The Waterboy
2015 Archive

Dec. 9, 2015

It’s A Wrap

Last Saturday’s grapple against the Ill-Annoy PumpkinHeads was anticipated initially to be NU’s wrap-up to its improbable 2015 season of achievement – the final chapter of celebration to what has been and continues to be one hellova satisfying read regarding HC Pat Fitzgerald’s latest success story of the post-season, bowl-bound Northwestern Football Wildcats.  Mind you, this stroll down the cobblestone-strewn Yellow Brick Road to the Wizard’s residence within the City of Gridiron Relevancy was not without its speedbumps and potholes.  After two tumultuous 5-7 seasons, from which NU’s anticipated 2015 football fortunes essentially were written-off  by many B1G football programs and national media alike in pre-season evaluations to the ignominious realm of an also-ran, spoiler at best or, more likely, bottom-feeder fodder when facing the B1G’s traditional Big Dog powers, the Purple’s wholly unpredictable 10 win regular season record, highlighted by 6 “W”s against B1G opposition, was considered by many observers to be an aberration from the norm.  After all, throughout last season, like many others in NU’s recent past, the Wildcats consistently could not seal the deal in many games against B1G Dog foes, like the Dazed & Blue Horde and the BugEaters, by giving-up that one game-clinching score after holding a late lead; so consequently, what was the difference now?  With so little expected regarding improvements in overall field play among current rostered personnel, the 2015 version of Fitz’ Felines was projected to be more S.O.S. (same old s#it), wherein NU’s capability to maintain their competitive profile over the course of any single game eventually would unravel like a cheap suit sometime in Q4 when the pressure to perform would be at its most desperate – as had been so commonplace in the previous two campaigns. 

Therefore, owning to the Ill-Whine-I’s wholesale 47-33 dismantling of the Wildcats in 2014, casual optimistic supporters of Rantoul’s B1G Ten Team harbored a similar viewpoint and envisioned more of the S.O.S. from the Wildcats in 2015.   However, something remarkable happened instead.  Rather than follow the same scripted storyline plot of late-game collapses, the Cardiac ‘Cats delivered the winning goods in the waning minutes of many tightly contested, final possession-dictated contests.  “Winning Ugly” was an appropriate descriptive key phrase whenever anyone reviewed these victories; and to their credit, the 2015 Wildcats never faltered in the game’s final quarter – ever – as the margin of victory against their last four B1G competitors demonstrated: 2 points over the BugEaters and State Penn; 7 points over the Broiler Chickens and 6 points over the Wisky Drunkards. 

So it was anybody’s guess as to which Wildcat team would trot-out onto the turf of the Chicago Bear’s Soldier Field to combat their downstate rival Ill-Annoy – the current indefatigable ‘Cats or the S.O.S. ‘Cats from prior seasons.  As for Ill-Annoy’s incentive for victory in this rivalry game, it was elementary: capture the “W” flag then the Ill-Whine-I win total reaches 6, proffering post-season bowl eligibility to the PumpkinHeads. 

On another completely different yet serious vein, this rivalry game held a scandalous backdrop: the precipitous downward spiral of Ill-Whine-I Athletics in general, and of its pigskin program in particular, which had been subjected to a series of independent internal investigations over the past 12 months; and its conclusions were not sympathetic.  In simple terminology, the state of Ill-Annoy Athletics was a roaring dumpster fire.  Fueled by documented allegations of rampant racism, unhealthy medical protocols for injured athletes, mistreatment and abuses to athletes across several sports programs and unscrupulous administration policies, the Ill-Whine-I football program, under the “leadership“ of HC Tim Beckman, had become a ticking time-bomb set to explode.  The fallout from these inquiries was both sweeping and severe.  Most notable was the unceremonious dismissal of Beckman one week before the football team’s 2015 opening game (talk about a hanging judge’s sentence); followed by the firing of his employer, Ill-Annoy Athletic Director, Mike Thomas, two weeks later.  After assistant coach Bill Cubit was hastily named interim HC; the Ill-Whine-I football program was left to its own devices – to literally sink or swim while shouldering the weight of these athletic department misconduct and mismanagement charges.  It was a wonder that the Pigskin PumpkinHeads, in the midst of all that catastrophic chaos, could pull themselves together enough to win 5 of their 11 games played, with their signature “W” being their surreal 1-point victory against the BugEaters in Lincoln off a last-possession TD with 10 seconds left on the clock.  But they did.

