The Waterboy
2009 Archive

January 9, 2010

A Final Word

Describe the Wildcat’s Outback Bowl as you will: a nail-biter, a heart-stopper, a gut-wrencher or a back alley dog fight, and you’d be spot on using any of these characterizations.  As for myself, I’ve not been this emotionally invested in an individual Northwestern football game since the ‘Cats’ Rose Bowl grapple of 1996.  This pivotal New Year’s Day contest, against a high-quality Auburn Tigger team (who had,
a mere 5 weeks prior, shoved their 11-0  in-state blood rival, the Crimson Cried of Abalama, up against the wall of defeat only to fall short in the grapple’s final 1:24) was destined to be THE seminal game marking the NU football program’s return to competitive prominence both among NU’s conference brethren and at the national level.  Like Fitz said, NU had not reached the bowl game victory mountaintop yet, but this particular tilt was the single best chance in the last 4 occasions to do so.  And I, along with the entire Wildcat Nation, was stoked Big Time at this opportunity to finally exorcize the ghastly demons of 60 years of futility that unfortunately has become a common nation-wide perception regarding the prospects of the Northwestern Wildcats to deliver that long awaited bowl game “W”. 

And when it was all over for the ‘Cats, after having run the most improbable of offensive plays in OT, I was completely drained.  In spite of NU’s 7th consecutive failure to deliver that bowl victory, this contest exemplified exactly what the game of college football, and the ‘Cats' brand of football in particular, is all about: heart, soul and a die-hard attitude that doesn’t throw in the towel in the face of daunting odds.  However, owing to the fact that I wore my emotions on my sleeve, it took me a full 3 days to even begin to collect my thoughts regarding the details of the type of game played out last Friday morning and another 3 days to compose this commentary into something approaching the readable.  The ‘Cats were so close to delivering a full 60 minute game that Fitz continues to champion.  Unfortunately, early turnovers and field play mistakes set the course for the ‘Cats down a very hazardous road.       

How the Tiggers out-clawed the ‘Cats

The above acronym is an familiar expletive shouted between baseball and softball players. It means: Catch The F***ing Ball, and is a vocal reaction regarding any glaring failure to execute the appropriate techniques required to complete a ball receiving play successfully.  Much has been written and discussed among college football media pundits and fans alike regarding Mike Kafka’s 5 debilitating INTs in the Outback Bowl, especially his first 3, which unfortunately cast a noxious shadow of doubt over the remainder of his record-setting QB performance as NU’s primary offensive playmaker. Those 5 picks completely changed the complexion of the game, and admittedly, the QB field play decisions behind them are clearly owned by Mr. Kafka; however, the first 2 were the direct results of poor execution by his target receivers.  For cripes sake fellas, C.T.F.B.!

On Pick No.1, NU RB Scott Concannon had run a crossing route into open space under Auburn’s 1st level coverage umbrella in the short middle zone of their secondary.  With his other WR targets smothered by the well-executed 1-on-1 coverage techniques of the Auburn DBs, Kafka identified his open check-down receiving option in the crossing Concannon and delivered a short, sharp pass right on target to Scott’s facemask.  Clearly on replays, Concannon was not prepared to receive the bean, but seemed to view the play’s progression in relative wide-eyed wonder.  He takes an almost imperceptible, but unnecessary hop step as the ball gets to him, instead of attempting to complete the catch in stride, which throws his timing totally into the dumper.  He barely gives himself enough time to get his hands up to his helmet in preparation for the grab, and when the ball arrives on top of him, it caroms off his hands, popping up some 4 feet above him where it falls softly into the grasp of the Auburn’s best DB, Walter McFadden, at the NU 31.  Six plays and a mere 90 seconds into the gamer, the Tiggers score their 1st TD of the contest.  UGH! 

Regarding correct pass reception techniques...  First critical item, every receiver running a pass pattern on a given play should expect the ball to be delivered to him - every time.  In fact, every receiver should demand the ball be thrown to him on every pass play.  Unfortunately, Concannon appeared downright surprised to be the targeted recipient of Kafka’s short toss and lost his focus.  Second critical item, when the ball is thrown in your direction, it’s yours and your alone... go get it!  Not only was Concannon surprised by the ball by its delivery, he was soft in going after it with conviction, and let the ball play him.  And last but not least, when it arrives, s-q-u-e-e-z-e the damn ball!!!  An experienced WR would do so; regrettably, Scott did not.     

On Pick No. 2, Kafka methodically had executed Mick McCall’s diverse dink-n-dunk offense, driving his O 70 yards in 17 plays down to the Auburn 6 and was poised to convert the game-tying TD.  On the very next play, the spread WR pair positioned to the left of the offensive formation runs a clear-out/square-out tandem pass pattern into the Auburn end zone.  NU’s most prolific receiver, Zeke Markshausen, ran the square-out leg of the pattern with his expected speed and precision, while his cover DB, Mr. McFadden, was glued to Markshausen’s hip, fronting and a half-step behind his cover receiver.  Kafka rifles the pill away from the WR-DB pair sprinting towards the sideline to a miniscule target the size of a basketball at the fingertips of Markshausen’s outstretched hands.  The precisely thrown ball squarely hits its intended target, the receiver’s hands, but Zeke misjudges the pace of Kafka’s dart, doesn’t go after the ball aggressively with that “it’s mine” effort and fails to close his mitts on the bean as it arrives. Instead, Zeke’s paws kill the flight of the ball dead at the point of contact and it hovers momentarily in midair.  Once again, McFadden’s unveils pro-level DB skills, as he focuses on the suspended bean, snatches it cleanly, recovers from the momentum hurtling his body to the sideline by firmly planting both feet to the turf while turning his shoulders upfield, then ignites his afterburners towards the opposite end zone - all in one fluid motion.  By far, it was the most impressive display of pass coverage technique that this viewer had witnessed throughout the 2009-2010 bowl season.  After McFadden converted his 103-yard Pick-6 TD, the ‘Cats’ perspective of the unfolding game was relegated once again to an all-too-familiar vantage point: - from the bottom of a self-induced 14-point hole.  Zeke, you know the drill...  C.T.F.B.!!!         

Kafka’s Gaffes
In spite of the conciliatory sentiments written above, I’m not dismissing Mike Kafka’s culpability for his 5 INTs... no sir!  The essential characteristic in Kafka’s field play over the course of this game was that once he got burned by McFadden’s totally unexpected Pick-6, he started to press the issue of ball possession and yardage production via McCall’s controlled dink-n-dunk passing paradigm; and to his credit, he was very effective in executing it.  Twice he and his O mounted heroic comebacks to overcome 14-point deficits; however, critical deficiencies in ‘Cat DC Doc Hankwitz’ game plan regarding what appeared to be designed stunts at the LOS by key defensive front 7 personnel allowed the balanced attack schemes of the Auburn offense to erase both comeback efforts and rebuild leads that, if not for many truly boneheaded penalties (12 for 139 yards) by the undisciplined Auburn players, should have closed the book on Outback Bowl scoreboard midway through Q4. 

But Kafka’s all-out press of the dink-n-dunk playbook also led him to force the ball to WR targets which were blanketed by the skilled Auburn DBs who, themselves, were up to the challenge to complete the PBU or worse, the gimme pick.  Kafka’s mindset to press the pass to a well-covered target led to the most errant throw of the game, Kafka’s 3rd INT in the Auburn end zone just prior to the close of Q2.  If the play progression of the game is viewed with a fair amount of pragmatism, one can understand the cause of that mindset.  At the 2:04 mark of Q1, Kafka and the ‘Cat O answered McFadden’s acrobatic 103-yard pick-6 with a sweet 39-yard Kafka-to-Brewer TD connection to reduce NU’s deficit to 7.  When Auburn completed a 46-yard TD bomb of their own on their 2nd possession of Q2 that restored their 14-point advantage, Kafka obviously felt pressured to make a positive impact, especially since this latest TD strike by the enemy was sandwiched between 2 missed long-range FG attempts by Demos.  Despite these setbacks, Kafka collected himself and his O to mount a textbook drive on the ‘Cats’ final possession of H-1, completing 5 of 6 passes to push the ball downfield from the NU 6 to the Auburn 4, setting-up a 1st & goal with 47 ticks left before halftime.  On the ‘Cats’ 2nd play from scrimmage, Kafka rolled to his right, saw no open WR target immediately fronting him and, with the clock ticking down, inexplicably abandoned his technically sound pass techniques that gave the ‘Cat O this short scoring position in the first place and threw the bean across his body to a well-covered Jeremy Ebert running a crossing route in the middle short zone of the Auburn end zone.  Auburn’s cover DB, T’Sharvon Bell, makes a diving stab for the poorly thrown pass and collects the ball as he rolls to the end zone turf for a timely pick and a shutdown of NU’s scoring threat.  

I know it’s all “shoulda, woulda, coulda” speculation, but if only Kafka had just maintained his poise during this tense situation to understand that he didn’t need to force the TD throw on that 2nd down pass attempt.  With a throw-away, he would have given himself, at best, a 3rd down pass attempt at a TD conversion or, at worst, left his team in position to deliver a fallback FG attempt on 4th down to end the first half on a positive note.  Instead, Kafka acted upon his “go for broke” mindset - all of which generated zero points after the ‘Cat O had scratched and clawed their way to place themselves into a viable scoring position.  That very same mindset was to be reflected by his HC with similar results later in OT.      

The End Game
Beyond the 5 picks, the single most decisive factor in NU’s loss to the Auburn Tiggers was the field play at DE by the ‘Cat defense.  The much-less-than-expected performance of these critical players was as much a surprise as it was an enigma. And after a week’s rumination on its cause, I cannot come up with much.  As for its effect, it was very substantial to the game’s outcome, because for whatever reasons were behind its origin, the Auburn offensive brain trust recognized the real-time action by these players and pointedly attacked their defensive area with vigor.   

Exhibit A:  NU’s most veteran DE, Corey Wootton, inexplicably disappeared for whole defensive series, standing on the ‘Cat sidelines, hands on hips and watching the ongoing action.  I haven’t a clue why Corey was kept on the sidelines so much and so often, even when considering Doc’s standard 6-8 man rotation among his DL specifically geared towards “keeping his DL fresh,” except in Wootten’s case, IMHO, it was excessive.  I can only speculate (no doubt, with a high probability for error) that the Wildcat coaching staff had made a collective decision to reduce his PT with the intent to keep him healthy for the upcoming NFL draft this spring.  Whatever the reason for these extended absences, when he was on the field, Wootton was wholly ineffective at either getting into the face of the Auburn QB or compressing the Auburn backfield to limit the motion offense of their RBs and flankers.  To me it looked like he just couldn’t get into the defensive flow of the game, and he subsequently disappeared.  One thing I will say is that Auburn’s ground game point-of-attack schemes seldom directed its premier rushing option, RB Ben Tate, against Wootten’s side of the LOS with any regularity, but concentrated on attacking the opposite defensive edge and its resident DE, Vince Browne.        

Exhibit B:  As the rushing game plan of Auburn’s quality ground game unfolded, it became apparent that Auburn’s offensive brain trust geared a large percentage of it on attacking the corner contain opposite Wootten and its resident DE, Vince Browne.  And from my perspective, Vince Browne was taken out of the defensive picture by DC Doc Hankwitz’s original game plan, which directed Browne to crash hard early and often into and through the area immediately to his inside that was occupied by Auburn’s OT.  Again, to this viewer, it looked like Doc was trying to collapse this side of the LOS to neutralize the FB/RB dive portion of the Auburn option attack, while depending upon the inside-out rush support from his ILBs and outside-in support by the OLB and the DB to maintain the corner contain to that side.  Problem was... it just didn’t work for most of the game as the Auburn option just shredded the non-DE defenders at that defensive edge over the entire game. On Auburn’s 1st scoring drive (following Concannon’s tipped-pass INT), RB Tate took advantage of the Browne inside crash, and followed the effective blocks made against the remaining defenders at this corner contain, ripping off an easy  24-yard sprint to the NU 1 and setting up an easy TD on the following down.  With this designed deficiency in Doc’s game plan exposed, the Auburn OC went to work and quickly exploited its easy blocking targets and the wide lane that was opened for Tate and other ball carriers to shoot through.  With the score tied at 21 early in Q4, Tate shot through this gap untouched for Auburn’s 4th TD, re-establishing the Tigger lead 28-21.  Tate repeated this run on Auburn’s next possession to extend their lead 35-21, after which he was so exuberant how easy this scoring run was that he lost his head and spiked the ball over the crossbar.  This incurred a 15 yard penalty, stepped off on ensuing kickoff return, giving NU starting field position at their 42, and greatly aiding NU’s immediate response to this daunting deficit by Kafka and Co., who answered with a TD drive of their own on that possession.

Still, I don’t know what convinced Doc that the corner crash by DE Browne was going to reap positive results.  It never did and was a major contributing element in NU’s defensive woes to stop the diverse Auburn rushing attack. 

The “Date Rule”
There are several unwritten rules of thumb that most every football coach follows as standard approaches to specific game time scenarios. Most have historical president based on significant decisive consequences which can be directly attributed to either abiding by them, or conversely, by ignoring them.  As a former player, I’m very familiar with these nuggets of football wisdom and Fitz and his brain trust know them just as well or better.  One of these rules is “Never take points off the board” - as in the case where a penalty against an opponent’s D  would give your O another first down AFTER your special teams had just put points on the scoreboard, such as the 3 points from a converted FG attempt.  Two seasons ago Fitz went against this particular rule and received a severe lesson when he chose to remove the 3 points generated by a converted FG in H-1.  That occasion was one of several early learning experiences for Fitz as newly installed HC for the ‘Cats, and since that game, he has never failed to follow the conventional wisdom of this particular ‘tried and true’ rule of thumb.
In the Outback Bowl, Fitz made a choice to operate counter towards another traditional football rule of thumb: “You dance with the one who brought you” (or the one that you brought to the dance).  This rule has a corollary: “Don’t take the game out of the hands of your playmakers.”  In a desperate attempt to virtually steal the “W” at NU’s possession in the first overtime period, Fitz called for a familiar trickeration play that he learned from his mentor, Randy Walker, and had executed with success against the Drunkards of Wiscy a couple seasons ago.  RW gave this play the tag: “Fastball,” but others, like myself, affectionately call it... the “Fumble-Rooski.”  Fitz’ decision to call it essentially was a knee-jerk reaction to the failure of his Kafka-led O to pass the ball into the Auburn end zone for the go-ahead TD on 3 consecutive downs during NU’s frenetic final possession in OT-1 - a wholly unexpected, last-ditch offensive series that literally was handed to the ‘Cats following a roughing the kicker penalty called on Auburn’s undisciplined special team defending a game-tying FG attempt by the ‘Cats’ FG kicker, Stefan Demos, who was flattened by a hard shot to his feet from diving corner-crash DB.  Demos crumpled to the turf in obvious pain, having received a serious ankle injury and an assist to NU’s sidelines, and most definitely became an unavailable option for what additional plays remained to be called for and executed in the new-life offensive series that was gift-wrapped and given to the ‘Cats by the Auburn special team D. 

However, instead of capitalizing on this freebie offensive possession, NU’s WR corps was summarily smothered by the effective coverage schemes of the Tigger secondary, forcing Kafka to scramble on each of the ensuing 3 downs for whatever yardage could be gained within the shadow of Auburn’s goal posts.  Forced into a last-gasp, game-deciding play call on 4th down at the Auburn 5, Fitz and OC McCall abandoned their standard playbook, took the ball out of the hands of their primary offensive playmakers and turned to the Fumble-Rooski.  I know that many within the Wildcat Nation steadfastly support this monumental decision by Fitz to “go for broke” and capture the elusive “W” with a subterfuge play that, if successful, would have been earmarked as the highlight reel play of this entire bowl season, but I’m not one of them.  No, I still adhere to conventional wisdom that when a game is on the line, “you don’t take the ball out of the hands of your primary playmakers” and “you dance with the one who brought you.”  I understand completely that many NU supporters whole-heartedly would disagree with this opinion and tell me that I’m confusing my head with my behind (as if there might a true difference between the two), but the desperate circumstances surrounding that play was the root for both poor player alignment and even worse execution of the required misdirection motion necessary for the Fumble-Rooski to work. 

