The Waterboy
2005 Archive

November 10, 2005

Fat Lady Gagged

Or, more appropriately, she choked.  After the ‘Cats had bumbled and stumbled throughout most of the first 55 minutes of the game against the I-Away BlackEyes, the infamous Fat Lady was warming-up her vocal cords for the game-ending aria.  NU’s QB, Brett Basanez, who had thrown a mere 3 INTs in his previous 8 games, had just given-up his 2nd and most damaging pick of the contest, missing his intended receiver, who released downfield to the I-Away endzone after his initial deep curl move had caused his coverage DB to fall to the treacherous wet turf, and depositing the ball directly into the hands of that DB.  Not only did the play look terrible because Baz had mis-read the WR’s correct pass route decision to fly downfield in the clear, after his coverage back bit on the curl move, but BB pulled the trigger and threw the pill to the initial curl area, right on top of the prone DB.  This offensive gaffe appeared to be the last stroke in what was a very forgettable outing for BB. 

Then, suddenly, when the outcome of the contest seemed to be a virtual lock and NU’s offense appeared completely stymied, a remarkable turnabout began to happen.  First, the ‘Cats’ defense, which uncharacteristically had held the BlackEyes’ formidable offensive scoring machine to a scant 3 points in H-2, made the most crucial of their many 2nd half stops,  returning possession of the ball back to NU’s sputtering offense with 3 minutes and change left on the game clock.  What happened afterwards was the most improbable and yet almost expected series of plays that NU ever has converted over the course of its 2005 football campaign.  Simply stated, these final 3.5 minutes were the season defining moment for the Northwestern Wildcats.

Larceny: How the ‘Cats Stole a “W”
From the I-Away BlackEyes

Rubber-Band Defense
Much has been said and written regarding NU’s enigmatic defense.  They give up yards in bunches, get taken to the shed and spanked for a period of time (usually all of H-1), and allow an opponent’s offense to score apparently at will – until they “figure it out.”  I can’t describe it any other way.  NU DC Greg Colby’s squad is not a talented bunch – not even close when compared to the notable high-quality Ds of the Big 10/11, like the Inmates of States Penn, da BuckNuts and … the I-Away BlackEyes.  But suddenly, when observers and foes alike least expect it, NU’s defense jells and becomes relatively effective at controlling the LOS and getting the job done, especially when it’s needed the most.  It certainly ain’t pretty.  Other Division 1A football programs will never seek out and pick the collective brains of NU’s defensive coaching staff for insights regarding their game plans and strategies. 

But somewhere, at sometime, after the ‘Cats’ opponent has driven the length of the field for a TD in its opening offensive possession in less than 3 minutes, after NU falls into an ignominious 2-3 score hole, the oppressed D inexplicably solidifies.  Where the Purple DBs would miss previous pass coverage assignments, they maintain contact with their coverage targets and get stingy against thrown passes.  Where the DL was blown 3 yards downfield off the LOS through entire quarters of play, they stiffen and opposing RBs find yardage much tougher to get.  Opposing QBs begin missing receivers while their WRs start dropping passes.  Whatever the cause, the final result is that the opponent’s offense is not quite as efficient a machine as before.  In the case of the BlackEyes, it occurred in H-2. 

Instead of giving-up a game-clinching TD or FG, NU’s level of defensive field play intensified and I-Away’s O was held relatively at bay series after series, always ending somewhere in Northwestern territory.  In their 3 possessions of Q3, the BlackEyes’ offense drove the ball for 1, 0, and 3 first downs, sputtered and was forced to punt.  On their next 2 possessions, I-Away drove within FG range, converting the first attempt for the only BlackEye points of the half, while missing the second, which proved to be the major turning point of the game.

Talk about bending and not breaking!  By far, this was the finest effort of the season for NU’s defense against a quality offense, capturing game momentum and shifting it in NU’s favor for the remainder of the contest.  WAY TO GO, D!!!                

Dr. Jekyll – Maintaining Balance
For much of the game, NU’s OC, Mike Dunbar employed the vertical passing attack judiciously.  The long bomb attempt was set-up by short, possession passes and quick-hitting runs off tackle or towards the defensive corner. The novel shovel pass triple option was used occasionally, and like most rushes, was stoned at or before the LOS.  Obviously, the BlackEyes took the hint from NU’s previous game against the Dazed & Blue Horde imitating the strategic defensive objective to make NU’s reputed high powered O one dimensional by shutting down the rush attack tandem of Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton and Brandon Roberson first.  And it was very effective.  However, by limiting the ‘Cats’ ground game, the BlackEyes became vulnerable to the pass, especially the vertical variety.  Whenever Dunbar called for the downfield heave, it was open with regularity.  Only problem, BB was not connecting regularly with his open wideouts as often as he should or could have.  But instead of folding the tents on the vertical pass option in the face of earlier limited success, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Dunbar’s offensively astute alter ego, didn’t can the attack altogether which had been all too common in previous games.  Instead, he reprised the vertical passing attack, especially in H-2, and it was the greatest offensive contributor to NU’s comeback bid.  Not only did it gain yardage on its own, but it also opened rushing lanes, especially off pass action, like designed QB keepers.  During NU’s crucial last 3 possessions of the game, the BlackEye defensive brain trust were baffled regarding which attack option the ‘Cats would employ for their next quick strike yardage gainer and clueless to call an appropriate defensive set to contain NU’s overpowering balanced offense.  This balanced attack scenario was a direct result of Dr. Jekyll’s keeping the faith regarding the viability of the vertical pass.          

Pure Magic
What can one say about K Joel Howard’s remarkable onside kick and the way it caromed high off the wet turf of Dyche’s Ditch as if it rebounded off a trampoline?  Having been a kicker in high school, such a high-chopper bounce off an onside kick might occur 10-15% of the time at best; and it certainly isn’t executable on command.  That it happened at all, in this particular game, at this particular moment, and then recovered, when Reggie McPherson’s basketball-like leap deftly plucked it in midair, was nothing less than magical.  Where there were high fives and congratulations all around and through the BlackEye sidelines just 2 minutes before, there was a stunned, “Oh my Gawd” silence and blank, slack-jawed stares.  Suh-weet!!!

The Moment, The Men, The Play
There comes a moment in every football player’s career where the planets align and the Fates (and the fans) hold their collective breath waiting for him to execute that game-making or game-breaking play.  It happened in NU’s now-fabled, instant-classic 54-51 homecoming game against the Dazed & Blue Horde in the 2000 season.  Zak Kustok and Sam Simmons were on the exact same sentence of the exact same page of NU’s offensive playbook as each read Michigan’s defense correctly, ran the quick Z-in slant route, and the subsequent pass was delivered on-target and in-stride for the game-deciding TD.

Fast forward to NU’s comeback bid against a previously dominating I-Away BlackEyes team last Saturday.  After having scored an improbable TD on a 12-play, 77-yard drive in a mere 77 seconds; and having recovered the subsequent desperation on-side kick off an unbelievable bounce, the ‘Cat O stands poised on the BlackEye 9 yard line with 50 ticks left on the clock.  Here it is…

The Moment: BB & the Boys get the play from Mike Dunbar sitting in the coach’s box high above Dyche’s Ditch, break the huddle and line up on the scrimmage line. 

The Men: NU’s unflappable QB, Brett Basanez; the team, NU’s “Semper Fi” OL; and NU’s WRs, spread across the field on the LOS.

And The Play:

True freshman WR, Ross Lane, positioned wide right at the LOS, views the coverage set of I-Away’s secondary and sees that the called pass play, that includes his route - which begins with a fake Z-out fade pattern to the far-right corner of the endzone, followed by a quick inside slant into the deep middle zone - is … wide open.  The ball is snapped, Ross makes his drive to the deep right corner drawing his coverage DB to him, then plants his outside foot and drives hard to the inside, separating himself from his outside-committed coverage CB and into open space.  He’s free and clear.  And BB doesn’t hesitate, delivering a laser beam into Ross’s midsection. 

Touchdown, then … bedlam.  It’s why the game is played!!!               

The Last Stand
All the elation and euphoria, all the histrionics and hysteria surrounding NU’s heroic comeback would have been rendered absolutely moot were it not for THE most important series of the game - the ‘Cats’ final defensive stand.  Everyone among the Wildcat Faithful who remained glued to their seats to witness the bitter, now wonderful endgame knew that this contest was far from over.  With the memory of the State Penn game clearly in mind, knowing that 46 ticks remained on the game clock and their penchant for giving up big yardage in scant seconds, defensive captain Tim McGarigle and his teammates girded themselves for what would be a whirlwind aerial onslaught by I-Away’s QB Drew Tate and his receiving corps.  And it did come.  However, something was noticeably different from previous series.  The BlackEye team was rattled and its O was pressing BIG TIME.  With the ‘Cat DBs clamping down on their coverage WRs, coupled with a determined pass rush by NU’s fired-up DL, Tate and company began to make mistakes.  After an opening 15-yard completion, Tate’s 2nd attempt was incomplete.  A holding call on the next play negated a 4 yard gain, making a 2nd and 19 situation.  After a 10 yard pass completion, followed by another errant pass, Tate faced a 4th and 9 near midfield. 

Here it was… deja’ vu and the State Penn 4th-and-forever all over again. 

But that was then, and this is now.  This time, Tate’s target of choice, veteran WR Herb Grigsby, cut off his outside curl route at 4 yards, 5 yards short of the first down marker, because he saw NU’s LB Tim McGarigle sprinting in for a kill-shot tackle.  Lord knows what Grigsby’s thought process was, but his focus was not on the inbound pass, but on McGarigle and an expected heavy lumber collision.  I’ve looked at replays of this single play and, I swear, just as the ball arrived, Grigsby flinched, his head turning ever so slightly to his right, as if he could reposition his eye to look out the right ear hole of his helmet towards the heat-seeking missile, Mr. McGarigle.  Final result: the ball hits Grigsby spot on his hands and is dropped to the wet turf.  For the briefest of moments, a huge collective sigh reverberated throughout the stadium when the bean fell harmlessly at Grigsby’s feet, then… an eruption.  Vindication!  Forget State Penn!!  ‘Cats Win, ‘Cats Win!!!   

What a game.  What a comeback.  Afterwards, as I walked out of the stadium, a line from the movie, A League of Their Own, kept repeating itself, where a radio broadcaster utters, “I’ve seen enough to know I’ve seen too much!”  Ain’t it the truth – Ain’t it the truth!!!  By far, this was the biggest, most emotional comeback that I’ve witnessed over the 35 years I’ve been associated with Northwestern Football. 

Congratulations ‘Cats – and to the NU coaching staff.

On a personal level, one last important note… 

For all the well-deserved national attention and interest that QB Brett Basanez has engendered, for all the well-earned praise heaped upon the outgoing seniors, especially OT Zack Strief, WRs Mark Philmore and Jonathan Fields, DT Barry Cofield and DBs Herschel Henderson and Frederic Tarver, nothing, but nothing overshadows the vital, indispensable contribution made by the individual who has my vote as the team’s MVP: Tim McGarigle, NU’s very own Mad Irishman.  That last offensive play of the BlackEyes, where the target WR dropped the well-delivered ball because he knew he was in the cross-hair sights of Mr. MaGarigle, was, in microcosm, a reflection of McGarigle’s indisputable impact on this team and on every game he’s played.  It was the ultimate tribute to Tim and his field play.  And as he walked off the field, I wished that I could convey to him, personally, my heartfelt thought:

“Thank You, Tim.  You make every one of us proud to be a Wildcat.”     

The Waterboy

November 2, 2005

’Cats Put On Hold

What at contrast between the ‘Cats' dominating performance against Moo U. two weekends ago when compared to last Saturday’s game against the Dazed & Blue Horde of Ann Arbor.  Where the ‘Cats played virtually error-free football against the Green Meanies, they were more than error-prone as they faced the first of 3 consecutive Big Dogs of the Big 10/11.  It’s difficult to know where to start when analyzing the causes.  Basically, NU’s potent offense was neutralized by a very determined and well-prepared Dazed and Blue defense that effectively countered most every attack strategy thrown at them by Cap’n Vlasic and his first mate, OC Mike Dunbar.  It certainly didn’t help that NU’s primary weapon, the vertical pass, was employed sparingly once it began to sputter and show a modicum of compromise due to the pass rush pressure of the Michigan defensive front 7.

However, despite Michigan’s unrelenting pass pressure, the final outcome of the game revolved primarily around NU’s devastating series of offensive gaffes, both forced and unforced.  First and foremost, NU’s offensive field play was compromised greatly by turnovers, especially the fumble made by Tyrell “Streak” Sutton and subsequent TD return that just deflated the ‘Cats.  Add the 2 INTs off glaringly poor passes made by BB, and it was obvious to everyone in attendance that there was something missing in the overall field play of the Wildcats.  NU’s receiving corps exacerbated the entire issue when they contracted a bad case of dropsie at the most critical points in the contest when BB did deliver the ball on target.  But most damaging of all were the penalties, especially the holding calls.  Mind you, holding is common and can be called on virtually every offensive play; but against a quality Dazed & Blue defense, where errors are magnified, a 10-yard penalty is very difficult to overcome.  And simply put, NU didn’t or couldn’t.

How the ‘Cats Lost
to the Dazed & Blue Horde

Beaten, Not Stirred
Much of NU’s success in the previous 3 games against what I called the conference’s 2nd tier teams was directly the result of superior field play by the offensive line.  Simply stated, they have been overpowering.  So much so, that many fans have taken their quality play for granted.  However, against the Dazed & Blue Horde, this powerful unit was met by an equally overpowering defensive front 7.  Essentially, Michigan’s DL is comprised of 7 interchangeable parts – each of which could be designated as a “starting defensive lineman.”  And Dazed & Blue HC, Lloyd Carr, knows their individual strengths very well and substitutes these interchangeable parts to down & distance situations like a master.  Against NU, Michigan’s DL was kept fresh and motivated, and they beat on the ‘Cat OL constantly.  By end of Q3, the reliability factor of NU’s OL was all but shut down.  They were whipped puppies with their collective tongues hanging out limp and looking for help, any help.  It was the first time I’ve seen this in them since the ASU game.  Michigan’s defensive linemen beat NU’s OL to their game-plan point of attack, gained separation from their blocker and converged on the ball with regularity, either stoning the NU RB at the LOS or containing BB in pocket protection, even when he tried to roll out beyond the defensive corner.  I won’t name names here, but anyone with TiVo or any other broadcast reply device could easily identify who were the beaters and who were the beaten.  Another item of note: NU’s individual OL were executing one-on-one blocking assignments very frequently against their defensive counterparts and being physically pummeled during their attempts at execution.  At this juncture of the 2005 season, the ‘Cat OL are not young and inexperienced, but, against one of the best defensive front 7’s in all of Division 1A, they looked the part.  Hopefully, a collective lesson has been learned – first, by the OL, regarding what it takes both mentally and physically to compete throughout an entire game against similar quality defensive linemen; and second, by NU’s defensive brain trust, regarding how to devise alternative blocking schemes to mitigate NU’s dependence on one-on-one assignments.  If it ain’t working, it has to be changed.

