The Waterboy
2014 Archive

Nov. 27, 2014

A November To Remember?

You saw it, I saw it; and anyone else who, however briefly, might have switched their TV channel changer to the NU vs Perdue Broiler Chicken game last Saturday saw it as well (and who among any casual B1G football fan would have wasted more than a just a few minutes watching this literal train wreck for the home team).  The Wildcats unwrapped, exposed then gobbled-up the softest, lowest caloric valued Twinkie in the B1G conference on their trip into West Laughable, Indiana for their 3rd conference “W” of this 2014 campaign.  Truth be told, this contest was more mercy killing than an actual victory simply because the Broiler Chickens are that Gawd awful; lacking most anything that resembles competitive ability in all 3 phases of the game, even worse than the Pumpkinheads of Ill-Annoy, and that is saying quite a mouthful.  However, in retrospect, I must admit the game was quite refreshing – to finally watch the ‘Cats dispatch a much lesser opponent with pedestrian playmaking efficacy rather than playing down to the level of this pizz-poor opponent and surviving yet another character-building nail-biter that once more would test the mettle of the much superior ‘Cats.  

Prior to the ‘Cats’ grapple with the Noted Dames in Sow Bend last weekend, Fitz had told his players to harken back to their halcyon high school football days, and in particular, to the unbounded excitement, the pressure to perform and the lessons learned surrounding those critical win-or-go-home games during their individual teams’ state H.S. championship playoff runs held in November.  Fitz then told his troops that the challenge they were about to face in their final three B1G contests of the 2014 season was exactly the same – same excitement, same pressure and same chance to learn and improve upon earlier mistakes made – as had they experienced in their H.S. football careers with this collegiate football moment’s brass ring prize being the opportunity to secure that much sought-after 6th “W” that would make the ‘Cats eligible for post-season bowl consideration.  When I first heard it, I thought that such a mental exercise was both motivationally innovative and to-the-heart-of-the-matter honest – that Fitz could call-upon each player’s recollection of what it took, personally, to get the job done in their team’s drive to secure their state’s ultimate pigskin prize: that highly-coveted H.S. football championship trophy.   Most assuredly, this tactic wasn’t theatrics, not by a long shot.  It was a message from the heart of their HC to that special place within the individual heart of each player that made him choose football as his athletic vocation of choice.  And that choice was going to be put to another ultimate test of “win and advance” survival. 

The ‘Cats responded in kind to Fitz’ thoughtful memory jogging with a hard fought road game victory against a prohibitive double-digit favorite Noted Dames team that is bound to become a distinctive part of Northwestern football lore with the passing of years.  But that “W”, historically significant as it undoubtedly is, was merely the opening act of a 3-act stage play to be acted-out by the 2014 Wildcats.  Act 2 was Saturday’s throttling of an overmatched Perdue Broiler Chicken team that many non-Pollyanna Wildcat fans forewarned might give the ‘Cats fits if they let them hang around long enough to give them fits.  Thankfully, the ‘Cats took care of their business with Perdue early enough in the contest to dispel most of those doom and gloom prognostications.  However, this easy “W’ was purchased at a soon-to-be-determined price tag: a profound, season-ending injury to NU’s most depended-upon playmaker.

Now it’s up to the remaining Wildcat survivors to seal the deal regarding this 3-act win-or-go-home stage play.  If the ‘Cat can rise to the challenge of besting their in-state arch-rival, the Ill-Annoy Pumpkinheads, and deliver that 3rd and last “W” of this most unlikely string of victories which would give them bowl eligibility in 2014, this month truly would be a November To Remember.   Stay tuned for more...

How the ‘Cats Deep Fried the Perdue Broiler Chickens

The IC Show
IMHO, there isn’t a single football player in the B1G today, or perhaps only a select few in any other Power 5 conference within Division 1A for that matter, who epitomizes the pigskin field play philosophy of “playing behind your pads” more than Senior ‘Cat SS Ibrahim Campbell.  Frankly, there have been very rare occasions during his Northwestern football career where Campbell‘s passion for the game, commitment to excellence and relentless determination to make his presence felt on the field hasn’t authenticated him to be anything less than a man playing among boys. 

 By far, he represents Northwestern’s most likely candidate to be drafted by an NFL team in 2015. 

Against the Broiler Chickens, Mr. Campbell, per usual, led by example in showing his Wildcat teammates just what it takes to dominate one’s opposition through intimidating in-your-face physical field play.  Ibrahim’s final stats – which included 8 tackles (6 solo & 2 assists), 2 PBU, a forced fumble and recovery, and his 3rd INT for the 2014 season – just don’t do him justice regarding the immeasurable defensive contribution he provided in shutting-down the Perdue O last weekend.   He was simply everywhere and anywhere a Broiler Chicken ball carrier toted the bean.   When reviewing the game via BTN replay in stop-go and repeat mode with my usual discerning, critical eye towards details, I was in awe.  Not once did I see him out of position nor was he ever totally blocked and taken completely out of the picture on any one down.  It didn’t matter what play was being executed by the Perdue O, run or pass; Campbell sniffed out the POA and attacked the ball carrier with regular intensity.  His high quality field play was infectious to every one of his defensive teammates, who recognized the Senior’s stalwart energy and emulated it progressively as the game wore on.  No doubt this commendable wholesale effort from every Wildcat defensive position was a very welcome sight to Fitz and Doc, especially in retrospect to the defensive train wreck showing given by these same players in the Iowa debacle three Saturdays prior.  And it all was instigated by NU’s firebrand defensive leader, Ibrahim Campbell.

Hair On Fire
Doc Hankwitz had his D loaded for bear when he turned them loose against the Perdue offense, led by Broiler Chicken QB Austin Appleby and its two-headed starting RB in the guise of Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert.  Over the course of their 2014 campaign, Perdue had shown an uncanny characteristic to keep in relative close contact scoring-wise with their opposition for whole portions of the game, only to get overwhelmed eventually and lose by double digit deficits due to just a few game-deciding field play gaffes by their primary playmakers.  The best, most poignant example of Perdue’s failure to finish tendency can be observed in their game against Mich State, in which the Broiler Chickens had crawled out from a 3 TD hole with 2 quick-strike TDs of their own, cutting Sparty’s lead to 7 precious points in mid Q4.  Then, with just under 3 minutes left on the game clock, Appleby and Co. found themselves in possession of the bean deep in their own territory, at their 5 yard line, fanaticizing on an implausible chance to complete their comeback with a tying TD that would send the game into OT.  Unfortunately, the brainfart bug bit Appleby squarely in his buttocks when he hand-delivered a pick-6 TD to State’s secondary on the ensuing drive to deposit Perdue back down into another insurmountable 14-point hole and dash their dreams of pounding a debilitating dent in Sparty’s repeat B1G Division champion armor. 

This end-game pick-6 turnover example underscores Perdue’s ongoing penchant to self-destruct under pressure from either side of the LOS.  Consequently, Doc constructed a defensive game plan to exploit this turnover tendency by the Broiler Chicken O and specifically commanded his troops to aggressively attack the ball with extreme prejudice and go for the RB strip or jump the pass route whenever the opportunity presented itself.  And did the Wildcat D personnel, to a man, ever respond to this go-for-the-jugular directive. 

From the game’s opening whistle, the ‘Cat defense was flying around like their hair was on fire, if only because their in-game, per-position reads provided by NU’s defensive brain trust were spot on, eliminating any doubt regarding what play was being executed and proffering to those defenders the extreme confidence to trust those game-plan reads, which, in turn, allowed them to pin their collective ears back and pursue the ball without hesitation.   If Appleby probed NU’s short boundary pass zones with a WR bubble screen near a sideline, for example, the ‘Cat DE to that side shed his OL blocker, abandoning his defensive contain responsibility, then flew to the ball in inside-out run support while his outside CB and Safety teammates sprinted hard upfield, avoided any wide receiver blockers on the way and stuffed the ball’s downfield progress in front-side run support.  Witnessing these multiple defensive positions converge on the bean in unison and with utter abandon then stone the ball carrier for minimal yardage gains with relative consistency was a thing of beauty.

This relentless universal pursuit to the ball by the ‘Cat defense showed dividends early and often, as they forced turnovers in bunches from the Broiler Chicken offensive playmakers, just like Doc had predicted, especially in H-1.  Doc’s D was dialed-in and went bananas particularly in defending Perdue’s occasionally explosive ground game, limiting PU’s first half rushing gains to a measly 42 yards off 18 attempts.  The Broiler Chicken passing attack fared little better in H-1, as Appleby completed 11 of 21 pass attempts collecting a paltry 87 yards in the process, 61 of which were gained on Perdue’s only possession of consequence of H-1, its last, which resulted in PU’s only non-garbage time TD score of the game.   Meanwhile, the ‘Cat D did some ball-hawk collecting of their own by snaring 3 recoveries off 3 forced fumbles, complimented by an INT on Perdue’s opening offensive drive of the game.  These 4 TOs afforded the ‘Cat O 4 extra possessions in H-1, 3 of which were converted into 2 TDs and a FG, totaling 17 points.  Together with PR Tony Jones’ highlight reel punt return for a TD, those 17 points off TOs and Mr. Jones’ 7-point PR contribution spotted the ‘Cats an easy 24-0 lead from which they never looked back, leaving the befuddled and disheartened Broiler Chickens far behind, eating NU’s dust. 

It’s about time. 

Double Duty
Something surprisingly wonderful has emerged over the course of the last 3 games for the Offensive Wildcats: a dynamic duo RB tandem.  Virtually everyone from media pundits, to television broadcasters, to B1G coaching staffs and B1G fanbases alike have recognized the impressive yardage production capabilities of NU’s true Frosh Phenom  RB, Justin Jackson.  However, any true ‘Cat fan would be highly remiss if he failed recognize the critically substantial contribution of Senior RB Treyvon Greene to NU’s progressively effective ground game.  The rushing field play of each individual RB compliments the other’s playmaking abilities; and this collaboration was evident and highly effective in the Wildcats’ game against the Boiler Chickens.  

Essentially, Perdue’s defense had no answer to the problem posed by OC Mick McCall’s Purple RB tandem.  Reprising the results he had generated against the Noted Dames when he rushed for 149 yards on 23 attempts, Jackson scorched the Broiler Chickens for similar rushing totals: 147 yards on 23 rushing attempts, putting the Frosh over the 1000-yard mark and ranking him second in total rushing yards for a Frosh in NU history behind Tyrell Sutton’s eye-popping freshmen rushing record of 1474 yards gained in 2005.  And to think: Justin has this coming Saturday’s tilt against the rush prevention-challenged Ill-Annoy defense against whom he will pad his already remarkable rushing statistics.  Just remain healthy Mr. Jackson.

Meanwhile, Treyvon Greene made his own rushing mark of sorts with a commendable 66-yard day, highlighted by a nifty 44 yard scamper in Q1, his second 40-plus explosion rush in as many games.  Greene’s dash to daylight down the left sidelines ended at the Perdue 25 and set-up NU’s first score of the contest: a pitch-n-catch completion from Siemian to his preferred receiver, SB Dan “The Man” Vitale, running a sweet wheel route from the slot WR position into the Broiler Chicken end zone.  A balanced offensive attack is a very good thing indeed.  And if the ‘Cat OL do their part in maintaining an effective spread attack zone blocking profile, the RB tandem of Jackson and Greene will do their level best to deliver the scoring goods via the ground.  I expect nothing less. 


OK, so the ‘Cats did the needful and dutifully devoured a Twinkie with their 24-point drubbing of an under-manned Perdue Broiler Chicken team.  Big Whoop-Dee-Doo.

Now, quite literally, the stage is set for the 3rd act of the Wildcats’ improbable 3-act “drive to survive” passion play.  For the first time in more than a dozen seasons of playing their mutual rivalry game, this weekend’s game means as much to the Ill-Whine-I as it does for the ‘Cats: bowl eligibility.  Similar to the ‘Cats’ pigskin record in 2014, Ill-Annoy sports its own 5-6 overall record, albeit a record in which the Ill-Whine-I dropped 5 games of a 6-game stretch and whose 5-win total was bolstered considerably by a cupcake-laden out-of-conference slate that included such fear-inducing foes as the Youngstown State Penguins, the Western Kentucky Red Blobs and the Texas State Bobble-Heads.  I’m sure Fitz would have been shaking in his booties at the prospect of his ‘Cats facing these daunting OOC opponents.  C’mon, man… Texas State?  Get real… No?  Then again, HC Tim Beckman, The Erudite, and his pumpkin-headed Ill-Whine-I did capture a quality win in defeating B1G Western Division Pretenders: a burnt-out Minnie Mighty Marmot team on the road at TCF Stadium, one week after the Marmots totally blew their competitive wad in a good ol’ Wild West shoot-out for an exhausting 39-38 “W” against none other than… The Perdue Broiler Chickens. 

So the Broiler Chickens were then; and the Ill-Whine-I are now for the Wildcats. 

The biggest problem for the ‘Cats when opposing the wholly putrid Pumpkinheads from Shampoo-Banana will be the absence of Fitz and Mick McCall’s love-child QB, Trevor Siemian, whose collegiate career abruptly ended when TS sustained a inexplicable season-ending ACL injury on a simple1-yard QB sneak attempt to gain a 1st down in Q1 of this very game against Perdue.  Hard to imagine, after all the substantial ink and heartburn spent towards 1) explaining Siemian’s debilitating season-long right ankle injury that severely hampered every aspect of his game right up to and through NU’s road victory against the Noted Dames and 2) justifying his continued use as the starting QB of choice in OC Mick McCall’s game plans for every football contest thus far in the 2014 campaign, that TS’ final departure from his starting QB role was dictated by a bizarre twist of fate (pun intended) off a purely pedestrian play like a QB sneak.  The mind boggles at the thought. 

Moving on, Siemian’s No. 1 backup QB, Zack Oliver, answers the “Next Man Up” call for the starting QB position within OC McCall’s offensive against despised rival Ill-Annoy.   For most of the 2014 season, I had clamored vociferously for a QB substitute, any QB substitute quite frankly, to replace the immobile, traffic cone-like Trevor Siemian and his obvious acutely sprained ankle with a more mobile primary ball handler who currently resided, dormant and untested, within Mick McCall’s QB stable.  Despite a resounding H.S. reputation as a deserving 4-star QB recruit, the number of real game downs played by Oliver in 2014 can be counted on the digits between both pairs of hands and feet.  However, when facing the defense-deficient Broiler Chickens last Saturday, he did have a modicum of success, running the QB side of the spread option for 23 yards on 6 rushes and while completing 5 of 11 pass attempts for 85 yards.  Not necessarily awe-inspiring numbers, to be sure, but positive totals all the same. 

Now Oliver receives the tap on the shoulder announcing his ascendancy to the starting QB role for the Wildcats.  I am confident that Zack will perform adequately if not very well in his collegiate starting QB debut against the Ill-Annoy Pumkinheads – just as he had done when extemporaneously called-upon to carry the quarterbacking torch as NU’s primary offensive ball handler against Perdue.  I fully trust that McCall will tutor Oliver with an intensive crash course this week on the finer points of running the spread option more effectively than he did facing the Broiler Chicken D and in going through his receiver progressions more smoothly and efficiently on passing plays, especially those progressions for McCall’s red zone pass series and his vertical pass series.  When passing against the Perdue secondary, Oliver showed that he has the skillset to throw the crisp, on-target, in-stride long ball.  What I don’t want to see is a dummied-down passing attack that is heavily restricted to McCall’s dink-n-dunk series alone, but contains a complete set of vertical downfield pass options to stretch the Ill-Whine-I secondary that would open-up a bevy of alternative rushing and passing options.  If not, even a buffoon like Ill-Whine-I HC Beckman will pack the box to stone NU’s rushing tandem and then jam the ‘Cats’ WRs at the LOS to confuse Oliver with tight blanket coverage schemes that would make him hesitant to throw into that coverage and set himself up to be victimized by the Ill-Annoy pass rush.   

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack

This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Senior ‘Cat SS Ibrahim Campbell.

This award commemorates not one, but two killer run support plays by Mr. Campbell which underscored why he remains the indisputable heart and soul leader of DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive squad in 2014. 

Campbell’s 1st display of raw power mixed with grit and intimate knowledge of how to bring heavy lumber to bear on a targeted ball carrier came on Perdue’s first offensive play from scrimmage after substitute QB Matt Alviti was stripped of the bean off a spread option run at the 9-minute mark of Q2.  On a toss sprint play attacking NU’s defensive edge to the wide side of the field, Broiler Chicken RB, Akeem Hunt, made his cut downfield behind the block of his pulling guard who engaged the ‘Cats’ strong-side CB who assumed corner contain responsibility.  From his initial SS position within NU’s cover-2 set, Ibrahim had an unobstructed view of the play’s proceedings as Hunt snagged the lateral from Appleby, sprinted to top of the 8 hole (wide of NU’s DE and inside the engaged OG-CB duo) at the LOS and made his turn towards the open lane to the inside of his OG’s block.  Mr. Campbell sprinted hard upfield into that 8-hole lane, trained his cross hairs on Mr.Hunt and met him with equivalent portions of heavy lumber mixed with bad intent.  Campbell careened full bore into Hunt’s grill at the LOS, de-cleating the Perdue RB, and depositing him rudely into the turf 2 full yards upfield from the point where he initially kissed the ball carrier.  Witnessing Ibrahim’s impressive slobber-knocker shot that stoned Hunt in his tracks made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

Campbell’s 2nd qualifying bomb came with a minute left before the first half intermission against another rush by Perdue RB Akeem Hunt, who made a cutback run away from the original point-of-attack (POA) at the left A-gap and into the open space on the backside of the LOS, just right of the fully engaged OL-DL line.  Ibrahim, positioned once again in his typical cover-2 spot, recognized the dive rush by reading the inside release motion of the Perdue Superback, initially positioned as a wing-slot back just outside the wide-side Broiler Chicken OT, as he initiated a down block on the ‘Cat DE to his inside.  Interpreting an inside handoff for a dive into the LOS from his SB motion read, Campbell charged hard upfield in run support to NU’s wide-side/left defensive edge.  Without a doubt, Mr. Hunt never saw the Campbell Express Train heading straight towards him as he made his backside cut downfield.  Ibrahim met Hunt at the LOS once again with heavy lumber in hand and swung it hard square into the RB’s facemask, snapping the ball carrier’s head straight back and turning his legs unto a pliable bunch of rubber bands.  Hunt crumpled to the turf in a heap of limp meat in the sure grip of Campbell.  I’m sure Mr. Hunt’s eventful evening following the game was filled with a throbbing headache and some fuzzy, vague recollection of his up-front-and-personal encounter with the Campbell Express.

Congratulations, Ibrahim.  You deserve every bit of the recognition that comes with this presentation.

Nov. 21, 2014

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus

Except that Santa Claus doesn’t live at the North Pole.  Nor does he fly around-on in a red sleigh pulled by “8+1” reindeer every December 24th Eve.  And most certainly he doesn’t enter your house by scrambling down your chimney.  However, rest assured, he is alive & well.  He resides in the head football coach’s office at the University of the Noted Dames; toils away at his craft surrounded by arrogant young people wearing shining gold helmets and obnoxiously day-glow bright all-gold cleats, all of whom sport an unabashed attitude of entitlement and very bad breath; is cheered-on lustily for 12 Saturday afternoons every fall by a rabid and equally arrogant and entitled fan base led by a dwarf dressed in a cute green elf-like costume; and most certainly delivers brightly-colored, ribbon & bow-topped gifts to deserving children.

To many an observer in attendance who witnessed what transpired between the Wildcats and the Noted Dames, the whole enterprise could be summed-up in a simple, yet extremely poignant phrase: “A comedy of errors.”  Thankfully, those errors on exhibit within this comedy were not limited to the players wearing the purple helmet with the white block “N” on it, but were spread relatively evenly among both combatants.  Making matters even worse (or to some of the more cynical souls among us, more entertaining) was the fact that most of these errors were of the hilarious brainfart variety.

Northwestern and Noted Dames fans alike, enduring the first truly bitter cold of the 2014 winter season and the 3-inch thick sheet of toe-numbing ice under their feet in the stands, watched in absolute slack-jawed amazement as players from either side of the LOS fumbled, bumbled and penalized themselves to outright embarrassment while the head coaches more than made their presence felt and their strategic coaching capabilities all too public as they continually made poor decision after poor decision, until there wasn’t any more time left on the game clock to make another one.  Both teams shoulda, coulda, woulda secured victory for themselves and their frigid fans on any one of a half-dozen occasions; but no, each team continually failed to execute that one critical coup de grace play to seal the deal until that fateful overtime period.  However make no mistake, in the final analysis, the much more universally talented Noted Dames virtually gave this game to the Wildcats; and the Wildcats, to their credit, did not unravel like a cheap suit as they had over their previous 4 games but rose to take advantage of the opportunity that had been hand-delivered into their grateful mitts and executed the needful to capture the “W” flag and transport it back to Evanston with the collective pride of a job well done, especially at end-game. 

How the ‘Cats Gave the Noted Dames
A “Nightmare Before Christmas”

Stocking Stuffers
As stated above, there is plenty of blame to go around among individual player personnel from either team for the amusing carrousel of brainfart field plays that went down throughout the contest.  Neither team’s offensive, defensive or special teams units stood apart as a superior alternative to the other, despite the well-advertised fact that the Noted Dame’s 2-deep roster is populated with 4 & 5-star recruits across every position on either side of the LOS, while NU’s depth chart is more pedestrian with 2 & 3-star personnel, many of which were rejected or outright ignored by ND in their mutual recruit wars.  But individual star-ratings had little to no influence when the Wildcat players faced-off against their Irish counterparts, then locked horns and battled like this was their 2014 championship title game.  

The main difference in all this was that the Noted Dames’ brainfarts were more consequential to the game’s final score since most of them not only kept the Irish at bay from assuming total control of game momentum or cutting the collective heart out of the Wildcats, but those crucial ND blunders bolstered the ‘Cats’ mindset that they could remain competitive over the course of the entire game, even when the outcome appeared to have become a fait accompli late in Q4. 

How could that ever happen, you might ask, especially since NU gave-up what might have been devastating offensive explosion plays, like…

●    A 61-yard TD scamper by ND QB, Everett Golson, off a well-executed spread option quarterback-keeper on the game’s 4th play from scrimmage – Golson’s longest TD rush of his collegiate career.
●    A PAIR of 23-yard TD receptions by Irish WR Will Fuller (the first 2 of his 3 TD completions for the day).

… or gut-wrenching defensive plays, like…

●    A 32-yard scoop and dash to TD paydirt by ND’s SS Austin Collinsworth off a Garrett Dickerson fumble after his 7-yard pitch-n-catch for a Wildcat 1st down was stripped cleanly by Noted Dames CB Cody Riggs.
●    Trevor Siemian’s INT off a potential TD toss on a 3rd-&-2 down at the Noted Dames’ 4 yard line late in Q2 where he attempted to thread a needle eye-sized window with a laser beam pass to WR Tony Jones, only to be picked off by Irish CB, Mathias Farley, who jumped the throw and returned the pick 39 yards out from the shadow of ND’s goal line, deterring NU’s bid to recapture the lead 3 minutes before halftime. 
●    A 2nd INT of an errant Siemian pass – picked off by Irish CB Cole Luke at the NU 42 and returned 16 yards to the ‘Cat 26 yard line – that set-up ND’s final TD score in regulation time, padding the Noted Dames’ lead to what seemed to be an insurmountable 11 points with 10:34 left in Q4.
●    ‘Cat K, Jack Mitchell’s critical-at-the-time 43-yard Q4 FG attempt that was blocked on the ‘Cats’ stalled possession following ND’s final regulation TD off that Siemian INT mentioned above.

