Commentary: Mid-Season Report Card 2008
by Jonathan Hodges


At 5-1 with a 1-1 Big Ten record, the 'Cats have met most expectations at the halfway point of the 2008 season, and while the final game (the loss to Michigan State) was a disappointment, one can't be too dissatisfied with a 5-1 record.  Northwestern has made a lot of progress in key aspects of the game - particularly defense, where NU's scoring defense (16.5 ppg) ranks 23rd nationally, and its 3.17 sacks/game is 7th in the country and 7.5 TFLs/game ranks 15th.  As a total, NU has now surpassed its sack total from last year just half way through this season - which has translated directly into results on the scoreboard.  Most followers of the Wildcats knew that with the talent and experience on defense coupled with new DC Hankwitz, the D would be improved, but I doubt any would have predicted a squad that put up this good of numbers, no matter what the competition.  And the success on defense has translated into wins, with big late game defensive stands against Duke, Ohio, and Iowa all translating into wins.

On the other side of the ball, the offense has looked okay, but that's about it.  The offense has shown little big-play potential, instead forced to go on long, methodical drives that are effective, but also constrain the 'Cats' point production.  With a senior-laden squad of skill players who have shown a good amount of talent over their years, this offense has underwhelmed so far.  In fact, the biggest question mark of this year was the offensive line - and they are doing quite well for themselves, ranking 4th nationally allowing only 0.5 sacks/game and blocking for a team that is averaging 4.5 yards/carry in the running game.  One also can't blame Tyrell Sutton, who is having a solid senior year, with 603 rushing yards (5.5 ypc) and 5 TDs along with 200 receiving yards (on 24 receptions) and 1 TD.  Meanwhile, CJ Bacher hasn't put up as big of numbers as he did a year ago (albeit the NU offense is more balanced with the run game this year), and hasn't been able to get over the interception bug.  His numbers are 138 for 236 passing (58%) for 1325 yards (221 yards/game), 8 INTs, and 7 TDs; he has added 139 yards rushing and 1 TD (36 attempts) and one catch for 25 yards.  Although 4 of his INTs came in one game that NU won (Ohio), the interceptions scattered over the rest of the games have hurt NU - especially in the most recent game against the Spartans.  The last piece of the puzzle, the receivers, had issues earlier in the year (many drops against Duke), but Peterman (23 catches for 269 yards, 2 TDs), Lane (28 catches for 332 yards), and Ward (29 catches for 278 yards, 2 TDs) have risen to the top of the receptions list.  Sutton has also provided a viable receiving threat out of the backfield or when he's been split wide, as NU has done on many occasions this season.  Again, while this unit has done a reasonable job, they haven't lived up to high expectations (realistic or not), and interceptions have led to close wins or even losses.

First Half MVP: Defensive Line.  It's hard to pick out an individual with so many key contributors, but this unit ranks near the top nationally in both sacks and TFLs after ranking near the bottom in both categories last year.  This unit has experienced and talented players everyone knew were capable of playing so well, but they were just never able to put it all together in recent years - which makes the turnaround under DC Hankwitz even better.  Wootton, Browne, and Gill all have 2 or more sacks, and they have contributed in more ways adding some blocked kicks against Ohio and forcing fumbles and recovering fumbles.  The increase in pressure up front has directly led to success of the entire defensive unit as the secondary doesn't have to cover receivers in the open field for as long and the running game can be slowed down, or even stopped (see the game against Ohio where they were held to 4 net rushing yards on the day).

Game of the First Half: Northwestern 22 - Iowa 17.  While there were other close games (e.g. Duke, Ohio), this game really set the tone for Northwestern as they fought back from a 17-3 defecit just before halftime to earn the win as the defense stonewalled the Hawkeyes in the second half, most notably forcing 4 incompletions after Iowa had first and goal with just over a minute to play and the chance to win themselves.  Any Big Ten road win is huge, especially one at Kinnick, and this game put NU on the map nationally after quitely winning all of its nonconference games for the first time since 1963 and racking up its best start to a season since 1962.  The defense showed that its improvement was real and used turnovers to make the difference in the game.