The Shadow Knows
Much of NU’s reputation for offensive fireworks is due to its balanced attack.  Lloyd Carr decided to eliminate the ground game option of this balanced attack.  He schooled his defensive front 7 to attack gaps and get into the NU backfield to compress the field of play in NU’s backfield.  And it worked well.  When it didn’t, NU’s RB, whether it was Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton or Brandon Roberson, popped through the LOS and was in the open space behind it, gaining 10-15 yards in the process.  To counter this potential “break-out,” Michigan’s defensive brain trust positioned a DB to shadow NU’s RB wherever he roamed.  If the Purple RB dove into the LOS between the tackles, he tried to fill the point-of-attack gap.  If the RB tried to bounce to the outside to gain the defensive corner, the DB would drive off the tail of the DE into the wide corner contain spot.  If the RB cut back against offensive flow, the DB would avoid getting caught in the wash of that flow and run parallel to the LOS and blast the RB at the LOS when he turned downfield.  If the RB jogged into the flat for the wide screen or the flair pass, he would follow and attack upfield into the RBs face as the pass was delivered.  This defensive strategy can be executed only with an experienced DB possessing superior quickness who has the instincts to avoid the wash of downfield blockers and who can recognize the RB’s intent as he positions himself within the flow of the offensive play.  Michigan has a couple of those types of DBs, who shadowed NU’s RB very well. 

Bottled Up
Much of Brett Basanez’s problems in the passing game were due to the aforementioned pass pressure by the Dazed & Blue’s defensive front 7.  Obviously, Michigan’s DC noticed that Baz works very effectively using 5 and 7-step drop-back techniques behind his pocket protection.  To counter these deeper QB drops, the Dazed & Blue DC instructed his DEs to employ a speed rush technique and crash the outside shoulder of NU’s OTs to compress NU’s backfield from the outside-in, at approximately 7 yards deep – the same depth as BB’s drop-back “comfort zone.”  When BB went into dropped-back pass mode, Michigan’s DE had gained control of his blocking OT’s outside shoulder and was at BB’s level in the NU backfield much too often.  This outside shoulder crash technique effectively kept him bottled-up, especially on designed roll-out passes.  Now, instead of looking downfield for an open receiver, Baz’ attention was redirected to this crashing DE to avoid the sack.  BB often tried to circle around this crashing DE and get into the open space beyond the defensive corner, but that crashing DE adjusted his rush to penetrate deeper into the NU backfield and keep to the level of the QB.  Whenever Baz did gain the corner, he was at least 10-15 yards deep into his backfield, often with that crashing DE in hot pursuit from the inside out.  This made his downfield passes 7-8 yards deeper than normal and gave the Michigan DBs that extra quarter-second more to react to the thrown ball.  To compensate, Baz had to throw laser beams to deliver the ball to his targeted WR.   Sometimes it was delivered spot-on, many times is just wasn’t.

Increased Inertia = Dropsie

Add to the mix that NU’s receivers had a hard time recognizing BB’s plight, and didn’t react quickly enough to break off their downfield routes and sprint towards the LOS to allow Baz a closer, open target.  When these same WRs did peel back to the LOS, they often were greeted with that laser beam delivery, which, when the speed of the receiver’s return to the LOS was added to the physics of the thrown ball, made the bean feel like it was rocketing to them at 120 mph.  There was little wonder why many of these passes caromed off or through the hands of the target receivers.  NU’s receiving corps has employed quality reception techniques over the course of this season, but I have no doubt that they’ve had little or no exposure to the real-time game speed of delivered ball off BB’s hands as they experienced during last Saturday contest.  Even NU’s most reliable wideouts were missing delivered passes.  Is this looking for an excuse? … Perhaps.  But then again, I would bet that practice sessions over the course of the Dazed & Blue game week had little resemblance to the actual field play conditions, especially when it came to the rifle shots Baz aimed in the direction of his WRs.  NU’s wide receivers were not prepared and dropped make-able pass after make-able pass.     

Last Resort
The blocking technique mantra of an offensive lineman:
∙    Get off at the snap of the ball.
∙    Engage your blocking target and maintain contact (keep the feet moving).
∙    As your blocking target gains separation, do not hold or clip.

Well, owning to the superior field play of Michigan’s more mature and physically impressive defensive linemen, guess what started happening in Q3?  And it just wasn’t NU’s OC who resorted to this last-gasp (or more appropriately “last grasp”) blocking technique.  Everyone on NU’s OL was grabbing their blocking targets.  I saw it constantly through my field glasses.  And so did the referees.  In fact, the zebras saw this “last resort” technique used on 5 consecutive offensive series, often negating a 10-15 yards gainer.  And they threw yellow hankies at the offending party, as expected.  Self-inflicted wounds, to be sure.  

Well, this was a just few items of dubious note, and there are several more which need not be detailed in this commentary.  Suffice it to say that this was not the ‘Cats’ best offensive effort to date in the 2005 Big 10/11 campaign.  And again, Michigan fields what I truly feel is one of the top-10 defenses in all Div. 1A.  Post game comments made by dazed & Blue D personnel ring loud with opinions that they thought that this game was their best effort of the 2005 season.  It showed big time.

One positive to be taken from this game by the Wildcat Nation was the “apparent” improvement of NU’s defense.  True, they still gave up yards in bunches, but when Michigan HC Lloyd Carr decided to let the air out of the game and called for a pure grinding-it-out ground game to eat time off the game clock, his strategy was neutralized often by an inspired and aggressive NU D.  In H-2, with the game on the line, the ‘Cat defense turned the ball over to their offense 3 times on downs and once via McTackler’s INT, and limited the on-again/off-again Michigan offense to a mere 2 FGs.  Michigan fans could argue that much of that defensive “improvement” could have been an indirect result of Carr’s “bleed-the-clock,” rush-first strategy used in H-2.  But then again, maybe not. 

Guess we’ll find out more regarding what truth lies in that assessment when the I-Away BlackEyes and their quality offense and defense squads invade Dyche’s Ditch this coming weekend.  

The Waterboy

October 24, 2005


Everyone who knows anything at all regarding the 2005 Northwestern Wildcats knew this would happen, especially as NU prepared to face the unreal challenge of the Big 10/11’s most prolific passing machine in the person of Moo U’s QB, Drew Stanton, and his quality receiving corps.  This game was gonna be a shootout.  How could anyone think differently?  The contest pitted the No. 3 and No. 4 passing offenses in Division 1A, each competing against relatively vulnerable and porous pass coverage opposition.  Prognostications for this contest referred to Moo U’s Stanton like he was the second coming of Joe Gunn (a.k.a.: Montana, of the Noted Dames fame), having the nation’s #1 passing efficiency rating, among several other top 10 rankings in various statistical passing categories.  In contrast to Stanton’s media darling reputation, NU’s QB Brett Basanez quietly garnered guarded, yet enthusiastic respect from collegiate football pundits, who described his passing acumen as more a curiosity than a true force to be reckoned-with.  After all, this was Northwestern, the enigmatic 4-2 Big 10/11 team fielding the almost-laughable 116th-rated defense whose deficiencies are overcome weekly by its very laudable potent offense, around whom anything could happen… and usually did.  

And wouldn’t you know it, the expected game time shootout lived up to its advertised hype – with the most unbelievable twist.  As this aerial circus unfolded, fans of both teams watched dumbfounded and slack-jawed, as BB & the Boys gobbled up yardage against the Green Meanie secondary equal to Stanton’s amazing output against NU’s maligned DBs, except for one important item. Where BB was shooting the lights out of Moo U’s pass coverage for repeated TDs, Mr. Stanton and Company repeatedly shot themselves in the foot baking French pastry (as in turnovers) in the shadow of the NU goal line.  After Mr. Stanton torched the ‘Cats’ woeful pass coverage, driving 75 yards in 66 seconds off a mere 3 plays on Moo U’s opening possession of the game, and their defense followed suit, laying a 3-and-out whooping on NU’s O, it appeared that the Michigan College of Animal Husbandry (Michigan State’s original chartered name) was poised to serve toasted Purple Feline to their boisterous Homecoming Day crowd. 

Then something wonderful happened – the quality Moo U football team began to misfire in every aspect of its game-plan. 

How the ‘Cats Milked Moo U. for the “W”

Blow(n Play) By Blow(n Play)
Moo U’s propensity towards baking French pastry was the headline, however its wholesale field-play gaffes were the underlying story.  Of particular note:
1.    Drew Stanton’s incomparable pass efficiency incomprehensibly went down the drain.  Like the devastating effects of a lost good luck charm, suddenly, Mr. Stanton lost “it” and began to overthrow, underthrow and just plain miss his receivers.  In Q1 alone, he threw 6 straight incomplete passes, and let NU’s defense compose and collect themselves after Moo U’s initial quick-strike TD. 
2.    Moo U dodged NU’s first Purple bullet when Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton bobbled BB’s handoff for a lost fumble on Moo U’s 1 yard line (actually it was recovered at the MSU 8).  After  NU’s D stonewalled the Green Meanies for a 3-and-out, aided by 2 overthrown passing attempts, MSU’s punting game went AWOL, as pitiful punter Brandon Fields miss-hit his boot, giving NU excellent field position at the MSU 41 to start its ensuing drive.  Result: BB & the Boys slice through Moo U’s befuddled secondary in 6 plays to tie the score at 7.  The Green Meanies look bewildered both on the field and on the sidelines.
3.    Adding insult to injury, Moo U’s FG kicker, John Goss, makes NU’s “up-one-kick-down-the-next” PK, Joel Howells, look like a candidate for All Big 10/11 honors.  At his best, Goss is inconsistent; at his worst he’s… well… road-kill and makes the Green Meanie’s putrid punter look comparably spectacular.  Goss’s 1st FG attempt, at 47 yards, would have put Moo U up 10-zip and put the ‘Cats in a deep psychological hole.  Instead, his wide-right gave NU momentum by which they drive the ball down to the MSU 1.  See above for the result.  His 2nd attempt, a 37 yarder with 43 seconds left in H-1, was no better, and NU milked the miss, carrying game momentum through halftime, then into H-2 in the form of consecutive TDs.  See below.        

Much of the media’s post-game attention focused on BB & the Boys, NU’s prolific offensive machine and their uncanny ability to execute the nuances of the spread attack and deliver points.  After all, offense sells tickets, copy and broadcast advertising-spot time.  As for defense… well, reputedly, it wins championships.  However, in the case of the way it’s played by the Wildcats, it has potential to lose games.   

Don’t be deluded by NU’s victory - the truth remains unchanged.  Although there was modest improvement, the Cat D retained their porous profile, giving up just under their 500 yard average.  When analyzing this game more closely, the ‘Cat D did not execute Greg Colby’s “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” strategies better, it simply overcame them by taking calculated risks that had difference-making potential.  This risk-taking factor is what Our Master & Commander alluded to when he announced that he would intervene personally with NU’s defensive game plan and field play techniques.  Walker’s professed concept regarding defense is: if each player concentrates on completing his defensive responsibilities first, opportunities will open up to go beyond them and make a play for the defensive stop or, more dramatically, the turnover.  IMHO, being so familiar with his D personnel’s shortcomings, Cap’n Vlasic’s main objective is to stiffen the ‘Cats’ defensive resistance as much as possible. 

Key to this concept of “making plays” is to swarm to the ball as it shows.  This is exactly what happened on the play that resulted in LB Demetrius Eaton’s 86 yard fumble return.  NU’s DT Kevin Mims shed his would-be blocker at the LOS, slanted towards the flow of what appeared to be an option play at the NU 9 where MSU’s QB Stanton held the ball just a moment too long.  Stanton carried the ball loosely and when Mims slammed into Stanton’s midsection, he slapped the ball free, bouncing it off the turf right into the waiting hands of Eaton who accepted the French pastry, turned upfield and headed straight for paydirt at Moo U’s end zone.     

Pressing A Point
Because of Stanton’s problems in executing their passing attack and reacting to the ball movement success of BB & the Boys, MSU’s offensive brain trust became anxious and began to press the initiative to make something, anything happen that would stem the tide of the ‘Cats’ offensive onslaught.  Exacerbating the situation, when NU’s D stiffened, especially as the Moo U offense got within striking distance of NU’s goalline, the MSU offensive coordinators called for a long distance shot at NU’s end zone.  Stanton received this directive load & clear and heaved the ball to any WR running at or inside NU’s end zone to exploit the reputed poor coverage techniques of the ‘Cats’ secondary, often ignoring double coverage sets.  These shots  played right into the hands, quite literally, of NU SS Smith and FS Henderson, as each recognized Stanton’s telegraphed target wideout in his bid to complete the quick strike score, then skillfully re-positioned themselves to make the pick as the bean was delivered.  What recognition!  What reaction!  What preparation!!  Die Green Meanies, Die!!!   

Once Eaton returned Stanton’s forced fumble to increase the ‘Cats’ lead to 21-7, then Henderson snatched his 1st INT at NU’s 2, then MSU’s PK Goss’ miss-kicked a very make-able 37-yard FG wide left (all on consecutive possessions at the end of H-1), Moo U was totally deflated and demoralized.  Not only did NU survive the brunt of Moo U’s full-throttle assault, they exploited MSU’s own pass coverage deficiencies and turned the tables on their Homecoming hosts.  In H-2, BB & the Boys continued weaving their offensive magic against the Green Meanies, scoring TDs on 4 consecutive possessions.  At that juncture, with 12 minutes left in the game, NU had scored 7 straight touchdowns to Moo U’s opening drive TD and the green-clad Homecoming crowd was waving white flags as they slowly trudged out of Spartan Stadium.  331 yards passing off an 80% completion percentage, complimented by 202 rushing yards, tend to do that.  Game over.  Thanks for coming.   

No doubt, this was the ‘Cats’ most overwhelming win against a top 25-ranked football team that I’ve witnessed in years.  At once, it was as unpredictable as it was surprising.  But seeing is believing, and now the collegiate football world - media, fans and especially members of the Big 10/11 conference - are beginning to believe that NU’s 5 victories are not flukes, but are the well-earned result of high quality field play. 

I’ve stated in commentary at the start of the 2005 season that this would be a building-block campaign, where over the course of this fall’s sequence of games, the ‘Cats would build upon lessons learned from their previous game.  This progressive building-block prediction has held true - from victories against NU’s first 2 seemingly “lighter” OOC foes, to NU’s litmus test of competitive resolve when facing the high-powered Bum Devil squad, to the hard lessons learned from NU’s failure to close the deal against the very beatable Inmates of State Penn, right through what could be considered the Big 10/11 conference’s second tier opponents.  Now, for the main course of this fall’s repast, the conference’s pre-season championship contenders: Michigan, Iowa & daBuckNuts.  Whatever the ‘Cats have accomplished over the last 3 games can been attributed specifically to their ability to deny their opposition control of the contest and the freedom to exercise what facets of a football game they execute best.  This means that the ‘Cats have dictated game-time strategy conditions, the rules of engagement so to speak.  And it speaks volumes for the quality and tenacity of the 2005 ‘Cats. 