And now they were fully prepared and motivated to take the fight to “That Team Up North,” the so-called NU “MildCats,” in their showcase season finale at the Windy City’s “UFO on the Lake” which, if won, would earn them much sought-after solace and absolution from the misdeeds of their prior program leadership by becoming bowl eligible.   
How the ‘Cats Smashed the PumpkinHeads

Dropping the Pumpkin
Make no mistake, Ill-Annoy’s Senior QB, Wes Lunt, has primary ball handler talent, especially when throwing the bean downfield.  However, he just doesn’t have the quality receiving corps counterparts to collect those throws on enough occasions to solidify the Ill-Whine-I passing attack; and that negative field play characteristic was on devastating display early and often in last Saturday’s bug tussle with the ‘Cats.  In the Ill-Annoy’s initial possession of the tilt, Lunt deftly utilized a balanced attack of pin-point passing mixed with hard-nosed, power rushing and piloted the PumpkinHead O to seamlessly drive 47-yards in 12-plays and score the game’s first TD.  At that juncture, things appeared ominous for the ‘Cat D; but then, DC Doc Hankwitz righted his defensive ship and the Wildcat D went into lock-down mode for the remainder of the contest.  The PumpkinHead offense had a huge assist in NU’s stonewall simply because it was hard pressed to successfully sustain yardage production on subsequent possessions once the Ill-Annoy WRs contracted a debilitating case of the Dropsies through the rest of H-1.  In drive after drive, Lunt delivered the bean in stride and on target to an open receiver only to watch helplessly as his passing target misjudge the toss and allowed the ball to hit his mitts then fall harmlessly to the turf.  I can honestly report: that exact muffed-pass scenario played-out at least a dozen times over the course of the game; and those missed yardage production opportunities via the accurately delivered pass ranked hard on Ill-Whine-I QB Lunt and HC Bill Cubit. 

To paraphrase the response from the Wildcat defensive secondary at seeing this contagious disease of the Dropsies infect virtually every PumpkinHead WR time and again: “Thank Gawd for small favors.”  That was about the extent of the sympathy shown by the ‘Cat D as they welcomed the giftie drops without hesitation.

It was no great secret to the Ill-Annoy defensive brain trust that the bulk of ‘Cat OC Mick McCall’s offensive yardage generation was ground-n-pound rush-centric, depending heavily on his talented RB tandem of Justin Jackson and Warren Hall to shoot into and through seams at the LOS made by NU’s OL.  To defend the newly resurgent and now prolific Purple rushing attack, the Ill-Whine-I game planned to coordinate their defensive front 7 with both safeties positioned a scant 7-8 yards off the LOS in a run-support first formations.  McCall recognized this scheme and made the executive decision to adjust his initial yardage production strategies and utilize his newbie QB Clayton Thorson’s on-again/off-again passing acumen early, if only to counterattack and loosen-up the PumpkinHeads’ run support-first defensive sets; and it worked to perfection.    

On the Wildcat possession immediately following the Ill-Annoy scoring drive, Thorson completed 2 explosion play-action passes – the first, a 48-yarder to WR Austin Carr that reset the LOS at the Ill-Whine-I 29; and the second, a 19-yard strike to SB Dan Vitale, who tipped the well-thrown bean to himself without breaking stride then rumbled into the end zone for the game-tying TD.  That 5-play, 76-yard “response” TD scoring drive did a full Montezuma on the Ill-Whine-I D, literally cutting its “will-to-compete” heart out with a dull obsidian blade and smashing the PumpkinHeads into Mojo Moose backyard breakfast fodder. 