Surprise of the First Half: Offensive Line.  Who would have thought before the season that this unit would allow so few sacks this season, especially after the experience-laden unit last year broke down on numerous occasions?  This is a line that has featured 3 redshirt freshmen and a converted DL starting, while its most experienced starters have either been passed on the 2-deep or were constrained with injury.  And it has, as mentioned earlier, only allowed an average of 0.5 sacks/game (near the very top nationally) and has blocked reasonably well, allowing NU to gain 4.5 yards/carry.  C Burkett has shown the most poise, going up against some tough DTs yet still excelling as a first time starter at this level; he has also seemingly corrected those high snaps on running plays during the bye week.  On the left side, Netter and Kennedy have been up to the task, sealing off CJ's blind side consistently during the first half of the season.  And on the right, Bartels has emerged as a redshirt freshman to take away senior (and the most experienced lineman coming into the year) Belding's starting role, while Taylor has really emerged as a key cog of the OL at RT.  Mattes has been solid in limited duty, although a knee injury kept him out for much of the first half (although he has recovered enough to get onto the field in the most recent game against MSU).  For a unit that was the biggest question mark coming into the year and replacing an experienced line that seemingly collapsed at times in 2007 (especially in the second halves of games), this unit has been outstanding and has gone far beyond expectations before the season began.

Disappointment of the First Half: The Offense.  With a ton of talent returning at the skill positions (Bacher, Sutton, Conteh, Peterman, Lane, Ward) the only question was how the OL would hold up with so many new starters - and as noted above, the OL performed very well.  Given that and the fact that the offense put up gaudy numbers last year (at least on some occasions), one expected this year's offense to really get things rolling, especially against lesser competition earlier in the year.  But, in at least 3 games, it was the defense that won the game for NU (Duke, Ohio, and Iowa), and one could even argue that the Syracuse win was also thanks to the defense (who almost outscored Syracuse themselves, putting a return TD and a safety on the board).  Meanwhile, the offense struggled to both move the ball down the field and convert red zone trips to TDs: against Ohio, NU had 4 trips to the red zone and came away with 3 FGs and a TD and found themselves in a one-score ballgame late; and against Iowa NU found themselves with the ball deep in Iowa territory twice (thanks to turnovers) but came up empty - fortunately, the offense found their groove later in the game to drive down the field for the go-ahead TD.  One may place the blame on new OC McCall, who seems to have the offense "thinking too much" out there, or on the offensive line's run blocking (which hasn't been great despite their excellent pass blocking), or the receivers who dropped a plethora of balls early on (especially against Duke), or even on Bacher, who hasn't shown much improvement over last season - especially during the Ohio game where he had 4 INTs.  Against MSU, it was turnovers (including 2 INTs) that sealed the loss, and although the offense put up a lot of yards in a comeback attempt, they never got enough big plays to try and close the gap quicker (Sutton provided the only fireworks on the day, ripping off a 66 yard run in the 3rd period).  Overall, though, this unit hasn't moved the ball as well as it should given its experience, talent, and track record, and their red zone TD conversion rate also leaves some to be desired when they do make it down the field.  The one good thing is that they have put enough points on the board to win football games, which is what matters at the end of the day; and they still have the opportunity to turn things around, albeit against some tough Big Ten defenses.

Impact Underclassman: C Ben Burkett.  Realistically, both LT Al Netter and RG Doug Bartels could be listed here as well, as they are all redshirt freshmen and have emerged as starters on the OL.  The offensive line was a giant question mark going into the season and this group helped shore up things very nicely alongside converted DL Kennedy and Taylor, who emerged after a strong spring and summer as a starter.  What is especially interesting is that the most experienced returning offensive lineman, Joel Belding, has been relegated to mostly backup duty on the line thanks to the strong performance of these other players.  And with RT Mattes out with a knee injury for a good portion of the first half of the year and Taylor shifting into the tackle position, it gave Bartels the chance to step up.  Plus, the only real issue early in the year was consistent high snaps on running plays, which virtually disappeared against MSU as it was likely corrected during the bye week.  An outstanding job by this guy (and the whole line) which should give NU very firm legs to stand upon for the remainder of this year and even looking ahead to the next 3 seasons.

Unit Grades


Grade: B-
Stats (national rank): 24.17 points/game (72nd), 379.0 yds/game (51st), 47.5% 3rd Down Conversion (20th), 153.8 rush yds/game (57th), 225.17 pass yds/game (49th), 11 turnovers lost: 8 INT & 3 fumbles (58th), 0.5 sacks/game allowed (4th).
Overall: As mentioned earlier, this unit has been disappointing considering high expectations, although they have been able to move the ball reasonably well with a balanced attack and a relatively high third down conversion rate.  The OL is not allowing anyone to get consistent pressure on CJ, and that at least allows NU to stay even with the chains or better.  The missing piece has been explosive plays to take up big chunks of yards quickly; NU has really only gotten about one of those big plays per game, which has forced the offense to put together long drives down the field to get into scoring range.  Some of this can be attributed to new OC McCall's offensive system, which relies upon the short passing game and a balanced running attack to move the ball down the field in manageable chunks.  Given the success of the defense, the offense's output has been acceptable so far (at least in the 5 wins), but it also leaves some to be desired and is a cause for concern leading into a stretch of games against teams with high offensive potential (Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State).

