Commentary: Time for Revenge?
by Jonathan Hodges

Any Wildcat fan knows the storyline: Duke came into Evanston last year riding the nation's longest losing streak and one that, at 22 games, was beginning to approach NU's Div. I-A/FBS record of 34.  The 'Cats, meanwhile, were 2-0 and looking to work their way to a bowl in 2007 after the rough 2006 season in the aftermath of Coach Walker's passing.  The offense was looking good so far, putting up a lot of passing yards, and the defense was serviceable and was coming off of a shutout and a last minute tirade against Nevada that sealed the game.  But, things really went south for NU when the Blue Devils showed up - and a lackluster game with some very head-scratching plays from NU equaled a loss, sending NU fans into a tizzy and many wondering if this would doom the program to a life back in the dark ages.

The offense moved the ball very well between the 20 but then fizzled in the red zone - including multiple game-winning opportunities with first and goal inside the red zone in the 4th quarter.  The defense gave virtually no pressure up front and allowed Duke's QB Lewis throw 19-23 passing, 3 TDs, and, at one point, 15 consecutive completions.  And Fitz even joined in by taking 3 points off the board when he decided to go for it after a Duke penalty on a made NU FG - when NU subsequently failed to get a first down.  Overall, NU got beat in virtually every aspect of the game and deserved the loss, even though NU was considered by most, if not all, to be the better team going into the game.  If the game taught NU players, coaches, and fans anything it was not to underestimate any team.

Looking back on the 2007 Wildcat season, it makes NU fans cringe even more - that extra win may have very well propelled NU to a 7-5 record and a bowl game.  Yes, you don't know what could have happened differently the rest of the way, but that is the one "should win" where NU came away empty and paid for it at the end of the season by staying home.  Also, Duke ended the year 1-11, with that only win coming against NU.  Sure some of those losses were close and one never knows how things would have happened if NU had won, but the fact that the only win of the year came over NU coupled with the streak of losses coming into the game make it even more disheartening.

Despite the comments about how one can't change the past and that this is a new football team this season, there is no doubt that the 'Cats will be thinking of what happened in Evanston in 2007 when they face off against Duke on Saturday.  It will be a true test of the will of this Wildcat team as they will have to travel the furthest for a regular season 2008 game into some potentially inclement weather (Hurricane Hanna is approaching the Carolinas from the Atlantic and may end up dumping rain and gusty winds on the region before or even around game time - assuming the game goes off as scheduled), and into a newly rekindled fandom for Duke (they drew over 30,000 for their first game against James Madison).  The Duke defense (particularly the DL and LBs) are tough and talented, and the offense will be led by Lewis, the same guy who torched NU a year ago.  And the Blue Devils will be riding a bit of confidence after a solid 31-7 win over the aforementioned James Madison team last Saturday.

I don't know if it will be THE defining test of the 2008 season for NU, but this game will most definitely be circled by most NU players and fans and the 'Cats know they must prove themselves in the game against Duke.  And I am sure that revenge will be on some of their minds after last year's game and what it meant come the end of the season.  I doubt Fitz or anyone else associated with the team will reveal this fact - becuase it's technically just another game - but there is no doubt it has significance.

Now, while it will be a tough test for the 'Cats, they should have the better team on paper come Saturday but must execute in order to come away with a win.  On offense, NU has plenty of experience at the skill positions and an OL that should have some confidence after a very solid showing in their first game - and they had to face a couple tough defenders up front from Syracuse.  On defense, the 'Cats should have lots of new found confidence after shutting down SU and scoring 9 points of their own.  And the special teams held up their end of the bargain by executing almost perfectly.  Now the Wildcats must focus all of these efforts on Duke and focus those efforts into success on Saturday.

In review, while this game may not define the season for NU down the road, right now it will be a big test for the 'Cats and will go a long way towards setting the tone of the season for NU.  I expect that it will be a closely fought game, but I believe that with the talent on the field and the newfound experience in the coaches that Northwestern has the tools to put together a win that will avenge last year's defeat.

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.