With that initial TD pass under his belt and his confidence meter reading dead red, the Clayton Thorson aerial attack train was warmed-up and firing on all cylinders.  After the ‘Cat D stoned the Ill-Whine-I O with a 3-n-out series on their next possession, Thorson & Co. went back to work and scored a follow-up TD off a 13-play, 57 yard drive that was sustained by a boneheaded personal foul penalty by the PumpkinHeads’ punt rush squad for “launching over a blocker’s back” on a NU punt kicked in the middle of that offensive series. This second TD underscored Thorson’s comprehensive command of the Wildcat offense that proffered the ‘Cats their usual low-margin lead – one that they would never relinquish.  

Thorson’s passing success day continued on the Wildcats next drive, in which he threw his 3rd explosion pass of H-1, a 39-yard pitch-n-catch to WR Miles Schuler, resetting the LOS at the Ill-Whine-I 27.  Five plays later, the ‘Cats scored their third TD in as many offensive possessions, throwing the Ill-Whine-I down a deep, dark 2-TD hole.   

The body language of the Ill-Annoy D spoke volumes – with heads down and hands on hips, the PumpkinHead defenders were thoroughly demoralized and befuddled facing Thorson’s unexpected aerial onslaught in H-1. 

‘Cat RB Justin Jackson’s greatest rushing asset is not break-away speed (he possesses only average foot speed); or an ability to break arm tackles for additional yards after contact; but his elusiveness – his ability to scan the LOS for the slightest of seams, then burst to and through it in a flash.  Jackson’s second greatest rushing asset is his amazing durability; and it is in this one capacity where he has outshined every other RB in the B1G.  Being NU’s premier RB in an extremely rush-oriented offense can be devastatingly brutal, especially against an RB who truly doesn’t possess that cast iron, sparkplug physique.  Catastrophic injury to a slightly-built ball carrier is a single ankle-tackle away, especially in this age of increased speed, athleticism, preparedness and downright aggressiveness among B1G defensive personnel.   Jackson’s elusive rushing style – to avoid the crushing big hit – coupled with his remarkable durability – to absorb punishment despite his relative diminutive size – is what makes this specific RB such a valuable offensive weapon; and not just in OC Mick McCall’s offense, but within the context of any attack strategy across any offense in the B1G.  And per usual, it was Jackson’s durability that kept NU’s flagging offensive momentum in H-2 from falling flat on its face. 

Without a doubt, newbie QB Clayton Thorson had his best half of the season in H-1 against the Ill-Whine-I, by far.  However, in H-2, instead of pushing the passing accelerator flush to the floorboard, McCall’s play calling went predictably conservative in an effort to protect the Wildcats’ precious 14-point lead by rushing exclusively on downs 1 and 2; then passing exclusively on 3rd down in all 4 Q3possessions.  The result: the ‘Cats’ yardage production tanked if only because it laid enormous pressure to perform on Thorson to complete critical 3rd down passes, sending his accuracy down the crapper in short order.  Clayton regressed back to the modus operandi of an inept RS Frosh QB – like missing an open WR, even on dink-n-dunk crossing routes, or passing the pill into double-coverage because he inexplicably became fixated on that primary receiving target – losing confidence with each miss-thrown toss.  Worst of all, at the end of Q3, he threw to a WR who was double covered and was intercepted promptly by Ill-Whine-I Will LB, Mason Monheim, who made the initial grab at the PumpkinHead 42 then rambled 58 yards untouched to paydirt, cutting Ill-Annoy’s deficit to 7.

Enter JJ to the rescue.  In H-2, McCall’s ratio of rushing plays to pass plays was 3-to-1; and despite garnering an occasional double-digit rushing yardage gain to extend drives and burn time of the game clock, the greatest positive consequence of this ground-n-pound strategy was to keep the bean out of Thorson’s shaky hands and into JJ’s more reliable mitts.  Of course, the major negative was to balloon the number of rushing attempts for the RB to his highest total of the season, 37, while increasing the wear-n-tear on JJ’s slight but durable physique and making him more susceptible to potential injury.   Bottom line: the run-oriented play calling by McCall throughout H-2 produced the half’s only points for the ‘Cats – K Jack Mitchells’ successful 39-yard FG in early Q4 that padded NU’s lead to 10; one that was never threatened for the rest of the game.