NU will need to muster all the experience and resourcefulness accumulated over their previous 7 games to be competitive with these next 3 foes, the so-called Big Dogs of the Big 10/11.  And the Dazed & Blue Horde of Ann Arbor step up to the plate in Dyche’s Ditch this Saturday. 

The Waterboy

October 21, 2005


First, I must say that viewing the NU game at Tommy Nevin’s with the esteemed Turk, the knowledgeable AstroCat and the ever-effusive WaterGirl was fan-stastic.  Not only could we openly discuss all things Purple with our favorite libation at hand, but we were free to rant, then cheer, then brood, then elate unabashedly at the action on the big screen.  Watching other premier games simultaneously sealed the deal.  What a venue!!!  

Once again, I didn’t submit a preview to this game simply because anyone who has seen the ‘Cats in 2005 know too well the critical keys for any game thus far:
1.    Keep NU’s offense on the field as much as possible; and
2.    Keep NU’s defense off the field as much as possible. 
All else is trivial detail that can be debated, pro and con, ad nauseum; so why boor everyone with such mindless banter?

I was not flying solo, predicting that the only possible way in which NU could snare a “W” from this game would be via a gut-wrenching, heart-stopping shoot-out.  We fans saw this strategy unfold last Saturday against the quality defense of the Drunkards of Wisky, and its ill effects were still in evidence one week later.  This weekend would pit Our Master & Commander against the first of NU’s two annual protected conference rivals and his bitter nemesis, Joe “Don’t call me Wilfred Brimley” Tiller, against whom, last season,  he had garnered the only victory of his tenure at the helm of Das Pökelboot.  Oh Joy…Another Shootout!  How could I think otherwise looking at the honest facts surrounding this contest?  First, the Perdue Broiler-Chickens have become nothing less than cornered, wounded fowl, who had been ranked as high as #12 in the national media’s pre-season beauty pageant football pools, and who had never even come close to fulfilling the promise of such high praise, losing 3 of 5 to what was considered lesser opposition.  Yet here they were with Tiller’s vaunted point-a-minute, high-quality spread passing attack, at home to boot, lining up against Greg Colby’s “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” D and its “Nut-n-Honey” pass coverage schemes.  This was gonna be the 4th of July fireworks spectacular in early October.

And it was – with a strange twist.  Instead of each team exercising their high-flying aerial circus, dueling each other blow for blow on consecutive possessions, the ‘Cats and Broiler-Chicken offenses took control and sole possession of game momentum for one full half apiece, completely dismantling their opponent’s D in the process.  Yet, when it came down to it, NU’s defense had one of its best outings of the 2005 fall campaign.  Although by game’s end, statistics show that Perdue gained over 500 total yards, the 'Cats’ defense stopped the Broiler-Chicken’s potent spread O often enough for their offensive counterparts to lay a big enough licking on the Chickens, in the form of a 19-point deficit, that Tiller’s H-2 comeback bid just didn’t have enough steam to crawl out of this deep hole.  In fact, were it not for several brain fart moves by Cap’n Vlasic that substantially aided Perdue’s comeback effort, this deficit could have been much deeper and beyond the capacity of the Broiler-Chickens to ever approach.  Of particular note:

Exhibit A:
With 36 ticks left the end of H-1, after having driven the ball from their 20-yard line to NU’s 39 in a mere 56 seconds, Tiller & Co. faced a 4th down & 2 and decided to go for the first down and pick up a chance at a quick-strike TD on the weak NU D.  But Perdue’s starting QB Brandon Krisch was stoned for TFL on a called QB keeper, giving BB & the Boys possession of the bean within striking distance for their own late-half FG attempt. However, instead of employing the very effective vertical passing attack that had sliced-through Perdue’s porous D for 4 TDs during the half, Dunbar calls for 2 dink passes to “Streak” which were contained for a relatively harmless 11 yard total.  Exacerbating the issue, the PickleMeister doesn’t use any of his available 3 time outs after either of the dinkers, allowing the game clock to run down to 6 seconds.  Only then does Dunbar call a vertical pass, which was completed and run out of bounds, putting the ball at the PU 39, leaving kicker Joel Howells a daunting 56-yard FG attempt with 1 second left.  If Cap’n Vlasic doesn’t tank on the use of those timeouts, NU could have had 2-3 more vertical pass plays to give Howells much better field position for the FG.  Why Randy, Why? 

Exhibit B:
Due to NU’s poor kickoff coverage, especially when kicking against a strong headwind, Cap’n Vlasic turns to the pooch kickoff, and it’s executed with real effect against the Broiler-Chickens, giving them starting position at their 30 yard line or worse twice.  Sweet!!!  At the start of H-2, facing that same headwind, Our Master & Commander orders PK Howells to kick off into the face of this gale-force wind.  Result: H-2’s opening kickoff is grabbed by the Big 10/11’s best WR, Perdue’s own Dorien Bryant -  truly possessing documented sub-4.2 speed – who then promptly turns on his afterburners, scorching the ‘Cats’ punch-less kickoff coverage squad for a TD runback in a mere 11 seconds.  What was that all about?  Randy, in H-1, you feigned the full kickoff when facing this headwind and opted for the poochie boot, and it worked to perfection.  Now at the start of H-2, with the Broiler-Chickens mired in a 19-point hole, you call for a kickoff into the teeth of that same headwind that you avoided. Bang… in 11 seconds, that deficit is trimmed to 11.  Why Randy, Why?   

Exhibit C:
Let’s see...  after NU’s poor kick coverage team’s train wreck contributed 2 quick Broiler-Chicken TDs in Q3 to trim the ‘Cats’ lead to 5, BB & the Boys drive 68 yards in Q4 to the PU 3.  The “Streak’s” overall rushing total has been moderate, but consistent, having added an 11 yard grinder in the drive.  Then unexpectedly, Cap’n Vlasic replaces “Streak” with little-used Brandon Roberson at the doorstep of the Perdue goal line.  Roberson’s number is called and he immediately gets stripped of the ball, turning it over at the Perdue 2.  Suddenly, instead of being kicked back into another 12-point hole, Tiller’s Broiler-Chickens dodge NU’s potential kill shot, gain the initiative and, responding to this dramatic shift in momentum, drive 98 yards against the poorly coached NU defense for the go-ahead TD with 5 minutes and change left in the game.  Randy… instead of being up by 12, your ridiculous replacement move put NU down 1.  You used “Streak” in every short yardage goalline situation against the Drunkards of Wisky; yet now, you bring in Roberson, who obviously was ice cold and never had a chance to get into the flow of field play, then hand him the ball with the game on the line.  [ed. note: flashbacks of Kevin Lawrence?] His subsequent fumble was not unexpected.  “Streak’s” ground game was not broke, so why fix it?  Why Randy, Why?

Exhibit D:
Game’s outcome in the balance...  After recovering the fumble of NU’s kill shot TD attempt, Perdue’s pass-happy spread O is in high gear.  NU’s defense is choking badly, facing the brunt of the Broiler-Chicken’s aerial attack and in dire need of resuscitation.  What does NU’s DC Greg Colby’s response?  Why… use the 3-man pass rush, of course.  Surely, what the 4 man pass rush couldn’t accomplish, this staple of Colby’s “Behold the power of Swiss cheese” defensive strategy certainly could.  Are you nuts?  Randy, for the sake of everything you’ve advertised to the Wildcat Nation regarding rescuing NU’s debilitated defense, please take control!  But no, the 3-man DL stays on the field.  Result: Perdue up 1 with 5 minutes left.  Why Randy, Why?

Why go on?  The picture is quite clear.  Time now for BB & the Boys’ last ditch heroics. 

Where’s my bottle of Maalox?      

How the ‘Cats Deep-Fried
the Perdue Broiler-Chickens

Mo, Mo, Mo: The Vertical Passing Game
I guess NU’s OC Mike Dunbar fully comprehends it now: he possesses one of the most potent offensive attacks in all Division 1A when BB & the Boys execute their vertical passing game.  And it works best when employed off play-action motion.  Time and again, I witnessed televised replays of play-action pass plays where NU’s QB Bazanez would fake a handoff to feature RB, Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton, and set up for the eventual pass.  Virtually every time, Broiler-Chicken LBs would stop whatever movement they were executing initially, then take that telling one step or more forward to the LOS, converging on this potential ball carrier. With Perdue’s defensive front 7, especially their LBs, preoccupied specifically to stop “The Streak”, the downfield passing lanes opened up - in particular, the deeper middle third of the Perdue secondary.  And BB & the Boys exploited this open area, early and often, throughout the contest.  BB’s 67-yard TD strike to Eric Peterman on NU’s 2nd possession of the game, off a play-action fake to “Streak,” solidified this strategic paradigm for attacking the pliable Perdue defensive secondary.  On NU’s 4th possession of Q1, Dunbar called the vertical pass 7 consecutive times, mainly off play action, delivering the ‘Cats’ second  TD, stretching NU’s lead to 14-zip and stunning the raucous home fan base populating Ross Aide Stadium silent.  When ‘Streak” popped his 40 yard scamper in Q2, Broiler-Chicken HC Tiller’s knee-jerk reaction was to commit his front 7 to stop “Streak” first.  This seemed to seal the deal regarding Dunbar’s pass-first attack strategy.  You gotta love NU’s vertical passing game.     

Above & Beyond
If a recognized, effective attack strategy and its subsequent intent-to-execute is the foundation of game plan development, its successful execution is its expected logical reward.  But in the past, logic never seemed to be a dominant characteristic of NU’s game plan generation, especially regarding offense.  However, last Saturday, Dr. Jekyll, Mike Dunbar’s astute, offensive master-mind alter ego, continued his overwhelming influence when conceiving the ‘Cats’ offensive game-plan.  Responding to Perdue’s pass coverage woes of the previous weeks, this week’s offensive plan essentially was: pass first, and eventually, the ground game will open-up.  And BB & the Boys rose and delivered early and often, executing what seemed to be the perfect offensive attack strategy against their Broiler-Chicken foes and amassing a total 463 passing yards and 3 TDS, distributed among 9 receivers.  For good measure, Baz rushed for another 47 yards, scoring another TD in the process.  What’s even more astounding – Baz could have had yet another 100 yards and 2 TDS, minimum, were it not for dropped passes which were delivered on-target and in-stride to their intended WRs, many with no coverage DB on the TV screen.  Although Baz has had better final game stats in previous games, this was the finest, most impressive game of his collegiate career simply because he was so great a dominant, unstoppable force. 

With the Broiler-Chickens’ obvious commitment of their defensive front 7 primarily towards stopping Tyrell “the Streak” Sutton at the LOS, Baz filled the yardage collection gap in spectacular fashion.  I was amazed as every play action fake made to “Streak” literally froze all 3 Perdue LBs at their LOS rush-defense positions, and opened the vertical passing lanes.  Whether standing untouched in superb pocket protection provided by NU’s ever-improving pass blocking OL, or rolling out to the defensive corner and beyond in passing mode, BB had all the time in the world to scan the Broiler-Chicken secondary, count off his receiver options, find the open wideout, and deliver the pass with a surgeon’s precision.  In H-1, NU’s receiving corps was equal to the task, catching the bean time-after-time as Baz chucked it squarely in their direction.  If only these same wideouts continued exercising their collective high quality pass reception techniques in H-2.  They didn’t, and instead, their failure to complete the catch of these well-placed vertical passes opened the door to Perdue’s 2nd half comeback.              

Ridin’ Pine
Last season, Broiler-Chicken HC, Joe Tiller, made a personnel substitution that changed the entire complexion of his game against the ‘Cats: he benched his starting QB, Kyle Orton, for a significant period of the contest.  Result: Cap’n Vlasic picked up his first victory ever, a hard-fought 16-13 “W”, against his “Wilfred Brimley look-alike contest winner” nemesis.  This time around, after his starting QB Kirsch failed to convert a 4th down and short in the last minute of H-1 and then failed to deliver points in the first offensive possession of H-2, Tiller benched Kirsch, replacing him with little-used backup QB, Curtis Painter.  Although Painter passed for a TD following Perdue’s punt return to the NU 7, he did virtually nothing else on his remaining 3 series, effectively taking the oppressed NU D off the hook.  By the time Tiller returned his starting QB behind the wheel of the top-fuel dragster that is Perdue’s passing attack in their final few desperation drives, the damage was done.  Too little time - Too little Kirsch.  Thank you, once again, Mr. Brimley.         

French Pastry
Turnovers…  I love ‘em - especially when NU forces them against their opposition.  Reports out of Nicholet Hall say that one of Cap’n Vlasic’s major objectives when he began to give NU’s D more hands-on attention was increased execution across all defensive positions.  A corollary result of increased defensive execution: more opportunities to bake French pastry, in the form of turnovers against the opposition.  It may not happen all the time, but if everyone does their job on the defense, someone will be free to take that singular risk to attack the ball as it shows instead of concentrating strictly on his original defensive responsibility.  NU pulled off this French Pastry-baking trick often, recovering 2 of 4 forced Broiler-Chicken fumbles and completing 2 picks – the most critical on Kirsch’s last possession, at the NU 41, where he was driving his O for the go-ahead TD in the game’s final minute of play.  Overall, the ‘Cats’ defense played much better, overcoming their own well-known deficiencies as well as the glaring gaffes in defensive strategy made by the PickleMeister & Greg Colby, mentioned above. 

Capturing the “W” flag in West Laughable should not have been this difficult.  BB & the Boys were on their game; the OL were clicking and improving, NU’s defense had shown life after their DOA exhibitions over the course of their last 4 games, and the game was in-hand and the lead was extendable.  But then…

Bottom line: NU slips out of the Broiler-Chicken lair with that “W” flag under their arm, garnering a share of 2nd place in the Big 10/11 at 5-2 in the process.  Now if only the ‘Cats could have stoned the Inmate O on that crucial 4th & 15 in the last minute of State Penn game, they would be just one game from bowl eligible.  

The Waterboy

October 12, 2005

Basketball On Grass

What can I say?  Before this game, there was quite a bit to say… all negative.  In fact, my usual commentary previewing the ‘Cats’ annual tilt against the MadTown Drunkards was so full of venom and vitriol, that, as I continually reviewed it, it was apparent that I hadn’t gotten over the bitter loss to the Inmates of State Penn two weeks ago.  As a result I decided not to submit it.  “Who would care to read further unabated ranting regarding the coaching ineptitude of NU’s bumbling, stumbling Defensive Dynamic Duo - DC Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby and his sidekick, Jerry “It’s not my fault” Brown?” I thought.    Hell, it’s more than obvious to any sober, conscious observer that the ‘Cats’ defensive secondary is broke, befuddled and bewildered and in dire need of a comprehensive overhaul.  Ruminating that the consequences of NU’s last woeful display of pass coverage breakdowns not only cost the ‘Cats their first Big 10/11 victory of the 2005 season against a very beatable and beat up State Penn squad, but also catapulted Joe Pa’s Inmates to a wholly undeserved top 25 ranking in the national media’s beauty pageant polls, I was beside myself.