Quarterback: B-  CJ Bacher has not really progressed this season as much as one would expect, throwing 8 INTs to 7 TDs so far this year, although he has engineered some key drives (including go-ahead drives at both Duke and Iowa).  He still provides valuable leadership for this team, though, and has shown much toughness not only by holding onto the ball during runs or while being tackled, but also by
persevering through some tough situations, like coming back after a 4 INT performance to throw 3 TDs to only 1 INT at Iowa.  The team voted him as one of their captains for a reason; he is a leader on this team and no matter what mistakes he makes, he has shown that he has the ability to come back and turn things around the following game.  In terms of on the field issues, one of his biggest issues this season has been forcing throws when he should be tucking the ball or throwing it away.  I do give him credit for the times he has thrown the ball away, but there were multiple instances where he has been scrambling and then threw the ball directly into a crowd of defenders to try and make something happen.  If he can limit these mistakes, it will be a marked improvement in the second half of his senior year.

Running Backs and "Superbacks": B+  Credit Sutton for fighting through a hamstring injury that kept him out of the second half against Ohio (which definitely showed as the offense sputtered as NU relied on its defense to seal the win), as he's averaging just over 100 yards/game on the ground, good for 25th nationally.  OC McCall is definitely calling his number more often than McGee did last year (albeit in limited action), and he's also getting the ball a good number of times in the passing game.  Tyrell has shown once again that he can make things happen when given the ball in space, tearing off a 66 yard run against MSU, and also sporting a nice 44 yard TD run in the rain against SIU.  He provides quiet leadership by going out and getting the job done, and saying all the right things when being interviewed.  Conteh has been used a good amount to give Tyrell some rest, but hasn't fared nearly as well as he did last year as the starter while Sutton was injured, with 141 yards on 43 carries (3.3 ypc), 2 TDs, and 32 yards on 5 receptions.  In terms of "superbacks" we've mostly seen Rooks in as a blocking TE (he does have a TD reception out of only 2 receptions on the year) and Rooks or Woodsum as a blocking H-back.  It is difficult to evaluate their effectiveness blocking, although NU's relative success running the ball is a testament to decent run blocking.

Wide Receivers: B-  Although the top 3 guys (Lane, Peterman, Ward) are usually reliable and have the ability to make some big plays, they have disappointed thus far in 2008.  First off, there were a bunch of dropped passes against Duke that almost cost NU the game; fortunately, they got things together in time to pull out the win.  Secondly, they just haven't been getting open as often as one would hope when running a spread attack.  I do consider that most of the blame here belongs most probably to OC McCall, whose offensive game plan has seemed to cause confusion at times and also hasn't given NU a lot of chances to hit the big play.  As mentioned in a commentary earlier this year, the offensive gameplan seems to force the entire offense to "think too much" instead of executing precise routes and CJ finding the open guy - there is a lot of last minute adjusting of routes and watching of signals from the sideline that must occur.  And the no huddle definitely does not help in this regard.  The only positive is that hopefully after 6 games, the offense will be on the same page more often and can begin to click soon.  Notably absent from the WR contributors has been Andrew Brewer, who has a ton of pure talent and was expected to make waves at WR this year - but he was set back early with drops followed by a leg injury that kept him on the sidelines for a couple of games before the bye.  Even against MSU he was used almost exclusively on running plays as a blocker on the outside.  After the offense as a whole, he could probably be considered a disappointment, although he definitely will have an opportunity to contribute and increase his level of play down the stretch - which will be important since he will likely take over the role as the top receiver after the top 3 guys graduate.  NU has also been fortunate to get contributions from some backups, such as Sidney Stewart and true freshman Jeremy Ebert (who has been starting in the second slot position).

Offensive Line: A- 
As noted, they are the biggest surprise of the season, especially due to their lack of experience coming into the year.  And it's even more amazing that the only two guys with significant starting experience before (Belding and Mattes) have been passed on the 2-deep (Mattes was out due to injury for a good period of time).  The numbers (sacks allowed and rushing yards per carry), mentioned earlier, speak for themselves: this unit is doing a solid job and continues to improve.  And they've faced some solid DLs, as well.  The failures of the offense are most definitely not due to the line, and the fact that there are 3 redshirt freshmen on the line is a huge positive for future seasons, as well.  It is also amazing looking back to last year when the relatively experienced OL (only one new starter at the beginning of the year and 2 potential next-level players) allowed a whopping 17 sacks and comparing that to this unit which has allowed only 3.  And there is definitely more talent in the pipeline, with even more young players pushing for playing time and a set of true freshmen waiting in the wings as well.


