Commentary: 2007 Season Review
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern finished the 2007 season with a 6-6 record (3-5 Big Ten, tied for 5th place with 3 other teams, 3-1 in nonconference play), and although the Wildcats are technically bowl eligible with a 6-6 record, it is very unlikely that NU will be able to secure a bowl bid.  It was a season of "what ifs" for NU, with 3 losses coming in games where NU had the lead in the 4th quarter (against Michigan, Purdue, and Iowa), and another where NU had a a chance to score a game-tying/go-ahead TD on two occasions where the 'Cats had first downs inside the 15 yard line (Duke).  On the other side, NU did pull out some courageous wins: a last-minute TD drive to beat Nevada, an OT win against MSU, a 21 point comeback and 2OT win over Minnesota, and a game-winning TD drive to beat Indiana late in that game.  In the end, Northwestern ended up going 4-4 in those "close" games (with 2 somewhat comfortable wins over Northeastern and EMU and 2 blowout losses to OSU and Illinois), hence the final 6-6 record.

The loss of Tyrell Sutton early in the season (he ended up only really playing 5 complete games) seemed to hurt NU on offense, while the loss of S Brendan Smith hurt the defensive secondary (although he did play early in the year he was never really healthy and eventually turned to surgery and a medical redshirt).  The defense was not as bad as it's been in recent years, but also was not particularly good - allowing an average of 410.5 yards/game and 31.0 points/game.  Meanwhile, the offense came out with a pass-heavy attack (on the first offensive drive of the season against Northeastern, NU went 7-7 passing with only 3 runs sprinkled in, which should have been a tell-tale sign of what to expect on offense) and continued throughout the season, averaging 307.9 yards/game while seeing QB CJ Bacher break NU's single season passing yardage and pass completions record (318-521, 61%, 304.7 yds/game, 19 TD, 19 INT).  It was the costly turnovers and inability to score in the red zone that cost NU, as the offense averaged only 25.8 points/game.

Considering the fact that Coach Fitz has barely over a year of experience under his belt, and OC Garrick McGee is in only his second year in a coordinator position (with very little experience in the offensive coaching staff, especially since Fitz has never had offensive experience), NU managed to meet most expectations after posting a 6-6 record and winning 3 Big Ten games (even exceeding some of the pessimistic media's predictions for a last place Big Ten showing).  But Wildcat fans were hoping for more after seeing some flashes of brilliance: a shutout to start the season (first in almost exactly 10 years), a 520 yard 5 TD performance by QB CJ Bacher against MSU, and holding both Purdue and Michigan to 14 points each through 3 quarters.

Only time will tell what 2008 will have in store for NU, but the fact is that NU will be bringing back a solid core of players with the only glaring deficiency being on the offensive line, but almost all key skill players return - most importantly CJ Bacher and Tyrell Sutton who will be in their senior seasons.  But, let's not get ahead of ourselves, below I'll recap the 2007 season with all of its highs and lows.

Game(s) of the Year:

Both of the "games of the year" were not for the light of heart as the Cardiac 'Cats were living up to their nickname playing 2 consecutive overtime games and winning them both.  This was after a disappointing 3 game losing streak which saw NU lose to a bad Duke team, get crushed by a solid OSU team, and lose to Michigan despite garnering a 4th quarter lead.

- Northwestern 48 - Michigan State 41 (OT): In what was one of the best performances of the season, NU took down a solid MSU team on the road, as the Wildcats never trailed and CJ Bacher led the way with 520 passing yards and 5 TDs.  Against a tough defensive front (who at that point was in the top 5 nationally in sacks), the NU OL did a great job, allowing only one sack (which was actually a mis-handled snap) and giving CJ Bacher the chance to excel all day.  While the defense left some to be desired, they prevented MSU from gaining any yards in their OT chance, giving NU the victory - breaking a 3 game losing streak for the 'Cats.