First of all, Auburn’s coaching staff, sniffing out the possibility for such trickeration, kept their entire cadre of starting defensive personnel on the field, aligned in a standard defensive set, facing the NU offensive “formation” on 4th down.  Second, NU’s OL, to a man, were standing up straight and tall at the LOS, while the fake FG personnel, the holder and back-up FG kicker, just milled around without truly setting themselves into an actual FG attempt position right up to the moment when the ball was snapped.  In essence, the NU players on the field had not aligned themselves into anything mimicking a true FG formation to draw the attention of the Auburn D toward defending or rushing the FG attempt, so there wasn’t any setup for the motion of the Fumble-Rooski whatsoever.  To the offensive personnel’s credit, everyone held themselves in place for a full second before the snap of the ball, avoiding the false start penalty, even as the flanker to the formation’s right side started off the play by running a wing-option motion backwards into the NU backfield.  However, the purposeless upright stance taken by the entire NU OL at the LOS, coupled with the nonchalant alignment of the fake FG players and the meaningless flanker motion didn’t draw the attention of the Auburn defense towards anything.  When the snapped/fumbled ball was picked up behind/beneath OC Ben Burkett and passed to Markshausen, the play’s initial misdirection needed for its successful execution had already been compromised.  The OL’s student body right blocking scheme was blown up by the Auburn defensive secondary, who shot across the LOS to defend their left defensive edge.  Unfortunately, Markshausen failed to recognize an open seam just inside the defensive corner contain that would have given him an untouched path to the goal line; but instead he drove the ball to the designed point of attack which was to the outside of the right defensive edge.  In doing so, the Auburn LBs and DBs to that attack side used the sideline as an additional defender and knocked Markshausen out of bounds at the AU 2.  Game over.  Lights out in the pool hall, Fitz.

I’m not going to Monday morning QB critique this whole series of events surrounding this one play, but I truly feel that the ‘Cats stood a much better chance to push the bean the full 5 yards needed to get into the Auburn end zone by exercising their standard red zone, goal line playbook.  But to Fitz’s credit in post-game interviews, he shouldered complete responsibility for the “every day and twice on Sunday” play call decision and its failure will remain as another entry in his scrapbook of HC career learning experiences.  And although I disagree strongly with his “go for broke” mindset, I’ll still support the Purple Team with my last breath.     

Even now, a week later, I’m exasperated with recalling the field play, the possibilities and results of NU’s Outback Bowl.  Simply stated, the Auburn Tiggers were ripe for the picking and although the ‘Cats never gave in where other teams could have easily capitulated, the bottom line of this herculean effort by the Wildcats remains: it was 2 yards short of bringing home the “W.”  I apologize if my obvious emotional investment resonates too strongly within this commentary.  Sorry to say, I can’t help being so.  The mountaintop remains to be climbed, and Fitz and Our Wildcats are sure to get there, but alas, not in this 2009-2010 football season.

Congratulations to the Auburn Tigers for their valiant effort and a very enjoyable, competitive game - among the very best of this 34 game bowl season. 

One item to note...  Through all the pre-game hype and post-game enthusiasm, the Auburn Tiggers, their coaching staff, their athletic administration and their ardently supportive fans were the perfect opponent - respectful in pregame dialog and very gracious in victory.  I hope that Northwestern’s AD, Jim Phillips, will make every effort to schedule this quality football program as a regular season opponent in the near future.  

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace and Lose with Dignity”      

Nov. 25, 2009

Dead Red

“Badgers?  Badgers?!?   We don’t need no stinking Badgers.” 

Then again, perhaps NU truly does need the Wisconsin Badgers, and visa versa, simply because every occasion in recent memory when these two fierce combatants have faced one another possesses that endearing hallmark: the “instant classic.”  In contrast to the annual grudge match pitted against the hated HogEyes, in which each of the opposing teams hold heart-felt enmity towards one another; the NU-Wisky tilt has been and continues to be THE signature border war battle of the season, replete with the highest levels of outstanding field play, laudable sportsmanship and mutual respect.  And per usual, last Saturday’s ferocious back-alley brawl carried-on the high-intensity, no quarter rivalry that collegiate football fans have come to expect from these two competitors since the late1980s.  

The unbridled passion, fire and emotion displayed by the players on the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch is what makes the college football game a much more enjoyable to experience than its professional counterpart.  Where else can a pigskin fan witness his favorite team lined-up along the sidelines jumping like juiced-up jackrabbits to the wickedly wacky strains of Chelsea Dagger, and realize that the every player donned in Purple is having... fun... pure, unrestrained joy... at being right there, at that place, at that time, in the midst of a heated dog-eat-dog grapple against a determined, unflinching opponent, unafraid to show that they truly were enjoying themselves, their teammates and the entire game-time experience, singing along to the catchy tune and hopping around with clench fists raised above their heads, as if they were front-row, center in some grunge-rock mosh pit.  Such a scene is completely foreign to Soldier Field. 

And I must say, this overt expression of devil-may-care attitude underscored a basic dissimilarity between Fitz’ Wildcats and Bielema’s Badgers.  Where the ‘Cats appeared to embrace their quest for the 8th win of their 2009 campaign with enthusiasm in the face of a tough nationally-ranked opponent, Wisky appeared withdrawn and business-like, seemingly enduring the weighty burden of heavy expectations against the pluck, resourceful ‘Cats.  Where the Cats were lively and loose, Wisky was somber and sullen.  Where the ‘Cats were vocal, free-wheeling and letting it all hang-out, the stone-faced players shuffling along Wisky’s sidelines were hushed, tense and uptight.      

This demonstrative display of contrasting team attitudes reflects the fundamental personality difference between the respective head coaches and the way they approach the game of football.  It has been Fitz’ long-standing football philosophy that it’s the journey that must be savored more than the destination - that the process of personal growth and maturation, the progressive improvement in one’s athletic and cerebral skill sets are the most significant and abiding aspects of the sport and have the greatest carry-over value with respect to life events and experiences off the field.  These are the lasting legacy lessons which have been learned from his mentors, Randy Walker and Gary Barnett, and are now passed-on to the players in Fitz’ football program.  It’s of little wonder how or why Fitz can draw such dogged determination and superior quality field play from so many modestly heralded players.  The raging debate over the fickle star rankings for recruits is a hot topic among collegiate fan bases.  In the case of NU, this relative beauty pageant rating system is moot.  Fitz has stated often that he looks for high personal and moral character in his recruitment targets, and that’s exactly what he had assembled in his collection of 21 out-going seniors some 4-5 years ago.  These young men are the embodiment of what results can be expected from those dedicated to plain hard work and focus to refine one’s skills; and of what it takes to face and overcome the myriad pains and pitfalls associated to playing and giving the game of college football one’s very best.  I am exceedingly proud and honored to welcome these fine young men into the select fraternity that is the Wildcat Nation.

And Wisky was on the receiving end of this intrepid group’s heart, soul and inner resolve to deliver their best overall game of the 2009 season and turn the Drunkard’s day Dead Red.     

How the ‘Cats Bombed the Badgers

4 Yards or More

I had many conversations with former players and knowledgeable fans prior to the Wisky game and all agreed on two major keys that would heavily determine the outcome of the game.  The first: can the ‘Cats generate 4 yards or more on 1st down consistently?  Such success would form a foundation for NU’s competitive offensive profile against the highly regarded defense of the Drunkards.  This “positive yards on 1st down” paradigm has been an underlying theme to McCall’s offensive game plan throughout this 2009 season, and most notably over NU’s last 5 contests, beginning with the Indy WhoZit game right up to last Saturday afternoon’s tilt.  Whenever Kafka & Co. could sustain this target yardage production on down 1, the capacity of NU’s O to move the ball downfield against their opponents increased markedly.  The dink-&-dunk passing attack was the primary weapon to deliver this substantive yield.

And, in general, this key held true.  On NU’s opening possession of the game, NU’s O went 3-of-4 generating 4-yards or more on 1st down.  Result: TD No. 1 and a 7-0 lead.  On drive 2, 1st down was stoned for a 3-yard gain, leading to a 3-&-out.  NU’s model for offensive success was set.  Frequently, a penalty or an incomplete pass on 1st down was followed-up with a 4-yard or greater offensive play on the following down presenting a 32rd down and manageable.  This pattern persisted throughout the game.  On NU’s last possession of H-1, Kafka and his WR corps went off-the-charts vertical with 3 consecutive 1st down pass completions of 14, 28 and 38 yards respectively for the 3rd TD of the half and a unbelievable 27-14 lead.  Wisky’s defensive brain trust slinked back into the visitor’s locker room of Dyche’s Ditch shaking their heads and wondering if anyone got the license number of that run-away Mack truck that just turned their vaunted D into so much roadkill.

Over the Top
In post-game interviews, Kafka and several ‘Cat WRs stated that Wisky’s game films revealed that they often employed defensive formations which set their secondary personnel noticeably closer than “normal” to the LOS, allowing their DBs a shorter distance to cover in run support, but making them vulnerable to the vertical pass.  To exploit these close DB sets, OC Mick McCall formulated a game plan that directed Kafka to go “over the top” to his WR corps early and often.  This vertical passing game had one critical dependency: it was an absolute imperative that the ’Cat OL hold their blocks that extra second or two to allow the deeper pass routes enough time to develop.  And NU’s OL delivered in spades, giving Kafka the additional ticks to scan the Drunkard secondary, spot the open WR downfield and deliver the bean with little or no pressure from the opposing DL.  The results were more than just telling, they screamed.  Kafka connected on at least 8 explosion play passes of 15-plus yards across 5 different WRs, most of which led to a subsequent TD or FG.  Kafka & Co.’s long distance aerial attack and its pin-point execution became nothing less than a thing of beauty, thoroughly frustrating the Wisky secondary who frequently were caught in the no man’s land between their depended-upon rush support duties and their deep pass coverage responsibilities.   The chess-game was on, and McCall’s O was shredding the Wisky secondary into edible morsels.  

The Kafka-to-Drew Brew connection worked like a precision time piece.  The tandem first victimized Wisky’s secondary on the ‘Cats’ afore-mentioned first possession, who bit hard on Kafka’s play action fake, allowing Drew Brew a free & clear “go” route past his cover DB into the open space of the middle deep zone, where Mr. Mike deftly laid the bean over the top, hitting Brewer in stride for a 26-yard opening salvo TD.  The connection was reprised once again in Q2 when Kafka rifled a low laser beam from the Wisky 20 to Drew Brew running a skinny post into the end zone, where he snagged the bean 2 feet off the turf via a full-extension diving circus catch - his most athletic of the 2009 season - for a go-ahead TD.  Suh-weeeeeeeeeet!!   

The game’s coup de gras came on THE highlight reel play of the day, off a very well-conceived and equally well-executed trickeration flea-flicker, which commenced with Kafka tossing a highly-visible lateral swing pass to his prolific WR, Zeke “For Keeps” Markshausen, set in the right flat.  As expected, every DB in Wisky’s secondary bit hard on the fake, converging up-field with mindless abandon to stone Markshausen in his tracks.  With ball in hand and facing 6 hard-charging Drunkard defenders, Zeke calmly pulls up, rears-back and chucks an arching, picture-perfect spiral to a wide-open Sidney Stewart a full 10 yards behind the run-supporting DBs.  Stewart makes the effortless grab and tip-toes 5 yards into the endzone for the TD.  Pandemonium... while the throngs of red-clad Wisky fans, who made the roadie to Evanston fully expecting an trouble-free “W” against weak-sister Northwestern, sat on their hands in numb silence.  What a shot to the solar-plexus!!!              

4 Yards or Less
The second key for ensuring that NU maintained its competitive edge against the Big Bad Badgers, was to limit yardage gains by the Drunkard O to 4 yards or less on1st down.  This complimentary key was essential because its success meant that Wisky’s bruising ground-&-pound rushing attack of “John Clay dive right, John Clay up the middle and John Clay to-&-through the left” had been neutralized, forcing Bielema to shift his yardage production game plan from his preferred go-to rushing weapon to the serviceable passing attack of his QB, Scott Tolzien.  The onus to deliver the goods against this daunting challenge fell flush in the laps of NU’s DC, Doc Hankwitz, and his defensive front 7, especially his now-healthier DL.  Without a doubt, the ‘Cat front 7’s ultimate task was never to stone the Drunkard’s almost-unstoppable RB tandem of the 260-lbs Mr. Clay and his sidekick, Montee Bell, in-place; but instead, they might be able to bottle-up this RS frosh and restrict him from converting routine rushes into explosion plays of his own, through shear gut-check effort and a unified commitment to separate themselves from their Badger blockers with consistency, then locate and attack the ball carrier with extreme prejudice.

And to their collective commendable credit, Doc’s gritty and resolute defensive front 7, with strong run support from the ‘Cat DBs, pulled off what, up to this point, no other opposing D from the Big 10/11 conference had been able to accomplish.  Wisky RB John Gray, the 2nd coming of Ron “The Great” Dane, was limited to 100 net yards on 23 rushes for the game, the best defensive showing of the year against this “human bowling ball.”  And it all started with keeping Wisky’s 1st down yardage generation to that targeted 4-yards or less.  In Q1 alone, the ‘Cat D kept the Drunkard’s effective ground game in check on 1st down, contributing directly to a scoreboard goose-egg for the Badgers and a 10 point lead for the ‘Cats.  However from Q2 on, the Drunkard O began to chip-away at this target key; but whenever the ‘Cat D could muster the swarming, blood-&-guts defensive effort to deliver on this down 1 limit, Wisky’s O was stopped approximately 50% of the time.  Unreal!!! 

Hard Knocks
“Of Haymakers and Slobber-knockers: The 2-Yard War.”  After having viewed the captivating LOS field play throughout Q1 via my field glasses, I came to a single conclusion: the battle lines had been drawn for Adam Cushing’s OL squad and Marty Long’s 8 man DL rotation against their Wisky foes across the LOS, creating a titanic slug-fest between opposing Big Uglies that escalated into an unadulterated dog-fight.  What a battle-royal!!!  Without a doubt, this game was going to be decided on the last group standing on either side of the ball, and neither opponent was going to give the other a moment’s reprieve.  This 60-minute melee was a toe-to-toe, winner-take-all donnybrook - by far, the absolute BEST action I’ve witnessed over this entire season.  NU’s OL were busting their butts against that stone wall, otherwise known as the Wisky front 7, and from OT to SB, the ‘Cat linemen were winning many more than their fair share of mano-a-mano skirmishes.  The balls-out effort of the hugely-talented behemoth Drunkard DL to bust-into and compress NU’s backfield was unrelenting and the ‘Cat OL matched them blow-for-blow, giving-up a just one QB sack and only 3 TFLs, which could be Wisky’s lowest defensive totals of the season.  OTs Dieters and Netter arguably had their best individual games of 2009; while NU’s mid-OL “blocks of granite” - Bartels, Burkett, Grant and Mulroe - each were an absolute blocking monster, despite the occasional false start or offensive holding gaffe.  WOW!!!

On the other side of the LOS, Coach Long’s fired-up DL were stuffing Wisky blockers hard, gaining solid separation and penetrating a full 3 yards across the LOS on a regular basis, to double-up on Wisky’s TFLs (6) and trebling their sack totals (3).  Most importantly, the interchangeable rotation of Wootton, “Beast” Browne, Williams & Watt at the DE positions, and Bryant, Hahn, Dinardo, Marshall & Mafuli at the two DTs, harassed and hit whoever toted the bean wearing a white helmet with a red “W” with malicious intent.  The ‘Cat LB corps were sprinting sideline-to-sideline, quickly turning up-field into seams at the LOS, filling recognized points-of-attack as they showed without the slightest hesitation and swinging heavy lumber into the face of any Wisky ball carrier who dared shift from their original north-south rush to an east-west motion in a vain attempt to avoid the first level Purple Big Uglies, only to receive an emphatic kiss in their grill from Davie, Big Nate, Arnold, McNaul or their supportive Safeties, Peters and especially Brad “Mr. Headache” Phillips and get wrapped-up then dropped for limited yardage gains.  I was lovin’ what I was witnessing as much as I’m sure that Doc, Fitz and the defensive coaching staff did as well.  The high voltage intensity of this every-down beat-down between opposing team lines is what made this particular game an undeniable instant classic to me.      

Many Happy Returns
I would be remiss if I failed to recognize the substantial improvement the ‘Cats had made regarding their overall kickoff and kick return field play against the Wisky Drunkards.  Firstly, NU’s kickoff coverage team did a fairly decent job, permitting a kick return beyond the Drunkard’s 40 only once in 8 kickoffs - and that was off a situational squib kick that was snared by a mid-level blocker, who rumbled downfield for 17 yards before being engulfed in an ensuing scrum that was pushed en masse for an additional 10.  Hey, when compared to the totally craptastic kickoff coverage results displayed by the ‘Cat special teams over their previous 11 games, I’ll accept any effort that downs the ball at or around the opponent’s 30 yard line, affording NU’s foe a “relative” longer field for that possession.