And upon recounting that the Drunkards of Wisky had just handed the Dazed & Blue Horde of Ann Arbor a thorough spanking the prior weekend, I, along with many others, gave the ‘Cats the proverbial “snowball’s chance in Hell” at snatching a “W” on their own home turf.  This game was The Bay of Pigs, Gallipoli and the Battle of New Orleans all rolled into one big Mission Impossible.   “Cap’n Vlasic, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary and Mark Murphy will disavow all knowledge of your actions.”  

Then suddenly, on a brisk and blustery October morning, the impossible did happen.  Make no mistake about it, this wasn’t a football game, not in the traditional sense of the word.  Traditional football usually pits an offense against a defense.  No, the only characteristics which made this contest appear to be a football game were: 1. It was played with a leather ball having a point on either end; 2. The players wore helmets, shoulder pads and cleats; and 3. It was played on the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch.  After that, there was little else that resembled football.  In fact, one could make a viable argument that what was witnessed more appropriately resembled a high school all star basketball game – rife with break-neck fast breaks, in-your-face slam dunks and heart-stopping individual playmaking.  But defense?  The very concept of that word was left in the locker rooms.

How the ‘Cats Sobered Up
the Drunkards of Wisky

Found: The Vertical Passing Game
“Amazing Grace… How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see...”  Rumor had it that, after last Saturday’s game against the Drunkards, the haunting refrain of this traditional spiritual was heard emanating from the offices of Our Master & Commander and his first mate, OC Mike Dunbar. 

Against the Inmates of State Penn, Mike Dunbar seemed utterly possessed by his offensively-challenged alter ego, Mr. Hyde, who has the debilitating knack of ignoring obvious, effective game-time play-calling – like employment of the vertical pass - and turning to other alternative attacks and staying with them regardless of their limitations.  Lord only knows why this curmudgeon feigns the experience and recognized play-making ability of his senior QB and his bevy of talented WRs.  It’s a mystery to be sure.  But he most certainly reared his ugly head when facing Joe Pa’s defense, leaving those chapters of NU’s offensive playbook untouched, and instead, rolled-out a “dink and dunk” short passing game which all but handcuffed NU’s big play potential and relegated BB and his receivers’ passing attack contributions to mere footnotes in the game’s box score.

However, that was then and this was now… when Mike Dunbar, facing the daunting Drunkard defense, finally saw the light and exercised the full potential of BB & the Boys by turning to the vertical passing attack.  And boy did it reap dividends.  Did it ever!!!  Yards were gobbled up in big chunks, early and often; as Baz riddled the oppressed Drunkard secondary through the air for 361 yards at a 66 completion percentage clip, distributing the bean to 8 of his WRs – all against a Wisky D that kept the vaunted Dazed & Blue offensive juggernaut in check just 7 days earlier.  

The vertical pass: a lost weapon that Mr. Dunbar rediscovered just in time.  And BB & the Boys delivered the most effective display of passing prowess witnessed thus far this season by the Wildcat Nation.

Dead At The Scene
As effective as the Basanez passing game was, complimented by a truly grueling ground game, nothing could have been achieved without the most crucial piece of the NU offensive game plan puzzle – the Big Uglies of the offensive line.  This unit simply dominated the Drunkard defensive line, pounding the MadTown maniacs into submission throughout the course of the game.  It was the major factor in NU’s recapturing momentum in Q3, where NU outscored the Drunkards by 17.  As bad as NU’s defense played, especially the wholly inept “Nut-n-Honey” pass coverage capabilities of the Wildcat secondary, the Wisky defense was simply overpowered and outclassed by superior execution at the LOS, rendering that reputed squad as ineffective as the one fielded by Greg Colby.  By mid Q3 on, the game transitioned into a shootout where the offenses on either side were just slicing through the opposing defense at will.  And none of those offensive fireworks could have ever transpired, had it not been for one of the most effective exhibitions of blocking technique by an NU OL that I’ve seen since the 2004 grapple against the Bucknuts.  Basanez was protected in the pocket, virtually untouched the entire game, while Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton blasted through seams at the LOS and into the Drunkard secondary on a constant basis.  By mid Q4, the Wisky D, especially their DL, were all but pronounced dead at the scene.  May they rest in pieces.

”The Streak” Continues
As much as Tyrell Sutton’s rushing reputation has been slowly gaining recognition, the Big 10/11 Big Dogs seemed unconvinced.  Well, I think that all changed after last Saturday.  Opponents’ defenses will never again concentrate solely on the playmaking potential of Baz, but must look for that Purple streak shooting through creases in NU’s OL.  As much as this was a statement game for the ‘Cat OL, “Streak” Sutton made a statement of his own: he cannot be ignored.  It’s strange… the 2005 collegiate football season has continued what seems to be the latest offensive trend – the emergence of the small, powerful RB.  What the Big 10/11 defenses saw in Wisky’s Bennett and Michigan’s Hart over the last 2 seasons, they are witnessing currently, first-hand, in NU’s “Streak.”  His 62 yard scamper through the center of Wisky’s beaten-up and beaten-down defensive front 7 was stark testament to the necessity to defend the ‘Cats’ newest weapon on every down.  This won’t be the last 200-plus rushing day for this fireplug. 

The Coffin Corner
Lastly, I must mention the most critical play of the entire game: Ryan Pedersen’s line-drive pooch punt that bounced out-of-bounds at the Wisky 3 with 1:23 remaining on the game clock.  That timely, deftly-placed punt effectively put the Drunkard O in a deep 97-yard hole, the sight of which sent the Drunkard offensive brain trust into panic mode.  It contributed mightily toward Wisky QB John Stucco panicking at the sight of Barry Cofield breathing down his neck in his own end zone and tossing a desperation dying quail into the waiting hands of NU’s Reggie McPhearson, slamming the door shut on a Wisky offense that had scored their last two TDs in a mere 64 and 62 seconds, respectively.  If that punt were a touchback and brought to the 20 yard line, the ending to this basketball-on-grass drama might have had a very different ending.  Way to rise to it, Ryan!!!

Recently, the stewards of professional hockey have succumbed to the prevailing sports management perspective that more offense and hence, more scoring, is more entertaining to their target fan base. Well, I must admit, last Saturday’s tussle with the Drunkards of Wisky was great theater, so there is some truth to that point of view.  Only issue: I don’t know if my heart or stomach can take much more of this. 

Belly up to the bar fellas… Maalox for everybody!!!

The Waterboy

October 5, 2005

The Bitter End

It’s taken a week to control my runaway emotions and compose myself enough to write this drivel.  Having prefaced this commentary with that statement…

That’s it.  I’ve had it.  I’m at the end of my rope and now I’ve fashioned it into a noose and have named the guests of honor for my necktie party.  “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” just doesn’t cut it any more.  How and why NU lost to the Inmates of State Penn is a multi-layered subject.  When one considers that NU’s senior QB, Brett Basanez, continued his sequence of commendable 2005 performances; that the overall quality of field play by the ‘Cat OL continued its upward climb (with a few critical exceptions); and that Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton showed that he is not just another frosh flash-in-the-pan, but is a reliable weapon to be used liberally, as in 32 carries, and remain healthy and productive, it’s downright mystifying to juxtapose the result of this game with these laudable contributions.  But then again perhaps there’s no mystery at all.  When one honestly compares team strengths with team weaknesses, it doesn’t take much to see which aspect overshadows the other.  Through it all, I’m downright sick & tired of mediocre opponents giving NU the slip and applying a series of stinging red welts across their collective behinds in the final minute of play.  Anybody else find this plain unacceptable? 

The State Penn team arrived in Dyche’s Ditch all full of themselves, pounding their chests and spewing bluster and B.S. like some chump neighborhood back-alley bully.  Then, after having faced BB & the Boys, slinked out of Evanston with their tails between their legs, thanking their lucky stars that they won a very lose-able contest.  Some may disagree with this perspective, but it’s what I saw both on the field and in the stands at game’s end.  Everyone in attendance knew one universal truth: NU blew this game through vanilla offensive playcalling and chocolate (as in fecal matter) pass defense execution – in spite of the aforementioned superior performances.    

How the State Penn Inmates
Passed-up the ‘Cats

MIA: The Vertical Passing Game
Throughout H-1, the paradigm for attacking the State Penn D was unveiled – pass downfield.  Whenever NU’s OC Mike Dunbar directed his senior QB do just that, or when BB improvised off a broken pass play, success was achieved.  But I guess Our Master & Commander’s first mate just couldn’t stand prosperity, or maybe he was in denial and refused to see the obvious – that the Inmates were vulnerable to the vertical passing game that was set up through a successful ground attack, from NU’s first possession on throughout the remainder of the game.  That first possession saw NU’s OL open hole after hole at the point of attack and let “Streak” Sutton loose in the generated seam for a total 31 yards, with RB backup, Gerry, “The Brooding Dane” Hamlett, gaining 10 more and BB adding 15 of his own, 12 off a nifty broken pass scramble around the Inmate right defensive corner.  Result: a quick TD – with HC Joe Pa and his Inmate team gawking dumbfounded at the sight of a 7-point deficit after only 5 minutes off the game clock.  Immediately, Grandpa Joe and his defensive brain trust went into panic mode on NU’s next possession, packing 8 in the box and shooting LBs and/or DBs to stone the ‘Cat ground game.  After stoning NU’s first 2 rushing attempts for short gains, BB countered with vertical passes of 8 & 20 yards for a first down at the Inmate 21.  By that time, the writing was on the wall.  Take what the Inmates give you: the middle third of the defensive secondary.  I could almost hear the voice of Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Luke (Baz), Luke (Baz)… Trust your instincts.”  

But nooooo…  After having garnered a 23-7 lead, Mike Dunbar stuck his head in the sand, ignoring the fact that NU’s latest TD was set-up with a 38 yard pass completion, and turned to a conservative attack, refusing to exploit this open area in the State Penn secondary with further vertical pass attempts.  Dumb and Dunbar.  From that point, dink and dunk passes, peppered with bubble screens, drag screens at the LOS and short yardage square-outs were the order of the day.  It didn’t help much that NU’s receiving corps contracted a debilitating case of dropsie as well, most notable among that group being WR Shaun Herbert, who dropped a sure TD pass off a 20 yard crossing route, in one of the few vertical attempts of H-2.  Frustrating!!!  Anyone else seeing red?        

Short Stuff
At critical junctures of the contest, the ‘Cats faced short yardage downs, especially in the shadow of the State Penn goal line.  In response, NU’s brain trust often tanked on employing what should have been a no-brainer weapon – the heavy short-yardage running back.  I don’t know the underlying reasons why Cap’n Vlasic and Mike Dunbar refused to use FB Frayne Abernathy or former-QB-turned-FB Chris Malleo in these situations, but obviously something must be lacking in NU’s short power rush attack – like a reliable heavy back to pile-drive into the expected scrum at the LOS and push the ball those critical 3-plus yards for the first down or, more importantly, across the goal line.  Instead, Dumb and Dunbar called the QB keeper or the short pass, or worse still, attacking the Inmate defensive corner containment.  Twice, Dunbar called “The Streak’s” number on middle dives to grind the ball across the Inmate goal line, but on most other occasions, the Inmate D stuffed the NU attempts cold at the LOS or, worse, for a TFL.  Where is the heavy-jumbo package?  Is NU’s short yardage quiver that bare of an appropriate heavy RB arrow?  Inquiring minds want to know.  I can’t imagine what significant positive impact that converting just one or two of those short yardage downs would have had towards garnering control of the game and the scoreboard for the ‘Cats.    

Weak Sisters
The Achilles’ heal of the ‘Cat defense is their pass coverage.  You know it; I know it. And most certainly, Joe Pa and his offensive cronies were well informed of the deficiency.  What glaring weaknesses in NU’s deep pass coverage were uncovered against the Bum Devils in the previous game, the Inmates of State Penn took further advantage of.  It didn’t matter when or where the deep throw was called upon, if Inmate QB Mike Robinson chucked the pill on target, which quite honestly wasn’t that often, the completion was made.  Often the NU DB was left standing in place and watched almost helplessly as the State Penn WR drove up to then around this so-called coverage back.  Talk about a Weak Sister!  But it’s just not one DB, everyone in NU’s defensive secondary is lacking at coverage techniques. Of particular notoriety was extremely exploited coverage of Marquice “Nut-n-Honey” Cole – the one DB who had the reputation as NU’s best coverage back.  He wasn’t just toasted to a burnt crisp, he resembled a purple traffic cone in his failure to cover his downfield WR in the last 35 seconds of H-1 and the last 51 seconds of H-2.  Those two TD passes cost NU the game, period.    

Well folks, its time to admit it: NU’s pass coverage is broke and the wheels have dropped off the defensive secondary wagon.  NU’s pass coverage woes are DOA and in critical need of immediate intervention.  Should heads roll?  Should the defensive brain trust be given their collective walking papers?   IMHO, I think such coaching modifications have been long overdue, but what about the immediate need?  Our Master & Commander must take emergency control of his defensive ship.  It isn’t floundering, it’s capsized and taking on water fast.  Cap’n Vlasic will find himself treading water very soon in the shark infested seas of the Wildcat Faithful who demand accountability from the NU football coaching staff for this debacle.  I don’t have the answer, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent from his lack of movement toward addressing this deficiency that the PickleMeister has little clue himself.      

Well, I’ll stop now.  I’m reaching for the Maalox and heading for yet another ride in the driver’s seat of the porcelain bus over this latest loss.  I fear that NU’s football team will not recover this season from this pass coverage deficiency.  Any future opponent will pick apart this weakest link in the ‘Cat defense, and NU doesn’t have the mentorship or the tools in the toolbox to fix the immediate problem.  It’s bleak.   

The Waterboy

September 22, 2005

The Hunter Or The Hunted

This Saturday, NU will face a true collegiate football coaching legend, Joe Pa, and his much improved Inmates of State Penn in sun-splashed Evanston.  Over the course of the last 8-plus years, State Penn football had fallen on hard times, particularly because the Inmate program didn’t perform well in the pigskin recruiting wars.  Their major rivals for home-grown, Division 1A-level H.S. talent include the usual suspects: Pitt, West Va., Va. Tech. and Boston College, as well as unexpected interlopers like Da Ohio State (of all places).  One thing that must be admitted, these rival programs have pillaged upper echelon gridiron prospects right out from under Joe Pa’s nose by loudly voicing the dubious message that these incoming players will never make it through their entire college football career at State Penn before septuagenarian Mr. Paterno cashes in his chips and calls it quits for his coaching career.  Unfortunately, that message had real effect on the recruitment fortunes of the Inmate teams - where the talent level at all positions had fallen-off greatly from 1998 through the beginning of the new millennium.  Well, the veracity of that retirement refrain has waned over the last few seasons, and Joe Pa has roared back, fielding increasingly stronger and more talent-rich teams.  And his 2005 version reflects that continued upward trend.

