The Waterboy
2008 Archive

Nov. 27, 2008

Puréed PumpkinHeads

As apprehensive I was before the game against the Dazed & Blue Horde from Annie’s TreeHouse, I was downright fearful as the ‘Cats were poised to meet the Ill-Annoy, especially regarding their offense.  Bottom line was: the Ill-Whine-I offense fielded the No. 1 yardage production offense in the Big 10/11 conference, better than that of the BCS-bound Inmates of State Penn or da BCS-wannabe Bucknuts, and one having a passing attack that was ranked among the best in Division 1A.  And to top it all off, the Ill-Whine-I featured an offensive weapon that had spelled doom to the ‘Cats’ D since the beginning of the new millennium: a fleet-footed, mobile and agile QB with a very strong arm. 

Conference and national media alike were singing the praises of Ill-Annoy’s athletic media darling QB, Juice Williams, even more than they had done with da BuckNut’s wunderkind QB, Terrell Pryor, who had torched the ‘Cats as much with his passing prowess as he had with his running abilities just 2 weekends previously.  What would this monstrously versatile QB do when he faced NU’s vulnerable secondary?  I shuddered at the thought. 

And not only did Ill-Annoy’s potent offensive weapons pose an intimidating competitive challenge, the motivational factor for the PumpkinHeads loomed large as well.  After having scratched and clawed their way valiantly to a very commendable share of the Big 10/11 conference championship in 2007, the Ill-Whine-I had underachieved much of their 2008 season, literally “mailing-in” whole games with piss-poor field play, and consequently stood on the brink of bowl eligibility at a 5-6 record.  Amazingly, Zook’s Crooks couldn’t get that 6th “W” last weekend from playing Western Michigan, a team hailing from the “supposedly weak” MAC, in their 11th game of 2008 – a late-campaign week when most other high quality, healthy football programs would have been playing their most effective and consistent ball of the season.  But that’s another story for another time.  Suffice it to say that the self-absorbed and dysfunctional PumpkinHeads’ viewed the “lowly MildCats” as their best last-chance opportunity to gain that final 6th win and progress beyond all their well-chronicled internal squabbling and inter-personnel strife.

How the ‘Cats Smashed the PumpkinHeads

Freshly Squeezed

Doc Hankwitz had his defense primed and loaded for bear last Saturday, and this focused, aggressive squad simply dogged and abused Juice Williams and every other Ill-Whine-I ball carrier for that matter with a purposeful vengeance.  The many various flavors of Doc’s 4-3-4 and 4-2-5/Roverback defensive sets worked to near perfection.  Bar none, this was the most effective overall exhibition by the ‘Cat D of the entire 2008 campaign, and truly, one that reflected the total lockdown defenses of the Fitz-powered ’95 and ’96 seasons. 

‘Cat DE Corey Wootton played like a man possessed as he continually crashed hard from his defensive corner and compressed the Ill-Annoy backfield straight into the face of the Juice.  Kevin Mims did the same from his opposite DE position, and between them both, they squeezed the bewildered and panicky Juice every time he dropped behind his evaporating pocket protection for 3 total sacks and many more hurries.  NU’s interior DL personnel went berserk as well, especially John Gill, stuffing their blockers at the LOS, gaining separation and penetrating gaps to harass and completely disrupt the flow of the Ill-Annoy ground game. 

Then there were the ‘Cat LBs.  What could I write that would do their collective performance justice?  Not much, to be quite frank.  Their field play was superb across all positions.  The LB tandem of Prince Kwateng and Nate Williams played their best individual games of the year and were in the shorts of every Ill-Whine-I ball carrier all afternoon, accounting for 11 and 10 tackles respectively.  OLB Quentin Davie made himself an irritating burr in the behind of the Juice on a regular basis, especially in support of the off-tackle rush. 

And then there was the nearly flawless run support of Brad Phillips, playing the cross-position role of Roverback, where he would creep-up from his original SS position close to the LOS just shading the outside shoulder of the DE and act as a 3rd or even 4th LB in Doc’s defensive front.  From there, Phillips either would shoot an inside gap within the OL, usually on a zone blitz, or crash the Ill-Annoy backfield from the defensive edge in a tandem pass rush stunt with the DE to that side.  Much of the Ill-Whine-I’s rushing attempts executed the QB-RB option, behind varied blocking schemes, to gain NU’s defensive corners at the LOS.  When this flow showed to his side, Phillips and his fellow safeties sprinted quickly to the LOS in run support, attacked the ball carrier with abandon and stoned these attempts for little or no gain.  The rush support techniques of the ‘Cat DBs was so effective and efficient, it almost appeared as if they had been part of the Ill-Annoy offensive huddle and had known exactly what run Juice and Co. planned to run.

Kudos to Doc Hankwitz and Jerry Brown on their defensive game plan strategies and schooling their players to identify, recognize and react to their reads correctly.  Those strategies and their associated tactical reads positioned everyone on NU’s defensive side of the scrimmage line to become a playmaker.  Ill-Annoy’s potent ground game was thoroughly thwarted in H-1, limiting this attack to a miniscule 15 yards on 14 rushing attempts.  It was a major contributor to the ‘Cats’ total field play domination in the opening half and completely demoralized the Ill-Whine-I the coaching staff and players.      

From the "Yaarchives":
"Yaarh, I be losing again, Mateys!"

Secondary’s Best
With the Ill-Whine-I rushing attack ground to a relative halt by NU’s defensive front 7 and Mr. Phillips, Ill-Annoy HC Ron Zook and his OC were forced to turn their yardage production over to their aerial attack and its pass-happy QB, Juice Williams.  Not such a bad switch either considering that Juice had recorded games where he had amassed passing yards in the 400’s several times this season.  But Zook and the Juice never envisioned the pressure-packed pasting that the ‘Cat defensive front 7 would lay on their passing attack coupled with the blanket coverage provided by the ‘Cat secondary.

Every time Juice dropped back behind his umbrella protection, his attention was redirected from scanning the ‘Cat secondary to looking over his shoulder at the unrelenting, unstoppable pass rush.  After the first of five sacks was delivered, Juice seemed more preoccupied in avoiding NU’s pass rush than in finding an open receiver; and when he did, it became a crap shoot regarding whether or not he could deliver the bean accurately to that target.  And the main beneficiaries of that forceful pass rush were NU’s DBs.  They were able to break on the throw and close on the target that slight fraction of a moment sooner, because Juice was telegraphing his intent.  Since his throws were off - sometimes just a little, other times quite a lot – the DBs could cheat ever so slightly in their coverage techniques.  All of this contributed greatly in limiting Juice to passing yardage statistics that were well under his average. 

When one considers that the Ill-Annoy passing game was ranked in the top 20 of Division 1A and the way that the ‘Cat DBs kept the Ill-Whine-I receiving corps under wraps for whole periods of the game, it was their best performance of the season. 

McCall’s Best
I’ve not been a fan of NU OC Mick McCall throughout much of NU’s 2008 campaign, especially his game plan strategies and game-time play calling.  Admittedly, he’s had a daunting coaching challenge when dealing with the myriad injuries to his most valuable offensive playmakers.  However, even when he has had the services of starting QB C.J Bacher, 1st team RB Tyrell Sutton, 2nd team RB Omar Conteh and many others, McCall has not had near the success that one might have expected when deploying his offensive attack schemes via these experienced veterans.  My greatest criticism is his insistence on employing a controlled “managed” passing attack on a continual basis, because, when facing a better, more experienced defensive secondary, its inherent advantages can be turned against the offense running it.  And in previous games it has, most notably against da BuckNuts and H-1 against the Dazed & Blue Horde, where the CBs fronted NU’s WRs and played bump-&-run while the safeties were set 8 yards off the LOS in run support-first mode that allowed their overall quickness and hair-trigger reactions to neutralize Bacher’s short-route passes. 

However, McCall, and perhaps even Fitz, might have had an epiphany of sorts at halftime against the Big Bad Blue Boys in the Big House. Coming out of the locker room in H-2 down by 7 and after having had his ‘managed” passing schemes literally managed into an offensive non-factor, McCall directed Bacher and his receiving crops to challenge the shallow & wide zone coverages of the Michigan DBs by employing the vertical pass - and to great effect.  Two downfield passes to WRs running skinny post routes into the Dazed & Blue deep middle 3rd zone on NU’s first 2 possessions in H-2 produced a TD score apiece, and gave the ‘Cats a 7 point lead that stood-up for the remainder of the game. 

With a viable, productive passing paradigm now identified and in place, McCall called upon his healthy, rejuvenated QB and WRs once again against the Ill-Whine-I.  In NU’s 1st possession of the game, McCall called a RB rush on 4 consecutive 1st downs, all stopped for small gains by an Ill-Annoy front 7 that was supported heavily by a secondary positioned in run support first mode, just like daOSU and Michigan had done.  Obviously Ill-Annoy’s defensive brain trust took a hint from those game films and crafted a similarly-based defensive game plan.  However, the trap was set for an effective reversal in down-distance play calling.  On the ‘Cats’ 2nd drive, McCall shuns the run and calls for the pass on 4 consecutive 1st downs, and on 6 of the first 8 plays of the possession, most thrown downfield, gaining good yardage while forcing the Ill-Whine-I DBs to abandon their run support-first sets and re-position themselves back-up to normal pass coverage depths.  On 1st down number 5 at the Ill-Annoy 19, C.J. executes another reversal by handing-off to Simmons for a lightning-quick 9-yard burst.  By pressing a pass-first tendency, the rush now became wide open simply because the Ill-Whine-I DBs couldn’t play up at the LOS and back in pass coverage at the same time.  McCall takes advantage, calling 4 more consecutive rushes, and NU gets the go-ahead TD.

The true balanced offensive attack is back, and McCall didn’t have to be convinced any further of its efficacy.  On NU’s next possession, McCall utilized an efficient mix of run-vertical pass-run-vertical pass and directed his O on a drive that gobbled-up 50 yards in 3 minutes for a 2nd TD and extended NU’s lead to 13, one that would hold for the rest of H-1. 

For the remainder of the game, McCall kept to his new-found balanced attack and the Ill-Annoy D never could regroup and counter with any type of consistency.   It was his best play calling of the entire 2008 season.  

2 Daggers
The 2 most important dagger plays of the game were both prelude and finish of the same possession.  The first dagger thrust into the still beating heart of the PumpkinHeads was the brilliant 51-yard punt return by Brendan Smith in Q4 that gave the ‘Cats a starting position on the Ill-Annoy 20.  With their backs in the shadow of their endzone, the Ill-Annoy defense was absolutely deflated and unresponsive.  The second dagger was applied 2 plays later when C.J. found his favorite WR, Eric Peterman, running a deep outside curl route, open by a full 2 steps at the Ill-Annoy goal line and completed a sweet pitch-and-catch delivery for the game-clinching TD.  It was the kill shot of the game which rendered the Ill-Whine-I unquestionably dead at the scene facing a 17 point deficit.  Essentially, it was game over from that point on.

The ease at which the Wildcats dispatched their in-state rivals was truly remarkable and underscored the progressive maturation process of the 2008 football team.  The ‘Cats totally eviscerated an Ill-Annoy team that had been prematurely anointed for a January 1 bowl bid by many media pundits with a cool confidence that was unfathomable in the preseason.  At the start of this season, I had my doubts whether the ‘Cats could or would fulfill their goals to not only win all 4 of their out-of-conference games but to make definitive field play statements in their Big 10/11 games against several conference championship contenders, like the Golden Rodents, and the Hog-Eyes.  I had high hopes, but I still needed to see it before I’d ever believe it.  Now I must say that seeing is believing.  I and many other members within the Wildcat Nation family have been privileged to witness this outstanding transformation.  Right now, the Northwestern Wildcats, under the mentorship of Fitz, Doc, McCall and the other position coaches, are a very good team and most certainly deserve their national ranking within Division 1A’s top teams. 

C.J. voiced it best in a post-game interview when he declared, “9 and 3 sounds pretty good to me.” 

And to me as well.  

The Waterboy        

EXTRA: The Pumpkin Smash, Redux!

The highlight of the Illinois pregame tailgate was the Waterboy's reviving of his Smashing Pumpkin ritual in the West Lot.  If you haven't yet seen the coverage, has two videos on its site that feature the Waterboy taking a hammer to the cursed gourd of the downstate horde.

  • Northwestern Football
    • Check out "Northwestern Brings Down Illinois" at the 1:13 time mark
    • And view "Bye Bye Sweet Sioux"-- the whole video, which shows the Pumkin Smash, as well as the Waterboy's description of his idea for a new NU-Illinois trophy

As readies its camera, the Waterboy begins the death march.

Preparing the victim. screen capture of the moment of victory...

After the Waterboy's initial smash, Turk displays the finishing move.
The crowd is mystified.

A prophetic moment, among shards of pumpkin.

Nov. 20, 2008

Ugly Is As Ugly Does

The weather forecast for last Saturday’s game said that it was going to be ugly – freezing rain, mixed with snow and high winds… what many Chicagoans call Bear weather.  You know, typical Midwestern November football weather.  And many post-game reports from the Big House confirmed that the weather conditions were some of the worst that fans have ever endured when attending a football game.  Then there were the teams. 

First was Michigan, a team that is in the midst of the ugliest, most traumatic coaching transition I’ve ever seen for a major collegiate football program, where a once proud conference contender is struggling as much to find the endzone as it is trying to find its own offensive identity.  Simply stated, the Dazed & Blue Horde from Annie’s Treehouse is a bad team.  More correctly, it is a very bad team; and about as inconsistent as could possibly be imagined.  All those 4 & 5 star recruits, whom richly-bought HC Rich Rod had inherited from his perennially successful predecessor, looked totally confused and inept against even marginally competitive opponents, like Toledo at home in game #6, and then a few weeks later, got their general field play act together temporarily and blow away a reputable conference contender, like Golden Rodents on the road in the Humpty Dome.  And that isn’t even half of the problem.  One week, the offense falls flat on its face and can’t buy a single 1st down for love or money; then the following week, its defense, executing a game plan reminiscent of what was employed by former NU DC, Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby, gets run-over and left as road kill by a journeyman offense for 40-plus points.  The deficiencies of the Dazed & Blue Horde are everywhere, the responsibility for which, in the final analysis, falls squarely on the heads of the newly-installed coaching staff.

Meanwhile, the ‘Cats were in the throes of their own ugly malaise, after getting bit exceedingly hard by the injury bug in the worst way.  NU entered the Big House minus their most prolific playmakers on either side of the LOS - their star RB and the capable No. 2 RB, their starting MLB, a highly regarded pass rush expert DE - and a host of other players who had been on track to receive substantive PT throughout the 2008 season.  The single shining light in this otherwise dim PUP picture was the highly anticipated return of starting QB C.J. Bacher after a 2 game hiatus spent recovering from a pulled hammy suffered against the Indy WhoZits.  So many health questions revolved around NU’s personnel and their availability that subjective analysis of NU’s offensive game plan used during the last 2 games was almost an afterthought.  And entering this game, there were doubts all over the map regarding NU’s offensive production and methods used to generated yardage, especially considering that the ‘Cats had just come-off their worst offensive exhibition of the season against the BuckNuts the previous weekend.
Could anyone predict what might happen at all regarding NU’s debilitated offense as it faced a resurgent Michigan defense that stymied Minnie’s O, one of the best in the Big 10/11 conference, on the same Saturday? 

There was strong possibility that this game could get as ugly for the ‘Cats as the playing conditions.  

How the ‘Cats Survived the Big House Blues

Doc’s 2008 Statement
In pre-game commentaries, lots of attention had been given to the profound negative effects that the adverse weather could have on overall level of field play.  Consequently, the Great Equalizer of strong winds, constant rain and cold temps came to the rescue of the ‘Cat D.  With the efficacy of the Dazed & Blue passing attack already degraded by the poor capabilities of their ineffectual QB tandem of Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, this aerial attack option was just stoned in its tracks due to the progressively deteriorating conditions.  To quote an old adage, neither QB “could hit an elephant in the ass with an ironing board” via their passing skills. 

In response, Michigan’s offensive brain trust re-directed their yardage generation to their ground game; and in H-1 the Dazed & Blue rushing attack took ‘Cat DC Doc Hankwitz and his D to task in a big way, gaining 66% of its total rush yardage, as lightly-used reserve RB Carlos Brown pounded his way to 74 yards on 13 carries and QB Sheridan gained another 27, and scoring 2 TDs for a 7-point lead going into halftime.  

Doc had to do something to stop the bloodletting caused by the Michigan rush paradigm, so he made a major adjustment for H-2.  He switched from his original base 4-2-5 formation, specifically designed to neutralize the Dazed & Blue passing game with a 5th DB in his secondary, to a 4-3-4 set, positioning that extra defender in the box to quell the Michigan rushing attack, while simultaneously depending upon the Great Equalizer to prolong the Michigan QB tandem’s frustratingly poor execution of RichRod’s spread game plan for the remainder of the contest. 

The result: the ‘Cat D simply dominated Michigan’s O, throwing a double bagel shutout at the Blue Boys in the game’s last 2 quarters.  Michigan’s first 4 possessions of H-2 were 3-and-outs, achieved primarily by utterly stoning the Dazed & Blue rushing attack for 23 inconsequential yards, which in turn, allowed the ‘Cats’ offensive brain trust to shake-off their yardage production doldrums of H-1, recover their own offensive game plan wits and deliver decisive points on their first two possessions in the second half.

 Doc Hankwitz and his D had their finest statement half of play in the 2008 campaign.  

Home Team’s Troubles
Many people say that trouble comes in threes, and in the case of home team Michigan, it most certainly did in Q1.  After C.J. hand delivered a sure-fire scoring opportunity to the Dazed & Blue with an easy INT on his 2nd pass of the game into double coverage that was returned to NU’s 8, it looked like the ‘Cats were bound to bury themselves once again into an early deficit via a miscue of their own making.  But instead of capitulating in the face of this challenge, the ‘Cat D flushed the pick and rose to meet it head-on, stonewalling the Dazed & Blue’s short-field possession to a 3-and-out and forcing them to settle for a shortie FG. 

Trouble #1:  On the ensuing FG attempt, the Blue Boys’ left OT takes a play off and fails to block ‘Cat DE Corey Wootton properly, who knifes into a seam at the LOS, closes the distance between himself and the kicker then throws a paw at the kicked ball, blocking it soundly and killing the gimme 3-pointer.  The ‘Cats dodge a bullet, and the score remains at 0-0.

 On the following change of possession, Mick McCall’s stupefying play calling, highlighted by a totally mystifying QB switch over the 1st two plays, kills any and all momentum gained by the blocked FG and forces the ‘Cats into a punt after getting blasted  by the Blue Boy D into their own weak-sister 3-and-out possession.

Trouble #2:  Michigan PR Odoms, succumbing to a personal brain fart moment, decided at the last possible moment to avoid catching the punted pigskin and allow it to bounce downfield; but instead, the ball bounces off the turf right toward him, caroms off his leg, then the mad scramble for the loose bean is on.  In a flash, punt coverage man Eric Peterman snags the pill in bounds at the Michigan 39 for a lightning-quick equalizer turnover.           

On the ensuing NU possession, the Blue Boys DL converts the game’s 1st sack, pinning C.J. for a 9-yard loss and setting-up a 3rd-and-18 down from the Michigan 21.  The Dazed & Blue D looked like they dodged their own scoring bullet from the offensively challenged ‘Cat O. 

Trouble #3:  On this 3rd-and-forever down, the ultra-conservative McCall calls for another safe up-the-gut rush to set-up a subsequent chip-shot FG in the middle of the field.  However, instead of stoning the NU ball carrier for limited yards as they had done on the previous 4 attempts, the entire Dazed & Blue defensive front 7 “go walk-about” on the play by locking horns with NU’s OL who use their up-to-now not-too-effective zone reach block technique, and break-down across the entire LOS. This collective hand-fighting action affords NU’s very surprised RB, Stephen Simmons, a huge open lane in the A gap, who promptly breaks into the hole, scampers downfield around and through the Blue Boys 2nd level and crosses into the endzone virtually untouched for a go-ahead TD. 