- Northwestern 49 - Minnesota 48 (2OT): Northwestern found itself down 35-14 in the 3rd quarter, but the NU offense would avoid the letdown as CJ Bacher led the 'Cats back to tie the game with only seconds remaining in regulation on a 4th down pass to Eric Peterman, and in both OTs NU responded with TDs.  The defense ended up coming through by stopping Minnesota from converting a potential game-winning 2 point conversion try in the second overtime.

Disappointment Game of the Year:

- Northwestern 14 - Duke 20: Northwestern came away with zero points in 3 of its red zone trips, with two of those red zone chances coming late in the 4th quarter giving NU a great chance to tie or take the lead (both of those 4th quarter chances saw NU with a first down inside the Duke 15 yard line; on those chances NU went 1-7 passing with only 7 yards gained as the 'Cats were kept out of the end zone.  Also, on a red zone chance just before halftime, Fitz decided to take points off the board as Villarreal had made a FG but the head coach decided to go for it on 4th and 3 after accepting a penalty, a 4th down chance that NU failed to convert.  After the game, especially now at the end of the season, it is really disturbing to look back at that rough loss since a 7th win would have most likely propelled NU to a bowl game, and Duke's only win in its last 31 games was the win over Northwestern in Evanston.

Player of the Year:

QB CJ Bacher: 318-521, 61%, 3,656 yards, 19 TD, 19 INT passing; 86 rushes (32 of those were sacks) for 31 yards, 4 TDs.  As CJ Bacher went, so did the 'Cats.  In NU victories, CJ went 67.8% passing for 349.5 yds/game, 15 TDs, and 4 INTs, while in NU losses, CJ went 54.5% passing for 259.8 yds/game, 4 TDs, and 15 INTs.  Statistically, he had the best numbers in NU history (at least in terms of yardage and completions) as the NU offense transformed into a pass-first mentality, something unfamiliar for most Northwestern fans who were used to seeing a spread offense that was used to set up the run (especially with a recent lineage of solid running backs).  When CJ was on, things went great, but when he was off (especially when the pass rush was routinely putting pressure on him), things went downhill fast.  In NU wins, CJ was only sacked 8 times total (about 1.3/game), while in losses he was sacked a total of 24 times (4/game).  And, of course, there are many other situations where the pressure got to the QB but CJ had to either throw the ball away, or force a throw in order to avoid that pass rush.  In any case, CJ did an admirable job of leading the Northwestern offense to one of the top passing attacks in the nation.

Surprise of the Year:

LB Adam Kadela: Called "slow" by some, he continued a long line of solid MLBs in NU history as he racked up the following stats this year: 125 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble.  He was a tackling machine in the middle for NU as he provided key senior leadership for the Wildcat defensive unit.

Admirable Performances:

RB Tyrell Sutton/Omar Conteh: In only 5 games, Sutton had 522 yards on 108 rushes (4.8 ypc) and 4 TDs along with 30 receptions for 282 yards, as he was definitely missed while out due to an ankle injury suffered against Nevada.  In his absence, Omar Conteh came in and did a nice job with 479 yards on 96 attempts ( 4.7 ypc) and 5 TDs along with 20 receptions for 215 yards and 2 TDs.  Combined, they gained 1,001 yards on the year (204 attempts, good for 4.9 ypc).  While NU mostly relied on a passing attack in 2007, the runners did a nice job when they were called upon.

Wide Receivers: 9 different receivers had over 100 yards on the year (with Brandon Roberson barely missing with 99 receiving yards); Peterman (66 receptions for 744 yards, 3 TDs) and Lane (49 receptions for 649 yards, 7 TDs) led the way with significant contributions from Thompson (46 receptions for 678 yards and 3 TDs), Ward (46 receptions for 434 yards), Jones (19 receptions for 196 yards and 2 TDs), Yarbrough (18 receptions for 188 yards, 2 TDs), and Dunsmore (11 receptions for 141 yards) in addition to the running backs already listed above.  Through the course of the season, NU's offense utilized 15 different receivers.  These guys made a lot of clutch receptions and were a key reason behind NU's offensive success, especially the 'Cats' 46% 3rd down conversion rate.  Although there were a few tough drops, NU's receivers were generally sure-handed and provided a wealth of weapons for CJ to use.