… or frustrating drops of Wildcat passes thrown on target and in stride to NU receivers, like…

●    Siemian’s 1st accurately delivered pass at approximately the 2 minute mark of Q1 to a wide-open WR Tony Jones running a go route that netted him 2 full yards separation beyond his cover-2 coverage safeties at the Noted Dames 38 yard line.  This target receiver misjudged the flight of the ball yet the bean still hit him in his hands and fell to the turf for a routine incompletion rather than a sure-fire TD reception.
●    Siemian’s 2nd accurately delivered frozen rope pass at the end of Q1 to an open WR Tony Jones running a skinny post starting from ND’s 10 and into the back of the end zone after gaining a full step separation beyond his coverage DB that, again, hit the receiver’s hands and dropped for another incompletion instead of a second sure-fire TD.  That missed TD was secured two offensive plays later on Prater’s over-the-shoulder circus catch at the start of Q2.
●    Siemian’s 3rd accurately delivered pass, this time in Q2 and once more to a wide-open WR Tony Jones running free and clear 3 full yards behind his cover-2 coverage DBs at the Noted Dame 10 yard line that hit his target receiver squarely in both mitts and bounced harmlessly to the turf for a third missed sure-fire TD.

Significant as these successful plays delivered by the potent Noted Dames playmakers were, the following Irish field play miscues & coaching strategy brainfarts, as a whole, fundamentally neutralized those positive gains and opened the door to victory for the ‘Cats…

●    ‘Cat RB Justin Jackson’s thrilling 44-yard burst on the Wildcats’ opening possession of the game.  The rush was a simple B-Gap backside cut downfield off a well-blocked stretch play against a miss-used 5-in-the-box defensive set designed primary to defend NU’s 2x2 WR formation on either wing.  Jackson merely waited for his big uglies to lock horns with those 5 box defenders, cut into and through an open lane at the LOS and he was off to the races, weaving through the out-of-position Irish secondary, breaking 3 arm tackles along the way, and finally was halted at the Noted Dames’ 6 yard line.  Without a doubt, it was THE foundation play in NU’s scoring drive that epitomized the ‘Cats’ resolute response to ND’s initial 61-yard explosion TD possession and set the competitive tone of the entire Wildcat O for the remainder of the contest.

●    ‘Cat RB Treyvon Green’s equally electrifying 45-yard explosion draw right up the gut of the Irish D during the Wildcats’ drive spanning Q1 - Q2.  This play mimicked Jackson’s earlier rush in that the Noted Dames D used an “empty” 5-in-the-box formation with no LB behind the 5 DL (both Mike & Sam LBs were set as 2-point DTs on the LOS) and backed by a lone SS positioned 10 yards off the LOS in a typical cover-2 look directly behind the weak-side DE, leaving ND’s middle zone without a defender and ripe for the taking.  SB Vitale went into motion and positioned himself opposite Green in NU’s 2-RB shotgun spread formation on either side of Siemian.  At the snap, Siemian set himself in a drop-back shotgun pass look, forcing the MLB and SLB to honor their pass reads and back-away from the LOS to cover the short middle zone.  This left the 3 remaining Irish DL to attack NU’s 5 OL, 3 of whom easily engaged them via effective zone blocks, while Vitale and the 2 uncovered OL ran downfield to lock horns with the backed-off LBs, completing 6-on-5, helmet-on-helmet blocks on every ND defender in the box.  Siemian handed the bean off to Green in draw action, who promptly ignited his afterburners and shot into and through the center of ND’s vacant box untouched for 40 yards until he eventually was dragged down at the Irish 29.  The perfect play to counter the Noted Dames “no-LB” or “empty” 5-in-the-box formation.  4 downs later, Siemian finished the drive with a highlight reel, picture perfect TD pass over the outstretched hands of ND Safety, Tre Tranquill, into the grasp of ‘Cat WR, Kyle Prater, running a fade route to the corner pylon of the ND end zone that pared the Irish 11-point lead back down to 4.  Thank you, Brian Kelly.

●    When ‘Cat WR Garrett Dickerson’s Q1 run-after-catch was fumbled and converted into a scoop-6 TD by the Irish secondary, NU’s special teams unit remained undeterred by this potential kick-in-the-crotch setback.  On the ensuing PAT, ND’s newly installed substitute holder, Malik Zaire, bobbled the snap from center, regained control of the bean and coolly placed it upright on the turf in preparation for the expected kick through the uprights by ND’s prolifically dependable and accurate senior PK, Kyle Brindza, who, up to that juncture, had successfully converted 88 consecutive PAT attempts.  These extra few moments provided ‘Cat CB, Nick VanHoose, just enough time to scoot around the left edge of ND’s line and stuff Brindza’s boot just as he made contact with the hastily reset pigskin.  The bean caromed off Nick’s shins into the open space to the right of the Irish PAT pair.  Maintaining his focus on the ball, VanHoose remained upright after the block and allowed his momentum to carry him to the bean, whereupon he deftly snatched it off the turf and sprinted free and clear upfield into the Noted Dames’ end zone, to convert the rarest of all scoring plays in the game of football: a 2-point defensive PAT, for the ‘Cats.  This mind-boggling defensive PAT proved to be THE most crucial of the 3 improbable Wildcat scores which, collectively, proffered NU the chance to tie the score with mere seconds to go in regulation time.    

●    The surreal bad-boot day for Mr. Brindza, the player responsible for all place kicking and punting duties for the Irish, continued its downward spiral as the game progressed.  On the Noted Dames’ first possession of Q2, his clunker 26-yard punt, although inconsequential in the near term, foreshadowed still worse kicking results to come.  When the Noted Dames’ final drive in H-1stalled at NU’s 21 yard line, Brindza, the Irish career leader in FGs made, hooked his 38-yard FG attempt wide right, keeping ND’s marginal 4-point lead within striking distance of the ‘Cats.  On the stalled Irish possession in Q4 following Jack Mitchell’s missed 43-yard FG, Brindza shanked the subsequent punt for a scant 17 yards, providing NU with “decent” starting field position at their own 27 yard line and setting the table for NU’s possession in which Siemian and Co. efficiently drove the remaining 73 yards in 9 plays burning a paltry 1:58 off clock to score the ‘Cats’ final regulation time TD at the 4:10 mark and reduced the Wildcats’ deficit to manageable 3.  And last but most certainly not least, Mr. Brindza’s poorly hit & missed 42-yard FG attempt in overtime that sailed very wide left, a miscue that essentially laid a gift-wrapped opportunity into the laps of this much maligned team to complete their unimaginable comeback from the edge of post-season oblivion and seal the deal with a game-clinching score of any sort on NU’s possession that followed.  Gawd Bless You, Mr. Brindza.    

●    ‘Cat MLB Anthony Walker’s INT at the NU 31 off a 3rd-&-8 pass thrown during the Noted Dames’ 2nd possession of Q2.  ND’s QB Golson rolled to his right setting to throw a sprint pass; however after 3 steps, was corralled in the vice-like grasp of ‘Cat DE, Deonte Gibson.  Struggling to avoid the sack by dumping the ball beyond the LOS, Golson tossed the bean just as he was taken to the turf, causing an errant throw that caromed-off the helmet of his ROT.  Walker tracked the flight of the dying-quail bean, made the grab then rumbled 65 yards upfield long the right sidelines, getting caught from behind by a pursuing WR at the ND 4.  The pick was a very welcome turnover that represented a potential 14-point swing in favor of the Wildcats.  On NU’s first offensive play from scrimmage following the INT, RB Jackson took the handoff, dove straight ahead into a crease in the right A-gap and bulldozed his way across the ND goal line, scoring a go-ahead TD that gave the Wildcats their first and only lead of the game, at 23-20, before the overtime session’s festivities commenced.

●    ND’s disastrous 1st fumble midway through Q3, representing the second of an exchange of mutual turnovers for each team on sequential possessions deep in Wildcat territory.  The ‘Cats’ offensive miscue occurred on a 3rd-&-21 down when they ran another A-gap dive from their 7 yard line while facing a variation of the Noted Dames’ “empty”-box defensive formation, this time with 4 DL backed by the Mike & Will LBs set 8 yards off the LOS and wide behind their DEs, providing the Wildcat O plenty of room to roam once the ball got past the LOS and into this 2nd level.  NU’s OL quickly engaged the 4 Irish DL screening them from the POA, then Jackson grabbed the handed-off and busted into & through the left A-gap into that open 2nd level space, gaining 19 yards in flash and fighting for more, when the Will LB slapped the bean from the RB’s grip.  ND’s SS summarily scooped-up the loose ball and returned it to the NU 21.  Noted Dames’ O went right to work, and ran a quick-strike jet sweep around the ‘Cats’ left defensive edge gaining 16 yards that placed the pill on NU’s 5 yard line, poised to convert the short-field turnover into the first points of H-2.  On the next down, Irish QB Golson faked a handoff to his tandem RB; but the ball hit the RB’s midsection hard causing Golson to lose his handle on the pill which fell to the turf and was inhaled immediately by Wildcat MLB, Anthony Walker at the NU 7 for his 2nd TO grab of the contest.  With this fortunate fumble recovery at the very doorstep of their end zone, the ‘Cats dodged yet another potential ND TD off another costly TO.    

●    ND’s disastrous 2nd fumble in early Q4 by Irish WR, Chris Brown, running another jet sweep around the ‘Cats’ left defensive edge after taking the handoff from Golson at the Wildcat 5.  The jet sweep action was read correctly by ‘Cat SS, Ibrahim Campbell who sprinted hard to the LOS in run support then laid a sweet hit on Brown, separating him from the ball at the NU 1 yard line.  The ball rolled into the Wildcat end zone, where it was gobbled-up by Sam LB, Jimmy Hall, preventing what might have been still another game-deciding TD score by the Noted Dames. 

●    Siemian’s cake-walk TD that closed NU’s gap to 40-37 at the 4:10 mark of Q4.  With the LOS on the Irish 6, TS faced a more conventional wide 4-2 defensive set, with the Mike LB positioned outside the strong-side DE & the Will LB lined-up in the weak-side DT-DE gap, apparently to counter what I can only surmise was a prediction by Noted Dames DC, Brian VanGorder, of a drop back-type pass attempt into the sidelines by the ‘Cat QB, leaving an open lane in the center of the short middle zone within NDs secondary.  ‘Cat OC  Mick McCall called upon his typical side-by-side QB-RB spread formation with a trips WR bunch on the strong-side of the LOS and a lone WR, Kyle Prater, set to the weak-side.  At the snap, NU’s OL formed an impenetrable pass protection pocket, locking horns with the 4 Irish DL and forcing them wide & outside in the Wildcat backfield.  Meanwhile, the WRs on either side of the LOS ran short crossing routes that passed one another as they progressed into and through the short middle zone and continued-on into both short sideline zones, forcing the Noted Dames DB personnel to follow and cover these receiver targets into those short wide zones and away from ND’s now vacated short middle zone.  This pass coverage flow opened an inviting 8-yard wide vacant lane in the middle of the field.  Siemian held the bean in hand for 3 seconds, then tucked the pill and trotted untouched into the noted Dames end zone for NU’s easiest TD of the game.  Thank You, once again, Brian Kelly.  

Good Little Boys
When identifying the most appropriate candidate to receive the game’s most valuable player award many an ardent Wildcat fan would quickly point to ‘Cat QB, Trevor Siemian, as the most deserving; who could argue against this very logical selection.  After all, the senior QB had completed over 60% of his pass attempts, an interesting statistic given the fact that it was skewed downward due to at least 8 dropped passes which had been delivered smack into the hands of his target receiver – 3 of which, if completed, unquestionably would have resulted in a TD score and at least another 100 yards gained via the pass.  Add to that total, another 49 yards rushing that included TS’ moon-walk trot that accounted for NU’s final TD in regulation, and you would be hard-pressed to elect a more worthy recipient.

However, I’m not one of that group.  I wouldn’t hesitate an instant in tapping the shoulder of every member of the Wildcat Offensive Line to receive his personal share in the game’s most valuable player award.  Although Siemian was sacked twice, the efficient pass protection provided TS against a very aggressive and very fast Noted Dames defensive front 7 was light years better than the protection provided to Trevor during the previous Saturday’s Michigan game where these same players were gashed for 6 sacks and multiple TFLs over the course of that 60-minute bug tussle.  And the unit’s performance profile stock went off the charts regarding their very effective zone blocking results which opened gaping holes that were exploited by every ‘Cat ball carrier who got PT for 290 collective yards – a total that was more than double their per-game average thus far in NU’s 2014 campaign.

I can only hope that this commendable performance by the Wildcat OL wasn’t an isolated occurrence against NU’s most-anticipated opponent in nearly 2 decades; but will prove to be a harbinger of high quality blocking performances yet to come.   

Milk & Cookies
OK, OK, so the content of this game key doesn’t have a damn thing to do with traditional American Christmas Eve milk & cookies; but hey, this is a Sinter Klaas-themed commentary and, hell, I’m on a roll, so deal with it, folks.  Special teams execution has been the bane of the Wildcats’ existence throughout their 4-game losing streak; and NU’s inconsistency on kickoffs and punt cover/punt returns have been so commonplace, brainfart field plays on those crucial downs have almost become a painful yet unavoidable expectation – like defending a haymaker punch thrown at your beezer by knowingly leaning into it.  However against the Irish, the Wildcats special teams flushed the ugly memory of their previous humiliating gaffes and shortcomings and assumed the profile of a confident, veteran squad as underscored by the following…

●    ‘Cat CB, Nick VanHoose, who crashed the edge of the Noted Dames’ OL and blocked the PAT attempt that followed the Irish scoop-6 TD in Q1, then had the presence of mind to pick-up the ball and return it 90 yards for a defensive PAT score for the Wildcats (read above).

●    NU’s successful 2-play series to score the 2-point after TD conversion attempt that followed the Wildcats final TD scored in the waning seconds of Q4.  The first conversion play was a roll-out by Siemian to the defensive left edge, who then lateralled to ‘Cat WR, Andrew Scanlan, running a reverse back towards the right defensive edge.  Scanlan pulled-up, with ND’s left DE crashing into his chest, to attempt throw to a well-covered WR, Garrick Dickerson – a vain pass that undoubtedly would have fallen short of its target.   However, to Dickerson’s credit, the true Frosh WR realized that Scalan’s pass was going to be way short and halted his route just as Scanlon absorbed the hit from the crashing Irish DE and made that desperation heave in his direction.  This halt caused his cover DB, SS Drue Tranquill, to bump Dickerson softly while the ball was in the air, forcing a dubious, but perfectly legal pass interference penalty.  The Noted Dame faithful in the stands went totally bonkers at the sight of the yellow flag.  However, the officiating crew’s call, in fact, the correct one, proffering the ‘Cats an incredible 2nd 2-point conversion attempt play from ND’s 1-&-a-half yard line.  This time around, OC McCall abandoned any hint at using some trickeration play and called a bulldozer-styled headlong dive into the Noted Dames’ 8-in-the-box defensive formation.  Siemian handed the ball to Warren Long, the heaviest player in Fitz’ stable of RBs, who followed his road-grating OL at the left A-gap and plowed across the goal line to successfully complete NU’s 2nd improbable 2-point conversion attempt.   Thank You, Mr. Tranquill and the refs.   

●    ‘Cat PK, Jack Mitchell, who played the most memorable game of his young collegiate football career as he calmly converted 4 of 5 FG attempts, each exceeding his previous career long FG conversion to date of 29 yards: a 31-yarder in Q3; a 46-yarder on NU’s possession spanning Q3 - Q4; the 45-yarder to tie the game at 40 point apiece at the end of regulation; and of course, the fateful 41-yarder to clinch the “W” for the ‘Cats in overtime.  Mr. Mitchell’s remarkable point production contribution for the ‘Cats him earned a well-deserved B1G Special Teams POW award, his first such accolade.

Like A Bowl Full of Hubris
This is THE MOST IMPORTANT contributing factor for the Wildcat’s victory against the Noted Dames, bar none.  It’s a game key that underscores the essential unbridled hubris of the Noted Dames coaching staff and their inflexible decisions that they made over the course of the game.  And it comes in the following 4 parts…

●    Noted Dames’ DC, Brian VanGorder’s constant use of the 5-man-in-the-box defensive set throughout the game.  I fully understand that a DC will give an opponent a particular offensive attack profile in order to shut down a second or third offensive attack option according to down and distance tendencies per specific in-game scenarios.  However, it appeared that Mr. VanGorder was obsessed singularly with shutting-down the passing game of ‘Cat QB, Trevor Siemian, and OC Mick McCall by removing a 2nd level defender (i.e.: a LB) out of the box, away from run support, and re-positioning him near or in the outside zones to give his pass coverage sets an extra body.  From the stands, I recognized this strategic move on the Wildcats’ first possession and I’m sure the strategy wasn’t lost on NU’s offensive brain trust either.  It came as little surprise that ‘Cat RB Justin Jackson popped his 44 yard sprint right through the area that “normally” would have been occupied by that re-positioned defender.  But what truly put me over the moon was 1) the fact that VanGorder kept employing it Wildcat drive after Wildcat drive and 2) I frankly knew Fitz and McCall would continue to exploit it until the Irish DC re-thought the strategy and made the appropriate adjustment – like not using it on a regular basis.  The demonstrative hubris to employ the 5-man-in-the-box defensive set constantly not only opened opportunities for big yardage gains for the ‘Cat O, it was extremely instrumental in instilling a high level of field play confidence in every ‘Cat blocker that never diminished.   Thank You, Mr. VanGorder.

●    Noted Dames’ HC, Brian Kelly’s insistence to go for the 2-point conversion after ND’s final regulation time TD that gave the Irish a 11 point lead once more midway through Q4.  Conventional football wisdom dictates that when in the midst of a back-and-forth scoring battle with your opponent, you take whatever points are available at any one particular instance in the game.  I completely understand Kelly’s reasoning in his decision to go for the post TD 2-point conversion attempt rather than booting the one point PAT; after all, a 12 point lead (off a converted PAT kick) is just as valuable as a 13 point lead (off a converted 2-point try), so why not give the 2-point conversion a go.  The primary problem with this train of thought is that if neither of the point(s) after TD are converted, the “door of opportunity” remains open, small as it might be, for your opposition to 1) score a TD; 2) convert their own 2-point after TD try; and 3) regain possession of the bean in the time needed to drive into field position to score the game-tying FG then actually kick the FG.  Owning to NU’s well-known offensive yardage production limitations throughout the 2014 season, chances were very remote that the score-challenged ‘Cats would ever succeed in pulling-off this scoring trifecta in the time remaining in Q4 - approximately 10 minutes and change.  So Kelley’s overwhelming hubris to scratch his itch that would have increased his lead to 13… failed.  Then he watched in befuddled amazement as the Wildcats, indeed, successfully completed that exact scoring trifecta to tie the game at 40 all before the end of regulation time.  Thank You, Once, Mr. Kelly.     

●    Noted Dames’ HC, Brian Kelly’s insistence run out the clock with 1:38 to go by employing his speed-laden rushing attack to capture just one additional 1st down rather than take the benign route to victory via 3 knees and a punt.  The former choice would have shown the Wildcats the unavoidable futility in challenging and stopping the ground game of the Big, Bad Noted Dames.  The latter choice is one of conventional football wisdom which would have given the Noted Dames the opportunity to burn all but approximately 15 seconds of regulation time left by executing 3 victory formation knee plays followed by a rudimentary punt to give the ‘Cats one final possession to execute whatever long-distance desperation play that suited their fancy – all in those few remaining seconds.   So Kelley’s unmitigated hubris coerced him to exercise the former choice, which resulted in his most reliable RB falling victim to a forced fumble that turned the bean over to the ‘Cat O with a buck & a half left on the game clock.  The rest is histrionic history.  Thank You, Twice, Mr. Kelly.

●    Noted Dames’ HC, Brian Kelly’s insistence to employ a balanced attack of passing mixed with rushing, despite the fact that ND’s dual force “speed and power” ground game was carving the ‘Cat D up like a T-day turkey, generating big yardage gains on a consistent basis.  I truly don’t understand Brian Kelly’s mindset regarding the employment of his rush attack versus his pass attack.  During the CBS TV broadcast of the game, the broadcast analysts openly spoke about Kelly’s personal proclivity to use the Irish passing game to generate yardage in numbers which equaled or surpassed those made via his ground game.  Their mutual conclusion was that Kelly honestly desired to nurture a balanced attack for his O and then emphasize either attack-style as game circumstances dictated to achieve success against any one opponent, especially the FBS Big Dogs.  Well, it’s good in theory, I guess.  However, against the Wildcats, Noted Dames QB Everett Golson was having his own periodic issues with the Irish passing game, especially overthrows to open receivers.  Those issues were suspended from time to time, especially on those 3 TD passes from Golson to his WR of choice for this game, Will Fuller.  And I truly believe that those 3 TD pass completions put a bug up Kelly’s behind to call passing plays at his whim. 

And that bug-borne whim to go to his passing attack couldn’t have been more in evidence than during the Noted Dames’ only possession in overtime, where Golson completed 1 pass for no gain then miss-threw passes on 2rd & 3rd down, respectively, forcing the Irish into a 42 yard FG attempt by their now shaky and suspect K, Kyle Brindza.  Needless to say, you know the rest of the story. 

Thank You, Three Times, Mr. Kelly.  Sinter Klaas has nothing on you, sir!!!


If you withstood the challenge of reading this very lengthy commentary through to its end, then I tip my hat to you for your fortitude and interest in what was written.  As you can tell, the bullet points above were a cherry-picked subset of the multiple dozens of game-changing miscues and brainfarts made by the ‘Cats and the Noted Dames alike.  I’m still awe-struck with numb disbelief that the ‘Cats pulled this off, to snatched this “W,” in what could be the last such Northwestern vs Notre Dame game for a very long time.  I’m hoping the ADs for both football programs will see the value in continuing or renewing this series sometime in the future.  I can only wish to live so long

I must admit, the euphoria of watching this upset of the overwhelming favorite Noted Dames in person cannot be described in mere words.  The 18-point underdog ‘Cats’ indescribable victory provided me with a deep and immensely satisfying to-the-very-depths-of my-soul feeling of pride and happiness for the players, their parents, the student community, the University Administration, the Athletic Department, and even the much maligned NU football coaching staff to whom I have vented swimming pool amounts of vitriol over the last month or so.  I am that emotionally invested in this football team and this football program.   It was a complete win, but not the best one that the post-Dark Ages ‘Cats have mustered against the Irish.    

That distinction still belongs to the 1995 ‘Cats and St. Barney’s masterful mentorship that lead the Football Wildcats all the way out from the Deep Hole-like abyss of ambivalence and anonymity into the bright light of competitive relevance.  Nothing, but nothing will ever surpass that pigskin achievement for “The Men Wearing The Purple.”  I attended that game as well and, like last Saturday, I sat next to my 6’6”, 325 lb baby brother, my “Irish Twin” (if you understand the true drift of that phrase), who still wears his 1973 Notre Dame NCAA Championship ring with equal amounts of pride and humility.  We both have had many, many memories of athletic competition, athletic failures and athletic accomplishments, and this latest NU versus ND game was yet another in that string.

