Commentary: Mid-Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges
The 2007 season is half
over, and Northwestern (3-3, 1-2) stands not to far away from where many thought
the 'Cats would be at this point. My pre-season prediction had NU at 4-2 right
now and winning 7 games on the year - and that 7 win mark still looks attainable
with "easier" games against Minnesota and Eastern Michigan coming up, a home
game against an uninspired looking Iowa team, and two tough games against
Indiana and Illinois to close the year - but if NU plays well it could grab a
win on one of those games (who thought I would be saying those two games would
be a tough stretch at the end of last year). Bowl eligibility looks to be
attainable, although a bowl trip may require more than 6 wins given the pack of
Big Ten teams that will most likely be eligible by the end of the year (in fact,
the only teams that look to have a tough time getting to 6 wins are Minnesota
(1-5) and Iowa (2-4)).
So far, 4 of the 6 Northwestern games have been
close (e.g. within one score in the 4th quarter). NU has split those 4 games,
beating Nevada on a last-minute drive and MSU in overtime, while losing to
Michigan thanks to 4 4th quarter turnovers and to Duke thanks to an inability to
score once in the red zone. Given the youth and inexperience of the
Northwestern coaching staff, going 2-2 in those close games isn't bad (since NU
could be 1-5 at this point if they dropped those 2 games), although the fact
that NU dropped 2 easily winable games has obviously left Wildcat fans
disappointed at what could have been a 5-1 start to the year.
a lot of football left to be played, and the win over MSU to close the first
half of the season has awakened many fans who had fallen off of the NU bandwagon
after the Duke loss (or after the crushing at the hands of OSU) - and bowl hopes
are back in the mix.
MVP: QB CJ Bacher (150-246, 1767 yds, 9 TD, 7 INT, 127.69 efficiency): he
helped propel NU to 2 close victories (Nevada and Michigan State) and has been a
consistent force in the 'Cats' offensive attack, despite losing his best weapon
(Tyrell Sutton) only 2 games into the year.
Game of the First Half: Northwestern 48 -
Michigan State 41. Broke NU's 3 game losing streak and showed that the 'Cats'
offense is a force to be reckoned with - plus gave NU momentum going into that
second half of the season, plus a fighting chance at a bowl berth.
Surprise of the First Half: K Amado Villarreal
(7-8 FGs including a long of 49, 17-18 XPs): Amado was perfect on kicks until
the MSU game, but fortunately the offense made up for the misses. He is still
consistent on kicks, something NU hasn't been able to rely upon in some time.
NU's opponents were 2/7 on FGs in the first half - showing NU had a distinct
Disappointment of the First
Half: Northwestern 14 - Duke 20. NU was penalized like crazy, and came
up empty in 3 of its trips to the red zone (including an instance of Fitz taking
3 points off the board). It still leaves most of us scratching our heads.
Impact Underclassman: RB/KR
Stephen Simmons (10 KR for 305 yds (30.5 yds/return), 1 TD (99 yd long)): The
only positive from the OSU game was the emergence of Simmons, who also had a
long return against Michigan the following week.
(national rank): 24.7 points/game (76th), 417.0 yds/game (45th), 45% 3rd
Down Conversion (28th), 120.7 rush yds/game (87th), 296.3 pass yds/game (18th),
10 turnovers lost: 7 INT & 3 fumbles (tied 46th), 17 sacks allowed (96th).
Overall: Showed what they can do in
the second half of the Nevada game and all day against Michigan State, but poor
outings against Duke and Michigan (littered with missed opportunities) and being
shut down by OSU leave a lot to be desired.
Quarterback: B CJ Bacher showed he is more than capable in
a 520 yd, 5 TD performance against MSU, but his 5 turnovers against Michigan and
7 INTs on the year leave something to be desired in the ball protection
department. He has the potential to be great and if he can keep the turnovers
down and keep churning out yards and points the grade will go way up by the end
of the year.
Running Backs and "Superbacks": B- Losing Tyrell Sutton has hurt NU, although
the OL hasn't exactly helped things by clearing the way. Omar Conteh has done a
nice job filling in as the starter, and Roberson provides a nice change of pace,
but they aren't exactly turning heads. Plus, NU has changed the focus of the
offense onto the passing game, but an average of only 120.7 yds/game and 3.4
yds/rush aren't numbers Northwestern typically gets out of its rushing game. In
terms of the "superbacks" we haven't seen them too involved in the offense
besides a few catches out of the TE position - the most notable performance has
been from the true freshman Dunsmore who has 5 catches for 84 yds ( 16.8
Wide Receivers: A-
These guys get the highest grade of the offense because of some great clutch
catches and a lot of yards after the catch. Peterman, Ward, and Lane all have
20+ catches on the year and have 5 TDs between them (Lane has 4 TDs and has
proven himself as the go-to guy). Also up there are Thompson and Yarbrough who
have racked up a lot of catches as well. Overall, the guys mentioned above plus
Conteh all have over 100 receiving yards on the year each and also each average
at least 10 yards per catch. As long as CJ has time to get the ball to them,
they can make plays.
Line: C If not for the great
performance against MSU, allowing only one sack, these guys would be ranked much
lower. Thus far after 6 games these guys have allowed 17 sacks for -116 yards (
2.83/game) as well as numerous hurries and forced throws that don't show up in
the stats. Against Duke they couldn't pick up the blitz, which especially hurt
when NU was in the red zone and couldn't find the end zone. Against OSU they
were completely out-played. And against Michigan they were run over in the
second half and are primary reason NU had a turnover in each of its last 4
possessions of the game. A question mark headed into the season they didn't
prove themselves until game 6, but now is the time to step it up and raise that
grade by playing well the rest of the way.