P Stefan Demos: 54 punts with an average of 40.1 yards/punt, 23 inside the 20 (42.6%) and 5 50+ yarders.  Although the strong-legged redshirt freshman kicker was assigned punt and kickoff duties (and later limited only to punting due to an apparent injury), he did a solid job on punts, something NU had been lacking for a few years.  And NU limited opponents to only 4.9 return yards/punt and did not allow a TD off of a punt return this year.  NU featured a couple of unique aspects in the punting game - most notably the new formation with only 3 guys close to the ball on the LOS with the other 2 on the line and the 2 gunners spread out wide, with 3 backs about half way to the punter as additional blockers.  Demos took advantage of this formation, as NU typically had at least 3 gunners on one side of the formation, with his bouncing rugby-style line drive punts that allowed almost no opportunity to return and gave the gunners a great chance to down the ball inside the 20.

DT John Gill: Came into his own during the year, racking up 50 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 PBUs, 4 QB hurries, and 1 fumble recovery.  Despite a disappointing overall performance from the rest of the line, Gill provided some pressure up front and disrupted opponents quite often while being one of the biggest threats on NU's defense.


NU Defensive Line: The defense was, according to DC Greg Colby, "one of the most talented" in recent years here at Northwestern - and many fans believed it was the most talented since 1996.  But, the squad ended up struggling for much of the season, even with a very experienced and talented DL with such names as Ngene, Mims, Wootton, Gill, and Hahn.  They ended the season with only 12 sacks (1/game), as NU's other 6 sacks came from LBs or DBs.  Meanwhile, the defense allowed 4.4 yards/rush and 167.1 rushing yards/game and 410.5 total yards/game, 77th nationally and 10th in the conference (31.0 points/game allowed, 87th nationally, 10th in the Big Ten), which was slightly better than recent years but still not to the level of a good defense that can be relied upon in a pinch.  In the case of NU's defense - it all starts up front, and the DL failed to consistently create pressure up front (especially on passing downs) and could only effectively limit one aspect of the opponents' offense (if any) any given game.

NU Defensive Backs: McManis had a breakout true freshman year and showed the potential to be a great, if not "shutdown," cornerback, while senior Deante Battle has been a hard hitter and playmaker for NU.  Also, the experienced safety combination of Smith and McPherson looked to be a boon to the NU secondary.  The disappointment began with Smith never really being healthy following off-season shoulder surgery (he would opt for surgery and a medical redshirt after only limited playing time this year), and the combination of McPherson/Phillips was never really effective, especially when they were forced to cover receivers.  Also, Battle and McManis had some good individual efforts but were never really able to stop opponents' passing attacks.  In terms of stats, NU allowed opponents to go 62.8% passing with 243.4 yds/game (11.9 yards/completion, 7.5 yards/attempt) and an opponent pass efficiency of 141.11 (96th nationally).

NU Offensive Line: For a unit that included 4 returning starters, 3 of them seniors, this line underwhelmed most of the year, allowing the pressure to get to CJ on mulitple occasions - particularly late in the game for 4 tough losses for NU this year (Duke, Michigan, Purdue, and Iowa).  On the year, they allowed 32 sacks (99th nationally) and although they had a few great games against tough pass rushes (Indiana, Michigan State in particular), they underperformed for much of the year and allowing pressure to get to CJ directly contributed to multiple Northwestern losses this year.