Please read the by-line below my moniker – it has more meaning now than ever before…

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack

This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to ‘Cat RB, Warren Long

This award presentation is the first of its kind proffered to a Wildcat offensive player.  It commemorates Mr. Long’s total whole-body, sell-out effort to bulldoze across the Noted Dames’ goal line with bean in hand to successfully complete the Wildcats’ critical 2-point post TD conversion that whittled the Wildcat deficit down to 3 points.  It set the stage for Siemian & Co.’s eventual heroics delivered in NU’s final drive in regulation that positioned ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell to successfully convert his game tying FG attempt with 19 seconds on the game clock.  Without this 2-popint conversion rush, the Wildcats only come-away with an empty feeling of a job half finished.  Instead, their spirits are full.

Congratulations, Warren.

Nov. 14, 2014

Embrace The Suck

It was morbidly curious that after the Iowa debacle of November 1st, Northwestern HC Pat Fitzgerald uttered what must be considered the most poignant catch phrase of the 2014 season when he referenced the quote: “Embrace the suck” in an interview conducted during the week leading up to last Saturday’s “game” against a woefully under-coached and immensely skill position-challenged team like the Michigan Dazed & Blue Horde.  I truly haven’t a clue why Fitz, who very deservedly has come under progressively intense, pointed criticism regarding his many mind-boggling poor game-time coaching decisions throughout the course of NU’s latest multi-game losing streak against some of the weakest B1G competition that the ‘Cats will face in this fall’s campaign, would turn to this particularly telling phrase.  In critiquing Fitz’s use of this phrase, especially at this juncture of a season when the Wildcat football team, once again, looks like a rudderless ship adrift in a sea of overwhelming gridiron opposition, I will state categorically that it underscored just how far things have spiraled in Fitz's ninth season as HC of the football Wildcats.  Not only was the phrase resoundingly misused, it was the ultimate kick in the solar plexus to each and every player listed on the current team’s roster. 

Now, a bit of context.  “Embrace the Suck” is modern military speak (a.k.a. “warrior slang”), and in particular, a US Marine crafted vernacular (rumored a by-product from 2010 Operation Iraqi Freedom) with the meaning (paraphrased): “The situation (that we are in) is bad; so deal with it or die.”  Essentially it’s equivalent to the WWII military anachronisms: FUBAR (Facked-Up Beyond All Recognition) or SNAFU (Situation Normal - All Facked-Up).  In battlefield usage, it’s considered “black humor” or levity used by soldiers facing a deadly scenario to defuse or lighten its frightening implications.  Subsequently, the phrase’s context transitioned into urban vernacular and has come to mean “the work at hand sucks (is unpleasant, distasteful, “not part of your job description”) but do it anyways because you’re the most skilled individual to complete it successfully” and, at its core, is considered a backhanded compliment.

I must admit, despite my previous understanding of this phrase and its context, from both a military and urban urchin perspective, I cringed when I heard Fitz had used it when referring to NU’s 2014 football season.  Was the use of this key phrase Fitz’ professional white flag?  Was it his personal admission that the current season was a bust?  What did the players think when they heard it? 

I know how I felt… equal parts embarrassment, confusion and, in particular, unfettered anger, for the first time ever, at Fitz as a Wildcat HC. 

By using this catch-phrase, Fitz has become his very own very bad joke, a caricature of himself, clapping on the sidelines, huddling together with the special team unit of the moment (especially the KO or PR team), directing them regarding field play strategy and specifics, then watching slack-jawed as that unit trots onto the gridiron then delivers the latest brain-fart play in the current game’s seemingly endless string of brain-farts by the very players who just received his situational coaching instructions.  Now the casual fan might understandably retort that this latest brain-fart play was totally accountable on the players who failed to execute as instructed.  I say the root cause for brain-farts such as these runs much deeper than that superficial explanation.  IMHO, Fitz has lost contact with his players; and conversely, the players are totally through listening to Fitz and his instructions delivered in his inimitable cheer leading, rah-rah, “let’s get ‘em” styled coach-speak.  And the use of the “Embrace the Suck” catch-phrase, especially when any Wildcat fan considers that it was uttered during the intervening week between last Saturday’s debacle against the Iowa HogEyes, a game that was most reminiscent of those woeful blowouts played-out during NU’s Dark Ages, and last weekend’s “push me/pull you” bug-tussle against a totally inept and ripe for evisceration Michigan team, underscores that Fitz now has extricated himself from personal accountability for his team’s field play results.  Fitz would have been much better served had he simply uttered the banal refrain from his original mentor, the deceased Randy Walker, frequently spoken during post-game interviews following train wreck games: “That really wasn’t us out there.” 

This team deserves better game week and in-game coaching.

How the ‘Cats Out-Sucked the Dazed & Blue Horde

More No-O Suck
At the half, I turned to my good friend seated to my left and stated, “This game is nothing but a bug-tussle.” Although the observation elicited a chuckle and some eye rolling between us, I couldn’t have been more serious in the assessment.  The offenses from both NU and Michigan literally sleepwalked through the game’s first 30 minutes, with the head-scratching futility of either combatant’s attempts to move the ball with any consistency clearly underscored when one reviewed the halftime statistics – 

First downs: NU - 7; Mich - 6 
Rushing yards: NU - 9; Mich - 58 
Total yards gained: NU - 128; Mich - 107
3rd down conversions: NU - 3 for 9; Mich - 1 for 7 
Score at the half: NU - 0; Mich - 0

To say both offenses resembled a pair of dung beetles wrestling in a death-match prizefight over a wildebeest turd on a barren patch of sunbaked mud on the Serengeti Plain was an extreme understatement.  At best, it was an enormous amount of exertion expended by both combatants with zero to show for the effort.   To the great chagrin of Wildcat Nation, the ‘Cat O unfortunately reprised their putrid yardage production performance from the prior weekend’s Iowa game and merely extended it well into this one.  And mind you, the Dazed & Blue D was undeniably more porous and susceptible to even a mediocre passing attack than any other defense from any other team I had seen this year, including non-NU football games viewed on TV.  That Wildcat OC, Mick McCall, and his scoring-challenged O, led by his one legged starting QB, Trevor Siemian, could not or did not take advantage of this weak-sister Michigan defense was beyond unbelievable; it was wholly inexcusable.  

And just when you thought that the incomprehensible ineptitude of the ‘Cats’ O couldn’t get much worse than what already was witnessed through H-1, NU’s offensive spectacle in Q3 was something produced and directed straight out of central casting for a Harold Pinter theater of the absurd stage play.

First absurd item of note: NU’s rushing total for Q3 was minus 29 (-29).  That’s correct, a negative 29 yards rushing – adjusted for the yardage lost due to 3 sacks (of -9, -2 & -21 yards, respectively) laid on an immobile, traffic cone-like Trevor Siemian.  Combine those negative yards with TS’ equally horrific Q3 passing stats: 3 completions on 6 attempts for 11 total yards, and the ‘Cats’ total Q3 yardage production was minus 18 (-18), with 3-&-outs (and, of course, zero 1st downs) on each of their 4 possessions during that fateful, game-deciding quarter.  Yet, Fitz and his OC, Mick McCall, demonstrating their superior wisdom and experience as they exercised their selective “Next Man Up” substitution philosophy exception towards their starting QB, continued to call Siemian’s number as their QB of choice, throwing the now re-injured senior quarterback quite literally to the rabid Mich Wolves, without any hope for reprieve.  If I was Siemian’s father, I would have elbowed my way to the Wildcat sidelines and insisted that my son be benched to avoid permanent injury and further embarrassment.  But not his HC or OC, because both apparently were singularly focused on “Embracing the Suck.”

NU’s second notable absurdity occurred during their 1st offensive series of Q3, off a “hey what” fumble by the Dazed & Blue O when the OC snapped the bean directly into the shoulder of WR Devin Funchess as he crossed behind him while in motion (a bungled direct snap from center play to the WR in motion… who knows?) that was recovered by the ‘Cat D at the Mich 27, giving Siemian and Co. their first, best chance to convert this “gimme” change of possession into the game’s first points for either team.   The plays for this critical series: a commendable PBU by a Mich DB defending a well-thrown, on-target vertical pass from TS to WR Tony Jones; followed by a 5-yard gain off a bubble screen to Prater; then yet another frustrating too-short pass completion in which the target WR, Dan Vitale, failed to run a disciplined square-out route beyond the 1st down marker once again, leaving the ‘Cat O a 4th-&-2 down.  The Suck just kept on coming as newbie K Jack Mitchell’s subsequent 27-yard FG flew wide left.   Embrace it.

Next on NU’s absurdity hit-list, was what occurred during the ‘Cats’ 2nd Q3 possession that followed the Dazed & Blue’s multi brain-fart punt that sailed a scant 36 yards and whose length was reduced another 10 yards off a holding infraction that handed the Wildcat O their next best starting field position at the Mich 49 and its second consecutive scoring opportunity possession thus far in the contest.  A 6-yard pass completion followed by a 3-yard rush put the bean on the Dazed & Blue 40 yard line, giving the Wildcat offense a welcome 3rd & 1 scenario with a chance to capture its first 1st down of H-2 and extend the current drive towards a possible first score.  That’s when NU’s offensive brain trust simply imploded.   Mich HC Brady Hoke countered this crucial 3d-&-1 down by using a 4x4, 8-in-the-box defensive formation with a DL “gap” set where his 2 DTs were aligned strategically in both A gaps on either side of NU’s OC and his Will LB blitzing into the POA (point of attack) gap to blast into & through the gap and stone the ‘Cat ball carrier at or behind the LOS.  Facing such daunting in-the-box numbers demands a simple, yet effective short-yardage, power rush play: the QB sneak, to bulldoze the center of the LOS for that desperately needed 1 yard.  But no, a stubborn McCall calls for a lazy handoff to his RB positioned in I-formation behind his QB in a shotgun set to attack a B gap that was already plugged by a shooting Dazed & Blue big ugly and reinforced by that heat-seeking Will LB poised to stuff the ball at that exact POA.  No audible, no time-out, no tactical play change from the sidelines.  Just clench your teeth and butt cheeks then execute a throwback mano-a-mano RB dive behind an injury-riddled, patchwork-quilt OL who compiled a ground attack blocking profile that had generated 9 total yards on 19 rush attempts over the first 35 minutes of the game.  And if that stat wasn’t enough to coerce you to rethink your play call, the Mich D used similar numbers-in-the-box formations on virtually every ‘Cat 3rd-&-short down up to this juncture, all of which stoned nearly every B gap rush from NU for little to no gain.  Fitz, Mick, did you honestly think this play was the correct short yardage option against the 10th-ranked rush defense in all of Division 1A that had stuffed you like a Thanksgiving turkey throughout H-1?  Even the highly effective ground-n-pound rushing attacks fielded by the Wisky or BuckNut offenses surely would have recognized the minute possibility of gaining that valuable 1 yard via this suspect dive play and called another one more suited to attack this every-available-defender-in-the- box formation… like a QB sneak.  Of course, this slow-developing RB dive was summarily stoned behind the LOS for a 1-yard loss, as forecast.  On the following 4th-&-2 down, McCall called upon his usual, highly-predictable short dumper pass; and holding true to form with every other NU receiver running a similar short dink-n-dunk pattern on 3rd down in 2014, the target WR, Garrett Dickerson, not only failed to run his crossing route beyond the 1st down marker (only 2-yards downfield, mind you), he ran the crossing route at such a leisurely pace that he failed to gain even a modicum of separation from his obviously slower cover MLB, who broke-up Siemian’s telegraphed 2-yard pitch-n-catch toss easily.  Talk about “Embracing the Suck!” 

And last, but certainly not the least item registered in NU’s Q3 absurdity list, happened on the ‘Cats’ possession following SS Ibrahim Campbell’s INT at the Wildcat 16 and subsequent 79-yard highlight reel return where he was tackled finally at the Mich 15 yard line – which proffered NU its best starting field position for the game, by far.  However, all expectations for a quick-strike score were vaporized into thin air when the ‘Cat O was rudely thrown for yardage losses totaling 28 yards on 3 consecutive plays – the worst of which occurred on the Wildcat’s 3rd-&-17 down when Siemian’s inability to use his rub-challenged feet to avoid the Dazed & Blue pass rush was exacerbated when he was called for an obvious intentional grounding penalty as he stood like a traffic cone within the OT slot and heaved the bean downfield rather than get wrestled down to the Dyche’s Ditch turf, resulting in a minus 21-yard play. 

At that juncture, the Wildcat D’s 2 INTs, coupled with the Dazed & Blue’s punt unit gaffe, had hand-delivered 3 gift-wrapped possessions into the ‘Cat O’s lap, all in Mich territory in Q3; and Mick McCall and his hobbled QB failed in monumentally epic fashion to convert any of those offensive opportunities into desperately needed points.  This exhibition of explicit offensive ineptitude throughout Q3 was the worst for the Wildcat O in the 2014 campaign, out-trumping the H-1 offensive train wreck against the HogEyes a weekend earlier, simply because the ‘Cat D had provided hard fought-for starting field position possessions with short green to the opponent’s endzone, any of which, if converted into scores of any sort, undoubtedly would have made a huge contribution in momentum shift and field play control to the ‘Cats.  

Fitz’ Suck now had an ever-tightening stranglehold around the ‘Cats’ throat.           

Special Teams Suck
Special team play for this game was a mixed bag of the good paired with the very bad. 

Highlighting the good was the FG D’s 5th block of 2014 when the unit beat-back a Mich 41-yard attempt just before halftime to preserved the kiss-your-sister 0-0 tie.

The bad began when Wildcat P Chris Gradone’s problematic punting demon reared its ugly head once more early in the game as he shanked his first boot of the afternoon for an inconsequential 24-yarder.  That same fickle demon bit Gradone’s substitute P, Hunter Niswander, flush in his backside when he shanked his first punt of the season for a paltry 20 yards, giving the Dazed & Blue O possession at the NU 44.  Luckily, the Dazed & Blue O bumbled-away this short-field gift with a 3-n-out series of their own.  The ‘Cats’ kicking game woes continued, as mentioned above, when PK Jack Mitchell booted his first FG attempt of the contest, a 36-yarder, wide left 80 seconds into Q3 that would have given NU a 3-0 lead. 

However, the game-changing special teams gaffe occurred when PR Tony Jones misjudged the flight of the Mich punt following the Dazed & Blue’s stalled 2nd possession of Q3, opted against calling for a fair catch (which he had done with regularity since he was installed as PR substitute for NU’s injured and unavailable starting PR, Miles Schuler), scrambled forward to catch up and position himself underneath the falling bean, and simply muffed the ball, allowing it to split his hands then tumble to the turf, where it was devoured immediately by the Dazed & Blue punt cover team at the NU 21 yard line.  Rather than follow the Wildcat’s example for offensive ineptitude when faced with a short field to paydirt, the yardage generation-challenged Dazed & blue O collected itself and went for the jugular, completing a 18 yard quick strike pass, that was followed by a well-blocked 3-yard rush for the first TD of the game and the lead.

The ‘Cats’ analog Suck-o-Meter dial was red-lined by NU’s Fitz-coached not-so-special teams, and that dial never fell below that red line. 

No Guts – No Glory
I agreed whole-heartedly with Fitz’ crucial decision to go for the 2-point after TD conversion attempt once the ‘Cats had cut the Dazed & Blue lead to 9-10 off a circus TD catch by WR Tony Jones at the 0:03 mark of Q4.  And I still do days later.  Owning to the overwhelming multiple scoring opportunity failures and yardage production difficulties endured by the ‘Cats’ struggling O throughout the game, it was the most logical option to pursue – to avoid overtime and reach for the brass ring represented by those game-clinching 2-points after TD if the Wildcats were ever going to capture the contest’s “W” flag. 

Unfortunately, McCall’s 2-point conversion play call depended heavily on the resiliency of Siemian’s injured right ankle holding up long enough to execute a sprint-8 option pass play into the Dazed & Blue right defensive edge without issue.  However, that idea was nothing more than wishful thinking.  TS re-tweaked his ailing ankle on an overtly stupid QB keeper rush that dropped TS on a hard shot to the legs just 1-yard short of a 1st down at the Mich 39 with 2:04 left on the game clock, and left him visibly limping as he fought through those returned pain bodies.  On this, the game’s most critical play, TS received the snap from center then turned and sprinted to the Mich D’s right edge with ball in hand, cocked at chin level prepared for a precision throw to any open WR in his field of vision.  The Dazed & Blue DE to the POA recognized the QB sprint to his defensive edge and drove hard upfield to cut off the route of the Purple QB’s sprint towards his contain area and compress Siemian’s operational area back towards the ‘Cat backfield.  This upfield drive by the edge DE forced Trevor to pull up, to apply the brakes, so to speak, to his sprint motion with his feet/legs, which, if done successfully, would have used the DE’s own upfield momentum to take this edge defender even further and deeper upfield away from the QB and out of the play, leaving TS upright in the vacated space just above the right defensive edge/corner area, scanning the short and middle sideline zones in the Mich secondary for that open receiver.

Unfortunately, the force required for Siemian’s foot plant to successfully engage that pull-up or braking action to temporarily arrest the forward momentum of his sprint-out motion was too much to handle, as Siemian’s right ankle gave out on the and he crumpled to the turf in a heap.  Game Over.  


As I exited Ryan Field I overheard at least a dozen individual Wildcat fans who voiced Fitz’ latest coach-speak catch phrase: “Embrace the Suck;” and not a single utterance was complimentary.  Personally, I took a rather restrained degree of satisfaction from the fact that the ‘Cats weren’t blown out of Dyche’s Ditch, as I had fully expected prior to the game’s opening whistle, and remained competitive throughout the contest.  But then again, upon further review of the competitive profile of the NU’s opponent from Annie’s Teehouse, Michigan, I came to an unavoidable conclusion that the 2014 version of the Dazed and Blue Horde, under the faltering mentorship of their soon-to-be-unemployed HC, Brady Hoke, was competitively on par with the victory-challenged Wildcats – meaning both combatants represented very bad teams each coached by an equally ineffectual head coach.  My next unavoidable conclusion was that the game, indeed, proved to be little more than a dung beetle bug-tussle over a turd ball rolling around the green pasture of Dyche’s Ditch. 

The unremarkably bland flavor resting on my palette at the end of the contest quickly turned sour at the thought. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to ‘Cat LB, Anthony Walker, Jr.

This well-deserved presentation commemorates the de-cleater shot delivered by this Red-Shirt Frosh Mike LB against Dazed & Blue RB, Drake Johnson, on the very first play of H-2 resulting in a 1-yard TFL.  Upon receiving the handoff from his QB the Mich RB then immediately bent or cut-back his route to the LOS away from its original intended POA near or around the left A gap area and into an open lane in the backside area immediately to the right of his line of blocking OL.  Mr. Walker had a unobstructed view of the handoff free and clear of any fronting blocker then, reacting to this read, quickly drove hard upfield across the LOS into the Mich backfield, his cross hairs fixed firmly on the Dazed & Blue ball carrier, to meet and greet the bean toting Mr. Johnson with extreme prejudice just as he initiated his cut back move into that open backside lane.  When he did, the crack of pads reverberated throughout Ryan Field, as the Mike LB hit the Mich RB squarely, lifted him clear off his feet and planted him firmly to the turf of Dyche’s Ditch. 

Classic tackling technique, to be sure.  Congratulations, Anthony.

Oct. 30, 2014

When is Enough, Enough?

I’ve taken a full week to remove myself mentally and emotionally from the events that had transpired during the game between the Nebraska BugEaters and the Northwestern Wildcats on October 18th, primarily for a chance to collect and compose my thoughts without influence from the deep-rooted sentiment that flooded over me as the contest progressed and, in particular, the high angst I felt in the game’s final minutes.  In retrospect, it was a very good strategy to exercise, because, at the present time, I truly feel that I can ruminate upon the game with some semblance of objectivity and pragmatism while analyzing those activities that occurred on the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch. 

Simply stated, the outcome of this game hinged primarily on the health fortunes of a single playmaker: ‘Cat QB Trevor Siemian.  Right there, the very act of hitching your win-loss fortunes on an individual player’s wagon, specifically with respect to a gridiron characteristic as volatile as that player’s consistent health is nothing less than a recipe for disaster.  And that’s exactly where a this hard-fought, ultra-decisive conference division championship-deciding game went terribly wrong, in one big hurry.  Other internet blogs dedicated to reporting and commenting upon Northwestern sports, and on football in particular, have taken a relative apologist point of view regarding the NU coaching staff’s strategic decision to put all their competitive eggs in that one playmaker basket.  However, I will not. 

Laying all of NU’s thin hopes for contending towards a division championship on whether or not TS could buck-up and fight through the monumental discomfort of his well-chronicled bad ankle sprain to perform at peak levels for an entire 60 minute game when facing the division’s prohibitive favorite team was just plain stupid – very stupid.  And unfortunately, the devastating consequences of that damned stupidity reared its ugly mug on the scoreboard as the game clock hit 0:00.

This team deserves better.

How the BugEaters Stuffed the ‘Cats
Like a Turkey-Day Bird

Selective Enforcement
I have commented profusely in previous game commentaries on Fitz’ commendable player substitution policy of “Next Man Up.”  Enforcing its premise is plain common sense, both for the player being replaced and the player who replaces him.  Anyone - coach, parent, fan or casual observer - can straightforwardly acknowledge that a football team’s best chance for maintaining their competitive profile against a hard-nosed, talented foe is to keep healthy players on the field of play at every position, regardless of circumstances.  Any injured player, irrespective of his inherent high value to his team, is a liability and, if kept in a game for whatever reason(s), becomes a target for exploitation by that team’s opposition. 

And simply stated, Trevor Siemian has been and continues to be damaged goods.  BugEater HC, Bo Pelini and his coaching staff were well aware of this undeniable fact and put the collective cross hairs of their defensive personnel squarely on TS.  And this strategy to target Siemian for concentrated abuse was more than warranted, it had become an absolute necessity in order to capture control of the game, especially since the ‘Cat O had just scorched the Nebraska D for a go-ahead TD a mere 2 minutes prior to halftime intermission.  On NU’s next-to-last possession of H-1, Siemian still followed his pattern of opening the game with a strong, effective passing motion off a “relatively” healthy ankle that showed little to no ill-effects up to that juncture.  He was in good form as the Wildcat’s balanced offensive attack efficiently matriculated the bean from its own 12 downfield to the Nebraska 23 yard line with 2:06 left.  On 3rd down & 6, Trevor set-up behind his pocket protection and fired a sweet strike on target and in stride to WR Miles Schuler running a sideline curl route for a 13-yards pick-up at the Nebby 10.  However, in the process, Siemian absorbed a hand-check to his grill by a Nebraska DE, and stumbled backwards awkwardly while trying to regain his balance; but his gimpy right ankle finally gave-out and he did a butt-plant to the Dyche’s Ditch turf.  A roughing the passer penalty off that hand-check placed the ball in the shadow of the BugEater goal line for a 1st & goal at the Nebby 5; whereupon Cat RB Justin Jackson, on the next play from scrimmage, received a hand-off from TS and juked his way into the endzone for a TD, giving NU a well-earned 7-point lead.  However, despite the resounding euphoria voiced by the Wildcat faithful at recapturing the lead at the 1:52 mark of the 1st half, the fact remained that Trevor Siemian per usual sustained damage to his vulnerable ankle once again.  And this is the point where Northwestern’s cheap-suit competitive offense completely unraveled.   