The TV broadcast showed Rich Rod and his entire team moping along the sidelines, totally stunned in silent, slack-jawed amazement at the 14-point turn-around that had just occurred in game’s first 5 minutes.

Something special was unfolding for the ‘Cats.  

C.J.’s Play in 2 Acts
For much of H-1, OC Mick McCall appeared totally fixated with his insistence that NU’s O remain true to his original “managed” attack schemes.  Well, this original game plan was going nowhere fast, as his all-too-predictable 1st down rush attempts continually got rolled-up at or near the LOS by the Blue Boy defensive front 7 and as his short, controlled passing game got shot down in short order by a Michigan secondary virtually ignoring all deep zone responsibilities to boldly play 7 yards off the LOS and apply constant in-your-shorts blanket coverage on NU’s WRs as they ran their short-route receiving patterns. 

And with the Dazed & Blue O exploiting the injury-riddled ‘Cat D with their ground-n-pound rushing tactics for a game-tying TD and a major-league gaffe by NU’s punter Stefan Demos leading to the go-ahead TD when he took an extra step in his rugby-style kick only to get his boot blocked then returned in Q2, something radical had to done to NU’s offensive strategy, and done quickly before the game got too far out of hand.  It was time for the ‘Cat offense to stand fast and deliver. 

I really don’t know whether it was Fitz finally taking command of this nowhere-bound offensive situation, or McCall finally taking the big hint that his original attack schemes were nothing less than abysmal in the face of the python-like constriction of the Dazed & Blue’s D, but the executive decision was made to abandon the totally ineffectual, wholly inappropriate original game plan and resurrect the vertical passing attack.  In spite of the freezing rain and blustery winds, C.J. was unleashed to chuck the bean downfield.  And it worked to perfection.     

With the freezing rain transitioning to snow at the start of H-2 and after Doc and his boys had weaved their magical halftime adjustment into the fabric of their defensive formations to stonewall the Dazed & Blue O with a 3-and-out on their 1st possession of the half, the stage was set.  On the subsequent punt attempt, NU reserve LB, Ben Johnson slithered through the punt team’s double-wall blocks and fronted the punter just as he kicked the ball.  The punt hits Johnson square and wobbles in the air for a mere 7 yards, giving the ‘Cat O their best starting field position of the game at the Michigan 40.  Then C.J. and his receiving corps went to work to challenge the tight coverage techniques employed by the Dazed & Blue secondary. 

Consecutive passes of 20 & 10 yards, followed by an avoidable 7-yard sack, placed the ball on the Blue Boys’ 17.  On the next play, an overthrown vertical pass attempt to a wide-open Eric Peterman at the Michigan goal line confirmed that Rich Rod’s secondary continued to defend the short passing zones as priority and were vulnerable.  Then bang.   WR Ross Lane runs a skinny post into the deep middle 3rd zone and C.J. shoots a laser-beam pass through a thin seam between the Michigan CB and SS straight into the hands of his streaking receiver for a quick-strike, game-tying TD.  The small but vocal NU crowd at the Big House erupts while the home crowd watches the whole passion play unfold before them in deathly still silence.  And that was only Act I.

 After the Dazed & Blue’s next possession gets slammed for a 2nd consecutive 3-and-out by Doc’s 4-3-4 defensive adjustment, C.J. and Co. stand front stage, center for their dramatic Act II heroics. From NU’s 47, C.J. drops back behind his pocket protection with snow swirling all around him and spots WR Eric Peterman running another skinny post into the Dazed & Blue deep middle third.  Peterman’s coverage SS must choose between staying with Eric in his route or converging on his primary target, a 2nd ‘Cat outside WR running a short outside curl route.  The SS chooses to cover the short curl receiver.  C.J. cleanly sees the coverage decision by the SS that leaves his target free and clear to run his pass pattern into open space then coolly delivers the bean, hitting the senior WR in stride at 25 yards.  Mr. Peterman takes the pass in hand and rambles solo the remaining 28 yards to paydirt for the ‘Cats’ 2nd and game-clinching TD in Q3.  

The curtain closes on Act II with the ‘Cats in the lead by 7 and Doc’s defense in control. 

An Official’s Blow
Besides C.J.’s two fantastic downfield pass completions for NU TDs, the most critical play of the entire contest came at the hands of the game officials.  Normally, most referees possess the clear vision and mental wherewithal to make the correct calls over the course of a football game in spite of the lightning fast activity surrounding them.  And in the advent of the review system, they now have the mechanism to rectify 98% of the calls that they might miss.  However, it’s that 2% that can be a game-maker or game-breaker.  And unfortunately, such was the case in last Saturday’s highly competitive clash between the ‘Cats and the Dazed & Blue Horde.

 After the ‘Cats re-captured the lead with their 2nd TD scored within the first 5:30 of H-2, McCall began to employ an attack scheme that was much more balanced and effective than in H-1.  The critical difference that increased the effectiveness of this diverse attack strategy was NU’s successful vertical passing attack in early Q3.  Michigan’s defensive brain trust had to respect the ‘Cats’ ability to defy the rain and snow-filled elements and complete the downfield pass attempt, and subsequently, were forced to re-set their DBs off the LOS, which opened-up the ‘Cats’ complimentary ground game.

On NU’s 1st possession of Q4, the ‘Cat O settled into a comfortable rhythm, gaining a 1st down on a 12 yard pass completion and setting the table for a 2nd with a 3rd-&-managable-3 down near midfield.  C.J. rolls to his right looking downfield, spots an open WR running a 10-yard out route at the Michigan 44 and delivers the ball right on target.  Unfortunately, the pass hits the WR in the wrong spot, his hands, and the pigskin slips through the receiver’s fingers and straight into the mitts of the cover DB 3 yards behind. The DB secures the tip-drill INT, turns upfield and sprints down the sideline towards the NU goal line, avoiding several attempts by NU players to push him out of bounds.  As the DB swerves to his left to avoid an extended-arm push from a ‘Cat lineman, the official blows his whistle and waves his arms overhead indicating that he had seen the DB step out at NU’s 44, essentially killing the play at the spot.  The DB, not hearing the whistle or seeing stoppage of play indicator and feeling that he remained in bounds, continues his sprint down the sideline and crosses NU’s goal line for a potential game-tying TD.

Michigan’s HC Rich Rod calls for a reply review of the INT and its return.  The tape review clearly shows that indeed, the DB had kept his feet inbounds the entire way down the sideline and into the NU endzone.  However, since the ref’s whistle had been blown, the play was dead and not reviewable.  The hapless official had blown an inadvertent whistle and everything that happened afterwards, including pick-6 INT return, was disallowed.  It was this game-changing blown call that gave the ‘Cats an official, pun intended, “Get out of jail “ escape card.  The home crowd fans went bananas, but to no avail. 

On the ensuing possession, Michigan’s O pushed the ball to the NU 23, where yet another errant pass by the inconsistent QB Threet flew over the head of its intended receiver and dropped into the welcome hands of a diving Jordan Mabin for an NU touchback that terminates the scoring opportunity.  From that point on, the Dazed & Blue offense never mounts another viable scoring threat. 

Game over.  

The Wildcats and their coaching staff parlayed the Great Equalizer, an astute halftime adjustment on defense, a resuscitated vertical passing attack on offense, and a game-clinching blown call by the refs to secure the “W”.  As ugly as the weather conditions were and as ugly as some of the field play was on the gridiron, the ‘Cats proudly walked out of the Big House arm-in-arm with the beautiful Miss Victory, escorting her back to Evanston for the first time since ’95.  It was a match made in heaven. 

NU truly needed this “W” to bolster their win total to 8 because, without it, most every post-season bowl committee had a viable opportunity to pass-over “no-name” Northwestern for another more “nationally-attractive” conference team with a worse overall record in their team selection process.  Now, these fickle committees have to face the unavoidable truth: the 2008 ‘Cats, with their 33 year old HC and his newly contracted coordinators, are for real. 

With a “W” this Saturday against irksome, bombastic Ill-Annoy, the ‘Cats and the Wildcat Nation at large are due to receive a late-December or possible New Year invitation somewhere in warm and sunny Florida. 

Go get ‘em, ‘Cats!  Smash the PumpkinHeads!!!        

The Waterboy        

Nov. 13, 2008

Slip-Slidin’ Away

Last Saturday’s contest against the BuckNuts was a throwback to the type of game that many Wildcat faithful had witnessed from the ‘Cats in the mid 80s, the Dark Ages.  I know that this is an extremely harsh statement, but there were too many similarities to games played throughout those dismal days to avoid this unimaginable comparison.  For the first time this season, I felt that I had seen NU’s coaching staff and players wave the virtual white flag of surrender.  However, in all fairness, I cannot dismiss the entire body of effort displayed by the ‘Cats.  Throughout Q1, the only period in which NU maintained their competitive edge, the ‘Cats' field play matched the intensity and resolve of the BuckNuts as both teams pounded one another like a couple of heavyweight boxers exchanging body shots and haymakers to the chin.  But it was when critical game items began to degrade significantly from Q2 onward, especially play calling on both sides of the LOS, that the overall field play quality of the Wildcats unraveled like a cheap suit.

And to my chagrin, I truly don’t have an answer regarding the causes or reasons behind why these offensive and defensive degradations ever occurred.  But as the game continued beyond Q1, it became an undeniable reality that control of the contest slipped away from the grasp of the Fitz and his ‘Cats and was seized by the BuckNut brain trust.  The most disappointing aspect of this whole enterprise was that this game transitioned into a scoreboard blowout, when the team, as a group, isn’t blowout worthy or deserving.           

How the Da BuckNuts Overwhelmed the ‘Cats

Take a Whiff
I don’t know what it was, how it started or why it became so pronounced as the game progressed, but this deadly disease spread among Doc Hankwitz’ D personnel like a plague… the whiff, as in missed tackles.  The single most important item that has been demanded and emphasized throughout Doc’s inaugural year as Wildcat DC is tackling fundamentals.  You know, that thing where a defender sprints right up to his tackling target, lowers his pads with head up and eyes focused, keeps on the balls of his feet, delivers a full-force blow at contact and drives the target to the turf.  Hard, crisp and with extreme prejudice.

Well, if you were looking at NU last Saturday for a viable exhibition of consistent, hard-nosed tackling, you were looking in the wrong direction.  Simply stated, the ‘Cats usually sure tackling techniques went south in a flash against the speedy, elusive skill position players of the BuckNut O and was the number one reason why the ‘Cats lost miserably against daOSU.  The most poignant example of NU’s overt lack of pursuit to the ball and basic tackling skills was when ‘Cat DT John Gill had BuckNut RB, Beanbag Wells, in his grasp for a 4 yard TFL, only to slip off inexplicably, allowing the BeanBag to bolt right up the gut of the LOS untouched by another NU defender for a 55 TD scamper, as the rest of NU’s D hand-fought their blockers and didn’t get within 5 yards of the Beanbag. 

I know that Dr. Hankwitz’ players are much better at this fundamental football skill than what they showed, but the entire ‘Cat defense was well off their game.  Now in prior seasons, NU’s D has always had a very dubious reputation when defending a mobile, fleet-footed QB, particularly under the mentorship of former DC, Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby.  Hell, that’s how the ‘Cat defenders got this reputation in the first place.  But that was then, and this is now… and now, under Doc’s tutelage, NU’s defensive personnel have shed this putrid albatross from their collective necks and have re-invented themselves as a crafty, disciplined, hard-hitting squad… until this game.  In this game, they regressed to the stumbling, bumbling MildCats of old, most especially on 2nd or 3rd and long, where BuckNut crybaby QB, Terrelle Pryor, doing his best imitation of former collegiate QB Vince Young, after having scanned the NU secondary for an open receiver behind his pocket protection , tucked the ball under arm then ran over, around and through feeble hand grabs, mistimed body throws at his legs and weak-sister arm tackles, converting most all of them into possession-extending 1st downs.  This team-wide failure to hit BuckNut ball carriers square and take them down proved to be the ultimate kiss of death for Fitz and Co.   

Over the Top Gaffes
From my viewpoint in the west stands, it was obvious that Doc Hankwitz’ primary strategy for his defensive secondary was rush-support first from the opening whistle.  And for the most part, this strategy was effective, except when it faced those frequent and annoying “3rd & double-digit” down situations.  Unfortunately, whenever that occurred, NU’s defensive house of cards came tumbling down.

I’m sure that it was equally obvious to the offensive spotters sitting in the BuckNut coach’s box above Dyche’s Ditch to recognize that the ‘Cat safeties were abandoning their deep middle 3rd pass coverage zone and over-playing their run support responsibilities to sprint upfield in their all-out bid to add their $.02 in NU’s hit parade against BuckNut ball carriers.  Regrettably, this tactic was as heavily short-sighted as it was flawed and doomed to failure from the start - as exemplified in the BuckNut’s first possession.  My younger brother, who was watching the game with me, voiced a simple one-liner when, on this drive, NU SS Brad Phillips completed a successful safety blitz for a 10 yard TFL against BuckNut RB, Beanbag Wells, creating a 2nd & 20 situation at the NU 50.  “Your safeties are leaving the deep 3rd open.”  Two downs later, BuckNut QB Pryor made a play-action fake handoff to Beanbag, waited patiently as NU’s safety tandem of Smith & Phillips bit hard and came upfield on the fake, then lofted a lazy floater to a wide open WR, Brian Hartline, running 7 yards behind any ‘Cat DB, who made the completion and fell to the turf at the NU 2.  On the next down, a simple plunge by the BeanBag into NU’s A gap nets an easy TD and a 7-0 lead for the BuckNuts.  So much for that ill-advised run-support first strategy by the NU safeties, right?   Not so...

The most critical tactical blunder of the game for the ‘Cats was that DC Doc Hankwitz steadfastly refused to take this first hint and kept employing his original run-support first strategy for his cover-2 safeties.  And when the smoke finally cleared, Smith & Phillips repeated their play-recognition gaffes on several more occasions, each of which hand-delivered substantive long-yardage gains to the BuckNuts - on BeanBag’s 55-yard TD run mentioned above, on a 2nd Pryor-to-Hartline 46 yard heave to the NU 22 that set-up another gimme TD, and another 34-yard passing strike in Q4.  If it’s broken, then fix it. 

As the old saying goes… fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  And last Saturday, there was as much shame to be spread among the ‘Cats’ defensive brain trust as there was among their safeties.        

Takin’ What They’re Givin’ - The Refusal
During the week leading up to NU’s grapple with the Minnie Mighty Marmots, I was grousing to NU fans about the necessity to diversify the 1st down play-calling for the ‘Cats’ offense.  After having been forced to replace starting QB C.J. Bacher with seldom-used 2nd string QB Mike Kafka due to injury, I felt NU’s offensive interests would be served best if ‘Cat OC Mick McCall would avoid his penchant of predictably using the rush on 1st down and substitute these ground game calls with the pass.  I wasn’t referring to McCall’s well-chronicled “managed” passing attack either, but to his timidly-called vertical varietal where the Marmot secondary would be obligated to position themselves 10-12 yards off from the LOS to respect their deep coverage zone responsibilities.  And much to my surprise, McCall obliged and did just that…  And lo and behold, Kafka came through, converting 2 fantastic completions to WRs running deep routes - one over the top for a TD and another between the somnolent Marmot safeties that set-up a subsequent FG giving the ‘Cats a 10-point lead all in the game’s initial 10 minutes.  These two quick-strike scores stunned over-confident Golden Rodents and their Homecoming crowd and set the tone for aggressive offensive display that lasted the entire game.   

Against daOSU, I was hoping for a repeat play calling performance where McCall would keep the BuckNut defense at bay from stacking the box with defenders on 1st down through liberal use of the pass.  But McCall reverted to his old play-calling paradigm, and I can only speculate on the reasons for this decision.  Perhaps it was the intimidation factor of the BuckNut’s unrelenting pass rush pressure provided by their defensive front 7 or the ultra quick-reactions and INT-production of their secondary.  But whatever the rationale, McCall simply tanked on challenging the BuckNut DBs by directing his offensive attack away from the downfield pass.  And this decision eviscerated the ‘Cats’ capacity to produce yardage throughout much of the game beyond Q1. 
Mind you, McCall didn’t eschew the pass completely, but NU’s aerial attack was restricted to Mr. Mick’s “managed” passing paradigm of the 3-yard square-out, the short dump-off or crossing pattern and McCall’s apparent personal favorite, the WR bubble screen, while the downfield pass was treated like anathema.  In fact, there were entire possessions where McCall called Kafka’s ball carrier number almost exclusively to the point where I felt that our reserve QB was one hard knock away from getting laid-out for the Dyche’s Ditch meat wagon; until…

On NU’s 1st possession of Q3, McCall called for another “managed” pass, his darling WR bubble screen, on 1st down and… it went for 24 yards!  Maybe, just maybe there truly was something positive to be gained from this 1st down pass thing.  Two possessions later, McCall seemingly started to get it and called for the Kafka pass a couple more times on 1st down.  Result: nice gains of 6 and 22 yards, each setting the table for even more substantive yardage gains on subsequent downs with a balanced mix of runs and passes, all of which helped the ‘Cat O drive deep into the BuckNut’s red zone.  Then the bottom fell-out, when McCall reversed his rediscovered interest the calling the pass on a 1st & 10 down and called for a Simmons rush.  Stoned for no gain.  Now, with long-distance downs dictating the obvious pass, the BuckNut DC unleashed his blitz package and a bewildered Kafka, after having scrambled around NU’s backfield in vain to avoid the oncoming pass rush, got sacked for losses of 9 and 19 yards on consecutive downs, taking the ‘Cats out of FG range.  Yet in spite of the setback, that offensive series showed that NU’s offense could have or, more correctly, should have used the 1st down pass for more productive yardage generation. 

I could only shake my head at McCall’s refusal to take what the BuckNut defense had given.   

The Knock-Out Punch
The knock-out punch of the game delivered by the BuckNuts occurred when HC Tressel called for a fake punt after the Cats stopped an OSU drive in Q4 trailing by 21.  The ‘Cats’ punt return team has a now-recognized tendency to turn tail and sprint back to their punt return positions, once the long snap is made, without keeping a spy defender at the LOS to ensure that the kick is actually made.  This dubious tendency was identified 2 weeks prior during the game with the WhoZits, when their punter noticed the defender-less open space literally spread-out before him as NU’s defenders peeled-away from the LOS.  In reaction, the punter promptly tucked the ball and bolted downfield behind the ‘Cat punt returners for a 17-yard gain and a drive-extending 1st down that lead to an eventual game-deciding TD. 

Well, the same scenario unfolded against the BuckNuts, as punter A.J. Trapasso recognized the same open space at the LOS as the NU punt return team peeled-off and took off ball in hand for a 1st down.

Game film doesn’t lie.  And the ensuing TD scored after this 1st down conversion, not only ballooned the BuckNut lead to 28, but it cut the heart out of the ‘Cat D.           

Mailing It In
The most frustrating part of the game was the final 7:36 that followed the fake punt and its resultant TD.  Body language among the ‘Cat D was telling - heads down, jogging on & off the field, no enthusiasm.  It was more than noticeable.  When a change of possession occurred following the final 8-yard sack of Kafka on 4th down, giving the BuckNuts the ball at midfield, the ‘Cats were dead at the scene.  Tressel sent his 3rd string O onto the field, who were loaded for bear and dying for PT.  These reservists simply tore the discouraged ‘Cat defense apart with a cold-blooded efficiency unlike anything that I’ve seen this fall.  Although I cannot blame these BuckNuts scrubs for their high level of effort exhibited at the time, but I certainly cannot condone the ‘Cat D mailing it in during this end-game period, aka, garbage time.  Was this lack of heart consequential to anything on the scoreboard?  No.  However, from the stands, it came off as an emotional exclamation point that underscored just how complete this loss was to the ‘Cats.  Damn.     