Bent, Not Broken
This Key to Victory is almost beginning to sound redundant: NU stoning Ill-Annoy for low scoreboard points off a limited number of scoring opportunities.  H-2 was especially unproductive scoring-wise for the Ill-Whine-I offense because the Wildcat defense simply bent but never broke – even after Ill-Annoy had pushed the bean into the red zone on its only 2 possessions of consequence in Q4.  On the first offensive series, Ill-Annoy used a balanced attack to move the PumpkinHeads from their own 25 to the Wildcats’ 25, highlighted by Ill-Whine-I QB Wes Lunt’s 34-yard pitch-n-catch to WR Josh Ferguson.  On 3rd-n-6, Lunt misread his target receiver’s pass route and overthrew the pill right into the ready and willing hands of ‘Cat CB Matthew Harris at the NU 19 to squelch that potential scoring drive.   On Ill-Annoy’s very next possession, Lunt parlayed 2 sequential explosion passes, one of 23-yards and another 24-yarder, with several quality rushes to drive his offense from his own 40 to the NU 4 with 4 minutes and change left on the clock.  On a 4th-n-1 down, a PumpkinHead OL moved before the snap incurring a 5-yard false start penalty.  Ill-Whine-I HC Bill Cubit opted to go for the short 27-yard FG attempt to pare the Wildcat lead down to 7.  However, Ill-Annoy K, Taylor Zalewski, failed to deliver when he pushed his boot wide right, ending this last PumpkinHead scoring threat for zero points.  At that juncture, it was just a matter of the ‘Cat offense running-out the majority of time left on the clock, which they did by gaining 2 crucial 1st downs off 7 consecutive rushes by JJ and Thorson. 

It may not have been a classic stone-walling, but the Wildcat defense delivered in the clutch to keep the Ill-Whine-I offense at bay and out of the end zone, preserving NU’s 10-point lead and securing the ‘Cats 4th 10-win season in its history. 

It warms my heart to write that.
With this “W”, the tenth of the 2015 season for the Purple – a victory tally normally reserved for the traditional Big Dogs of the B1G that assures NU at least a modicum of sincere, yet reserved nation-wide acknowledgement  – the Wildcats find themselves in the CFP court of public opinion, standing behind the defendant’s desk, facing a jury comprised of their collegiate pigskin peers, a cadre of Purple Kool Aid-drinking and non-drinking media types and a growing, but justifiably skeptical national fan base and awaiting a decisive verdict.  Whether or not the 10-2 ‘Cats either “deserve” or are considered among the “best” teams in Division 1A to capture New Years Six Bowl bid interest is a matter of sex appeal.  The bowl bid process and its underlying precepts have no more rationality than the selection criteria of a beauty pageant – one where a panel of gullible, capricious and highly impulsive judges have all the decision-making spinal integrity and internal fortitude of a string of hard-boiled spaghetti.  Virtually every Wildcat win in 2015 retained many elusive beauty characteristics that are known to stimulate the bowl choice hype machine except the most vital one of all: the eye candy feature.  NU’s victories were symptomatically devoid of charismatic, attention-generating, blow-em-away scoreboard tallies, but were secured via hard fought-for single digit margins, especially against their slate of B1G opponents.  Consequently, in an age where perception is paramount, repeated failures in the enigmatic eye candy test will trump the ‘Cats’ slim chances at claiming a seat at the Tier One Bowl table.  B-F-D.

Personally, I’m at peace with this lack of beauty pageant, “sex-appeal” respect. 

Being relegated to a Tier Two bowl game will proffer our ‘Cats an opponent against whom they will match-up much more favorably.  Now that Fitz and his Purple Gang have garnered widespread national interest, the single most crucial item, from which a “suspect” 10-2 Wildcat team absolutely needs to insulate themselves within the jousting tournament that is bowl game beauty pageant politics, is to avoid being matched with a foe who owns the weaponry to lay a blowout loss on NU in front of a coast-to-coast broadcast audience.  An overwhelming blowout “L” in a New Years Day bowl would completely negate everything positive that the ‘Cats have carefully constructed in 2015, and will validate having been conspicuously ignored in discussions regarding NY6 bowls.