Reacting to NU’s go-ahead TD score, Pelini shifted his passing attack into overdrive as QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., doing his best impersonation of Denver Bronco QB Payton Manning running a 2-minute offense, calmly eviscerated the ‘Cats’ now-somnolent secondary - completing a 46-yard explosion pass play followed promptly by two additional double-digit yardage connections covering 88 total yards - for a TD that knotted the score at 14 points apiece, all in 38 scant seconds.     

Undaunted by their defense’s failure to hold-onto that short-lived lead, Siemian and Co. set themselves to the daunting task of answering this impressive quick-strike BugEater TD with an equally extraordinary eye-blink quick-score opportunity of their own on the Cats’ ensuing and final offensive series of H-1.  However, now TS began to display obvious signs of his debilitating reoccurring injury.  Trevor’s 1st pass was to an open WR Tony Jones running a curl pattern into the deep sideline zone - overthrown due to poor drive off his plant-foot.  His 2nd pass also to Jones, running a middle-zone crossing route, was thrown behind his target (poor plant-foot drive #2) and would have been picked-off had his cover DB not focused on delivering the PBU – instead, the play was flagged for pass interference, setting the LOS at the NU 49 with 49 ticks left.  His 3rd pass was an out-&-out drop by WR Kyle Prater.  Then TS bucked-up to ignore his plant foot pain and delivered a laser beam pass into a basketball-sized window to WR Cameron Dickerson running a deep middle-third crossing route for a 15-yard gainer. TS’ next pass was a simple flat-footed 7-yard pitch-n-catch to RB Treyvon Greene who ran into and through the right “B” gap at the LOS, broke free and clear on a 3-yard square-out to the sideline away from his Nebby cover MLB who slipped on Greene’s cut motion, then grabbed the pill and bolted to the BugEater 13 for a 1st down with 26 seconds left.  On the next play, Siemian was flushed-out to his left from behind his protection umbrella, running slowly but smoothly, then, instead of setting his plant foot prior to the throw, he hop-kicks off his plant foot (to avoid the pain), and makes a remarkable toss into another pail-sized window just off the fingertips of a well-covered Dickerson in the end zone who made a diving attempt at a circus catch.  The next pass was the back-breaker where Trevor avoided setting his back plant foot altogether and threw directly off his lead foot (piss-poor passing motion), which forced his toss to miss low and behind its intended WR: a wide-open Miles Schuler running a skinny post free and clear of his cover SS in the end zone.  Trevor is clearly hurting following these 7 consecutive pass attempts where he tried his best to suck it up and grunt through his distress.

Now comes the most significant play in this game-deciding offensive series.  On 3rd and 10 with 13 ticks before the half, Siemian receives the center snap in standard shotgun set, scans for his primary receiver then abandons his scan progression, running gingerly to his right straight towards the NU sidelines with a Nebby DT in hot pursuit.   As the QB and chasing DT cross the sideline, they continue as a tandem, one behind the other, onto what looks like a wide ground-covering plate or board, and when both try to dig their cleats into the cover board to slow down, their momentum carries the tandem further still, especially the pursuing DT, whose feet slide out from under him straight into the heels of Siemian.  Siemian virtually gets de-cleated with the slide into his heels as his left leg goes airborne horizontally a full 3 feet in the air and plows into a female spectator while his already injured right foot crashes in a heap into some hard objects (equipment boxes?) beyond the line of spectators.  Afterwards, sideline cameras show Siemian getting back to his feet and clearly limping as he walks.

From that moment on, Siemian’s day as an effective, healthy playmaker for Northwestern was over and done.

The problem was: neither Fitz nor his OC Mick McCall exercised their “Next Man Up” paradigm to replace the injured Mr. Siemian with a healthy, fully functional QB.  I truly cannot fathom the underlying mindset of NU’s coaching staff regarding their selective enforcement of their own “Next Man Up” mantra when it comes to their starting QB.  Without a doubt, Siemian was damaged goods after his up close & personal introduction to those hard objects on the Wildcat sidelines.  However, I am at a loss when attempting to justify, on any level, how a one-legged Trevor Siemian could ever be a better, more effective playmaking QB option than the “Next Man Up” QB - be that backup QB Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti.     

Fitz may hold onto his personal pigskin coaching philosophy that “statistics are for losers”; however, 2nd half stats don’t just tell the story, they bellow out the message very loudly and very clearly – the Wildcat offense was Dead On Arrival in H-2, collecting an embarrassing zero points off 28 total yards with a 2-to-1 TOP (time-of-possession) in favor of the BugEaters in the game’s last 2 quarters.  Fitz and McCall’s turkey-on-the-run O was rudely and summarily cornered, beheaded, dressed, plucked, stuffed, trussed and slow roasted to fall-off-the-bone tenderness by a Nebraska team against whom they had beaten over the course of H-1.  

These single half-game statistics were worse than anything I can recall from any one game during the accursed Dark Ages of Northwestern University football. 

So tell me Fitz… How‘s your “Next Man Up” mantra working for you now, eh?  For shame!!!   

3 and O-U-T
Let’s see…  Of 6 offensive series in H-2, the ‘Cat O had four 3-and-out possessions.  Oh yes, and BugEaters beat the Wildcats in the TOP sweepstakes: 20:11 to 9:49 in H-2.  That means for every 2 minutes the ‘Cat D was getting their collective azz handed to them, Nebraska possession after Nebraska possession; the ‘Cat O and its totally ineffectual injured starting QB was stretched over a barrel and brutally, mercilessly assaulted from behind for a full minute by a wholly motivated Nebraska defense. 

So tell me Fitz… How‘s your “Next Man Up” mantra working for you now, eh?  For shame!!!   


I recall a script line from the Tom Hanks / Geena Davis film retelling the inaugural season of the Women’s Professional Baseball League during World War II: “A League of Their Own,” where a play-by-play radio broadcaster stated: “I have seen enough to know that I have seen too much.

And I, as a died-in-the-wool Northwestern Football Program supporter and fanatic, can only reference that quote in my head so many times before I mentally begin to see red.  This Siemian situation as Fitz’ Untouchable Irreplaceable QB” is not only not right, it is totally wrong.  If it doesn’t change and soon, the rest of the season will be a wash.  And I do not say that with any malice or vindictiveness to Fitz, his coaching staff or NU’s Athletic Director.  However, intervention regarding this untenable QB situation is needed – badly. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to ‘Cat LB, Drew Smith.

In actuality, I nearly awarded the trophy to the ‘Cats defensive front 7, including every one of their rotational substitution players, for the utterly amazing job they did in keeping the BugEater’s do-everything RB Ameer Abdullah bottled-up and stoned to approximately half of his standard rushing yardage production over the first 3 quarters of the game.  To limit the versatile, prolific Mr. Abdullah to 39 total yards rushing on 9 carries for H-1 is doing one hellova job.  To continue with the Abdullah stoning through Q3 while the ‘Cat O went into fetal position, limiting him to 69 total yards on 15 rushes, was just as outstanding.  Unfortunately, the Wildcat D got thoroughly gassed in Q4, or perhaps the final score might have been more respectable. But without a team’s O doing its job to deflect and reduce PT from their D counterparts, the defensive granite rocks will wear-down and crack eventually.  And this is exactly what transpired for Doc Hanwitz’ troops. 

However, that is a subject for another time and another discussion all together. 

The red-letter hit I wish to highlight is the stone-cold de-cleating lumber shot that Mr. Smith laid flush into the grill of Abdullah in Nebraska’s first offensive possession of H-2.  On same play in which the ‘Cat secondary bumbled-away a gift-wrapped opportunity to convert an underthrown Armstrong pass into a score-saving INT at the NU 4, Smith drew first blood on the BugEater QB by rushing him hard on a delayed blitz then bringing his own brand of heavy lumber to bear on a good, clean hard-as-nails swing into the QB’s midsection just as he released the bean downfield – which undoubtedly contributed greatly to the underthrow of that pass.  However, that big-boy blast that was merely the appetizer.  Smith’s entre’ lumber course came on the play immediately following his bomb against Armstrong.  With the ‘Cat D facing a 2nd & 10 down, the BugEater backfield lined-up in their standard “I” formation with Abdullah set 3 yards behind Armstrong set in shotgun formation behind center.  At the snap of the ball, Armstrong immediately hands-off to Abdullah who sprints up to an open hole in the right B-gap at the LOS.  As Abdullah approaches the LOS, ‘Cat LB Chi Chi Ariguzo recognizes the POA (point-of-attack) and sprints hard upfield to fill the hole.  Ariguzo lassoes Abdullah around his waist, halting the immediate advance of the Nebby RB.  But just as the resilient Abdullah appeared poised to shed this first NU defender, Drew Smith recognizes the POA as well, follows Ariguzo and completes his own hard 8-yard run-up with heavy lumber in hand to meet and greet the RB in the hole.  And his subsequent swing is dead-red on the center of his scope’s cross-hairs trained directly on Abdullah’s grill.  As the crack of Drew’s lumber smack reverberated throughout the packed house of Ryan Field, as Abdullah was de-cleated and sent flying backwards 2 full yards.  Man, I could feel that lumber pop in my chest – and it felt soooooooooooo gooooooooooooddddd.

Congratulations, Drew.  You will get many more similar opportunities to lay the high hard one on an opposing ball carrier throughout your NU career, to be sure.  

Oct. 16, 2014

Blinded By The (Spot)Light

The result of last Saturday’s game against the Minnie Mighty Marmots was as predictable as it was regrettable.  Throughout his tenure as HC of the Northwestern Wildcat football, every Fitz team who has earned the chance to solidify their ascension into the rarified realm of a conference championship challenger has failed to do so in the red-letter game that, if won, would have delivered such sought-after prominence.  It occurred last season when the 4-0 Wildcats met da BuckNuts in their mutually anticipated, made-for-media-extravaganza grapple at the friendly confines of Dyche’s Ditch in which NU simply fell flat on its face, quite literally, after exhibiting titillating hints of competitive equality to that perennial frontrunner from C-Bus, Ohio.  But alas, NU could not and did not sustain the required high level of unwavering focus and quality field play to get the job done over the entire 60 minutes of that toe-to-toe, winner-take-all game without failing, in some way, shape or form, on those one or two crucial plays which would have secured the game’s final outcome and would have elevated the Wildcats’ status to the short list of conference contenders.  Unfortunately, last weekend’s NU vs Golden Rodent game was more of the same where the ‘Cats, blinded by the unforgiving spotlight of curious yet subdued media attention, were exposed as B1G pretenders.  And I lay this latest example of the Wildcats’ failure to live up to the hype of their expected competitive potential squarely on the shoulders of HC Fitz and his OC, Mick McCall.  

How the ‘Cats Got Handled by the Golden Rodents

At Some Point: “Next Man Up”
It’s an indisputable fact that has become common knowledge among every Wildcat opponent in 2014 that ‘Cat QB Trevor Siemian has sustained long-standing ankle injury and eventually will succumb to its debilitating discomfort at some point during a football game.  The effects of his ongoing injury most definitely will not be evident in Q1 because Siemian’s warrior mentality and an ankle tape job that resembles a soft cast allow him to fight through its initial sting, allowing Mick McCall’s primary ball handler to exercise his QB craft with relative high precision, accuracy and decision-making throughout the contest’s initial 15 minutes.  However, as a game progresses into Q2 and beyond, TS’s damnable pain bodies will rear their ugly head once more, rendering the fifth-year QB’s usually reliable profile of skillful generalship and efficient playmaking into nothing less than a series of game-altering liabilities.  And in his quest to proffer Siemian an assist in mitigating his persistent pain, McCall’s overall play calling becomes frustratingly less aggressive and exceedingly more predictable, a cascading set of situational circumstances not lost to the coaching staffs of NU’s opposition as well.  It’s all a recipe for continued field play failure, especially when facing NU’s more challenging foes, and was in full evidence in TCF stadium last weekend. 

As was witnessed in NU’s last 3 games, Siemian responded to the opening whistle for Q1 with his usual passing accuracy; but OC McCall’s initial game plan was conceived specifically to establish NU’s ground game early – a plan that delivered varied results.  Running their up-tempo attack, Siemian and Co. gained 2 quick 1st downs in their opening drive, shoving the Mighty Marmot D back on their heels and reeling from this initial onslaught.  However, after an odd-ball illegal formation penalty forced the ‘Cats into a 3rd-and-1down at their own 31 yard line, McCall summarily squandered any advantage he had captured via his initial rushing attack successes when Siemian, facing a very dubious defensive set from the Golden Gopher DL that left no defender lined-up (1) on the center’s nose or (2) in either A-gap to the immediate left and right of the center - despite putting 10 in the box, evenly divided into 2 groups of 5 defenders split wide right and left at the LOS from the nose of each OG out to the TE, did not audible to a simple QB sneak in which Siemian could have ridden the back of his center into the 2nd level of Minnie’s defensive front that surely would have gained a minimum 3 yards and secured the sought-after 1st down to extended the ‘Cats’ opening possession.  Instead, Siemian, executing his OC’s called play, hands the bean off to RB Justin Jackson, attempting to slice into and through the right guard-tackle gap (the B-gap) straight into the teeth of 4 Gopher defenders positioned wide, directly opposite 3 ‘Cat blockers away from center, specifically set to stone-wall that right side B-gap, who was summarily crushed for no gain.  Watching this whole passion play unfold on the TV screen, I went ballistic.
I possess no details and can only speculate on the reasons why NU’s original offensive game plan had not given Siemian the freedom to audible out from a play designed to push the pill into a well-defended point-of-attack (POA) and call a modest QB sneak that would have required TS to plant his injured right foot and drive into the wide-open, undefended space fronting his center and both guards for positive yardage.  Unfortunately for the Wildcat O, this exact scenario occurred on another 3 short distance downs later in the game in which the same uncovered double A-gap set from the Marmot D, handing the ‘Cats a gift-wrapped opportunity to run a QB sneak audible with strong potential to gain 1st down yards, was ignored; and instead, McCall’s called play was executed for little to no yards.  Something is acutely wrong with this picture.  IMHO, it’s more than apparent that the discomfort to plant and drive off that injured ankle would have been asking too much of TS – even on the ‘Cats’ first offensive series. 

And if this truly was the case, then what ever happened to Fitz’ well-chronicled “Next Man Up” philosophy?  Apparently an exception to this “Next Man Up” mantra exists, especially in regards to the Wildcat quarterback.  I admire the grit and determination shown by NU’s starting QB; but if the young man is such damaged goods where a gimme QB sneak is shunned, then common sense dictates exercising a best “Next Man Up” substitute, if only for this single down.  I honestly believe that Zack Oliver, a quality drop-back style passing QB, or dual threat QB, Matt Alviti, would have performed just fine in this situation.  However, that’s all wishful thinking. 

Bottom line: the injured Siemian was either incapable of executing or directed away from executing the needful play (a QB sneak) in an appropriate down-and-distance situation (3rd-and-1, facing an uncovered center) and on several other critical downs where confidence in his running abilities, especially anything approaching jocular “escapability” to avoid the Minnie pass rush on passing downs, were required to complete the play successfully. And in a closely contested game such as this, in which its final score might turn on the success or failure of a crucial play or two, handcuffing your primary playmaker, the QB, into steadfastly running scripted play calls without the option to reset the play to better attack the given defensive formation, was a game-changer.  

That, my friends, is plain poor game planning.

Say what you will when critiquing the Golden Rodent’s offensive brain trust, but what they do best is identify and exploit those players in an opposition’s D who they judge just aren’t cutting it technique-wise and will keep exploiting them until those targeted defensive personnel either rise to the challenge and use proper technique to stop those Mighty Marmot attacks in their direction or get replaced.  And believe me, the Minnie OC had his play calling crosshairs fixed on a several NU defenders who proved to be particularly vulnerable and went after them with impunity, to great effect. 

The 1st NU defender whose field play was found lacking by the Minnie offensive coaching staff was uncovered during the Mighty Marmot’s 1st possession of the game - an individual whom I’ve called-out personally in prior game commentaries for piss-poor read recognition and even worse tackling techniques: ‘Cats starting MLB, C. Ellis.  His tentative reaction to offensive flow and mistakes in identifying the point of attack (POA) always put him in follow-position, playing catch-up behind the rusher, rather than setting himself to defend the POA head-on.  And against Minnie’s O, it not only yielded substantive positive yardage gains on the ground but points as well.  When Ellis fails to get to the POA, he ALWAYS resorts to throwing himself at the RB’s legs with his arms extended rather than playing behind his pads and pile-driving them into that RB’s midsection.  When used against a ball carrier like Rodent RB David Cobb who possesses superior rushing skills and runs within a power rushing scheme that Minnie brings to the gridiron, such a power back will just bust-through those weak-sister arm tackles and head unimpeded downfield.  In Minnie’s first offensive series, Cobb ripped through Ellis arm tackles for gains of 10 and 9 yards before a QB Mitch Leidner incompletion forced a change of possession.  And Mr. Ellis’ afternoon got much uglier from there.  

On Minnie’s 2nd possession, Ellis’ read-and-react deficiencies had been exposed and Minnie OC directed his rush attack to target the Purple starting MLB and drill him a 2nd orifice.  On a 3rd-and-8 at NU’s 34, Rodent QB Leidner takes the snap in shotgun formation, waits for Ellis to clear the defensive middle zone then tucks and sprints into the open space vacated by Ellis – for 22 uncontested yards to the NU 12 yard line, setting-up the Mighty Marmots’ first TD score 3 plays later.  A 3rd & long and an Ellis miss-read on a QB keeper opened the door to a Rodent TD?  This isn’t an isolated incident.  Similar poor field play examples from this Wildcat MLB abound, recorded in game videos for any interested party to review and draw their own conclusions.  Does any ‘Cat coach recognize this glaring defensive liability other than the Rodent offensive brain trust?   Fitz?  Doc?  Anybody?  Absolutely unreal.

Another defensive unit that underperformed was NU’s zone pass coverage along the middle to deep sideline or boundary zones.  NU’s standard deep pass coverage packages, especially along the sidelines, are primarily zone-oriented and frequently shared between the CB and Safety to that side.  As a WR’s deep route proceeds into and through the middle boundary/sideline zone then advances into the deep boundary zone, the short zone cover DB will hand-off the cover responsibility of that WR to the deep cover DB.  It is a very delicate, highly orchestrated dance that takes TONS of practice, coordination and trust between both cover DBs to get it right and do so with consistency.  Those DBs who show high proficiency in executing this coverage hand-off motion usually have more than ample opportunity to exhibit their zone coverage skillset at the professional level.  At the collegiate level, it’s often good enough that the middle-to-deep zone hand-off successfully occurs 75% of the time.  Of those remaining 25% plays where the coverage hand-off is slow or missed, it’s all a question of timing between the deep DBs reaction to the deep pass and the hang-time of that pass.  Since a QB’s toss to his WR running a deep boundary route usually will fly in the air a full 3-4 seconds, it gives the swifter collegiate DBs – those with 4.5 speed or better – enough time to cover the ground to that target WR and arrive at the same moment that the thrown bean gets to its receiver.  That’s how it is designed to work, in theory.  In its practical, real-time application, it’s a completely different story – with deep coverage execution success varying from one deep pass play to another.  Against the Rodents, the ‘Cats’ deep boundary coverage hand-off was inconsistent at best, making Minnie QB Mitch Leidner and his less-than average passing skillset look like the second coming of Joe Montana.   

The worst of NU’s boundary zone coverage gaffes came on a 52 yard completion from Leidner to his super-back/TE in Q2 that was the explosion pass that set-up Minnie’s 2nd TD.  The Rodents O lined-up in shotgun formation with a WR split 7 yards wide of the ROT on the LOS and a SB/TE in a left-side wing off the heels of the LTE.  Before the snap the wing SB/TE went in motion into a slot position inside the right-side WR.  At the snap, the Minnie WR ran a deep post vacating the boundary zones and trying to draw coverage interest from ‘Cat CB VanHoose positioned heads-up to the WR and possibly ‘Cat FS Henry; while the SB/TE ran a sloppy, rounded out-and-up route towards the right boundary.  ‘Cat SS, Gordon Igwebuike, who was responsible for the short boundary zone, sprinted up to cover the out route of the Minnie SB/TE, but then overshot the SB/TE as he turned into his up route down the right sideline.  The ‘Cat SS was now 2 yards behind, chasing the SB/TE.  CB VanHoose continued to track the Minnie WR into the deep middle zone, and in doing so, failed to recognize the SB/TE’s out-and-up route and didn’t break-off his double cover to lend cover support to the deep sideline zone where the SB/TE was running clear of his now-trailing short cover zone SS teammate.  Leidner made an easy pitch-n-catch toss over Igwebuike’s reach right into the mitts of his open SB/TE, who shook-off a desperation facemask grab by the beaten SS’ and rumbled down to the NU 10. 

A missed coverage hand-off = a 52-yard completion, Minnie’s longest of the 2014 season.  Ouch!!!  

Incidentally, Minnie ran the EXACT same “WR-vacate and SB/TE out-and-up” pass play on their 1st possession of H-2 and the ‘Cat secondary executed their deep sideline zone coverage hand-off to perfection.  Result: CB VanHoose gets an INT.  Just execute the proper pass cover hand-off technique - first time, every time fellas!

Last but certainly not least of NU’s pass coverage woes was the consistent problems of ‘Cat CBs to defend the deep sideline pass from Minnie QB Leidner when in man-to-man coverage.  Golden Rodent WRs converted pass receptions of 19-yards (called-back for ineligible man downfield), 20-yards and 24-yards simply because the ‘Cat CBs, in particular Matt Harris, gave them a 12 yard cushion, allowing his cover receivers consistently clear, uncontested space to pull-up from their initial go patterns into a sideline curl route in NU’s deep sideline zone beneath the CB.  IMHO, the ‘Cat CBs were was given explicit instructions by DB coach Jerry Brown not to allow any Minnie WR to get behind them for a home-run pass completion when in man-to-man coverage – ever.  So NU’s CBs did as instructed and gave-up 3 explosion passes as a consequence; the last two contributing mightily in the Marmot possession spanning Q3 - Q4 that culminated in a FG to extend Minnie’s lead to 7.

Leidner was thrilled to make those final 2 giftie pass completions.  How thrilled were you, Jerry?         

Not-So-Special Teams
Simply stated, the Wildcat special teams sucked eggs last Saturday, especially on kick-offs. 

The Mighty Marmots’ first TD drive of the game followed a putrid 32 yard Gradone punt that gave the Minnie O starting field position on its own 37. 

