Commentary: Preseason Prediction for 2008
by Jonathan Hodges

To summarize my preseason predictions unveiled this past week over at Lake the Posts, here is my preseason preview and predictions for 2008:

August 30 vs. Syracuse

Syracuse will be put in the "should-win" category, but 'Cats fans know that doesn't mean a solid victory or even a win is a sure thing.  The Orange will be looking to kick off their season with a win since NU is considered a game that is within reach for them, despite a lot of question marks at key positions on offense and defense.  Their coach Greg Robinson is now 7-28 for his career and definitely has not turned things around like he would have wanted when hired for the job, and considering the long legacy of football there, fans are definitely not happy with the current direction of the program.  Given that this is basically his last chance to prove himself and they have a QB who put up some decent numbers last year with some key returning RBs, one never knows what will happen in that first game of the year.  Their QB Andrew Robinson engineered one of the biggest upsets last year when they trumped Louisville, and he has 2 RBs returning from injury: Carter and Brinkley, who should help their rushing game by leaps and bounds.  The biggest issue on offense is the loss of two big time receivers Williams and Smith.  On defense, look for tackle Arthur Jones in the middle and LB Flaherty, but overall the D is a work in progress.

Northwestern will have to kick things into gear and try to prevent a week one letdown; NU typically performs well in its first game of the season, but they can't write off Syracuse.  QB CJ Bacher and his slew of offensive skill players will have to get on the same page as OC McCall, and the brand new offensive line will see their first live action - which is probably the biggest thing to look out for (especially with redshirt freshman Burkett at C dealing with Syracuse's Jones).  On defense, it will be time to see if Hankwitz's new aggressive scheme coupled with NU's experience equals results on the field.  It all starts to be answered on Aug. 30.

I predict a solid Northwestern win - while Syracuse is trying to break in some new receivers and get its RBs back in form, NU's newly inspired defense will keep them in check and 'Cats fans may even see some havoc in the backfield.  On offense, NU should be able to do what it wants - and if Syracuse's 2 best defensive players styme NU's rushing game in the middle of the field, look for McCall to spread things out with 5-wide and for CJ to make things happen with his arm - it will be tough for the Orange to keep up with NU's slew of receivers.

September 6 @ Duke

This is a huge revenge game for Northwestern, while Duke will be trying to prove it can turn things around under new coach Cutcliffe.  This game will be NU's only nonconference away game, and it's against the team that handed the 'Cats a huge upset loss at home last year.  And, Duke is expected to possibly be improved this year, although NU catches them during a period of transition with a new coach early in the season.  On offense, Duke will have returning QB Thaddeus Lewis and some up and coming receivers - and the fact is that Lewis shredded NU last year and at one point completed 15 consecutive passes.  For the D, the Blue Devils feature a very strong defensive line (who definitely helped their cause last year when NU was in the red zone late in the game) and some quality LBs), and although they are lacking in the secondary, don't expect to see the guys up front let up.

The Wildcats know what last year's loss meant and should be focused on the task at hand.  On offense, again, CJ and the receivers should be able to make things happen given Duke's secondary.  Also, it will really be time for NU's OL to prove itself against some tough competition.  This will be the game where NU really proves itself to 'Cats fans - maybe not the conference of the nation quite yet - but NU fans will see which way the tide is turning.

I predict a Wildcat victory here, although I expect it may be uncomfortable at times if the OL is having trouble with Duke's defensive front.  In the end, though, I see Northwestern focusing on avenging last year's loss and making it happen in order to bring NU's record to 2-0 and head back to Evanston, putting last year's embarassment squarely in the rear view mirror.

September 13 vs. Southern Illinois

SIU is a tough team from FCS/I-AA (the NCAA likes the term "football championship subdivision" although most know it as I-AA) who went far in last year's playoffs but lost their coach to Northern Illinois (Jerry Kill) and lost multiple key players (particularly on offense) to graduation.  While they will be in somewhat of a rebuilding mode, don't expect them to roll over, either.  Unlike New Hampshire two years ago, they will come in having already faced a FCS/I-AA opponent - so they won't have the luxury of focusing exclusively on the 'Cats leading up to the start of the year.  Their new coach, Dale Lennon, hails from North Dakota, who has shown their own strength after ascending to FCS/I-AA and beating Minnesota badly last year.  On offense, look for QB Allaria and RB White (who were mostly backups last year), although with a new staff in place, key contributors may be different.  They are riding a 2 year winning streak over FBS/I-A ("football bowl subdivision") opponents Indiana and Northern Illinois, so expect that they will come in with some level of confidence.

