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.

There is 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.

First Half 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 advantage.

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.

Unit Grades


Grade: B-
Stats (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 yds/catch).

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.

Offensive 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.


Grade: C+
Stats (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 disappointed.

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.

Special Teams

Grade: B+
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 improvement.

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.


Grade: B-
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.

Other Stats

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).

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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