Final Unit Grades


Grade: B-
Stats (national rank, conference rank): 25.8 points/game (71st, 10th), 427.7 yds/game (31st, 1st), 119.8 rushing yds/game (97th, 11th), 307.9 passing yds/game (12th, 1st), 124.9 pass efficiency (68th, 7th), 45.8% 3rd down conversion (22nd, 3rd), 2.67 sacks allowed/game (99th, 10th), and 25 turnovers lost (88th, 9th) (19 interceptions: 109th, 10th, 6 fumbles: 14th, 1st).
Overall: NU racked up a ton of yards and did a nice job of moving the ball down the field on almost every opponent but had a big problem in converting those into points - NU was 31st nationally in yards/game but 71st in points/game.  The lack of a consistent run/pass mix hurt NU in those cases - especially when trying to pass the opponents all knew what was coming and how to stop it (ignore the run and rush the passer).  While there were 4 games with 31 points or more for NU, there were 5 games with NU failing to score 20 points, one of those with NU failing to score an offensive TD (against OSU).  The NU offense featured a pass-heavy attack (NU passed 57% of the time and ran only 43% of the time, which included sacks), which was a little different than recent years when the 'Cats used a spread offense to set up the running game.

Quarterback: B- CJ Bacher showed that when he's on, he's on and can lead NU to a victory, even in a close nail-biter.  Meanwhile, when the pass rush is on and/or the INT bug hits, it can get pretty ugly.  But, at the end of the day, he's NU's QB and did an admirable job leading NU's offense through a tough season.

Running Backs and "Superbacks": B+ Losing Sutton for basically 7 games really hurt, but Conteh filled in nicely and Sutton/Conteh finished the season combining for 1,001 yards, and provided a viable running option when NU decided to go in that direction (which wasn't very often).  The offensive play calling was questioned at times due to the pass-heavy attack and the failure to hand the ball off, and 2 running backs who combined for 4.9 yds/carry definitely add to that questioning.  While Dunsmore, Mitchell, and Woodsum mostly took blocking roles, Dunsmore showed the ability to catch some clutch passes down the middle or in the flat while Woodsum also had some offensive contributions (a TD reception).

Wide Receivers: A- These guys did almost nothing but catch clutch passes - definitely contributing in NU's 45.8% for 3rd down conversions and helping the offense make it happen all year.  The only negative would be a few dropped passes, although none really contributed directly to a loss.  Lane, Peterman, Thompson, Jones, Ward, and Yarbrough were all big factors as CJ Bacher spread the ball around to virtually every available receiver.

Offensive Line: C+ While they had great performances against 2 Big Ten teams ranked near the top nationally in sacks (Michigan State and Indiana, allowing only one sack in the two games combined), they had a rough time holding back the pass rush on multiple other occasions - including the 4th quarter of the Michigan, Purdue, and Iowa games.  They allowed 32 sacks on the year (as noted, 99th nationally).  For a line that included 4 previous starters and 3 seniors (Rees, Crum, Thiry), this line performed well under expectations going into the season.


Grade: D
Stats (national rank, conference rank): 31.0 points/game (87th, 10th), 410.5 yards/game (77th, 10th), 167.1 rushing yards/game (73rd, 10th), 243.4 yards/game (82nd, 10th), 141.1 pass efficiency defense (96th, 10th),  42.8% 3rd down conversion defense (89th, 10th), 1.5 sacks/game (95th, 10th), 5.25 TFL/game (98th, 10th), and 16 turnovers gained (101st, 10th) (9 interceptions: 87th, 10th; 7 fumbles recovered: 82nd, 7th).
Overall: Another year, another statistical nightmare for the NU defense.  Northwestern was ranked 10th or lower in EVERY major defensive statistical category.  In NU's 3 Big Ten wins, the average margin of victory was 3.67 points - with two of those wins coming in OT.  And in the games where the offense managed to top 40 points, the defense also allowed 40+ points.  But, in NU's 6 wins, the defense played a significant role in the game - a shutout in game one, two sacks and a safety to finish the game against Nevada, a stop in OT against MSU, 2 key INTs to start the comeback against Minnesota and the final stop on the 2 point conversion, 4 turnovers gained against EMU, and a key INT return for a TD against Indiana.  But, the fact is that the defense was porous, and although they showed the ability to contain some tough opponents through three quarters they were never able to put together a complete game.  Even the season opening shutout was an aberration, as a team with a competent FG kicker would have been able to put up 12 points as there were 4 times Northeastern was in legitimate FG range.  The fact is that Northwestern needs some kind of change on the defensive coaching staff in the offseason as NU ended up near the bottom of the Big Ten defensively - and would have been in the basement if not for an even more inept Minnesota team.

