is, like, totally from Mordor, and all those icky fumes from the pits of Mt. Doom are, like, super bumming me out with how they’re killing Middle Earth, to the max.  We should, like, totally impeach McCall so that we can put old saggy hobbit in charge of the offense so, like, he can burn all the money, and stuff, and then we can be mega happy if the team scores a figure eight.  Can I borrow your glitter?

Beavis: Sweet!

Butthead: Come to Butthead, my dream woman…

Hobbit Mob:  Impeach the fumes, Impeach the fumes!!

Rep. Cornbottom:  Order!  OK, next we have a real witness, who will give us all the evidence we need to force McCall out of the coaches box, and restore Northwestern football to the glorious mediocrity-plus to which our fans, such as they are, have grown accustomed.  Mr. Willie, thank you for joining us today.

Air Willie: I’m not comfortable with any of this.

Rep Cornbottom: Sorry, Willie, the hobbit mob will not be denied.

Hobbit Mob:  Impeach McCall, Impeach McCall!!

Rep. Cornbottom: Mr. Willie, do you care to share your thoughts on whether the players themselves share any of the blame for Coach McCall’s horrible, terrible, disgusting, boring, predictable, fattening, stinky, slow, climate changing, toilet clogging offense?

Air Willie: Well, it seems pretty obvious that the offensive game plan doesn’t execute itself.

Rep. Cornbottom: What an outrageous conspiracy theory!  I am outraged anew!  What proof have you that would support such an outlandish theory?  Have you seen the game tape?

Air Willie: Weirdly, both video recorders were broken and the graduate assistants who were responsible for taking and breaking down the game film had fallen asleep.

Former Sen. Hilberry Flintbum:  Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!

Pick:  Barf.  Barf everywhere.  A 40-point spread in this crapfest of a game is so ridiculous that it might get itself elected President in 12 months.  NU wins a pillow fight, 35-13.  Take UMass and the points.

Season to Date:  6-3 ATS, 7-2 Straight up

Minnesota Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Big Ten Commissioner James Delaney announced that the Northwestern University football team has been relegated down from the Big Ten, effective with the 2020 football season.  Mr. Delaney remarked, "We have a tremendous respect for Northwestern University and its football program, and have enjoyed Northwestern's membership in the Big Ten since the inception of the conference in 1895.  However, based on the results from the 2019 football season, particularly Northwestern's results during Big Ten conference play, and the fact that Northwestern trailed the University of Massachusetts for the first quarter during their recent intercollegiate contest, we determined that it was best for the Big Ten and for Northwestern to relegate Northwestern to a lower league until they can raise their level of play to what we would consider to be Big Ten standards."  Mr. Delaney went on to comment that he wished Northwestern the best of luck as it played in its new conference, the Central Suburban (South) conference of the Illinois High School Association.

"Obviously, we're tremendously disappointed as a program," responded head coach Pat Fitzgerald.  "We really killed it on the practice field this season, but our execution was lacking on Saturdays.  I feel badly for our young men, especially the season after winning the Big Ten West.  We are currently working to line up games with our new conference rivals, like New Trier, Glenbrook South, and Evanston Township.  I'm excited to see how Mick McCall's offense will match up against less-then-Big-Ten caliber defenses.  Our goal will be to approach every week and try to go 1-0."

Mr. Delaney further remarked that this was the first time that the Big Ten had considered a team for relegation in its 120+ year history.  "Certainly the Northwestern teams of the late 70s and early 80s, which set a then-NCAA record for consecutive losses, and the pathetic Francis Peay-era teams might have been considered at the time, but it wasn't until we were forced to watch the touchdown-less month of October and the first quarter last Saturday that we realized how desperately Northwestern needed to be relegated in order to preserve the Big Ten's reputation for superior intercollegiate football competition."