The traditional strength of past Inmate teams has been their stifling defenses, always highlighted by a LB corps populated with marquee individuals.  In 2004, State Penn boasted a D that was ranked nationally in several categories.  With the return of 8 starters, national media pundits have christened this season’s Inmate D among the Big 10/11’s best, and it well could be.  However, since the Inmates jump-started their ’05 season facing the progressively daunting challenges of the South Florida BullShippers, the Cincinnati (Queen City) Queens and the Central Michigan Chipmonks (aka: the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Dolly Madison Cupcakes and Parsippany College), the jury is still deliberating on this premature prognostication.  Scheduling Twinkies like these will inflate any team’s statistics sheet, as evidenced by final scores of 13, 24 and 3, respectively per opponent; and I can imagine these “confidence-builders” contributed mightily to the Inmate Nation pounding their collective chests regarding their perception that State Penn has reprised the overpowering defensive prowess of yore.  NOT!!!  Talk about delusional.  All confidence born of such manufactured stats has the credibility of a padded brassiere or the OOC slate of Kansas State or the Minnie Mighty Marmots.

As for State Penn’s offense, its effectiveness begins and ends with their lightly experienced QB, Mike Robinson, who possesses Michael Vick-like skills and is utilized accordingly.  Joe Pa has surrounded this versatile QB with a trio of speedy and handy newbie WRs, with true frosh Derrick Williams distinguishing himself above his mates as Robinson’s go-to receiver.  Similar to their defense, the State Penn O has collected its own inflated scoring totals – 23, 42 and 40 respectively - against less-than-stellar opposition, augmented substantially via TDs off the home-run bomb.  Although the Inmates sport a RB in Tony Hart who has demonstrated ability to tote the pill well at times, it’s Robinson’s scrambling and option rushing acumen that makes this O click on the ground.  Simply stated, the defenses of State Penn’s first three opponents were not able to neutralize Robinson in any capacity and his reputation for delivering the offensive scoring goods is building week by week.  Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, an active, mobile QB has always given their defensive squad fits throughout Cap’n Vlasic’s HC tenure, especially when DC Greg Colby holds the defensive reins.

NU vs. the Inmates of State Penn -
Keys to the Game

It’s Whats Up Front
… That counts – as in NU’s OL.  This recurring theme expands on the building block theory I used before the ‘Cats’ opening game against the Ohio BobbleHeads.  As the season progresses, the personnel playing in each contest must build on their experience, good or bad, from the previous contest.  Fortunately, NU’s OL have not thrown-in a clunker performance yet.  And the fortunes of NU’s gameplan against the Inmates of State Penn revolve around the necessary superior field play of the Purple offensive line.  There is no way around it.  These players, to a man, must continue to get off the LOS at the snap of the ball and deliver effective blocks to their targets and get the NU ground game in gear.  Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton must find the open seam that NU’s OL generates within the Inmate DL and blast to and through it.  Pass protection has equal importance.  Keep BB’s focus on finding the open downfield receiver and not diverted towards the incoming pass rush.  The State Penn D is their best unit and the ‘Cat OL must control the LOS against this strong Inmate squad.  It’s another week and another daunting challenge lies front and center, but this unit must deliver.  The ASU Front 7 are a good bunch, and the State Penn crew is as good or slightly better.  And you make book that the Inmate’s defensive brain trust will blitz their LBs and DBs to inject some fuzzy logic into the heads of either BB or “Streak.”  Keep your heads in the game, pick up the Inmate stunts, and most of all, make it happen. 

Baz & the Boys – Part 4
The Wildcat Nation has witnessed something they haven’t seen in 3 years – a healthy Brett Basanez entering game 4 of the fall football campaign.  And BB has shown what health can do for his performance and that of the NU offense.  He’s nationally ranked in yardage and QB rating.  He’s completing passes at a 66% clip and is distributing the bean across his entire WR corps.  He doesn’t telegraph his throws, he doesn’t force the pass into double coverage, he finds the open receiver and delivers it on target.  What a difference!  Again, it all starts with the Big Uglies up front who provide him with ample protection that allows him to scan an opponent’s secondary, count off his sequenced receivers and spy that open wideout.  The Purple Populace could get used to this.  Happy, Happy; Joy Joy!!!  Now BB & the Boys must repeat this positive performance profile against the quality D of State Penn.  Those fantastic front-page QBs of the BullShippers and the Queen City Queens torched the Inmate secondary for over 200-plus yards apiece; I expect that yardage total and more from BB & the Boys.  In spite of their reputation to the contrary, the Inmate D is a moveable object.  Again, make it happen. 

Radar Robinson
As Inmate QB Mike Robinson goes, so goes the State Penn O.   It’s not rocket science to recognize this fact.  However it’s another item entirely to shut him down.  I don’t think that the ‘Cats can stone this weapon, but they can and must contain it.  That’s a heavy load, but the NU D must stand and deliver.  It is an absolute necessity that NU must limit his rush production, especially off designed QB keepers or option motion and off the scramble.  A telling description of his field play against State Penn’s dubious defensive competition was given as: “Robinson is comfortable and works well with his receivers.”  The object is to make Robinson as uncomfortable as possible by getting in his face, or at least bottling him up to the middle third of the field.  The 3 or 4 man defensive rush is not gonna cut it this week.  Our Master and Commander and his second mate, DC Greg Colby tried to inject some speed in NU’s penetration off the LOS against the Bum Devils last Saturday.  From what I’ve seen to date, that only occurs when 5 defenders are in the penetration mix.  A constant dose of “hozen-ffeffer” (rabbit) blitzes could turn the trick in NU’s favor.  I strongly suggest using a radar defender who would track Robinson’s movement every play and attack straight at him as his intentions show – run or pass.  Once he hands off the ball, then he’s out of the picture, but as long as the bean is in his increasingly capable hands, a defender must shadow him wherever he goes – especially as he approaches the LOS.  This radar defender doesn’t have to be the same guy necessarily, but can switch between NU’s speedier personnel.  The Roach–to-Kadela-to-Eaton handoff has potential.  Hunt this valued weapon down and, again, make it happen.      

This game comes down to the team that asserts itself most prominently.  Both teams possess pros and cons by which arguments could be formulated that substantiate the opinion that a particular team will have its way over the other.  However the game’s final verdict will not be decided in a court of law, but on the grass-carpeted gridiron of Dyche’s Ditch.  It’s all a matter of attitude – who will hunt and who will be the hunted?  This theme was expanded-upon last season and I am resurrecting it for this tussle because it’s so appropriate. 

The ‘Cats enter this game recovering from a devastating loss where all their personnel deficiencies, especially on the defensive side of the LOS, were exposed and exploited.  Game tapes have recorded the particulars for all future opponents to peruse and analyze.  With all the attention drawn to those negatives, little focus has been given to the positives that the ‘Cats showed in that same contest.  Fact: the NU O came-out and executed well, moving the ball consistently when Baz & the Boys were running the show against a damn good Bum Devil D.  If not for losing the sub-plot game of field position via ASU’s superior kicking game, NU shoulda, woulda, coulda put more points on the board.  State Penn does not field that high quality kicking game – few teams in Division 1A do.  Conclusion: NU’s O will not have to contend with those resultant field position disadvantages and, therefore, will most certainly be more productive.  Long drives by the ‘Cats are more than do-able.

As far as defending the State Penn O – it’s all boils down to getting into the face and head of Mr. Robinson.  If done, you’re 90% of the way to the winner’s circle.  Hit Robinson early and often and bottle him up in the Inmate backfield. 

A tough game and a tough prediction.  Here’s to NU having a +2 turnover differential and BB & the Boys delivering in the clutch. 

NU:          31
Inmates:    28

The Waterboy

September 19, 2005


Periodically over the course of the week prior to the ‘Cats’ scheduled encounter with the ASU Bum Devils, I envisioned worst case scenarios.  I fantasized rape and pillage at one time, then evisceration on another.  But never could I have imagined the absolute nightmare that was witnessed, in person, by many loyal, intrepid members of the Wildcat Nation and myself who made the trip to sunny Tempe, Arizona.  The kindest, most genteel description I might give to this event was that it never got even close to being a “game”. In a “game,” there is an assumption that one team competes against the other.  However, on this occasion, only one team was competing.  The other rolled over on its back and proffered its soft under belly in a familiar pose of canine submission. 

What ensued in Frank Kush stadium after the opening whistle was blown was reminiscent of those unabated travesties played out during the Dark Ages.  I’m making no exaggeration here.  I truly feel that this game was the most complete failure of the Northwestern Wildcat football team in 25 years.  It was a rout of biblical proportions and the worst loss handed to the ‘Cats since Das Pökelboot first set sail under the command of Cap’n Vlasic, including the very forgettable debacles of the 2001 & 2002 seasons. 

The most positive thing that could be said of last Saturday evening’s outcome was that none of NU’s premier players got injured.  However, I won’t because it brings to mind that despicable comment made by I-Away HC Hayden Fry after a similar spanking laid on the ‘Cats, “Well, I hope that none of your boys got hurt.”  After all these years, those arrogant words still pack a serious sting and stick in my craw like nothing I’ve ever heard before or since in my lifetime.

A rout of such completeness and complexity can have lasting, devastating effects on a football team for the remainder of the season, especially on the younger, more impressionable players.  At the cost of appearing to advocate self-delusion, I would whole-heartedly advise the ‘Cat brain trust to keep the game film in the can and not show it at game review sessions this week.  Not to downplay the totality of this loss and its repetitive litany of breakdowns across every position on either side of the LOS, there would be little to gain from revisiting the minutiae of such a bloodletting.  Each player on NU’s 2005 squad has the integrity and honesty to make such reviews from the perspective of his own mind’s eye and recognize his failure to execute personally. 

So in keeping with this aforementioned strategic spirit of reconciliation and rebuilding, I will keep my commentary regarding NU’s field play blunders short, sweet and to the point…

How Da Bum Devils throttled the ‘Cats

The Wrong Horses
To run a horse race, a trainer must field horseflesh with the appropriate class to complete with his racing rivals.  “Class” is defined not only by straight-line speed of foot, but by tactical speed, the ability to jockey for position dynamically to adjust to race conditions, the ability to recognize when to fire that closing turn of foot, and when and where to use that most important variable, heart.  NU’s defensive secondary has football class in their own right, but against passing teams that feature a top QB passing to a top-tier receiving corps, like ASU, they have shown dubious potential towards being left standing in the starting gate.  And that’s just what happened - big time.  Simply stated, Bum Devil QB Sam Keller had a field day, standing cool and unhurried behind his pocket protection, trimming his nails and waiting for his target receiver to sprint clear of his NU coverage DB.  Many ASU pass plays employed only one or two receiver patterns, and NU DC Greg Colby could only watch, slack-jawed and dumbfounded, as Bum Devil wideouts gained separation with ease and deftly hauled in the well thrown, on-target bean throughout the evening.  It mattered little who Colby or the PickleMeister called to the DB post, virtually no one wearing the Purple silks could cover their ASU WR.  It’s a well known fact that Our Master & Commander does not recruit well to the CB and Safety positions – and it showed emphatically in this contest.  Now this deficiency has been advertised in bold letters to all our future opponents.  Big 10/11 teams with predominant, refined passing attacks will be licking their chops.     

Blown Away
Cap’n Vlasic and his second mate, DC Greg Colby unveiled their latest attempt to augment the pass rush capability of their Front 7.  They started the game using 3 DL sets with 1 or 2 LBs at the defensive end, either in an upright 2 point stance or a down 3 point stance, all attacking the LOS – which were picked up and kept at bay by the Bum Devil OL.  Standard 4 DL sets were used often in passing situations and showed similar inability to pressure the QB.  The rabbit blitz package was used liberally, and likewise resulted in little or no increased penetration against the ASU attack.  Bum Devil QB Sam Keller’s jersey was kept clean for most of his evening.  But that wasn’t the whole story.  ASU’s OL blew up the ‘Cat DL regularly on running plays as well, highlighted by total 180-plus yards gained rushing at the end of H-1.  ‘Cat LBs often made tackles 5-10 yards downfield, simply because the NU DL were driven off the LOS for 5 yards on their own.  In addition, run support by NU DBs was effectively non-existent, as ASU RBs just ran around defenders throwing themselves at their legs or through DB arm tackles after they got past the LOS.  Basically, the NU defensive Front 7 got blown away early and often.  It was painful to watch.   

Down & Out
One of my major game keys was the necessity for NU to control the game clock and make long sustained drives to keep the ball out of the hands of ASU’s potent offense.  3-and-out possessions would spell doom for the ‘Cats.  And it did.  In NU’s 2nd drive, OC Mike Dunbar successfully employed the WR hitch screen and swing pass to the RB or WR, often for big yardage gains.  Dunbar complimented this controlled edge passing game to the flats with counter action rushes between tackles and toss-pitch or options runs attacking ASU’s defensive corner containment using Tyrell “Streak” Sutton, who frequently gained 10 yards a pop.  As a result, NU marched downfield and scored for a 7-0 lead.  After that initial success, NU’s attack strategy against the Bum Devil’s defensive edge went downhill fast.  Following the first few exposures, ASU’s quality LBs and secondary began to recognize this edge passing game and sold out on defensive corner run support after the catch was completed, shutting it down effectively. 

But Dunbar kept attacking the ASU edge with decreasing success as the game wore on.  Although NU’s O would execute several plays well, especially running “Streak” between the Bum Devil DEs on counters, cut-backs and quick traps behind quality blocking schemes, they never strung enough well-executed plays together.  Dunbar frequently called the QB roll-out pass targeting the “minimum gain, maximum risk” short yardage square out.  When the pass was completed, it was stoned for the expected little gain.  Mr. Dunbar shunned the vertical passing game, resulting in many 3-and-out possessions, where the ball reverted into the hands of Keller & Co., who exposed and exploited NU’s  “soft as baby doo-doo” coverage with the home-run bomb.  In Q2 & Q3, ineffective NU play calling and the staunch ASU D conspired to make the scoreboard resemble a pinball machine – for the Bum Devil offense. 

Big Foot
The Bum Devils have a monster weapon in their ready-for-NFL PK, J. Ainsworth.  He’s a force to be reckoned with and showed just how valuable a high-quality place kicker is to a football team.  Every Bum Devil kickoff, except 2, was the “out-the-back-of-the-endzone” touchback variety, forcing the NU offense to begin most of their post-ASU score possessions on their own 20.  The NU O rarely overcame the long green required to complete the score.  Coupled with the 3-and-out possession, the Bum Devils won the field position game, often starting drives from their 30 or better.  