As counterpoint to the euphoria that thoroughly inundated the ‘Cats and the Wildcat Nation in general after their hard-fought, come-from-behind, last 30 second victory via a heart-stopping pick-6 INT return against the Golden Rodents, this game was its complete gut-wrenching antithesis.  There’s not much more to say.  A rout like this can be devastating to a program, or, if flushed properly, its lasting effects might be minimized.  This is a vital responsibility of NU’s coaching staff’s to address. 

As final comment, I just hope that Fitz and his coaches, especially McCall and Doc, take a good hard look at the man in the mirror and ask him what that guy could have done to reverse this train wreck as it was happening.  Da BuckNuts are most certainly the best football team NU will oppose in this 2008 campaign, and a competitive loss to them is no great failure.  However, a 34-point blowout is a completely different animal altogether. 

Next Saturday’s foe, the Dazed & Blue Horde from Ann Arbor, is not the BuckNut equivalent, but a team who is starting to grow into its own body and find its own rhythm.   It’s important to jump on them now.  Next season they might have a growing spurt.

The Waterboy        

Nov. 6, 2008

Oh Ye of Little Faith

OK, I admit it… after last Saturday’s implosion in Bloomington at the hands of an overmatched, yet game Indy WhoZit football team, I had not drunk a sip of Purple Kool-Aide.  Not once.  And so, I never expected that the ‘Cats had even a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the rising-star, 7-1, “soon-to-be-granted-3rd-place-in-the-Big10/11” Golden Rodents… on the road… on their Homecoming… and in front of 50K enthusiastic fans.  Adding to my dire conviction was the fact that the ‘Cats were to play this game minus several of their most productive playmakers: starting QB C.J. Bacher, starting RB Tyrell Sutton and starting MLB Malcom Arrington.   Man, this looked grim.  Many among the Wildcat Nation took Fitz’ mantra to heart and shouted “Flush It,” but I just couldn’t.  Not that I was stubborn or short-sighted, but the realist in me had too tight a grip on my perspective to allow me unfettered belief that NU still had enough weapons in their arsenal to compete and beat the Mighty Marmots of Minnie-Ha-Ha.  Boy, was I in for a surprise, as were the Marmots.  

How the ‘Cats Mauled the Mighty Marmots

Good Enough

Something went down with the ‘Cat OL between their game against the WhoZits and last Saturday’s grapple against the Golden Rodents.  When they played the WhoZits, NU’s OL, in general, threw-in a clunker.  It wasn’t as if everyone on the squad blew blocking assignments wholesale.  It was that one critical breakdown along the LOS that stoned individual plays; and after 2-3 similar failures in a row, those mistakes collectively stalled an entire offensive possession.  Until the WhoZit game, No. 8 in the season, I had not seen the ‘Cat OL misfire like that on a regular basis for an entire 60 minutes.  My great hope going into the Minnie game was that, against another quality DL like the one that the Rodents fielded, McCall and Ingalls could refocus their young linemen to return to the high percentage rate of successful blocking that was exhibited during, say, the Iowa contest. 

And I’m happy to announce that, for the majority of the Rodent game, they did.  Mind you, blocking assignment miscues remained in evidence, particularly when executing the reach block technique on the 1st down rush or when setting pocket protection during a drop-back pass, but nothing approaching the frequency that was shown in their previous game.  One thing that the OL did very well was position block their targets especially at the defensive corners.  I’m talking seal blocks to the inside against the Marmot DTs and MLBs coupled with kick-out-and-wall techniques performed against the Rodent DEs and OLBs.  Essentially what was occurring at the LOS, was NU’s OL were locking horns with their targets and maintaining contact for 3, 4, even a full 5 seconds, then pushing that target defender in the direction he had moved at the snap of the ball.  If the DT slanted to the center, NU’s OG locked onto his outside shoulder and drove him down the LOS towards the OC.  If the DE stayed home respecting his defensive corner-contain responsibility on the backside away from flow, NU’s OT or TE locked on and drove him to the outside or simply walled him from the offensive flow going in the opposite direction.  These position/seal blocks created open rushing lanes, often on the backside, opposite initial offensive flow, in which newly-installed, 2nd string QB, Mike Kafka, recognized and sprinted into and through with abandon.

It seemed like Coach Ingalls’ primary directive to each of his OL against this defense was to engage his blocking target and maintain contact for as long as he could without resorting to clips or holds as that target gained separation.  And it worked.   It was THE main reason why Kafka, holding the ball for what seemed to be a full 2-3 seconds in the NU backfield, could read where the open seam was developing at the LOS then blast through it.  Development for NU’s rushing plays became much slower than normal and it required great patience on the part of Kafka not to panic and bolt prematurely as he allowed the blocking pattern to coalesce before him.  However, once it did, he took advantage of the crease after it opened, often gaining the Rodent D’s 2nd level before he was first touched.  Essentially the OL seal block was just “good enough” to generate yardage.

As effective as the seal block was, the OL’s use of the reach block technique during rushes by RB Omar Conteh was nothing less than a total disaster.  With 2nd stringer, Mike Kafka, thrust into the role of starting QB as replacement to the injured Bacher, the Rodent DL were prepared well for NU’s offensive game plan to be highly rush-oriented.  When faced with the ‘Cats’ scrimmage line-wide reach blocks, these defenders regularly gained immediate separation from their blocking OL, charged upfield into the NU backfield and corralled the hapless Conteh 4-6 yards behind the LOS, often just as the handoff was made to him.  I really don’t know what fuels McCall and Ingalls’ apparent season-long love affair with this zone/reach block technique, but they must be seeing something that I’m obviously missing.  The only thing I saw initially was is the constant TFLs when the OL execute it, especially against better DL personnel like that of the Marmots.  I was due for a rude awakening regarding this point of view.  

Here She Is: Miss Direction
I’ve been barking loud and long regarding the complete lack of counter action in NU’s offensive game plan since the ‘Cats’ game versus Sorry-Excuse.  In fact, the next time NU’s OC Mick McCall calls for counter rush behind the trap blcok, it will be the first of its kind for the season.  With that said, the OL front-side and backside seal blocking schemes against the Golden Rodents were the perfect set-up for the misdirection play.  Whether executed by improvisation or design, the cutback run, away from the play’s initial flow and into the open seam was always there for the taking, and Kafka, running various QB keepers, exploited them early and often.  In particular, with NU’s speed option into flow gaining the most positive yards when Kafka didn’t pitch to his option RB but kept the ball in his own hands, and after having read the defensive posture of the Mighty Marmots’ DE, making a decisive move either inside or around this corner contain, the misdirection became its perfect counter-action play.  In addition, my negative perspective of the frequent 1st down handoff plays to Conteh running the wide veer began to change dramatically.  These veers, which depend heavily on the zone-reach blocking technique by NU’s OL described above and against which the Rodent defensive front 7 constantly sniffed-out and stoned for TFLs, were nothing less than a diversion, a ruse to set-up the misdirection QB keeper.  Essentially, Conteh was sacrificed, having gained only 12 total yards due to losing 19 to these “managed” TFLs.  Yet in doing so, he took the defensive attention and heat away from Kafka, who simply went bananas running the bean himself.  

Many NU offensive possessions became poetry in motion.  Once that 1st down veer fell victim to the sell-out penetration by the Mighty Marmot front 7, they were primed.  On the following play, NU would execute, say, a speed option using the same reach block technique, against which the entire Marmot front 7, sniffing another easy TFL, bit hard once again.  Only this time, Kafka slowed his pace just long enough to let a cutback seam develop off the inside seal and outside kick-out blocks against the backside DT and DE, then bingo, the misdirection trap was sprung, as he cut back against flow then into and through whatever crease had opened.  Mr. K. shifted into high gear and sprinted upfield in long, loping strides, passing hand-fighting DL, LBs grabbing for him against their bodies and DBs desperately trying to ward-off well-executed stud blocks by the ‘Cat WRs, while gaining substantive yardage virtually every time it was run.  And these misdirection plays were not limited to being executed exclusively off the rush.  Kafka’s biggest yardage gain of the game, the 53 yard scamper that set-up NU’s 2nd TD, was executed off a fake bubble screen pass to his left; where the entire Rodent D once more bit hard on his throwing motion and flew to cover this short wide zone; then he tucked the ball under his arm, scooted up to the opposite defensive corner, cut off the block of NU’s TE who had locked horns with the backside Rodent DE, and flew down the right sideline to the Marmot 2.  It was an absolute brilliant call. 

Faced with this misdirection, the entire Golden Rodent defense was back on their heels in short order.  Keeping with their apparent defensive game plan, they continued their sell-out crash and penetrate reaction to NU’s reach block techniques, but they didn’t know where the ball was to go – was it inside or around the defensive corner into flow via the speed option, was it a misdirection away from flow via the QB keeper, was it a possession sideline pass off a QB rollout into flow, was it a pull-up pass attempt behind a shifted umbrella pass protection?  An amazing nuance of this offensive scheme was that McCall retained a great deal of his original game plan , including NU’s standard drop-back, “managed” short-pass attack, which Kafka executed efficiently, generating much-needed yardage on critical downs throughout the game. 

A much broader picture of NU’s offensive strategy was becoming much clearer.

For Openers
In general, the pivotal piece of the Mighty Marmot team is their defense.  It’s a quality squad that has experienced their own resurgence of sorts in 2008 under the tutelage of former Duke HC-made-DC Ted Roof.  Over their last 3 games, this resuscitated D has strangled the offenses of their opponents, including the multi-dimensional, high-octane offense of Ill-Annoy, and in the process, has recorded a Division 1A best turnover differential of +15 (26 takeaways to 11 giveaways).   And when the Golden Rodent defense creates a turnover, it simply ignites their offense. 

Coming into this game, NU’s biggest deficiency has been their well-chronicled, problematic penchant for baking hot and flaky turnovers, giving their opponents multiple short-field possessions for easy points.  And I truly believe that, last Saturday, the Golden Rodent D fully expected to catch the ‘Cats in their usual generous mood and provide their O several trouble-free opportunities to garner quick scores.  However, the ‘Cat offense surprised their homecoming hosts by firing on all cylinders from the opening whistle and driving the pigskin down the throats of the Mighty Marmot D in their first two possessions to score a TD and FG in the game’s initial 8 minutes – all while maintaining a healthy respect for the ball.  When broadcast cameras scanned their sidelines, the Marmot D looked downright shell-shocked as they found themselves starring up at the ‘Cats from unexpected 10-point deficit. 

Basically, these two opening series by NU’s O set the tone for the rest of the game, and delivered a loud and clear message to the Rodents that, despite the absence of the ‘Cats’ two best offensive playmakers, they were in for a full 60 minute fight.

Set to Succeed
A field play pattern has begun to emerge with Doc Hankwitz and his attack-oriented defense - they are becoming increasingly more successful in limiting scoring drives and points in H-2, especially in Q4.  This pattern started-out slowly during the Perdue game where NU’s D stymied the Broiler-Chicken O throughout much of H-2, except for 2 garbage-time explosion plays, a 32-yard bomb and a 76-yard scamper, both off embarrassing defensive gaffes that resulted in inconsequential TDs.  Then in NU’s humiliating defeat to the WhoZits, the D’s only blemish in H-2 was its boneheaded pass coverage blunder that gift-wrapped the disastrous 28-yard TD pass that provided Indy with their game-deciding points and capped an offensive possession kick-started by an equally devastating 53-yard KO return, giving the WhoZit O fantastic starting field position at the ‘Cat 47.

But Doc’s D finally put it together against the Mighty Marmots, shutting them down for double bagels over the final 2 quarters.  And this was done against a Minnie offense that had scored 58 points in Q3 and a commendable 80 points in Q4 over their previous 8 games, many of which were game-clinching scores.  Even more remarkable was the fact that this shutout was throw with a depleted defensive roster where two of the ‘Cats’ most prolific playmakers, the aforementioned MLB Arrington and pass rushing specialist teammate, DE V. Browne, were out of the game.  The foundation of Doc’s defensive game plan was built around a new 4-2-5 formation designed specifically to limit the effective passing prowess of the Golden Rodent’s quality QB, Adam Weber, and to increase the coverage capabilities of the NU secondary against the Rodent receiving corps, that included WR Eric Decker, who was ranked 3rd and 7th nationally in catches per game and yards per game respectively.

And did this defensive set ever succeed!!!  The Mighty Marmots’ ground game was stoned in place for a net total of a 68 measly yards; while Decker’s receiving day was compressed to only 62.  However, none of this laudable effort by the ‘Cat D would have amounted to diddly-squat had they not come-up with THE lockdown game-deciding defensive stand of the game…          

…& Throw Away the Key
The most consequential offensive possession in the game by the Golden Rodents was their 93-yard drive in Q3 that started from their own 5 and methodically marched all the way to NU’s 2.  Then and there, in the shadow of his own goalline, Senior DT Kevin Mims made the single most impressive defensive stop of the 2008 season.  Rodent HC Brewster called for a fake handoff to his RB Eskridge diving into his OL’s A gap, followed by a naked bootleg run by QB Weber attempting to scoot around NU’s left defensive corner into the endzone for the go-ahead TD.  But Mims would have none of it.  He stuffed then shed his blocking OL, sniffed-out the fake handoff and stayed home to maintain his corner contain responsibility, then blasted Weber in his tracks, who crumpled to the turf for a 1-yard TFL at the NU 3.  A good offensive call neutralized by an even better defensive play. 

Weber was visibly shaken by the heavy lumber laid across his chest by the Mims hit.  On the next play, his weak-sister pass attempt to a WR running a 5 yard square-out sideline pattern in the ‘Cats’ endzone fell feebly at his target’s feet.  The cherry on NU’s ice cream sundae, goal line stand, was when the subsequent Rodent FG attempt was kicked wide right and doinked off the upright.  Not only had this defensive stand stoned trickeration play for a possible TD, the Rodent FG kicker blew a chip-shot 3 pointer – each play resulting in missed go-ahead score that would have held significant impact on the field play strategies employed for the remainder of the game.  After that series, the Mighty Marmot O was pronounced dead at the scene, as they were only able to push the ball into Wildcat territory once more in their next 5 possessions, setting the table for the game’s momentous final 30 seconds.

Yes, you can say it… “LOCKDOWN!!!” 


All the field play points listed above were mere prelude to NU’s Defensive Play Of The Year, the highlight reel, 48-yard interception return by Brendan Smith for the game’s go-ahead TD and the “W.”  This bowl bid-securing INT was a fitting end to a collective defensive performance that was 3 games in the making.  Doc’s D personnel have shown steady lockdown improvement against their opposition in H-2 over each of these games and this pick-6 play was its culmination – thus far.  I honestly feel that this 2nd half tour de force was the end of the beginning to NU’s resurrection from defensive oblivion, and that truly there is much more to come in the future. 

Now the onus is squarely on NU’s offense.  The multi-dimensional rushing attack that was unveiled by the crack running of 2nd string QB Kafka has the potential to be NU’s version of college football’s latest offensive weapon: the versatile, heavy-weight QB who is both a high quality rusher and an accurate passer.  Donavan McNabb was the forerunner for this new QB paradigm, and Tim Tebow of the U. of Florida Garter-belts is the best example of this weapon among the current collegiate ranks.  This is all TBD. 

And this Saturday: Da Big, Bad BuckNuts from the banks of the Olentangy.  Time to flush this game and focus on this next challenge, boys. 

The Waterboy        

October 30, 2008

Any Given Saturday

Yes, any team can beat any other team any given Saturday.  NU’s pillow fight against the Indy WhoZits was testament to that adage.  Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, they were on the losing end of last weekend’s clash of feather-dusters, and in the process, completely reversed much of what they had accomplished over the previous 7 games.  Not only did this “L” shove NU far down the pecking order of current Big 10/11 bowl qualifiers, but owning a season-ending injury to Tyrell Sutton and a “game-or-two” injury-induced absence of the Wildcats’ primary ball handler, QB C.J. Bacher, the ‘Cats could get shut-out of a post season bowl altogether. 

Impossible you say?  Well think again folks.  Of NU’s 4 remaining opponents, there are no gimme “W”s whatsoever, especially considering the motivational circumstances which surround each upcoming foe…  
•    The Minnie Golden Rodents, with their 7-1 record, are on the brink of finalizing a remarkable worst-to-first season where expected “W’s” over a now-declawed NU Mildcats, a Dazed & Blue Horde fielding a foundering O and a defensively-challenged Wisky are a near surety.  The lone remaining roadblock to the Mighty Marmots’ lock for a shared 2nd-place conference finish is their at-home grapple against an unexpectedly revitalized I-Away Hog-Eyes.
•    Da BuckNuts, fresh off the season-shattering, mistake-driven loss in their winner-take-all showdown against State Penn, must defeat the remainder of their 2008 foes, including the ‘Cats, in convincing, blowout fashion to keep their faint hopes alive to get a mere whiff of a BCS bowl bid.    
•    The Dazed & Blue Horde of Ann Arbor, after enduring last Saturday’s whippin’ at the hands of in-state, arch-enemy Moo U., will be hell bent to avoid an embarrassing “L” to the lowly MildCats in their final home game of 2008
•    Enigmatic Ill-Annoy, who watched their New Years Bowl bid aspirations convincingly crash-n-burn in their turnover-laden meltdown to a struggling Wisky team, will go all-out in a desperate, last-ditch effort to garner that bowl-qualifiying 6th “W” in their 2008 finale against the ‘Cats.

It’s downright difficult to ever have envisioned the gut-wrenching demise of NU’s wondrous, season-of-gridiron-confirmation at the hands of the Big 10/11’s bottom feeding WhoZits, whose only victories in their otherwise forgettable 2008 season were against 2 lowly Division 1-AA creampuffs.  This game was a predicted walk-over for the 6-1 ‘Cats, a final tune-up before NU prepared to combat the beefy, bowl-bound portion of this season’s conference campaign.  However, the WhoZits failed to read that inter-office memo outlining their expected roll-over and submission during this contest.  Instead, the WhoZits defied the Wildcats’ hubris, determined to redeem their season of frustration and recover a modicum of respectability by taking it to a team who was both full of themselves and primed for an upset.

How the WhoZits Sniped the ‘Cats

Red Zone Blues
What a difference a week makes.  Where the previous Saturday, the ‘Cat offense couldn’t do anything wrong in the red zone, against the WhoZits, that same squad could do little right.  Obviously, the WhoZit defensive brain trust used a long, poignant film review of NU’s game against Moo U. to design a similar defensive strategy to limit the prolific point production of a Wildcat O that appeared to be rounding into form.  The main tactic when defending the ‘Cats’ yardage generating tandem of Bacher and Sutton was to bend but not break, to allow these playmakers to go wild moving the ball between the 20s, but once they gained the red zone, to stack the box to stone the rush, jam NU’s receivers at the LOS with their DBs and stick to them like glue to break-up the pass.  And most important… wait for the ‘Cats to self-destruct, which unfortunately, they were inclined to do. 
This model was heavily dependent on the predictable nature of NU’s offensive game plan that was conceived by the Wildcat offensive brain trust composed of 1st year OC Mick McCall and 3rd year HC Pat Fitz, and employed throughout the season with little variation.  There major characteristic flaws of this game plan include:
•    The blocking schemes for NU’s OL are based primarily on zone blocking at the point of attack and frequently use reach block techniques across the entire line.  The only OL pulls are used during QB roll-outs that are designed sideline pass attempts.  
•    NU’s rushing attack does not use misdirection, traps or counter action.  The RB receives the handoff from the DB, reads the zone or reach blocks by the OL at the LOS and looks for seams to drive into and through, especially on the backside to execute cut-back runs.       
•    NU’s passing game includes few if any vertical passes.  This attack is restricted almost exclusively to spreading the opposing secondary horizontally and its success depends on a quick read & release of the ball to the open wide receiver, often running routes of 10 yards or less from the LOS within the outer 3rd zones.  What vertical passes may be attempted, the QB has shown little or no accuracy in delivering the ball, often under throwing his target receiver.
•    When pressured, NU’s QB has shown a strong tendency to force the ball to his target receiver with little or no regard to coverage profile.  