However, what was genuinely remarkable and satisfying were NU’s newly designed kick returns.  Finally, the ‘Cats got their special team act together and successfully executed a string of consistently well-designed kick returns featuring effective blocks around the point of attack, coupled with a quality open field rush into an open seam within the opponent’s kickoff coverage spread, via the dynamic return tandem of Stephen Simmons and Jacob “Hodag” Schmidt.  This new strategy was made even more effective when the tandem’s “other” back ran downfield, fronting the return man as lead blocker, to pick-off whatever lead coverage defender showed as he shot through the return wedge.  NU’s return ball carrier trailed this lead blocker close on his heels; and when the block was delivered against the lead cover man, the returner made a cut off and away from the lead block and into whatever open seam showed beyond.  And lo and behold... It Worked!!!   Kick returns of 33, 35. 34 and a wholly unexpected 65 yards gave the ‘Cat O good to great starting field positions, which lessened any residual demoralizing damage done by whatever points were scored on Wisky’s previous possession. 

Finally, special teams play that was... well... “special.” 

In spite of all the flubs and foibles that kicker/punter Stefan Demos experienced throughout his 2009 campaign regarding his in-hand or teed kicks, no one could find fault his ground kicks - e.g.: his FG attempts.  Going into the previous weekend’s match against archrival Ill-Annoy, Demos was the arguably best FG kicker in the Big 10/11 conference - having converted 13 of 15 attempts, with his only 2 recorded misses being blocked attempts.  Essentially, if Stefan booted the ball up off the turf and beyond the opposition’s diving bodies and flailing hands at the LOS, he would deliver the welcome 3 points - every time.  Every time, that is... until the Ill-Whine-I game.  I honestly can’t hypothesize on the reasons for his odd string of misses; after all, it’s the fickle lot of a place kicker.  However, Stefan seemed to contract a bad case of the yips regarding his ground kicks off the field turf of Zuppke Field - pushing his 2 long-distance attempts, 47 and 50 yarders respectively, wide left; and then, in an apparent case of over-compensation, hooking his next, a 30 yarder in Q4, wide right, clanking it off the right upright and careening straight back onto the field.  “Mr. Automatic” proved himself to be human after all; and thankfully those missed 9 points, although they could have lessened NU’s subsequent heartburn during the game’s frenetic final minutes, became an inconsequential footnote in the final stat sheet.  In retrospect, I’m certain that those 3 makeable misses were an irritating burr under the saddle of “Mr. Automatic.”  And it would be perfectly understandable for any true competitor to harbor such gnawing feelings.

But then again, I’m equally as certain that Stefan, after enduring all the genteel ribbing thrown his way by coaches and teammates alike over the Wisky game-prep week, exercised Fitz’ prime directive to “Flush it.”  After all, the upcoming Wisky tilt proffered him with another game, another competitive opportunity to solidify his place among the best ground kickers in the Big 10/11.  And Demos was up to that challenge Big Time.   Not only did Stefan convert 4 or 4 FG attempts contributing 12 critical points for the ‘Cats, he blasted them far up and through the uprights, including his two 45 yarders, the last of which provided NU with its needed margin of victory.  That last FG had to be one of the most satisfying conversions of his 2 year kicking career at NU.   Sweet redemption couldn’t happen to a classier competitor.  

WAY TO GO, Stefan!


And for the third consecutive week...  ‘Cats Win!!!  ‘Cats Win!!!

I must admit, that I would have been moderately satisfied if the ‘Cats had wrapped-up their final 3 games of the 2009 season going 1-2, and capturing a middling 6-6 record, especially considering the weighty reputation held by these last 3 star-studded Big Dog opponents.   But to go 3-0, completing the end-of-season “W” trifecta and promoting the ‘Cats into the upper echelon of the Big 10/11 with a 8-4 regular season record and a respectable 5-3 in-conference tally - and do so via NU’s limited offensive resources? 

That accomplishment, under such restrictive circumstances, is totally mind-boggling and off the charts. 

So now the ‘Cats take an enormously significant 3-game win streak into their Thanksgiving holiday break, in rapt anticipation regarding the post-season possibilities surrounding the capricious bowl bid selection process.  It’s of no great surprise that many within the good ol’ boy network of national media pollsters have thoroughly dismissed the ‘Cats from virtually any consideration for inclusion in their beauty pageant national rankings.  Hell, these self-appointed pundits are clinically anal retentive and possess a depth of selective memory merely to recall the Cats’ 2009 shortcomings - like their stumbling, bumbling train wreck “L” to a totally terrible Sorry Excuse Orange Nerf-Ball team in week 3 or their disastrous display of wholesale ineptitude that required a desperation 46-yard FG as time expired to secure that kiss-your sister “W” against the Gawd-awful, Oh-fer Beagles of EMU in week 2.  OK, OK, so I can understand the perspective.  However, I still can’t condone it.  What do these same “experts” have to say about the monumental growth in competitive team field play that gave the ‘Cats the universal skills and intrepidity to best these last 3 prohibitive favorites from the Big 10/11 on consecutive Saturdays, two of which were highly ranked in those same national beauty pageant polls?  What do these most recent achievements afford Fitz and his ‘Cats?

Truly, if there is any justice roaming the halls of the Big 10/11 conference offices in Park Ridge, Illinois, NU should garner several post-season accolades, specifically All Big 10/11 First Team QB honors for Mike Kafka, First Team WR honors for Zeke Markshausen and First Team SS honors for Brad Phillips - at the minimum.  Now follow-up those player honors with Big 10/11 Coach Of The Year laurels for HC Pat Fitzgerald.  I cannot fathom any other individual conference HC who might be considered more deserving.  Then it’s a crap shoot for whatever accolades might be afforded to other very deserving NU role players like WR Drew Brew, OT Al Netter, OC Big Ben Burkett, SB Drake Dunsmore, DE Corey Wootton, DT Corbin Bryant, and CB Sherrick McManus, to name a few.  Who would dare predict what that post-season conference award thought process might generate?      

Still, the 2009 Northwestern Wildcats can envelope themselves in the warm, comforting cloak of a job very well done.  Congrats to all these Purple ‘Cats, most especially the out-going senior class.  You have made us all so very proud.  

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace and Lose with Dignity”      

Nov. 19, 2009

Hat Trick

I made the roadie down I-57 to Shampoo-Banana full of dread and hope.  Much had happened to both the ‘Cats and the Ill-Whine-I over their respective last two games which made all predictions regarding the outcome of their upcoming battle little more than pure speculation.  After having sleep-walked through their first 7 games in which they garnered a single unimpressive “W” over an overmatched Illinois State  DeadBird team, the Ill-Annoy offense awoke surprisingly from its season-long slumber and laid 38 and 35 points on the Dazed & Blue Horde and the Minnie Mighty Marmots respectively in consecutive weeks.  In fact, Ill-Annoy’s heavily over-hyped hybrid QB-RB, Juice Williams, led his previously somnolent O on a yardage production tear, grinding-out an eye-popping 500 total yards against an improved Michigan D which resulted in 31 unanswered points and a blowout victory for his best offensive showing by far in 2009.  The revitalized Pumpkinheads followed-up that effort with their most competitive game of this fall, a 35-32 nail-biter road triumph against the middling Golden Rodents who held lofty aspirations towards gaining post-season bowl eligibility at the expense of the underachieving Ill-Whine-I. 

Where had this scoring production been all season?  Suddenly, the sports dialog in and around Cham-Bana was re-directed from the Ill-Whine-I’s upcoming round-ball crusade to the wholly unexpected and  improbable drive towards bowl eligibility by the Pigskin Pumpkinheads, all of which would commence with a sure-thing, gimme “W” over “Lowly Northwestern.”

On the other side of the coin, the ‘Cats had just dispatched the formerly undefeated, 9-0 HogEyes last Saturday in what arguably might have been THE season-defining contest of their 2009 campaign, earning themselves a valued 6th “W” that consequently vaulted NU into the select company of bowl-eligible Big 10/11 teams.  As recent history has shown however, those 6 wins didn’t guarantee the ‘Cats a bowl bid but merely provided them with the ethereal status of being “eligible” for bowl selection.  The only way for the Purple Pride ‘Cats to ensure that their bowl eligibility ticket would get punched was to capture a 7th “W”.  And with the clear reality that the Wisky Drunkards were among the affirmed Big Dogs the conference in 2009, the best opportunity remaining on their current schedule to collect that necessary win would be against their ego-bloated, pumpkin-headed in-state rivals, the Ill-Whine-I.  The fact that the victor of this grapple would be granted the inaugural ownership of the contest’s newly conceived rivalry icon, the “Land O’ Lincoln Trophy” seemed to possess the relevance of a perfunctory, low-emotion afterthought (don’t get me going regarding this stiff, silly-looking “Cat-in-the-Hat”-like stove pipe hat mounted like road-kill on an innocuous block of mahogany).  The true significance of this game for both combatants remained firmly focused on securing that capricious post-season bowl bid for themselves; and consequently, the game was destined to be the typical annual back-alley brawl it has always been.  If the ‘Cats could only continue their high level of quality field play that they had demonstrated in their previous 3 games...

How the ‘Cats Tomahawked the Ill-Annoy

Down & Out in Sham-Bana
Many engaged fans among the Wildcat Nation, including myself, wondered publically if/when ‘Cat OC Mick McCall’s game plan would include the chapters of his playbook outlining the vertical passing game.  Just when the general attack schemes conceived for QB Mike Kafka and his offense seemed to border on the predictable, McCall pulls a veritable 180 degree turn-around and directs his senior QB to throw downfield.  And it proved to be extremely productive.  Many of these passes were set-ups, orchestrated in unison with the controlled dink-&-dunk passing paradigm that Kafka and his receiving corps have mastered over the past 5-6 games with noted progressive proficiency.  And this expanded edition of the Wildcat aerial attack couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  

It’s no great surprise that opposing DCs have been fixated specifically on McCall’s sophisticated dink-&-dunk passing attack, especially since NU’s ground game option has been relegated to little more than a token attempt at maintaining some semblance of a balanced offense.  In fact, it’s become painfully obvious in recent  weeks that the opposition’s defensive game plan dismissed the ‘Cat rushing attack altogether and concentrated almost exclusively to stop the ‘Cats’ short passing game, often employing a philosophy that Kafka and Co. would fail to connect with his target WR at some critical juncture of an offensive series, creating a dubious 2nd or 3rd down and long situation.  When that occurred, the opposing DC would gear his players to attack Kafka aggressively and get into his grill to force a mistake of some kind - the incompletion; the QB hurry, or better still, the sack; or best of all, the turnover.  During the early games of 2009, this defensive approach was generally effective, especially as NU’s offense faced the defenses of their OOC schedule and their first 2 Big 10/11 foes, when McCall’s game plan appeared one-dimensional and downright anemic.  

That myopic defensive model became moot when Kafka finally “got it” and became increasingly much more adept at making his WR scan progressions quickly, identifying the open WR and delivering the bean on target with better consistency.  And the positive results were telling, especially against the better defenses of the Big 10/11, like the State Penn Inmates, the Indy WhoZits and the HogEyes.  Now, every opposing defense was forced into respecting the capability of the ‘Cat O to exploit open seams in the short zones of the secondary and not load-up defenders in the box to stuff NU’s limited rushing attack or pressure Kafka, or to restrict the free release of the ‘Cat WRs at the LOS with press coverage by the DBs.  

Everyone, that is, except Ill-Annoy’s HC Ron Zook and his defensive brain trust.  I can’t extrapolate on the true thought processes of the Zook-ster and his DC as they prepared their troops to face McCall’s increasingly more efficient dink-&-dunk passing paradigm, but I can conclude with confidence that the Zook-Meister regressed back to that earlier “Kafka will screw-up eventually” mindset from the game’s opening whistle and got burned Big Time.  Nice decision-making Zook!!!

I cannot describe my elation when viewing the Ill-Whine-I defensive sets throughout the contest via my field glasses.  In an attempt to constrict those open seams against Kafka’s dink-&-dunk passing acumen, Ill-Annoy’s cover-2 safeties often were spread 3-4 yards wider to the sidelines than “normal,” opening-up the intermediate to deep middle zones in the Pumpkinhead secondary.  McCall and Kafka recognized the weakness of this formation and took what it offered by connecting on multiple passes to WRs running 8-10 yard routes into this open mid-field space.  Fantastic.  Then much to the delight of the Purple Populace in attendance, the Ill-Whine-I zone coverage scenarios became even more malleable.  To counter this middle zone attack, the Zook-ster set his DBs into a 5-man short zone umbrella with pass coverage techniques that over-shaded their cover WR towards the inside to jump-on and break-up Kafka’s quick-strike pass to the slot receiver running a slant, Z-in or square-in route to that short zone in the middle of the field.  McCall must have observed this tendency either in films or in real-time, because he directed the outside WR of his wide-set receiver pair to run a highly visible inside route to the middle of the field drawing strong coverage attention from the Ill-Whine-I secondary, while the inside WR would drive 10-12 yards downfield then cut hard to the sideline.  Kafka read this inside WR’s break to the open intermediate sideline zone in Ill-Annoy’s coverage scheme and delivered a pinpoint pass to the receiver in stride just as he completed his inside-out cut.  Bang... a 15-yard gain and a 1st down off the down & out route - all “set-up” off a previous pass attempt - and not necessarily a pass completion, mind you - to the short middle zone.  This pass play tandem of middle slant or square-in pass coupled with sideline down-&-out pass was executed to perfection repeatedly by Kafka & Co., allowing them to march downfield with virtual impunity.  The Zook-Meister kept waiting for the Kafka-to-WR misconnect flub that never came; and after NU converted multiple consecutive 1st downs, the Ill-Whine-I D found itself backed-up near or into NU’s red-zone trying to figure-out where the next precision pass attempt between Kafka and his WR corps would strike.  The first hay-maker punch landed by the ‘Cat O on the Ill-Annoy D came on its last possession of H-1 that commenced at the 0:55 mark from the NU 45 and culminated with a smartly-executed down-&-out sideline route completion from Kafka to his possession WR, Zeke Markshausen, for the go-ahead TD - with 17 ticks left on the game clock.  NU’s yardage production model for victory had been uncovered and, for the most part, was exercised routinely the remainder of the contest.     

Smashing Pumpkins
The invaluable contribution that Doc Hankwitz’ much-improved D has provided in NU’s  last 3 victories cannot be over-emphasized, especially considering that, in those games, McCall’s O continued its frustrating habit of breaking slowly from the starting gate and failing to score any points whatsoever in Q1.  Against a resurgent Ill-Annoy O that had scored 4 TDs in each of their last 2 games, this failure to launch could have had disastrous consequences, had it not been for Doc’s swarming, attack-oriented defensive game plan that held the Ill-Whine-I to a scant 3 points through H-1, giving the ‘Cat offense enough time to collect itself and discover that winning combination of effective pass plays, as described above, which captured momentum and control of the game.

Since NU’s offense provided little in the way of assistance toward keeping the Ill-Annoy offense off the field for the game’s first 29 minutes, the heavy burden to remain competitive fell upon the ‘Cat defense to neutralize the Zook-Meister’s diverse offensive firepower. And Doc’s troops were up to the challenge.  Q1 saw the ‘Cat D restrict the Ill-Whine-I O to 3 1st downs and 74 net yards - quite an accomplishment since the ‘Cat O generated similar poor yardage totals on their own in what became a hard-scrabble battle for field position.  In Q2, NU’s D maintained their stiff resistance enough to keep Ill-Annoy out of the end zone while giving-up a lone FG for all of H-1 - a commendable effort against one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the Big 10/11 that held a 2-to-1 time of possession differential in favor of the Ill-Whine-I over that quarter of play.  In Q3, Doc’s D literally shined, smashing the Pumpkinhead ground game for a mere 48 yards and zero yards passing while Kafka and Co. worked their mojo for 2 additional TDs - the first in Q3 and the second on the possession that spanned Q3 and into Q4 - giving the Wildcats a 21-3 lead which they never relinquished.  Doc’s defense was set on cruise control, when Fitz and McCall made their only strategic brain-fart of the contest by removing their foot from NU’s offensive accelerator, allowing Ill-Annoy’s O a window of opportunity to deliver a come-from-behind score and steal the “W” in their final possession, which fortunately, they failed to deliver.

