Commentary: NU Football 2009 Mid-Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 1-1) have completed the first half of the 2009 regular season, and while the season may already seem like a disappointment to some, NU is still in control of where it will spend its holiday season this year.  Many expected the 'Cats to be 5-1 or 6-0 at this point in the year, so a 4-2 mark may seem like a disappointment, but the fact is that NU had a fourth quarter lead in both of its loses, so things were much closer than it may look on paper.

Yes, NU has also looked shaky against weaker competition (like a 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan that required a last-second field goal or a 16-6 win over Miami (Ohio) where the offense looked ugly, at best), but the 'Cats came up with a big road win over a conference opponent (a 27-21 win over Purdue) and have been "in" every game so far this season.

The defense, that was expected to be one of the strongest units on that side of the ball at NU since the mid 1990's, seemingly faltered starting in the second half against Eastern Michigan (game two) and lasting into the second quarter of the Purdue game (game five), allowing 114 points in that 12 quarter span (that's 38 points per game).  Thankfully, the Wildcat defense has turned it around since then, allowing just six points in the subsequent six quarters and forcing 10 turnovers in that span.

On the other side of the ball, the offense has looked better than many thought going into the year, after having to replace every starting skill position player from last season.  Despite averaging over 29 points per game, though, the NU offense had costly fourth quarter turnovers that cost the 'Cats chances for victory in both of their losses, and have not been able to muster a semblance of a running game after a concerted effort at running the ball through the first two weeks of the season.

Special teams, meanwhile, have done an admirable job on everything except for returns.  P/K Stefan Demos is 9-of-10 on field goals and 17-of-18 on extra points, with his only non-converted field goal coming on a blocked 40-yard attempt against Miami (Ohio).  Demos is averaging 60.7 yards per kickoff (35 kickoffs on the year) and 35.7 yards per punt with 9-of-25 punts placed inside the opponents' 20.  He did hit a game-winning 49 yard field goal to beat EMU, the first time NU has hit a game-winning field goal since 2001.

One could look at Northwestern's first half in one of two ways.  NU either looks like a decent team that has managed to win two third of its games and had a chance to win the other third (NU had a fourth quarter lead in those as well).  Or, one could view Northwestern as a team that has lost to the only FBS/I-A its faced with a winning record (Minnesota) and otherwise lost to a bad team (Syracuse) and barely skated past other teams with losing records (Miami (Ohio), EMU, and Purdue).

The fact is that Northwestern is basically what its record says it is: a middle of the road team that's had its ups and downs.  NU is not as bad as it's looked in some games and not as good as "a few plays away from being undefeated" makes them sound.

First Half MVP:

P/PK Stefan Demos (9-of-10 field goals with 49 yard long, 17-of-18 extra points, 44 points total, 35.7 yards per punt average with 9-of-25 inside 20, 60.7 yards per kickoff, 2 tackles)  For lack of anyone better, the first half MVP has to go to kicker Stefan Demos, who has taken home two player of the game honors from my analyses (EMU and Purdue) and has proven to be a reliable kicker after taking over all kicking and punting duties this season (his only FG miss came on a blocked attempt).  He's also taken all of his kicking duties in stride and has put the coverage units in a good position to limit returns, and also added an excellently-placed punt that hit an opponent that NU recovered (against Purdue).

Game of the First Half:

Northwestern 27 @ Purdue 21:  The best team that NU beat in the first half is a currently 1-5 Purdue team, but a Big Ten road win is never an easy task, so this goes down as the game of the first half of 2009.  The game had a huge comeback by NU thanks to a half-dozen takeaways by the 'Cats (NU was down 21-3 in the second quarter), and came down to the last second where the Northwestern defense had a huge stand to keep Purdue out of the end zone (they had first and goal inside the 10).  The victory gives the Wildcats a fighting chance for a bowl berth; if NU had lost, their season may have a very different tone right now.

Surprise of the First Half:

QB Mike Kafka's Passing (139-of-208 passing for 1464 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 66.8% completion rate)  Kafka's passing ability was doubted by many heading into 2009, mostly because of his preference for running the ball as shown in his previous six starts (four in his redshirt freshman year to start the season and two last year due to a CJ Bacher injury).  NU took the wraps off of its passing-focused attack against Syracuse and Kafka flourished, carrying a completion rate of over 70% into the 'Cats' sixth game (where he failed to reach a 50% completion rate in his worst game of the season so far).  Kafka's efforts led to game-winning drives against Eastern Michigan and Purdue and kept NU in close losses against Minnesota and Syracuse.