Northwestern knows full well that this opponent is dangerous, and even though NU should have some level of confidence for this game, Fitz has been burned by this situation before and he should be able to get the 'Cats focused and get them prepared for the game.  This is where the trial by fire over the past 2 season should help NU's head coach.  Offensively, NU should be able to overmatch SIU with the wealth of skill players.  And on defense, the Wildcats should be in a good position to smother an offense still finding its way.

I predict a big Northwestern victory, although SIU should make things interesting for at least the first half.  In the end, NU should be able to get its offense running on all cylinders - especially of the OL really begins to gel.  On defense, it is the perfect opportunity to build confidence against an opponent's offense that will still be establishing itself.  Winning this game will help NU get on a roll (3-0) going into probably the most important 3 game stretch of the year.

September 20 vs. Ohio

Ohio University returns to Evanston to play the 'Cats after NU beat them handily in 2005 in what was Frank Solich's debut as the Ohio head coach.  This season, the Bobcats come into the game on the heels of some moderate success in the MAC featuring a bowl game, appearance in the MAC title game, and an upset over a BCS conference foe (Pitt).  They'll be looking to build on a 6-6 season of their own last year.  They did lose their top RB last season and will have to rely on a stable of relatively smaller backs, so look for some different schemes from Solich due to their size.  Also, a big senior TE, Mooney, will be a threat (especially considering NU's historical weakness in covering solid TEs).  On defense, there will be a squad of upperclassmen LBs looking to take care of business - senior Michael Brown is probably the biggest star of the bunch.  Ohio also has a very good CB in Mark Parson who has the potential to shut down receivers, and finally don't count out a couple of other solid athletes on the line and the other CB, Posey.

For Northwestern, this will be an interesting comparison game as Ohio will travel to play Ohio State just two weeks prior on September 6.  Of course, using the transitive property in college football is very dangerous and doesn't mean much of anything, but it is a basis of comparison to the class of the Big Ten (and nation) early on in the season.  This game also presents a challenge for NU, who has the Big Ten schedule and Iowa straight ahead, and Ohio may have the best defense NU will face in its nonconference schedule (going into the season I would consider them the best out of the 4 nonconference opponents, at least).  So, the 'Cats will have to focus on executing the offense well and not looking ahead in order to be successful.  The task should be a bit easier on defense, but don't give the Bobcats a pass - Solich has obviously burned NU with a stellar running game in the past (albeit with a much different talent level on the field).

Going with my previous nonconference prediction, I see the Wildcats pulling out a victory here, although it may be a bit closer game than many would like.  In fact, it may take a good defensive showing for NU in what may turn out to be a lower-scoring game.  This would propel the 'Cats to 4-0 for their first undefeated nonconference schedule since 1963 and would actually be their first 4 game winning streak since 1996.  That may be a lot of history to overcome, but the fact is that NU is playing in the here and now and I see the ability to complete the task.

September 27 @ Iowa

NU will then travel to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes, who look to be much improved over last season.  Just like NU, Iowa starts off with 4 nonconference games, although Iowa will have faced a potentially tougher team in Pitt the previous week (on the road).  But, being the first Big Ten game of the season for both teams, expect a battle and the first in-conference test.  Offensively, it can't get much worse than last year for Iowa (at least overall).  Their OL was horrible (to say the least) and they had lost almost all of their receivers going into the year.  But, this season, QB Christiansen returns and has some pretty good targets in WR Brodell and TE Moeaki, and if that OL can stay healthy and perform up to par it should equal a big improvement.  Christiansen also vastly improved as last season went on, and NU fans know his capablities after he propelled Iowa to a comeback win in the 4th quarter last season in Evanston.  The only caveat on offense is a complete lack of an established RB - it appears as though the Hawkeyes will have to dig all the way down to a JUCO transfer and/or freshmen to get a back.  On defense, Iowa looks to be a significant force with a very solid LB corps in Humpal, Edds, and Klinkenborg; also, their DL includes seniors King and Kroul look to be the best DT tandem in the conference.