IMHO, NY6 bowl interest from beauty pageant bowl judges be damned.  Let the 2015 Division 1A Big Dog football factory teams have at one another after being thrown into the fighting pit of malleable public notoriety.  No ‘bout a-doubt it, my satisfaction meter will register Dead Red if and when the Wildcats receive an invite to participate in either the Outback or Citrus Bowl, which is fully expected. 

We’ve come a long way, folks.  Let’s continue to enjoy the journey.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack

This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Northwestern DC Doc Hankwitz. 

It would’ve been much simpler to have taken the oft-travelled paved path and awarded this trophy to a single deserving key contributor, like Super-Soph MLB Anthony Walker Jr., who continued his gridiron defensive heroics, collecting his 3rd B1G Defensive Player of the Week accolade after having accrued 14 total tackles, augmented with 3.5 TFLs; or to Mr. Walker’s Super-Soph teammate, RB Justin Jackson, who ran roughshod over, around and through Ill-Annoy’s D for 172 net yards gained off another Herculean 37 rushing attempts.  Instead, this final Lumberjack Trophy selection demanded a higher perspective, one appropriately focused on the gestalt, the collective body of work, performed throughout the entire 2015 campaign.  And no one individual player or squad was more deserving to receive this singularly important recognition than, first and foremost, DC Doc Hankwitz and, by association, his selflessly dedicated, amazingly determined defensive team.  You and your troops embody the very essence of the ideological sports idiom: “There is no ‘I’ in T-E-A-M.”

The monumentally significant achievements of your 2015 defense were not accomplished within the vacuum of a single season, but has been the culmination of years of steeling yourself to the unimaginable difficult grind of devoted hard work and endless mentoring imparted upon the numerous Purple players under your tutelage since you first stepped into the football offices of Nicholet Hall in 2008.  Your impact on NU’s football program over these last eight years has been immeasurable.  The undeniably steady, week-to-week improvement of the ‘Cats’ 2015 defensive product, spreading across all positions and permeating through every player within the Wildcat defensive roster; and last Monday’s announcement by conference coaches and media evaluation sources that 6 members of your defensive team were awarded 2015 All B1G Conference honors underscores that fact. 

Congratulations Doc, and subsequently, to every member of your NU Defense. Your resolute, relentless pursuit of excellence in teaching your troops the fundamentals of sound, effective defensive techniques and conceiving comprehensive games plans throughout your tenure as DC, which always have best utilized and played to the relative strengths of your individual defensive personnel, has been nothing less than awe-inspiring and equal to the program-defining accomplishments of former HCs, Gary Barnett and Randy Walker.  In his post Ill-Annoy presser, current HC Pat Fitzgerald eloquently stated the obvious, via the most heart-felt, poignant sentiment that he has ever voiced at any one point in the 2015 season, that he knew of no other coach on the NCAA Division 1A national collegiate football stage who deserved the Broyles Award, given to the National Assistant Football Coach of the Year, more than you, Mr. Hankwitz. 

I and every member of Wildcat Nation could not agree more enthusiastically.   


Nov. 25, 2015

The Blame Game or
“Survive and Advance – Part Deux”