On NU’s kick-off receive to start H-2, a short Rodent kick-off got snagged by an wedge-blocker, who cut-off the return team’s designated KR, Miles Schuler, who had sprinted-up from the ‘Cat goal line and positioned  himself immediately adjacent to the blocker to make the reception.  I don’t know if Schuler made any kind of  “I got it” call, but the wedge-blocker hip-checked Schuler out of his way, made the grab, then fell forward for a modest 3-yard return that should have been left to the much more versatile and swift Schuler allowing him to do what he does best – return kick-offs.  Poor communication coupled with lack of discipline regarding return role responsibilities among the KO receive personnel.  That one’s on you, Fitz.

On the ensuing kick-off following Minnie’s FG in Q4, the ‘Cat kick-off receive team had another brain fart.  For reasons only known to Fitz, the ‘Cat HC benched his starting KR Schuler and handed the duty to newbie Solomon Vault, playing in his first game following an injury hiatus, who attempted to make a near-sideline reception of the kick-off at the NU 3, only to bobble the bean out of bounds for no return.  WTF, Fitz!  Why replace the experienced Schuler who had done a commendable job as No. 1 KR through all 5 games in 2014 with the newly-returned-from-injury Vault?  That move made absolutely no sense; and the ‘Cats looked foolish in the process. 

And now the game-clinching kick-off brain fart to beat all brain farts. The only thing I must say is that the 2014 Wildcat kick cover teams – be it a kick-off or a punt – have shown a frustratingly consistent characteristic to lose coverage lane integrity in every game that they have played-in this season.  This means when the kick coverage team personnel breaks from the LOS (on kick-offs, that is the 35 yard line), it’s absolutely imperative that they maintain their coverage lanes – like a wall of bodies perpendicular to the sidelines and spread evenly across the field in 5-yard intervals, as they sprint upfield to tackle the opposition’s KR or PR.  Once that wall gets to within 8 yards fronting the return man, the coverage personnel leave their lanes and converge en masse to the ball with extreme prejudice and not before.  If an individual coverage player gets knocked down or pushed horizontally outside his lane, he must gather himself, get back to his feet and return to his lane position as quickly as possible.  In this way, there are little to no gaps or running lanes for the return man to sprint into and through to open space beyond the coverage wall.  In post-game interviews following every game in 2014, Fitz has voiced his frustration regarding a chronic lack of discipline from his kick cover teams personnel to maintain correct coverage lane integrity; and on Minnie’s KO return that followed NU’s game-tying TD in mid-Q4, it showed itself once more in spades.  

That Wildcat kick-off drifted to the left third of the field and at least 7 players from the ‘Cat KO coverage team collapsed too early to front that left 3rd area and stone the Minnie KR.  3 of those 7 cover players sprinting hard upfield in the midfield lanes, the wedge busters – the toughest hombres on the squad, were blocked effectively into a bunch towards the center of the field creating a 10 yard lane to their immediate right.  The Rodent KR, Jalen Myrick, a true Frosh and former high school sprint champion form Georgia, received the kick 2 yards deep in his end zone, sprinted downfield, saw the lane open to his left then ignited his afterburners and darted into and through it to paydirt.  Another overt example of lack of discipline by the Wildcat special teams players.

The final special teams gaffe for the ‘Cats was a gnarly 11-yard punt shank off the foot of Wildcat K Gradone after NU’s offensive series, following Minnie’s TD KO return, stalled at the ‘Cat 39.  The shanked punt proved inconsequential with the exception that it allowed the Mighty Marmots to burn 2 minutes and change off the game clock in the Rodent possession that followed – time dearly needed by the ‘Cat O in their bid to mount a comeback drive in the game’s waning minutes.   


“Mistakes, followed by more mistakes, followed by yet another monumental special teams field play gaffe” - a storyline that described the Wildcats’ afternoon against the Mighty Marmots to a “T”.  This game featured two evenly matched combatants whose universal make-up and mettle were going to be tested early and often as they fought hard for the B1G “Best of the West” championship belt.  And it didn’t disappoint.

Mind you, the Golden Rodents were not necessarily the better team; they simply were the more disciplined team who took advantage of the many mistakes made by their Purple opponents in all 3 phases of the game.  Minnie HC Jerry Kill did a commendable job in preparing his troops to capture this classic “W”; but in retrospect, I still feel that this contentious contest was controlled more by the ‘Cats, who just failed once again to “seal the deal” late in the game.  I honestly cannot comprehend the underlying near-pathological causes upon which the ‘Cats collectively lose their composure and commitment to excellence whenever the spotlight of collegiate football media and fan attention gets trained on them.  This stage fright-like, brain freeze reaction to that spotlight is more symptomatic of a young football team.  However, the 2014 Wildcats are not a young team, in spite of the many underclassmen who have been called-upon by Fitz’ to do their best in his “Next Man Up” philosophy that has been exercised liberally over the course of the 2014 campaign.  No, this latest gridiron shortfall is more due to loss of focus by the individual player.  A coach can train his players regarding the correct techniques and proper mindset needed to successfully execute those techniques while in the heat of the battle; however it’s up to the singular football athlete to ignore the glare of that spotlight and basically make plays as he was mentored to deliver. 

This game happened to contain more game-deciding field play failures on the part on the athletes dressed in Purple and White than the failures of the athletes dressed in Gold and Maroon.  And that’s the very reason that Fitz, a HC who wears his emotions on his sleeve, continues to reveal his heartfelt angst and frustration when commenting during post-game interviews on what just had occurred with his team.  Wildcat Nation is equally as frustrated.

Now on to face the frontrunners for the B1G Western Division championship: the Nebraska BugEaters, a team who got punched squarely in the puss by the Green Meanies of Sparta two weekends hence.  Once again, the ‘Cats face another power ground game that features yet another highly prolific yardage producing RB in the BugEaters’ Ameer Abdullah.  And once again, the ‘Cats face their 4th consecutive B1G opponent who has had a chance to lick their wounds during their bye week prior to this coming Saturday’s homecoming contest in Dyche’s Ditch. 

I don’t know what was behind the dubious decisions which forced one team, the Wildcats, to face 4 consecutive conference foes after each had been scheduled their annual bye on the previous week.  That whole situation is nothing less than totally unfair to the ‘Cats; and Northwestern AD Jim Phillips would be extremely justified in calling those jack-hole B1G talking heads on the carpet to explain their motivation in establishing this schedule.

Talk about dog-piling on the ‘Cats…

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack

This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to ‘Cat CB, Nick VanHoose.

VanHoose had an up and down afternoon last Saturday against the Mighty Marmots.  True, he was burned on a couple of deep pass routes from Minnie WRs, yet on another deep pass route defense involving the deep pass coverage hand-off, as was detailed above, he successfully executed the perfect hand-off technique between the SS and CB and came-away with his 2nd INT of the season. 

However, what stood out for Mr. VanHoose was his superior technique exhibited during close run-after-catch support on Minnie pass completions into the flats or short sideline zone.  On at least 3 separate plays, Rodent QB Leidner tossed a soft floater pass to a RB or a TE running a route into the short sideline zone; and VanHoose, recognizing that short probe pass, charged upfield to meet the receiver with bad intent and lowered the boom just as the receiver completed the reception.  On each occasion, VanHoose maintained classic hitter’s position: head up, wide-base, weight forward on the balls of his feet; made contact with his pads into the chest of the receiver then lifted that WR off his feet, drove him backwards a full 4-plus yards and finished the tackle by turning the WR into the turf.  Classic one-on-one, open-field tackling at its very best. 

Congratulations, sir. 

Oct. 8, 2014

Dog Day Afternoon

A little emphasized factoid that had been relatively lost or ignored in all the pre-game buzz surrounding NU’s grapple with the Big, Bad Badgers was that the victor in the last 8 meetings between these two combatants has been the home team.  Yes, you read that correctly, the ‘Cats have won their last 4 home meetings against the Wisky Drunkards who had caravanned into Dyche’s Ditch sporting a top 25 ranking in Division 1A each time.   When ruminating upon the Wildcats’ chances to continue this recent trend, I had to admit that I didn’t give Fitz’ troops much credence to do so.  True, the ‘Cats had just pulled-off one of their most comprehensive and utterly unexpected road wins since, well, the victory against the Noted Dames in Sow Bend during NU’s championship season of 1995 (personal opinion here), in their wholesale dismantling of an undefeated State Penn at Not-Too-Happy Valley - a venue that has been nothing less than a unsolvable enigma to the ‘Cats’ competitive fortunes since the Inmates joined the B1G conference in 1994.  One week removed from that red-letter “W,” I truly had no clue how NU was going to match-up with Wisky last Saturday, especially given the myriad injuries among their 2-deep roster personnel that had been sustained in NU’s first trimester of the 2014 campaign.  As a matter of fact, I was convinced that there was more than a good possibility that both Wildcat lines, especially their DL, would get taken to the shed to receive a thorough thrashing at the hands of the humongous lines that Drunkard HC, Gary Anderson, trots-out to the gridiron each and every game this season.  The Badger’s behemoth OL, in particular, led by Remington Award front-runner, Rob Havenstein, are as physically imposing as they are formidably talented, and serve as the dominating force that enables the prolific yardage production of their true Heisman Trophy candidate, RB Melvin Gordon, and his 170-plus yard per game rushing average.  Not only does this NFL-ready bunch of Big Uglies provide open lanes for Gordon to exploit, they systematically batter opposing DL into submission with obsessed regularity.  My best hope for the ‘Cats’ defensive front 7 efficacy was that they somehow, in some way, could corral Wisky’s 2014 example of greased lightning to a modest total of 100 yards or less via their collective quickness off the snap and swarming pursuit to the ball carrier rather than stand toe-to-toe in a progressively draining slugfest with the Mad-Town Bullies, a truly herculean task, to be sure.  

On an extremely rare collegiate football afternoon where multiple underdogs shook-off their radio-controlled collars that normally would have kept them compliantly confined within their pundit-designated fence-free enclosures as they confronted their respective prohibitive favorite top 25-ranked opponents, the double-digit dog ‘Cats skillfully served their own home-cooked contribution to the NCAA’s version of Dog Day Afternoon when they deftly dodged their widely-prophesied pounding by the 16th/17th ranked Drunkards and gave Wisky all they could handle throughout a free-for-all donnybrook in gloomy, soggy, cold and blustery Ryan Field – with the Wildcats prevailing in a 12-round unanimous decision, 20-14, against what has become a heated rival. 

Initial reaction emanating from several of NU’s more vocal naysayers regarding this upset is that -

1.    This courageously fought-for victory by the now-resurgent, hard-nosed ‘Cats wasn’t an upset at all. 

2.    Wisky, in truth, wasn’t a top 20 football team but a previously-exposed pretender due in no small part to their less-than-impressive wins against the likes of the FCS Western Illinois Feather Weights and the South Florida Bull-Shippers, two games in which the highly-favored Drunkards trudged into halftime intermission locker rooms holding onto embarrassing scores of 7-3 and 3-3, respectively, against these overmatched foes. 

3.  The core of the Wildcat’s playmakers is populated with overly pampered, tragically under-performing, baby doo-doo soft personnel who remain fully ensconced in the team’s 2-deep roster because of Fitz’ misplaced sense of loyalty and entitlement to his upperclassmen. 

In rebuttal, I will say:
“Look at ‘Cats’ body of work thus far in the 2014 season.  There hasn’t been a single gimme game in any of these 3 consecutive wins – all having been earned through sheer determination and due diligence preparation.  Yes, the ‘Cats are flawed; but they are discovering the mettle it takes, per player, to meld into a cohesive team with improving symbiotic parts.  Their competitive competency barometer is rising steadily.”

And to ‘Cat supports, all I can say is:
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh BABY!  It doesn’t get any better than this!!!”

How the ‘Cats Handed the Badgers
a Dog-Day Afternoon

Every 20-25 Seconds
‘Cat OC Mick McCall’s initial game strategy included a repeat of last weekend’s moderate up-tempo offense, that had been unveiled and superbly executed to overwhelming effect against the Inmates of State Penn, that, hopefully, would proffer the Wildcats a worthwhile blueprint to neutralize the tactical game-control effects of Wisky’s O and D.  In their OOC games, the Drunkard defense revealed that they possessed an annoying habit of breaking slowly from the starting gate and usually at some point in H-2, would awake from their doldrums and come to realize while cruising down the backstretch that they actually were running in a horse race.  Calling on their substantial reserves of great heart mixed with big brawn, the Badger defense would respond by spurring their thoroughbred playmakers sharply in the flanks as they rounded the far turn heading into their home stretch sprint, igniting their afterburners and launching a finishing kick that, in most normal circumstances, induced them to mow-down and pass the race’s leading stallions in swift succession and leave those opposing mounts far behind eating dirt when the MadTown Madmen Express hit the wire for the expected 1st place finish.  At least that was Wisky’s standard horse racing script.  

McCall observed this screenplay acted-out repeatedly in Wisky film reviews and game planned a counter tactic of reprising NU’s up-tempo O to toss a monkey wrench into the Drunkard’s defensive dynamo by forcing that squad to expend more energy in a head-to-head sprinting duel through the backstretch that would tap their strength reserves early enough in the race and leave the Badgers little to no fuel to feed those afterburners when they reached the top of the home stretch. 

And simply stated, for the second consecutive game, this up-tempo strategy worked well against Wisky’s very physical defensive front 7, as NU’s offense showed increasingly better rhythm and timing among their moving parts.  By the ‘Cats 2nd possession, it was obvious that the Badger D re-echoed their customary somnolent start which was jumped-on and taken advantage-of by McCall’s up-tempo tactics, especially via consistent positive yardage gains on 1st down, with RB Justin Jackson slicing through creases between the Drunkard DL along the LOS opened by quality position blocks rendered by NU’s OL and with QB Trevor Siemian going through his receiver progressions parked safely behind his effective pocket protection and converting enough pass attempts against one-on-one coverage by the Badger’s secondary to sustain possessions into the Wisky red zone.  This up-tempo style had Wisky’s defense collectively gassed and reeling back on their heels, plainly too slow and/or shell-shocked to react to McCall’s play calls as the ‘Cat offense scored on 3 of their first 6 possessions.

So what’s the bottom line regarding all this strategic planning to instill offensive tempo and aggressiveness, you ask?  The halftime scoreboard certainly reflected whether or not McCall’s target objectives were met when using this paradigm:  NU – 10; Wisky – 0.

That H-1 intermission score set the table for NU’s main course to be served in H-2.

Offense as Defense
Wildcat OC, Mick McCall, knew full well that the onus of facilitating NU’s defensive capabilities relied heavily on the complimentary ability of the Purple O to control time-of-possession minutes against the Drunkard D.  So McCall conceived a game plan wherein his offense could be employed strategically as defense to keep the bean out of the hands of Mr. Gordon by playing his own brand of keep-away.  Basically this “Use O as D” concept requires successfully meeting several critical objectives. 

First Objective:  Zero turnovers by the ‘Cats.
There is a widely known axiom in football that the team that secures the turnover margin battle, even by a scant +1, takes home the “W” flag approximately 69% of the time.  A turnover margin of +3, inflates that percentage to over 90%.  Turnovers, or French Pastry as I refer to them, proffer an extra possession per to the opposition’s offense.  By the ‘Cat O limiting turnovers to the hard-hitting, ball hogging Drunkard D, they greatly enhanced the success rate of their keep-away strategy.  By playing the part of the “Good Hands People,” NU’s offensive playmakers went one further and had ZERO turnovers, which translated into zero extra possessions for the Badgers.  Meeting this objective was monumentally significant.  Wisky was gonna get the bean back in hand only when they defended NU’s O into a change of possession; and those change of possessions never would involve a break point (read: turnover) scenario.  Advantage Wildcats.      

Second Objective:  Positive yards on 1st down
This was mentioned above, but could use a more detailed explanation.  Positive 1st down yardage gains equates to short(er) or “more manageable” 2nd and 3rd down and distance scenarios.  Short(er) distance downs translate directly into much better chance of converting that 2nd or 3rd down into a fresh set of downs (1st down) while retaining the current possession AND burning game clock in the process as well.  And it all starts with the OL.  While they didn’t necessarily blast the Drunkard DL into the cheap seats of Dyche’s Ditch, the Wildcat OL had a field day neutralizing the aggressive Badger defensive front 7 via successfully executed position blocks for entire periods of the contest.  NU’s invigorated, upwardly mobile ground game featured lightning quick true Frosh RB, Justin Jackson, having a highlight reel afternoon of his own, as he compiled 162 total yards rushing on 33 attempts - enabled by those consistently effective position blocks.  Rushing attempts burn game clock minutes; less game clock minutes provide a huge assist in McCall’s keep-away strategy.  Advantage Wildcats.  

Third Objective:  Convert TOs into points
A major contributor to the concept of winning the turnover battle is your defense forcing turnovers from your opponent.  Mind you, ultimate success in the turnover battle is not achieved by trading turnovers 1-for-1; but in taking more than is given.  And in the case of the NU vs Wisky game last Saturday, the ‘Cat D baked some of their very best French Pastry numbers of 2014 when forcing a very bad passing hair day upon both Wisky QBs, Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave, who together delivered 4 pass completions to NU’s secondary against 12 total pass completions to their own receiving corps.  Those 4 INTs translate into 4 more NU possessions – of which the 1st and 3rd TOs were converted into a FG and TD, respectively, by Siemian and CO. for an immensely valuable extra 10 points – accounting for the margin of victory (6) as the final gun sounded.  Game-deciding. Advantage Wildcats.      

Rubber Band D
When planning to oppose the prolific ground-n-pound yardage generation machine of the Wisky rushing attack, one simple fact is abundantly self-evident – you cannot stop the Drunkard ground game, you can only contain it, especially when it comes down to Badger super-RB, Melvin Gordon.   And when facing the ‘Cats last weekend, Mr. Gordon did more than exceed Wisky expectations for an average rushing day; he had an epic one, amassing a staggering 259 total yards on 27 attempts, averaging just under 10 yards a carry.  Gordon rushed into, around and through the Wildcat defensive front 7 so adeptly, the game’s statistician needed a calculator to keep up with his yardage production, as he continually popped explosion plays: a 58-yarder in Q1; a 19-yarder in Q2; a 61-yarder in Q3; and a 31-yarder and 15-yarder in Q4.  Truly an awe-inspiring, Walter Payton-esque performance. 

Yet, despite all the heroic, mind-boggling rushing stats collected by Mr. Gordon, the ‘Cat D limited most of the crucial consequences one might expect from such gaudy yardage generation by keeping the speedster bottled-up on many of his ordinary rushes, and most importantly, out of the end zone except on one single occasion.  The fact that the Drunkards were held to that single TD against Gordon’s epic rushing afternoon spoke volumes on how NU’s comprehensively effective bend-but-don’t-break defensive dynamic became THE most significant factor in securing the “W” for the Purple team in this game.  Refusing to yield to any potential for disheartening momentum shifts which might have blossomed from any one of Gordon’s many explosion plays, the Wildcat D seemingly just flushed that explosion play from their short-term memory banks then mentally and physically refocused themselves to the task of stoning the Badger’s next play from scrimmage.  Being an emotionally-invested pigskin defense enthusiast (i.e.: a fan(atic)) above all else, I was so very proud, so wholly engrossed and so totally juiced witnessing the resilient field play of Doc’s entire defensive squad whenever they, to a man, swarmed to the ball or attacked the Wisky ball carrier with utter abandon on the down immediately following one of Gordon’s long bursts.  The Purple D’s mutual mindset to flush the past and concentrate on the immediate was equivalently epic in its own right.

Underscoring NU’s rubber band defense was the final tell-tale game stat: Wisky converted only 2 of 5 scores on red-zone possessions (40%) – in which 2 of those possessions were squelched summarily by an INT converted by ‘Cat SS Godwin Igwebuike in the Wildcat end-zone, each coming-off a very questionable pass attempt, one by Badger QB McEvoy and the other by QB teammate, Stave. 

In comparison, the ‘Cat offense converted 4 of 4 scores from their red-zone possessions (100%). 

That, my friends, is a GAME-BREAKER or GAME-CLINCHER, depending on the team you root for.      

The relentless attacking style of Doc’s D did much to contain the Wisky O, beyond Melvin Gordon.  However, Badger OC, Andy Ludwig, exacerbated his offense’s woes with some highly questionable play-calls at critical points of the game, many of which were verifiable game-changers.  IMHO, Wisky had several downs in which the called play (e.g.: a pass) simply didn’t match well with the particular down-&-distance scenario at that time - instances in which a previously successful play (e.g.: a rush by Gordon), that had demonstrated itself to be unquestionably unstoppable in another similar scenario mere minutes earlier, was ignored.  Many comparable mismatches between the down-&-distance situation and the play called by the Badger offensive brain trust were in evidence throughout last Saturday’s contest. 

The most consequential example:
On Wisky’s 2nd possession of Q4, down 20-7, with a 1st down LOS at NU’s 3, Ludwig called 4 consecutive plays, where 2 Gordon 9-yard rushes were sandwiched between 2 Joel Stave pass completions that had yielded gains of 11-yards and 12-yards, respectively.  The Badgers were poised to reduce their deficit to 6 points on the very next down.  But instead of turning the bean over to their tried-&-true All-Everything RB who had been ripping a new orifice into Doc’s defensive front 7, OC Ludwig calls for a pass from his more precise-throwing QB Stave to garner a quick-strike TD.  I honestly cannot speculate accurately on the reasoning behind Ludwig’s play-calling choice for this particular down.  Perhaps he intended to pad Stave’s 2014 passing book with a sure-fire score via a simple 3-yard pitch-n-catch, especially since this veteran QB appeared locked-into his passing game with his previous 2 double-digit yardage completions.  Whatever that thought process was, Stave did etch a notable line item to his stat sheet: an INT via an exceptionally poor decision to throw the pill into NU’s zone coverage fronting his target receiver rather than heaving the pill off into the sidelines and giving himself another chance to make good on converting this golden scoring opportunity into 7 critically needed points on 2nd or 3rd down.  I’m mindful that hindsight is 20-20 once these cases play-out; but this play-call was a major head-scratcher. 

Wisky-Tango-Foxtrot (e.g.: What The Flack), indeed.

Young Guns – Redeux
The time-honored refrain continues to be shouted-out on the Northwestern sidelines, “Next Man Up!” and this mantra’s challenging message has never held so true as it had against the visiting Wisky Badgers.  Although the ramifications of this call may be disconcerting to many members of Wildcat Nation (e.g.: an injury has befalling an NU player), to the individual football athlete wearing the Purple “N” helmet, it heralds the team’s immediate crucial need to pass the field play torch, once again, from a position starter to a 2nd teamer or perhaps even to a lightly-used but practice-proven newbie substitute.  Fitz and his coaching staff have steadfastly demonstrated throughout the 2014 season that they will sing this song whenever or wherever necessary and do so with the utmost confidence that the next player tapped on the shoulder to buckle-up his chinstrap and join gridiron battle before him is wholly qualified and prepared to make plays.     

