Commentary: The Stretch Run
by Jonathan Hodges

After yet another big loss to Ohio State, Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) now faces a stretch run featuring two win-able games against Michigan (3-7) and Illinois (5-5) which will go a long way in determining the Wildcats' bowl destination.  Any 'Cats fan knows that no game is a gimme and that Big Ten conference play is always hard-fought and that any team has a shot at winning, so NU must be prepared and focused for these two key games.  While Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State have distanced themselves from the pack and will be fighting it out for a BCS bid or two, Northwestern remains with a pack of teams trying to bolster their bowl position, including a pair of teams that NU has already defeated: Iowa (6-4) and Minnesota (7-3).  Right below them are two teams fighting for their bowl lives at 5-5: Wisconsin and Illinois.  Wins in the final two games of the regular season will be vital to distance NU from the pack and to try and move up the bowl ladder.

First up is Michigan, who is having its worst season in over 4 decades and is officially out of bowl contention with 7 losses.  But don't count the Wolverines out yet, as they have the talent on both sides of the ball to play with any team, as they showed last week with a sound 29-6 victory over Minnesota in the dome.  Their defense had a dominating performance, which was expected from them the whole year with so many talented returning players on that side of the ball.  And the offense finally came alive, to some extent, mixing in the running abilities of freshman QB Feagin with a strong stable of running backs; also, Michigan found a way to put up 42 on Purdue one week earlier.  The game will be played in Ann Arbor, which is a difficult place to play and to win, and the Wolverines will be vying to win their last home game of an otherwise disappointing year.  The 'Cats should regain the services of QB CJ Bacher, though, which adds a reliable passer to the mix after Kafka has done an admirable job running with the ball and throwing short, efficient passes.  Also, the Northwestern defense, particularly the DL, should be positioned to make things happen against a mistake-prone Michigan offense that has gone through some very tough stretches this season.  A win at Michigan Stadium would be the 'Cats' first since 1995, and they will have NUMB playing for them and cheering them along next week.

Finally, the Wildcats come back to Evanston to face off against a 5-5 Illinois squad that may very well be fighting for its bowl chances, as they must face OSU at home before traveling to Evanston (and with a loss against the Buckeyes would need the win to reach bowl eligibility).  The Illini have some big offensive weapons in Williams, Benn, and some workhorse running backs with big-play ability, but have struggled a bit on defense this season after sustaining some losses due to graduation and injury.  It is, of course, a rivalry game for the Sweet Sioux tomahawk where anything can happen, and NU must work to "finish" the season in this crucial matchup.  Like Michigan, Illinois has been on-again/off-again this season, posting some big wins (45-20 at Michigan; 55-13 vs. Indiana) but also some head-scratching losses (17-23 vs. Western Michigan), and NU must play well to take back the tomahawk and bragging rights in Illinois.  The defense will have their work cut out for them, but a strong performance out of the DL could help swing things in NU's favor.  And the offense will have a shot at getting things rolling against a defense that has been weaker than expected.

Remember that to this point in 2008, the 'Cats have not lost consecutive games and have found a way to "respond" each time adversity calls, with rebound wins against Purdue and Minnesota; plus, NU has found a way to sidestep injuries and get solid performances from its backups and underclassmen, especially in recent weeks.  Once again, Northwestern will have a chance to "respond" as it attempts to finish out the season on a positive note and write itself a ticket to a desirable bowl destination.

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.