ASU parlayed strong field position via an effective kicking game against a strong Bum Devil passing attack that took every advantage of the very poor pass coverage techniques of the NU secondary and an overpowering ground game that fed off an OL that just decimated the NU defensive Front 7, to take a vice-grip stranglehold of the game that they never relinquished.  It took only 3 quarters for Cap’n Vlasic to recognize that he was outcoached and his ‘Cats overmatched.  A record 773 total offensive yards against for the game, 530-plus by the end of H-1, underscored those two facts.  At the start of Q4, the PickleMeister shut down his 1st team offensive weapons for the night and gave his 2nd and 3rd string personnel some PT, saving his troops to fight another day.  

I only hope that the Inmates of State Penn don’t have the personnel to shut down the ‘Cat offense and make monkeys of the ‘Cat pass defense as was shown last Saturday evening.  The ASU Bum Devils made it look easy.  

The Waterboy

September 13, 2005

Blast From the Past

After two memorable weekend games in sunny Evanston, the ‘Cats make their first roadie of the 2005 season to VERY sunny Tempe, Arizona.  Mind you, this is no vacation getaway for NU and the opponent lying in wait for the ‘Cats is a wounded, yet very confident beast. 

Last fall, a nationally-ranked Bum Devil team, led by their NFL-bound QB, Andrew Walter, wielding his very formidable passing attack, traveled into Evanston brimming with confidence and looking past NU as just another annoying speed bump on their way to their PAC-10 wars.  The gritty and determined Wildcat team that greeted them in Dyche’s Ditch was fully aware of the Bum Devil’s vaunted reputation and faced them head-on with a game plan emphasizing physical play defense and opportunistic offense.  And NU nearly pulled-off the unexpected upset, rallying from a 17 point deficit, jumping on an overconfident Bum Devil defense for 2 unanswered TDs in Q3 to pull within 3.  After this deficit was expanded to 6 in early Q4, the ‘Cats played even with their Gold & Maroon foe, gained possession of the ball with 2.5 minutes remaining, and were driving for a victory-stealing, last minute TD, when RB Terrell Jordan was stripped of the bean at the ASU 18, foiling the ‘Cats’ upset bid.  The Bum Devils limped out of Evanston with a close victory and the ‘Cats gained a modicum of hard-fought respect, although one would never have noticed it from the lack of attention given this pivotal game by the Chicago media.

This coming Saturday, the ‘Cats prowl into Bum Devil Stadium looking to predate upon No. 18-ranked ASU, who are even stronger and more offensively prolific than last year’s formidable squad and who are fully aware of NU’s own offensive prowess.  Last weekend, the Bum Devils were defeated by 5th-ranked LSU, who trailed by 10 at the start of Q4, yet scored 28 points in this last quarter, aided greatly by 2 ASU kicking game coverage breakdowns which were converted into TDs; then held on for dear life as the Bum Devil O, Division 1A’s 5th-ranked squad, drove for the game-ending, go-ahead TD, but sputtered to a halt at the LSU 28 as time expired.  The Bum Devils knew in their hearts that they should have beaten the Bayou Bengals; however, similar to NU’s ‘04 performance, ASU fell short of taking control of the scoreboard and the game in the contest’s final minute.  This theme is all too familiar. 

To put it mildly, the Bum Devils are ticked-off and steadfastly determined not to let another victory slip through their fingers, especially at home.  Now NU faces a very motivated Bum Devil team with an 800 pound chip resting heavily on their collective shoulders.  Not the best of scenarios for the personnel-depleted ‘Cats.  

NU vs. the Bum Devils -
Keys to the Game

Control Field Play
This season, the Bum Devil O deserves its No. 5 national rank.  ASU’s quality weaponry is highlighted by QB, Sam Keller, who not only possesses a great arm and the ability to deliver the pill quickly and on-target, but has a corps of WRs reputed to be among the best in the NCAA, starting with All-Everything WR Derek Hagan.  Gunslinger Keller’s 461 total yards passing, complimented by another 74 yards rushing, accumulated against the top-5 ranked LSU defense, is proof positive that the Bum Devil O is for real.  With the specter of DC Greg Colby’s Swiss Cheese defensive secondary opposing this aerial juggernaut, the ASU offense is downright frightening. 

A very viable strategy to employ when facing an opponent’s overwhelming superior offense is to turn the tables and use your offense like defense.  NU’s O must keep the ball out of the hands of Mr. Keller and Company and in the hands of BB and his Boys by controlling the ball and field play tempo, and therefore the game, through long, sustained, time-consuming offensive drives.  If the ASU offense does not have possession of the pill, they can’t score.  Believe me, I won’t complain if the ‘Cat O delivers a TD or two via the quick-strike home-run pass or long-distance RB scamper.  But this strategy’s primary objective is to turn a 60-minute game into a 30 minute scrimmage, reducing the time frame in which the opposition’s O has to generate scores. 

This reduction is achieved in two parts.  The first part involves clock management where every offensive play called by the ‘Cats burns as much of its allotted 24 seconds as possible before the snap, then consumes as much game clock as possible after a play is downed before the field judge re-positions the ball on the LOS and re-starts the play clock for the next down.  Control of the play clock is critical, and BB must slow the pace of each individual down to where the play clock becomes an ally of the NU offense.  This strategy is difficult to execute particularly because it runs counter to everything that a coach teaches his offensive personnel - to pop-up off the ground at the end of every play, to hustle-back to the huddle, and finally, to call the next play, break the huddle and quickly line-up on the LOS to execute the next play.   

The second part revolves around first down conversions.  It is imperative that first downs are strung together in a series over the course of a possession.  3-and-outs will not cut it.  It matters little on which of the 4 downs a first down is made, just the fact that the next first down is made, the chains are moved, and another 4 downs are granted to the ‘Cat’s O.  As Hank Stramm, HOF coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, said during Super Bowl IV: “Matriculate the ball down the field, boys.” (Ya gotta love that quote!!!) 

Simple concepts, no?   However, this strategy is much easier said than done.  ASU’s biggest team strength lies in its offense, while its defense is serviceable.  Exploit this serviceable defense and keep Bum Devil bums riding pine while BB & the Boys weave some offensive magic of their own.  

Execution – There is No Substitute
Over its first 2 games in 2005, NU’s OL has gained invaluable game-time experience – first against a defense best described as the “cream-filled sponge cake” variety (a.k.a.: a Twinkie); the second against the “serviceable” defensive squad of a 2nd-tier conference contender.  Their collective experience has been forged in a building block progression against ever increasing and more challenging opposition from one game to the next.  Against ASU, the individuals who comprise the ‘Cat OL will lock horns with the most talented defensive personnel of this young season.  However, the Bum Devil D is certainly not an immovable object.  Although the OL is still a work-in-progress, it has retained the one characteristic that benefits the entire unit most: its health.  The 2 deep roster of NU’s OL might be dinged-up slightly, but overall, it remains injury-free.  And this is the glue by which this unit is best prepared to bring its heaviest, most effective pressure to bear against ASU’s defense.  This OL’s commitment to field play excellence is the foundation of everything that the Wildcats possess to compete offensively with the Bum Devils.  They must get off the LOS at the snap of the ball, blast into and through their designated blocking targets and keep contact, driving with their legs, until the referee’s whistle blows the play dead – under control and without holds or clips.  Superior execution equals superior experience equals the best chance for success.  There is no substitute.            

Minimize Mistakes
While every football team strives for the error-free game, very few ever achieve it.  Everyone on a football team makes mistakes.  It’s the human condition.  However, the ‘Cats cannot play sloppy football against the Bum Devils and expect to come-away with a “W.”  By minimizing mistakes that are controllable, a team minimizes the number of free passes given to its opponent.  No bone-headed penalties - especially in the kicking game.  No breakdowns in kick coverage.  No French pastry (a.k.a. turnovers) - Mr. Keller and Co. do not need a short field in which to drive for a score.  No dropped passes - give BB the best opportunity to move the chains and move the ball downfield.  No missed tackles – ASU’s quality offensive weapons must earn every yard gained.  Eliminate the home-run pass – no Bum Devil WR gets behind the coverage SS and FS.  Just to name a few.

Pressure the Ball
Thus far this season, NU’s most effective defensive schemes employed variations of the 3 DL set, as shown against the NIU Muskies.  Putting 4-5 LBs and DBs behind this 3 man front allows DC Colby the freedom to pick his point(s) of attack and shoot a gap-of-opportunity with a different defender or two.  This attack-oriented defense does 2 things: it has great potential to disrupt flow in the offensive backfield offensive, and it sets-up the game-altering TFL or sack much better – especially if the shooters come from different angles on every down.  Our Master & Commander calls his series of blitzes and red dogs his rabbit package.  By unleashing this rabbit package early and often, it should put as much additional pressure as possible on ASU passing machine Keller, hopefully forcing him to make the quick read and get rid of the ball early.  Applying this extra pressure is paramount to NU’s pass coverage success, because Keller will eviscerate NU’s secondary if given enough time to scan for the open receiver.  IMHO, this is the only strategy that has a chance of success.  The alternative read-and-react coverage paradigm (a.k.a. Colby’s “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” defense) will provide Keller all the freedom he requires to turn NU’s D into roadkill.     

The major deficiency of this rabbit package is that it leaves NU’s DBs in single coverage, especially the CBs.  And it’s no great secret how ineffective the current NU secondary is when employing this one-on-one coverage stratagem.  Key here is that those “island” ‘Cat DBs must keep every ASU WR in front of them, never allowing them to get behind them to receive the long-ball bomb.  This is a tough assignment.  A very tough assignment.


This game is a contrast in pedigree.  Over the last few years, including this season, ASU has fielded high octane offenses and good, dependable defenses.  NU, on the other hand, has fielded Jekyll & Hyde offenses which are sizzling hot one series and downright frigid the next, counterbalanced by dubious, porous defenses that have jelled occasionally as an effective unit in their biggest games throughout the HC tenure of Our Master & Commander and his coaching staffs.  Consistency versus inconsistency.  A top 20 ranked team versus a top 50 ranked squad.  

The relative offense-defense match ups don’t bode well for the ‘Cats.  The strength of the ‘05 Bum Devil O is their effective passing attack against what, to date, has been the ‘Cats’ most dubious liability.  And although NU’s balanced offensive attack has generated big yardage numbers in its first 2 contests, it hasn’t faced a quality defense as that possessed by the Bum Devils.  What this all means is that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to project that the Bum Devils can deliver on a continual stream of scoring opportunities, while the ‘Cats might score on 50% of its possessions.  If the ‘Cats exercise the aforementioned control of game tempo and the game clock, they potentially could limit the point production capacity of the Bum Devils.  If not, the Bum Devil’s passing attack could have a record-setting day.  

Here’s hoping for the former scenario, with a few breaks going in Cap’n Vlasic’s direction…   

NU:        31
Bum Devils:    45

The Waterboy


September 12, 2005

NU’s “Streak” Continues…

Prior to the opening whistle of last Saturday’s game, NIU star RB Garrett Wolfe was heralded as the contest’s premier running back by a large percentage of Chicago’s media.  Although a convincing argument could be made that Mr. Wolfe deserved such high praise, bolstered by his 149 rushing yards against the Dazed & Blue Horde of Ann Arbor the previous weekend, the events which unfolded within the friendly confines of Dyche’s Ditch proved that this moniker was quite premature.  On September 10th, 2005, a new RB star coalesced in the collegiate football firmament of Chicago and the Big 10/11, exploding like a purple supernova before 35,114 awestruck spectators.  Tyrell “The Streak” Sutton surpassed his commendable collegiate debut rushing totals in mind-boggling record fashion, churning out 214 yards on 30 carries and scoring 4 TDs over, around and through a much maligned Muskie defense. 

“Streak’s” emergence as NU’s 2005 feature running back not only cemented this newbie RB’s substantial reputation as Ohio’s 2004 Mr. Football, it went far towards fulfilling the  promise that this young man will assume the mantle of NU’s latest 1000-yard rusher, a gridiron legacy that includes Damien Anderson, Darnell Autry, Jason Wright and Noah “The Herring” Herron.  As remarkable as “The Streak’s” performance was this sun-splashed Saturday afternoon, it was absolutely essential to the ‘Cats’ survival in a game that evolved into the ultimate Maalox football moment-- the offensive shootout. 

How NU beat the NIU Muskies

Up Front and Personal
“Streak’s” spectacular ground totals would never have been possible without the equally spectacular blocking performance of NU’s OL at the LOS and downfield WRs.  The Purple Big Uglies blasted hole after hole, down after down and “Streak” took full advantage.  Upon getting to and through the hole, he scanned the Muskie defensive secondary for the ‘Cat downfield blockers, sprinted right up to them setting-up a blocking angle for those WR’s, then cut right off their butts into open space.  And “Streak” did this over and over and over, especially employing off tackle and counter action blocking schemes, and the Muskie defenders couldn’t do a thing about it.  It was a complete symbiosis between the ball carrier and his blockers.  An RB who is skilled at setting up blocking angles for his blockers is worth his weight in gold, and that’s not pocket change you hear jingling in the sea-tunics of Our Master & Commander and his first mate OC Mike Dunbar.  NU’s OL really brought their “A” game to bear against the Muskies.  A couple more outings like this one, and they’ll have played themselves past the “inexperienced” tag laid upon them in the preseason and retired it for good.  Sweet!     

BB Brings It
‘Cat QB Brett Basanez lead a less-than-stellar but still effective passing attack that complimented the ground game orbiting “The Streak’s” rising RB star.  BB made many downfield completions on 2nd and 3rd down and long situations, which kept the ball moving and diverted early-game attention of the Muskie defense away from “Streak.”  Had it not been for 4-5 dropped passes which hit NU targeted receivers in their hands, BB well could have had another 250-300 yard passing afternoon.  Another notable aspect of BB’s contribution to NU’s offensive totals was his own rushing yardage, gaining 55 yards off 10 attempts – primarily off QB keepers and draws - where Muskie defenders telegraphed their intent to stone “Streak” and intentionally ignored the Baz rushing option, often giving the Purple QB an open lane between NIU’s front 7, past the LOS and into their secondary.  The Purple Populace could get used to this balanced offense.  Very sweet!!      

“The Streak” Continues
Read the comments above.  Nothing but superlatives regarding the melding of both Mr. Sutton and his blocking buddies, to be sure.  Only issue here: a frosh being given the bean 30 times in a game opens the door for the injury bug to bite.  Please Cap’n, My Cap’n… the ‘Cats are not the Cubs and Tyrell Sutton is not Kerry Wood.  Look at what’s just happened to Dazed & Blue RB Mike Hart. 

Underpinnings of The Comeback
After the ‘Cats dug themselves a 14-3 deficit early in Q2, I groused loudly about NU DC Greg Colby’s weak defensive game plan.  Surely, Colby must have fashioned a more appropriate strategy to neutralize NIU’s major rushing weapon, Garrett Wolfe, and schooled his Front 7 to execute it.