Defensive Line: D Already mentioned as one of the biggest disappointments of the year for Northwestern, this unit did nothing to help themselves all the way until the very end of the year as they stood by and watched Illinois dominate the line of scrimmage all day long during the last game of the regular season for NU.  Overall, this unit had the potential to be good - many (including the coaching staff) thought that this was one of the most talented DLs in some time at NU.  But once the seasons started, this unit not only failed to impress, but also failed to show much of anything.  While they managed to contain the run at times, they never managed to generate much of a pass rush and rarely disrupted opponents' offensive rhythms.  The only bright spot had to be John Gill, who seemed to be doing it all himself at times.  It really makes you scratch your head when you look at some great plays that come from this unit, but unfortunately those plays are few and far between; overall there were just many more bad plays than good plays.

Linebackers: C+ The bright spot of the defense, the linebackers, led by senior Adam Kadela, were somewhat respectable - at least until they had to contend with both a passing and rushing threat.  Kadela did mostly all he could, leading the team in tackles and really providing solid senior leadership on the unit.  Arrington and Kwateng both had some nice plays during the year, but were quiet in some of NU's defensive meltdowns over the course of the year.  Near the end of the year, Johnson really started to come on as a key pass rusher on 3rd downs, but never had a ton of playing time.  Also, we saw the young Davie and Williams in at times - with Davie showing good speed.  Malleo also came in on 3rd downs and provided a spark of energy.  Despite having a decent showing, this unit had to go both ways - stopping the run and providing some pass coverage, but the fact is that the NU defense was never able to contain a two dimensional team (and had trouble with multiple one-dimensional teams).

Secondary: D Expectations were relatively high for this unit: Smith and McPherson had a chance to combine to be solid safeties (Smith was never healthy, as noted earlier, and ended up going out for the year) - although Phillips eventually stepped in - despite experience (McPherson) and potential (Phillips), the safeties never really performed up to expectations, especially in pass defense.  More was expected from the cornerbacks - McManis had a breakout freshman year and his arrow was pointing up, meanwhile the hard-hitting senior Battle was a physical player and provided some senior leadership.  In the end, this unit got picked on quite often, hence NU's 96th ranked pass efficiency defense; the NU pass defense made multiple previously bad-looking QBs look like All-Americans, including Duke's Lewis and Iowa's Christiansen, who had previously done almost nothing offensively.  I continue to believe a lot of the issues have to do with the defensive scheme, which seems to feature a lot of soft coverage in order to try and make tackles, but the fact is that it hasn't been working as the receivers seem to roam free in the NU defensive backfield.

Special Teams

Grade: B+
Stats: 12/18 FGs (66.7%), 36/37 XPs (97.3%), 22.4 yds/kickoff return, 1 TD (44th, 5th), 24.7 yds/kickoff return allowed, 1 TD (113th, 10th), 6.3 yds/punt return (98th, 8th), 4.9 yds/punt return allowed (10th, 2nd), 36.8 net punt yds/punt (32nd, 2nd), .
Overall: The Northwestern special teams did a good job of keeping NU in many games, whether that meant solid punts and preventing a return, hitting a FG, or getting a solid kickoff return, the unit played well most of the year.  One of the best aspects of the special teams was preventing the opposition from doing much in the return game, although near the end of the year (particularly against EMU and Indiana) that tailed off considerably as NU allowed some big returns (including one for a TD, the first return TD against NU under Fitz on a kickoff or non-blocked punt).  Some of that was probably due to the fact that Demos was pulled from kickoff duties midway through the season (possibly due to a slight injury) and NU had to resort to Villarreal and then Pines for kickoffs - neither of whom had the same leg strength as Demos.  Overall, though, NU had a solid performance in the special teams, which is shown in most of the stats.