(national rank): 29.7 points/game (tied 79th), 392.5 yds/game (72nd), 41%
3rd Down Conversion Allowed (79th), 160.3 rush yds/game allowed (69th), 232.2
pass yds/game allowed (67th), 5 turnovers gained: 2 INT & 3 fumbles (tied
112th), 5 sacks (tied 112th).
Overall: Had some really solid performances,
including a shutout to open the season (even though it was against a I-AA/FCS
team, it is still something that hadn't happened in a decade for NU) and
containing Michigan's offense for most of the game, but also had some miserable
showings including allowing Ohio State to score at will, letting Nevada rack up
points in the first half, and allowing MSU to run at will. While the unit as a
whole has improved over recent years, there is still no pass rush, and they are
not generating turnovers to make up for the yards given up.
Defensive Line: C- They
are only getting that high of a grade thanks to their ability to at least slow
down the running game every once in a while and to come up with pressure on the
QB in key situations ( e.g. at the end of the game against Nevada and Michigan
State). Other than that, they are not putting pressure on the quarterback at
all, despite having arguably the most talent in a long time. Gill is definitely
the standout of this unit (27 tackles, 4 TFL for -18 yds, 2 sacks for -15 yds),
and second place goes to Mims (26 tackles, 5 TFL for -31 yds, 2 sacks for -24
yds, and a safety). Outside of them, though, nobody is making a lot of noise -
including former Big Ten freshman of the year Wootton. This squad needs to get
more pressure up front both on the quarterback and on the run. For a unit that
was expected to be great at the beginning of the season they have really
Linebackers: B- They got a slight bump thanks to solid play
by defensive leader Adam Kadela (55 tackles, 3.0 TFL for -6 yds) and the
emergence of some younger talent (particularly Davie, Arrington, and Kwateng).
Many were worried about the depth of this unit going into the season, and when
Simpson went down early, the young guys (Davie, Williams) stepped in and have
played well enough to hold the unit together. Not a great performance, but good
enough so far.
Secondary: C Again, a lot was expected out of these guys
with a great young player in McManis, a hard hitting Battle, and two solid,
experienced safeties in McPherson and Smith. Unfortunately things have not
worked out well with Smith going down for the year with additional shoulder
issues and teams picking on Battle like mad. Of course, not having a pass rush
doesn't help much, but this squad hasn't looked good against the pass for much
of the year. McManis is definitely the standout (36 tackles, 3 TFL for -7 yds,
1 INT, 3 PBU), although McPherson has turned in a nice season (40 tackles, 0.5
TFL for -1 yd, 1 INT, 2 PBU, and 1 fumble recovery). An improved pass rush
would make these guys look a lot better as there is still talent back there,
it's just that they can't chase around 5 receivers all day.
Stats: 7/8 FGs, 17/18 XPs, 22.8 yds/kick
return (47th), 25.3 yds/kick return defense (102nd), 6.0 yds/punt return (95th),
4.8 yds/punt return defense (tied 10th).
Overall: The kicking game has been stellar,
kick returns have looked good for NU (including one return for a TD), and the
punting has been good (averaging 35.7 yds/punt with 11/28 inside the 20). NU
has also blocked a FG and a punt (although it has had one punt blocked as
well). The Wildcats continue to do well in kick and punt coverage and have not
allowed a big return thus far this season (the only special teams TD allowed
under Fitz was a blocked punt last year). Punt returns needs some work, but NU
has been doing a great job at keeping the opponents out of good field position.
Place Kicker: A- Amado Villarreal has been a pleasant
surprise, hitting 7/8 FGs and 17/18 XPs (and leads the team in scoring with 38
points). His long FG is a 49 yarder against Michigan which easily went
through. The only negative points were a missed XP and FG against MSU - with
the FG miss coming at the end of regulation that could have sealed the win right
there. Hopefully the solid kicking performance continues.
Kickoffs: B+ Demos has quite a leg and is averaging 63.2
yds/kickoff with 6 touchbacks, but also has kicked 3 out of bounds - and NU is
yielding 25.3 yds/return on its kickoffs (which is the major detractor to this
grade), but the 'Cats have not allowed any particularly long return on the year
which has been a concern in the past.
Punting: B+ Northwestern has been doing a great job
covering punts and is 10th in the nation in punt return defense (allowing only
4.8 yds/return) with 39% of its punts finishing inside the opponents' 20 yard
line. The only negative out of this is that NU averages only 35.7 yds/punt,
which isn't that high - and given Demos' leg strength this number could use
Returns: B NU has fared pretty well on kick returns,
averaging 22.8 yds/return including Simmons' 99 yard TD return against OSU. On
punt returns, though, the 'Cats have looked miserable gaining only 6 yds/return
despite shuffling in different returners (Smith and Ward). While not every punt
condones itself to a return, this area could use some work.
Overall: This is actually being somewhat fair
given the youth and inexperience on the coaching staff (specifically Fitz and OC
McGee) and since NU has pulled off 2 close wins. The 2 close losses hurt,
though, especially the Duke loss when NU got out-coached with Fitz taking points
off the board at the end of the first half and everyone regretting it later.
Despite the shortcomings, the coaches have kept NU in bowl contention and have
led the 'Cats to a good start to the season.
Below are a few stats that
don't show up in the unit rankings:
Turnover margin -0.83/game (tied
98th), time of possession 32:32/game (9th), 5.67 penalties/game (25th), 54.5
penalty yards/game (56th).
jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.