Disappointment of the First Half:

Northwestern Defense (second half of EMU game through first half of Purdue game: 38 points per game yielded)   The defense came into the year with high expectations after a 2008 season where they yielded under 20 points per game in the regular season and were returning eight starters plus some major contributors this year.  The D started off the year on the right foot, allowing points to FCS/I-AA Towson after NU had built a 30 point lead and helping NU attain a 21-3 halftime lead over Eastern Michigan.  Then, the wheels feel off.

They let EMU come back to tie the game late in the fourth (fortunately the offense mounted a game-winning drive).  Syracuse opened up a 17 point lead and generally could not be stopped on their way to a 37-34 victory.  Minnesota decided to run the ball and NU couldn't stop them.  And then, they allowed Purdue to score TDs on their first three drives.

Although the defense turned things around and allowed just six points in the next six quarters and grabbed 10 turnovers in that span, those earlier lapses cost NU two potential victories and made NU fans question the defense that was supposed to be the cornerstone of the 2009 season.

Impact Underclassman:

Sophomore S Brian Peters (25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 interceptions, 1 pass break-up, 2 fumble recoveries)  After being used in spot duty last season as a fifth defensive back, Peters has continued his solid play into this season including playing most of the Miami (Ohio) game after starter Brendan Smith went out with a hand injury.

There have been many underclassmen who have garnered playing time so far this year, and although some have respectable statistics, mistakes have limited their overall value.  RB Arby Fields, a true freshman, technically leads NU in rushing (although Kafka would have the most if not for sacks counting against rushing), but has had multiple costly fumbles.  RB Jacob Schmidt has been called upon as the short-yardage back and did well earlier in the year but has been unable to help NU convert in the past couple games.

They will all continue to have chances to contribute in important games down the stretch for Northwestern, so hopefully they will improve under the tutelage of the Wildcat coaching staff.

Unit Grades


Overall: C

While Mike Kafka has generally been a bright spot for the offense, the unit has failed to deliver on multiple occasions and have not shown the necessary balance to move into the top half nationally or in the conference.  The major offensive statistics are all middle-of-the-road: 382.8 yards per game (58th nationally), 29.2 points per game (51st nationally), 134.5 pass efficiency (51st nationally).

After running the football over two thirds of the time through the first two games (to keep most of the playbook under wraps), Northwestern has turned into a pass-first team, averaging 260.0 yards per game through the air (26th nationally) compared to just 122.8 yards per game on the ground (89th nationally).  No NU runner has eclipsed 200 rushing yards this year (although Kafka has if his sack numbers are removed), and overall the 'Cats are averaging an unimpressive 3.7 yards per carry even with sacks removed from the rushing numbers.

The Wildcats' offense has also had some costly turnovers: three of Kafka's interceptions have come in or close to the opponent's end zone, his fourth interception essentially gave Syracuse the chance they needed to win the game, and fumbles have given NU opponents good starting field position.

Yes, the offense has done things many didn't expect them to do starting the year (passing effectively), but they've also come up short on many occasions, left points on the field, and allowed lesser opponents to stay in games more than once.

Quarterbacks: B

As mentioned earlier, Kafka's passing numbers have been pleasantly surprising and his arm has given the 'Cats the chance to win football games.  Even after a bad game against Miami (Ohio), he is sporting a 66.8% completion rate and has more touchdowns (five) than interceptions (four).  Backup QB Dan Persa and WR and former QB Andrew Brewer have added two touchdowns in spot duty.

The biggest drawbacks have been costly interceptions that have kept points on the field or given opponents the chance to win games and some overthrows of open receivers (i.e. Kafka versus Purdue).  There is room for improvement, but Kafka has done a solid job leading the Northwestern offense so far this year.  His real test will come against tougher competition in the second half of the year.

Running Backs: C-

The running back corps has been unimpressive through 2009, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry while utilizing a running-back-by-committee approach.  The 'Cats have missed Stephen Simmons, who missed three entire games and was used sparingly against Miami (Ohio), as he leads NU at 4.6 yards per carry and has no runs for negative yardage.

True Freshman Fields looked like he had great moves early, but has been ineffective after garnering more playing time over the past few games and has lost some costly fumbles.  Schmidt looked good earlier in the year in short yardage situations but hasn't been as effective in recent weeks, although he has been solid in the passing game, including a diving grab against Miami that put NU in a position to build its margin in the second half.

The others, Scott Concannon and Mark Woodsum (technically listed as a superback) have only seen spot duty after the opening games of the season.