Indy’s defensive game plan was devised specifically to exploit these flaws.  Against NU’s formidable rushing attack and its strict zone blocking schemes, DTs and LBs were directed to shoot the A & B gaps while the DEs crashed inside the slower-reacting OTs, both stunts allowing any member of the defensive front 7 to penetrate across the LOS, collapse NU’s backfield and disrupt offensive flow.  With little or no counter action, each WhoZit DL was free to penetrate upfield and locate the ball without threat of getting trapped blocked.  If executed successfully, this penetration could compromise 80% of the ‘Cat’s ground game.  And it didn’t matter who carried the ball.  Once the handoff is made, the seam reads by NU’s RB were often slow, where any breakdown in the blocking along the LOS had strong potential to stone the rush in its tracks.  Meanwhile, a fake handoff kept the ball in possession of the QB, who is an admitted reluctant ball carrier, without a swift turn of foot and doesn’t take a hard tackle very well. 

This defense scheme was fairly efficient as evidenced by the final rushing stats compiled by NU’s RB tandem of Sutton & Conteh - a mere 110 yards off 37 carries; but its greatest effect was felt when the ‘Cat O was in the red zone.  The closer NU pushed ball towards the WhoZit goalline, the stiffer Indy’s run defense became because of their shoot-the-gap & penetrate mentality.  Making matters worse was McCall’s call for a “rhino formation”: a power rush offensive set, using 2 TEs, with an I-formation backfield, that positioned a “super-back” as lead blocking back in front of the intended ball carrying RB.  Simply stated, NU’s young OL are not well-equipped or experienced enough to execute this power set effectively, and at the snap of the ball, got little, if no push against the opposing Indy DL.  As a result, TFLs, short gains and zero gains on rushes inside the WhoZit 20 were commonplace.  In fact, on the possession that scored NU’s 1st rushing TD from Indy’s 11 yard line, NU had rushes of 2, zero, -1 (a sack), 2, 2, and finally a 1 yard dive for the TD - all of which sandwiched a very unusual personal foul during a FG attempt called against an IU defender as he leaped over the line in his attempt to block the kick, giving NU a 1st & goal at the Indy 5.  The ‘Cat OL were overpowered at the WhoZit goal line.          

Most consequential of all these flaws was NU’s lack of a vertical passing game.  I’ve been bemoaning this game plan deficiency throughout the 2008 season predicting that someday, this imposed passing attack restriction by OC Mick McCall would haunt the ‘Cats’ ability to move the ball in crunch time.  Well it did just that BIG TIME in this game. 

McCall’s “managed” dink-&-dunk passing attack does have its merits.  By the nature of its quick read and fast delivery to the open, short-route target receiver, it limits the necessity of the OL to hold pass blocks for the required 3-4 seconds for the vertical routes to develop, it lets C.J. scan the short secondary quickly to identify the open area in the 3 short zones in the opponent’s secondary, it gets the ball out of C.J.’s hands and delivered towards his target receiver helping minimize the possibility of negative yardage plays - like sacks, and it allows the QB to distribute the ball across many receivers, forcing the opponent’s DBs to respect their coverage responsibilities across all possible targets and not focus on a premier or favorite WR or two.  This last item is a major reason why Sutton has been such a successful passing target for C.J.  Many of the short zones prowled by Tyrell had been vacated previously of their coverage DB via clearing pass routes run by the wideouts.  

However, when McCall’s non-existent vertical passing option was recognized, the WhoZit DC shifted the coverage schemes of his secondary primarily to defend against these short passing zones, especially when NU gained the red zone.  With the stretch passes into the deep 3rd zones removed by the endline, the WhoZit DBs fronted the ‘Cat WRs and used a bump-&-run technique to eliminate a free release off the LOS.  With the WR tied-up at the LOS, McCall’s 2-second timing between Bacher and his wideouts, executing their “managed” pitch-&-catch short-passing attack, unraveled in short order.  Holding the bean in hand, waiting for his WR to gain separation from their coverage DBs, Bacher fell victim to the pressure applied by WhoZit’s penetration pass rush.  It wasn’t a pretty sight as C.J. passing efficiency plummeted.  NU’s was forced into 2 FGs following poor passing attempts coupled with rushes stoned near the LOS within the WhoZit 10 yard line.  Worse still, Bacher attempting to pass from the WhoZit 14 and harassed by the unrelenting Indy DL, forced the ball to a well-covered target, resulting in a red-zone INT for his effort.

Red Zone points - squandered or reduced because McCall could not or did not adjust his play calling to counter the defensive stunts and man-to-man coverage schemes the WhoZits had been dumping on his beleaguered O.  And Fitz stood-by without intervention.  But that’s commentary for another time.  

Self-Inflicted Wounds
“Whoever wins the turnover battle, wins the game.”  That maxim rang true in this game against the WhoZits just as it did for the ‘Cats against the Perdue broiler-Chickens the previous weekend, where 5 light and flaky turnovers, baked by the Wildcats and stuffed into the salivating maws of their opponents, provided all the impetus necessary to drop the punch-drunk ‘Cats onto the Palooka-ville canvas.  More importantly, it must be noted that in contrast to NU’s generosity for giving-up the bean, it was the WhoZits’ commendable respect for it that became a game-winning difference-maker - if only because, unlike their last 5 games, all losses where turnovers contributed significantly, Indy didn’t bake a single turnover against the ‘Cats. 

2 of the ‘Cats’ 5 French pastries proved critical - the first prevented NU from a score, while the second set the table for the WhoZits to take control of the game.  7 valuable points literally were thrown-away when C.J. chucked the pill off his back foot from the Indy 14 while pressured with a hand in his face softly into the hands of a coverage DB who gladly completed the pick ending NU’s bid for a go-ahead TD, as described above.  The other turnover occurred in NU territory off a botched handoff by Bacher where, instead of shoving the ball into Tyrell’s midsection, he banged it off Sutton’s shoulder pads.  Trying valiantly to re-establish control of the pigskin, Sutton bobbled it from one hand to the other while his momentum carried him forward towards the LOS, then he got blasted by several WhoZit DL who had gained separation from their blockers and converged on the hapless Sutton.  Having gobbled-up this powdered-sugar pastry at the NU 37, it took the WhoZit’s 2nd string QB, Ben Chappell, only 3 pass completions and 2 keepers to convert the giftie into a short field TD just before the close of H-1 and re-establish a lead that Indy would not relinquish.

Death By a Thousand Cuts
Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, they made many little mistakes across all 3 phases of the game that, when compiled together and reviewed as a whole, contributed greatly to the game’s final score. 

NU’s special teams woes, particularly on the kickoff coverage team, seemed to carry-over from the Moo U. game to Saturday’s tussle.  Following the response TD that put the ‘Cats up 9-7 with 5 minutes left in H-1, WhoZit starting RB, Marcus Thigpen, doubling as KR, grabbed the subsequent Demos kickoff and weaved his way through NU’s kick coverage personnel who had locked horns with Indy blockers for a 24-yard scamper to a launch-point at IU’s 31.  Not a devastating goof but a harbinger of things to come.  After Amado-matic’s 2nd FG in Q3, Thigpen one-upped his earlier KO return when he took the ensuing kickoff and rambled 53 yards to the ‘Cat 47, effectively blowing by the same kick coverage personnel as they wrestled once again with Indy’s blockers, giving the WhoZits a short field that was the equivalent of turnover by NU in their own territory.  3 positive-yardage plays from Chappell & his O, followed by another successful trickeration play that cashed-in a 3rd improbable TD of the game, inflated the WhoZits’s lead over the ‘Cats to 9 with 20 minutes left in the game. 

Then there were several drops of well-delivered passes from C.J. on critical downs which just killed vital response drives.  Unbelievable.  Add to the mix, many ole’ or “lookout” blocks by various OL personnel, and I mean across the entire line, that gave the WhoZit defensive front 7 an uncontested path into NU’s backfield and a free shot at the ball carrier.  Of particular note were blocking assignment gaffes by both ‘Cat OTs, who at game-breaking junctures of what might have been significant  possessions leading to much-needed points, just failed to either get off at the snap or maintain substantive contact with their blocking targets.  Totally unacceptable.   On Chappell’s 3 yard TD jaunt near the end of H-1, a NU defender over-pursued the ball and crossed immediately in front of the WhoZit QB giving him an open lane to the goalline.  The right defensive play called, but a missed tackle.  Arghhhhhhh!!!

But worst of all these smaller gaffes was a missed open field tackle against the WhoZit punter who just moments before, avoided a possible game-changing over-the-head punt snap by making a nifty stab & grab of the wayward long snap; then maintaining his composure, he calmly tucked the ball under arm and took-off on what appeared to be an improvised fake punt.  As NU’s punt return squad turned away from the LOS and peeled back to their punt return positions, the punter sped behind them with ball in hand.  A single member of the ’Cat punt return team, realizing that the punter hadn’t kicked the ball but was sprinting downfield instead, closed quickly, threw his body at the rushing WhoZit and swiped an arm across his chest a full 10 yards before the 1st down marker.  This desperation arm tackle was shaken off easily and the punter scrambled a full 17 yards, converting the 1st down before he was pulled down at the NU 43.  It was the first major turning point play of the contest, one that allowed a previously stoned drive to continue and set the tone for game rife with other mistakes and miscues to be made by the ‘Cats.  As special teams coach, Fitz had to be pulling his hair out by the roots. 

Breakdown Palace
However, all those smaller gaffes paled in comparison to the 2 key defensive breakdowns in pass coverage that resulted in game-deciding explosion TD plays for the WhoZits.  The first was a deep pass attempt immediately following the 1st down conversion off the fake punt described above.  Capitalizing on the emotional impact of this improvised play to extend the drive, WhoZit HC, Bill Lynch, went for broke and called for a fly pattern to his speedy WR Damarlo Belcher off play-action.  Both coverage safeties for the ‘Cats bit on the fake handoff, coming upfield in run support while Belcher flew past them into open space in the deep middle 3rd zone.  For WhoZit QB Chappell, it was an easy pitch-and-catch toss to the streaking Belcher for a gimme TD.  In two short plays, the WhoZits swiftly wiped away any negative effects from NU’s overpowering 1st-possession 20-play drive that had stalled just moments before in the shadow of IU’s endzone.  Clearly, the WhoZits re-captured game momentum from the dominant ‘Cats.       

The second major defensive breakdown came on the heels of Thigpen’s 53 yard KO return to NU’s 47 immediately after the ‘Cats had reduced their deficit to 2 points.  It wasn’t difficult to see that the ’Cats were still reeling from the shock of this KO return as their D gave-up 19 yards on IU’s next 3 plays, allowing the WhoZits to drive the ball down to NU’s 28 with relative ease.  Once again, Indy’s HC called for an explosion play to capitalize on the impact of the shock and awe of these last few downs.  A deep vertical pass attempt off a reverse by IU WR Mitchell Evans, saw his teammate, WR Tandon Doss, originally set wide right, drive his initial zone-coverage CB 10 yards off the LOS then run an inside post route to the deep middle 3rd zone in the ‘Cats’ secondary.  At this point, the ‘Cat CB released Doss to the cover of his SS teammate responsible for this deep middle zone, who was very slow to react to this standard coverage exchange.  Recognizing the exchange, Doss cut back outside, away from his post route, to a flag route into the open space in NU’s deep outer 3rd zone, free and clear of this sleep-walking coverage SS.  Evans completed his own simple pitch-and-catch heave to the wide-open Doss for IU’s 3rd and last gimme TD of the afternoon.  The WhoZit sidelines went bananas at this well-executed trickeration.

2 blown pass coverages… 2 easy IU TDs, each answering a previous score by NU to re-capture the lead.         

All these self-induced circumstances and more conspired against the ‘Cats.  Most influential was OC McCall’s debilitating refusal to dial-up any vertical pass plays to loosen-up a WhoZit secondary intentionally set 7 yards off the LOS in obvious “run-support first” mode.  That Fitz didn’t intervene to regain control of the unraveling offensive situation before him is equally disturbing.  Add to the mix, the numerous blown blocking assignments by the ‘Cat OL that just killed plays in NU’s backfield, many before they ever had a chance to start.  The 5 turnovers certainly eliminated opportunities for the ‘Cats to garner points and recapture game momentum.  And last by not least, those 2 damn blown deep pass coverages.  Without those 2 explosion plays, the WhoZits O doesn’t have a chance.  But that sentiment is all shoulda, woulda, coulda drivel.  Simply stated NU threw-in a clunker and got beaten by a Twinkie. 

However, most important are the lasting effects of the game.  Tyrell Sutton, NU’s best-ever all-purpose playmaker, is gone for remainder of the season and possibly beyond with required wrist surgery in his immediate future.  C.J. Bacher seriously injured his hamstring in his final effort to drive the ‘Cats into position for a game-saving, go-ahead FG.  He is definitely on the PUP list and out for next weekend’s game against the Golden Rodents at a minimum.  In his stead, Fitz and McCall will call-upon little-used 2nd string QBMike Kafka, who showed nothing less than pure ineptitude in his only offensive series at the helm of NU’s offense at the final 2 minutes of the WhoZit game.  I shudder at the thought of Kafka’s attempts to master Mick McCall’s complex “managed” offense with only a week’s preparation time in the starting QB role, especially the nuances of the OC’s quick-read-n-throw passing game.  I still recall the brutally failed Brew-Kafka experiment from 2 season’s past.  

Oh man, I’m having difficulty in flushing this one.     

The Waterboy        

October 22, 2008

Response – Part Deux

Q1 for the ‘Cats was not one of their more noteworthy of the 2008 campaign.  In fact, it was downright depressing.  I watched dumbfounded while an allegedly challenged Broiler-Chicken O took their 2nd possession of the contest at their own 20 then proceeded to carved-up the ‘Cat D for consistent yardage production both on the ground and through the air.  Perdue’s high quality RB, Kory Sheets, eerily resembled I-Away’s Shonn Greene as he slashed through NU’s defensive front 7 with virtual impunity.  Meanwhile, QB Chris Painter, resurrecting his playmaking skills that had laid dormant over his last 2 games, seemed to have read through the “managed” game plan of NU OC Mick McCall, as he adeptly completed a series of dink-n-dunk passes to drive the Broiler-Chickens methodically down to NU’s 3.  Thankfully, NU’s D quelled the bloodletting at the hands of the Sheets-Painter Show and forced HC Joe Tiller to settle for a FG instead of the expected TD. 

I thought to myself, “OK, I’ll permit the Broilers a ‘kiss your sister’ first-strike FG, now for the ‘Cat O to go to work against the worst defense in the Big 10/11 conference.”  And on the following offensive series, NU did just that – with Sutton rushing 4 times for 24 hard-fought yards and Bacher adding an 11 yard dump-off pass to Ebert that pushed the ball to the PU 27 with relative ease… then ka-BOOM, C.J. had his own brain fart on his 3rd pass attempt of the possession.  Focusing totally on his TE receiving target running a short delayed crossing route, Bacher failed to recognize that a 300 lb DT, executing a zone blitz stunt, had retreated 3 yards off the LOS into this exact passing lane, and oblivious to the obstruction, soft-tossed the bean straight into the midsection of this lumbering behemoth.  More surprised than anything else that the ball struck him amidships, the Perdue DL swallowed the pigskin whole and fell forward to complete an improbable INT.  Capitalizing on this momentum reversal, Painter weaved his passing magic and drove the PU O to the ‘Cats’ 20, only to stall once more.   Another chippie Broiler-Chicken FG conversion threw the ‘Cats down a 6-point hole.

Oh no… it’s Moo U. deja vu all over again.

Then suddenly, something remarkable occurred.  The ‘Cat offense, following the mantra of their HC, “flushed” this turnover, as well everything else that occurred in Q1, and responded.  Simply stated, the entire team, to an individual, took a firm hold of what they could control: their own field play.  On the ensuing kick-off, ‘Cat KR Simmons grabbed the ball at the NU 8 and streaked downfield through the porous Broiler-Chicken kick coverage for a 32-yard return, giving NU’s O good starting field position at their 40.  Following a swift 11-yard completion, Bacher made the 1st of several offensive explosion plays when he connected on a short pitch-and-catch hook route to Eric Peterman sitting between the hash marks at the PU 45, who responded in his own right by shaking-off a vicious body shot from a Broiler-Chicken free safety with a nifty spin move, and, finding himself in open space, sprinting hard downfield to paydirt, outdistancing 2 more DBs just as he crossed the Perdue goal line.  After having sleep-walked through the first 15 minutes of the game and spotted their opponents a 6-point lead, the ‘Cats answered that challenge with a lightning-quick, go-ahead TD, all in the space of 92 seconds.   From that point on, the flood gates opened and the route was on. 

Fitz was absolutely spot on… It’s all about how you respond.  

How the ‘Cats Plucked the Broiler-Chickens

The Tsunami

A 24-point Q2… unbelievable.  And it didn’t end there.  The ‘Cats repeated that prolific point production in H-2.  It’s difficult to describe.  Once that initial TD was scored, something apparently snapped in the collective psyche of the ‘Cat offense.  The squad rose-up in unison and became an overwhelming, irresistible force, effectively and efficiently moving the ball and scoring almost at will.
This offense tsunami fed off everything – turnovers and short fields provided by the ‘Cat D, scoring drives by Perdue, even a trickeration play.  The Wildcat Nation knew that, with all the maturity and experience across its skill positions, NU’s O possessed huge potential to generate points in this manner; however, having waited patiently over half the 2008 season for its debut, most everyone was a bit incredulous when it was unveiled at long last. 

OL’ Reliable
One common characteristic within every NU possession from this game was the high-level blocking exhibition put on by the ‘Cat OL.  Although there was the occasional technique breakdown, leading to a sack or TFL, they were dominant.  At this juncture in the season, there are no freshmen on the 2-deep position chart, only sophomore players or older, and each individual’s “growth through experience” has been displayed very well.  Consequently, the frequency rate for successful block techniques should be expected.  And this squad continues to jell into a cohesive unit of 6-7 interchangeable parts according to position as the season has progressed.  Every ball handler operating in the NU backfield has become increasingly reliant upon this OL’s ability to engage their blocking assignments, maintain contact and finish the play.  Big time accolades to Coach Ingalls on this one.   

Equation for Victory
French pastry + Short Green = Easy Points.  Simple, factual, undeniable.   To paraphrase Fitz from his post-game interview, “The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game.”  Throw-in another key ingredient, Long Return, to the left side of the equation, and value of the Easy Points resultant has greater tendency to rise like leavened dough - from 3 to 7.  NU repeated this formula on five “popin’ fresh” occasions from Q2 onwards.  Now the ‘Cats know how Moo U. must have felt as grateful recipients of NU’s 3 light and flaky creations during the previous Saturday’s proceedings.   And… they’re tasty too.        

The Peterman Effect
Eric Peterman had a highlight reel offensive day against the Broiler-Chickens as a primary contributor in  NU’s first 2 TDs, firmly re-setting the ‘Cats’ momentum train back on track and moving forward with a full head of stream after having endured a limp Q1.  Not only did he convert THE catch-n-score pass completion of the 2008 season; he reprised his role as playmaking high school QB when he heaved a classic “dying quail” flutter-ball to a wide-open Sid Stewart off a trickeration flea-flicker reverse option pass – both plays executed a mere 2 minutes & 59 seconds apart.  To celebrate, campus publications and the Rivals message board christened Eric’s virtuoso performance as “The Peterman Effect.”  The impact of these 2 plays was so profound and invigorating to the entire NU team that, in a post-game interview, Tyrell Sutton was quoted as having offered Mr. Peterman his position at RB to provide him yet another opportunity to score a TD by rushing because… “Well, he had scored doing everything else.”  I couldn’t agree more.