About the Big Ten Conference
The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to more than 9,800 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org

Matchup: #10 Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-1, 6-1), at Northwestern Wildcats (2-8, 0-7)
Date: Saturday, November 23, 2019,11:00 AM CST
Line: Minnesota (-13.5)
         Over/Under 39.5


The crazy thing is that press release is believable, even if for just a second.  Yes, we are coming off a game in which we routed UMass 45-6 but, by any reasonable standard, Northwestern has grossly underperformed this season.  And I'm not talking about undercutting our expectations elevated by a Big Ten West crown or 3 straight bowl wins.  I'm talking about fielding a team that's at least competitive with Big Ten competition.  A review of this season's results depicts a completely lost season.  The lone two victories are non-conference, against a team that is now 2-8 (UNLV) and one that is 1-10 (UMass); and neither of those two team play in a Power 5 conference.  For a scary 15 minutes Saturday, Northwestern played so poorly that it surrendered 2 interceptions to the worst defense in Division I-A, and trailed 3-0.  2019 has been a giant step off a cliff for the NU football program.

As demonstrated in a Line earlier this season, Northwestern historically has experienced ebbs and flows in program success.  Even as the program ascended to greater heights, once again making the Rose Bowl under Gary Barnett, and 9 bowls in the last 10 years under Fitz, the team would regress for one sub-.500 rebuilding year.  But as noted in that previous Line, those lows have been higher than ever before, almost convincing the casual observer that Fitz and Northwestern had built a consistent, winning program.  And then 2019 happened.  Good team, good programs, may stumble for a season, but they do not suffer a complete collapse of the type the Purple Faithful have witnessed this season.

Yes, we've gone through some changes.  We've played 5 quarterbacks during the course of the season, losing 2 to injuries and/or family matters (we also might have lost a third, as Aidan Smith is doubtful to play Saturday, meaning Andrew Marty will be NU's 4th starting quarterback for 2019).  We've lost our best running back at times, as well as our best receiver.  And we lost a lot to graduation.  But other teams, other successful programs, find a way to restock every season and to overcome injuries, and keep winning.  Look at Clemson.  Alabama.  Or, closer to home, Ohio State.  I think a lot of Northwestern fans thought we were well on our way to joining those teams, not in terms of perennial invitations to the college football playoff, but at least in terms of consistently competitive football teams.  And 2019 has smashed the Purple back to reality in the most painful way possible.  We aren't a great program.  We might not even be a good program, yet.

This season, it has become almost trite to complain about the poor offensive playcalling and scheming that characterizes the Northwestern offense.  McCall's offense is unimaginative and ineffective.  It is clear that whatever McCall is doing is not putting the Wildcat offense in a position to succeed.  An entire month without scoring a touchdown is proof of that.

But it's important to note that McCall is also the quarterbacks coach, and the following stats make the case for his departure extremely compelling:  in the 10 games (before UMass), NU has not had a passer exceed 200 yards in a game, and in 5 of those games, i.e., HALF, the NU quarterback threw for less than 100 yards!  Against UMass, the worst defense in Division I-A, we threw for a whopping 76 yards!  Granted, Evan Hull ripped off 220 on the ground, but we couldn't even manage 100 yards passing?!  And, get this:  Aidan Smith completed all 7 of his passes (in 13 attempts...BARELY over 50%) to ONE receiver!  Clearly the quarterbacks aren't ready to play, week in and week out, and that responsibility rests solely at McCall's feet.

While Fitz might acknowledge that there are 40,000 people out there that can call plays, it's time he acknowledge that one of those 40,000 isn't sitting in the coaching booth.  Quite simply, it's time for Fitz to man up and act like a head coach, and gently nudge Mr. McCall out the door.  Thank him for his years at Northwestern, give him a gold watch, whatever.  But any offensive success Northwestern has had this season really has been in spite of McCall, not because of him.  We need imagination behind our offense, like when Randy Walker helped invent an offense that promptly scared the crap out of any time coming to Evanston.  And, I might add, inspired A LOT of copycats and disciples.  Sad that Northwestern chose to abandon it.

If Fitz doesn't do what a head coach is supposed to do, those 40,000 people won't be calling plays, they'll switch to every variation of #FireMcCall.  We'll be subjected to more McCall impeachment hearings led to Rep. Cornbottom with special guest appearances by Butt-head.  While Fitz may not care about or read social media, more than likely his players do.  With so much negative noise about McCall and the NU offense every week, isn't it possible that his players, especially those on offense, are bringing all of that negativity with them to work every film session, practice, and game?  Time to change the narrative, Fitz.  For the good of the program.  Your responsibility to your players trumps any friendship or kinship you might feel for Mr. McCall.