The 'Cats will have quite a task ahead of them in this Big Ten opener.  While Iowa has had a couple of down seasons in a row and had a slew of off the field issues leading up to this season, many, including most of the media, consider the Hawkeyes to be a contender with the possibility to make waves (since they miss both OSU and Michigan this year and overall have a relatively light schedule).  One thing many people miss, though, is that NU won 2 straight over Iowa in 2005-2006 (the amazing comeback in '05 and a very solid win in Iowa City in '06) and lost last year's game thanks to a complete NU meltdown in the 4th quarter (at one point, NU had a 17-14 lead with the ball in that quarter) - the fact is that this series has been very exciting over the past few years and I expect this trend to continue.  Northwestern will have to effectively execute its passing game and prevent a repeat of what Christiansen did in last year's game to have a fighting chance in this game.  With that solid defensive front for Iowa, though, NU's OL will get a huge test.

This game is a close call and I believe NU has the ability to win the game, but Iowa will be improved over last season and playing in Iowa City is as difficult as anywhere; therefore, I predict a 'Cats loss, dropping them to 4-1.  I definitely consider this a "swing game" though and NU definitely has the opportunity to win if it can strongly answer its tougest test of the 2008 season to this point.

October 11 vs. Michigan State

NU gets a mid-season bye relatively early on and will return home to face MSU the following week.  These teams have played some very entertaining games this decade, and this game may very well follow the same mold.  Many predict the Spartans to finally "turn the corner" this year and become a serious Big Ten contender, especially with QB Hoyer and RB Ringer returning to a potent offense.  As NU fans know, Ringer helped shred NU's defense last season (fortunately NU's offense was even more effective), although in terms of receivers Hoyer loses some key targets in Thomas and Davis.  They do have some up and coming receivers, though, so don't expect them to miss too many beats.  On defense, they have a few true stars to rely upon, including transfer DE Anderson who should wreak havoc (and create problems for NU's OL), LB Jones and SS Wiley.  MSU will have already been tested against Cal, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Iowa, but if they continue their past history they should be able to roll into Evanston with some wins and national attention.

The 'Cats not only must contain Ringer but must also contend with a pretty good defense.  I wouldn't be surprised to see a repeat of the shootout from last year IF each team's OLs can establish themselves.  Otherwise it may be a frustrating day for either team (or NU in particular given the big question mark at OL).  Given the series history here, I would expect this game to be competitive and possibly have a wild finish.  The question is will the 'Cats be able to improve on their ability to finish games from last season.

This is a tough one again, but I do expect MSU to take a step forward in the conference pecking order this season given Dantonio's success thus far and the talent he has to work with.  So, unfortunately, I predict an NU loss here to drop them to 4-2 (0-2).  Now, once again, this is a game that Northwestern has the ability to win, and the 'Cats will have the home field with (hopefully) a decent crowd on hand - since this will be after the start of classes and feature a Big Ten opponent.  And we know that anything can happen at Ryan Field.

October 18 vs. Purdue

The Wildcats will face Purdue in its homecoming game and will have to contend with a very good senior QB in Curtis Painter.  It may sound familiar because back in 2000 NU faced a Purdue senior QB named Drew Brees who helped pick apart the 'Cats' defense in their most recent Big Ten championship season.  But, a lot has changed since then, like NU beating Purdue under Tiller in back to back seasons (2004-2005) and the fact that this will be Tiller's final season at the helm before Danny Hope takes over next year.  While the Boilermakers lost some top receivers, including Bryant, they do bring back a senior RB in Kory Sheets (the other senior RB Jaycen Taylor, who helped dominate NU in the final quarter of the game in 2007, sustained an injury during camp that looks to keep him out for the year) and, of course, have that very solid and veteran QB in Painter.  Defensively, they look to be significantly improved with a lot of returning talent including LB Heygood and LB Werner, and some experience in the secondary - although they did lose some talent on the DL.  Overall, this team looks to finish off the Tiller era in the style that he brought to the Big Ten by moving the ball effectively and putting points on the board, although the defense looks like it may help the cause more than usual.