“All Day” C.J.
This season, Turk coined this nickname for Mr. Bacher, and owning to his superlative performance against the Broiler-Chickens last weekend, it is nothing less than a stone cold fit.  I made a mental note to myself after viewing NU’s 1st possession of the game, where C.J. had completed 5-of-6 pass attempts averaging 7 yards a pop and moved the ball into Perdue territory in short order, that this could be special afternoon for the senior QB.  This initial impression was muddied quite a bit when Bacher, experiencing his aforementioned flatulent mental moment, delivered his pick-o-the-day into the sweaty midsection of that Broiler DL on NU’s 2nd possession.  Undaunted by this glaring gaffe, C.J. demonstrated resiliency and pluck, bolstered by a conveniently non-existent short-term memory, when he responded to Perdue’s 2nd FG in Q1 off this French pastry on NU’s very next series by delivering the bean deftly into the hungry hands of Mr. Peterman who spun on his heel and was off to the races for his momentum-shifting 1st TD.  From that point forward, C.J. was calm and collected for the remainder of the contest, regardless of whether his passes were on target or off.  Final game stats underscore the fact that C.J was indeed on his game: 22 completions on 33 attempts, for a modest 220 yards and 3 TDs, a yardage total lessened significantly by the fact that many of NU’s possessions were of the short green variety. 

I’ll take this “All Day” version of C.J. every day.  

In only their 7th game of the 2008 season, NU attained the much anticipated post-season bowl eligibility by beating what has become a conference Twinkie with ease.  This feat was more fulfilling expectation rather than accomplishment.  After all, Joe Tiller’s Broiler-Chickens field the worst defense by far in the Big 10/11, a dubious distinction considered by many to be the exclusive property of the ‘Cats, especially throughout the disastrous defensive regime of former DC, Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby.  Hopefully, win-loss records from this season and last have begun to dispel much of that negative preconception among the casual collegiate football fan. 

Next on the ‘Cats’ “to do” list: solidify an upper tier position within the Big 10/11’s pecking order for scheduled bowl bids by showing continued improvement in their overall gridiron field play against their next conference opponent, the WhoZIts of Indy.  Similar to the Broiler-Chickens, the WhoZits harbored powerful pre-season aspirations for a break-out 2008 campaign, all of which have been dashed severely after a major injury eliminated their all-everything QB, Kellen “Don’t call me Winslow” Lewis, from their roster in recent weeks.  The ‘Cats will face this wounded, underachieving foe in a grapple having all the earmarks of a trap game against a team looking for any kind of redemption in a season of heavy disappointment.  

Having bought-into Fitz’ concept of entering this weekend’s contest mentally bearing a 0-0 record, I have complete confidence in a motivated, focused ‘Cat football squad to haul their 3rd conference “W” back from Bloomington.  I also hope that OB Mick McCall seizes this opportunity to exercise more liberal use of the vertical pass into his game plan.  The WhoZits are the last weak sister among NU’s remaining slate of 2008 opponents, and the last chance to implement a more refined downfield passing attack this Saturday.  Doing so now will pay dividends in upcoming weeks when the ‘Cats face-off against the toughest, most challenging segment within this fall’s schedule, where a vertical passing option is an absolute necessity. 

The Waterboy        

October 14, 2008

A Definitive Difference

Last Saturday, NU met a team in the Moo U. Green Meanies that could be considered its mirror image.  In fact , the many similarities between either team are so striking that one could say that they are virtually interchangeable.  Like the Wildcats, Moo U. possesses a high quality RB who can control whole portions of a game rushing behind an enormous, very effective OL; a good, serviceable QB who, when on his game, can deliver the bean to his target receivers with consistency, accuracy and pace, even when those receivers are well covered; an experienced, hard-hitting defensive front 7 who can stone an opponent’s ground game with regularity; and a defensive secondary that is poised and focused in their pass coverage schemes and can close on their coverage targets with quickness and bring heavy lumber.  And last but certainly not least, Moo U. has a new, bright, dynamic, charismatic and motivating HC who demands and gets the most energetic, competitive and error-free field play he can muster out of his players – especially at the critical junctures of the contest at hand.  All these factors were put on full display, in front of 35K enthusiastic fans, on the green gridiron of Dyche’s Ditch as the ‘Cats met what was the best overall football team of their 2008 pigskin campaign to date.

However,with those positives having been said, that’s where the similarities between both teams ended – on paper.  The distinct difference between the ‘Cats and Moo U., at least as was shown last Saturday, was in execution.  Simply stated, Moo U. executed well when they needed to, and the Wildcats did not.  It’s not to say that the ‘Cats sucked eggs and threw-in a clunker performance.  But the entire team, starting first with special teams, then progressing to the offense, then transitioning to the defense, and finally and most notably moving on to the coaching staff, failed to execute at critical times and in major ways at various points of the contest.  Each squad, in its own right, contributed to the overall failure of the team to garner control of the game and subsequently secure a “W” against a very well-coached, highly disciplined Moo U football squad. 

Mind you, the ‘Cats were competitive, and for the most part, acquitted themselves relatively well, as the final game stats bear-out.  The ‘Cat O moved the ball gamely between the 20 yards lines, with “Streak” Sutton gaining a respectable 142 yards on 23 carries, while C.J. completed 60% of his passes for another 280-plus yards.  Not bad.  NU’s D defense dominated the LOS on occasion, corralling Moo U.’s formidable RB, Javon Ringer, relatively well for a mere 127 total rushing yards, 50 yards under his 2008 average, while the ‘Cat secondary kept MSU’s QB, Brian Hoyer, to a modest 169 yard passing day.  Again, all very commendable.  Statistically, the ‘Cats outplayed Moo U. - running 93 plays to MSU’s 63; outgaining the Green Meanies in total yards 459 to 297, and converting 27 first downs to MSU’s 18.  But those statistics belie a basic underlying fact: when game control and momentum were clearly on the line, the ‘Cats failed to finish plays and were limited in what they were able to run by their Moo U. counterparts.  There was no getting around the fact that Moo U. HC, Mark Dantonio and his troops knocked the ‘Cats to the turf from the game’s opening whistle and kept them down for the rest of the game. 

My biggest regret of the game was that this failure to deliver was broadcast, once again, in front of another national TV audience, revealing that the 2008 ‘Cats are still a work in progress, and have far to go before they achieve the consistent results expected from an upper echelon football program of the Big 10/11 conference.         

How Moo U. Neutralized the ‘Cats

Stumbling Out of the Gate
The first 13 minutes of the game was an absolute train wreck for NU’s special teams, where Moo U. got field position in NU territory and kept the ball within the ‘Cats’ half of the field of play for most of Q1.  On the opening kick-off, NU’s coverage personnel failed to wrap-up the Moo U. kick returner, who found a viable seam in the converging ‘Cat coverage team, blasted through weak-sister arm tackles and rumbled to midfield.  Following an exchange of 3-and-out possessions by both teams, NU kicked a nice 47 yard punt, but the kick coverage squad failed again, and MSU’s PR slashed his way to the NU 42; after which, behind quality blocking by their OL, Moo U.’s offensive tandem of Hoyer and Ringer mixed their ground-n-pound rushing game with pin-point passing, methodically cranking-out yardage to score Moo U.’s first TD in less than 3 minutes. 

On the ensuing kickoff, NU’s Sherrick McManus, reprising his role as NU’s kick returner for the first time since NU’s opening game in 2008, ran the ball back to the NU 25, where he got blasted by a host of MSU’s coverage team personnel and fumbled the ball back to Moo U.  On this short-field possession, NU’s D stiffened at their 5 yard line, exchanging a FG instead of handing the Green Meanine O another easy TD.  After only 9 minutes, Cats were down by 10.

McManus’ KR foibles continued on the subsequent kick-off, where he tracked the well-struck line-drive, knuckle-ball to himself at the NU 5, then bobbled the bouncing pigskin once, twice and finally grabbed it just as he was overwhelmed by Moo U.’s cover men for no gain.  On this possession’s 5th play, NU’s QB, C.J. Bacher rolled-out to the east sideline under heavy pressure by MSU’s pass rush, then tossed the bean across his body, floating it up for grabs, where, in response, MSU’s free safety Dan Fortener broke-off from his coverage target, made the pick at the MSU 45 and sprinted upfield to NU’s 34.  93 seconds and 4 consecutive Ringer rushes later, Moo U. scored their 2nd TD, increasing NU’s self-inflicted deficit to 17-0.  The purple-clad partisans watching this unraveling unfold were shell-shocked and speechless.

Undaunted in the face of these 17 unanswered points, C.J. and Sutton went to work on NU’s very next possession.  C.J completed 6 of 9 passes, 3 to Sutton, and capped-off the drive with a nifty 4 yard scamper for a respond TD, the first of the game for the ‘Cats.  Although this reply by NU’s O was good, an odd play-calling pattern began to emerge during this offensive series.  NU’s OC, Mick McCall, and C.J. were opting for the dink-n-dunk varietal pass instead of the vertical alternative.  At the time of this 1st TD, having been down by 17 points with a full 3 quarters left in the game, this control-oriented passing attack was logical and proved somewhat successful.  However, as the game progressed from Q2 and into/through H-2, the game-clock became increasingly more critical, as time remaining was being bled by successive, and successful Moo U. offensive possessions.  Unfortunately, McCall maintained this general passing attack pattern, frequently calling for 6-7 yards square-outs and inside curls routes which became C.J.’s bread and butter pass patterns as the clock inexorably wound down.  Although many WRs were open, C.J. was not a paragon of consistency when executing this short, managed passing attack, completing approximately 50% of these passes at a time when, down by either 10 or 17 points, the 2008 running game clock rules demanded much more efficient yardage production from the ‘Cat O.  When Bacher did attempt to pass downfield, his touch and accuracy, in other words his ability to execute, went downhill quickly, forcing McCall to rely even more on the short stuff.   At the mid-point of the season, where Bacher should be more dependable regarding his vertical passing skills, he seems indecisive and unsure; and he tends to miss-throw the longer pass on a regular basis, which he did on his 2nd INT of the contest.  Unfortunately, it has become more apparent over the last 2 games that McCall hasn’t nurtured a reliable vertical passing attack among his skilled offensive weapons.  This deficiency will most certainly be magnified as NU faces progressively stronger competition in the last half of the season.    

The Turnaround
C.J.’s 2nd pick of the game was a major turnaround in momentum.  After having been pinned once more deep in their territory at the 20 yard line, Bacher and his O got productive once more.  With a good mix of short controlled passes sandwiched among some nice rushes by Sutton and a sweet 18 yard scramble by Bacher off a broken pass play, the ‘Cats drove 57 yards to the Moo U. 23, then stalled.  On 3rd & 12, McCall shunned his short passing attack and opted for the vertical pass to a WR running a fly pattern down the sideline into the Moo U. endzone for a quick-strike TD attempt.  C.J.’s downfield throw had a low trajectory and was agonizingly short; and consequently landed easily in the hands of the cover DB fronting the WR target for a TD-saving INT and a touchback. 

Having dodged NU’s latest scoring bullet, Ringer and Hoyer displayed their offensive prowess again just before halftime.  From their 20, Moo U. drove the ball to NU’s 7, highlighted by a 42 yard pitch and catch from Hoyer to Moo U. WR, Keshawn Martin, eating-up 3 valuable minutes in the process.  On the next play, Hoyer throws to a wide open receiver in NU’s endzone for another TD, increasing the Moo U. lead to 17 again.  This turnaround was a 14-point swing that stuck a dagger into the heart of the ’Cat O. 

Moo U.’s kicking game is one of the best in the Big 10/11 conference.  Their PK, Brett Swensen, possesses a very strong and accurate leg and is a major go-to point producer for MSU.  Equally as effective is their punter, Aaron Bates, who pinned the ‘Cats deep into their own territory in H-1 with 2 controlled-spin, howitzer-like boots that were downed respectively at the NU 2 and 8, and a couple more which bounced into the NU endzone for touchbacks from over 50 yards upfield.  All contributed mightily to controlling the field possession game from which Moo U. translated into eventual scoring opportunities. 

Good Only When it Works
I’m not the best evaluator when it comes to on-side kicks.  At best, this “bid for turnover” play is a hit-or-miss enterprise; and at worst, it simply puts the team executing it further behind the eight ball because if the ball isn’t recovered, the opposing team gets possession with a very short field, with the strong possibility of scoring even more points.  Well, this is exactly what happened to the ‘Cats. 

Following NU’s quick TD score off their initial possession in H2 that reduced their deficit from 17 points back down to 10, the ‘Cats looked to continue their momentum by executing a well-disguised “kick-pass style” on-side kick.  This is a specialty on-side kick-off, where Stefan Demos was to kick the ball deftly into the air off the kicking tee with a low trajectory and control its flight-path to land between the 1st and 2nd row within Moo U.’s kick return formation.  A coverage gunner, sprinting hard down the sideline, would avoid contact with the 1st line of return team blockers, streak towards the ball in the open space and pounce on it to complete the trickeration turnover.  

Again, this kick-pass is a high risk/high reward venture, and when it was executed, I thought it totally inappropriate under the circumstances.  After all, the ‘Cats had fought hard to bring the score to a relatively manageable margin.  Now, failure to complete the turnover, meant that Moo U. would retain ball possession deep in NU territory, giving them another high-probability scoring opportunity, especially considering the high quality of their FG kicker.  

Well, the ball was miss-kicked and travelled a good 20 feet in the air, not into open space behind Moo U.’s 1st line of return team but straight on-line towards a player in the 1st row, who kept his composure and smartly called for a fair catch.  NU’s gunner, seeing this kick’s poor trajectory, altered his run direction, jumped to the ball in front of the player making the fair catch signal and caught it mid-air.  The ref throws a flag for a legitimate fair-catch interference penalty.  The failure to execute the kick-pass not only returned ball possession to Moo U., but incurred a 15 yard penalty on the kicking team as well, re-positioning the ball to NU’s 32 yard line.

This kick-pass play is “good” only if it works.  But it didn’t, so it held VERY dire consequences to the ‘Cats’ chances at a comeback.       

Respecting the Ball
Last but not least, Moo U. played as near an error-free game as can be played - especially, no turnovers.
Having been spotted a 17 point lead in Q1 via NU’s many special team gaffes, MSU and their heady HC was not going to return the favor and focused his offense specifically on respecting the ball throughout the game.  The team that wins the turnover differential is usually the team that comes-out on top - as it was in this game. 

Losing to Moo U., the 19th ranked team in Division 1A, is not a disaster or a disgrace.  It is a setback, to be sure, but one from which the ‘Cat team and their coaching staff can grow and learn much regarding their relative abilities to execute.  This game was played between 2 evenly-matched teams, each of whom could have collected the “W” in any one of several different ways. 

Due to the deep hole that the ‘Cats dug themselves in Q1, several tactical decisions were made by NU’s coaching staff with the good intention to place their team in position to win.  Only problem with that type of strategy is that, sometimes, key NU personnel are placed into roles for which they aren’t well prepared – like Stefan Demos and his dubious “kick-pass’ on-side kick attempt.  In addition, appropriate play-calling is brought under scrutiny, such as the decision, at the start of Q4, to kick a FG when the ‘Cats had a 4th &1 on the Moo U. 4 yard line with 12 minutes & change left on the game clock.  Convert that 1st down, score the subsequent TD… then the ‘Cats trail by only 10 with plenty of time to continue their uphill climb.  But then, why pass-up the sure 3 points?  Fitz has experienced what might happen in that instance as well.  It’s all shoulda, woulda, coulda speculation.   

The bottom line is: the ‘Cats fought the good fight, but didn’t make plays when the game was on the line.  It has happened to many highly-ranked teams on every weekend in 2008.  Just ask Oklahoma, Mizzou and LSU about their respective trials & tribulations from last Saturday; then turn your attention closer to home to Ill-Annoy,  Michigan and a very good Wisky team.  None of these teams made the necessary game-making/breaking plays in crunch time either. 

Next week… The Broiler Chickens of Perdue, and Joe Tiller’s farewell tour to the Big 10/11.  Time to make his last trip to Evanston one to forget. 

The Waterboy        

October 1, 2008

Half and Half

Get me to a Walgreens, please; I’m in need.  A large bottle of Maalox and some extra strength Excedrin Migraine should do the trick.  And perhaps a quick stop at Foremost for a fifth of Cazadores Anejo and a couple of limes.  I’m an emotional wet rag after having watched 3 engrossing, tortuous hours of the gut-wrenching, back-and-forth slug-fest that transpired between the I-Away Hog-eyes and my beloved ‘Cats in Iowa City.  Each team was well aware of the high stakes consequences that this single, mid-season  contest held regarding their 2008 Big 10/11 ambitions and both played with a never-say-die, take-no-prisoners, last-man-standing mindset that makes for fantastic gridiron theatre, but unfortunately for me, causes my heartburn to roar and my thumping clinical migraine to rage. 

However, I’ve got no one but myself to blame.  I saw this titanic tilt coming for miles.  Fitz warned his troops and the interested public that this upcoming contest wasn’t for the faint of heart or the weak-willed, predicting that it would be a blood and guts war of attrition.  And it was.

 I was among the throng of enthusiastic Purple Populace who gravitated to Tommy Nevins for this establishment’s well-hosted ritual for viewing of NU away games.  Seated with me were AstroCat, Mrs. Astro, and my long-time friend, ThomCat… along with about 45-50 hugely vocal, totally fixated and completely crazed NUMB members.  As the game progressed, one could cut the tension and raw emotion exhibited throughout the room with a knife.  And why not, broadcast to everyone was one of the best football games of NU’s 2008 campaign.  The undefeated ‘Cats charging into a hostile Kinnick Stadium, against the hungry, determined Hog-eyes, in front of 70K screaming black & gold-clad rubes, on their homecoming Saturday, in the Big 10/11 opener between equally matched teams, each focused on jump starting their own conference campaign with a victory that could go far towards establishing possible post-season bowl eligibility.  

And this game didn’t disappoint.  What every single one of us viewed was a tale of two halves of hard-hitting, competitive football.  29 minutes of H-1 was clearly the Hog-eyes’ moment in the sun as they staked themselves to what seemed an insurmountable 17-3 lead; while H-1 minus 1 minute and through H-2 was a total reversal of fortune, where the ‘Cats came roaring back, seizing Big Mo and game control by converting turnovers into 19 unanswered points.  One thing was a certainty throughout this grapple: nothing was given away, everything was taken.  And the entire enterprise was testament to why the college football game is the best sporting event in the world.    

How the ‘Cats Ham-strung the Hog-eyes 

The Rebound
Last weekend against the Ohio Bobbleheads, ‘Cat QB, C.J. Bacher threw in a clunker.  His field play resembled nothing to the poised and refined starting QB, who, over the course of last season, had set the Big 10/11 conference on fire with his high octane, precision passing acumen.  Instead he looked unsure of himself, tentative in his decision making, unable to pick-out an open target receiver, and worse yet, handcuffed trying to deliver the bean on that target.  However, in spite of these debilitating deficiencies, the ‘Cats maintained their composure, adapted to the challenges before them, then overcame and bested the Bobbleheads by a TD - all as a team.  I mused in my post-game commentary whether or not C.J. could put the past behind him and bounce back to his expected high quality passing form in his next game, much like a young race horse that completely unravels in a competitive, challenging race, only to come back stronger and much more focused in his next outing.  

Well, rebound he did, and with skill and panache - completing 62% of his throws for 284 yards and 3 TDs… against a Hog-eye defense that had not allowed a single passing TD thus far this season.  His only gaffe of the day was an blindingly quick paced pass to a target WR running a short crossing route, who tipped the laser beamed ball with enough air under it to get picked off by a Hog-eye DB who made a spectacular one-handed stab-n-grab at his ankle for an INT. 

Bacher’s passing day began modestly and steadily built momentum as the game rolled on.  Standing tall and untouched behind his steady pocket protection wall, C.J confidently scanned the Hog-eye secondary and coolly delivered the pill on time and on target to his trio of senior WRs, Messrs. Ward, Peterman and Lane, and to Tyrell out of the backfield for substantive yardage gains  From late Q2 through Q4, C.J. progressively improved the technique of his scans into the Hog-eye secondary, where he fixed his initial gaze deliberately towards a decoy receiver in order to deceive Hog-eye DBs into cheating toward that coverage target; then swept his focus back to his open primary receiver and delivered the pigskin.  Many of those targets had run 6-7 yards square-out patterns from their initial inside set at the LOS and into a vacated wide-3rd zone.  Bacher’s double scans took all of approximately 2-3 seconds, and were a beautiful model of efficiency and poise, re-affirming that he had not lost his field generalship skills during the Ohio game after all.  Thank Gawd, because as the game’s collision war of attrition escalated and the ‘Cats’ rushing attack became more compromised in the face of a high quality Hog-eye defensive front 7 focused specifically on restricting the rush yardage of NU’s Tyrell Sutton, OC McCall and the ‘Cats depended on C.J. to carry the offensive production load more frequently.  And C.J. was more than up to the task, reprising his precision controlled passing game for consistent yardage gains, while completely erasing the specter of his Ohio debacle clear off the radar screen.  Indeed, Bacher had bounced back… with a vengeance.