A final word about the UMass game.  Yes, it was fun to watch Northwestern be as successful as they were on both sides of the ball, assuming you were doing something else for the first 15 minutes.  Freshman Evan Hull had a great day running with the ball, gaining 220 yards on 24 carries (9.2/carry) and scoring 4 touchdowns.  The NU defense held the lowly Minutemen to but 2 field goals.  But the offense looked terrible in the first quarter particularly, with Aidan Smith managing to complete 5 passes, but two of them were to UMass.  NU did regroup and outplayed UMass the rest of the way, outscoring UMass 45-3.  It's nothing to be proud of, however, as UMass has been a season-long denizen of ESPN's "Bottom 10" list, where it's known as "UMess".  Before we get to feeling too happy, we need to remember NU has appeared on that list, too.

The reality is that the results against UMass are stats similar to what the NU squad would have put up had they really been relegated to the Central Suburban (North) conference.  In other words, not really anything to crow about.  About the best we can hope for, my gentle Purple Patriots, is that it creates some momentum which our warriors in purple...or grey...or black...are able to carry into this week's game against...

Minnesota.  In past Lines written about the Minnesota Golden Gophers game, I used every synonym I could think of for "golden" and "gopher."  Another Line staffer, who has far better writing chops than I, artfully wove in about every great Caddyshack quote there is; a true literary classic.  Last year, I managed to compare Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck's "row the boat" philosophy to the Edmund Fitzgerald.  But, dear readers, here's where past art and current disaster cross over.  For this year's game between Northwestern and Minnesota is going to look a lot more like this:

I think you know who is who, but just in case, P.J. is Al Czervik and he's rowing his yacht right over our little dinghy.  Problem is, unlike the fisherman with the dinner plate-sized eyes, we aren't going to be able to swim out of the way.

Minnesota is for real this season.  They come into Ryan Field licking their wounds a bit from suffering their first defeat of the season at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Their season started off slowly against what now seem like inferior opponents but, in contract to years past, they actually found a way to win those games (clearly, these are not Glen Mason's Gophers). When they got into the Big Ten season, their momentum seemed to snowball, and they started beating the teams they should beat, but also beating them handily (and not barely, like NU is wont to do).  They faced up to a #4 ranked Penn State team and held their own, forcing Penn State into numerous mistakes before salting away the victory with an interception in the end zone.  Iowa City is a tough place to play, and maybe the Gophers were starting to believe the hype, resulting in their first loss against an inspired Iowa team.  But we know Iowa is a quality program; that same Hawkeye team that came into Evanston and shut out the Wildcats, 20-0. 

If he clears the concussion protocol by game time, Minnesota will be led by sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan (if he doesn't, then Minnesota will line up one of two true freshman under center).  Morgan completes more than 2/3 of his passes and, against Penn State, he was an astonishing 18 for 20.  On the season, he has 21 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions.  What has made the biggest difference in Minnesota's success has been its running game.  Rodney Smith leads Minnesota's rushing attack, accumulating 940 yards this season at a 5.5 yard-per-carry clip, and he has found the end zone 7 times. Spelling him is Mohammed Ibrahim, and Ibrahim has struck paydirt another 6 times.  Minnesota features 3 excellent receivers, each with more than 20 catches on the season.  Look for Rashod Batemen to get loose in the Wildcat secondary, with his gaudy 22.6 yard-per-catch average.  It could get ugly, often.  The only Achilles heel for the Minnesota passing offense is that it is prone to give up sacks.

On defense, the Gophers are led by Antoine Winfield, Jr.  Junior's dad had a long and successful NFL career as a defensive back, with many of his best years playing down the street at the (now demolished, thank God) Metrodome.  And Junior is proving himself to be a chip off the old block, having snagged a nation-leading 7 interceptions so far in 2019.  Given NU's quarterbacks' propensity for throwing to the team in the wrong jerseys, this does not bode well.

At this point in the season, Minnesota is doing too many things right, and NU too many wrong, for this Line staffer to think there's any hope that NU will be able to torpedo the Gophers' season.  The most interesting matchup will be NU's run defense, arguably the best phase of NU's game, against the Gophers' potent rushing attack.  However, Morgan should be able to find holes in the NU secondary, and that will spell trouble for NU's changes at keeping the game close.  Once the Gophers start stretching the field with passes, NU's rushing defense will weaken as well.  On the other side of the ball, every time an NU quarterback drops back, we'll have to hold our collective breath that the ball won't end up in Winfield's hands.  Unless somehow Evan Hull manages a repeat performance, but this time against a real defense (and all signs point to that not happening), we'll be forced to throw the ball with a quarterback who completes 50% of his passes, and another 7 to the other team. 