Northwestern faces Purdue every season (although the "rivalry" seems to be relatively non-existent since the series with MSU, Wisconsin, and Iowa all seem to bring more excitement), and has had well-documented difficulties when facing the Boilermakers under Tiller.  Since he took over in 1997, NU has only 2 wins (the aforementioned 2004 and 2005 campaigns), although last season the 'Cats had a 17-14 lead with the ball in the 4th quarter and looked to be headed for victory - until the offense failed to gain a first down and the defense collapsed as Taylor ran by them; in fact, in the 4th quarter Purdue outgained NU 220-4 in yards.  So, the 'Cats will be looking to rebound from yet another 2007 meltdown performance (interestingly, NU will get to face all 4 opponents that either came back to beat the 'Cats or where the 'Cats failed to convert a game winning opportunity again in 2008; revenge, anyone?).  To do so will require a strong defensive performance to hold off an effective runner in Sheets and a very talented QB in Painter - fortunately, NU's D will have had a chance to come together under new DC Hankwitz and hopefully will be a stronger force than in the recent past.  On offense, NU must run the ball more effectively, and the fact is that McCall will do just that as long as the OL holds up.  Again, hopefully by this point in the season the OL will be somewhat effective and the Northwestern offense will be able to move the ball well.

Despite the trouble NU has had with Tiller-coached teams, I predict a win here for the 'Cats due to the experience this team has had together in the first half of the season and the fact that this is NU's homecoming game.  It may very well be a close game until the end - which is just the way NU likes to make it to keep those alumni entertained.  A win here would boost the 'Cats to 5-2 (1-2) and put them squarely in the hunt for bowl eligibility.

October 25 @ Indiana

The 'Cats will then travel down to Bloomington to face the Hoosiers, who NU beat 31-28 in a thriller last season that came down to the final minute.  Indiana lost big time WR Hardy and CBs Porter and Majors but returns with QB Kellen Lewis (after a spring suspension), RB Thigpen, and a strong DL including Middleton, Brown, and Kirlew.  Lewis can almost definitively be considered the most experienced and best returning dual-threat QB in the conference given his running abilities and the fact that he can chuck the ball downfield.  (In fact, this and the following game against Minnesota will make an interesting road trip for NU as they face two dangerous dual-threat QBs).  On defense, the Hoosiers return a very strong DL who were effectively contained last year in one of NU's OL's best performances of the season, but their defensive front will have to be even more effective after the loss of key members of the secondary.  Look for a strong offensive showing out of IU, but if the DL can't get into the backfield and wreak havoc, things could go south quickly for the Hoosiers.

Northwestern should be able to make things happen offensively if the OL can hold back the strong IU DL, especially if they give CJ enough time to find receivers downfield.  And if the 'Cats can once again establish the run, things should be even easier as the IU DL wouldn't be able to concentrate solely on the pass rush (which is one reason why the 'Cats' OL was so effective against them in 2007 as Sutton had 33 carries).  On defense, NU will have to effectively contain Lewis on the ground and then force him to make throws through the air.  Last season, things got a little too close to comfort, although NU didn't allow him to run wild.  The play of NU's DL will be the biggest factor in the game as they must keep him in the pocket yet put the pressure on, while the LBs and secondary must cover the receivers in the defensive backfield.  The 'Cats must also watch out for Thigpen who is quick and can damage them if he is ignored.

Any Big Ten away game is tough, but given the potential improvement for the NU D and the offensive weapons for the 'Cats, I predict a Northwestern victory over Indiana.  They key matchups will be the NU OL versus the strong IU DL, and also the NU DL versus Lewis; I expect a tough game but forsee the Wildcats taking the IU DL out of the game in one way or another to move the ball and put points on the board.  And the NU D should be able to put pressure up front and allow some quicker looking LBs to finish the job.  A win would bring NU to 6-2 (2-2) and officially make the 'Cats bowl eligible, although we all know that doesn't mean a bowl trip.

