Commentary: What's With the 2008 Wildcats?
by Jonathan Hodges

Last season if someone came up to you and said that after 4 games in 2008 NU would be 4-0 (meaning NU won all of its nonconference games for the first time since 1963 and is carrying the longest winning streak in over a decade), giving up less than 12 points/game, averaging 3.75 sacks/game, held a team to FOUR rushing yards in a game, all while the offense is sputtering and putting up just under 26 points/game - and CJ Bacher would have 5 INTs to only 3 TDs, with all of the touchdowns coming in the first game - I believe you would think that they are crazy.  Are you sure this isn't a Wildcats squad from 1995 or 1996?

The fact is that this NU football squad is a bit of an enigma, especially after playing lackluster nonconference competition; and while any NU fan must be satisfied with the best start for the 'Cats since 1962, many questions remain heading into Big Ten play - with a tough date in Iowa City right off the bat.  The defense has performed very well, but then again they haven't faced any real potent offensive attacks.  The offense, meanwhile, doesn't look anything like the unit last year that could move the ball very well between the 20's.  So, what gives?


The defense is probably the easy part.  Northwestern has built up some good talent on defense, particularly on the DL, and has lots of experienced players on the field.  But, in recent years, the defense has allowed opponents to rack up yards and points on them without too much trouble - leaving many fans scratching their heads then calling for a shakeup in the coaching staff.  And, that is exactly what happened in the offseason as former DC Colby was shown the door, which was followed by the hiring of veteran DC Hankwitz who has instilled a brand new defensive philosophy at NU.  And, it's working.

That talent up front is really beginning to wreak havoc, as the trio of Wootton, Gill, and now, Browne, are getting into the backfield and making things happen.  The DL is averaging an astounding 3.75 sacks/game thus far, and on the season is just 3 short of their total from all of last year.  The team as a whole is also making a lot of tackles in the backfield to help keep themselves out of 2nd/3rd and short scenarios - and then they are taking care of business on third down, allowing opponents to convert only 27.9% of their third down chances.  The improved pass defense is a huge contributor as they have significantly cut down on yardage allowed per pass attempt and completion relative to last year, and are getting to the ball very quickly and making things happen as they have racked up quite a few PBUs and are getting turnovers both by interception and recovered fumbles (2 each against Ohio).  I could go on and on with impressive defensive statistics, but the points allowed per game statistic tells one all you really need to know.

Credit goes to many different people - first off, Fitz, for emphasizing the defense as he hired and game-planned specifically to yield improvement on that side of the ball.  Coach Walker was an offensive-minded guy, as was his predecessor Barnett, and Fitz has changed the mentality of the entire team after basically a decade of watching poor defenses.  Secondly, Fitz's big offseason hire, Hankwitz, who has proven his worth many times over with great strategies and excellent game-planning - and don't discount the fact that he has this defense believing in itself and that can make a world of difference.  Third, credit the experienced starters on this unit who have really stepped up to lead the team: Gill, Wootton, Smith, Arrington, Kwateng - the seniors are making their mark out on the field and leading the way.  Finally, though, don't discount the young, talented players who have stepped up on both the game field (those who are starting, like Mabin, Davie, and Browne), but also those who have stepped it up on the practice field or are contributing in backup roles (Peters, Bolden, Williams).  The added depth on defense - particularly in the secondary - has really helped to make up for injuries (Vaughn going down for the year with a shoulder problem, but Mabin stepping in as starting CB) and to give a good rotation of players when the starters need a rest.

The entire unit has bought into the "attacking" mentality and it is really paying dividends as NU is preventing the big play and making things happen up front with excellent pressure as they quash the run game and get to the QB.  This change doesn't look like an abberation, either, and hopefully this unit will lead the 'Cats to a successful Big Ten season because the fact is that the offense isn't getting the job done.


What is going on?  The offense may be perfect in the red zone on the year, but 7 of those trips have resulted in field goals, meaning that NU is turning just over 56% of its red zone trips into TDs.  And the 'Cats just aren't getting into the red zone with the same regularity that they did last season, which is something NU fans have come to expect out of the offense.  Early on, some of the offensive troubles could be attributed to the young OL (3 first time OL starters on opening day) and a new OC (McCall) which may spell trouble.  But the skill positions were all manned by talented veterans who have shown that they know how to move the ball and put points on the board in recent years.