Psyche Ward
As stated above, NU’s three senior WRs had productive receiving games.  But of particular note was the field play of Rasheed Ward, who had a career day against the I-Away DBs.  I truly felt that the Hog-eye defensive brain trust had overlooked Ward as a viable primary passing target, and C.J. took full advantage of this oversight.  If the bean was thrown anywhere in his vicinity, Rasheed grabbed it- with exhibit A-1 being his velcro-like one-hander which kept NU’s first TD drive in the final minute of H-1 alive and clicking towards paydirt.  Simply stated, Ward was a MONSTER, as Bacher kept dialing his number and Rasheed answered the call repeatedly.  When all was said and done, Mr. Ward had led NU’s receiving corps, catching 10 crucial completions for 94 valuable yards and his first TD since his freshman season.    Way to be, Rasheed!!!   

Hit Parade
It was no great secret that the strength of the Hog-eye offense was their ground game, spearheaded by their awesome 235lb RB, Shonn Greene.  Hog-eye HC Kirk Ferentz’ offensive strategy was simple and direct - unleash this bruising heavy-back behind the very effective blocking of his experienced OL and pound the opposing D into submission.  And over the course of the 2008 season, this game plan had worked relatively well, as Greene averaged a commendable 125 yards and a TD per contest, providing a strong, go-to ground game to compliment a passing attack that could be described appropriately as “adequate.” In pre-game commentary, Fitz challenged Doc Hankwitz’ troops with an equally simple counter plan: “Load up on Advil, pump air into their helmets, and get after Shonn Greene.”  Obviously, meeting this directive was not going to be an easy task and demanded resolve by every NU defender to converge on Green and greet him with purpose, intensity and heavy lumber.  The battle lines were drawn.

In H-1, the Shonn Greene steamroller did just that, plowing into and through NU’s defensive front 7 with power and authority collecting 73 yards on 8 rushes in Q1 and another 34 yards on 5 totes with a TD via a crisp 18-yard scamper in Q2.  But those same ‘Cat defenders maintained their focus and kept chopping at the Hog-eyes’ thick- trunked mobile monolith.  In Q3, Greene’s production continued, gaining 34 yards on 4 more carries which accounted for 50% of the total Hog-eye offensive yardage for the game, as was expected, while he absorbed shot after monster shot for his rushing efforts.  Then in Q4, the final coup de gras hammer blow was delivered, when Mr. Greene, struggling for that extra yard on another rush into the ‘Cat defensive line, was stood-up by ‘Cat LB Mike Dinard, then knocked clear into next week by an ear-holer from SS Brad Smith, resulting in a game-changing fumble that was recovered by Corbin Bryant at the NU 38 with nearly 12 minutes left on the game clock.  This clean, head-hunting shoulder shot essentially dropped the Hog-eye O, in the guise of a woozy Shonn Greene, off on queer street and relegated its most-efficient yardage generator to riding pine for the remainder of the contest.  HC Ferentz and the Hog-eye offensive brain trust had no substitute to fill this vast void.             

More Poppin’ Fresh
Post game comments from many of the I-Away faithful groused about how their Hog-eyes ”gave the game away”.  My response to this tearful, sour grapes claim is to say that the ‘Cats took the French pastry served up by the Hog-eyes skill players and converted them into points.  Notice I used the word “took,” as in what one does with a highly coveted object.  It is not to be confused with the word “accepted,” as in what one does with a gift. 

Two of NU’s 3 TDs were scored on possessions that commenced following the recovery of I-Away fumbles, both of which were legitimate take-ways.  The 1st was a fumbled ball knocked from the grasp of a Hog-eye PR by one of the heat-seeking missiles on the ‘Cats punt coverage squad; while the 2nd was the lay-down that occurred when Shonn Greene’s “no-deposit, no-return” participation ticket was punched 3 minutes into in Q4, as described above. 

But understand this, NU failed to convert I-Away’s remaining 3 hot, flaky turnovers into any points whatsoever.  In fact, if NU’s prolific PK, Amado Villareal, had performed to his usual 2008 standards, NU would have scored yet another 7 total points – 6 off 2 missed FG attempts, each of which followed Hog-eye turnovers: the 1st, a 37 yarder that was “blocked” when Amado-matic booted the ball up the butt-crack of one of his blocking OL, the other a modest 34 yarder that he shanked wide left; and a missed PAT.  Add those potential 7 points to NU’s scoreboard total, and the game gets out of reach completely.  

So my final word to those Hog-eyes fans squealing about their team’s generosity to the ‘Cats: “Quitch-yer-bitchin’!!!” 

Adjustable Wrench
At halftime, DC Doc Hankwitz and DL coach Marty Long went to work in the ‘Cat locker room where their observations regarding Hog-eye offensive strategies and tactics were analyzed and appropriate defensive adjustments were made.  When NU’s D returned to the Kinnick stadium gridiron for H-2, it was a whole different defensive ballgame.  Many adjustments were subtle – like periodically directing the ‘Cat DEs to take the inside lane crash into the Hog-eye backfield as the outside LBs maintained corner contain responsibilities.  Others were very demonstrative, like the hell-bent cross stunts between the DL and LBs at the LOS or the well-disguised, balls-out 2-3 man blitz packages used to compress the Hog-eye backfield on long distance down situations.  The effectiveness of those situational adjustments was nothing less than amazing.  Wherein, the Wildcat D struggled mightily to keep I-Away out of their endzone or away from their uprights for most of H-1, NU restored their defensive presence in H-2 and stoned the Hog-eyes for zero points, while C.J. orchestrated the Wildcat march up the comeback trail in the game’s final 32 minutes. 

The culmination of the game’s entire field play enterprise was the inspiring stonewall stand made by the ‘Cat D, facing I-Away’s bid to score the go-ahead, game-clinching TD, on a 1st and goal at NU’s 8 yard line with 2 minutes and change left on the clock.  With their main ground game weapon sitting on the bench nursing his personal Excedrin moment, Hog-eye HC Ferentz thrust the ball into the hands of his Soph QB, Rick Stanzi, directing him to convert I-Away’s last-chance scoring drive through the air.  An unrelenting pass rush by NU’s DL coupled with blanket pass coverage from their DBs equated into a virtual Purple Curtain against Stanzi’s 4 feeble pass attempts. 

Once again, Doc’s brilliant halftime adjustments threw a monkey wrench into the opposition’s offensive game plans, sealing the “W” for the ‘Cats. 

I’ve been ruminating on the delightful circumstance that NU has gone undefeated through their first 5 games of their 2008 campaign - a record that hasn’t been replicated since ’62.  That timeframe is considered a couple of generations in some third world countries – or to wanton Cubs fans.  Members of the national media have approached this record as nothing more than a curious footnote against the backdrop of what has turned into a tumultuous college football season, where the usual suspect/ highly-ranked Big Name Dogs have been getting their lunch handed to them by the lesser known or lesser reputed also-ran mutts of Division I football family.  And perhaps, that what NU’s current situation actually is – just another example of the little guy program taking the football fight to their opponents and coming out on top. 

Except for the fact that, up to this game, every one of NU’s opponents have been considered weak sister competition, until the ‘Cats faced the big bad Hog-eyes, on the road and in front of a juiced-up, ravenous homecoming crowd this last Saturday.  Now at least, with a “W” against the Hog-eyes leading to a 5-0 record, media pundits have sat upright to get a better view.  What would really pique people’s interest is when/if the ‘Cats get that 6th consecutive “W” against Moo U. in 2 weeks.  Then this whole undefeated little-big man scenario will have transitioned from an interesting, but inconsequential phenomenon into a FBS-BCS happening, complete with a top 25 position within the national media outlets’ collegiate football beauty pageant polls.  The ugly duckling turns into the beautiful swan.  UGH!!!

For myself, I’d rather that the ‘Cats retain their “under the media radar” subdued notoriety, right up to the point where they can’t be ignored any more, like, say, when they garner their 8th or 9th “W” of the season.  As improbable as it might seem impossible, by that time, Fitz will have etched his personal mark on the Wildcat program and brought Northwestern under the glow of the national spotlight.  But I’m getting way, way ahead of what reality is at the present.   Suffice it to say, that the ‘Cats MUST take care of business, one step at a time.  And the next step is the Green Meanies. 

Congrats to the ‘Cats - you’ve come a long way baby.  Now let’s get healthy over the bye week and then focus on Moo U.     

The Waterboy        

September 23, 2008

D-Day Afternoon

What a performance!  What an ascension!  What a difference! 

Northwestern’s Purple Populace have not seen such a dominating defensive performance like the one presented in Dyche’s Ditch last Saturday afternoon since… well, close to forever.  Well, at least since NU’s 1995-96 seasons of the St. Barney era.  The football product that DC Mike Hankwitz and his defensive brain trust have been crafting carefully over the last 10 months is starting to gel and the resultant performances of these individual parts, the DL, the LBs and the defensive secondary, put on full display against a reputedly dangerous Ohio Bobblehead offense, were testament to just how far they have progressed in that timeframe.  No Virginia, this is not your “traditional” NU defense; and most certainly nothing remotely reminiscent of the weak-sister, porous D of NU’s previous defensive regime.  We, the members of the Wildcat Nation, are witnessing a tremendous transition: from what was once a conference laughing stock into a potential defensive power.  This isn’t hyperbole.   What makes it all the more remarkable is that the current ‘Cat D is composed of virtually the same players listed in NU’s 2-deep defensive depth chart over the last 2 seasons, those same players who seemingly couldn’t defend most any opposing offense as recently as last fall.  And what’s more, Doc’s collective personnel have lots of room for improvement.  This is gonna be a fun ride.

The only problem… NU’s offense took a comparative giant leap backwards relative to their defensive counterparts.  I really can’t speculate on the why Northwestern’s 5th year QB C.J. Bacher unraveled when facing the Bobbleheads, but it was obvious that he lacked his usual refined field generalship and composure under duress.  In fact, he didn’t just lack these critical field play components, he just lost it all together.  And unfortunately, he got worse as the game went on.  By Q4, C.J. couldn’t hit an elephant in the azz with an ironing board.  He was rattled and there was no denying that whenever he set-up for the pass, he became a liability in NU’s backfield.  And if he wasn’t making poor target selection decisions or his delivery technique was flawed, his receiving corps contracted a debilitating case of the dreaded disease, dropsie.   

It didn’t help NU’s offensive cause that the ‘Cats’ OL had their worst performance of 2008 as well.  IMHO, the players in the Bobblehead DL, are very good and, as a unit, are every bit as experienced and talented as any defensive line in the Big 10/11, excluding, perhaps, the elite conference teams like dOSU, Wisky or State Penn.  Throughout the game, the Bobbleahead defensive front 7 swung heavy lumber flush into the face of NU’s lightly experienced OL and exposed several chinks in their armor, especially those that exist in their collective pocket protection skills.  Whenever C.J. dropped back to set in the pocket, he had a hand on him or in his face in short order, all of which contributed greatly to his diminished decision making and ball delivery accuracy skills and eventually to his 4 INTs for the day. 

And NU’s ground game fared little better, as the OL’s run blocking schemes became increasingly less effective as the game progressed.  From my point-of-view from the east stands, OC McCall and O-line coach Engalls insisted on the continued use of the zone block and reach block as their primary run blocking schemes of choice, even after it became readily apparent that these techniques were not working whatsoever.  By H-2, the Bobblehead defensive brain trust had recognized NU’s blocking paradigm and positioned their defensive front 7 to stone any and all runs that McCall called-for.  And it worked well.  Essentially, the field play chess match that played-out along the LOS in the afternoon sunshine looked like a clash of wills between the Wildcat offensive coordinator’s attack schemes and the Bobblehead defensive coordinator’s counters.  Neither would back down, and simply stated, McCall and his OL lost the battle; and NU’s offensive production suffered heavily in the end, turning what seemed to be an initial cakewalk in H-1 into a nail-biter by the end of the game. 

Thankfully, the game clock was in NU’s favor, and time ran out before any further lasting damage was inflicted upon the Wildcats, both physically and psychologically.  Hopefully the lessons to be learned from game’s offensive clunker are absorbed, while the memory of the many individual failures by C.J. and his offensive line is short or, better still, nonexistent. 

Regardless, the struggles of their offense didn’t keep the ‘Cats from posting their 4th straight “W” against a hard-nosed, competitive Ohio Bobblehead team.  Bottom line: Fitz and Co. will always take that substantive result over form any day - and so will the Wildcat Nation.

How the ‘Cats Bopped the Bobbleheads

Amado-matic - The Return
FG kicker Amado Villareal continued his stellar field play from last weekend and proved himself to be NU’s No. 1 point-producer for the afternoon, going 3-for-3 on FG attempts and converting the PAT on NU’s lone TD.  That’s 10 big, beeeeeeautiful points in a game where points, normally scored by crossing the opponent’s goal line, were just plain hard to come-by against a tough, stingy Bobblehead D.  Besides a healthy Tyrell Sutton,  Amado has become the ‘Cats’ single, most reliable scoring threat, as he has now contributed a perfect 8-for-8 FGs and converted all possible PATs through the first third of the 2008 season.  His perfection was recognized by the Big 10/11 commissioner’s office by being named the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week for the second consecutive time this season.  If he keeps this superior performance profile going, Amado could be headed for All Conference recognition at season’s end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Maintain focus, son.  As Fitz has been preaching since August, that stuff will come in due time.  But boy, am I excited for this young man in the present!

Harmonic Convergence
It’s been a work in progress throughout the first 3 games of the 2008 campaign, but the individual pieces are starting to fit together into a single substantive entity.  I’m talking NU’s defensive front 7.  The promise of Doc Hankwitz’ defensive skills mentoring and game plan generation is paying-off in the biggest of ways: the formation of a solid defensive wall that is effective against both run and pass.

And NU’s defensive players are responding with power, energy and pure enthusiasm to Doc’s newly installed defensive attack schemes.  The ‘Cat rushing D is becoming a force.  The DEs are crashing the defensive corners through the opposing end-blockers, compressing the opponent’s backfield and wreaking havoc on offensive flow.  The DTs are blasting into and through the opposing interior OL, repositioning the LOS 2 yards behind its original starting point and collapsing on the ball wherever or whenever it shows.  The interchangeable beasts that rotate into the DT positions demand double team blocks from the opposing OL and keep the LBs free and clear to recognize the intended point of attack.  Consequently, the LBs, relatively unencumbered by direct blocks from the OL, are free to swarm to the ball and meet it with extreme prejudice.           

 Man, is this ever fun to watch, or what?  

I still think that pass coverage skills of individual DBs are relatively suspect at times, but when one melds the considerable contribution of an effective pass rush with the coverage capabilities of NU’s current secondary personnel, the improvement of the ‘Cat pass defense is 5 levels above what I’ve seen since last fall.   

Last Saturday’s result: the ‘Cat D limited a good, effective Bobblehead rushing attack lead by their  crafty, shifty transfer QB, Boo “Don’t call me ‘Boo-Boo’” Jackson, to… 4 total yards.  That’s right, 4 measly little yards on 28 attempts for the entire game.  Mind you, this is the same offense that took the Big, Bad BuckNut defense to the wall a mere 2 weekends ago on the swift feet of Boo-Boo & Company.  Most of this diminutive yardage total is due to the many minus-net rushing attempts which included 5 sacks.  However, even without the negative sack yards, the ‘Cats still blasted the Bobbleheads for a mind boggling 14 TFL for minus 62 yards.

Can you say…Stuffed?  How about…Stoned?  Oh hell, why not just say it... Locked-Down, baby!!!     

Break Out
Last weekend, Corey Wootton unleashed his considerable TFL talent against the SIU Starvin’ Mutts offense.  Afterwards, everyone was buzzing about this young man’s huge potential to grow over this season and next into something truly special, and become the latest among NU’s most recent additions to DL across the NFL.  In the shadows, lurked another standout DE, Vince Browne.  Rumors had spread since last Spring practices that Mr. Browne, in fact, could be NU’s best pass rusher - even better than Mr. Wootton.  Well, Vince had his personal break-out game against Boo-Boo and his Bobbleheads last Saturday.  His impressive stats for the day: 3 sacks, 5 TFL for minus 25 yards, a forced fumble at the Ohio 10 that lead to a ‘Cat FG, and, the coup de gras, a blocked FG.  But there was more… much more. 

As right-side bookend to Corey Wootton’s left-side bookend, this dynamic DE duo simply dominated the LOS off either defensive corner.  Their blocking OL opposition looked like they were playing in knee-deep mud, as Messrs. Wootton and Browne ran circles around and through them into the Bobblehead backfield and into the face of the wide-eyed Boo-Boo.  Once he received the snap from center in the standard shotgun set, Boo-Boo had a scant 2 seconds to do something with the pill or Vince was in his head, as well as his shorts.  By the middle of Q3, if Boo-Boo held the bean, he was looking for Mr. Browne as much as he was looking for an open receiver.  Boo-Boo wasn’t seeing red, he was seeing Browne - everywhere.  And when combined with the front-side push of NU’s rotating DT personnel, Boo-Boo’s effectiveness as an offensive playmaker evaporated into thin air. 

Doc’s defensive game plan was as simple as it was effective: cut its head off, and the Bobblehead’s offensive body will die.  It did.  And Mr. Browne was a major contributor to that beheading.                     

Poppin’ Fresh
“Nothin’ says lovin’, like somethin’ from the oven…”

Yes, the Wildcats’ 5 French pastry servings - 4 picks and 1 fumble lost - were debilitating; and totally handcuffed NU’s offense for long stretches of the game, especially in H-2.  In addition, these light & fluffy offerings repeatedly threw the NU D back onto the field to clean-up the ensuing oil-spill and keep the quick-strike Bobblehead offense at bay. 

Thankfully, B&W (Browne & Wootton) and the boys rose to each challenge and, in turn, forced 4 powdered sugar turnovers from Boo-Boo and his O - 2 of which thwarted potential, game-changing scoring threats: an endzone INT from NU’s 21 for a touchback in H-1; and, the most significant turnover of all, a forced-fumble recovery at NU’s 18 with 5:55 minutes left in the game.  Either threat could have knocked the ‘Cats on their collective rear-ends and given the Bobbleheads clear momentum to take control of the game, especially the latter turnover, that came on the heels of C.J.’s worst pick of the game, where Ohio got possession at NU’s 36 and were poised to convert that INT into the game-winning TD.  On both occasions, the ‘Cats dodged a kill shot by the Bobbleheads via superior playmaking from their D.

Gimme a Hand
Last but certainly not least of NU’s defensive highlight-reel plays were, not just one, but two blocked Bobblehead FGs – the first off the big mitt of a bull-dozing DT John Gill and the other off the paw of, who else, DE Vince Browne.  Combine these two special team’s bungles with Ohio’s 5 long punt snaps, each of which hit the turf and essentially rolled into the hands of the punter, the Bobblehead kicking game was, for a better word, “lacking.”  The two blocked FG were major factors in determining the offensive strategy of the game.  If scored, the Bobblehead offense could have taken a stranglehold on possessions owning to the 5 NU turnovers, and subsequently the game clock as well.  Two more bullets dodged, and the ‘Cats’ expected but improbable undefeated season survived.      