One factor that NU does have in its favor is that this game amounts to something of a "trap" game for Minnesota.  As far as the Big Ten West is concerned, this game is meaningless to them.  The Big Ten West will be decided November 30 in Minneapolis, when the Wisconsin Badgers travel to TCF Bank Stadium.  If Minnesota is 7-1 or 6-2, that doesn't affect the importance of that game.  So Minnesota's focus may slip past what is likely to be an easy game against paper Wildcats to the looming battle royale against their biggest rivals, the Badgers, for Paul Bunyan's Axe and the Big Ten West title.  That is about the only glimmer of hope NU has come Saturday.

Also, if Morgan is ruled out due to continuing concussion symptoms, facing a Gopher quarterback that is a true freshman and has not started a game would help the Cats keep the game close and possibly steal a victory.  On the flipside, if Smith can't go for the Cats, Marti might get his first start.  Keep in mind, Marti has thrown exactly one pass in his collegiate career (and completed none).  So his first completion Saturday will be his first completion.  Ever.  Not exactly a harbinger of victory.

All signs point to this being a comfortable win for the Gophers, but maybe NU keeps it a little closer than it might otherwise be.  In a perfect set of circumstances, Morgan doesn't play and Smith does, and the NU defense preys on the mistakes of a true freshmen quarterback.  But, in the other 99.9% of scenarios, Minnesota leans on their robust ground game and puts up more points than the anemic Northwestern offense can match.  In any but the most perfect scenario, Minnesota covers the spread of 13.5, with it being closer to the spread if Morgan doesn't play and Smith does, and a veritable chasm if Morgan faces off against Marty.



Minnesota 31, NU 17.  We score a touchdown in a third straight game, but it matters little.  The Gophers cover the spread without breaking a sweat.  Minnesota sets up a battle for the Big Ten West on their home turf in Minneapolis.


Season to Date: Straight up (8-2); Against the spread (6-4)

Illinois Preview and Prediction

By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-9, 0-8) at Illinois Illini (6-5, 4-4)
Date: Saturday, November 30, 2019, 11:00 AM CST
Line: Illinois (-8)
         Over/Under 41.0

Oh, for F***’s sake…we’re going to lose to Illinois.  A whole year of listening to co-workers talk like Illinois hasn’t been a laughing stock for almost a decade.

  • This will be Lovie Smith’s 4th game against NU with no previous wins or ties.
  • Illinois is 3-7 versus NU in their last 10 meetings.
  • Illinois is only 4-4 in the Big Ten this year, but still favored to win by more than a touchdown.
  • Illinois hasn’t had an overall winning record since 2011, or a conference winning record since 2007.
  • In the last decade, Northwestern Bowl Appearances – 8, Illinois – 3
That’s the team we’re about to lose to.  Now, all that being said, we also have to give credit where it’s due.  Head Coach Lovie Smith can produce one helluva beard.

That is impressive.

Last week:  NU lost 38-22 to Minnesota.  The game was effectively over after the first quarter as Minnesota scored on its first three possessions.  Hunter Johnson started for the Wildcats, but left with an apparent injury after going 0-2 and taking three sacks.  How much of that change was performance versus an injury is anyone’s guess, though he was certainly hurt at that point.  Sophomore Andrew Marty came in as the only QB standing at that point and did a serviceable job as NU stayed with the Gophers the rest of the game.

Cause for continued concern (Item 1) was the passing game.  Marty went 8-10, which appears excellent on a percentage basis until you realize the Cat ran 49 times to a total of 12 passing attempts.  No wonder his completion percentage was high…the defenders were shocked when he actually threw the ball.  The Cats' passing game has been bad and is getting worse.  Frankly, overall we can be happy Rutgers takes the last place in the conference in most categories, except for passing.  WE’RE #14 IN PASSING! No surprise really.  No vertical stretching with the passing game, receivers that can’t get separation on short routes, uninspired play design and playcalling, poor pass protection at the line, and indecisive QB play.  You can pick your reason but none of it is working.