Hopefully this end-game fright was a lesson learned by 4-year HC Fitz and OC McCall regarding downshifting from a previously dominant, aggressive game plan to an ultra-conservative “play-not-to-lose” approach: if a kill shot to your foe presents itself, take it and let the dead bury the dead.

The scene from last year: the smashing of the pumpkins

Variety: The Spice of Life
It would be a bad form if I didn’t mention the welcome return of a substantially effective ground game from the ‘Cat RB corps.  This resurrection was as much a residual effect of McCall’s inclusion of the vertical passing attack back into NU’s offensive game plan as it was a direct consequence of the undeniable dominance of the LOS by the ‘Cat OL.  Not only did the OL’s pocket pass protection keep NU’s two-headed QB relatively untouched and safe from harm at the hands of the sack-happy Ill-Whine-I defensive front 7, but their zone blocking schemes consistently opened-up rushing lanes in the LOS for NU ball carriers to exploit. For the first time in NU’s last 3 games, the leading rusher for the ‘Cats was not a QB, but an RB.  In fact, two ‘Cat RBs, Arby “Beef-N-Cheddar” Fields and Scott “Cut”-cannon, together, out-rushed NU’s QB tandem by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.  This effective rushing game shifted NU’s offensive yardage production towards that highly-valued yet elusive balanced attack, all of which kept the Ill-Annoy defense from focusing mainly on shutting-down McCall’s dink-&dunk passing strategy.  Fitz and his offensive brain trust have been striving to establish this diverse attack paradigm since the first game of the 2009 season, and it finally came to fruition against their in-state rival, the Pumpkinheads.  Couldn’t have happened against a more deserving foe. 

Once again...  ‘Cats Win!!!  ‘Cats Win!!!

And the Wildcats haul the inaugural “Land o’ Lincoln” Trophy back to Evanston, to boot.  Not a bad day’s work.

With this well-deserved “W”, the ‘Cats have assured themselves a post-season bowl bid that cannot be denied. Now, it’s all about this team continuing their ambitious drive to deliver that highly sought-after full 60-minute game.  They haven’t done it yet.  Not against the HogEyes, nor against the Ill-Whine-I.

The nationally-ranked Drunkards of Wisky invade Dyche’s Ditch this coming Saturday, with their bruising ground-n-pound offense and their in-your-face, high-energy defense.  It’s one hellova daunting challenge.  Wisky represents the ‘Cats’ last regular season opportunity to grasp the brass ring of a complete competitive game.

Go for it, fellas.    

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace and Lose with Dignity”     

Nov. 9, 2009

Play It Again Sam

What a difference a week makes.  Then again when it comes to NU’s 3rd consecutive I-Away City-bound road game against the I-Away HogEyes, maybe it’s a good thing that things simply stay the same. Perhaps it’s the laughable familiarity of the infamous pink visitor’s locker room at Kinnick Stadium, or the gorgeous Indian Summer weather that has graced all 3 of these most recent contests, or maybe it’s just that the HogEyes have been the Wildcats’ undeclared, blood feud rival since the mid 90’s.  Whatever the motivational factors might be, real or contrived, it’s a fact that, while both teams may respect one another, the NU football team dislikes the HogEyes with a fundamental passion that is unparalleled when compared to the relative subdued emotional investment that Fitz and his ‘Cats have against any other team from the Big 10/11 conference, including traditional cross-state foe, Ill-Annoy. 

Both combatants knew this was going to be a monumental mêlée where all the clichéd competitive euphemisms would apply.  Forget the fact that the undefeated HogEyes had compiled a very impressive 9-0 record, one that had never been achieved before in their storied gridiron history.  Or that they were seeking their first undisputed conference championship in recent memory.  Or that they were scheduled to play Da Big Bad BuckNuts on the following weekend, with the victor scheduled to be summarily anointed the conference’s grand representative for one of five available 2009 Mega-Bucks BC$ Series Bowl bids.  No, there was something more basic to be achieved: sweet revenge - for two straight humiliating losses at the hands of “Lowly Northwestern,” at home, in front of huge throngs of fanatical HogEye Faithful both of which had stuck in their collective craw over the last 2 years.  In HogEye Land, their football team can be forgiven if they lose the occasional game to a Michigan or daBuckNuts, and even to the State Penn Inmates, but lose to NU (or as they refer to our beloved ‘Cats,” NW”)... NEVER!!!  Falling to “NW” is the nadir, the absolute lowest level that their football team can go.  And last Saturday, Kaptain Kirk Firentz’ team and everyone within the HogEye Nation were salivating at the prospect of giving the ‘Cats the sound thrashing that would exorcize all the fetid demonic spirits of those mortifying losses to “NW” over the past couple seasons. 

“Throw-out the record books!”  “Tighten you chinstraps!”  “Payback time, baby!”  “This Time, It’s WAR!!!”

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, they walk into mine...  Play it again, Sam...     

How the ‘Cats Reigned On the HogEyes’ Parade

What’s Past is Prologue
The single most significant play made by the ‘Cats’ in their game against the HogEyes last season was the colossal collision between NU SS Phillips and the Hog’s premier offensive weapon, RB Shone Greene on what was a garden-variety dive play into the LOS.  At the time, NU’s D was struggling against the HogEye O which employed their prolific rush yardage generating machine to ground and pound the ‘Cat defense into submission while they collected scoring opportunities and kept the ‘Cat offense riding pine and off the field.  HogEye QB Stanzi received the snap from center then handed the bean, as usual, to his RB Green, who sprinted headlong into a seam at the right B Gap and was met head-on and stopped dead in his tracks with extreme prejudice by the afore-mentioned Mr. Phillips.  At the time, many HogEye observers cried foul on the smack, citing that it was a blatantly intentional helmet-to-helmet blow.  Later, replays showed that Mr. Phillips, in fact, had turned his head away from the blow, and used his shoulder, albeit a Full Monty shoulder blow, that gave Mr. Greene a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville, with a subsequent escort to the HogEye bench by the I-Away medical staff, where he sat, head spinning, for the remainder of the contest.  This “slobber-knocker” blast eliminated the HogEyes’ No. 1 offensive threat for the afternoon, and consequently became the Great Equalizer between the ‘Cat defensive front 7 and the powerful HogEye rushing attack, allowing NU QB C.J. Bacher and the ‘Cat offense to capture momentum of the tooth-&-nail battle which subsequently led to the ‘Cats escaping Kinnick Stadium with the surprising, yet well-deserved “W.”

 Last Saturday’s titanic tussle was eerily similar to the 2008 game.  The HogEyes steamrolled over the ‘Cats through the first 7 minutes, this time, off the accurate passing arm of QB Stanzi, who exploited the ‘Cats’ injury-depleted secondary to score a 70-yard explosion TD pass to a wide open WR behind NU’s bewildered cover-2 safeties on the game’s 3rd play from scrimmage, that was followed-up promptly by a 30-yard aerial strike from Stanzi to another speedy WR on the Hogs’ next possession that was converted into a subsequent FG.  Only 5:10 had ticked-off the game clock and the ‘Cats, once again, were thrown deep into yet another hole, a 10-point one on this occasion, with little chance of reprieve from the jacked-up Children Of The Corn.

After an exchange of punts spanning Q1 and Q2, Stanzi pulled his first gigantic gaffe of the game when he severely underthrew his intended receiver and dropped the pill into the waiting mitts of ‘Cat CB, Jordan Mabin, who returned it swiftly to the Hogs’ 48, completing I-Away’s first tasty turnover of the tilt.  When NU’s following drive stalled, P Stefan Demos punted the ball deep towards the HogEye goal line, and the cover team downed the ball at the HogEye 6.  Something remarkable was beginning to happen for the ‘Cats.  On the 2nd down of the Hogs’ next possession, Stanzi dropped back into his own endzone looking to pass when ‘Cat DE Corey Wootton crashed hard off the edge of the left defensive corner, unblocked, straight into the grill of the HogEye QB, where he wrapped-up the cringing Mr. Stanzi and collapsed on him in a rolling heap to the turf, trapping the QB’s left ankle underneath in a very awkward angle in the process.  Mr.Stanzi dropped the bean which was scooped-up immediately by the observant ‘Cat DT, Marshall Thomas, for a fumble-recovery TD. Afterwards, Stanzi remained crumpled in fetal position on the green grass of Kinnick’s gridiron in obvious pain.  The Black & Gold clad crowd of 70K-plus fell silent as death, watching the I-Away medical staff attend to their stricken QB.  This was serious, both for the young man personally and for the HogEyes’ chances to run the ‘Cats out of I-Away City on a rail with their tails clipped and ears bitten off.  Stanzi gingerly got to his feet and slowly limped to the I-Away sidelines then on to the locker room, his competitive day through.  Meanwhile NU’s competitive day had just been resuscitated back to life via this crucial 2nd HogEye French pastry of Q2, offered to the hungry ‘Cats, who gladly gobbled-up the powered-sugar dessert and converted it into a game-changing TD.  

That devastating 2008 reversal-of-fortune injury to the HogEyes’ primary offensive weapon was reprised once again with Stanzi’s departure in 2009.  From that point on, Kaptain Kirk’s HogEyes were never the same team, and neither were the ‘Cats.

HogEyes - Penned
With their primary weapon down and out of the picture, the HogEyes’ offensive quiver held only a few poison-tipped arrows.  Throughout the course of the 2009 season, the Hogs faced a minimum 4 games whose outcomes hung in the balance, where prior blunders resulting in substantial late-game deficits had been overcome by the shear grit and determination of their unflappable QB Ricky Stanzi and his pixie dust passing game.  This time around unfortunately, there was a hole in the pocket purse that held that pixie dust.  With his rushing attack relegated to a secondary status by injuries through his roster’s 3-deep RB corps, HogEye HC, “Kaptain Kirk” Firentz, now was completely dependent on his lightly-used backup QB, J. Vanderberg for virtually any and all offensive production; and this QB’s prodigious lack of real game-time experience displayed itself Big Time.  And similar to the game time adjustments made by Joe Pa’s State Penn Inmates when newbie 2nd string QB, Dan Persa, was pressed into service suddenly as a sub for NU’s fallen No. 1 QB on the previous Saturday, DC Doc Hankwitz baited his rabid DL for the kill and unleashed them against whatever ball carrier toted the bean for the HogEyes, and, in particular, the wide-eyed Mr. Vanderberg.

Sparked by their coach’s newly installed “go get ‘em” directive, NU’s front 7 went bananas against both the HogEyes’ rush and pass attack, keeping its RB Branden Wegher penned-in & bottled-up in his backfield and its ineffectual QB Vanderberg consistently pressured by Doc’s swarming D.  Subsequent pass yardage production stats for the HogEye O underscore the substantive effect that this amplified attack paradigm had on Vanderberg - zero points on 9-for-27 pass attempts, for 82 net yards.  Similarly, the HogEyes’ ground game got stoned for a paltry 39 yards on 19 rushes.  The HogEye offense went nowhere, fast; completely opening game’s momentum and its scoreboard to the walking wounded QB scenario that was NU’s own cross to bear.

Just what the Doctor ordered. 

Tough Enough
I cannot praise the gutsy contribution of NU’s tandem “walking wounded” QBs enough.  Whereas Dan Persa was hit or miss against State Penn as he came-in off the bench to pick-up and carry NU’s offensive load after starting QB Mike Kafka went down with his debilitating hammy pull; this weekend, when called-upon, Mr. Persa was generally on his game against the HogEyes.  Without a doubt, Persa‘s marked improvement in quality QB field play was due to the considerable increase in practice reps he had with NU’s No. 1 offense as its primary ball handler during the previous week’s preparation for this game.  And more obviously still, Dan made the most of this time and opportunity, and it showed in spades, especially when compared to the HogEyes’ struggling replacement QB, Vanderberg.  This was the game-clinching factor, to be sure.
Although OC McCall called Kafka’s number as his opening whistle QB of choice, once he saw that Mr. Mike’s mobility behind his pocket protection resembled a traffic cone, McCall wasted little time in shifting to Persa as his go-to field general.  And Persa immediately confirmed why he was selected the Pennsylvania State High School Player of the Year following his senior football season - calmly going through his WR progressions on pass plays, setting his feet correctly prior to his throwing motion to deliver the bean on target and recognizing when to abandon the pass and tuck-n-run to open space when no open receivers showed.  He did an admirable job connecting on 5 of 9 passing attempts for 37 yards and what proved to be the go-ahead TD to superback Dunsmore in Q2.  He also displayed his Tim Tebow-like quickness as NU’s versatile, dual-threat QB-RB hybrid, gaining 75 yards on 17 designed and improvisational rushing attempts.  What a difference from last weekend!  

However, Persa wasn’t the end to the feel-good story regarding the NU patchwork offense.  When he busted-up his throwing hand, clanging it hard against the helmet of a HogEye DL as he got pancaked during a Q3 pass attempt, Kafka re-entered the game, bad hammy and all, then efficiently drove the ‘Cat O into position for a critical 47-yard FG, which Demos deftly booted center-cut through the uprights to extend the ‘Cat lead to 7.   From there, the remainder of the action on the field was relegated to a battle of field position in which neither team mounted anything approaching a serious scoring threat, as the HogEye Faithful watched the minutes tick down on the game clock in stunned silence.

Sweet music to my ears!!!


‘Cats Win!!!  ‘Cats Win!!!

Broadcast pictures showed the blank-faced, shell-shocked HogEye Nation as they slinked out of Kinnick Stadium scratching their collective heads and openly muttering to themselves on what could have been. 
●    An undefeated season - gone. 
●    A storybook season as 2009’s “Destiny’s Darling” - evaporated. 
●    An automatic Mega-Millions BCS Series Bowl bid - shattered. 
Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of hayseeds and rubes.

And now to the Wildcats... 

With their 6th win of the season, the ‘Cats became bowl game eligible for the second consecutive season. However with only 6 “W’s” in the books, half of which came against inferior teams, NU is no lock to be among those anointed for post-season bowl bid consideration.  Sad but true, the ‘Cats’ “W, or more accurately the “HogEyes’ “L,” throws a big ol’ monkey wrench into the whole Big 10/11’s dream machine where the conference’s high expectations to capture 2 BC$ Bowl Bonanza Bids - the first via the conference champion’s automatic tie-in; and the second as an attractive at-large candidate team sporting a single loss record - have all but vanished.  Now that delusion is “dust in the wind” horse hockey because the 1-loss HogEyes will play the 1-loss BuckNuts next Saturday for all the conference marbles - and the loser gets shackled to a rank 2nd loss albatross that essentially eliminates them from consideration for that prayed-for at-large BC$ Bowl Bid.

Talk about your Bowl Buster scenario.  Believe me, once the initial euphoria surrounding the national media’s frenzy regarding NU’s unpredictable win over the then-undefeated HogEyes has dissipated, the Big 10/11 powers-that-be will be nothing less than extremely pissed-off at the Fitz and his ‘Cats.  The clunker thrown-in by I-Away, coupled with State Penn’s weak-sister, no-show “L” against daBuckNuts, consequently removes that second projected $5-7 million payday from conference coffers because there will be only one 1-loss record team from the Big 10/11.  However, NU can bask in the bright sunshine emanating from the East, in or around Columbus, Ohio, because this improbable victory by the ‘Cats has resurrected daBuckNuts’ high hopes to capture the coveted automatic tie-in Mega-Millions BC$ Bowl Bid as conference champion.  I’m wondering if Coach Sweater Vest will send Fitz a dozen reds with an attached perfumed greeting card that reads: “To Fitz - with Love & Kisses - JT.”

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace and Lose with Dignity”       

p.s.: The ‘Cats MUST win one more game in 2009 to ensure themselves this post-season bowl bid.  This 7th “W” will be particularly daunting since both of Fitz’ “walking wounded” QBs together wouldn’t make a whole fully-healthy signal caller.  Time to “Flush It and Respond.”

Nov. 5, 2009

Overwhelmed in 6:30 Minutes

Dyche’s Ditch was the site of some remarkable college football last Saturday.  Not only had the ‘Cats kept pace with the heavily favored Inmates of State Penn, they were beating them at their own game.  Joe Pa’s football philosophy begins and ends in the trenches where he emphasizes control of field play on either side of the LOS - where the blocking capabilities of his OL allow his skill players the freedom to operate with as reduced interference as possible; and where his DL can exploit cracks and deficiencies in the opposing OL’s blocking schemes.  All other phases of the venerable octogenarian’s game plan are built atop this basic foundation, and this paradigm was wholly in evidence against the ‘Cats.  However, the ‘Cats responded in the most unexpected fashion: they gave as much as they got with respect to individual matchups across the line against the No. 12-ranked Inmates.  And it astonished everyone in attendance.  Everyone, that is, with the exception of Fitz’ troops.