November 1 @ Minnesota

The Wildcats finish off this mid-season road trip and their "3rd quarter" of the year with what will be their final trip to the HHH Metrodome (Minnesota will have moved into the new TCF Stadium by the time the next NU trip to Minnesota takes place).  Yes, the Gophers were pretty bad last year, and, yes, NU struggled mightily and took a last-minute 4th down conversion and some OT heroics to defeat them.  Overall, Minnesota will look improved this year over last, but don't expect them to suddenly contend for the league title.  The offensive system should finally begin to sink into their heads and QB Weber has a year under his belt, so that means look out for an offense that moves the ball well and turns it over much less than it did last year (when it got burned many times by turnovers) - and since they weren't too bad last year on offense an improvement may take them a long way.  Defensively, though, they were horrific last season, but look for a pretty decent improvement there - they have a couple of solid LBs in Hightower and Davis plus a strong DE in VanDeSteeg.  The Gophers also have some JUCO transfers who can contribute right away.  So, look for a much improved team, but one that still has a ways to go to compete for a higher spot in the Big Ten standings.

But, given the very tough game they gave to NU last year, don't discount anything.  The NU defense basically took 3 quarter off last season and then had to grab a couple of INTs and let the offense work its magic to tie the game before OT, where a decision to go for 2 by Minnesota and a great stop by Gill propelled the 'Cats to a victory.  If the defense decides to show up in this year's game, NU should be able to win by at least a comfortable margin - especially with the returning players coupled with Hankwitz (who has handled Minnesota while up in Wisconsin as recently as last year).  On offense, NU had to turn things up late last season but got the job done; expect more of the same with an improved but still lacking Gopher defense.

So, I predict a win here for NU in its final Metrodome appearance, bringing NU's record to 7-2 (3-2), which puts the 'Cats in a nice position going into the final 3 game stretch.  Many consider Northwestern's final 3 opponents to be the toughest of the year, so it is vital to ratchet up some wins by this point so NU can hopefully ride some momentum into the end of the year and at that point be fighting for bowl position and not necessarily just bowl eligibility.  The fact is that each of the first 9 games individually are "winable" for the 'Cats, and although I don't think they can win them all right now, I won't discount that possibility - I think both 9-0 and 8-1 are plausible if everything goes well: the OL gels immediately, the defense turns around significantly, and injuries are avoided.

November 8 vs. Ohio State

If there is one team that doesn't need much of an introduction, it's Ohio State.  They are ranked in the top 2 in virtually every poll heading into the season, and 'Cats fans know this team is difficult, with NU having only one win over them since 1971 (2004 in Evanston); OSU beat NU by 51 last year as NU failed to score an offensive TD.  I can rattle off a bunch of names on both offense: Boeckman, Wells, Pryor, Robiskie; and defense: Laurinaitis, Jenkins, Freeman, Wilson.  There will undoubtedly be a slew of these players moving onto the NFL following this season.  And if they don't make it to the national championship for a third straight season (and win this time) the season will probably be considered a disappointment.  Look for an offense that can show off in many ways - efficient passing with Boeckman, strong running with Wells, and maybe even a change of pace with stud recruit Pryor.  On defense, this team is as strong as anyone and moving the ball will be difficult against the Buckeyes, let alone scoring points.

If NU does meet or exceed the 7-2 mark this could make a very high profile game in Evanston, but Northwestern faces a daunting task in this highlight home game.  In reality the 'Cats must play a perfect game on offense, defense, and special teams in order to have a realistic shot in this game.  Offensively, NU must maintain a balanced attack and must take advantage of every scoring opportunity to stay in the game.  On defense, the 'Cats must try to just slow down the Buckeye attack and they'll need all the components of the defense executing perfectly in order to stay in this game.  And finally, the special teams must put NU in a position to win by containing OSU's return game and gaining some yardage on returns while converting FGs and XPs.  All pretty basic things but it will be difficult to finesse their way to a win.

So, my prediction is, not surprisingly, an NU loss (dropping the overall record to 7-3).  This is obviously the most difficult opponent NU will face in the 2008 season and the only real advantage NU will have is the home field (although 'Cats fans know that home field doesn't necessarily mean a majority of NU fans, especially when OSU and Michigan come to town).  Hopefully, NU will be able to stay competitive in this game.