Grade: A-
Stats (national rank): 16.5 points/game (23rd), 316.0 yds/game (37th), 31.8% 3rd Down Conversion Allowed (23rd), 114.3 rush yds/game allowed (37th), 201.7 pass yds/game allowed (58th), 11 turnovers gained: 4 INT & 7 fumbles (58th), 3.17 sacks/game (7th),  7.5 TFLs/game (15th).

Defensive Line: A  It all starts up front, and this unit has led the way for the entire defense, helping NU get into the backfield and make plays, which directly translates into the national top 10 sack and TFL numbers.  The potential has been there for at least a couple of years now, with Wootton, Gill, and Mims all returning as starters once again, but now under new DC Hankwitz and DL coach Long, the performance of this unit has been transformed.  They have been able to stop the run (allowing just 114.3 rush yards/game and contained MSU's Ringer rather well) and even better getting to the passer.  The sack and TFL numbers don't even reflect the number of QB hurries this group has had, which is significant.  It is clear that the one unit benefitting most from the "attacking" defense (as opposed to Colby's "read and react" D) is the line.  Credit also deserves to be doled out to the backups in the DL rotation - most notably Browne who had a fantastic game against Ohio, but also Hahn and Thomas - as they have performed rather consistently.  The numbers they have put up are impressive: Wootton has 8 TFLs (4.5 sacks), 4 QB hurries, and 1 recovered fumble; Browne has 5 TFLs (3 sacks), 1 INT, 1 QB hurry, 2 forced fumbles, and a blocked kick; Bryant has 2.5 TFLs (1 sack), 1 QB hurry, 1 fumble recovery, and 1 forced fumble; Mims has 2 TFLs (1 sack); and Gill has 3 TFLs (2 sacks), 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry, 2 fumble recoveries, and a blocked kick.

Linebackers: B+  Another potential weak spot to start the year has definitely come together, led by Arrington in the middle (who just goes out and makes tackles, and is second on the team with 48 for the season, with 6.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and a PBU).  He is flanked by Prince Kwateng, who is quietly wreaking havoc (48 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry, 1 forced fumble) and sophomore Davie who has 34 tackles and a whopping 7.5 TFLs (including 2.5 sacks), one PBU, and 4 QB hurries.  Mike Dinard and Nate Williams have also come in for backup duty.  This group has contributed nicely and have also contributed to the physical play up front in run-stopping and blitzes.  The most notable thing on the field is probably their speed; many have knocked these players for a lack of speed, but they have come on strong, especially Davie who is still young but has played very well and shown off significant jets.

Secondary: B+  This unit has also shown significant improvement, which can be attributed to large gains in the play of S Phillips (the team's leading tackler, with 52 on the year, including 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, and 1 forced fumble), the full-time return of S Brendan Smith (39 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 INT with a 26 yard return for a TD, and a whopping 5 PBUs), the consistent play of CB McManis (36 tackles, 6 PBUs), and the emergence of Jordan Mabin at the other corner (25 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles).  Brian Peters has also emerged as a solid backup safety / extra defensive back in nickel sets, and guys like Mike Bolden and David Arnold are waiting in the wings while contributing on special teams.  This unit has directly benefitted from solid play up front - not having to chase around receivers all day - and have done an excellent job limiting the big plays.  They will have more challenges as the season progresses, as NU faces more pass-heavy teams (Syracuse, Iowa, and MSU all ran pretty traditional run-based offenses, while Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois all run the spread - along with OSU, to some extent).

Special Teams

Grade: B+
Stats: 11/13 FGs (46 yard long), 14/15 XPs, 21.6 yds/kick return (57th), 18.3 yds/kick return defense (20th), 8.3 yds/punt return (69th), 7.9 yds/punt return defense (54th).
Overall: NU's special teams were one of its strong points in every game until Michigan State, where an abysmal showing in almost every aspect helped NU spot the Spartans a big lead early.  But, outside of that and some kicking game gaffes at Iowa (that were made up by a couple of recovered fumbles by the punt and kick coverage teams), this part of the game has been very solid for the 'Cats.  It is obviously a priority for Coach Fitz, as he garners special teams coaching duties himself, and with so many starters and key contributors on the special teams units, it is obvious that NU wants to be successful there.  In addition to the stats above, the Wildcats also have a blocked punt, 2 blocked kicks, and some key fumble recoveries on coverage.  While things broke down a bit against MSU, this squad has shown some excellent things in the first half of the year and should be able to put NU in a good position the rest of the year.