HC Pat Fitzgerald’s football philosophy of “Flush It and Respond” was the directive of the day, as NU’s O focused on beating the Inmate defense at the point of attack and Doc’s D ignored State Penn’s well-chronicled reputation for fielding the most efficient offense in the Big 10/11 Conference and stood toe-to-toe with their opponents from Happy Valley, exchanging body blows and haymakers to the head while neutralizing the Inmates’ quick-strike scoring capabilities for a full 3 quarters.  Fitz’ perspective that State Penn had played only one full 60-minute game this season (against the I-Away HogEyes) not only rang true, it was being played-out right before the ‘Cats, inspiring them to keep the pressure on Joe Pa’s team and take the fight to them from the opening whistle through the final gun. 

Like many among the Purple Populace, I had harbored pre-game predictions that the ‘Cats would follow their exhibited past penchant for digging themselves into an early hole then fighting their way back into contention.  When ‘Cat QB, Mike Kafka, inexplicably fumbled  and lost the well-placed shotgun snap to the Inmate D on his second play from scrimmage at NU’s 23 without anyone laying a hand on him, I could only shake my head in disbelief.  “Here we go again.”

However, that reaction was premature.  The ‘Cat D flushed all potential negative effects of that gaffe by responding with a stout defensive stand within the shadow of their own goalposts, forcing the Inmates to settle for the FG instead of the anticipated turnover-induced TD.  When given the bean following NU’s poor-as-usual kickoff return to their own 18, Kafka and Co. commenced to put together an admirable 17-play, 65-yard dink-&-dunk laden drive, aided mightily by a 12-man-on-the-field penalty transforming NU’s 4th down punt into a giftie 1st down that extended the stalled possession and culminated with a 34-yard FG to knot the game at 3 apiece.  By the end of Q1, the ‘Cats were tied with Joe Pa’s vaunted Big Blue Machine and had restricted the Inmates’ yardage production juggernaut to a respectable 46 yards while Mick McCall’s Dink-&-Dunk Show netted 89 of their own.  Fitz and his ‘Cats were motivated and competitive.

When State Penn’s next possession was rendered uneventful by a swarming ‘Cat D that limited All-Conference candidate QB, Daryl Clark, to 3 short completions and heralded RB, Evan “Blue Royster Cult,” to a paultry 8 yards on 4 rushes, Kafka began to weave more magic. With ball in hand on NU’s opening possession of Q2, he completed consecutive dink-&-dunk passes of 13, 15, 13 and 16 yards, knocking the thoroughly flummoxed Inmate defense back on their collective heals.  Kafka continued his one-man show, victimizing Joe Pa’s reactive all-out DL pass rush, as he bolted through a seam in NU’s efficient pocket protection, rushed around the short middle zone coverage LBs into the open space beyond, faked a run-support DB completely out of his jockstrap then dove to the PSU 7 for a 1st & goal.  On the next down, Mr. Mike executed a mesmerizing fake handoff to NU’s Scott Concannon that drew every Inmate front 7 defender to his RB, tucked the ball under arm and cut-back straight off the backside of the over pursuing State Penn DE-OLB tandem unscathed into the end zone for the go-ahead TD.  The Wildcat fan base in Dyche’s Ditch exploded. 

Truly, Joe Pa and his Big Bad D had no effective answer to Kafka’s brilliant “Tim Tebow in Purple” exhibition and were searching desperately for the cure, any cure, until the solution to the ‘Cat QB’s heroics quite literally dropped into their laps when Kafka collapsed in a heap after successfully giving a juke to an Inmate LB on another QB scramble during NU’s next possession.  After a valiant attempt to stay in NU’s offensive mix on the next down (a 7-yard pass completion, incidentally), Kafka admitted that something was seriously wrong with himself physically then limped to the Northwestern sidelines where he remained for the rest of the game, a casualty of what was reported later as an unspecified “leg injury.” 

Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, Kafka’s sudden departure held devastating consequences...

How State penn Blew-Up the‘Cats

Discovery: NU Weakness No. 1
It’s not as if the Inmate O was neutralized completely by Doc’s D in h-1; after all, Joe Pa’s Clark & “Blue Royster Cult”-led attack moved the ball up and down the field with a modicum of success.  However, State Penn’s offensive brain trust still hadn’t arrived at the definitive answer to the perplexing riddle concerning the best way to attack Doc’s frenetic, swarming defense.  Then they turned their vertical passing game loose against the 2nd and 3rd string personnel peppering NU’s depleted secondary.  Whoomp, there it is!!!  On the drive following the possession in which Kafka’s his mysteriously blown tire forced him to go “walk about” on NU’s sideline midway through Q2, Inmate QB Clark began to carve-up the ‘Cats’ pass coverage schemes with the precision of a neurosurgeon’s scalpel, safely shielded from any and all potential pass rush pressure by the exceedingly dominant pocket protection from his OL, affording Clark a full 8 seconds of unhurried freedom to complete his scan progressions.  Consecutive pass completions of 17, 14, 6, 14 and 13 yards, sandwiched around a 12 yard QB scramble and an NU pass interference penalty, placed the ball at the ‘Cats’ 2.  Next play, Clark scrambles for the TD untouched up the gut of NU’s DL for a TD that tied the game at 10 all. Basically the jig was up; and the Big 10/11’s most efficient passing attack salivated heavily once the huge chink in the armor of Doc’s smoke & mirror pass coverage personnel was exposed and ripe for exploitation. 

Discovery: NU Weakness No. 2
When first seen, I marveled at the imposing size of the individual behemoths populating State Penn’s DL.  Upon witnessing this unit’s collective eye-blink quick rush across the LOS at the snap of the ball and how they pushed NU’s OL a full 4 yards into the ‘Cat backfield, I realized their well-publicized reputation for being among the best in all of Division 1A was deserved.  I was equally impressed that NU’s OL held their own against them for a nearly a full half; and even more when Kafka took advantage of the Inmates’ aggressive attack style of field play whenever the flow of the play dictated, frequently abandoning his comfortable dink-&-dunk pass scheme and opting to sprint downfield, ball under arm, through cracks in State Penn’s headlong upfield rush, quickly gobbling-up yards in the process.  The drive that resulted in the ‘Cats’ first TD was a sobering reality check to Joe Pa and his defense - NU’s offensive game plan can and will take whatever the D gives, and its primary ball handler possesses the skills and presence of mind to identify and appropriately attack what is given.

All that changed when Kafka removed himself and handed the generalship of NU’s O to his backup, Dan Persa.  One significant item must be understood: Dan Persa, for a fact, fields the QB skillset necessary to execute OC McCall’s game plan successfully.  However, to come-in cold and generate consistent offensive yardage in the face of the frenzied speed and quickness of State Penn’s jacked-up defensive front 7 at that juncture of the game was daunting.  Recognizing that his defensive team’s nemesis was riding pine, Joe Pa directed his DL to ratchet-up the level of their rush across the LOS, gain separation from the ‘Cat OL and get into the grill of the newly inserted Mr. Persa on every down.  I believe Uncle Joe realized that Persa’s focus would be fixed totally on executing the play called by McCall, not on adjusting to changing real-time play conditions and fluid weaknesses in the defense on a particular down and distance.  He banked on a differential drop-off in field play between Kafka and Persa - and he was spot on. 

Although, to his credit, Persa unflinchingly grabbed the reins of the ‘Cat O and drove them within FG range twice on NU’s last 2 possessions of H-1, converting one that gave the ‘Cats a 3 point lead at halftime, State Penn’s halftime defensive adjustments at controlling the LOS and NU’s OL via their DL’s “pin-your-ears-back” bull rush - geared specifically to wear down ‘Cat OL personnel and harass Persa - became progressively more dominant as the game wore on, most notably in Q3, and statistics bear witness to that fact.  In Q3, the ‘Cat O got schooled by the Inmate front 7 and managed a gain mere 2 yards total and a single 1st down via a penalty; while in Q4, Persa sparingly caught up to the speed and tendencies of Joe Pa’s all-out upfield rush and drove NU’s offense into scoring position twice, after having gained 123 yards, but failed to score points and turned the ball back over to State Penn - once on downs and once off a fumble by Persa that was recovered by the Inmates on the PSU 6. 

Bottom line, in 2 parts:
1.    State Penn’s DL wore down NU’s OL, to the tune of 6 sacks (for -31 yards), 9 TFLs (for -39 yards), and numerous QB hurries, both statistically recognized and unrecognized
2.    Although Persa wasn’t horrible as the ‘Cats’ primary ball handler, he just wasn’t as productive at moving the ball into scoring position and converting on the opportunity as was Mr. Kafka. 

Too Many Craptastic Returns
It’s no great secret that NU’s special teams play is anything but special.  But the fact remains, the ‘Cats have been continually hard-pressed to execute a kickoff return or a kickoff cover without a serious breakdown. 

Exhibit A:  NU’s failure to execute on kickoffs (either length of kick or failure to cover/make tackle) -
●    Demos kick 55 yards to PSU 15, returned 19 yards to the PSU 34
●    Demos kick 44 yards to PSU 26, returned 12 yards to the PSU 38
●    Demos kick 65 yards to PSU 5, returned 36 yards to the PSU 41

Recognized kickoff coverage successes:
●    Demos kick 64 yards to PSU 6, returned 16 yards to the PSU 22
Exhibit B:  NU’s failure to return kickoffs (aka: little or no blocking, coupled with no speed or ability to find or gain a hole in opponent’s kickoff coverage) -
●    Simmons return 18 yards to the NU 21
●    Simmons return 16 yards to the NU 18
●    Matthews return -2 yards to the NU 6 (muffed catch)
●    Matthews return 11 yards to the NU 14 (muffed catch)

Recognized kickoff return successes:
●    Simmons return 44 yards to the NU 41
●    Simmons return 22 yards to the NU 25
●    Simmons return 21 yards to the NU 26

I don’t condone regurgitating stats to collaborate an observation, but this deficiency is, and has been, screaming to everyone within earshot at the top of its lungs.  Anyone see a pattern here - like a difference in an opponent’s ability to return a kickoff 15-20 more net yards compared to NU’s results when executing a return?  Or more precisely, the failure of NU’s kickoff specialist to boot the ball beyond the opposition’s 5 yard line consistently, coupled with the kickoff coverage personnel’s soft attack against the return?  And what about NU’s kickoff returns which consistently fail to push the ball to or past NU’s own 20 yard line?  Does Fitz have any kickoff returner who can track the kicked ball into his hands on the fly, recognize the blocking pattern in front of him, find an open seam then sprint full bore to and thru it more frequently than his current stable of return specialists?  Apparently not, or at least, not much.   

This situation has reached critical mass and is totally unacceptable.  As a whole, NU’s kickoff gaffes had a GREAT negative effect on NU’s game.
Like excrement, explosion plays happen.  Only issue I have with this maxim is that they seemingly happen to the ‘Cats more than one might deem “normal” - especially since Fitz publically preaches his attention to detail  to eliminate or, at best, limit the number of them.  Against Joe Pa’s Inmates, the initial 6:13 of H-2 was THE critical minutes in which breakdowns across-the-board by Doc’s defensive players, both in offensive flow/play recognition and defense techniques, allowed the State Penn O to blow the game wide open via the explosion play.  3 explosion plays, each executed on the heels of three sequential 3-&-out possessions by the ‘Cat offense, underscored the fact that NU’s D, in each case, was gassed and their vulnerability to defend the home run swing was easily identified and promptly acted-upon by the Inmate’s offensive brain trust lurking in the coaches box above Dyche’s Ditch.

The first occurred in the midst of State Penn’s grind-it-out drive that spanned Q3 and Q4, set-up after Inmate RB “Blue Royster Cult” pounded NU’s DL with 3 consecutive rushes behind his Big Ugly OL for 20 yards to the NU 30.  Continuing the Inmates’ balanced attack game plan, QB Clark tossed the bean to favorite WR, Derek Moye, for an easy pitch-n-catch into an open seam in outer third zone at NU’s 10 that was downed at the 5, for a quick 25-yard explosion play, reprising the exact pass route and completion converted in the Inmate’s opening possession, game-tying TD at the start of Q3.  Afterwards, Joe Pa called for 2 power dives to score the go-ahead TD and 7-point lead.  All in a scant 3:30. 

After NU’s O was forced into a second 3-&-out by the Inmates’ all-out bull rush DL, Clark challenged NU’s deep coverage capability on the first play of his next possession, by rolling to his right then throwing over-the-top for an explosive 53-yard toss to a wide-open Mr. Moye for TD No.2, extending the Inmate lead to 14.  The ‘Cat offense got more of the same bull rush treatment from the State Penn D on their 3rd consecutive possession as they had on the previous two, that forced yet another 3-&-out and punt.  The Inmate O smelled blood in the water and executed a beautiful dive by “Blue Royster Cult” up the gut and into a 5-yard wide hole in the left A gap; where NU’s DTs got position blocked to the outside, Sam LB Davie got pancaked by the LOT and Mike LB, Nate Williams got blasted down and out by the ROG, creating an enormous 15-yard wide open lane that extended 69 yards to the goal line. 10 seconds later, the PSU lead was 21 and Joe Pa and his Inmate team collectively breathed a deep sigh of relief.  Game Over.   


Fitz’ ‘Cats most definitely were up to the challenge of competing with the Big Bad Inmates for 3 quarters, but this game degraded into a war of attrition that the Wildcats just couldn’t sustain.  Defensively, the 2nd and 3rd stringers in NU’s secondary, subbing gamely for injured first teamers, just couldn’t hold the line for the full 60 minutes to prevent State Penn’s explosion plays.  I‘m so very proud of all of them, but like Fitz, I’m not making excuses. The State Penn O is the most prolifically productive offense in the Big 10/11, let alone all of Division 1A; and they needed all their weapons to come to bear to subdue Doc’s defense.  Conversely, the ‘Cat offense was executing their controlled game plan to perfection, then it’s keystone weapon got dinged and was relegated to the role of cheerleader on the NU sidelines.  Although his replacement was game, he just couldn’t generate the yards and control the game clock as well as this No. 1 ball handler.  

Joe Pa recognized Mike Kafka’s considerable contribution to the ‘Cats’ competitive effort, as have several media pundits from various corners.  But game’s final tally reflected much of what had been predicted.  Damn...

Now it time to flush it and respond.  Even if the ‘Cats had prevailed, Fitz’ prime directive remains the same.  The HogEyes loom next and the obnoxious rubes and hayseeds planning to attend the tilt in Kinnick are already spewing copious amounts of venom and vitriol at NU and the Wildcat Nation in response to their failure to capture the expected “W” against the Purple ‘Cats over the last 2 seasons.  Time to recoup your strength fellas, and come-out swinging like you did against Joe Pa’s Inmates.     

The Waterboy       

Oct. 28, 2009

Day of the G.O.A.T.

Everyone seated in Ryan Field was thoroughly astounded as they witnessed the action unfolding before them at  Dyche’s Ditch during last Saturday’s game against a very pluck Indy Whozits team.  For the first 22 minutes, the ‘Cats just didn’t throw in a clunker, they threw in a stink bomb - and a huge one at that.  In truth, I haven’t witnessed such universal ineptitude out of a NU football team across all phases of field play since the Dark Ages.  No fire, no discipline, no technique - Zero, Zip, Zilch!  I was incredulous.  Was this train wreck really happening?  Had Fitz and his capable coaching staff lost contact with their players to a such point?

I wasn’t buying into the knee-jerk reaction of Fire Fitz, or at the least Can McCall or Hang Hankwitz, although anyone among the sparse homecoming crowd harboring one or more of those radical responses easily could be forgiven under the circumstances.  Truly, this putrid performance demanded both cooler heads to prevail against this Crimson & Cream onslaught and determined resolve from each and every player standing along the West Sidelines to overcome the myriad breakdowns occurring right before everyone’s eyes. 