Only problem: it wasn’t working-- at all.  When ‘Cat starting RDE, Corey Wootten, was felled by an injury in Q2, it looked like the ‘Cat D was gonna continue getting stomped.  But then, something marvelous happened.  Colby switched from his 4 DL sets to a 3-4 set, often with an extra LB or a DB lining-up close to the LOS, giving it a 3-5 look.  Can you say “8 in the box?”  At the snap of the ball, NU’s DL slanted to one side and the LBs shot gaps in the NIU offensive line, plugging running lanes across the LOS.  Suddenly, NIU’s Big, Bad Wolfe got a Purple helmet driven into his midsection regularly, whether he tried blasting through at the targeted point of attack, or he tried to cut back against flow, or he tried to gain the defensive corner.

Shoot gaps = Stone the Big, Bad Wolfe.  Result: NIU is forced to punt, the ball is turned over to NU’s O, then BB and the Boys deliver 21 unanswered points all scored in the last 12 minutes of H-1.  Whoomp – There it is! 

Unfortunately, this strategic ground game solution was short-lived.  When NIU’s QB Phil Horvath aired it out in H-2, completing several big-gainer vertical passes, Greg Colby got cold feet, abandoned his successful shoot-the-gap 3-4/5 sets and reverted to his dubious Swiss Cheese D, rushing 4 DL and dropping his LBs into a 10-yard pass coverage zone umbrella.  Colby’s strategy change played right into the hands of NIU HC Joe Novak, who recognized the gift and unleashed his Big, Bad Wolfe rushing attack once more.  With NIU’s quality OL punching gaps in the unsupported NU DL, Mr. Wolfe went wild and gobbled-up yardage in bunches.  Now it was NU’s D, under the mentorship of Colby and his read-and-react Swiss Cheese schemes, who got knocked back on their heels, wondering just where the next big gainer would come from.  “Would you like the Ground ‘Cat or the Air Dog, sir?”  And for dessert, some humble pie…

The Gambler
Maybe it was because he has watched too many World Series of Poker reruns.  Or perhaps he felt “charmed” since he had thrown the “take FG points off the board” dice at the end of Q3 and won.  Or perhaps, even more so, that he had the PickleMeister weak-kneed and reeling against the ropes after having made monkeys of NU’s porous secondary, by connecting on a 19-yard TD pass with 6 seconds left in the game to complete an improbable “71-yards-in-56 seconds” scoring drive.  Whatever his motivation or psychological state of mind, NIU’s HC Joe Novak decided to play the part of “The Great River Boat Gambler” in those final seconds of regulation, opting to forego the game-tying PAT and, instead, to attempt the “all or nothing” 2 point conversion.  Obviously he had complete confidence that his troops could and would steal victory from the jaws of defeat. 


Luckily for Cap’n Vlasic and his ‘Cats, Novak’s go-for-broke last-play dramatics failed on a WR slip and subsequent incompletion - a mere shot across the bow of Das Pökelboot.  While the Purple Populace sat stunned but satisfied with the victory, little could be taken from the stadium beyond the yardage production and scoring proficiency of the ‘Cat O.  NU’s D and its coaching brain trust showed that their score prevention vulnerability remains multi-faceted.  This vulnerability will be very problematic against better teams – like the ASU BumDevils.

September 7, 2005

A Test of Character

Before the season, I felt that NU’s game against the Arizona BumDevils would be THE big game of the 2005 pigskin campaign.  Owning to the departure of 6 projected starters, my prediction for this season’s make-or-break battle has been shifted to the Northern Illinois Muskies - and for very good reason.  Standing in opposition to the MAC’s bottom-feeder, the Ohio BobbleHeads, the talent-rich and roster-deep Muskies have been tagged as the No. 1 challenger for the conference championship by virtually every preseason college football pundit in the nation.  And simply stated, MAC championship contenders have given the Pökelboot’s Master & Commander fits throughout his tenure as Wildcat HC.  This fall’s Muskie team can do just that, fielding a potent offense that can generate substantial yardage totals on the ground as well as in the air. 

Compared to last week’s weak sister, NIU is much stronger and much more competitive in every aspect, and will be Northwestern’s biggest test of character for 2005.  The ‘Cats must build on the positives from the BobbleHead game, while addressing and resolving the deficiencies they showed in that contest.  Muskie HC Joe Novak’s diverse offense provides a true litmus test regarding the level of field play the ‘Cats’ defense possesses.  The efficient weaponry of the Muskie O will demonstrate whether or not NU’s newbie defensive personnel peppering its 2 deep roster has the right stuff to be a competitive force for the remainder of the season.   

Over the last decade, Northern Illinois has made a strong institutional commitment towards being recognized as the best college football program in the state, under the mentorship of a quality head coach, garnering rabid state-wide fan support.  Big dollars have been spent in promoting its program – in local media advertising, in broadcasting a football review program on local cable & TV, and especially in escalating the recruiting wars for blue chip gridiron talent.  And these labors are bearing fruit.  With ticket sales for this game reported to exceed the 38K mark, a vocal, red & black clad Muskie fan base should be in strong evidence as both teams charge into Dyche’s Ditch.  It is imperative that NU rise to the challenge of this in-state rival and show which college has the premier football program in Illinois.  This is Northwestern’s 2005 MUST WIN GAME.          

NU vs. the NIU Muskies -
Keys to the Game

Control the Defensive LOS
Last Saturday, the Muskies rolled-out their highly touted RB, Garrett Wolfe, who proved to be as good as advertised, rushing for 148 yards total, highlighted by a nifty 76-yard TD scamper, against a good Dazed & Blue Horde defense.  The difference-maker that neutralized this commendable total was 4 fumbles lost.   If NIU’s offensive skill position players didn’t turn themselves into French pastry chefs baking so many significant turnovers, this game would have been much closer.  Key to the Muskie rushing attack is their NFL-quality (again, as advertised) OL.  They open holes and exploit weakness in an opponent’s defensive front 7 as well as any unit in the Big 10/11. 

To counter this advertised strength, Dazed & Blue Horde HC, Lloyd Carr, focused his defense primarily to halt the NIU ground game at the LOS; and I feel that Cap’n Vlasic should mimic this strategy.  The main issue here is that an average-quality defense, like the one NU fields, is not going to stone the quality Muskie ground game, but should concentrate on containing its primary weapon, Mr. Wolfe, as well and as long as possible.  Tall order to be sure, but with the aggressive, ball-seeking LBs that NU brings to bear, it should be do-able.  Trying to tie up the Muskie OL head-up and man-to-man is not advisable, but shooting the gaps is.  NU DC Greg Colby must blast 5 defenders from all angles into and through gaps in NIU’s OL every play to disrupt offensive flow.  This was done regularly by the Dazed and Blue D and they generated TFLs and turnovers early and often.  The ‘Cats must give the NIU ground attack more of the same.     

Bump & Grind – The Stripper
Everyone on the Muskie team realized how much their 4 fumbles lost and 1 INT contributed towards losing control of their season opener against the Dazed & Blue Horde in the Big House.  Michigan HC Lloyd Carr stated it best when he referred to the statistical fact that the football team that wins the turnover battle, wins 79% of those games.  To be sure, Muskie HC Novak will address this deficiency as his team prepares for the ‘Cats.  However, it remains to be seen if this tendency was a one-game aberration or the result of NIU ball carriers losing a grip in the face of big-time body shots.  I feel that it’s the later, even in spite of the fact that NIU lead all Division 1A NCAA teams in number of turnovers with a single fumble lost - in 2004.  That was then, this is now.  And in 2005, NIU plays Big 10/11 Big Dog Michigan followed by an unheralded , yet gritty Northwestern.  The mantra for all ‘Cat defenders against the Muskie running game, especially LBs and DBs: “1st man tackles the man, 2nd man tackles the ball.”  This strategy means that the first hit must be delivered by a heat-seeking headhunter to stop the ball in its tracks; then the follow-up defender goes for the ball.  Lay some heavy lumber across the face of Mr. Wolfe & Co., put him on queer street, then separate him from the bean.  Stripping the football from the RB should be a priority for Greg Colby’s troops this week.  Giving the ‘Cat O a short field will go a long way to getting and keeping control of the game.      

BB and the Boys
“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’…”  OK, everyone take a deep, cleansing breath.  This is another week… against another opponent… and NU’s offensive weapons are no longer unknown.  The well-founded euphoria within the Wildcat Nation over the impressive effectiveness of last Saturday’s balanced ‘Cat attack must be restrained.  Again, NU’s OC Mike Dunbar can learn much from the Dazed & Blue game films.  I truly feel that NU has offensive skill position players equivalent to those on the Michigan roster, and NIU will be equally challenged to stop them.  If Dazed & Blue QB Chad Henne and his receiving corps could light-up the Muskies for 227 yards off 20 completions, BB and the Boys can do likewise.  Notice: I wrote “c-a-n.”  “W-i-l-l” is another story and it remains to be seen if BB and the Boys reproduce similar results. 

A significant contributing factor to BB’s successful aerial assault will be maintaining a balanced attack profile via the yardage-gobbling capacity of Tyrell, “The Streak” Sutton executing Dunbar’s ground gameplan.  Deliver the ball into the hands of “Streak” in open space, then watch him befuddle, bewilder and be past the Muskie defenders in a flash. 

Lastly, the most important contributing factor to any and all success that BB and his Boys might have is the improved field play of NU’s OL.  After the BobbleHead game, various media reported that members of NU’s OL were not enthusiastic regarding the quality of their collective play.  This is very good.  I concurred with their personal assessment - they did not have a stellar performance and there is much more room for improvement across the entire line and in all down/distance situations.  In a word, NU’s OL must execute.  Keep BB’s uniform clean during pass plays; then get off on the snap, lock-on to your blocking targets and drive them downfield on the rushing attempts.  It all starts up front.

This game is very difficult to predict.  I truly feel that the Muskies are on par talent-wise with the ‘Cats.  The defenses of each team will face a daunting challenge to stop the high quality attacks of their opponents.  Personally, I think it will come down to a game of field position – aided by the kicking game and especially by French pastry (or the lack of it – hopefully, in the case of the ‘Cats).  The final result will determined by the team who delivers on the scoring opportunities presented to them (Big Duh!!!).

NU:        27
NIU Muskies:    24

The Waterboy

September 6, 2005

Knocking-off Building Block #1

Positives and negatives abounded in NU’s tilt against the talent-challenged Ohio BobbleHeads.  Although NU laid a welcome 38 points on this obviously overmatched foe, much work lies ahead for Our Master & Commander to get the Pökelboot more ship-shape in time for the ‘Cats’ next opponent, the Northern Illinois Muskies.  Bluntly stated, the Muskies are gonna pose a much more formidable challenge, period.  But before getting into that, I’ll expand on what occurred at Dyche’s Ditch last Saturday…
Bottom line: the ‘Cats got the job done against a lesser team without significant injury.  Handling the offensive strategy of Ohio HC Francis Solich with relative ease despite several annoying aberrations, the ‘Cats opened a big can of whoop-azz against the BobbleHead’s major offensive weapons, never permitting anything remotely resembling a sustained drive, except when aided by a bone-headed NU penalty.   All things considered, this game was an acceptable first-showing; although it was far from perfection.  Every offensive and defensive position on the Wildcat team had breakdowns of varying severity throughout the contest, underscoring the point that the ’05 ‘Cats remain a work-in-progress.

First, the negatives (and not to dwell on them)…

Short-Yardage O
Against a stronger, worthier opponent, this single item could have been a substantive game-breaker.  Fortunately, any lasting effect from this negative was neutralized by the strong countering aspects of the ‘Cats’ balanced offense.  OC Mike Dunbar unveiled a refined, quick-strike rushing attack using the untested RB tandem of Brandon Roberson and true frosh Tyrell Sutton – each diminutive in size, but big on speed and the ability to hit the hole quickly and decisively.  When Roberson was sidelined after his 2nd offensive series with an ankle ding, Dunbar’s called-on Sutton, 2004 Ohio Mr. Football, for his Division 1A college debut.  Result: the ‘Cat ground game didn’t miss a beat.  However, what credible talent was shown in NU’s outside and off-tackle rushing attack, the inside short yardage game was abysmal, especially in goal line situations.  Mr. Dunbar never put the pill into the hands of one of his heavy RBs, either relative newbie Frayne Abernathy or the lightly experienced Erryn Cobb, but repeatedly relied on his OL to open holes.  Problem was: when those holes didn’t materialize, NU’s featherweight RBs simply didn’t possess the punch to pile-drive the hand-checking, belly-bumping behemoths downfield, to get that first down or, more importantly, to bulldoze the ball into the endzone.  Essentially, the offensive brain trust of Cap’n Vlasic and his first mate must identify and employ a go-to short yardage grinder to compliment their quick-strike, speed RBs.  Such first down and/or scoring opportunities cannot go unfulfilled against the better opponents on NU’s ’05 schedule.  

•    The Home Run Pass
Similar to the 2004 season, NU’s defensive secondary showed a worrisome tendency to give-up the home run pass to wide-open Ohio receivers who left their coverage DB in the dust.  Fortunately, the consequences of these coverage gaffes did not result in points against – either because the BobbleHead WRs muffed the pass or because the completion was rendered moot – as when the game clock expired immediately after a 58 yarder was stoned on the NU 1.  All that can be said is that this seeming perennial coverage weakness among NU DBs must be remedied ASAP.  The ‘Cat O has the ability to move and score via sustained drives; but those time consuming scoring drives won’t mean a thing if the NU D gives up the long ball score so easily.  This is a pass coverage experience issue; and the ‘Cat secondary absolutely must improve their coverage reads and keep contact with their assigned WRs – even at the risk of bailing on run support.  Personally, I gladly would trade the 15 yard ground-gainer for preventing the 60 yard bomb and its possible subsequent score.  The ‘Cats will not have the luxury of relying on the playmaking ineptitude of their opposition’s offensive skill personnel for the remainder of the season.

 •    Pressure Drop
Exacerbating the issue of NU’s deep pass coverage woes was the inconsistent pass rush pressure from the defensive front 7 – especially the DEs.  The reputed weakest link in the BobbleHead O was their OL, but all the relatively inexperienced ‘Cat DEs did in obvious pass situations was lock horns with their blocking OTs, adding little to the pass rush pressure against Ohio QB Everson.  In spite of several quality QB hurries and a sack by NU’s DTs and LBs, including OLB Adam Kadela’s fantastic forced fumble off the delay blitz, NU exploited the BobbleHead OL’s dubious pass protection only occasionally.  The ‘Cats’ newbie DEs must improve their speed pass rush techniques to fill the void of LoHo’s departure and provide their DB teammates as much pass defending assistance as they can.  If not, this less than stellar pass rush will be exploited heavily against the stronger, more refined passing attacks of NU’s future opponents.   