Place Kicker: B+  Amado Villarreal hit his first 8 FGs of the year until the Iowa game came around, where he had a FG blocked, and missed both a FG and XP.  He has been more than serviceable, though, going 11/13 on the year for FGs and 14/15 on XPs - and in close games getting any points matters, so those FGs are key.  He has also shown some good leg, hitting a 46 yarder (his only attempt over 40 yards this year).  Fortunately, NU was able to churn out a win in his worst game of the year.  And going against tough Big Ten defenses the rest of the way, he will most likely be called on relatively often down the stretch - bt as a senior he's been battle tested and has the leg to come through.

Kickoffs: A-  The stats look good; Demos is averaging 59.9 yards/kickoff with 4 touchbacks and opponents are gaining only 18.3 yards/kick return (20th nationally), but things began to go south against MSU (who averaged almost 30 yards per return, including a 50 yard return, and that doesn't count a huge gaffe on an attempted onside kick that ended with MSU getting the ball on the NU 32 yard line).  Demos apparently couldn't get the ball deep enough against the Spartans, which he was able to do rather consistently earlier in the year, and NU paid for it with some significant returns against them - and eventually resorted to the pooch kick.  In the previous games, though, the 'Cats routinely used strong kicks from Stefan to stick opponents deep in their own territory with solid kick coverage.  Hopefully this is something that can be corrected down the stretch as Demos definitely has the leg strength to get it deep and prevent a big return.

Punting: A  Where NU has really excelled, though, is punting, with Demos averaging 38.1 yards/punt on 29 punts, with a whopping 12 inside the 20 and 3 50+ yard boots.  And this is all utilizing the 3x3 punt formation and rugby-style kicks from Demos instead of the tradtional high punt on most occasions (Demos has also shown the ability to do that to stick the opponent in their own end).  Against Syracuse, Stefan nailed every punt, with 6 for 6 going inside the 20 (and one that was downed at the 3 leading to an NU safety for its first points of the year).  And the unique punt formation and punting style definitely leave the possibility open for things to happen - either a pass if one of the gunners is left open, or the chance that the bouncing ball hits an opponent that would give NU the chance to pick up the ball.  And this unit has also done a nice job of limiting returns, although, again, there was a significant return by MSU (20 yards) that hurt the 'Cats.

Returns: B-  This is probably the one weak spot on the 'Cats special teams that could use more work; Matthews and Conteh have provided some spark on kick returns, but nobody has broken one for a TD yet (Simmons has been hampered with an ankle injury suffered against SIU).  Punt returns, meanwhile haven't produced much of anything, with Smith now taking over the duties (Peterman muffed a punt this year).  In terms of statistics, NU is middle of the road in both categories, but the spark for a big return doesn't seem to be there.  I believe that NU has a chance to make things happen on kick returns as Matthews has shown a lot of potential (in addition to his hitting abilities on the coverage teams where he helped knock out a couple of fumbles against Iowa).  McManis had shown some good kick returning abilities earlier in his career but had a dismal day against MSU where he fumbled a return and mishandled another and only got out to the 5.


Grade: A
Overall: The fact is that NU is 5-1, and this year defeated all nonconference opponents and won its first 5 games for the first time since the 1960's under Ara Parseghian.  The defense has seen considerable improvement, and special teams have been solid.  NU is winning games that it should win.  All of that equals an "A" performance from Coach Fitz and his staff.  The most obvious move was the firing of Colby in the offseason and the pickup of DC Hankwitz, who has led this turnaround on the defensive side of the ball.  Also, don't discount the hiring of DL coach Long, who has helped fire up his unit to lead the way on D.  On offense, things haven't always gone NU's way and the production has been a bit of a letdown, but McCall is a solid coach and has helped the unit do enough to pull off a couple of comeback wins and to bounce back from some poor performances.  And after some infuriating games during his first two seasons, Coach Fitz has shown how much he's grown with experience this season and is producing a consistent winner that is well on its way to a bowl berth.

Other Stats

Below are a few stats that don't show up in the unit rankings:

Turnover margin /game: 0.0 (55th), time of possession /game 27:12 (108th), 5.17 penalties/game (33rd), 50.0 penalty yards/game (52nd).

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.