Commentary: Can the Wildcats Turn Around the 2009 Season?
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern entered the 2009 season with high hopes, and rightfully so. The
Wildcats were coming off of one of just a handful of nine win seasons in the
program's history and had the vast majority of a strong defense coming back.
And the schedule was more than favorable, with a very good chance for NU to
sweep the entire first half of their schedule. A bowl bid looked like a given,
and if things went well for the offense, NU could even be in the hunt for a
January 1st bowl game.
After one third of the season, though, all of
those expectations have been thrown out and the Wildcats' season is seemingly on
After cruising through a victory over FCS/I-AA opponent
Towson in week one, the 'Cats have hit numerous speed bumps. In week two they
found themselves up by a significant margin at halftime against a rebuilding
Eastern Michigan squad. In the second half, the collapse began, as the defense
seemingly imploded while the offense barely put together enough of a game to
pull out the last-second victory.
Then in the road trip to Syracuse, NU's
offense lit up the scoreboard, but the defense continued its poor showing
(although the injury bug didn't exactly help much). Finally, against Minnesota,
the NU D couldn't contain the Gophers' running game as it racked up over twice
its season average going into the game. In both cases, the offense had costly
turnovers late in the game that turned into game-sealing scores for NU's
The pessimists look at NU's resume and see a 2-2 record with
the only wins coming over a bad lower subdivision team and a very close win over
a bad mid-major team, with one of the losses coming against a team that NU
definitely should have beat (Syracuse) considering their record over the past
few seasons. And over the last two and a half games, the NU defense has looked
miserable, yielding over 37 points per game over the last 10
Despite all of this, Northwestern does have a chance to turn
things around this season and get themselves back into the bowl hunt. NU had
the ball with a chance to win both of their last two games late in the fourth
quarter, and in both games the 'Cats actually went into the fourth quarter with
the lead. Now we'll explore how Northwestern can get things going this
Tackle better, period. That is one way
to vastly improve how the defense has looked over the last 10 quarters of play
because there have been numerous missed tackles which have allowed opponents to
rack up a ton of yards after initial contact.
Against Syracuse, NU
allowed some very long "explosion" plays on defense, which was mostly corrected
against Minnesota (the Gophers had just one play from scrimmage for more than 20
yards, a 27 yard pass completion). NU did a nice job generally containing the
potentially lethal WR Eric Decker (who had just 84 receiving yards) and gave
themselves a chance to win by preventing any huge plays down the
The issue in the Minnesota game, though, was the aforementioned
poor tackling. With ballcarriers able to pick up yards after the hit, Minnesota
set themselves up with very manageable second and third downs, which allowed
them to continue running and still pick up the first down. The Wildcats allowed
the Gophers to convert 8-of-14 third downs after holding the prior three
opponents to under 30 percent on third down conversions.
If the Wildcats
can find a way to revert to their 2008 form, where they played disciplined
football and made teams work for their yards, they will give the 'Cats a much
better chance to win this year.
That means avoiding mistakes at the end of drives that cost points. Against
both Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, QB Mike Kafka tossed interceptions in the
red zone, costing Northwestern at least a field goal and likely more. And also
against Minnesota, a holding call cost NU a first-and-goal at the four yard
line, with the 'Cats settling for a field goal.
Take care of the
football. Twice over the last two games Kafka has fumbled deep in NU territory,
essentially giving the opponent a touchdown. Against Minnesota, that fumble
came as NU was looking to drive for the game-winning score in the fourth
quarter. In the Syracuse game, the costly turnover was a Kafka interception
that allowed the Orange to drive for the game-winning field goal. NU's turnover
margin in 2009 is -0.75 per game, 91st nationally.
The offensive line
must play its part as well, as it has yielded 2.5 sacks per game so far this
year (88th nationally) and isn't exactly opening up gaping holes to run through
(NU is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, mostly thanks to big rushing performances
in the first two weeks of the year).
The offense has looked much better
than many expected, with Kafka having already eclipsed the 1,000 yard passing
yard mark this year to go with his five passing TDs (he's also caught one and
ran for one). But in order to win games, the offense must protect the football
and finish drives, as they've learned the hard way the past two
The Wildcats have generally come
out ready to play in the first half of games, outscoring opponents 89-48 in the
first halves of 2009 games. But NU has fallen apart in the fourth quarter,
being outscored 19-38 in the final quarter of those games, evidenced by the
wasted fourth quarter leads in each of the last two games.
something NU has had issues with in the recent past under Coach Fitz: In 2007,
the Wildcats yielded three fourth quarter leads, and there was also that blown
35 point lead over MSU in 2006. But, it's something that the 'Cats can correct
as shown by the nine wins NU racked up last season.
If NU takes care of
the issues above (tackling, finishing drives, and protecting the football), this
issue should correct itself: 24 of the 38 points NU has yielded in the fourth
quarter this year have come off of turnovers. As mentioned above, the Wildcats
were in a position to win each of the last two games but failed to do so due to
Although NU has seemingly
blown games to two beatable opponents, the 'Cats will have more chances to win
on the horizon. Michigan State and Illinois have seemingly faltered this
season, and they account for two of NU's remaining road games. Another road
opponent, Purdue, is currently 1-3 and has plenty of issues of their own. And
NU's final nonconference opponent, Miami (OH), is a bad team this season that
the 'Cats should easily handle. And, there's Indiana who NU will host for
That yields five win-able games for the Wildcats in the final
two thirds of the 2009 season, and if NU can play a well-rounded game, they
could actually knock off a tough team at home (like Penn State or Wisconsin), or
maybe even Iowa on the road (the 'Cats seem to have their number in recent
years, just like they have Penn State's number).
start to the season looks like a disappointment, the fact is that if not for
some correctable mistakes, NU very well could have won every game so far. Now
the Wildcats know what to focus on moving forward (protecting the ball,
finishing drives, and tackling) and will have plenty of chances to turn the
season around and get themselves squarely into the postseason hunt.
Previous jhodges commentary
is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com. His commentary
and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally
in the offseason.