November 15 @ Michigan

Following the date with OSU, NU heads to Ann Arbor to face a new-look Michigan team now with Rich Rodriguez at the helm and running a relatively unfamiliar spread offense at the helm of a brand new (possibly freshman) QB.  On defense, though, the Wolverines will have a very strong defense featuring linemen Taylor and Jamison, CBs Trent and Warren, and LB Ezeh.  On offense, there are a lot of guys to replace, but RB Minor and WR Matthews should be able to step up and contribute.  Look out for an offense that may not be in sync early on but that will improve as the season moves on, and a defense that may very well keep them in games despite an offense that may be a work in progress.

If the 'Cats have an opportunity to win in Ann Arbor, this is it - after a coaching change and the loss of many key players, especially on offense, Michigan is dfinitely in a relatively vulnerable position.  If NU's new-style defense can hold back the UM offense, the 'Cats will have a very good chance to win this game; and the Wildcat offense will have to truly prove itself in this game - especially against a tough DL.  But, with this game late in the season, anything can happen.

I predict that NU can win one of its last three games, despite the tough opponents, and I believe this is the one given the transition in the UM program.  A win here would bring the 'Cats to 8-3, which is a number of wins last attained in 2000 in that Big Ten championship season.  Also, note that the last 3 wins over Michigan were years that NU won Big Ten titles (and the last time NU beat both NU and OSU was 1958).

November 22 vs. Illinois

NU caps off its 2008 regular season campaign with a showdown against in-state rival Illinois, who is in the midst of a football revival after reaching the Rose Bowl last season.  They lost two key components in RB Mendenhall and LB Leman, but the Illini return QB Juice Williams who continues his improvement, some young RBs, WR Benn, and on defense CB Davis, and LBs Miller and Wilson.  While they have lost some talented players to injury in the preseason, with some highly touted recruits waiting for playing time and Illinois should be able to maintain a competitive position in the conference.

Northwestern will definitely be looking forward to this final home game of the season against NU's trophy rival, and the result of this game will potentially affect bowl positioning for both teams.  The 'Cats' defense will be looking to slow down the spread option attack, which they were unable to do last season, and, unfortuately for NU, they've seen Juice develop as a QB over his 2 years at this level - and that trend will likely continue.  And although there is a question mark at RB after Mendenhall moved to the NFL, there are plenty of quick players ready to take his place.  On the other side of the ball, the NU offense will try to get things going a little earlier than last year's game where the 'Cats frantically put a couple of scores on the board late to make the game a little more respectable, although they will be going against a rather tough defense with talented players both on the line and in the secondary.  It will be tough going, but not impossible (especially compared to NU's previous two opponents).

So, for the last game of the season I predict an NU loss which brings the final record to 8-4 (4-4).  While I am not completely convinced that Illinois is the real deal for a second consecutive year, the fact is they have some key pieces that can really hurt NU (very mobile QB, strong DL and CBs).  But the confidence level in these later season picks is very low since there are many question marks for both teams that may be answered in different ways as the season progresses.


I have Northwestern tabbed to go 8-4 (4-4) in 2008, which would be a respectable showing and would definitely put NU into a bowl game - a definitive goal from Fitz this year.  Given pairity within the conference, though, it is questionble which bowl this record would put NU into - and at this point I would guess something like the Champs Sports Bowl or Insight Bowl.

I must say again that the Wildcats have an excellent opportunity in 2008: not only do they have a beneficial schedule with relatively easy nonconference opponents and the most diffcult Big Ten opponents stacked at the end of the year, but they also have a slew of returning talent on the field (offensive skill players in particular) and two new coordinators and a revamped strategy on both sides of the ball that should help bring all of the pieces together to propel NU to at least a bowl.  The first thing I thought after realizing all of this, which others may have thought as well, is the shot at NU being 9-0 going into that OSU game which would make for a game of epic proportions.  At this point while I would say NU has the ability to win any of it's first 9 games, at this point they have a long way to go to prove they can win them ALL, which would mean a string of wins not seen here in years.  But, if they do string together more than 7 wins early on, anything could happen come November.

All in all, it will be an exciting season to watch and 'Cats fans should keep their eyes glued to the field/TV because it should be an entertaining, and, hopefully successful year.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.