It’s very difficult not to dive into the trap of writing a roll-call of the true and red-shirt Frosh and Sophs who have substituted admirably for Wildcat starters.  At the end of last weekend’s game against the State Penn Inmates, that list was approximately 15-plus underclassmen.  On the heels of the Wisky grapple, that list has expanded even more.  So don’t get caught-up in the numbers thing (say: “stats are for losers”; take a deep, cleansing breath; exhale slowly then repeat: “stats are for losers” – Fitz) because it’s nothing but a smokescreen that obscures the undeniable fact of what is occurring currently throughout the Wildcat locker room.  And that fact is: underclassmen are being given a chance to showcase why they were recruited by Fitz in the first place.  Essentially, these immensely bright, athletic and eager-to-please playmakers may be short on years of grizzled gridiron exposure to the grind that is collegiate football in the 2010 era, but what they lack in experience, they definitely make-up in unbridled enthusiasm and a willingness to listen, learn and apply the messages of what they are taught into their field play without question or doubt.  That a true Frosh like MLB Anthony Walker or a red-shirt Frosh like SS Godwin Igwebuike were tapped on their shoulders to sub for two of the very best among the 2-deep roster of Doc’s defense without any reservation and play to such high effect and efficacy, garnering the requisite notice from the football evaluation pundits roaming the B1G offices in Park Ridge, Illinois, to be awarded weekly POW accolades, is testament to the mentoring that each has had and currently is receiving from coaches and upperclassmen alike.  And these are NOT isolated instances, but have been commonplace in 2014.  

To read NU’s wounded warrior list that includes incumbents: SS I. Campbell, DT S. McEvily, WR C. Jones and CB D. White; then hear the call: ”Next Man Up” and realize that the ‘Cats did not miss a beat performance-wise against B1G Dogs State Penn and Wisky speaks volumes regarding the talent level that has been recruited and nurtured by the Northwestern Wildcat football program.  Basically, these underclassmen substitutes (and there have been many) just “get it” and are putting those lessons-learned into practice on the playing pitch. 

Make no mistake, the grand recitals on display from these subs on the B1G Stage over NU’s last 2 games have come as no great surprise to the Wildcat coaching staff and upperclassmen mentoring these young guns.  They have been selected and bred to do precisely what they are doing.  Hot Damn!!!  

Most definitely, NU’s Football Wildcats have captured that elusive winning characteristic called momentum.  They have absorbed the haymaker head-shots delivered throughout the 1st trimester of the 2014 campaign; have learned (or are learning) from their myriad mistakes and gaffes, have identified and are striving to implement the appropriate corrective strategies and positional techniques to maintain an upwardly mobile performance profile; and it plainly seems to be working (present tense used, by design). 

To his credit, Fitz has been exceedingly honest and forthright to state without equivocation both in post-game interviews and at NU’s Monday Media Luncheon speaking engagements, that the 2014 Wildcats are and remain a work-in-progress and are far from that polished finished product he and his coaching staff are trying to craft.  This is not a bad thing, but it most certainly is a late thing that should have had its commencement way back on Day 1 of Kamp Kenoshia.  Better late than never, I guess.  As a program QA comparison, take time to observe the 3-ring circus that is Ill-Annoy and their totally clueless & soon-to-be-put-out-to-pasture HC, Tim Beckman.    

Next up for the ‘Cats: a roadie against the Minnie Mighty Marmots in their ultra-high quality home digs of TCF Stadium.  This “Titanic Tussle in TCF” could wind-up being THE preliminary bout that identifies the B1G’s top contender who will earn the right to enter the ring against the Nebraska BugEaters to claim the "Best in the West" Belt.  The Golden Rodents field a very good (read: not great) ground game with a pedestrian passing attack – enough offense for Minnie fans to prematurely contemplate erecting a bronze likeness of HC Jerry Kill in front of TCF’s main entrance.  The ‘Cats better come to play with their offensive and defensive “A” games. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack

This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to ‘Cat SS Godwin Igwebuike.  

On Wisky’s 2nd possession of the game, after ‘Cat CB Nick VanHoose delivered a 4-yard TFL via a skillfully-finished red-dog (a CB blitz off the defensive edge), that set a 3rd-&-9 down, Badger QB McEvoy, flushed-out from behind his pocket protection by the Wildcat pass rush, broke downfield across the LOS and sprinted quickly towards the 1st down marker on the Badger sidelines.  Mr. Igwebuike recognized the Wisky QB’s break-out, abandoned his deep cover receiver and sprinted upfield with McEvoy centered squarely in his crosshairs.  Godwin closed-in on McEvoy with speed, bad intent and heavy lumber in hand as the QB gave the ‘Cat SS a half-hearted juke to lure him into a throw-n-miss tackle attempt.  Staying true to his route towards the scrambling QB (‘Cat MLB Colin Ellis, are you watching this?), Mr. Igwebuike assumed classic hitters position (weight on balls of his feet, hips low, head up, forward lean from feet thru the core/torso & thru the shoulders) then swung that 4x4 plank flush into McEvoy’s midsection - a good, clean pop - that de-cleated the Drunkard QB and sent him flying 2 full yards beyond Wisky’s sideline, a couple yards short of the marker.  A seminal hard-nosed moment for the True Frosh SS that set the tone of this playmaker’s run-support profile for the remainder of the game.  Outstanding job!!!

Congratulations, sir. 

Oct. 1, 2014

Stuffed, Chicago-Style

Basking in the afterglow of the most remarkable and wholly unexpected Wildcat road victory that I have witnessed since NU’s equally surprising away-game win over a double-digit favorite Noted Dames team way back in 1995, I was given to mentally composing some poignant prose to adequately describe what the 2014 Wildcats had done and delivered as the final gun sounded, heralding the cessation of hostilities with the Inmates of State Penn last Saturday afternoon.  And to my great amusement, one of the most popular internet blogs dedicated to monitoring and commenting upon everything related to NU football beat me to the proverbial punch in fashioning a similar descriptive byline that had been rolling around my brain since the trigger on that final gun was squeezed:

“Exorcizing the Demons of Not-So-Happy Valley.”

I must admit, my pre-game prognostications were rife with dread trimmed with a charcoal-black ribbon of despair at the thought of my Wildcats travelling, once again, into the maw of that Beastly Lion’s Den called Beaver Stadium.  Ever since PSU accepted membership into the B1G conference in 1994, State Penn’s home field has not been kind to the ‘Cats – and I’m not talking wins here, I’m referring to the Purple team’s in-vain attempts to maintain any semblance of competitive field play for the entire 60 minutes in any single road game at that venue.  Through the years, the ‘Cats have flirted with competing on a relatively equal plane with State Penn on their home turf, frequently launching into such a roadie wielding that elusive positive attitude called “the competitive edge” in both heart and mind and holding onto it dearly for a half or more while battling the Inmates within their version of the Friendly Confines.  Only problem: The ‘Cats, just as frequently, have demonstrated a historical penchant of collapsing to the Big, Bad Inmates in a game’s closing minutes in the most inconceivable and unconventional ways one might ever imagine. 

One of the best examples I can recall was the NU vs State Penn game in 2010.  The WaterGirl and I took an idyllic road trip into Not-So-Happy Valley and were rewarded to witness a most improbable spectacle.  The visiting Wildcats, in their bid to delay the garish love-fest/icon-worship bacchanalia scheduled to be rolled-out by the ardent State Penn students and fan base festooned in their “White-Out” regalia to celebrate the 400th “W” of Joe Pa’s storied HC career, had staked themselves to a 21-7 lead against the prohibitive favorite home team by the end of H-1.  The ‘Cats were playing exceptionally well that afternoon, with QB Dan Persa tossing 2 TD passes and scoring a 3rd TD on a nifty 6 yard scamper, and appeared primed-n-ready to squelch PSU’s highly anticipated gala in short order.  Then in H-2, the driving-wheels fell off NU’s competitive point-production train that, up to that juncture, had been chugging-along towards a well-deserved “W” in front of 100K slack-jawed Inmate faithful seated in stunned silence.  The 28 unanswered points delivered by the Inmates in those final 30 minutes steamrolled the upstart ‘Cats into roadkill and secured that anticipated red-letter win for the legendary Joe Pa much to the vociferous delight and revelry of his fawning, adoring fans.  

Many call it: “The Happy Valley Hex”.  I call it: ”Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory”

So frankly, when the ‘Cats jumped out to an unbelievable 14-point lead early in Q1 last Saturday, I refused to get caught up in the euphoria of the moment and remained profoundly wary that I had seen this pitiful passion play before in the not-too-distant past: where the double-digit dog ‘Cats, desperately clinging to a precariously vulnerable lead, eventually succumbed and fell in ignominious defeat against that No-Named Jersey’d home team from NoWheresVille, PA once more, spurred on to another improbable come-from-behind victory by their raucously-loud, white-clad fans.  Then the unravelling seemed to commence and I began to panic.  First: ‘Cat PK Jack Mitchell’s 44 yard FG attempt was pushed wide-right – very understandable since it was the longest boot of his young collegiate career.  Next: A totally ballsy (but equally bone-headed) fake FG was stoned well short of State Penn’s goal line after having been snapped at PSU’s 3 – when conventional underdog wisdom demanded taking those precious 3 points via a gimme FG to inflate the lead to 17 - in a road game, in a very hostile house, in front of rabid fans wildly cheering their flagging team to rally and crawl-out from the deep hole they dug for themselves.  Ignoring convention, per his characteristic coaching style, HC Fitz, instead, gambled those valuable 3 points for a chance to capture the ultimate prize: exorcizing past demons to secure the “W” by hammering a coup de grace TD stake into the heart of the Not-So-Happy Valley Beast - via a killer trickeration fake FG, no less.  With that shortfall duly recorded in the box score, I noticed what I could only assume were those damnable dark clouds of imminent collapse gathering over the ‘Cat sidelines again.

But was I ever in for THE surprise of the 2014 season when the ‘Cats served their own gridiron variation of a Windy City culinary classic: Stuffed Nittany Lion, Chicago-style…

How the ‘Cats Stuffed State Penn
into Homecoming Hash

High Octane
The Wildcats, to a man, shot out of their proverbial starting blocks for this game and played its full 60 minutes like their hair was on fire.  The high-octane energy level of the ‘Cats was as palpable as it was phenomenal to observe.  From start to finish, the entire Purple team rode the wave of this mutually-shared high energy - energy that was conspicuously absent when playing their non-conference foes over the last three weekends; yet in this contest, never showed even a hint of waning or yielding in the shadow of the B1G’s most productive offense thus far in 2014, led by PSU’s sensational- Soph QB Christian Hackenberg, touting a hefty 315-yard per game average via his arm, and complimented by a State Penn defense that hadn’t allowed a Q1 TD all season while stoning the ground games of their first 4 opponents, which included near top 25-ranked teams Rutgers and UCF, to 50 yards or less. 

However, rather than falling under the spell of the tumult from the Beaver Stadium faithful, rolling over in fetal position and conceding defeat as had been done in many past road games against Inmates, the ‘Cats collectively remained steadfastly resilient, ignoring all threats regarding consignment into the depths of another inglorious collapse and progressively feeding off one another’s energetic contributions towards making that latest critical play, at that latest critical point of the game, especially among NU’s defensive personnel, to emphatically seal the deal while never permitting that threat to rear its ugly head.  About time.  

“Adequate” TS + Up Tempo
It most certainly wasn’t a vintage Trevor Siemian passing performance; but in the end, it was an adequate one.  And despite having made notable improvements over his last 3 games, the overall field play of Mr. Siemian, NU’s 5th year senior QB and heartthrob of both OC Mick McCall and HC Pat Fitz, had many more moments of questionable decision-making and piss-poor throwing mechanics than one might have thought possible given the 29-6 drubbing NU laid on an undefeated State Penn team that sported the B1G’s No.1 passing attack and No. 1 defense. 

Regardless of the final score, TS’ quarterbacking woes remain very much in evidence, waiting to be addressed and remedied.  And that could take time – enough time necessary for TS to recover, once and for all, from his severely injured right ankle, his plant foot, that pains him tremendously whenever he drops back or steps up into his pocket protection or goes into his throwing motion.  The problem: TS is foot-cuffed by this nagging injury. He can’t plant his right foot firmly into the turf, can’t drive hard off that plant foot, can’t shift his weight from his plant foot to his right foot, can’t complete that controlled step forward with the appropriate Division 1A-level strength that transitions its increasing velocity load from his feet, through his legs, through his hips & torso, through his right arm then into the football as it’s thrown to its receiver in stride and on target with starting QB consistency.  Instead, once Siemian’s adrenaline and endorphins (nature’s anesthetics) kicks-in, pumped into his body by the heightened excitement and emotions he experiences at the opening whistle of a highly anticipated game, like a B1G conference opener to powerhouse State Penn, then wears-off sometime in late Q1 or Q2, the pain resurfaces in spades.  That renewed high discomfort level prevented TS from using his correct throwing motion mechanics beyond the opening quarter; so consequently, to lessen that pain, he began to “tippy-toe” gently into his throws, causing his vertical passes to sail high and his pin-point, laser beam-type passes to be delivered late and behind the target receiver.  It’s not an uncommon cause and effect scenario.

Responding to this challenge, Trevor man’d-up and courageously fought through the initial agony of his injury throughout Q1where it seemed he just couldn’t miss his target WR.  Both Q1 TDs were set-up by the following perfectly-thrown vertical pass completions:
●    TD drive - Possession #2: a 28-yarder to McHugh
●    TD drive - Possession #3: a 14-yarder to Schuler & a 18-yarder to Jones
While the other Q1 possessions included the following notable completions of their own:
●    Possession #1: a 28-yarder to Vitale & a 13-yarder to Jackson
●    Possession #4: a 22-yarder to Szott

Adding an undeniable assist to the ‘Cats’ Q1 passing efficacy was OC McCall’s aggressive tactic to roll-out an up-tempo style O which looked to line-up and snap the ball every 22-25 seconds – a middle grade speed.  Regardless of speed profile in use, State Penn’s D was totally unprepared to face an up-tempo offense of any kind whatsoever from the normally predicable Wildcats.  Although this up-tempo style didn’t translate into substantial Q1 yardage gains by NU’s ground game (only 16 total), the shear number of attempts, 10, forced the Inmate D to honor the threat of the ‘Cats pressing their rushing attack and to expend the energy and attention necessary to prevent NU’s RB by committee from popping an explosion play of its own; which in turn, was instrumental towards loosening-up the PSU secondary for exploitation by Siemian’s passing.    

Bottom line: Siemian & Co. simply looked unstoppable in Q1; and when one considers that the ‘Cat offense was locking horns with the B1G’s stingiest D, it makes the book on TS’ Q1 passing even more remarkable: 11 completions on 15 attempts, collecting 150 yards in the process.  Unfortunately TS couldn’t sustain this aerial circus for long; and by Q2, it became very apparent that Siemian’s debilitating ankle discomfort had returned hampering his usual throwing motion and forcing him to turn to the less-painful “tippy-toe” throwing style.  As the game wore on and his distress continued unabated, Trevor’s passing accuracy became erratic at best and his yardage productivity fell-off precipitously.

Yet in spite of all the negatives surrounding his gimpy ankle, the sum of Siemian’s “adequate” passing game, plus McCall’s up-tempo offense, coupled with NU’s smothering defense, proved to be margin enough to bring the “W” flag back to Evanston.

Everybody Must Get Stoned
It’s no great secret.  I’m one Wildcat football fan whose pigskin passion and fire gets stoked specifically from quality field play by the ‘Cats’ defense - DC Doc Hankwitz’ defense, to be more precise.  However, in NU’s first 3 games, there wasn’t much that I witnessed on the gridiron of Dyche’s Ditch defensively to light my fire.  The Cal game was nothing less than a wholesale unravelling of NU’s cheap defensive suit – one of the worst showings by Doc’s crew that I’ve seen since the Wisky game from last fall.  The Northern Illinois game was more of a stalemate that eventually transitioned into a “white flag” capitulation by the Cat D due in large measure to debilitating effects of the ‘Cat O’s repeated failure to construct sustained possessions to provide their defensive counterparts enough time to recharge their competitive batteries for their next series grapple with the Hush Puppy O.  The Western Illinois game was an enigma in which the ‘Cat D allowed the Feather Weight O to gain substantial yardage without scoring points, primarily by forcing turnovers and delivering TFLs with regularity.  Although this defensive performance was notably better than what was delivered in NU’s first two games, any praise for this improvement must be tempered by the realization that the effort was against the ‘Cats’ only FBS opponent of the season, and anything less would have been an embarrassment.

Facing State Penn’s daunting yardage production machine, Doc made several strategic decisions to stone PSU’s ground-n-pound rushing attack.  The first obvious item was to resurrect the intense attack profile that is a basic hallmark of his defensive coaching style through the years which had been oddly missing in NU’s prior 3 games against their OOC foes.  The second obvious item was to shelve the vanilla defensive sets employed in those OOC contests and switch formations frequently in an effort to confuse and disrupt the State Penn offense with multiple defensive looks, each of which brought its own series of characteristic angles of attack to bear against State Penn’s O.  Doc used his standard 4-3 defensive formation, as well as a 4-4 formation as his primary change-up set whenever down & distance dictated especially when the LOS lay between the 35s, augmented by the occasional 5-2 set (positioning the SAM LB in a 2 point stance on the LOS to the wide-side defensive edge as the #5 DL) on downs when the LOS was between the PSU goal line and their 25.  This game plan’s primary directive was to limit yardage gains on 1st down and force PSU into long(er) distance situations on 2nd and 3rd downs.  This tactic is nothing new and DCs across most Division 1A teams scheme to do the same, but Hank’s strategy on this occasion seemed to match State Penn’s 1st down tendencies to perfection.  

Whenever State Penn’s O showed run either driving directly into the LOS or attacking the defensive edge via a jet sweep or swing pass (like a slip screen), the ‘Cats’ 2-3 LBs and SS would sprint hard in run support to the LOS or, better still, 2-3 yards behind the LOS depending on the quickness of their read recognition and reaction to flow and fill holes at the POA (point of attack).  This tactic to defend the rush with numbers, positioning 7-8 defenders “in the box” dynamically, requires clear-cut read indicators or “tells”.  Doc’s series of identified tells and his orchestrated response to them, per defensive position, were dead red, fueling the passionate pursuit to the ball by his defensive front 7, who were imbued with a newly-found killer-instinct that regularly bottled-up and physically battered the previously prolific PSU ground game into an afterthought throughout the contest. 

This “stone-the-rush-first” defensive strategy intentionally shifted the burden for yardage production from State Penn’s ground game to the passing game of its super-Soph QB, consequently forcing the PSU offense to become one-dimensional and heavily pass-oriented from Q2 on.     

Game statistics “tell” the tale of this plan’s efficacy against the State Penn O: 
●    Stoned for 50 yards total rushing - 18 total yards thru Q3; w/ 35 in garbage (free substitution) time;
●    Longest rush from scrimmage: 13 - in garbage time;
●    Held to 216 total yards passing (100-plus yards less than average 315 or 330, depending on source);
●    Explosion plays of 20-plus yards: 2 (NU had 6);
●    3rd-down conversions: 3 for 17;
●    4th-down conversions: 1 for 4;
●    Sacks allowed: 4 for -20 yards;
●    TFLs allowed: 9 for -34 yards (includes sacks);
●    3-&-Outs: 6 for 16 total possessions (NU had 4);
●    TOs: 1 fumble lost; 1 INT (returned for pick-6 TD);
●    TDs scored: 0 (last 0-TD home game: Iowa @ PSU Homecoming 2004;  final: Iowa 6 – PSU 4)

The most fitting descriptor any casual observer might use to convey the beat-down that NU’s defense laid on State Penn’s offense would be spelled:  D-O-M-I-N-A-T-I-N-G

Meet Messrs. Walker, Campbell, Harris & Washington
Without a doubt, the superstar of this game was Doc’s defense, especially his front 7.  Truly, I don’t know what got into this unit, but Doc must have filled their Gatorade bottles with liquid lightning, because when he unleashed them in the direction of Inmate O, they resembled a collection of heat seeking missiles on an express mission to blow-up any target within their cross-hairs - and last Saturday’s game was a target rich environment.  I hadn’t seen this much heavy lumber brought to bear with such amplified aggression and extreme prejudice since the deceased HC Randy Walker’s defensive bunch from his 2000 B1G championship team.  

NU’s hit parade started on the 2nd play of PSU’s 1st possession when the tandem of SS Ibrahim Campbell and MLB Anthony Walker built an impenetrable shoulder-to-shoulder brick wall a yard into the Inmate backfield and flattened PSU’s starting RB Bill Belton trying to bust through it.  The hit from this 2-man wrecking crew ignited the defensive ‘Cats’ bonfire of stacked heavy lumber and those flaming 4x4s were distributed to anyone wearing a Purple “N” helmet.  From that play forward, every Wildcat defensive player was elbowing his way to the front the line for his turn to become the team’s leading lumberjack – to grab a lit 4x4 and swing it flush into the grill of the next State Penn RB toting the bean or QB attempting to pass.   

The list of nominees for this game’s Lumberjack Trophy is long.  The above mentioned double-barreled boomer by Campbell and Walker set the tone early for the rest of their teammates.  SS, Godwin Igwebuike, substituting admirably for the ailing Campbell whose 2 week-old pulled hammy began acting-up in mid Q2, delivered a few “hello” hits of his own: one on Belton and couple de-cleaters on PSU WRs. 

The honorable mention haymaker goes to FS Matt Harris, who earlier, in the closing minute of Q2, converted a highlight reel strip off a Hackenberg pass completion in the flat, scooped the bean off the turf then rumbled 25 yards untouched for a “strip-6” TD – a play subsequently reviewed and reversed to a pass broken up (pure bull, indeed!).  His qualifying Lumberjack Trophy shot came just before the 2:00 mark of Q3, when Hackenberg scrambled left beyond NU’s defensive edge toward the PSU sideline then turned and sprinted downfield.  Mr. Harris saw the Soph QB break contain, abandoned his cover and charged full-bore upfield to meet and cut-down Hack’s advance.  As both combatants closed, each assumed a hitter’s position: knees bent, hips low, head up and forward lean from the feet through the shoulders.  Then Ka-BOOM, their helmets collided with a report that echoed throughout Beaver Stadium.  Harris crumpled to the turf like a ragdoll, clearly distressed with some head trauma, then was immediately stabilized with care, carted off the field and rushed to a local hospital for evaluation.  Hack jogged away, but from this point on, his passing accuracy went right down the dumper, indicating he had tubular bells clanging in his head as well.  On PSU’s possession spanning Q3 & Q4, Hack’s first pass of Q4 - 3 downs removed from that head-to-head encounter with Mr. Harris - was badly miss-thrown straight into the midsection of Walker, who squeezed the giftie INT and sprinted the 49 yards of open space to the State Penn end zone for a squeaky-clean pick-6.   Hackenberg’s clear-headed day was essentially done.

However, the clear winner of this contest’s inaugural Lumberjack Trophy sweepstakes has to be true Frosh Xavier Washington.  On the very next State Penn possession following Walker’s pick-6 score, Hack dropped back to pass on the 1st play from scrimmage, held the bean in hand for 2 full seconds then had a very up-close and personal one-on-one introduction to Mr. Washington who swung humungous lumber into the Soph QB’s chest that, quite literally, rocked his world.  After absorbing the full force of this ferocious brick-bat and having fumbled the bean back to the Wildcats for the 2nd turnover on consecutive downs, Hack gingerly pealed himself off the turf, got to his feet and walked/ trotted back to PSU’s sideline after having been transported to queer-street - weaving ever so slightly from side-to-side, on rubber legs and carrying a head full of fuzzy. 

Mr. Hackenberg, meet Mr. Washington.  Take two aspirin and pick-up your head at the coat check on your way out.