I shouted, if only to convince my doubtful self, “The ‘Cats gotta throw a shutout for the next 40 minutes.”  Some fans sitting in front and behind me chuckled.  My friends seated next to me gave sidelong glances as if to say, “you’re nuts.”  However, to everyone’s credit, not a single fan in attendance headed to the exit portals; not one.  Something positive simply HAD to happen.  And if so, it should be, would be, magical.  What had transpired in the first 20 minutes was mere prelude to the surreal phenomenon about to unfurl over the final 40.
I was little prepared for a Greatest Of All Time (a.k.a. G.O.A.T) come-from-behind performance from this team, at this time.  However, to their collective credit, the 2009 ‘Cats grasped their adversary in their clenched fists then thrashed them unlike anything I’ve seen in all the previous games of this season’s campaign.  Staring squarely at a daunting 28-3 deficit, DC Doc Hankwitz, frequently calling-upon many fresh faces to substitute for injured starters, and his troops responded in unison and threw that thoroughly-spirited shutout straight into the facemask of the WhoZits.  Think of it... whereas in the game’s first 20 minutes, Doc’s D resembled flattened, sun-baked road-kill; his team recovered their composure to deliver a scoreboard bagel... a doughnut... nada-noonga-nothing for the rest of the contest.  In that span, the ‘Cat defense limited a previously unstoppable WhoZit offense to...

•    a paltry five 1st downs... unreal! 
•    a net 63 yards rushing... unbelievable!
•    a net 115 yards in IU’s final 8 possessions... outstanding! 
•    a game-saving goal line stand @ NU’s 3... outta this world!  
And that was just the ‘Cat defense.  Similarly, after having sputtered for a measly 38 yards and a single 1st down throughout a very forgettable Q1, NU’s O resurrected itself from its opening whistle doldrums by clawing and scratching their way out of the deepest deficit in NU gridiron history in epic fashion. 

Gawd, I’m still floating 3 feet above the ground...   

How the ‘Cats G.O.A.T.’d the WhoZits

Flushing It - NU’s D
What was the observable defensive difference between NU’s first 20 minutes and its final 40?  Upon review, I felt the primary answer was one of adjustment and increased attack across the LOS by the defensive “in-the-box” personnel - as directed by NU’s defensive brain trust. The ‘Cats’ D opened the game stunting their front 7 from their standard flexed 4-3 or 5-2 sets, which generally got caught slow off the snap and even slower to gain separation from blockers at Indy’s point of attack. On the WhoZits’ 1st play from scrimmage, both the wide-side DE (Wootton) and OLB (Johnson) got hooked soundly and screened to the inside by their blocking counterparts, totally out of position and out of the picture, chasing Indy’s “lightning-in-a-bottle” RB Darius Willis from behind as he carried the bean on a “toss 8” play, straight towards their defensive corner.  NU SS Brian Peters, sporting a huge bandage to protect his severely injured left paw, sprinted-up hard to provide run support at that point of attack, but got undercut because he couldn’t shed an open space cut block using his club hand and tumbled to the turf in a rolling heap.  With these 3 point players DOA, NU’s defensive corner contain was completely compromised.  The inside LB tandem of Williams and Davie were slow to react and failed to come down the LOS quickly enough or at a deep enough angle of pursuit to make any impact, trailing 5 yards behind Mr. Willis as he gained the defensive corner, turned upfield and left everyone in a purple uniform gazing at his heels while he ignited his afterburners and converted a well executed 70-yard, single play drive for Indy’s TD No.1.  Obviously, the ‘Cats’ read-&-react mode D was left in the dust of IU’s premier RB and looked downright bad. 

After a weak-sister 21-yard net possession by Kafka and Co, Indy’s 3rd drive of the game was proffered a short field off a badly blown punt coverage, in which NU’s out-of-control gunners and subsequent poor tackling gave WhoZit PR specialist, Ray Fisher, a wide-open seam down the middle of the field that he took full advantage before getting dropped at the ‘Cat 28.  Indy went right to work again against Doc’s read-&-react formations.  Following a 15 yard pitch-n-catch that placed the ball at NU’s 15, Indy HC, Bill Lynch, used the weirdest-looking tight 9-man offensive formation for 4 consecutive rushes right up the gut against NU’s somnolent front 7, culminating in a 1-yard QB sneak for WhoZit TD No. 2.  When the ‘Cat O delivered another craptastic 3-&-out, NU’s defensive field play went from bad to worse as the WhoZit O flexed its air attack muscles.  Indy QB Chappell completed 5 consecutive strikes sandwiched around a nimble 22 yard QB scramble through weak arm tackles and desperate dives at his feet, in a offensive drive that ended with an easy 1-yard scoring plunge by RB Willis, to dig the ‘Cats into a 3 TD pit of their own shoveling.  When the ‘Cat O finally did generate enough yardage production to position themselves for a 28 yard FG, the bad transitioned to ugly in short order with the 2nd special teams kick coverage SNAFU of H-1 that allowed the Indy KR to weave the ensuing KO around and through multiple arm tackles 93 yards to TD No. 4.  The train wreck was on and the best descriptor for the plight of the ‘Cats at this point was “dire.” 

Then something amazing happened.  Doc and his troops responded to this last gaffe, flushed their disastrous, breakdown-laden first third of the game and regained their resolve and focus to compete; and was it ever effective.  First, Doc decided to attack the Indy O hard off one or both defensive corners.  He positioned either OLB Johnson or a Safety or both as additional DL at the outside edge(s) of the LOS to execute a sell-out crash off the corner, penetrating outside-in into the WhoZit backfield to compress space and disrupt offensive flow.  It worked brilliantly.  First victim was Indy’s rushing attack that was squeezed to operate between their OTs, and NU’s fired-up DL went bananas, blasting into gaps in the Indy OL, gaining separation and pushing upfield to stone the WhoZit ground game in its tracks for little to no gains.  Secondly, in a novel DL alignment, Doc lined Wootton to the inside shoulder of the WhoZit TE or OT, effectively becoming a DT, with Johnson, Davie or Peters set at the outside shoulder of the last OL to Wootton’s side.  Doc often used this tandem to crash the LOS edge hard at the snap of the ball and gained significant penetration, wreaking havoc in the Indy backfield, especially against WhoZit QB Chappell and his pass attempts with constant QB hurries which forced frequent throwing misfires.  Complimenting this tandem alignment, OLB Johnson often crashed solo off the opposite defensive corner, swiftly and under better control than he has shown all season, herding the ball to the ‘Cat’s defensive middle.  Johnson became a painful burr under the saddle of the Indy O and charged flush into the grill of anyone toting the bean for Indy throughout for most of H-2.  On obvious passing downs, this crash technique was used with a zone blitz stunt where the outside defender would crash the Indy backfield while the inside OL would peel-off  as another LB in NU’s underneath zone coverage.  With the crash technique from either side, Chappell was getting blasted chest high by Messrs. Johnson, Davie or Peters a full dozen times over that timeframe.  Against Bill Lynch’s wacko tight 9-man OL formation, Doc called for the sell-out crash off both edges, and was the major factor in NU’s goal line stand from their 3 yard line at the end of Q3.

As a result, this re-aligned defensive front for the ‘Cats threw the shutout necessary to allow Mick McCall’s offense to regain momentum and control of the game.  The Indy offense became moot, relegated to riding pine and going nowhere fast; while meantime, ‘Cat QB Mike Kafka and Crew rediscovered their own mojo and began to generate offensive yards in bunches - even via the rushing attack.  Whodda thunk it after spotting the WhoZits to a 25 point lead?  Without a doubt, NU’s defensive adjustments built the foundation for the Wildcat G.O.A.T. comeback.
Flushing It - NU’s QB, Part 1
The overall field play of Wildcat QB Mike Kafka against the WhoZits had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dual personality quality.  In his Mr. Hyde persona, Kafka threw 3 very avoidable INTs, each of which was an underthrown vertical pass to an open WR running a downfield route.  In all 3 cases, I couldn’t determine whether or not he saw the DB prior to his plant and heave, but instead of using a touch throw over the short zone coverage umbrella, he rifled the bean on a low trajectory, placing it squarely into the mitts of the DB fronting his target.  The pick with the greatest game-deciding potential was Kafka’s second with 6 minutes left in Q3 that was snatched at the Indy 39 and returned 38 yards to the ‘Cat 28.  The possession that followed was Indy’s most critical of the entire game.

Yet despite his glaring personal passing gaffes, Mr. Kafka, donning his guise as the meticulous Dr. Jekyll, redeemed himself and his struggling O with an astute aerial performance that very well may have been his most impressive individual field play statement of the 2009 season.  At the 7:26 mark in H-1 and with his ‘Cats deep in the depths of that self-induced 28-3 hole, Kafka flushed the special team flubs, the defensive breakdowns, and his prior failures to move the ball with any consistency and began to execute OC McCall’s dink-&-dunk passing attack to perfection - hitting open receivers on target and in stride as they ran precise control routes into various seams within the Indy secondary.  Bing, an 11-yard completion to Dunsmore; Bang, 7 yards to Brown; Bong another 8 to Baron Von Hodag.  If Kafka didn’t identify an open WR in his scan progression, he didn’t panic, but rather chucked the pill safely into the nearest sideline.  If Indy’s short zone coverage umbrella drifted backwards more than 10 yards while closely defending NU’s dink-&-dunk WR corps, Kafka tucked the bean under arm, wound his way through and past the well-shielded WhoZit pass rush and sprinted downfield into the open space for substantive yardage.  On NU’s 2nd last possession of H-1, Mr. Mike dinked, dunked and carried the ‘Cat O on his shoulders for a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive in a scant 3:36.  Following an Indy punt that turned the ball back over to Kafka and Co. with only 2 minutes and change remaining in the half, he reprised his dink-&-dunk perfection for a another 9-play drive that gobbled-up 76-yards, firmly positioning the ‘Cats at the Indy 8 with 13 ticks left on the game clock.  The next play was, IMHO, Kafka’s best pass thus far in his brief career as NU’s starting QB.  Originally set in a right-side slot WR position, Baron Von Hodag executed a beautiful Z-in to the far corner of the endzone while Kafka tossed the sweetest, most accurate touch pass that this reviewer has seen from him to date - over the head of Mr. Hodag, who had shielded his cover DB from the in-flight bean with his body, and straight into that receiver’s outstretched hands, as he double taps his feet inbounds for the TD with 7 seconds showing on the scoreboard. 

NU’s fans erupt. With Indy’s lead is reduced to a manageable 28-17, the stage is set for more magic to be woven by Kafka and Co. in H-2.        
Flushing It - NU’s QB, Part 2
Kafka's 2nd inexplicable INT should have, or better still, could have been the clincher play of the game for the WhoZits.  Having been rocked by a resurgent Wildcat D for little yardage and zero scoring opportunities since building their 25-point lead, the WhoZit O gladly took possession at NU’s 28 via this INT then methodically drove to the ‘Cat 3, poised to score the game-winning TD.  However, any chance at tacking additional points onto the Indy side of the scoreboard was stoned in place by the frenetic, swarming NU defense on 4 gut-wrenching downs (see point 1 above), supported mightily by a very dubious coaching decision on the part of Indy HC Lynch, all of which resulted in a crucial change of possession back to the ‘Cats at their own 2 yard line. 

With clear recognition that the ‘Cats had just dodged THE potential kill shot of the contest via this goal line stand, Kafka flushed all lasting effects of this latest near-fatal passing gaffe and led NU’s O on an improbable 11-play, 98-yard momentum-changing drive that ended 4-plus minutes later on THE explosion play of the game.  This critical possession began inauspiciously as Indy’s defensive brain trust adjusted to McCall’s Dink-&-Dunk Show, ordering effective defensive stunts that stoned NU’s first 2 rushing attempts to bulldoze the ball out from under the shadow of their own goal posts for little yardage, sandwiched around a holding call against the ‘Cats that forced a crucial 3rd and 5.  When Kafka responded with a 9-yard passing strike to the Baron for the first, the yardage flood gates euphemistically opened for the confident ‘Cat O as the clock transitioned into Q4.  With the WhoZit D set to defend more dink-&-dunk, Kafka and ‘Cat RB Concannon took advantage of open rushing lanes on 3 consecutive downs, pushing the ball downfield another 22 yards; then Kafka followed-up promptly with a second dink completion for a nifty 14 yard gain and a 1st down at the Indy 49.  Now, the WhoZit D didn’t know what to look-for next, especially when McCall used a telegraphed end-around reverse that got snuffed-out by the swarming Indy front 8 as set-up for the play to follew.  Using play-action on the next down, Kafka faked a handoff, dropped-back 7 yards and let-fly to a wide-open Drew Brew running a streak route down the center of the field for a 51 TD completion that reduced NU’s 25-point deficit to 2 with 12:33 left.  The Kafka-to-Drew Brew connection converted the game’s most significant explosion play; and NU’s G.O.A.T. comeback was at hand.          
Flushing It - NU’s O
In spite of the excitement generated from the 51-yard explosion play TD, Kafka;s INT issues still weren’t over.
After Doc and his D dominated the WhoZit offense yet again and turned the ball over to the ‘Cat O, Kafka chucked a frozen rope pass short of his intended WR for his 3rd pick to an Indy DB 40 yards downfield.  To any other team, this costly turnover could have sounded the death knell to their comeback aspirations; however, HC Pat Fitzgerald’s mental stamp on his team’s psyche, his mantra of “flush it and respond”, was the difference-maker.  NU’s D rose to the challenge and stopped Indy’s 4th down and 3 pass attempt at NU’s 33 by harassing Chappell into a poor throw once more, and the ‘Cats retained the ball with 7 minutes left to play.  For the 3rd time, Kafka and Co. flushed the memory of the INT and calmly focused their attention on the task at hand: get the ball into FG position to seal the deal. 

OC McCall, knowing full well that the WhoZit defense was expecting more dink-&-dunk action, temporarily suspended his primary short passing attack paradigm, and instead, worked his ground game by calling on lightly used RB Scott Concannon, toting the pill behind an invigorated ‘Cat OL that was now dominating the LOS, as his weapon of choice.  And the WhoZits were caught flat-footed.  Consecutive runs of 15, 11 and 6 yards by Mr. C, in which the first 2 were cut-back rushes where he recognized an open seam in the LOS and printed hard to and through the holoe taking advantage of the WhoZits’ over pursuit to initial flow, kept the Indy front 7 completely off-balance.  Kafka then reprised the dink-&-dunk for a quick 1st down to the Indy 24 and the ‘Cats were in business, with the clock winding down and the WhoZits anxiously fearing the inevitable FG atteempt.  When RB Jeravin Matthews, subbing for Concannon, sliced through a seam on the right side of the LOS in a designed counter play and rumbled to the Indy 10, the game-winning FG was nothing less than a fait accompli.       
4th down Flubs
One of the most important factors to be noted in NU’s G.O.A.T. comeback was the strategic effect of 2 dubious 4th down decisions made by Indy HC Bill Lynch, which contributed heavily in the game’s final outcome. 

I haven’t a clue regarding his thoughts when facing that 1st  & goal scoring chance at the ‘Cat 3 in Q3; but Lynch’s decision to employ that crazy-looking tight 9-man OL set as his red-zone formation of choice was poor at best - especially since his standard sets were effective for much of the contest.  Upon seeing this odd-ball formation, NU’s D simply swarmed across the LOS into the backfield off both edges to bottle-up the Indy Wildcat RB, positioned as shotgun receiver behind the center, and dropped him or the short pass receiver in his tracks for no gain on 3 straight downs.  On the subsequent 4th down, one would think that Lynch would exercise common sense and take points via a chippie FG, since NU’s D undoubtedly had shown an effective counter to this formation, but no...  Instead of exercising the rule of thumb, Lynch got greedy and decided to go for the TD.  Of course, Doc calls for the 2-edge crash and his secondary to stud press the Indy WRs hard at the LOS.  With no open WR in sight, Chappell scrambles and gets tripped-up at NU’s 2.  Mr. Lynch, you’ll receive zero points and like it!!!        