Although some of the blame for NU's poor rushing game must fall upon the offensive line and the play calling, the running backs haven't done the Wildcats many favors on a unit that is tied for 9th in the conference for rushing (122.8 yards per game).

The 'Cats are hoping that Simmons is back full go for the second half because NU will need as many running back options as they can get to generate some kind of ground game in the second half.

Wide Receivers/Superbacks: B+

Note that I'm including the superbacks in with the wide receivers since they have been heavily involved in the passing game this season.

The receiving corps has done an admirable job this year, despite losing the top three receivers from a year ago.  Multiple guys have stepped up this season, and none more than senior and former walk-on Zeke Markshausen, who leads NU in both receptions (34) and yards (348), which is pretty crazy considering prior to this year he had caught just one pass for six yards in his career.

Senior Andrew Brewer, who many thought would be the "go to guy" in 2009, leads NU in receiving TDs with three, and has been the deep threat as he has the highest yards per reception average for anyone on the team with 10 or more catches (18.7).  Although he hasn't caught a pass the past couple games, he has provided a deep threat (and actually drew two pass interference calls against Purdue).

Senior Sidney Stewart and sophomore Demetrius Fields have also provided legitimate receiving threats from the wide receiver position to round out the top four WR targets, each having over 145 receiving yards so far this year.  They've both had the chance for even more yardage but were unfortunately overthrown by Kafka on occasions earlier this season (like when Stewart found himself behind the Minnesota defense as NU was looking to regain a fourth quarter lead but had the ball glance off of his fingertips).

Many are puzzled by the relative regression of sophomore Jeremy Ebert after grabbing two touchdowns in his true freshman season (he only has 5 catches for 53 yards in '09), but his role in the slot has essentially been taken by Markshausen.  Charles Brown and Kevin Frymire have similarly found themselves down on the depth chart, although both have catches this season.

One of the biggest standouts has been the receiving role of the superback position, with Drake Dunsmore coming back strong from a knee injury that held him out last year.  The 6'3" junior is second in receptions (25) and has 270 yards and one TD this season and has been a nice big target coming out of the slot or as a receiver in motion.  The rarely used Brendan Mitchell has also contributed, grabbing one TD on just four receptions this season (he has two TDs on just eight career catches).

In the receiving game, these guys have all done an admirable job filling a big hole in a vital skill position to the spread offense that NU runs.  The biggest reason for a downgrade, though, comes due to their role in blocking (or lack of blocking), which has led to pressure getting to the QB and/or a virtual lack of a running game.  This is especially true for the superbacks, particularly Mitchell and Josh Rooks, who are often used in a tight end role.

Offensive Line:  D

Coach Fitz called out this unit in an interview before the Miami (Ohio) game, yet they still allowed two sacks, four QB hurries, and could only open up holes for 3.6 yards per carry from the running game.  NU has tried rotating in different guys at every position throughout every game this year, but nothing seems to be the answer at this point.

This unit is definitely a disappointment just a year after many of them were put to the test as first time starters.  LT Al Netter and C Ben Burkett were highly touted after solid redshirt freshman years, and Desmond Taylor, moved from RT to LG, was looking pretty good heading into his senior year.  Former walk-on Doug Bartels has been playing at RG and senior Kurt Mattes has been at RT.

The poor rushing stats have already been listed and are just bad; much of the blame can and should be placed on the OL, who just hasn't opened up many holes this year.  It's difficult to run from the spread when there are five blockers and six or (likely) more defenders in the box, but NU has been successful on the ground while running the spread and have had some highly touted RBs during that span (Damien Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron, and Tyrell Sutton).

Yes, play calling likely hasn't helped (more on that in the coaching section), but the line must take a bunch of the blame.

For pass protection, they've done a decent job considering how much the 'Cats have thrown the football, but allowing 14 sacks (2.33 sacks per game) puts them 84th nationally, which is not an impressive number, especially considering last year's performance (1.69 sacks per game allowed).  They've also allowed 12 quarterback hurries and can be blamed for at least four turnovers: three times when Kafka was hit quickly and fumbled and another when Kafka was hit while throwing which turned into an interception.

NU has tried going many different directions on the OL, including playing true freshman Patrick Ward, but still haven't found an answer.  Hopefully NU can find some kind of solution at this vital position and stick with it, since rotating players in and out during a game and even during drives can't be helping.  This is a major reason for NU's offensive woes and the Wildcats need an answer now that they'll be facing some much tougher defenses.