Young Guns
One of Fitz’ most recited philosophical mantras on the unpredictability factor of playing big-time collegiate football deals with a team’s response to unexpected injury, especially injury to anyone listed on the game day roster.  It’s called: “Next Man Up,” meaning that every individual position player, regardless of his relative rank on the team depth chart, should be prepared mentally and physically to substitute for an injured teammate when called-upon and play to the best of his abilities.  It’s the most fundamental and honored premise in the sport of football… that if you, the lone player, have gone through the requisite blood, sweat & tears of educating and training oneself with appropriate due diligence regarding proper field play techniques for your position, and have earned the right to put-on the helmet and snap its chinstrap in place, that you deserve a chance to play your game whenever, wherever you are called-upon to do so.  It’s a band of brothers/right of passage mentality; that if you made the sacrifices and survived the ordeal, you, the player, are talented enough and deserve to play.   

Although the ‘Cats have just completed the 1st trimester of their 2014 season, the 4th game on their schedule to be exact, it has been a fall campaign where many players on NU’s 2-deep roster have gone down to injury.  And in response, Fitz and his coaching staff, to their credit, have held true to that “Next Man Up” mantra and have shown no hesitation to make any appropriate substitution with the prepared football player.  To name all the substitute players who stepped onto the gridiron of Beaver Stadium last Saturday would be an exercise in reading off most everyone listed on the Wildcats’ 54-man travel roster.  I recognized at least a full dozen 1st and 2nd year players who “strapped it on” and fearlessly trotted-out to wage battle against the State Penn Inmates.  And I’m sure I missed identifying many more.   These young guns were well-prepared and fought their best, had successes and failures across the board on every play, and in spite of whatever shortcoming went down, showed the faith and resiliency to flush the past play, both the good with the bad, and have at it with the Inmates on the next down, every down.  And to their collective credit, the young guns persevered and executed the game plans as best they could and the results were reflected on the scoreboard as the game clock hit 0:00. 

Congratulations guys.  You earned your stripes.     


Surprise upset - be damned.  The taste of this “W” is as flavorful, lasting on the palette, as totally satisfying as any I have ever savored in both the recent and long-ago past, even those victories during NU’s Championship seasons.  This win was red-letter if only because it was a resounding exorcism of the Demon of Not-So-Happy Valley.

That Demon, a very powerful and resilient one to be sure, was the one B1G opponent who planted so many heavy-hearted memories of what might have been if the Wildcats had only possessed the personnel with the capacity to close the deal, especially in Beaver Stadium.   

We Wildcats are climbing the steep face of that competitive mountain to become a nationally recognized top tier collegiate football program; and truth be told, it’s a slow and arduous process, making that lofty goal that much more desirable.  But to the well-deserved credit of the State Penn Inmate football family, all of you, past, present and future, truly know how to play the game of football for its entire 60 minutes with a never-say-die attitude that continually translates into a “We’re never out of it” mentality that Fitz and our Wildcats aspire to.  And it’s in the spirit of that honorable football attitude, the traditional State Penn attitude, and fact that this road victory has been so rare and difficult to achieve that makes it so special and so very sweet.

A hard-fought and well-earned one, indeed!   

A tip of my hat to the State Penn football family and its fan base, you are all class acts.  And beware… We’re currently crafting our own coaching legend.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

p.s.:    To Cat-Nips wine aficionados, Larry & Bob:
The vintage bottle you may have opened following this well-earned victory to toast our beloved Wildcats was mere swill to the 2009 Seghasio Old Vine Zin that ThomCat and I popped. 
The sommelier gauntlet has been thrown down at your feet, fellas.

Sept. 26, 2014

Cloying Sweet Aftertaste

OK, so the Big, Bad Northwestern Wildcats devoured a Twinkie last Saturday in the guise of the Western Illinois Feather Weights.  Being an overwhelming favorite, securing the “W” was an expected de facto outcome for NU.  However what wasn’t expected was the cloyingly sweet aftertaste that lingered on the palette once the cream-filled yellow sponge cake opposition from the bustling metropolis of Macomb, Illinois was summarily gnawed upon and swallowed by the ‘Cats.  Unfortunately, when this author reviewed the video of what had transpired on the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch, that saccharine aftertaste turned quite sour in short order.  Why?  Simple answer: there was little to no nutritional value in the predictable consumption of this overwhelmed FCS opponent, especially since NU staged yet another frustrating freak show featuring more of the same uninspired, inconsistent field play across all phases of the game that was exhibited in the first two contests of their 2014 campaign. 

And to the chagrin of myself and most every other member of Wildcat Nation in attendance, this continuing theatre of the absurd production from the ‘Cats not only showed the team’s current lack of mental and physical toughness (despite playing an over-matched, relatively weak-sister foe like WIU), but once again demonstrated the team’s collective inability to execute the most fundamentally correct techniques of effective, efficient blocking, tackling, passing and receiving throughout whole portions of the contest.  Making matters worse still are all the high expectations among Northwestern’s rank-n-file football fan base that their beloved ‘Cats, at this advanced juncture of the season, would have resolved most of their field play deficiencies and have hit their performance stride.  To the contrary, the team remains an enigma, with many of the Cats’ most problematic areas, especially among their skill position players, in dire need of immediate examination and remedy.  Yet I and many others fail to see much progress in those areas over the first 3 games of 2014.  I completely understand if anyone reading this diatribe on last Saturday’s game might conclude that this author’s perspectives are too harshly critical and/or woefully fatalistic in its observations and assessments.  In response to such allegations, I will retort that Western, NU’s only FCS opponent of 2014, represented the weakest opposition the ‘Cats will face in this campaign; and still, this well-coached WIU team gave the Wildcats fits in many ways.  I must admit, I shudder to myself ruminating on the prospects of how NU’s ongoing aspirations toward overall team and individual position play improvement will become exponentially more challenging and difficult from this point forward as they face B1G competition, beginning with this weekend’s grapple against the Inmates of State Penn in Not-So-Happy Valley, PA.

So with those indelible, thought-provoking predictions of ongoing field play shortcomings and game plan issues remaining unresolved for the 2014 Wildcats, as least over the foreseeable future, festering in my psyche, allow me to present my analysis of the Wildcats’ latest pillow fight. 

‘Cats vs. Western Illinois = Winning Ugly

TFLs & French Pastry

Facing a suspect weak-blocking Feather Weight OL, the Wildcat defensive front 7 actually showed signs of notable improvement – not dominance of the LOS, mind you, and certainly nothing close to the consistency expected from a unit populated with experienced personnel across the 2-deep depth chart at each position – but definitely more than the perfunctory performance progress witnessed from this squad in the first 2 games of 2014 against better OLs.

This is a good thing to be sure.  However, any praise for this defensive front, designed and constructed by Fitz and DC Doc Hankwitz both to stone the ground game of a lesser opponent like WIU and to apply a steady pass rush on its QB with regularity, must be tempered by reality when the sobering final game statistics accrued by the Feather Weight O are given a closer inspection. 

WIU’s offense gained 376 yards total for the game, 93 more than NU’s final yardage production, a modestly admirable sum for the Feather Weight O, especially when considering the less-than-stellar run blocking habits of WIU’s OL.  Western’s ground game gained 129 total yards on 36 attempts, a 3.4 yard average, and only had 3 plays that gained 15 yards or more - again, more good news for Doc and his D.  However, adding WIU’s 292 total passing yards, coupled with a 60% completion rate and 7 pass completions of 14 yards or more into the statistical mix throws a cold wet blanket over whatever positives the ‘Cats’ might have been claimed from an improved pass rush by NU’s DL or pass coverage by its secondary .  One factor that cannot overlooked is that the strength of the Feather Weight OL lies in its pass protection blocking capabilities; hence, WIU’s impressive passing stats aren’t uncommon.  In Western’s game against Wisky 2 weekends ago, their better-than-average to good passing attack kept the Badger’s potent O riding pine for whole stretches of H-1 via time-consuming possessions made possible by the quality pocket protection afforded the Feather Weight QB by his OL.  I’m certain the WIU coaching staff’s game plan included schemes meant to exploit NU’s acute tactical vulnerability when facing an offense that employs a “keep-away” control of the pigskin profile similar to what Northern Illinois decisively used in their road victory over the ‘Cats the previous weekend; but then...   

NU’s D routinely rose above the gaudy statistics of Western’s O, forcing them to bake hot & flaky French pastry (aka: turnovers) and serve them to the hungry Purple defense throughout the game.  3 recoveries off 4 forced WIU fumbles by NU’s defense, coupled with an INT for good measure, proffered an additional 4 more possessions to the ‘Cat O.  Those 4 extra offensive series were key game-changers, allowing OC Mick McCall and his O to exercise their own brand of strategic keep-away that kept the Feather Weight offense idle on the sidelines.

Adding increased pressure on the WIU O to perform under fire were the 6 TFLs laid on them by the Wildcat D, 4 of which were QB sacks that summarily stoned the current Feather Weight offensive series and forced a change of possession.  Together, these turnovers and TFLs neutralized any advantage that might have been garnered by Western’s positive 92-yard differential in total yards for the game, especially from those 292 yards gained via their passing game.     

Youth Will Be Served
Through NU’s first 2 games in 2014, the Purple ground game has shifted progressively from its predominant use of incumbent starting RB, Treyvon Green, as its primary ball carrier to a RB by committee profile that includes liberal substitution by the ball-hauling tandem of true Frosh RB, Justin Jackson, and fellow true Frosh RB, Solomon Vault.  And for good reason: these 2 true Frosh simply possess and demonstrate superior ball carrying qualities that produce better and more consistent yardage gains - they are quicker in their reads, more decisive, quicker to drive into and bust through seams at the LOS and, consequently, can deliver an explosion play of 20 yards or more at any time and on any down, period.  Last Saturday’s contest against WIU was a coming-out party of sorts for this 2-headed RB combo, and not a moment too soon. 

The single biggest contributor to continued improvement in NU’s ground game is better, more consistent blocking by the ‘Cat OL (big duh there, no?).  My point in mentioning this Captain Obvious fact is simply that if the ‘Cat OL would transition from their current power blocking style to more of a position block technique, like that employed by the Cal Care Bears (to great effect against the Wildcats, I might add), this less raw power, more finesse blocking technique paradigm shift would reap huge dividends in the form of increased yardage production from NU’s rushing attack as this new true Frosh RB tandem gets more PT.  A moderate shift toward a use of more position blocks and a subsequent increase in yardage gains from the 2-headed RB is what I saw as the NU vs WIU game wound down.  In the game’s final minutes, I recognized another benefit of this paradigm shift…  Western’s defensive front 7 showed signs of increased fatigue: hands on hips between downs, with virtual tongues hanging out.  Employing a position blocking style is less stressful and less physically taxing on an OL unit while it can and will cut the heart out of an opposing DL, especially when a quick-strike RB, like the one that NU’s new 2 headed Frosh tandem provides, slices to and through them repeatedly.  This is the ground game model used by the Wisky Badgers, except that their OL still employs their time-tested, very effective power blocking techniques and will continue to use them.   Fitz and his OL line coach, Adam Cushing, have ambitions for the Purple OL to emulate the same dominant bone-crushing blocking techniques that the common Wisky OL has exercised since, well, before the invention of the toothbrush.  But one thing is for certain: NU’s current OL personnel just aren’t getting the job done executing their existing power blocking style(s).  

I truly cannot predict whether or not a shift towards greater use of position blocking techniques will ever occur for the 2014 Purple OL, after all, Fitz and Cushing can be pretty stubborn; but then again, I can dream, no?

Something Special
The most satisfying aspect of the Wildcat’s overall field play, by far, was the vast improvement by their special teams, especially the ‘Cat kicking game; and in particular, the truly impressive punting results delivered by Junior P, Chris Gradone.  Simply stated, Mr. Gradone was on his game in the biggest of ways – averaging over 44 yards, while sticking 6 of his 7 total boots inside the Feather Weight 20 yard line, the most impressive of which was a superbly-controlled, highlight reel 46 yarder that landed at the WIU 5 then bounced out of bounds at the 1.  Every booming punt from Gradone proffered the WIU offense nothing but long green between their starting field position and their target NU endzone.  This superior punting performance is what field position control is all about. 

This author had not seen such touch and control from a NU punter since the dazzling punting spectacle delivered in the midst of NU’s Dark Ages by 1st team All Big-10 and 1st-team All American P, Jason Kidd, throughout the 1983 season.  To no one’s surprise, Gradone’s punting acumen against Western earned him a well-deserved B1G special teams player of the week accolade. 

Complimenting Gradone’s laudable afternoon, Junior Wildcat PK, Jack Mitchell, had his best outing of 2014 as well.  Of Mitchell’s 5 total kickoffs, he booted 2 into the teeth of a consistently stiff 10-12 mph breeze blowing into Ryan field through the south endzone for 53 and 51 yards respectively.  With the same wind to his back, he booted 3 more kickoffs, all flying well into the Feather Weight endzone for touchbacks.  Mr. Mitchell added a 28 yard FG against the wind in Q4 capping NU’s point production action for the game.  Commendable job that.        

Living Just Enough
Most frustrating of all individual player performances thus far in the 2014 season has to be the mystery surrounding the decline of QB Trevor Siemian’s passing skills, which, during his Sophomore season in 2012, had been substantial and were on spectacular display during NU’s victory over a high quality Mississippi State team in the 2013 New Year’s Day Gator Bowl.  Since those halcyon days, Trevor’s passing performance profile has taken a markedly precipitous downturn, staring early in 2013, continuing to the present day.  Between the end of the 2013 season and the start of spring ball in 2014, a report circulated that Siemian, in fact, had suffered a very severe high sprain to his right ankle from which he never recovered completely.  Fitz and the NU training staff, employing their long-standing gag rule on dispersing all information on any player injuries, kept the report of this debilitating injury to his primary ball handler under wraps until well after the 2013 season ended.  Once news of this injury broke, speculation abounded among informed sources on whether or not Siemian’s injury could have been severe enough to require corrective surgery in the off-season.  Since a report of such surgery to NU’s offense linchpin would have been impossible to squelch, and since no such report was forthcoming from Nicholet Hall, Wildcat Nation, including myself, assumed that the off-season period would provide ample time for Siemian’s ankle issues to heal completely and Trevor would enter NU’s 2014 gridiron campaign bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and fully prepared to reprise his passing game results from 2012.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. 

Sometime in the pre-season or in NU’s 2014 season opener with the Call Care Bears, Siemian took another hard ding to his ankle.  In last Saturday’s game, I took particular notice, using my powerful field glasses, of a thick  tap-job wrapped around Siemian’s ailing right ankle – one resembling a soft cast.  IMHO, Siemian‘s ankle woes remain as severe and debilitating at the pres ent time as it had been throughout the 2013 season.  Stated without any ambiguity, NU’s senior QB just cannot run with any efficiency – either to avoid the middle pass rush pressing down on him, to scramble into open space to the outside of defensive edge contain or even to step up into his pocket protection whenever the hard-charging DEs on either side of him lock horns with NU’s OTs who are coached specifically to stuff the crashing DEs’ immediate advance-route to their QB, then use the pair’s weighty momentum to push the DEs out, around and past Siemian as the QB makes his step forward into the pass protection pocket.  Unfortunately, Trevor cannot complete this simplest of steps forward without issue.  It was his inability to do so that was the main cause why Siemian was dumped and fumbled the bean back to the Feather Weights at the Western 13 yard line in Q1, after NU’s special teams had blocked the previous WIU punt via a DL overload set at the LOS and had given Siemian and the ‘Cat O possession at Western’s 4.  Talk about missing the mark on a sure kill shot!    

Now, Trevor has lost any confidence he has ever possessed regarding his previously substantive passing skills because – IT PAINS HIM TO DO SO.  His drop back steps are excruciatingly S-L-O-W.  He cannot coordinate his forward steps into his pocket protection umbrella between the 2 hand-fighting OT-DE pairs on either side of him without issue.  He cannot plant his back foot solidly enough in the turf after completing his drop back steps to prepare to throw the pill; and he most certainly cannot drive off that back plant foot well enough to initiate the necessary forward weight shift to his front foot during his throwing motion.  Those are the very reasons why 50% of Siemian’s throws sail high or are thrown behind his intended target receiver.  Trevor does not or cannot use correct passing motion techniques during a vertical pass attempt because it hurts him – A LOT.  That’s the reason the majority of his pass attempts in 2014 are dump-offs to a WR running a 2-yard crossing pattern or check-downs to a RB or WR running out-routes into the short wide-zone flats or wide slip screen routes behind the LOS.  Those passes are simple, easy and DO NOT HURT. 

In the meantime, Siemian, following the game plans and player personnel directives of NU’s offensive brain trust (e.g.: he still trots out to general the ‘Cat O in spite of his condition), consigns himself to do whatever, whenever and how ever he can regarding the Cats’ passing game.  It certainly doesn’t help matters much that his receiving corps, to a man, frequently displays an annoying habit of dropping passes that Trevor, after having soldiered through his obvious discomfort, occasionally will throw on target and in stride to the open receiver.   Consequently, the senior QB continues to throw short passes, even when facing long distance passing downs; and unless something radical changes in existing circumstances, Mr. Siemian will continue to do so. 

Against Western, this limited passing was enough to bring home the “W”. 


What else can be said?  As I have stated in earlier commentaries, the perspectives and opinions I provide are mine, and mine alone.  You, my readership, are free to agree or disagree as your conscience dictates. 

Trevor’s continued use as the primary ball handler in OC Mick McCall’s offense is severely compromising NU’s ability to gain yards or score points.  It’s that simple.  He needs to be benched until he can use correct, efficient passing techniques.  And from my point of view, that will not be any time soon. 

No ‘bout-a-doubt it, it’s an extremely hard decision to make, given that the player in question has proven himself to be one of Fitz and McCall’s most reliable and effective playmakers over the past 2 seasons,  especially in 2012 and then in 2013 to a lesser extent.  In 2014, the old Trevor Siemian has yet to step on the gridiron and run McCall’s offense.       

Time to move on…  The ‘Cats make their first road game of 2014, traveling to confront the Inmates of State Penn in Not-Too-Happy Valley.  Last week, that steadfast bastion of righteousness and fair play, the NCAA, in a momentous reversal of opinion that underscored its infinite wisdom and unquestionable foresight, decided to suspend the sanctions it had found appropriate to imposed on the State Penn football program a mere 2 seasons ago, as its reaction to the well-chronicled details of the Sandusky travesty.  May Gawd have mercy on the souls of those movers-n-shakers and talking heads populating the halls of the NCAA offices having made this move. 

A toothless, paper tiger, indeed. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

Sept. 18, 2014

The Great Bug-Tussle

There was much anticipation throughout Wildcat Nation regarding whether or not the ‘Cats would rebound from the previous weekend’s abysmal performance against Cal as they prepared to face the Northern Illinois Hush Puppies at Dyche’s Ditch last Saturday.  Would HC Fitz and his coaching staff finally conceive offensive and defensive game plans better suited to utilize the quality field play capabilities of their many playmakers on both sides of the LOS more efficiently and effectively?  Would the individual players, who seemed to operate as independent entities during portions of the Cal game, regain their collective commitment to excellence and coalesce into a cohesive, fundamentally sound team dedicated to execute those games plans more consistently?  I truly believed that each NU player, embarrassed and disgusted with his own dismal field play against the Care Bears, would flush the memory of those failures to take it out on the NIU Hush Puppies. 

I couldn’t have been more mislead by HC Pat Fitzgerald’s well-chronicled football philosophy of a team and its players recognizing and learning from the shortfalls and mistakes of their prior game and then flushing it – to purge the whole damn thing from their memory banks – as they prepared for their upcoming foe (NIU) with greater resolve and determination to “get it right” and bring home the “W.”  This mental exercise of exorcising the demons discovered during review of the last game is a fantastic coaching concept that allows the individual player to assess his field play rationally and objectively, to assume ownership of his failures then to take the necessary measures to ensure those failures to execute don’t reoccur in future games.  

Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, that turnaround in mental commitment towards continued improvement just didn’t happen.  In fact, it got worse when playing the Hush Puppies.  

In retrospect, the grapple between the ‘Cats and Hush Puppies, the projected cat versus dog fur-ball, could best be described as “The Great Bug Tussle.”  Most especially in H-1, the competitive interplay between both teams resembled two sow bugs going face-to-face, pushing one another around Ryan Field in a titanic pillow fight in their bid to best the other, and consequently, going nowhere fast for the effort.  This “battle of the banana slugs” wasn’t merely an exercise in futility, it progressively transitioned into a comedy of errors, highlighted by numerous blunders and dunderheaded field play by members from both teams, as the game wore on. 

In the end, the team who captured the “W” flag was the team who made the fewer blunders.  And it wasn’t the ‘Cats. 

How the Hush Puppies Gummed
the ‘Cats Into Submission

Calling Out Mick McCall

Please understand that the following perspective is strictly my personal opinion, nothing more.  However, I’m not apologizing for it, either.

IMHO, ‘Cat OC Mick McCall is as stubborn as he is arrogant regarding his offensive schemes for the 2014 campaign.  Somewhere, somehow, he has gotten it into his thick skull that NU’s O should aspire to emulate the BuckNut offense.  His offensive game plans over the past 2 games explicitly depend on a power ground game to set up NU’s passing attack.  The major flaw in this plan: the ‘Cat O doesn’t possess the personnel to do so – in particular, the team is missing a LOS-controlling OL or a bruising heavy RB.  And it’s absolutely destroying NU’s ability to control the ball and game clock and subsequently, to score points. 

Exacerbating the whole scenario is McCall’s frustrating penchant to keep to the preconceived script of plays per down & distance, in spite of whether or not the opposing D has planned for and implemented an effective counter defense against those plays.  One example in the NIU game was the use of the jet sweep.  Obviously, the Hush Puppy defensive brain trust recognized NU’s liberal use of this latest ground game twist in attacking the defensive edge - an alternative to the read option – and configured a strategy to defend that point of attack.  Whenever the ‘Cats ran the jet sweep (or the read option or a slip screen, for that matter), the outside LB to the side of the attacked edge and the FS (acting like a 2nd LB in rush support) both sprinted to that edge and drove past the LOS into NU’s wide backfield to catch the ball carrier just before or at the time he planted his foot to turn downfield.  Using the sideline as another defender, this inside-out rush support from the NIU secondary squeezed the target rush area allowing the pursuit to attack the ball with abandon.  Any hesitation by the ‘Cat ball carrier when making his cut towards the LOS, then this sellout pursuit would blow up this edge play for little to no gain or worse, a TFL.  After the 3rd such failed execution, it became apparent that the Northern coaching staff had established the appropriate reads for their D to stone NU’s jet sweep (or read option or slip screen) in its tracks.  Conventional wisdom would conclude that these defensive edge attack runs by McCall had been neutralized soundly and it was time to shelve this play set and employ some other rush package at another point of attack along the LOS. 

But no… McCall kept calling these defensive edge plays a number of times per quarter and virtually every attempt was stoned - often handcuffing the ‘Cat O into subsequent long distance downs, which placed even more pressure on QB Trevor Siemian and his receiving corps to bail NU’s offense out from behind its self-inflicted proverbial eight ball and sustain the current drive.   Not the best strategy to lessen the performance challenges of the ‘Cats’ inconsistent passing attack by its OC, to be sure. 