Think of it… C.J.’s game goes into the tank for whatever reasons.  NU’s OL throws in a clunker and gets cuffed-around by a good, physical Bobblehead DL.  4 INTs and a lost fumble.  Offensive totals in Q3: no 1st downs; -4 yards rushing; 10 yards total passing.  Offensive totals in Q4: 4 1st downs; 64 yards rushing; 10 yards total passing.   Add to that, NU’s defense comes-up with 2 blocked FGs, an endzone INT for touchback to avoid a TD, and a forced fumble recovery at the NU 18 to prevent a FG or worse, a TD - all enemy possessions which, if converted, could have given the Bobbleheads an additional 16-20 points.  And though it all, NU comes-out on top.

Essentially, the ‘Cats did not deserve to win this game.  But then again, perhaps they did deserve the “W” because NU’s defense, in fact, did block those 2 FGs and forced the 2 turnover to end both potential Bobblehead scoring drives.  It all depends on the perspective you want to assume. 

Last Saturday was winning ugly, but with a surprisingly satisfying silver lining.  With their offense sputtering and failing to contribute for whole sections of the game, NU’s defense came together as a point-prevention force when the team needed them to do so the most.   I’ll take solace in that final thought.  But please, please, don’t put me through another such gut-check, cardiac-arrest game. 

This coming weekend, it’s the I-Away HogEyes, fellas, at aromatic Kinnick Stadium, complete with its pink-hued visitor’s locker room.  Those pig farmers don’t like you city-slickers very much.       

The Waterboy        

September 16, 2008


After many a home game where the weather has been downright benign, Northwestern was on the receiving end of a major crying jag from Mother Nature.  I don’t think I can recall a football game played in Evanston that had endured as great an incessant downpour as last Saturday.  Soaked to the bone was a common theme among those intrepid, soggy souls who braved the rising tide and flooded streets of Evanston and the surrounding communities to attend the contest.  That the game was played at all was remarkable tribute to the fantastic effort put-in by the Northwestern ground crew to keep the Dyche’s Ditch playing surface viable.

And although dripping wet, the ‘Cats went wild on Southern Illinois, taking a big bites out of the Starvin’ Mutts early and often.  The Wildcats were methodically productive in most every phase of the contest.  With some notable, periodic exceptions, NU controlled the LOS on both sides of the ball throughout the afternoon, especially in H-2.  With effective blocking from NU’s OL, the Purple RB tandem of Sutton and Conteh took the bean right at the Starvin’ Mutts’ defensive front 7 gaining yardage in substantive chunks, while C.J. Bacher was kept upright and off the turf, allowing the senior QB to pick the SIU secondary apart time and time again with OC McCall’s designed short passing game.  Defensively, although the ‘Cats had the occasional tackling breakdown due to arm tackles and poor pursuit angles in H-1, Doc Hankwitz’ squad, as a whole, became progressively more dominant as the game wore on.  By Q4, NU offense was moving the ball almost at will in spite of the ever worsening showers and the D had shut down the Starvin’ Mutts ability to sustain anything close to a scoring threat.

Bottom line: despite the horrid weather conditions, the ‘Cats took care of business against a pluck but overmatched Division 1AA team who showed flashes of brilliance but not enough of them to make a true game of the proceedings. 

How the ‘Cats Collared the Starvin’ Mutts

Takin’ What Their Givin’
Rest assured, ‘Cat HC Pat Fitz has learned his lessons well from his past decision-making foibles.  Most significant among them is what to do with scoring opportunities as they become available.  Simply stated, our fearless leader has taken to heart the most fundamental rule in football: “take the points”.  On 4 separate series, NU’s O had driven right to the doorstep of the SIU goal line, only to be stoned by good, solid defensive plays which prevented the TD score.  With the specter of a worsening deluge that held potential to debilitate NU’s offensive point production even further, coupled with the pre-game reputation of the Starvin’ Mutts’ offense to generate points of their own, Fitz followed the conventional football wisdom and opted to go for the FG instead of the TD at each occasion.  The resulting 12 points off those 4 FG conversions was a substantive addition to NU’s scoreboard total, and just increased the pressure on the Starvin’ Mutts to generate points.  Good choices, Fitz.       

Respecting the Ball
One thing that could be said of OC Mick McCall’s prime directive to “respect the ball” - message delivered… message received.  In their last 2 games, every ‘Cat offensive playmaker has kept himself out of the kitchen and avoided becoming a French pastry (as in turnover) chef with zero fumbles and, more importantly, zero picks, collectively. 

This is THE major statistic that underscores NU’s strategic commitment to maintain control of the game, especially when considering the challenging conditions in which both games have been played.  If an offensive series breaks down, the change of possession is controlled and executed on the coaching staff’s and the team’s terms, not on what the opponent is has dictated.  Of particular note is Bacher’s elimination of costly INTs, something that has plagued C.J. heavily in prior seasons.  Better possession control equates to better game management and field play generalship; and its direct consequences –
•    NU’s D isn’t forced to prevent an opponent’s conversion of short-field scoring opportunities.
•     C.J. isn’t forced to generate gaudy passing statistics to keep the ‘Cats in shoot-out styled games. 

Currently, Bacher’s pass completion percentage is hovering just under a very commendable and productive 70%; and would be better still if his receiving corps could reduce their frustrating tendency to drop the well-delivered pass.  But most importantly, C.J.’s zero INTs keep the whole offensive machine in gear and moving forward.  The zero turnovers against SIU was a monster contributor to NU’s “W”.  

Crash Course
NU’s DC Mike Hankwitz saw an exploitable deficiency in the blocking schemes of the Starvin’ Mutt OL in Q1 and went after it for the remainder of the game.  SIU’s rushing attack game plan frequently called counter-action runs which cut off long trap blocks from the wide-side slot back or opposite-side OT that opened creases in NU defensive line.  The strategy worked well for SIU during several offensive series in H-1, as the RB tandem of Larry Warner and Lucien Walker slashed to & through these seams, often busting through arm tackles and cutting back against shallow pursuit angles by NU’s defensive front 7 to gain good yardage.  A notable example was Warner’s TD gallop in Q1 where he took a handoff running left to the off-tackle point of attack, then made a sharp cut upfield off the trap blocker’s inside seal block on NU’s DT, then cut hard to his right, in front of and across NU’s over- pursuing 2nd level defenders into open space with a clear path to NU’s endzone.  When Doc got his front 7 personnel back on the sidelines, he gave them all an emphatic earful, setting them straight regarding their collective technique gaffe then gave them a strategic counter.

Doc set OLB Quentin Davie up at the LOS to the wide side of the field, shading the outside shoulder of the end-OL (usually the TE or wing WR); then set the DE to that same wide side, often Corey Wootton, head up on the next OL to the inside of Q’s end-OL.  This set the ‘Cats’ front 7 into a 5-2 formation.  At the snap, the Davie would crash hard through the outside shoulder of that end-OL and drive straight to the shot-gunned QB, compressing SIU’s backfield from the defensive corner in a flash.  The DE to Q’s inside (IE: Wootton) would crash hard inside, across the face of his head-up OL, right to the near hip of the OC, then turn upfield into the Starvin’ Mutt backfield looking for the pigskin.  Effectively, this was a two-man corner crash/blitz stunt that caught the ball carrier in a pincer action 3-4 yards deep in the Stravin’ Mutt backfield.  That end-OL and the inside OL were caught flatfooted EVERY TIME as Davie and the DE crashed the defensive corner to the ball.

It worked once, then again and again… and the Starvin’ Mutt OL couldn’t react quickly enough to block it.  By game’s end, this wide-side defensive corner crash recorded 7 TFLs and 6 QB sacks, accounting for approximately 20% of SIU’s offensive plays for the game, with numerous additional QB hurries and backside RB chase-downs to boot.  I can imagine many smiling faces in the ‘Cats’ defensive film session the following Sunday afternoon.      

Hot “Streak”
With the exception of the Dookie game, where the defensive strategy apparently was conceived to hold the ’Cats’ ground game in check, OC McCall has kept NU’s rushing attack in balance with his designed controlled passing game thus far in the 2008.  However, in spite of its relatively consistent yardage production, I remain somewhat baffled the by the game plan, if only from the blocking scheme point of view.  McCall and OL coach Ingalls have used zone blocking techniques almost exclusively throughout NU’s OOC campaign.  Many rush attempts have the OL use reach technique blocks to the side of the target attack point.  I’ve only seen a handful of plays where a linemen pulls, most of which have been executed on pass blocks during QB roll outs and sprint-action rushes to/around the defensive corner contain.  Where are the trap blocks, the pulling OGs, the cross blocks, or the counter trey? 

Despite these limited blocking schemes, Tyrell “Streak” Sutton and Omar Conteh continue to find that open crease within their OL reach blocks, usually via a cut-back against the pursuit flow of the opposing defense’s front 7, and burst through the LOS into the defense’s 2nd level.  And last Saturday saw many more examples of this cut-back rush from “Streak”, especially into and through the offensive “A” gaps on either side of the OC, who rambled for another 100-plus yards on 17 carries.  Gaining yards at a hair under 6 yards per carry, “Streak” continues to remain a hot, and healthy, offensive weapon.  However, I feel that “Streak” could be utilized so much more efficiently and for much greater offensive production if NU’s ground game included more frequently-used counter action and designed trap block type plays.  Perhaps McCall is keeping this chapter of his playbook closed until the ‘Cats’ face their conference foes starting in 2 weeks.    

Or do you say Amado-matic?  However you say it, NU PK, Amado Villareal, was nothing short of cash money in his scoreboard production against the Starvin’ Mutts, connecting on 4-for-4 FGs and converting all 3 PATs.  What’s more unbelievable, all this production was done in a driving rainstorm and off a very slippery turf.  When compared to the sporadic point generation from NU’s kicking game in past seasons, the consistency and reliability that Amado-matic’s grass kicks provide to Fitz and his teammates has been a very welcome addition to the ‘Cat offense.  Way to go Amado!!!

I foresaw the Starvin’ Mutts as NU’s out-of-conference trap game.  SIU is a quality football program with a proven, credible track record.  They won 50-plus games in the last 5 years and were a perennial Division 1AA playoff qualifier over that timeframe and a championship contender as recently as last season.  So they weren’t some push-over opponent.  And as recent history has shown, a team like this, that many casual observers might categorized as another 2nd tier Twinkie on NU’s soft 2008 schedule, has dealt the ‘Cats with that silly, “who woulda believed it” first loss of the season, way too often.

Well fortunately, the ‘Cats overcame the elements and their opponent, and captured the heavily expected “W”.  They currently hold 3-0 record, with a very good chance to up the ante to 4 wins next Saturday, to enter their Big 10/11 conference campaign undefeated for the first time in a generation.  The symbiosis and teamwork between Ftiz, his new coordinators and the 2008 version of the Wildcats is more than noticeable… it’s becoming expected.  The Wildcat program is on the path and upwardly mobile.  To be sure, NU’s first 3 opponents are no USC or Missouri or even Cal-Berkley, so the Wildcat Nation must view these wins with a rational perspective.  These are prep games, against good, not great opposition.

Next weekend, it’s the Bobleheads of Athens, Ohio.  Time to take care of business, once again.  The Big 10/11 can wait.

The Waterboy        

September 9, 2008

It’s How You Respond

A single word might sum up Saturday’s game against the Dookie Blue Imps… “ugly.” In fact, “butt ugly” would be more precise.  Before the game, I was confidently beating a purple drum and spouting to anyone within earshot that my ‘Cats were gonna lay a good ol’ fashioned Big 10/11 beat-down on the Blue Imps to the tune of 14 points – minimum.  With last week’s dismantling of a weak, overmatched Sorry-Excuse team still fresh in my mind’s eye and the subsequent elation that I harbored after having viewed the undeniable improvement of NU’s offense and defense over last season’s frustratingly inconsistent squads, who could blame me?  What wasn’t expected was the reality check that hit me and my beloved ‘Cats like a ton of bricks in the form of a motivated, well-coached bunch of Blue Imps who could have cared less for NU’s confidence garnered from a prior “W” over an Orange Twinkie.  From their opening offensive series on, the Dookies proved themselves a worthy opponent that bore little semblance to those reputed cupcakes of past seasons and quite literally took the game straight at the ‘Cats in dominating fashion. 

Although I usually avoid statistics to prove a point, this game’s final figures underscored the dominating field play presence that the Dookies asserted against the ‘Cats… 
•    Time of possession:    39:15-to-20:45 (approx. 2-to-1) in favor of the Blue Imps
•    Total plays:                 97-to-60  Dookies
•    First downs:                28-to-14  Dookies
•    Rushing yardage:       178-to77  Dookies
•    Pass completions:       29-to-15  Dookies
•    Total yards:               472-to-328  Dookies

I’m seeing a pattern here… like a 2-to-1 differential on many key performance indicators.  From my perspective, the Dookies were winning the game’s individual matchup battles - across both trenches, throughout the defensive secondaries and within the mini-matchup of their QB versus our QB - essentially 2 out of every 3 times, and with significant effect.

Throughout the game, the Blue Imp offense seemed to take the measure of their Wildcat opponents and turn the tables in their favor.  DC Hankwitz’s primary defensive attack-and-penetrate strategy was reversed when the Dookie OL didn’t even try to drive the aggressively strong ‘Cat DL back off the LOS but used position blocks to screen their blocking targets off from the point of attack, which created small, exploitable seams.  The Dookie QB or RB continually ran counters or designed cutbacks against flow into and through those seams and past the hand-fighting Big Uglies, often gaining the 2nd level of NU’s defensive front 7.  Seldom did the Blue Imp O have a 2nd down with more than 5 yards to go for the first.

Conversely, it seemed that the predominant Dookie defensive strategy was to reduce NU’s balanced attack into a one dimensional, pass-only game, by stacking the box with defenders to stone the ‘Cats’ resurgent ground game, and IMHO, force NU’s yardage production to become dependent primarily on the playmaking ability of NU QB C.J. Bacher.  The Blue Imp DL had a pair of big, quick DTs in #3, Oghobaase, and #97, Respress, who were schooled to get off the LOS at the snap of the ball and drive hard upfield into the NU backfield.  And they did.  In addition, whichever MLB was set across the ‘Cat RB, his read was to shadow that RB; and if/when that RB was handed the ball, to shoot across the LOS and stop the ball in NU’s backfield.  The combination of these strategies created an every down blitz-like defensive attack scheme where 5 or more of the Blue Imp defensive front 7 blasted into and through NU’s blocking 5 OL.  Once that extra or unblocked DL/LB shot cleanly into the ‘Cats’ backfield, they immediately got into the face of the NU RB.  Result: 5 TFL; but interestingly, no QB sacks. 

The apparent focus of this penetration strategy was to stop the RB in his tracks, and for the most part it worked well, limiting NU’s RB tandem of Sutton and Conteh to a paltry 71 total yards for the game.  And with NU’s rush attack neutralized, the Dookies had the ‘Cat O right where they wanted - directly in the hands (and feet) of Bacher. 

How the ‘Cats Forked the Blue Imps

Demos’ Long Green, The Return
Last Saturday, Stefan Demos was crowned the Big 10-/11’s Special Teams Player of the Week for his brilliantly executed 6 “sky punts”, each of which pinned the Sorry-Excuse O within the shadow of their goal line.  The fact that every boot averaged only 32 yards mattered little; it was the resultant poor field position given to the Emasculated Orange offense that was most significant.  Forcing an opponent’s O to start their possessions deep in their own territory, facing 80-90 yards of long green, is debilitating. 

This weekend, Mr. Demos continued his brilliant punting prowess against the Blue Imps, but in a decidedly different manner.  After a breakdown in the ‘Cats’ 3-by-3 blocking scheme nearly cost NU a blocked punt in Q2, Fitz directed Demos to use a rugby-style punt technique which, when hit correctly, spirals like a pass and has a low-level hook-slice trajectory similar to a poorly struck golf tee shot.  When faced with this odd-ball, wide-curving kick, a punt returner has trouble tracking it well, if it can be done at all.  Depending on its initial direction coming off the foot, the ball will travel straight to the PR at first, then hook wide to his left; or it starts out bearing to the PR’s right, then hook drastically straight at him.  In either case, the returner ends up chasing the bean side-to-side.  If well-struck, Stefan’s rugby punt will travel 30-40 yards on the fly.  To a returner standing right in front of it, such a low-level spiral must look like a baseball line-drive… its actual travel distance is very difficult to judge.  The PR must hesitate a couple of crucial seconds to let his eye track this curving projectile, and all too often, by the time he judges correct distance and width of the hook, the bean is either: 1) on him; 2) 10 yards wide to his left; or 3) over his head.  Dookie PRs had a devil of a time (pun intended), and these rugby kicks went well beyond the returner, often rolling as much as 25 extra yards. 

Using the rugby punt, Demos kicked consecutive punts of 51, 54, 39 (fair catch) and 61 (disallowed by illegal formation); while the average travel distance of his conventional style punts were 10-15 yards shorter.  Although the Dookie O scored on 2 possessions following these rugby punts, the extra green contributed greatly to the distance & time off the clock necessary to complete these scores.  Add 3 Demos kick-offs & subsequent good KO coverages, which resulted in starting field positions of 20, 10 (off holding) & 26, the Blue Imp O faced long green on 6 of their 13 total possessions for the game.  Not bad.        

Fresh Bodies
Throughout the entire game, DC Hankwitz played virtually every available DL on NU’s travel roster in his defensive front 4 rotation, including the previously lightly-used DEs Kevin Watt and Brian Peters.  Fielding this extended rotation was instrumental towards keeping fresh bodies in the mix to pound on the Dookie OL down-after-down, in spite of the unfamiliar high humidity game conditions which tested the wind and conditioning of many on both sides of the LOS.  Mind you, there were technique and assignment breakdowns at every position within NUs defensive front 7, and Doc did not hesitate to exercise a quick hook when such gaffes showed.  But the hydrated, fresh body paradigm kept NU’s defense from breaking down physically. 

By the end of Q2 and Q4, the benefits of Doc’s free substitution started to show.  In their last possession of H-1, the Blue Imps drove from their 10 to NU’s 11, primed to convert a game-tying TD, when 3 consecutive rush stops by the ‘Cats’ defensive front 7 forced the Dookies to settle for a FG.  This was a major about-face in game momentum.  The down-by-down defensive results during the Dookies’ final frenetic 2 possessions of the game speak for themselves.  In both series, the Blue Imp rushing attack was ground to a halt, forcing the Dookie offensive brain trust to go exclusively with their passing game.  In the face of constant, unrelenting pressure applied by NU’s fresh starting DL, Dookie QB Lewis completed only 1 of his last 6 chucks.  Bent but not broken…       

Response - Part 1
Clearly, the Dookie defensive braintrust saw that as Bacher’s offensive production went, the entire ‘Cats’ offense followed; they banked on another slow start by C.J. and the NU passing attack.  After the Dookies' O methodically drove 72 yards for an opening series TD and a 7-0 lead, the Blue Imp D was hell-bent to stop NU’s ground game, and let the ‘Cat offense sink or swim on C.J.’s passing prowess.

NU’s 1st possession saw a rush for -2 yards, followed by a 9-yard pass completion to Ward.  On 3rd and 3, C.J.’s pass was dropped for an opening 3-and-out.  NU’s 2nd series fared little better - with an incomplete pass, followed by another 9-yard connection to Ward.  On the subsequent 3rd and 1, Sutton got creamed by a Dookie DT-DE tandem crash for no gain, prompting another 3-and-out.  In the face of this defensive gameplan, NU’s O was sputtering and going nowhere fast.

After stopping the Dookies on their next possession, PR Peterman made a nifty 18 yard return of the ensuing punt to the NU 45, wherein the ‘Cat offense caught a spark.  After a 5 yard penalty gave NU the ball at the 50, C.J. & Co. promptly settled-in and went to work, covering the 50 yards in 5 plays to hit paydirt, highlighted by 2 impact plays: a 28 yard pass to Lane and Sutton’s 18 yards scamper around the left defensive corner for the game-tying TD.  Upon seeing NU’s first short field of the game, the ‘Cat O responded.