Overall: B-

For a defense that was so highly touted before the season, this unit has definitely underwhelmed in 2009.  Yes, there were numerous injuries to deal with early on (including being forced to use a third string cornerback against Syracuse's NFL prospect WR Mike Williams), but even with the stars on the field this unit hasn't looked like many thought they would.

Most of the poor play was condensed into the time period starting in the second half of the EMU game and continuing through the first half of the Purdue game (3 games total).  During that span NU yielded 38.0 points per game and lost two games.

During the remainder of the season, though, the Wildcat defense has only given up 7.7 points per game.  Thankfully, the defense's best performance has come in the six quarters directly preceding the halfway point of the season where NU racked up 10 takeaways and allowed just six points (a very late TD by Miami).

Also, over the last two games NU has yielded a total of 188 rushing yards after being gashed on the ground by both Eastern Michigan and Minnesota earlier in the year.

'Cats fans hope that the NU D has found their stride and will get some key components back for the second half stretch run, as DE Corey Wootton sat out most of the game against Miami and S Brendan Smith injured his hand during the game.  If Northwestern's defense continues what they have done the last six quarters, they can carry the team like many thought they would going into the year.

Defensive Line: B-

What many thought would be a strength of this unit, mostly thanks to 2008 first team All-Big Ten selection Wootton, hasn't lived up to expectations in '09.  Yes, NU is tied for 12th nationally in sacks (3 sacks per game), but just 10 of NU's 19 sacks have come from the DL, with many coming against NU's weaker opponents.

Wootton hasn't had a sack this year so far and looks like he's still uncomfortable coming off of the offseason knee surgery.  Nothing against a guy who was back on the playing field just about nine months after major surgery, but he obviously isn't the same as last year.  Corbin Bryant, also coming off of knee surgery, also took a few games to get in stride, and fellow DT Adam Hahn didn't play for the first couple games as he was coming off of foot surgery.

Despite the injuries, those on the field are expected to perform, and they haven't done that as effectively as many were expecting.  In the infamous span between the second half of the EMU game through the first half of the Purdue game, they acted as a sieve, allowing rushers to blow by them down after down, while being seemingly unable to reach the QB on the pass rush.

This unit looked like it really missed the guys who graduated, DT John Gill and DE Kevin Mims, even though NU had experienced backups replacing them.

Thankfully, this unit really turned things around after that point, holding the last two opponents well under 100 yards per game on the ground and getting to the QB early and often along with playing a hand in turnovers.

Hopefully the DL has, like the rest of the defense, found its stride and with Wootton hopefully getting back to 100% can be an effective weapon for NU as they face some dangerous offenses in the coming weeks.

Linebackers: B-

Expected to be the weakest squad on defense, mostly since they had to replace one of their starters with a completely new face, they've faced some changes as the season has progressed thanks to injuries and a lack of tackling during the infamous three game span where the defense struggled mightily.

Nate Williams was expected to pick up where he left off in the middle after filling in for the final seven games of last season, but he and the other linebackers had a bad case of tacklitis during a few games, particularly against Syracuse and Minnesota (both NU losses).  Note that Williams didn't play against Syracuse and was replaced by redshirt freshman David Nwabuisi, who held up but wasn't overly impressive.

The key to NU's turnaround may very well be Quentin Davie, who moved over to the strong side for this season, and had high expectations heading into the year.  He was relatively quiet over the first few games but has really exploded the past couple games, and now leads NU in tackles with 46, TFLs with 6.0, sacks with 4.0, QB hurries with 4, and is tied for the lead in forced fumbles with 3.

And on the weak side, sophomore Ben Johnson has done an admirable job and had a highlight reel 70 yard interception return for touchdown against EMU, although he did sustain an injury against Purdue and gave way to David Arnold, who has tallied two sacks over the last two games.

Although injuries have affected this squad's performance, one can't ignore that three game span where they seemingly couldn't tackle, couldn't plug the rushing lanes, and couldn't get to the opposing quarterback.  They can definitely move their grade further upward if they continue to play like they have the last two games.

Defensive Backs: B

If any squad deserves the benefit of the doubt due to injuries, it's these guys.  Standout CB Sherrick McManis was injured and was rarely used during NU's first three games, which included the loss to Syracuse where the secondary was gauged early and often.  His backup, Justan Vaughn, was injured against EMU, forcing NU to use a third string CB (Demetrius Dugar) a lot more than desired.  Also, S Brendan Smith came out against Miami for most of the game, and S Brad Phillips got a bit dinged up earlier in the year (although he continued to play).