Place Kicker: B Amado Villarreal started out the year great, going 7/7, including a long of 49 yards, but struggled after that, going 5/11 to conclude the year.  In the end, though, he went 66.7% on the season and provided at least some consistency in the kicking department.  Obviously, some is left to be desired as he missed a potential game-winning FG against MSU in regulation, and some key FGs against Iowa and Indiana that would have helped NU near the end of the game.

Kickoffs: C After Demos was pulled off of kickoff duties, NU kickoffs really went downhill as neither Villarreal nor Pines were able to get the ball down the field far enough.  In the final game of the year, NU went back to "pooch" kicks handled by Villarreal, and he handled them rather well as Illinois did not have any significant kickoff returns.  In the end, though, poor kickoff coverage against EMU and Indiana almost cost NU those games, and with a defense that allowed a boatload of yards, NU could hardly afford to give away good field position.

Punting: A- Northwestern finally found a consistent punting game - with net punting and punt returns allowed ranking 2nd in the conference and among the best nationally - although it took an unorthodox style with a unique punt formation and an unusual punting style.  Demos was excellent on punts and did exactly what he was called upon to do while the coverage unit also did an excellent job at preventing any sort of significant return for most of the year.  Credit the coaching staff for coming up with a unique but effective punting game plan and the players for executing in almost all season (the worst game was probably against OSU where a punt was blocked and a couple were returned for more than average).

Returns: B NU's kickoff returns were respectable, with McManis getting some significant returns and freshman Simmons taking one to the house leading to an average that put NU in the top half nationally and within the conference.  Punt returns, meanwhile, left a lot to be desired as NU averaged only 6.3 yards/return - and it took NU a while to determine its punt returner, initially going with Ward who seemed to run away from more punts than he caught.  Eventually, Peterman ended up with the job and did a nice job of catching the punts but never had much of a chance to return as the coverage always seemed to be nearby when he did make the catch.


Grade: C
With C being an average grade and 6-6 being an average record, the coaching staff deserves an average rating.  NU went 4-4 in close games that were decided in the 4th quarter, once again splitting.  There were ups and downs, but at the end of the day this team ended up just about where expectations had them ending, and for a still relatively youthful coaching staff (new head coach on the job just over one calendar year and new OC on the job for just 2 seasons now) that isn't that bad.  This staff brought NU from a 4-8 campaign last year and improved that record to 6-6 and got NU to bowl eligibility - not good enough for a bowl bid (most likely) but good enough to achieve some respectability and give the 'Cats something to build upon.

Other Stats

(national rank, conference rank): turnover margin -0.75 (105th, 10th), time of possession 31:04 (27th, 4th), 4.92 penalties/game (11th, 4th), 46.9 penalty yards/game (26th, 6th).
Notes: The turnover margin really killed NU - as you just can't overcome such turnover deficits: NU only won one game where it lost the turnover battle while losing only one game in which it had equal turnovers or better.  Despite having a pass-heavy attack, Northwestern managed to keep the ball for a significant period of time this season - which can probably be attributed to the significant amount of yards gained by the offense.  Finally, as we have seen over the past 2 years, Fitz prides himself on playing disciplined football, and Northwestern ended this year near the top nationally for being least penalized (after being #1 following last year in both penalties and penalty yards).

Final Note

This year's NU squad finished just about as expected, going .500 on the season and finishing with 3 Big Ten wins.  The story of the year was NU grabbing 4 close wins but dropping 4 tough losses.  The fact is that with such a young coaching staff and a lot of returning players next year, this season's finish gives Northwestern a lot to build upon going into next year.  It's been a long season for NU with many ups and downs, not unlike the national picture with this being the "year of the upset," and at the very least it has been entertaining (if not heart-stopping at times).  And to think that about 15 years ago, NU fans would be thrilled with a 6-6 finish, so it's admirable what a way that NU football has come - and that NU has achieved 6 wins 5 times since 2000.

Still to come: commentary on the national picture (after some big games over the next 2 weeks) and a statistical evaluation of my own predictions this season.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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