The Giftie
No one was more surprised to see the Dookie punt team lay an egg in Q2 than I was. After NU & the Dookies exchanged possessions on 5 consecutive offensive series, 4 of which were of the 3-and-out variety, it appeared that both offenses would never escape the death grip of the opposing defenses.  However, all that changed when, in one fell swoop, DU’s long snapper air-mails the pill 8 feet over his punter’s head, and the mad scramble is on.  When the dust settles, NU has the French pastry-covered ball at the Blue Imp 29.  Immediately, NU’s OC, McCall digs deep into his trickeration kit bag, calling for the ol’ razzle-dazzle pitchout-and-throwback play.  Fitz’ post-game quote that the game wasn’t a thing of beauty had to include his recollection of this pass, as it lazily flew for a full 6 seconds in an agonizingly slow arc from the hand of pitch-back Peterman to a wide open, waving C.J. Bacher planted at the Dookie 6.  The throwback was so low developing, that the Dookie CB to that side nearly caught-up with the wounded fowl ball for a PBU.  But he didn’t and C.J. caught the bean and was tackled at the Dookie 4.  One play later, NU converts the giftie for TD #2 and a 7-point lead.

Response - Part 2
After the ‘Cats converted the giftie blocked punt into their 2nd TD, each team’s defense seemed to go into the tank.  On the ensuing possession, Blue Imp HC Cutliffe rested his 1st string QB and RB and sent in their replacements, who promptly drove 87 yards in 16 plays to the NU 3, riding 5-for-5 passing from No. 2 QB, Zac Asack, peppered among a series of good-yardage runs by Mr. Asack and No. 2 RB Hollingsworth.  When NU’s D finally stiffened, the Dookies converted a 13 yard FG to close their deficit to 4. 

With 2 minutes and change remaining on the game clock in H-1, C.J. and Co. responded once more.  4 consecutive Sutton rushes for 24 yards were followed by 2 quick-strike laser beam passes by C.J. for an additional 48 yards, placing the ball at the Dookie 11 with 6 seconds left.  Amando-matic ignored 2 consecutive TOs called by the Blue Imp HC; then coolly converted a 35-yard FG to negate the Dookie’s previous 3-pointer and extend the NU lead back to 7.  The best clock management of Fitz’ HC tenure.        

Response - Part 3
On a pair of possessions sandwiching 2 NU offensive 3-and-outs, the Blue Imp O temporarily took control of the game and popped for 10 unanswered points to garner a 3-point lead with 12 minutes left in the game. 

With resolute calm, the ‘Cats immediately respond again.  After Mabin returned the subsequent Dookie kickoff to the NU 28, a composed C.J. and Co. weaved their magic on the following drive.  Although Bacher missed his receiving targets on 3 throws, he did connect with pinpoint passes of 13, 45 and 11 yards.  In particular, the 45 yarder was C.J.’s best of the evening, in which he deftly dropped the pill over a tight coverage DB right into the hands of Eric Peterman in full stride down the deep middle third zone.  Four plays later, the ‘Cats scored the go-ahead TD, taking a tenuous 24-20 lead as the game headed into the final 8 minutes.  In spite of all the miscues and gaffes made throughout the contest, the ‘Cat offense would not be denied.
“To try the spirit of men, of what mettle they are made of” 

Response - Part 4
At this point, the game was turned over to NU’s D, to respond to the challenge and make that game-saving series stop against the Dookie offense and turn the ball back over to their O to burn clock and secure the final score. 

During most of the Dookie possessions throughout the game, DC Hankwitz repeatedly exercised a pass coverage scheme for his secondary personnel eerily reminiscent of the infamous Colby Cushion - where the DBs were set 10 yards off their coverage targets, giving the opposing WRs a free release off the LOS into the secondary.  To me, it appeared to be a prevent pass coverage package, designed to keep the opposing receivers from running deep pass routes behind the coverage DBs for the quick-strike score and preserve a lead at game’s end.  However, against the Blue Imps, Doc used it liberally from the opening whistle onward. 

With the clock winding down and Doc’s DBs exercising the Colby Cushion to keep receivers in front, it was up to the ‘Cat DL to pressure Dookie QB Lewis into throwing miscues of his own… and they did.  Having been well rested, some for a full quarter, NU’s starting DL personnel were unleashed with utter abandon against a noticeably weary Dookie OL. Still, the Dookie OL were able to maintain relatively effective pass blocking discipline for a few plays, but then cracks began to appear, and the fresh legs of NU’s rested DL, began to take charge and get substantive penetration into the Blue Imp backfield.  In the Blue Imp’s 2nd last drive Dookie rushes were stymied to 6 yards or less, all while the game clock kept ticking.  Dookie QB Lewis did make several medium length pass completions, but the drive petered out at the NU 13, ending with 2 incomplete passes while Lewis scrambled away from the unrelenting pass rush applied by NU’s DL.   Response 4-A.

After another NU special teams miscue negated Demos’ impressive 61-yard rugby style punt for no return and forced the ‘Cats to re-punt in conventional style, the Dookies took full advantage of NU’s poor punt coverage and returned the ball to the NU 29.  This could have been the all-time, game-breaking gaffe of the evening, but for one final time, the entire NU defense responded.  Once more, ‘Cat DBs used the Colby Cushion to keep Blue Imp WRs in front while the DL pinned their ears back and rushed Lewis with bad intent.  If DL hands were not on Lewis, they were in his face as he scrambled on 5 consecutive pass attempts.  Although one pass was completed for an apparent TD, it was negated by an obvious hold by the Dookie LOT against Mr. Mims.  Response 4-B.  Game over!!!

This game was more than just lose-able, it was a turning point, a season defining contest from which this fall’s campaign could have been identified by the national media and from which the ‘Cats could have been ridiculed and vilified in the court of public opinion.  Just like what had occurred in 2007.  Back then, with a 6-6 win-loss record that included a red-letter “L” to the lowly Dookies, Northwestern NEVER had a snowball's chance in hell to be considered bowl eligible by the corporate sponsors, media pundits and other collegiate sports fauna who make the “in” or “out” decisions regarding bowl season opponents and their potential for attracting interest from fans and corporate sponsors nationwide.  It’s not fair, to be sure, but it’s the plain truth. 

NU not only avoided that fetid albatross last Saturday, they did much more.  They confirmed to themselves that they have grown and progressed above the shortcomings of 2007.  That they, indeed, have responded to the challenge placed in front of them by Fitz and his new coordinators.  Last season, the ‘Cats would have failed in the face of those many daunting negative stats that others outside the Wildcat family would interpret as overwhelming proof that the ‘Cats were outplayed, overmatched and had blown a sure “W” to a lesser opponent.  That’s all stuff of prior reputation, stuff that the Dookies still must overcome with a decisive win over a quality opponent that they aren’t supposed to beat – at least as predicted by those same pundits and fickle college football fans who harbor such preconceptions, false as they might be.

In the final analysis, the most important statistic is the one defined by the final figures on the scoreboard at game’s end.  The game was decided, not by the lesser statistical figures recorded in NU’s game summary, but that intangible gut-check, that collective heart that spurred the ‘Cats to respond to adversity and rise above it all.  The ‘Cats got a “W” that they coulda, shoulda, woulda lost in prior seasons had one more deep pass been completed or one last game-deciding mis-play happened.  But it didn’t, so the ‘Cats’ 2008 record remains unblemished.  Now it’s time to move on to the Southern Illinois. 

The Waterboy        

September 2, 2008


As the 1st game of the 2008 gridiron campaign neared, I had many questions regarding the latest version of the ‘Cats.  First and foremost was my concern on how the newly-hired offensive and defensive coordinators would meld into the Wildcat program and the dynamic they would construct with 3rd year HC Pat Fitz - clearly their junior and looking to be mentored by them as much as they would mentor the players on the ‘Cat team.  One certainty: each coordinator was a grizzled coaching veteran who brought a solid collegiate resume and whose success at the Division I level was substantiated by the numerous former players under his tutelage who continued their careers at the next level in the NFL.  Both coaching changes were long overdue and welcome, especially on the defensive side of the ball where NU’s well-chronicled inability to stop even the most vanilla offense of much lesser opponents had become a humorless expectation. 

In new OC Mick McCall, the ‘Cat offense went through a complete overhaul, featuring a no-huddle 2008-style spread attack that employed a control-oriented quick-hitting short passing game augmented by a slashing, to-and-through ground game where NU’s highly experienced skill position personnel could be utilized to shred defenses with regularity.  Through the mentorship of DC Dr Mike Hankwitz, the former architect of Wisconsin’s top ten-ranked defense of several years past, NU’s defense would shed their read-and-react schemes for a much more aggressive, high risk/high reward attack style paradigm - all designed to take the fight to the opponent and make them play the game that the good Dr. dictated.   

It all sounded so very positive and eye witnesses from Kamp Kenosha reported that both offense and defense had bought into their respective new strategies on a grand scale and molded themselves into cohesive units – and the results were evident in increased energy and enthusiasm in their collective field play.  Still, I was apprehensive and for good reason.

NU’s opponent was the former football power, Syracuse, or as most Big East conference opponents call them: Sorry-Excuse.  However, having only won 3 games over the last 2 seasons, Syracuse’ once-storied program had fallen on its own hard times, forging its own reputation – some good, most bad – and planting 4th year HC Greg Robinson clearly on the death-watch hot seat.  However, Robinson was granted a stay of execution when he unexpectedly delivered a top 20 recruiting class containing several 4-star blue-chip talents into the fold prior to the 2008 season.  Suddenly, there was a loud buzz among the Orange Nerf-Ball faithful that the program had turned to corner onto the path of respectability, boasting an offensive ground game headlined by a quality dual-threat RB tandem and a DL that had its own beastly DT/NG with a penchant for shredding opposing OL and devouring rushing attacks with abandon.  And with their sights focused on the reputed bottom feeding NU MildCats and their near-legendary inept defense as opposition in their season opener, the expected “W” would go a long way towards announcing this turn-around to themselves and the collegiate football world at large.

So the stage was set… the new, improved Wildcats under the leadership of the youngest HC in Division I and his 2 newly-mined, highly reputable coordinators versus a hungry, eager team champing at the bit to jump start their resurgence back into the upper echelon of the Big East conference.   

How the ‘Cats Emasculated the Orange

Doin’ the Hustle
No, this isn’t a reference to some bygone line dance from the 70’s, but the brain child of OC Mick McCall, a well-choreographed style of offensive field play that emphasized superior conditioning coupled with superior execution.  When I first saw its execution from row 10 in the East stands, I thought, “Wow… This is the enhanced, expanded version of Randy Walker’s 2000 offense.”  The concept is simple, yet complex.  At the series’ opening whistle, get the entire O to sprint to their initial set positions at the LOS, check the defensive formation, call the play off that formation, adjusting however/wherever necessary, then snap the ball and drive it into & through the point of attack.  Once the ball is downed, repeat, then repeat again, then repeat again.  This is the hurry-up, 2 minute offense on B vitamins and caffeine.  Not only does it force an opponent D’s personnel to play at your accelerated, up-tempo pace, it limits an opposing DC from substituting his personnel freely according to down, distance and/or situation.  If substitutions are not pre-ordained, then it’s virtually impossible to shuttle personnel on and off the field effectively before the ball is snapped - the DC must play with the personnel on the field at that point.  In addition, the defensive formation or play must be pre-set as well; or the on-field captains must scan the ‘Cat O formation, identify the most vulnerable points of attack, then make those defensive calls themselves - all on the fly.  It’s nothing less than brilliant.  If the defense is not totally schooled to do this, then they are grasping for a clue… essentially guessing what they are facing and what to do.  The result: NU’s O thoroughly dictated the pace and energy of field play, leaving the defense to play the ‘Cats’ game, not theirs.  What a concept!!!  I’ve seen other versions of this no-huddle spread employed this season, like Rice 2 nights prior, but this one trumps ‘em all.    

By the start of Q2, the Sorry-Excuse D was in a quandary and overwhelmed, and more importantly, totally gassed - sucking wind, hands on hips, listless body language and that glassy, distant stare in their eyes.  The only occasions where the ‘Cat O failed to gain positive yardage was due specifically to their own failure to execute.  I’m completely jazzed.  Mr. McCall has devised a winner here.  And he and HC Fitz have prepared and conditioned their offensive personnel to execute this hustle O for an entire 60 minutes. 

Big Ben and His Bros
A very big question mark regarding the ‘Cats’ offense was the completely revamped OL, composed of a just-converted DL G, 2 redshirt FR, a 2nd team OT covering for an injured starter, and one returning letterman with true experience.  In fact, of those positioned to face the Emasculated Orange defense and their all-everything NG, Arthur Jones, no one on NU’s starting OL had anything resembling extended game-time experience except G Joel Belding.  Media pundits and Sorry-Excuse fans alike were salivating at the prospect of the big, bad Mr. Jones camped-out in the NU backfield gobbling up and spitting out anyone who would dare tote the pigskin. 

Well, I guess that’s why they play the games on grass rather than on paper.  Simply stated, RS-FR center Ben Burkett had a breakout, career-defining day, along with the entire offensive line for NU.  Big Ben not only blocked Mr. Jones with regularity, he turned magician and made the highly touted NG completely disappear.  Burkett pushed Jones hither and yon, all over Dyche’s Ditch, turning the overblown, overhyped DT into a gametime non-factor, a ghost.  In fact, for long periods of Q3 & Q4, Turk, MidVale, ThomCat and myself watched Arthur Jones seated solo on the Sorry-Excuse bench, hugging the sideline mister fan in an attempt to cool down his big, fat bubble-butt before he dragged it back onto the field of play to be served another heapin’ helpin’ of whoop-azz from Mr. Burkett and Co. 

Big Ben and his Brothers-in-Arms didn’t just control the LOS, they dominated it.  C.J Bacher hardly was touched all game.  In fact, it seemed that OC McCall’s quick-pitch, controlled short pass game plan, apparently conceived to lessen the pass blocking pressure from the ‘Cat OL, was uncalled for.  On most every pass play, C.J had a full 5 seconds of freedom to scan the Sorry-Excuse secondary and deliver the bean to the open receiver.

As for the ‘Cat ground game, I’ll let the statistics speak for themselves - a total 269 yards for a 6.4 yard/rush average.  Big Ben & his Bros employed zone blocking early and often, and the Sorry Excuse DL flew towards offensive flow, opening huge holes in the LOS for the cutback run against flow by the ’Cat RB for big yards.  Messrs. Sutton and Conteh, and anyone else for that matter, constantly gained 5 yards before first contact.  “Streak” Sutton, in particular, kept his feet churning after the initial hit and had at least 10 rushes where he gained double-digit YAC gains.  All set up by the superb execution of the ‘Cat OL.  Suh-weeeeeet!!!      

Hank & the Family Stone
I’ve heard much from several reputable sources regarding the ‘Cat D’s new-found faith towards their new OC, Mike Hankwitz and his attack-oriented defensive schemes.  Little could I have imagined the depth of this buy-in.  Mr. Hankwitz has transformed virtually the same personnel from last season’s read-and-react, hit-or-miss defense, as directed under Greg “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” Colby, into a penetrate-and-gain-separation squad composed of effective complimentary parts, all in a single off-season.  This metamorphosis wasn’t unexpected, but I predicted to myself that it would have been a season-long work-in-progress, taking a conservative minimum 6 games before inklings of consistent, effective score prevention would come to the fore.  Boy, did I have it wrong.   

By the time Kamp Kenosha had ended, Dr. Hank and his staff had developed their DL into a potential 6-7 headed monster of rotating parts with little drop off from one player to the next.  Every starting LB seemed to possess good to very good read skills, allowing them as a group to identify ball location and just swarm to it to lay heavy lumber on the ball carrier with extreme prejudice.  As a former LB, I’m lovin’ that one.  And the defensive secondary actually challenges wide receivers, often utilizing a solid bump-and run technique coupled with an effective stick-to-your-shorts coverage - all of which compliment the penetrate-into-the-backfield strategy executed by an energized DL focused on collapsing the pocket into the QB.  And for the most part, it worked as planned . 

After obvious game-1 jitters showed themselves on the first defensive series, where the Sorry-Excuse O marched down 63 yards in 10 plays to the NU 19 and capped-off the drive with a go-ahead FG, little more offensive production by the Emasculated Oranges occurred.  The only other significant offensive possessions for SU  was a 59-yard drive in Q2 drive that resulted in a missed FG that caromed-off the left upright, and of course, the 3 play TD conversion following Sutton’s French pastry pigskin laydown at the NU 9.  Beyond that, the game turned into a downright stoning of the Sorry-Excuse O, where the entire family of ‘Cat defensive units - the DL, the LB and the secondary working as unified brick wall - limited the Orange Geldings to under 125 yards for the remainder of the contest.  The fact that NU’s D contributed 9 points of its own off an intentional grounding safety and a Pick-6 INT return for TD came as no surprise when juxtaposed to this game-long cold stone thrown into the face of the SU offense.  Now that’s the way for a D to come together! 

Of particular note was the superior field play of NU’s  left defensive corner tandem of DE Corey Wooten and OLB Quentin Davie as they crashed into the Sorry-Excuse backfield, compressing the field of play and harassing both Orange QB and RB alike frequently.  The safety in Q2 was a direct result of their complimentary playmaking, while throughout H-2, they became an unstoppable combination, gaining constant penetration and getting in the heads of every Sorry-Excuse ball carrier on a regular basis.   

Demos’ Long Green
A major contributing factor in NU’s victory over Sorry-Excucse: the ‘Cats won the game of field position – especially off the punt.  Special team punting and its subsequent coverage has been a frustrating sore point within NU’s game plan for several years.  This was especially evident in 2007 when HC Fitz was forced to employ the directional punt or the rugby-style punt at various points of the season just to keep opponents from taking advantage of the ‘Cats’ agonizingly poor kick coverage.  However, last Saturday all that changed.  Instead of using gimmick kicking techniques to mask NU’s punt coverage woes, ‘Cat punter Stefan Demos was pure silk as he deftly controlled his boots to land within SU’s 10 yard line… all the time.  Coupled with the punt coverage team’s new 3-by-3 blocking scheme, which allows a coverage strategy that employs 2 pairs of gunners (that’s 4 total) to sprint downfield to force a fair catch signal from the opposing punt returner, the ‘Cats constantly pinned the Oranges deep within the shadow of their own goal line.  How refreshingly encouraging is it for an NU defense to know that their opponent must navigate 80 -95 yards of long green to score a TD following a change of possession.  It is a monstrous advantage.  And the ‘Cats executed this new punt formation and its associated deep punt coverage technique early and often.  And it all started with Mr. Demos’ ability to control the distance of his punts as if he was throwing them to his targeted spots.  Way to go, Stefan!!!    

Impact plays
  • Quentin Davie’s forced intentional grounding pass by SU QB from within his own end zone for a safety… that followed a Demos controlled punt and coverage downed at the SU 3. 
  • Jeremy Ebert’s 1st career TD reception, on a middle-third go route, from Bacher… set-up by 2 Sutton rushes into the SU line.
  • Tyrell Sutton’s 19-yard go-ahead TD reception in Q3 on the NU’s possession that immediately followed SU’s TD that was scored after Sutton had lost a fumbled pitch at the NU 9 yard line.  A mammoth momentum reversal after which the ‘Cats never relinquished.
  • Brendan Smith’s Pick-6 TD return off an INT in Q3… that followed another Demos controlled punt and coverage downed at the SU 15.

This game was nothing short of total affirmation regarding the huge potential that the 2008 ‘Cats possess across all phases of a football game - offense, defense and special teams - and what they might become as the season progresses.  NU’s current offense is not Garrick “Mr. McGoo” McGee’s predictable, pass-happy O from 2008; nor does the ‘Cat D remotely resemble the porous, moveable object defense of the Swiss Cheese Meister.

No, this team is cut from another cloth.  Mark Murphy’s astute decision to employ a pair of cagey, battle-tested coordinators to help Fitz get the ‘Cats to the next level was spot on.  The immediate impact of OC Mick McCall and DC Mike Hankwitz on NU’s football program is undeniable.  Both had their hands deep into this game and this “W” - all the way up to their elbows.  It’s a brave new world for the Northwestern Wildcats.  And it looks like it’s gonna be a very fun ride indeed.

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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