Yes, this squad gave up some big gains to Syracuse and were part of the tackling problem against Minnesota and early on against Purdue, but they've been a large part of the defense's turnaround over the last six quarters.

McManis is likely the most important member of the defense, as he has virtually shut down his man over the last three games and has an interception in each of those games to boot.  He leads NU in INTs with three and pass break-ups with four.

Brad Phillips has also come back into his hard-hitting form, as he's now second on NU in tackles, with 41, has two sacks, and is tied for the NU lead with three forced fumbles.  His performance is key in NU stopping the opponent's running game and forcing turnovers.

Like the rest of this defense, these guys had high hopes early on, faltered, but are responding in a great way now.  The positive trend must continue in order for the 'Cats to reach bowl eligibility against some tough competition.

Special Teams:

Overall: B+

Special teams have been a relative bright spot for the 'Cats, with P/K Stefan Demos nailing a 49 yard game-winning field goal against Eastern Michigan and NU recovering two fumbles on special teams against Purdue

The kicking game has been rather consistent for the Wildcats and the coverage teams have been doing a solid job of making the tackles and holding opponents to just 4 yards per punt return (19th nationally) and 19.9 yards per kick return (42nd nationally).

Demos is a solid 9-of-10 on FGs and 17-of-18 on XPs (his only missed FG was blocked), and he is handling all kicking duties nicely (I did name him first half MVP, after all).

Despite all that going right, NU's return game has been flat out bad.  The 'Cats rank 97th nationally in kick returns and 95th in punt returns.  Despite trying various guys in both roles, Fitz has yet to find an answer to get the return game going.

'Cats fans are generally resting much easier than in the Walker era where any NU kick or punt could result in a TD, thanks to rather solid coverage teams, but on the flipside the potential for NU to take one back is virtually gone (in Fitz's three and a half years at the helm, the only return for a TD was Simmons' kickoff return against OSU in 2007).

Place Kicking: A-

There have been three errors in the kicking game this year: a missed extra point against Syracuse, a blocked FG against Miami (Ohio), and a bad snap/hold also against Miami.  That's it.  Demos has proven to be a reliable kicker, and is on track to eclipsing Amado Villarreal's single season FG percentage record set last year.

Returns: D

This is by far the weakest portion of the special teams, and Fitz is still trying to get something to work here.  Yes, the return men haven't done much special, but the blocking up front hasn't been spectacular, either.

The fact is that the 'Cats could get much better field position if they could get something going on returns, and could also do themselves a big favor by getting a scoring threat on returns.

Punts, Kicks, and Coverage: B+

As mentioned in the earlier stats, NU's coverage game has been rather solid, with the Wildcats keeping opponents' returns well contained.  There were some gaffes earlier in the year on kick returns, but that seems to have been resolved over the past couple games with NU consistently containing opponents' return men.

The biggest knock here is lack of distance on kicks and punts (NU is 93rd in net punting), although some of that can be attributed to purposely shorter punts in order to get good coverage downfield.  As long as NU keeps long returns to a minimum, though, they will do themselves many favors.


Grade: B-

Both the offense and defense have taken their lumps during the year, and although much of the blame goes to the players on the field, some must be shared by the coaching staff.

On defense, maybe it was scheme related or lack of adjustments, but NU was gashed during that aforementioned three game span where the 'Cats yielded 38 points per game.  They also gave up three fourth quarter leads and, for a time, looked like a shell of what they were expected to be going into the year.

The offense has been maddeningly inconsistent, especially their virtual inability to run the football.  Play calling has been very questionable, with NU passing more often than running over the last four games, but throwing in some runs that seemingly slow down an offense that looks to be clicking.  Also, leaning heavily on the passing game has allowed defenses to send the pass rush early and often, which hasn't helped an already struggling offensive line.

Although NU has managed to win four games through the first half of the year, that number doesn't meet expectations, and in the two losses the 'Cats blew fourth quarter leads.  Also, NU won the last two games by an average of only eight points in games that shouldn't have been nearly as close as they were.

Final Thought:

After a shaky period of about three games in the early part of the season, NU has responded nicely and has a two game winning streak going into the second half of the season.  Yes, the resume doesn't look good, but the 'Cats are squarely in the mix for a bowl berth going into a key part of the season.

Hopefully the Wildcats can continue to progress on both sides of the football with the defense returning to the form it should have had starting the year and the offense finding a groove that we've seen it can have (i.e. Syracuse game).

The second half starts with two key games for NU's bowl hopes: a trip to East Lansing to face MSU and a homecoming bout versus Indiana.

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.