The offensive line has done a solid job pass blocking so far this year, yielding only two sacks (0.5/game) and generally giving CJ time to throw.  That is quite impressive for such a young OL, which includes 2 redshirt freshmen and a converted defensive lineman.  But, they haven't exactly done wonders in opening up running lanes, as NU hasn't been able to effectively run the ball throughout the game and eat up clock time when it has a lead.  Sutton has performed well given the fact that defenders have been on him almost immediately, and when he was injured just before halftime against Ohio it was definitely a bad omen for the NU offense (fortunately, he is expected to be OK and should play against Iowa).  And while CJ Bacher played well thus far by basically limiting his mistakes (only 1 INT through 3 games), he imploded against Ohio throwing 4 picks, which almost cost NU the game (thank you, defense).

So, how can a unit wish such high expectations after such great performances in the past be sputtering so much now?  It starts with the OL.

As I mentioned earlier, give the OL credit for protecting CJ as well as they have.  That was a huge issue with last year's mostly veteran line, and it's definitely not an issue in 2008; he has been hurried a couple of times but nothing like NU fans saw in the second half of some games last year.  BUT, their biggest tests are yet to come as they will face some very tough defensive fronts in the Big Ten, starting off against the Hawkeyes.  Their biggest issue so far, though, is run blocking.  There just aren't enough open lanes for the NU RBs to run through as blocks are not being sustained and opposing DLs and incoming LBs are making tackles close to the LOS.  And without an effective running game it makes things even more difficult for CJ and the receivers.

Opposing defenses seem to have figured out how to slow down and/or stop the NU offense - by playing a lot of man coverage.  In the first game we saw CJ struggle as Syracuse played man on the slot receiver(s) - and NU only opened things up in the second half by running the ball well.  Ohio has an excellent secondary and showed it off by playing tight coverage and grabbing the ball when given the chance (resulting in 4 takeaways), while CJ seemed to be scratching his head while trying to find the open guy.  And, drops by the receivers sure haven't helped matters - against Duke there were quite a few, but in the other games there have been at least one drop that cost NU the chance to sustain a drive.

Maybe it's the scheme (OL blocking scheme, receiver routes), play calling (pass vs. run), poor route running by the receivers, poor decisions by CJ, or some combination thereof, but the offense just hasn't put things together for an entire game so far.  Fortunately, the special teams and defense have kept them in every game (and won a couple for them), but things sure don't get easier from here as NU now faces all Big Ten opponents.  McCall, CJ, the OL, and the receivers must get things figured out quickly or else the offense will be facing a turnaround of its own this year, on the negative side.

Special Teams

Don't count out the third, but very important, phase of the team - special teams - who has helped propel NU to its perfect start so far this year.  Kicking has been excellent - Villarreal is perfect on the year (8/8 on FGs, 11/11 on XPs), Demos is booming both kickoffs and punts, and the kick and punt coverage teams are excelling in stopping opponents deep in their own end.  NU has blocked one punt and two FGs so far this year, as well.  And while punt and kick returns haven't yielded much, they are holding onto the ball (for the most part - Peterman lost a fumble on a punt return against Ohio) and giving the offense a chance to work - a big return will come eventually.

This special teams success, led by Coach Fitz, has been in the making since he took over as head coach just two years ago.  He definitely emphasizes this phase of the game and has generally avoided the big play out of the opponent while maxmizing NU's efforts.  Over his span as HC, NU has yielded only one kick return for TD and the only punt return for TD was off of a blocked punt.  Other than that, the coverage teams have done an excellent job - and now with Demos kicking the ball deep almost every time, that means sticking the opponent deep in their own end almost every time.  That execution has spread to other aspects of special teams, like punt and kick blocking, converting FG attempts, and the return game (again, a big return will come in time).

The excellent execution by the special teams has definitely contributed to wins by NU this year; as an example, Villarreal is averaging almost 9 points/game himself, and Demos and the punt coverage team helped set up NU's first score of the year (safety against Syracuse) by downing the ball at the 3.


Only time will tell now that conference play is upon the 'Cats, but it looks like the defense is the "real deal" and may have to propel NU to wins this year, with the offense struggling.  I am still confident that the offense has the ability to put up yards and points in them, though, it is just taking a little longer to work out all of the wrinkles.  But if NU continues playing well on both defense and special teams, the Wildcats will be in a position to win games down the stretch - which will be vital in order to contend not only for a bowl berth, but also be a player in the conference title race.

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.