”You Have Been Found Lacking”
A major contributor to NU’s performance woes on either side of the LOS has been the general the lack of discipline by the ‘Cat OL - highlighted by frequent boneheaded offensive holding and illegal blocking calls which frequently reversed substantive yardage gains.  In particular, the ‘Cats’ starting LOT had a painfully penalty-laden afternoon. 

Making matters worse still was the OL’s inability to neutralize Northern’s pass rush - even against 3-DL sets - giving up 6 sacks while backing up the ‘Cat offense 40 total yards in the process.  The most putrid piece of NU’s blocking breakdown pie was that the Wildcat OTs simply did not engage their DE blocking targets soon enough off the snap of the ball, routinely allowing those edge pass rushers a full 3-4 strides across the LOS to compress the ‘Cat backfield in towards the QB.  By the time those OTs locked horns with these edge rushers, the hand-fighting tandem was a scant 1-2 yards from Siemian.  To the most casual fan witnessing such action unfold before him on the green grass of Ryan Field, this piss-poor pass protection technique by NU’s OTs was way more than just inefficient, it was as fundamentally unsound as it was game-changing.  The ultimate head-scratcher was that this wholly disastrous pass blocking methodology was a coached technique - conceived and implemented by the OL coach and the OC as part of their original game plan - one that, in the final analysis, severely compromised NU’s passing attack in the worst way.  It forced Siemian to constantly shift his attention from going through his downfield receiver progressions to focusing on protection breakdowns occurring all around him, compelling him to avoid a pass rush that was often at his level or in his face mere moments after completing his drop-back and setting his feet for the throw.  It made the simplest pitch-n-catch pass attempts an adventure. 

Couple these OL woes with the receiving corps’ all-too-frequent dropped passes, and it’s a recipe for point production failure.   Most notable of all dropped receptions in last Saturday’s game was the perfectly-placed pass from Siemian to a wide-open WR, Miles Schuler, who had gained 3 full yards of separation from his cover DB at the NIU 5, only to inexplicably muff the bean as it hit his mitts free and clear.  Coaches make decisions and playmakers make plays.  Schuler, a transfer senior in his last season of eligibility, looked like he’s not quite personally prepared to execute as a primary playmaker in the unforgiving glare of the bright spotlight that is B1G football.  His completion gaffe was a momentum-changer.   

On the defensive side, personal fouls by NU defensive personnel reared its ugly head which contributed heavily towards sustaining possession of the pill during 2 of 3 TD drives for the Hush Puppies.  Then there are the damn explosion plays that the NU defense gives-up with frustratingly expected frequency – like that 59 yard bomb, off a 2nd & 19 yard down, for Northern’s game-clinching TD that shoulda, woulda, coulda been defended and broken-up had the cover DB maintained his poise and kept sprinting hard with the target NIU receiver.  A lack of discipline, to be sure.

The only conclusion one could make at all this was that Fitz and his coaching staff, somehow, some way, lost connection with their players and their field play on many levels – both in preparation and in game-time performance. 

Soft Shoe
With that hard conclusion of Fitz and his coaching staff losing connectivity with their players, especially in the heat of the game-time battle, fresh in mind, one is drawn to ask the equally hard question: How?  

IMHO, the less-than-stellar field play exhibited by Wildcat players in all phases over these first two games of the 2014 campaign have their roots in HC Pat Fitz and his decision to conduct a pillow-soft, very limited full contact pre-season.  The hard truth is that the 2014 Wildcat team, as a whole, has shown little, if any, of the necessary mental toughness and resiliency to act boldly and decisively in the face of adversity when playing opponents like the Cal Care Bears and the NIU Hush Puppies, who, quite frankly, are not that high quality themselves.  These characteristics of toughness and resiliency are more a product of nurture - by the coaching staff - than it is nature - as commonly found in the DNA of the individual Division 1A player.  And this nurture is forged in the crucible of intense competition – the kind of competition that comes to the fore during full-contact drills and scrimmages where hard-nosed contact is a necessity to survive and succeed; and where the best players bring-out their best field play.  Consequently, those best players then become a team’s most reliable playmakers and go-to leaders.   

Perhaps pre-season injuries to projected primary playmakers like WR Christian Jones and DT Sean McEvilly compelled Fitz to take this toned-down, milquetoast approach to full contact drills in order to avoid further casualties from friendly fire.  Whatever the reasoning, the absence of impassioned live hitting during Camp Kenoshia practices was noted and reported as such in the biggest of ways when viewed firsthand by the talking heads who host the Big-Ten Network’s travelling circus for pre-season analysis and hype.  So it’s my opinion that all the negative consequences to this predominately soft approach to pre-season preparation has come to roost for Fitz and his ‘Cats and were on display, in all its ugliness, during last weekend’s game against the very beatable Hush Puppies.  And it will be almost impossible to reverse these negatives when neck-deep in the thick of in-season competition.  The zero-zero score at the end of H-1 and the virtual white flag waved by Fitz and the NU coaching staff in mid-Q4 underscores this point. 


Unfortunately, at this early moment in the 2014 season, I see little leadership on the field or on the sidelines.  Virtually everything regarding in-game strategies and play-calling among Fitz and his coaching staff seems steadfastly pro-forma and prearranged.  NU’s opponents rarely, if ever, appear surprised or unprepared when countering whatever the ‘Cat brain trusts on either side of the LOS throws at them.  Strategic innovation and imaginative plays designed to exploit opponent weaknesses, which formed the foundation to the spread offense in seasons past, are peculiarly absent.  And when expected results are not delivered or mistakes are made, Fitz goes ballistic rather than calmly, coolly taking control of the strategy or game scenarios to reverse the trend.  In post-game interviews, Fitz sings the one-note song of Wildcat losses due to a string of one-on-one breakdowns.  Well, what ever happened to the Wildcats being the team to deliver those one-on-one breakdowns on their opposition?  Such a deep, probing question deserves an equally deep, unambiguous retort… and Fitz has yet to provide a viable or believable one.  

It’s very difficult for me to articulate my deep feelings after witnessing this “bug tussle” between the ‘Cats and Hush Puppies.  Unfortunately, it may not be the last one in the 2014 season.  Fitz is in dire need of being served and noshing on a heaping helping of humble pie, coupled with a soul-searching review of past poor decisions regarding personnel and team preparation.  Mick McCall simply must resurrect that innovative forward-thinking profile when constructing initial offensive game plans and introducing effective in-game adjustments that were commonplace with his OC coaching tenure at BuGS-U and in his seasons through 2012 as OC for the Wildcats.  Likewise, DC Doc Hankwitz has got to get his defensive squad back on track to operate as a comprehensive force rather than the hap-hazard collection of individual parts seen in NU’s first 2 contests of 2014.    

The Western Illinois Feather-Weights are next up for the ‘Cats.  On paper, this team appears to be a relative weak sister to what the Wildcats possess position-by-position.  However, 2nd-year HC Bob Nelson had his Feather-Weights primed and ready when his team ignored pre-game prognostications, faced the Big Bad Badgers of Wisky and held their own for the first half, giving the Badgers all the competition they didn’t expect, and more, from a motivated underdog.   They will be just as motivated for a ‘Cat team dealing with their own internal demons.      

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

Sept. 5, 2014

‘Cats Upset; I Think Not

Much of the pre-season hype regarding the strength and resiliency of the 2014 ‘Cats was based as much on heightened expectations as it was on reality.  After all, the dismal 5-7 record delivered by the ‘Cats in 2013 was nothing less than a complete shock to many a Wildcat fan (this author included), especially when juxtaposed against one of the best showings in the history of NU’s storied football program the previous season, 2012, that included a Gator Bowl victory against a high quality SEC foe in Mississippi State.

Questions regarding the 2014 ‘Cats abounded. 

Would the ‘Cats flush the 2013 season, rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the previous season’s sub-500 results and regain their competitive edge?  Did the ‘Cats truly flush the myriad distractions of the media circus surrounding the unionization efforts of the NU football program throughout the previous winter and spring months and exercise the necessary focus and attention to detail regarding their collective preparations for the upcoming 2014 season? Would the ‘Cats adapt and overcome the bewilderingly sudden departure/transfer of their med-shirt awarded marquee player, Venric Mark, and the equally devastating, season-ending ACL injury to their best returning WR, Christian Jones, during Kamp Kenoshia two-a-days?  Would the OL shake off their frustrating pattern of porous blocking from 2013 and reprise the reliable, effective blocking results delivered in 2012?  Could returning QB Trevor Siemian exorcise the demons of Mick McCall’s 2-QB system and finally fulfill the promise of his recognized quarterbacking potential by blossoming into The Main Man in NU’s 2014 O?

Unfortunately, the season home opener game against the Cal Care Bears in Evanston provided the following sequential answers to the question set above: 
No, No, No, No and Hell No.  

How the Care Bears Flattened
the ‘Cats Into Road Kill

Not Quite Under Control
In 2013, the ‘Cat OL and DL were an enigma.  To be sure, there were high quality personnel populating both squads.  However, for one reason or another, both units were heavily challenged to generate either a coordinated effort (at the same time) or a sustained effort (say, throughout H-2 of any one game) to control the LOS for whole portions of the game.  The results were as baffling as they were frustrating to the players themselves, the coaching staff and the fans alike.  The Wildcats seemingly were incapable of finishing off their opposition even when they had a lead going into the final 10 minutes of any particular game.  Invariably, something decidedly disruptive happened where the field play suit, tailored over the course of the game, just came apart at the seams and lay in a tattered pile of rags on the floor as the game’s final gun sounded.  Game videos from Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa contests will underscore this undeniable characteristic.

With an entire off-season to address the causes, HC Fitz, his DC, Doc Hankwitz, DL coach Marty Long and OL coach Adam Cushing went to work to resolve the issue of frequent LOS control shortfalls by their respective lines.  Many preseason reports indicated that all their hard work was paying dividends.  In various interviews, Doc, the ‘Cat DC who has never been prone to verbal hyperbole, alluded to the fact that his 2014 defense could be among the best he has mentored during his tenure in Evanston.  Observations from many witnesses to Kamp Kenosha practices conveyed performance improvements to the Wildcat O, stating that the OL, specifically, had jelled into a cohesive, unified force to be reckoned-with.  Expectations were sky-high.  The biggest questions which remained centered around how OC Mick McCall’s offense could overcome the loss of his All American RB and his most prolific WR from 2013 with effective, reliable replacements – regardless if those playmakers were incoming true frosh or previously unheralded personnel on the current roster.  So last Saturday’s game against the Cal Care Bears would be the ultimate litmus test identifying whether or not the OL and DL, in fact, had developed the capacity to seal the deal late in a contest.

Unfortunately, the pattern of late-game LOS control collapses by the ‘Cat OL and DL from 2013 took a totally different turn when facing the Care Bears last weekend.  Instead of exhibiting deficiencies controlling the LOS at end game, both the OL and DL were late out of the starting gate from the game’s opening whistle.  Although both units were noticeably bigger and stronger than Cal’s opposing linemen, control of the LOS decidedly was in the hands of Cal for all of H1 and into the first 5 minutes of Q3.  The ‘Cat defensive front 7, in particular, appeared to be sleepwalking throughout those first 35 minutes as the Care Bear ground game sliced its way around and through them virtually at will.  Mind you, the ‘Cat DL were not blown off the ball, but instead were position blocked by their Cal counterparts and sealed off from the point of attack, relegated to hand-fighting rather than gaining separation.  Obviously Cal HC Sonny Dykes had game-planned his OL to finesse block the ‘Cat front 7 rather than stand toe-to-toe, exchanging body blows & haymaker head shots, with the ‘Cat DL.  Complicating this LOS control issue were the field play problems of the Wildcat LB corps.  In particular, the Mike and Sam LBs were continuously hesitant in reacting to their reads.  Instead of filling holes at the LOS while toting heavy lumber in hand to swing into the grill of the opposing RB, this frequent hesitation pattern, a 1 second delay at most, allowed the Cal ball carrier to hit the hole relatively untouched, forcing the Purple LBs to dive at the legs of the short, quick Care Bear RBs shooting through open seams in vain attempts to halt their downfield rushes.  Most of those last-ditch body throws simply missed their targets. 

In H1 alone, the balanced attack of the Care Bear O shredded the ‘Cat D, scoring on 4 of their first 5 possessions to capture a 24-7 lead at halftime.  In those possessions, Cal’s ground game appeared unstoppable and was complemented to perfection by Cal’s 2nd year QB, Jared Goff, who went bananas attacking the slow NU secondary with pinpoint-precision passes to wide open receiving targets – completing 12 throws in 15 attempts over that timeframe while collecting 3 TDs and a quickie FG in the process.  

It was an offensive juggernaut that had its foundations based on Cal’s utter dominance of the LOS on both sides of the ball that threw NU into a 17 point hole in the first 30 minutes of the game with little promise for parole.  Peering through my field glasses to the NU sidelines during possession changes, I saw a very animated Doc and Fitz frenetically instructing their defensive front 7 personnel on the necessary countermoves to reverse the Cal domination of the LOS.  Problem was… by the time LOS control was wrested from Cal in Q3, the Cat D simply looked like baked roadkill.  To me, it all came down to a matter of preparation.  

Wildcat? What Wildcat?
Without question, the most effective formation that the Cal O employed in the game was the wildcat, where 2nd team QB Luke Rubenzer, wearing No. 8, was positioned side-by-side with an RB.  It proved to be one hellova complimentary alternative to Cal’s standard offense led by 1st team pro-style QB, Jared Goff. 

On Cal’s 3rd play from scrimmage, Rubenzer, a diminutive yet lighting-quick dual threat QB, received the snap from center and promptly darted through a seam in the LOS for an 11 yard gain.  From that point forward, it was game on with the Cal offensive brain trust alternating offensive formations between the pro set and the wildcat, led by Goff and Rubenzer, respectively, throughout the contest. 

To even the most casual observer seated in the stands of Dyche’s Ditch, it was more than obvious that Fitz and Doc had not included a strategy to defend this formation in their original game plan; or if it was included, it wasn’t a point of emphasis.  This lack of preparation by NU’s defensive brain trust to defend the wildcat in the ‘Cats’ home opener was as much a mystery as it was baffling simply because videos from the last 8 games of Cal’s 2013 season revealed that Cal HC Dykes had installed and employed this alternative offense (to varying degrees of success, mind you) in an attempt to resuscitate Cal’s flagging O, which was mired into mediocrity over the course of their 1-11 campaign last fall. 

To Doc’s credit, he did right the field play ship of his defensive troops to stone Cal’s wildcat offense via game-time adjustments, but it took those opening 35 minutes to do so.  And as stated above, by then the Wildcats were looking up from a 24-7 hole and frantically clawing their way back into contention in an attempt at mounting a monumental come-back. 

Blinded by the (Spot)Light
For the past 8 months or so, a major media message emanating from NU’s Athletic Department regarding the new-look Wildcat O was that Trevor Siemian, the returning half of last season’s starting QB tandem, was totally ready, willing and able to assume the role of Fitz’ solo primary playmaker.  No longer would Siemian’s PT be limited to the role of gun-slinging QB reliever to Kain Colter (who, to his credit, successfully transited to the professional ranks as an undrafted WR for the Minnie Vikings and had been retained on that organization’s 10-man developmental squad).  Parallel to Siemian’s promotion to primary ball handler, OC Mick McCall’s returning bevy of experienced ‘Cat OL and high-quality WRs finally could concentrate their efforts towards melding with their incumbent solo QB and blossoming into a much more dynamic and effective point-production unit.  At least, that was the ultimate pre-season goal of NU’s offensive brain trust.  And virtually every information source from Kamp Kenosha to Nicolet Hall reported that this desired offensive metamorphosis was indeed happening – with very positive results.

But then, this over-confident, under-prepared ‘Cat O faced a defensive foe in the Cal Care Bears, determined to reverse the train wreck of their 2013 1-11 season by capturing the “W” flag in their road opener against NU. 

So in 2014, ‘Cat HC Fitz and OC McCall put the lion’s share their offensive success eggs in the basket toted by Trevor Siemian, and both coaches were supremely confident that their senior QB could and would deliver a “W” with his improved passing skillset that was on full display from Kamp Kenoshia and into Cal prep week.  Unfortunately for NU’s coaching staff and his teammates, Siemian simply laid an egg in the ‘Cats’ home opener. 

A single word suffices to describe Siemian’s performance last Saturday: inconsistent.  Facing a blustery 20-mph wind whipping into Ryan Field from the south, Trevor’s passing accuracy was severely compromised.  50% of Siemian’s passes on possessions facing the south endzone, going into that head wind, were overthrown – badly.  Conversely, 50% of his throws heading to the north endzone, with the wind to his back, were delivered late – often behind his target receiver. 

It was a primetime spotlight that was as glaring as it was heated since Fitz and his teammates were depending so heavily on Siemian to exhibit his well-documented passing proficiency and lead the ‘Cats in their bid to erase the 24-7 deficit laid on them by Cal in H1.  And once the LOS control situation was reversed at the 10-minute mark of Q3, Siemian, the ‘Cat O and the resilient, re-focused ‘Cat D nearly pulled it off. 

However, the task of rising to the challenge in NU’s time of greatest need to score equalizer points and maintain possession of the pigskin was not Siemian’s alone, but required precise route execution and steady hands from the NU receiving corps.  And to that end, the Wildcat WRs fell flat on their faces – with at least a dozen dropped passes (5 by Cameron Dickerson, one of NU’s most reliable WRs on the field last Saturday) that had been delivered on target by Siemian.  

So Siemian’s inconsistent passing day coupled with the NU receiver corps’ utterly mind-numbing, inconsistent capacity to complete the grab of a Siemian pass at the most critical times was THE recipe for NU’s failure to complete the comeback from a 24 point deficit in the final minutes of regulation time. 

The most frustrating thing of all was that Siemian and company were poised and in position to deliver that Cardiac ‘Cats comeback in their last possession of the game - with 1:38 left on the game clock and the ‘Cats with ball-in-hand at Cal’s 38 yard line.  On 3rd down & 17 yards to go for a first, Siemian chucked a well-thrown 19-yard pass to a double-covered Cameron Dickerson, who out-jumped his coverage DBs, had the bean hit and go through his uncontested, open mitts, bounce off his chest/facemask and carom 10 feet into the air, whereupon a Cal DB converted the INT off the missed catch that ended NU’s bid to score the equalizing TD.  

To this single game-deciding down, the oft-quoted football locker room axiom applies:
“Playmakers make plays.”        

Ka-Boom – There It Is
Explosion plays, those gaining 20-plus yards, are acknowledged game-changers.  NU had its own, but the Care Bears had the more crucial ones. 

The first was on Cal’s 2nd possession of the contest, where the ‘Cat D had Goff and his O facing a daunting 3rd & 12 yards to go at the Cal 31.  Receiving the center snap in shotgun, Goff drifted to his left and deftly eluded 2 NU defenders crashing on him.  He reversed field, scrambling to his right, and as a 3rd ‘Cat defender closed in on him for the sack, desperately heaved the bean downfield.  The ball flew 40 yards downfield to a Cal WR whose cover DB had abandoned his previous blanket cover when he saw Goff reverse his field and start to come upfield a few steps in run support against Goff’s scramble.   The ‘Cat DB saw the thrown pass, tried to regain his cover on the target WR, and arrived just a moment too late as the ball dropped into the waiting hands of the abandoned WR at NU’s 29 yard line.  5 plays later, Goff completed a 7 yard TD pass to pad Cal’s Q1 lead to 14-0.  A boneheaded coverage mistake by the ‘Cat DB, to be sure, but one where the consequences were game-changing.     

The second was even more devastating.  On the ensuing Cal possession following NU’s first score in Q2 that trimmed the deficit to 17-7, Dykes and his OC decided to test NU’s deep route coverage schemes while taking advantage of the wind to Goff’s back heading to the north endzone on the first play from scrimmage.  The pass play was a strict go-route to the left side WR sprinting straight downfield.  The ‘Cat cover CB maintained contact with the WR from the short sideline zone, through his middle sideline zone, expecting to hand off the coverage responsibility of this WR, now streaking into the deep sideline zone, to his partner FS, Traveon Henry.  However, Henry was late to recognize and complete the coverage hand-off and now was 5 yards behind the Cal WR, who sprinted free and clear into the open deep sideline zone.  Goff saw his primary WR target’s pass route develop, recognized the failure of NU’s secondary to execute the coverage handoff and threw a picture-perfect, high-arching bomb hitting his open WR in-stride for a quick strike TD that reset the score to 24-7 in Cal’s favor and pushed the ‘Cats back down a 17-point hole for the 2nd time. 

This explosion play wasn’t just a game-changer, it was a game-decider.  Ka-Boom!!!       


This home opener game was most certainly very winnable.  At game’s end, many patrons populating Wildcat Nation, myself included, truly felt that Fitz and his coaching staff had not prepared the ‘Cat D for an improved Jared Goff leading Cal’s pro-style passing attack as well as Cal’s wildcat offensive package.

It took some quick thinking and immediate game-time re-tooling by the NU coaching staff instructing their D personnel regarding appropriate counter-schemes to defend Cal’s high quality field play execution of these 2 offensive attack modes.  And in the ensuing 25 minutes, the ‘Cats, as a team, showed that they have the quality players who possess the necessary skillset and resolve to mount what would have been an epic comeback.  However, in the final analysis, giving up those critical first 35 minutes of a 60 minute game against a not great, but certainly good, motivated opponent who garnered a well-deserved 31-7 lead over that timeframe, proved too great a mountain to scale before the final gun sounded. 

With no malice or vitriol, I must lay this loss is strictly on Fitz and Doc.  The ‘Cats just were not properly prepared to face the improved 2014 version of the Care Bears.  

I cannot identify the causes for this lack of preparation, especially since I personally did not see any pre-season practice session this fall.  Fitz and his coaching staff have always shown an aptitude towards preparing the team for the rigors of a challenging opponent, especially in a season opener. 

I overheard a theory for this latest opening game shortfall and, although it’s nothing less than pure speculation, I believe it has merit.  Over the course of Kamp Kenoshia and through the Cal game week, Fitz deliberately limited occasions regarding live scrimmage and full contact drills throughout Wildcat pre-season practices.  If true, in doing so, Fitz handcuffed his D, both his defensive front 7 and his secondary, into falling back into that comfort zone of employing that damn fraction-of-a-second hesitation characteristic to limit field play mistakes.  Fall pre-season practice sessions MUST prepare players for the overt speed and hardcore hitting profile that the team will experience in its first game of the season, and that means an HC and his position coaches absolutely must put their players in harm’s way, risking possible catastrophic attrition among those players populating the pre-season depth chart.  Perhaps the season-ending injuries to 2 of his top returning seniors, WR Christian Jones and DT Sean McEvilly, contributed to the decision to limit full contact drills.  This limited contact pre-season strategy was employed by former Vikings HC Bud Grant to great effect.  But that is the pros, this is college ball where there is a limited, highly controlled number of days and hours available to practice and hone the skills to required beat an opponent.  If this is true, then Fitz has a very limited time and a lot of ground to cover to get his team into live-contact competition shape before game 2 of 2014.        

Now, on to face a very good Northern Illinois Huskies this coming Saturday in Dyche’s Ditch.  Quite literally, it will be one brutal dog fight.      

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

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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