Next, the positives…

How NU beat the BobbleHeads

BB Pitching BBs
In a word, NU’s QB, Brett Basanez, was ON.  This superior performance is what the Wildcat Nation fully expected from a completely healthy Baz.  And did he perform!  BB set back into the pocket using 3, 5 & 7-step drops, counted-off his receivers running their downfield patterns, spotted the open WR then delivered the bean with a surgeon’s precision. 
He rolled to his right, found the receiver running the 7 yard square-out and tossed the ball on target virtually every time.  He rolled to his left, spied his downfield WR running the inside curl or the 12-yard crossing pattern and threw a laser beam across his body into the receiver’s waiting hands.  When BB’s field play was shut down at the end of Q3, his stat sheet showed 350 yards passing on 27 for 37 attempts.  Ho hum…just another day at the office.  Now, to keep this productive offensive weapon off Walker’s walking wounded list.  IF BB stays healthy for the 2005 season, this could go a long way to easing the loss of so many starting players.  I’m excited!!!       
Shaun Herbert hauls in one of
BB's BBs.

"The Streak" Begins
Prior to the game, Our Master & Commander stated that his evaluation jury was still deliberating on a starting RB.  Soph Brandon Roberson was given the initial nod, with a strong caveat that his 2nd Mr. Football recruit from the state of Ohio, true frosh Tyrell Sutton, would be used liberally as needed.  Well, it didn’t take long for the smurf-sized Mr. Sutton to enter NU’s huddle and confirm why he broke all those Ohio big high school rushing records, gaining a commendable 104 yards on 17 carries in his first college game.  But that wasn’t the whole story.  Simply stated, he is F-A-S-T and elusive – a deadly combination that NU hasn’t seen in years under a single Purple helmet.  Running-wise, the Little Big Man cranked-out rushes of 13, 15, 9, 17 (TD), 13 and 20 (TD) yards.  But it’s when Sutton gets the ball in open space where his running skills are impressively showcased.  In Q2, Sutton ran a drag pass route, just under the Bobblehead’s short coverage zone umbrella; and once BB dumped the ball deftly into his hands, he turned-on the afterburners and scorched the befuddled Ohio secondary for 9 yards in the blink of an eye.  When this drag-route, dump-and-run play was repeated for another 14 yard gainer, the WaterGirl yelled “This guy runs through the BobbleHeads like a blue streak.”  After that play, we called Mr. Sutton “Streak” for the remainder of the game.  This moniker fits well; and, hence forth, Mr. Sutton will be nicknamed “The Streak” in my commentaries.  Indeed, he’s proof positive that great things can come in little packages.  I’m very excited!!!

Just say No to Swiss Cheese
Although the Bobblehead O isn’t exactly a yardage-gobbling juggernaut, it warranted stomach distress simply because it is mentored by option attack wizard Francis Solich.  For whatever reason, Mr. Solich used the option sparingly; but whenever he did, it proved to be an effective ground gainer, especially against NU’s newbie DEs.  IMHO, Solich didn’t execute it as his primary weapon of choice because he concluded that his starting QB, Austin Everson, didn’t possess either the quickness of foot or the resiliency to absorb the brutal body-blows expected to be delivered by NU’s head-hunting LBs.  Instead, the BobbleHead O fielded a balanced attack, which, overall, was stoned by NU DC Greg Colby’s squad.  The final Ohio offensive stats: 62 yards on the ground, 177 through the air off only 9 completions (padded by that 58 yard bomb at the end of H-1), and 3 turnovers against, provide irrefutable evidence that Colby’s Swiss Cheese defense was kept in its air-tight, shrink-wrap package for the day.  Good deal!

Give 'Em the Boot
In 2004, NU’s greatest field play liability was their kicking game, one that ranged from problematic to critical from one week to the next.  Kicking encompasses 30 % of a football game’s plays and directly affects every aspect of the contest - from determining field position, to the recoup of offensive failures, to completing scoring opportunities, especially when the game hangs in the balance.  NU entered the 2005 season with a kicking game that could be described best as an unknown entity.  Well, this game went a long way towards dispelling many of the doubts regarding the capabilities of the ‘Cats’ kicking personnel to stand and deliver.  Wildcat P Ryan Pedersen boomed high style-point punts at a 44-yards-per clip, continually giving the NU’s D decent field position.  Not to be outdone, PK Joel Howells blasted kickoffs to, through or close to the BobbleHead goaline with regularity, even when kicking against a substantive north wind.  In addition, Mr. Howells must be commended for his FG kicks.  Although merely going 1-for-3, his 2 misses were against said stiff wind, both of which had plenty of distance while sailing wide right by slight margins, with the 2nd miss hitting the right upright.  If both ‘Cat kickers can improve on their initial performances, they will contribute mightily towards reducing the substantial pressure heaped-upon a depleted and experience-challenged NU D.    

August 30, 2005


For the record, let me make a heartfelt statement regarding FEW and his suspended website…

First and foremost, FEW is, and has been, my very good and trusted friend.  Together with GoUPurple of the website, I have had the pleasure of experiencing his company, his wit and his insightful opinions and perspectives firsthand over the last five years.  He is an original-- a true supporter and believer in the Northwestern Football Program as a torch bearer of what a NCAA Division 1A collegiate football program should aspire to be.  This is not to say NU is the end-all, be-all paradigm of athletic competition among NCAA institutions of higher learning, but the athletic programs at NU emphasize one characteristic above all others – they are populated by the true scholar-athlete.  And among many others, FEW carried this message throughout his website, and I am proud and honored to have contributed, in whatever small way, to his internet vehicle that espoused this most important point of amateur athletics.  I have no regrets towards his decision to suspend his website.  He is merely on hiatus, focusing on his life's most important subjects.  In doing so, he could not continue to devote the energy and enthusiasm required to generate the high quality content, humor and support for NU football that we NU devotees have expected from his website.  He is alive and well, and I'm sure that he will resurrect his labor-of-love for Northwestern Gridiron athletics at the appropriate time in the future. 
Now on to the 2005 Wildcat Football campaign…

A Building Block Season

I view NU's 2005 pigskin campaign as a series of building blocks.  As the 'Cats progress through this fall's schedule of foes, the relative competition gets more difficult by the week, and to maintain competitive consistency and success, the 'Cats must build on the experience garnered in the previous week's gridiron battle.  Circumstantially, the first game against a less-than-stellar Ohio BobbleHead team turns out to be a blessing, simply because NU is going to rely heavily on frosh and redshirt frosh to carry a much larger than expected load, especially on the defensive side of the LOS.  With the departure of 6 projected starters (including B. Horn, who was a contributing member of the eight-headed "starting" WR corps), NU is precariously thin in many critical positions, especially the DL.  With the hated Francis Solich at the Bobblehead helm, this home opener should be a good litmus test on whether or not these newbie starters can fill the bill as the season moves forward. 

After this game, the schedule difficulty escalates quickly.  The Northern Illinois Muskies field an RB tandem reminiscent of what the Minnie Mighty Marmots employed the last two seasons, and if NU's newbie-laden defense hasn't risen to their first-game "baptism of fire" and succeeded against the weak BobbleHeads, this one could turn into an ugly offensive shootout.  Following this game, the 'Cats' first roadie is against a Bum Devil team that sports a well-deserved national ranking, thanks to an offense that can tally points on the scoreboard in quick succession, series after series.  Again, the recurring mantra you will hear is: "Can NU's newbies build on the previous game's experience to compete with this week's challenge? 

And this pattern repeats itself again and again, until the 'Cats meet the "meat" of their 2005 season, facing the Big Dogs of the Big 10/11 in successive weeks: the Dazed & Blue Horde from Ann Arbor, the I-Away Black-Eyes, and the BuckNuts on the banks of the Olentangy.  This scheduling SNAFU would be daunting for any Division 1A team, let alone the depleted 'Cats.

Unfortunately, I'm predicting a repeat of the train wrecks that we, the Purple Populace, witnessed in the 2001 and 2002 campaigns.  Like then, NU is too thin and too inexperienced on both the OL & DL.  If the injury bug bites our starters-- be they the old guard or the newbies, especially those populating NU's defense, as it had in those two forgettable seasons-- the '05 season could spiral downward but fast.  

NU vs. the Ohio Bobbleheads
Keys to the Game

Minimize Mental Mistakes

As with any team that is populated with bright, shinning faces, new to the rigors of the Division 1A college game, mistakes will be made.  The boneheaded hold, the motion prior to the snap of the ball, the hands to the face… physical play gaffes such as these are expected.  But what isn't predictable is the mental error.  The failure of an OL to recognize the defensive front and make the correct blocking strategy call.  An LB's failure to cover an RB sprinting out of the backfield into open space in the flat.  The DB biting on the play-action fake, allowing his coverage WR to blow by him waiting for the delivery of the easy vertical pass.  These mistakes are due primarily to game-time inexperience.  And there is no substitute for experience and the ability to decipher what is happening in front of you and to react appropriately.  NU's newbies are gonna have to grow up fast and adjust to the speed and strategy of the Big Time college competition. 

Be scared … Be very scared.    

BOA: a Balanced Offense Attack

The 'Cat offense must come out loaded for bear, and OC Mike Dunbar must test all the weapons in his arsenal, if only to identify what pieces of NU's offensive puzzle need further mentoring.  I have no doubts whatsoever regarding the expected air attack effectiveness that four-year starting QB Brett Baz brings to the table.  Coupled with an experienced corps of WRs, Baz should showcase his playmaking experience in a big way.  Only item here is: OC Dunbar has shown a tendency in the past to unveil a game plan that plays down to his competition.  And in this game the strength of the BobbleHead football team lies in their defense, which returns eight starters from their 2004 season.  This is why a balanced attack is important: to knock this experienced Bobblehead squad back on their collective heels and keep them guessing which weapon the 'Cats will use and when the trigger will be pulled. 

This means rolling out a complementary running game that overpowers the BobbleHead defensive front seven.  And it all starts with NU's OL.  Establish control of the LOS, and it won't matter to which RB Dunbar selects to receive the hand off.  But with frosh peppering the two-deep roster of the NU OL, consistent control of the LOS remains a big question mark.  With the injury departure of projected starting RB Terrell Jordan, the heir apparent to the NU '05 premier RB position is not well-defined either.  Throughout the pre-season, Our Master & Commander, Randy Walker, has made verbal overtures to the liberal employment of little-experienced soph Brandon Roberson, as well as tapping into the great projected capabilities of true frosh Tyrell Sutton.  Both are unknowns simply because they just don't have experience against Big Time college competition.  I have seen Roberson, and he can carry the pill.  He makes a decision regarding what hole to hit quickly then gets to that point of attack in a flash.  I've also seen Mr. Sutton in person against formidable high school level competition last fall, and believe me when I say: he is everything as advertised.  And if NU's Big Uglies get the push off the LOS, either will gain yardage.

If Mr. Dunbar keeps a balanced attack with little predictability regarding what plays are called according to down and distance, I'm confident that NU will score early and often.   

Attack the Ball

This key is so simple, it's almost silly to mention it.  The NU D must pursue the ball and attack it with reckless abandon.  BobbleHead HC Solich is a master of the option, and he has shown a skillful ability to light up the PickleMeister's D using this offensive strategy, as evidenced in the 60-plus point wipeout of the 'Cats in the 2000 Alamo Bowl.  Many within the Wildcat Nation have been licking their chops at the chance to return the butt kicking favor, especially with the stinging memory of an "in your face" late-game TD bomb off the option play-action when the game was totally out of reach.  I have included myself in this group and have wished nothing less than a rash of bleeding ulcers on unmentionable body parts and chronic septic field failures on Mr. Solich since that egregious display of poor sportsmanship. 

And owning to the reputed weakness of the BobbleHead's offensive weaponry, I strongly suspect that Francis will reprise his mastery of the option attack against Our Master and Commander once more.  

Defending the option takes specialized skills.  Among them are two critical keys: the defending front seven attacking their individual option targets, and the DBs recognizing the ball transfer from QB to the RB and transitioning from pass support to rush support.

New Ohio Coach Frank Solich
and staff at their introduction.

Capitalizing on defensive breakdowns in either category is the lure of the option attack.  Such breakdowns can occur at any time and often result in big yardage plays.

First and foremost is the necessity to maintain control of the defensive corners.  In the "three yards & a cloud of dust" era, control of this vital area of the LOS was called "corner containment."  It might be called something else now, but the principles remain the same.  If an option offense can attack and sprint around the defensive corner, or if the defender races to the outside option RB giving the option QB a running lane to the inside of that outside-bound defender, the ball is positioned into open space, with nothing but green and the goal line within sight of the ball carrier. Key point is that whoever has corner containment for that particular down, be it the DE, the OLB or the CB, they must funnel the ball (and the ball carrier) back towards the middle of the field where the inside-out run support is expected to pursue the ball.  If this key defensive man maintains control of the "point of attack" corner, it eliminates 75% of the big yardage capabilities of the run portion of the option.  

This attack puts a big responsibility on this corner containment defender.  Each member of the defensive front seven must cover an area of the LOS, and attack whatever offensive option sets within that area.  Even with experienced personnel, 'Cat DC Greg Colby had little success against option oriented offenses, especially the ones fielding quick and decisive ball carriers, like Air Force.  Unfortunately, NU will have newbie DEs and CBs with little starting experience, especially against the option attack.  If the newbie DE has corner contain, he must ignore his instinct to attack the QB toting the ball, and maintain contact with the cover of the option pitchman.  If the CB sees the WR stop his route to set up for a downfield block, he must get separation and move upfield in run support, either to the inside or to the outside of the DE.  If not, he must stick with the WR wherever he goes. 

Key here is that every 'Cat defender must defend his area of responsibility along the LOS, and once the option ball carrier turns upfield, fly to the ball and attack it with extreme prejudice.  This is not an impossible mission, but with true frosh and red-shirt frosh personnel, unfamiliar with the speed and decisiveness of the collegiate option attack, NU's defense is vulnerable in a big way.          


This one is tough to predict, especially in light of the losses of proven, experienced defensive starters, like CB Backes, DE LoHo and SS Heinz, and with the necessity to play frosh DL against the refined attack strategy of a Frank Solich option offense. 

Preseason pundits have identified the BobbleHeads as THE cream-filled dessert cake of Northwestern’s '05 season.  Before the devastating losses to the D, I would have agreed.  However, now I'm skeptical, if only because there are so many unknowns.  This fall campaign has many parallels to the 2001 and 2002 seasons, both of which turned ugly in a hurry.  But in spite of what these same pre-season pundits describe as a top 20 strength of schedule, I fell very strongly in the building block progression of this season.  This game could go a long way towards solidifying the perspectives of NU's newbies on the advanced level of field play in a Division 1A football game. 

Personally, I think that they will shine bright-- for now.  


NU :                   31
BobbleHeads:    17

The Waterboy

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of

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