Cause for continued concern (Item 2) was turnovers.  After getting an interception against no turnovers themselves, NU “improved” to a -1 turnover per game average.  Fitz’s argument number one for conservative strategies has been to win the turnover battle, but it’s just not working.  Fans might assume the offense is to blame for this one, and while they have in fact tied for most turnovers lost (with Rutgers, of course), the defense is also second to last with turnovers gained.  I consider this Exhibit A for the case that it’s not just the offense leaving the defense on the field too long.  The defense is also vastly under performing compared to previous years.

Let’s take a deeper dive in to the offense/defense/turnover discussion.  Here’s a chart of Fitzgerald’s time at Northwestern.  It shows relative rank of NU in the Big Ten.  Highlighted years were bowl invite years, as an indicator of a “successful” year.  Remember that the Big Ten was 11 members until 2011 when it grew to 12, and then grew again to 14 in 2014, so the “bottom” gets lower across the chart.

A couple of interesting observations:

While the defense is generally good, recently it certainly hasn’t been ranking far and away better than teams earlier in Fitz’s time at NU.

We can see the precipitous drop in offensive ranking from 2011 to 2015.  Through 2011, NU was running (with McCall as OC) a version of the uptempo spread offense installed by Randy Walker.  In 2012 and 2013, NU used the two QB experiment with Siemian and Colter still based on the spread, with Colter in to play a version of the run option and Siemian playing on obvious passing downs, though that split morphed over the two years, somewhat due to injuries to Colter.  2014 began, IMHO, the start of a more pro-style, ball control offense leaning heavily on Clayton Thorson to distribute the ball.  2018 was a down year overall offensively due to the loss of Justin Jackson and no effective replacement, but the team very well with what they had.

Turnover ranking has been better than average more often than not, but is not necessarily a guarantee of success.  A deeper dive, which I won’t go into, suggests there are nuances related to a) the importance of turnovers created by the defense and b) a tradeoff between turnovers lost compared to yards gained.

Conclusion:  The NU offense has been getting progressively worse over the Fitzgerald/McCall tenure, with some recent good years likely sparked by excellent players (the combo of Thorson/Jackson) rather than any offensive strategy.  Certainly we can say that the coaches have been effectively squeezing successful years out of teams that don’t necessarily excel in any one area, but it doesn’t bode well that this staff has any obvious answers to get better offensive performance out of the current group of players.


NU heads to Illinois for the last game of the season.  This is Lovie Smith’s fourth year leading the Illini and he seems to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  At one point midway through their 7th game against Wisconsin, the Illini were down 10-0, had a record of 2-4 with a loss to Eastern Michigan and were looking toward who the next coach might be.  They ended up winning that game 24-23 on a last second field goal and really haven’t looked back since.  They reeled off four straight wins before losing to No 19 Iowa in a relatively close game last weekend.

The book on Illinois is effectively the book on Lovie Smith’s teams.  A relatively mundane offense that is balanced between run/pass and a defense that worries more about taking the ball away then giving up yards.  QB Brandon Peters is unlikely to play due to a second head injury this year, but backup Matt Robinson has seen playing time and is serviceable.  Multiple running backs are likely to see playing time and all are decent, if unexciting.

On defense, watch Jamal Milan who is considered one of the best lineman in the Big Ten despite the lack of gaudy tackle or sack numbers.  As already discussed, Illinois isn’t particularly good at preventing either yards or points, but is good at creating easy points through turnovers.

Northwestern will have to rely on Andrew Marty and Drake Anderson to lead the way with their legs.  Don’t expect to see any sudden or drastic changes in the offensive game plan from last week, which means a lot of running.  On paper, this would appear to work in NU’s favor as Illinois hasn’t been great against the run.  However, that’s been against teams that have some threat of a passing game to keep the safeties and linebackers at least thinking about a pass.  Against the Cats, that threat is really not there, so look for some tough running with big plays only coming from Marty running when he’s not expected to.

Considering NU is playing in a meaningless game away with the fourth string quarterback, and against an Illini team that is headed to a bowl game with players who have never beaten their in-state rival, I do not expect Northwestern to surprise anyone here.  We may be seeing some rarely used seniors playing their last game alongside younger players gaining experience before the day is out.

Illinois 28, NU 17.  Take the over and the Illini.

Season to Date: Straight up (9-2); Against the spread (7-4)