The 2nd dubious decision by Lynch was on his last viable possession of the game when faced with a 4th and 3 at NU’s 33.  First, he calls his final TO; then calls for a 3 WR flood pass pattern to the short side of the field.  However, instead of calling the 2-edge crash, Doc uses a 3-5 defensive set to increase his underneath umbrella coverage numbers coupled with tight short zone coverage that deftly handed-off WRs as they transitioned between the short middle and short outside zones; and it worked beautifully.  With Wootton and Browne rushing hard from their DE positions, Chappell felt their pressure (again a residual effect from his getting harassed and cracked in the chest often off previous crash techniques), panicked then threw his worst pass of the day, high and wide over his target WR at the Indy sideline.  Would a FG attempt have been more appropriate?  It’s debatable.  However, Chappell had just complete 2 straight vertical passes - one for 40-yards and another for 7 - so why not go with what was working, the vertical pass attempt?  Second guessing a college football HC is a sport unto itself; so fans can play locker room lawyer on this one and formulate their own arguments for a better, more viable alternative.  Bottom line: Lynch’s decision to burn his last remaining TO and put the onus of sealing the “W” on his D, who had been hard-pressed to stop Kafka and Co. over the last 35 minutes, deflated whatever momentum his team had at the time and served it on a platter to the ‘Cats.  Thank you, Mr. Lynch.  


It’s difficult to postulate on the lasting effects that this G.O.A.T. comeback will have regarding the remainder of the 2009 campaign; however, I do know that it will have one huge residual to the Northwestern football program.  It steadfastly affirmed Fitz’ overriding football philosophy to “flush it (the past) and respond (to the current challenge)” as the foundation of winning football for his entire team, its coaching staff and to the Purple Populace at large.  This “W” was born of the football and life attitudes and lessons promoted by former HCs Gary Barnett and Randy Walker.  It has potential to serve as the field play blueprint to more gridiron magic from this current team and others as the program moves forward into future seasons.  And it certainly garnered the attention of the 2009 ‘Cats to the prime directive that their HC constantly champions. 

It most certainly got mine.    

The Waterboy       

Oct. 14, 2009


Please accept my deepest apologies for not having composed a commentary on NU’s previous 2 games.  Over that period, I rolled-off a particularly demanding IT assignment that was 13 months in duration and its end-game obligations were profoundly heavy, requiring extended hours of personal attention to complete a seamless and pain-free transition.  As a matter of fact, I have the outlines of the missing commentaries in hand, but their in-progress content didn’t meet my approval and I thought it was better not to serve any offering rather than something obviously half-baked. 

Playing Down to the Competition

I must admit, I haven’t much of a clue to the reasons for the ‘Cats inconsistent field play.  It isn’t like the individual squads (as in offense, defense and special teams) which make-up the ‘Cats are utterly terrible, but there are just too many individual breakdowns across each unit over the course of a single game which result in some failure to make a critical play or convert an opportunity to control the game that it defies any logical description that might be given.

Let’s examine the ‘Cats’ most recent opponent, the Miami Red Dogs.  This is a winless program in 2009; one that fields what could be described most accurately as a headless, heartless lineup - having unveiled little or no competitive drive whatsoever in its first 5 games.  Hapless Miami arrived in Evanston having lost to perennial powerhouse teams like the Kentucky Blue-Bonnets, the Kent State Hot Flashes and the Western Michigan Bronko-Billies by a total of 119-45.  Simply stated, Miami’s O is literally DOA, sporting the worst offensive production in all Division 1A; while their D is only slightly more competitive than their fetid offense.  What better opposition to compete against at this juncture within the current season than this relative Twinkie, if only to tune-up a a disappointing, flagging ground game.  Yet, against NU, self redemption seemed to be the name of the game for the Red Dogs, as this previously porous D stymied ‘Cat running game for most of the contest.  And it wasn’t as if HC Pat Fitz and his OC Mick McCall ignored the rushing chapters of their playbook, calling 24 rushes across various non-QB ball carriers, who collectively gained a mere 75  total yards.  Flatly stated, NU’s RB corps just aren’t cutting it, even by the most conservative of standards; and there is little to cheer about for the near future regarding this underachieving group as the ‘Cats prepare to face-off against the meat-n-potatoes half of their Big-10/11 conference campaign, beginning with Moo U this coming Saturday.  Dark clouds appear to be gathering over NU’s yardage production challenged offense.

In spite of this doom and gloom, there were substantive positives to be taken from this glorified scrimmage against a truly over-matched opponent; so, I’ll focus on those.

How the ‘Cats Gnawed On the Red Dogs

Tough Enough
What appeared to be lacking in NU’s rushing department, was made-up by QB Mike Kafka and the ‘Cats’ “dink-n-dunk” middling passing game - but barely.  NU’s vertical passing game seemingly was placed on relative hold, while Kafka and his receiver corps focused their attentions to refining their short-to-middle aerial attack, and it was just productive enough to prevent any worry beads of perspiration to appear on HC Fitz’ forehead.  I must admit, over his last 4 games, Kafka has demonstrated that he has the arm strength to zip that 30-35 yard laser beam pass to a WR running the 7 yard square-out route to the sidelines with regularity.  Then again, taking into consideration that this capacity to find and deliver the bean parallel to the LOS at 35 yards to the open WR with reliable precision was against a Red Dog secondary that has shown little ability to cover any receiver having a credible pulse, the enthusiasm for this positive must be tempered with some reality.  Still, facts are facts, and his pass yardage production has kept the NU O rolling when necessary, as it did against the Red Dogs; and to his credit, Kafka has accepted Mick McCall’s controlled passing attack as his own and improved on its execution as the 2009 season has progressed. 

What is even more observable is that this ability to deliver the sideline strike has opened-up the middle third of an opponent’s secondary, especially one as pliable as was fielded by the Red Dogs. When an opposition’s CB-Safety tandem are forced to honor their coverage responsibility against the accurate sideline throw, something must be given-up... and this usually translates to an open area that can be exploited - which Kafka and his WRs did early and often last Saturday, and was a primary cause for the ‘Cats converting scoring drives on 2 of its first 3 possessions of the game (with a missed FG on possession no. 4).  This “take your poison” pass coverage scheme was in full evidence against the Miami secondary and try as they may, if Kafka or his target receiver didn’t flub the pitch-n-catch simplicity of the 7-8 yard pass play, the Red Dog DBs could do little to prevent the inevitable yardage gains on short crossing routes in their middle third zone after the catch.  The major shortfall with this controlled short passing attack is revealed when the opposition can field a CB who can blanket his coverage WR or his coverage zone responsibility one-on-one, allowing the Free or Strong Safety to fill that open space in the middle third zone.  In this case, such a passing scheme is limited at best.  Mick McCall’s dink-n-dunk scheme has shown this deficiency from time-to-time in 2009, but when taken overall, it has been progressively productive, and no more so than against the Red Dogs of Oxford, Ohio.  However, when the dink-n-dunk limitations do appear (and against better teams, they will), what opens-up space in an opponent’s secondary once again is a vertical pass completion threat.  Unfortunately Kafka has shown a limited ability to complete the true vertical pass play in recent weeks - demonstrated, once again, against the Red Dogs in his 26 yard under throw to an open WR and subsequent INT at the Miami 1 yard line.  Kafka’s touch on the 20-plus yard pass has been consistently off; and if this deficiency doesn’t improve, and soon, he will be eaten alive by the superior Big 10/11 defensive secondaries he will face throughout the rest of this fall.     

Pocket Protectors
Another sore subject in NU’s list of notable offensive deficiencies has been the roundly inconsistent field play of its OL.  Whereas on the same Saturday, this squad looks like they could punch holes in brick walls when executing their planned ground game, their equally lousy footwork techniques can’t counter the outside-in speed rush of an opposing DE from collapsing the corner and crushing Kafka standing behind his pass protection wall as he goes through his receiver progressions (see the Sorry-Excuse game on this one).  Worst among the OL personnel has been the continued field play foibles of the RTs - whoever that player might be at any one time.  To counter that obvious “hole” at the LOS, ‘Cat OC Mick McCall has been forced to reprise his quick strike passing strategies from last season into NU’s 2009 game plan (read that: the “dink-n-dunk” mentioned above).

Thankfully over the last 2 weeks, these same OL have shown marked improvement in their pass protection techniques (e.g.: much better footwork), especially against these corner crash techniques from the defensive ends.  The end result: throughout the whole of the Miami game, Kafka was given his necessary 3-4 seconds to complete his scan of the opposition’s secondary with less harassment.  Kudos should be given to OL coach Adam Cushing regarding his hard work towards raising the efficacy of this pocket protection across this squad’s 2 deep.  And it could not have come at a more opportune time.  True, the scrimmage-level pressure of the Red Dog pass rush last Saturday wasn’t the most accurate barometer when judging the increased level of pass protection; however the observed progress of this unit against Miami’s DL did shed a glimmer of hope for the near future.  As an adjunct to this improvement, Fitz and McCall absolutely MUST cease the revolving door of free substitution among the OTs and OGs that have hampered the field play continuity of this unit.  Settle on a starting 5 OL and keep it that way, with subs coming-in only when a player falters repeatedly or is injured.  One item of particular note: newbie OL Pat Ward is NOT an offensive guard, and to throw him into this unfamiliar position against Division 1A defensive competition is to blueprint him for failure.  He is and always will be an OT, period.  Give him and the RBs running behind him a break.               

atteThe Heat - Turn It Up
Throughout this entire season, the ‘Cat defense has been an enigma.  No great revelation there, to be sure.  On consecutive plays, the field play of NU’s D can be brilliant at one down and then downright putrid at the next.  Breakdowns at the point of attack are commonplace among our Purple Personnel - especially when shedding blocks or tackling.  I can only point to a single universal resolution - in 3 parts: Attack the ball with extreme prejudice - locate the ball, close with reckless abandon and stick your forehead into the chest of the ball carrier.  

No further elaboration is necessary... It’s as simple as that. 

Last Saturday, this mantra was chanted and observed across the board defensively.  Eight sacks, 11 TFLs, 3 forced fumbles and 3 picks provide clear and unbiased testament to this increase in aggression; and I for one, am glad to see it come finally.  Doc turned up the heat and his troops responded by pinning their ears back and going after the ball.  Still, breakdowns were in evidence, particularly at the DT position, but they were contained and limited, especially as the game progressed.  And again, I must point-out that this field play improvement was against the worst offense in Division 1A.  However, in H-2, Red Dog QB, Zac Dysert looked tentative and more focused on operating within his compressed backfield than executing the designed play.  Hopefully, Doc can review this effort with his players and the collective results of this one game can be built-upon and carried-over to the 2nd half of the ‘Cats’ 2009 season.

atteObservations on Improvement to NU’s D
  • Doc still has his hands full of walking wounded among his 2 deep, but it’s getting healthier.  Being listed as No. 2 at a position means you WILL see plenty of PT.  Expect it.  Want it.  Make an impact.  Players always do. 
  • The DT position is problematic.  Adam Hahn is damaged goods, and Niko Mafuli showed flashes of his talent as a primary sub, but remains a work-in-progress.  Corbin Bryant can dominate, but he must do so from the opening whistle of the game. 
  • Big announcement to any and all of the DTs: you’re gonna get doubled all day long, so get used to it and fight through it.  Waiting to turn up your engine in H-2 is not going to cut it, from here on out.
  • CBs MUST close to the ball hard on the swing pass to the flat zone.  Yes, you will make mistakes when breaking-down, but to arrive too late to front the ball when it shows in open space is worse.  Commit to the attack and trust your footwork.  Slap that black 2-by-4 twice as you exit the locker room.
  • DEs - Get off the ball, use your feet to shed the block & gain separation and use the rip technique on passing downs to get around the OT/TE.  Locking horns with the blocker means you’re out of the play.
  • Safeties - no WR ever gets behind you... N-E-V-E-R. 


Without a doubt, this game was boring and I fully expected Fitz to substitute his offensive personnel freely, which he did.  Consequently, Mick McCall’s O made enough plays to get the job done via the Kafka “Ding-n-Dunk” Show.  The ‘Cat OL needs to step-up collectively to the plate and deliver the definitive blow when it comes to getting NU’s running game back on track.  The ultimate resolution to the ‘Cats’ problematical ground game lies in the hearts of the Hogs at the LOS.  As a group, you are not the straw that stirs this offensive drink, you are the Louisville Slugger in the trough.  Time to grip it and whip it flush into the facemask of the opposing DL.  There is no substitute.  To date this fall, I have yet to see much misdirection or counter action (a.k.a.: trap plays) employed in NU’s ground game, and hopefully, the NU playbook has a chapter or two detailing this yet unused series of offensive plays.  Moo U would be the perfect contest to reveal them.

Doc kept his D healthy without undo injury to his primary playmakers.  However, many subs were still not effective as I thought they could and should be, and the secondary is still giving-up the long ball.  I’m sure that Doc and his defensive brain trust have similar trains of thought.  Still, a “W” is a “W” and having a glorified scrimmage in game No. 6 to tweak machine to peak performance is not such a bad thing. 

The ‘Cats stand at 4-2 and I honestly thought in the preseason that they would be at 5-1 minimum at this juncture.  If the NU brain trust on either side of the LOS can keep their individual units focused on limiting those breakdowns, specifically on the defensive side, then they will be competitive for every game.  If not, then it’s gonna be a very long 2nd half of 2009. 

I’m expecting the former. 

The Waterboy       

Sept. 25, 2009

The Unexpected - Delivered

I must admit, I never envisioned that the events which unfolded in last Saturday’s game against the Sorry Excuse Orange Nerf-Balls ever shoulda, woulda, coulda happened whatsoever.  After all, this was a team in complete transition, whose former HC, who held a credible resume from his prior coaching engagements, was replaced after another dismal football campaign in 2008; supplanted by another credible coaching candidate who took one look at his incumbent roster and decided to make some drastic changes in personnel, then rouses his program’s slumbering fan base to what I truly felt was unreal, unachievable expectations for a competitive season against some intimidating opposition in 2009.  I was not convinced that the return to respectability of this once heralded program could have taken place in anything less than 3 to 4 years.  Was I ever wrong... totally wrong.

First, was Sorry Excuse’s opening game against a resurgent Minnie Mighty Marmot squad.  The Orange Nerf-Balls held their own against this middle tier Big 10/11 conference foe and took them into overtime behind the arm of a new QB whose athletic skillset was forged in another unrelated college sport altogether.  How playing basketball as starting point guard for the national powerhouse Dookie Blue Imps would translate into becoming an effective pass-skilled Division 1A QB was beyond my comprehension.  Playing collegiate baseball... now that athletic skillset held crossover merit relative to the necessary, refined throwing motion expected from a major college football QB.  But hoops?  Hardly.  But there he was.  Point-guard-turned-starting-QB Greg Paulus was mere moments from personal glory, having shoved the Golden Rodents up against the wall and forced the game into OT.  However, his last pass of OT-1 was his worst of the contest, an INT that provided the Mighty Marmots with a golden opportunity to kick the game-clinching FG, which they converted in unflinching fashion.  Still circumstances surrounding the game left the common college football fan pondering the possibilities...

Next on the Sorry Excuse pigskin plate was a daunting grapple against Big 10/11 conference and national championship contender Inmates from State Penn.  However, instead of unraveling like a cheap suit, the Orange Nerf-Ball D came to the fore by holding their own against Joe Pa’s formidable balanced offensive attack through most of H-1, keeping the game within relative striking distance.  It was only when the State Penn’s offensive brain trust abandoned their ineffective ground game, and concentrated on a passing the ball almost exclusively in H-2, did the Inmates salt the game away with relatively several easy TDs off the arm of QB Darryl Clark in the second half. 

Then the Northwestern Wildcats came calling... 

How the ‘Cats Got Bounced By the Orange Nerf-Balls

Who Dat?

When it was first announced, my first and lasting impression regarding Greg Paulus’ bid to become the starting QB for Sorry Excuse, a decision that I truly felt was simply a publicity stunt by a former collegiate basketball star looking for prolonged exposure in the spotlight that is major college sports, was that it would be  nothing more than a curious footnote to HC Doug Marrone’s up-hill odyssey to resurrect the faltering Orange Nerf-Ball program.  One irrefutable item to acknowledge was that Mr. Paulus, prior to his decision to pursue his hoops dreams under the tutelage under Coach K, was, in fact, a highly recruited QB during his high school athletic career. But that was 4 years ago, and the speed, pace and skill level required of a Division 1A football game is well above the Friday Night Lights field play exhibited in the common HS game.  I honestly believed that Paulus’ lack of Division 1A passing refinement would be exposed and his team and its new HC would fail miserably as a consequence; and that the only result of this whole episode would be in the additional 15 minutes of fleeting fame that might have been afforded to this gambit from media outlets like ESPN or the “Mike & Mike in the Morning” cable sports talk show. 

Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not only was Paulus downright effective when throwing the bean against NU’s vaunted 2009 secondary, he shredded it like a straight razor against tissue paper.  Although I’m not necessarily an advocate for quoting game statistics, the final Orange Nerf-Ball QB’s passing numbers are as undeniable as they are eye-popping: 24 for 35, 346 total yards with 2 TDs to his credit.  That’s Heisman Trophy-level production, folks.  The Sorry Excuse starting QB announced his presence on the stage of 2009 college football in the biggest of ways, and against what had been anointed in the pre-season as one of the top 4 defensive secondaries populating the Big 10/11 conference.  Or perhaps these gaudy totals were just the result of...    

An AWOL Defense

What happened to NU’s pre-season team strength this year?  The ‘Cats’ defense, which had been predicted by every college football media pundit in the country as THE squad that would dominant their competition, especially the sponge-filled, yellow dessert-cake types which populated their OOC schedule, have fallen flat on their faces.  Or truth be told, they have been knocked back on their collective behinds in short order.  Any semblance of a competitive defense by the ‘Cats was totally forsaken in what turned into a wholly unexpected and unpredictable shootout between NU and the Sorry-Excuse Orange Nerf-Balls

Truth be told, there had been an ominous foreshadowing to the defensive debacle that I and many other rabid fans at Tommy Nevin’s witnessed last Saturday evening, and it happened in H-2 during NU’s squeaker “W” against the EMU Beagles last weekend.  With the ‘Cats full of themselves after garnering what appeared to be a relatively easy 21 point lead midway through Q2, NU’s defense literally went walk-about.  Throughout the final 35 minutes of the game, Beagle HC Ron English kept encouraging and motivating his team, mentoring them to retain their focus and “never say die” competitive attitude in the face of their H-1 deficit, and it began to reap results.  The Beagle O rushed for 130 yards in 17 totes, while unheralded QB Andy Schmitt completed a complimentary 20 of 28 passes, often using a vacate pass pattern scheme to an open zone in the flat outside the corner contain of either ‘Cat defensive end, where the EMU RB would run a swing route, Schmitt would toss a 10 yard dumper for an easy pitch & catch, then the RB would have 10-15 yards free space to exploit  unchallenged downfield.  The inside-out pass coverage support by NU’s OLBs was non-existent, while the ‘Cat CBs and Safeties were slow to recognize the vacate pattern of the Beagle WRs and come-up hard to fill the open space in the flat and meet the receiving RB as the pass was delivered.  Then there was the Beagle’s “rushing through the sieve” ground game.  What had been a dominating tour-de-force by NU’s front 7 in Q1 went AWAL for the remainder of the game - highlighted by glaring out-of-position defenders, multiple missed tackles on single running plays and most devastating of all, individual DL failing to separate from one-on-one blocks across the entire LOS.  Such a formula equates to an impending train wreck when defending a quick, piston-legged ball carrier like Beagle RB Dwayne Priest.  It all contributed to an unimaginable comeback to tie the contest, prompting the heroics of 3 beautifully executed short passes by NU QB Mike Kafka, culminated by a herculean boot for the game-winning FG from Stephen Demos. 

But that game was mere prelude to the passion play of universal defensive breakdowns exhibited by the ‘Cat D against the Orange Nerf-Ball O the following week.  While Kafka’s passing attack was being neutralized and the NU ground game essentially bottled-up for little to no production in Q1, the Nerf-Ball O was having a field day both running and passing the ball for continual big yards on highlight reel field play, capped by a 66 yard pitch-n-catch TD between Paulus and his go-to WR, Mike Williams, off another blown coverage, giving the Orange Nerf-Balls a 17-zip lead after Q1.  The ‘Cats were in deep kim-chee with little hope of reprieve from their struggling O if they continued their current defensive field play pattern.
What was going on?  Where was that expected devastating pass rush that was supposed to keep opposing QBs, especially newbies like hoop-dreams-PG-turned-stopgap-starting-QB Greg Paulus, dazed and confused and on his back looking for relief and an assist to the sidelines?  Where was that imagined, pre-season lock-down pass coverage dominance to be delivered by NU’s most experienced defensive secondary since the ’95 - ’96 era?  Where did that “fastest ever” 2-deep defensive roster go?  I’m positive that Doc Hankwitz’ defensive schemes didn’t suddenly morph into something resembling the “Behold the Power of Swiss Cheese” defenses of Greg Cobly of 3 years hence.
Something else must be the overriding contributing factor.  Perhaps all this poor field play comes down to as single element...

NU’s Walking Wounded

Without a doubt, a football team’s greatest challenge is overcoming the injury bug - and it is true at any level of play, from Pop Warner and primary school teams right through the pros.  A injury to a single key playmaker, like a starting QB or the field general LB, can leave a squad with the feeling of total desertion.  And I believe that has happened to the 2009 NU defense - and was in full evidence last Saturday against the Sorry Excuse O.
The list is staggering: starting MLB, Nate Williams - out; starting CB Sherrick McManis - out; starting DT Adam Hahn - out (although truth be told, he did see some PT, but all too very little).  Then there’s the walking wounded - most notable among them: Corey Wootton who is nothing but heavily damaged goods in 2009, sporting a defensive productivity quotient half of what was demonstrated last season.  This injury profile is a blueprint for failure, and this game’s horrid defensive results were a direct consequence of these key playmakers being replaced by personnel with conspicuously diminished capabilities.  Many among the Purple Populace had stated in the pre-season that the defense had the best overall depth than it had in a decade and a half, including myself.  Well, that boastful prognostication has been proven unfounded and void of any substance.  Doc’s current 2 deep roster is slowly becoming a patchwork quilt of 2nd stringers, walking wounded and mistake-prone under-achieving substitutes.  How else could newbie QB Greg Paulus look like Joe “Gun” Montana weaving his passing acumen against NU’s porous D?  Unless something drastic happens to ‘Cat defensive personnel between the training room and the Saturday afternoon gridiron, the near future is not very bright for Doc and his defensive brain trust to remain competitive.    

The Sandlot Flop

If Fitz is the early-years, second coming of State Penn’s HC Joe Pa, then he had better start paying more attention to the lessons to be learned from this venerable elder statesman of the Big 10/11 coaching fraternity.  In Week 2, the Inmates of State Penn played these same Sorry Excuse Orange Nerf-Balls.  Joe Pa, having seen the pesky Nerf-Balls stay competitive with his team throughout H-1, virtually abandoned his ground game and replaced it with a predominant passing attack where his QB could throw at will in H-2. And Joe Pa instructed his offensive field general, QB Darryl Clark, to keep pressing the Inmate’s aerial circus to the final gun.  The result: in contrast to offensive rushing totals which were modest to poor at best, Clark went bananas recording post-game pass production stats of 20-for-31 for 240 total yards and 3 TDs. 

The paradigm for beating the Nerf-Balls was set for Fitz for follow - pass early, pass often against the Orange Nerf-Ball’s soft, slow secondary and even softer pass rush to keep the chains moving and set-up scoring chances at every opportunity.  Only problem, Fitz and his OC, Mick McCall, apparently were napping during that game film tutorial and failed to take the appropriate notes, insisting instead on maintaining their preferred balanced offensive attack - even when NU’s running game was going nowhere fast while the clock continued to tick towards 0:00.  I’ll never understand why Fitz and McCall insisted on running the ball when Kafka and the NU receiver corps were so very successful, making prodigious amounts of offensive yardage hay - practically unchallenged. 

And NU’s last few offensive series maintained that predetermined balance between the run and pass - even when the ‘Cats scored quickly via Kafka’s arm in an ever increasing shoot-out scenario.  An HC and OD both know that the primary objective in a football shootout is to score quickly and decisively via the air and keep it coming against an ever-tiring opposing D.  And in this case, NU’s shootout capacities were clicking on all cylinders against the Orange Nerf-Balls.  Kafka’s 6-10 yard passes were effective and productive, resembling a sandlot pick-up football game of dink-n-dunk tosses that created frequent scoring ops and reduced play time.  However, when the ‘Cats’ chips were pushed all-in during their last offensive series with 98 ticks left on the game clock, Kafka and his WR corps misconnected badly for an offensive series that was decisive.  First it was a mistimed throw to no one in particular, followed by a head-scratching drop of an easy pitch-n-catch from Kafka and to his reliable primary receiving target, ‘Drew Brew.  Then the final dagger... the uncharacteristic easy pick of a Kafka 20 yard chuck into triple coverage where his target receiver ran another route other than what Kafka had expected - which was most likely an open-read pass pattern where the receiver is given his choice of where-how-when to sprint into an open zone or seam that he reads within the defensive secondary, against which the QB must recognize his WR’s intended route and deliver the pill to him in that open spot.  Whatever it was, the pass play was just plain awful and overshadowed, what had been to that point, a brilliant exhibition of passing prowess and mental connectivity between a QB and his WR corps.  Game over.


And so, this season’s inexplicable bumble of an expected “W” to an out-of-conference Twinkie happened against the Sorry Excuse Orange Nerf-Balls.  Like last season’s gaffe-laden stumble against the Indy WhoZits, NU must rise from the ashes of this smoldering dung heap and just flush it.  And I gotta say..  I hope OC Mick McCall and HC Pat Fitz take to heart what lessons can be learned from their collective poor play calling and failure to react in-time to existing game play - especially if their opponent is stoning their offensive production to start-off a game and is exploiting their less-than healthy D.  Several good things were revealed, while in contrast, several very bad things were exposed regarding the ‘Cat playmakers and pretenders.  Although I’m not happy with the outcome, I can take solace that NU’s O is not as hobbled as I first thought.  Now about that D...    

Time to tighten the chinstrap of your bonnet to greet the Minnie Mighty Marmots at Dyche’s Ditch. 

The Waterboy       

Sept. 10, 2009

Outmanned + Outgunned + Outrun = Outmatched

A simple equation with a predictable result.  NU’s foe last Saturday, The Towson Tigers, is a football team undergoing dramatic internal transitions.  Following a string losing seasons, the Towson athletic department decided to dismiss their HC after another dismal record in 2008 and kick-start their turnaround with a fresh approach from a new coaching regime.  In turn, that newly-hired HC and his coaching staff decided that the current player personnel situation dictated a sweeping house-cleaning as well, and replaced incumbent position players on Towson’s former 2-deep roster, en masse, with a dozen-plus true frosh and sophs.  Unfortunately, their 2009 campaign opener, a scheduling aberration born of former NU AD Mark Murphy’s close relationship with Towson administrators, would give these newbie Tigers little to look forward-to regarding a competitive contest against the up-and-coming NU Wildcats.  In short, the prevailing pre-game analysis of last Saturday’s game was that the Tigers were euphemistic lambs being led to the slaughter as they faced the strong, resurgent ‘Cats; and in the end, that perspective held true.

Like many among the Purple Populace, my biggest concern for the ‘Cats entering into this pillow fight was the threat of serious injury to any of the principle personnel on NU’s own depth chart.  Thankfully, HC Fitz and his coaching brain trusts exercised restraint and limited the playing time of many of their primary playmakers and liberally distributed the 60 minutes of field play across most every player donning a purple helmet- especially mixing and matching DB personnel with various combo DL player packages, using a series rotation among the OL, and of course the RB by committee of 5 interchangeable purple-clad smurfs.  The expected mismatch was more than obvious from the opening whistle to the final gun, and it was to Fitz’s credit that he restricted the beat-down taking place on Dyche’s Ditch to something respectable on the scoreboard.

So in keeping with this theme of restraint, the following commentary regarding the ‘Cats’ glorified scrimmage against the Towson Tigers will be equally limited and concise.

How the ‘Cats De-Clawed the Tigers

Size Does Matter
When Towson jogged from the visitor’s portal onto the green carpet of Dyche’s Ditch, I had one immediate impression... these guys are small - to a man.  The size and weight differential between the Tigers and the ‘Cats was substantive and most apparent when this observer compared the opposing linemen on either side of the LOS.  It was the primary reason that NU scored almost at will in Q1.  And although I wasn’t particularly impressed with the pocket protection footwork of Mick McCall’s right OT on several pass plays, whoever might have been playing that position, the collective field play of the Cats’ OL was downright dominant.  As a unit, they kept the uniforms of NU’s QB tandem of Mike Kafka and Dan “Da Man” Persa squeaky-clean, with the single exception of Persa getting blasted on his backside just after having delivered that 72 yard bomb to ‘Drew-Brew, in stride, for NU’s 4th TD of H-1, giving the ‘Cats a very comforting and comfortable 28-point cushion within the game’s initial 16 minutes.  And on the heals of that successful pitch and catch to paydirt, Towson’s game was essentially done for the day.  Fitz and his OC were hard pressed to prevent the remaining 44 minutes from turning into a demoralizing embarrassment for their guests from Maryland.  

The Gunslingers
NU’s QB tandem had a field day - especially Kafka who had completed a laudable 7 for 8 in Q1, highlighted by a string of 6 straight completions, that set the stage for 3 subsequent rushing TDs converted from the red zone in Q1.  I cannot recall another game where the ‘Cats scored 21 points while blanking their opponent during the same time frame.  Then comes the seamless Persa-to-Brewer bomb on Dan “Da Man’s” first passing attempt of his 2009 season.  Nothing like ripping the heart out of an opponent with a rusty spoon.   After that gimme TD, Fitz literally turned on the cruise control, cranked his O’s speedometer to 68 and pressed the “Set” button. 

Attack of the Smurfs
A major issue for NU’s O in 2009 is the incontrovertible lack of a big, bruising, “30-touches-a-game” starting RB.  This season’s version of the Wildcat spread is missing that Noah Herron, Jason Wright or DA1-DA2 type of premier go-to rusher.  Instead, Fitz has employed his “RB by Smurf committee” alternative rushing attack, comprised of the 5’8” Stephen “S-squared” Simmons, a 5’9” Arby “Beef-n-Chedda” Fields, the 5’10” Scott “Can-Do” Concannon, a 5’11” Jeravin “2 inches of media latitude” Matthews and the 5’10” Jason Schmidt.  I marveled at the fact that each of these viable RBs who lined up in the backfield along with NU’s 2-headed Kafka/Persa QB seemed virtually interchangeable.  They all looked like smurfs - diminutive and skinny - especially when standing side-by-side to their big, ugly OL buds in the NU huddle.  And they all had an eerily similar rushing style - taking the handoff behind their tall-tree OL, slashing into and thru the open “between-the-tackles” seam at the LOS and completing the rush by delivering the blow instead of absorbing the blow first in the defensive 2nd level.  And conversely, all of them, to a man, appeared a step slow, or at least hesitant, when trying to gain the defensive corner.  Most definitely, this is an area of deficiency that NU’s Smurf RB committeemen must address and overcome before the EMU Beagles truck into Evanston next weekend.  Still, the Smurf coalition collected a total of 181 hard-fought-for yards on 38 rushing attempts.  Not terrible stats, but when considered that this was the Smurfs’ rushing totals for the day against the overmatched, undersized defensive front 7 of the Towson Tigers, then there is much more to be desired and worried about concerning NU’s ground game production.  This attack better get its collective Smurf act together before it faces off against the Orange Nerf-Balls of Sorry-Excuse or the Minnie Mighty Marmots.   

It’s Vanilla, and You’ll Like It
Doc Hankwitz had his defensive troops primed and ready to hit anybody who wasn’t wearing a purple helmet.  And in spite of exercising the most vanilla, heads-up, “no stunts whatsoever” defensive strategy, the ‘Cat D kept Towson’s O to a mere 7 yards rushing and 17 yards thru the air producing a single 1st down in Q1.  Doc’s squad followed that outstanding performance by limiting the Tigers to 23 yards total rushing and 72 yards passing for H-1 - most of which was generated during Towson’s only scoring drive of the first half in Q2 - against the ‘Cats’ 2nd and 3rd string defensive personnel. With a 37-7 lead, Doc kept spooning heaping helpings of vanilla-laden defensive strategy through the remainder of the game.  No need to expose any essential player to the injury bug.           


And so, this season-opening home scrimmage concluded without any drama, trauma or unnecessary harm done.  Hardly satisfied, Fitz’s post-game commentary focused on the preventable scoring drives converted on the ‘Cats’ D and various breakdowns in field play that just got under his skin - one of which was a lackluster kicking game and some bone-headed penalties, especially of the offensive holding variety.  I applaud his ‘tude.  This game most certainly wasn’t a work of art, but it was colorful at times and showed Fitz and his coordinators just where their team’s strengths and deficiencies lie. 

Regarding those shortfalls, they will be addressed and rectified before the tussle against the EMU Beagles. 

And my parting comment to “Beef-n-Chedda”...  you are NOT Tyrell Sutton!!!

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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