Wisky Drunkard Nation is plain pizz’d off.  They’re P.O.’d about “poor” officiating; about the Wisky coaching staff’s offensive play calling – against “Just NU”; about Wisky QB Joel Stave passing-out picks like Halloween Bite-sized Snickers – to “Just NU”; about how the best rushing defense in all of Division 1A gave-up 149 net rushing yards – to “Just NU”; about how and why Wisky’s rushing attack was stoned for minus-26 (yes, you read that correctly) while serving the visiting team 3 of 5 hot-n-flaky French Pastry turnover fumbles – to “Just NU”; about how Wisky’s OL got shredded for 6 total sacks and 11 TFLs – to “Just NU”; about how Wisky’s O couldn’t buy a 3rd down conversion (a mere 2 of 13) – against “Just NU”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sensing a deleterious pattern here.  A pattern of deep seeded angst; of Maalox-moment heartburn; of searching for any appropriate sacrificial scapegoat (after all, dead goats tell no tales); but most of all, of simple-minded searching for someone or something upon whom Wisky Nation could blame the Drunkards’ unbelievable, improbable 13-10 loss to “Just NU.”  Of course, there’s always the ultimate patsy, the ever-silent, never-interviewed guilty party upon whom an enraged, delusional, indignant, alcohol-addled Wisky Drunkard fan base can always point-to and hang this Badger loss… The game officials.   How dare these zebra-striped custodians of the game’s integrity reverse their original on-field calls – despite the undeniable fact that, in every case, the reversed or overturned call was the correct one, as indisputable video reply evidence revealed conclusively, time & again.  Over the course of the contest and especially after the final gun sounded, virtually every Wisky-oriented internet blog website went absolutely bananas.  Every bitchin’ badger-backer demanded something, anything to be done.  Some called-for restitution of sorts; while others wanted immediate redress of grievances, as if a hanging chad or two was discovered dangling out of the back pockets of the refs and would dictate a score recount or do-over from some oversight authority.  Many demanded disciplinary action taken or suspensions imposed upon on the officiating crew for what they concluded was blatant and biased penalty calls levied on the host Badgers, like was done to the bumbling buffoon officiating crew that turned a collective blind eye to multiple infractions and mitigating field play instances which occurred during Miami of FL’s 8-lateral, Bozo the Clown’s circus KO return for TD against the hapless, numb-skulled Dookies.  Other intrepid Wisky fans (obviously under-the-Bud-Light-influenced Mensa-types) were pounding their Doc Watsons on the table and shouting rubbish about some pre-ordained, agreed-upon conspiracy – originating from the zebra’s locker room or, better still, some dank and dusty, smoke-filled back room located in the bowels of the B1G offices in Park Ridge, IL – in which it had been pre-decided that the Wildcats were to be afforded unfair or undeserved consideration on every borderline violation by game refs - like the selective enforcement of obvious holding violations penalties that were rarely flagged.  Call-out the CIA, the FBI, the NSA…  Hell, bring-on Homeland Security or the TSA…  Anybody.  Who’s gonna answer to this miscarriage of justice.  Da Badgers couldn’t possibly lose to an inferior “Just Northwestern” team in the Cathedral of Camp Randall.   “Just NU” never does that…  Had never done that…  Not in my lifetime!  Someone’s gonna pay!  Somebody’s gotta pay!!!

“What the hell’s going on out here…  Everybody grabbin’ out there; nobody tackling.  Just grabbin’, everybody – grab, grab, grab; nobody tackling.”

No wait…  That quote is taken out of context from another famous bygone Grizzly-bear football coach who prowled the Frozen Tundra sidelines of another gridiron team from behind the Cheddar Curtain. 

To those obnoxious, boorish, drunken-lout, snowball-throwing, classless, ka-vitching Wisky Drunkard fans, I say: “Get over it” or even better, “Tell it to the Judge, son.”  Allow me to preface what I’m about to detail in the next few paragraphs with this significant titillating tidbit of college pigskin trivia:  In 2015, the Wildcats have been on the receiving end of the most egregious errors in game officiating ever witnessed at a B1G contest this season, especially throughout the State Penn game.  Wisky fans… We NU fans have been there and have been forced to swallow that bitter pill, which we did with dignity, class and, yes, our fair share of grumbling to one another.  That’s as expected.  However despite those past referee indiscretions, this contest most certainly was not some Hollywood B-movie zebra-plot make-up call game.  No way, no how.  To those sad-sack Wisky fans looking for a patsy, a scapegoat, an Isis-funded conspiratorial cabal, they need only focus their gaze on the man in the mirror to uncover the deserving culprit behind this loss.  Arrogant, entitlement-laden, self-serving Stephen A. Smith-like bombast and bluster will get you nowhere when searching for the cause of the Badger’s loss to “Just NU.” 

First, consider this: the MadTown Drunkards haven’t beaten any 2015 opponent with a winning record.  You read that correctly…  Noooo-oooo-oooo-BODY!  After having played “Just Northwestern” last Saturday, Da Badgers still haven’t.  And before this contest, Wisky still was nationally ranked despite their record against wholly milquetoast foes.   Ruminate on that seminal factoid; then start talking Cheddar Curtain conspiracy theory with Jerry Springer…

As for those examples of “poor” game officiating, let’s deep dive into the most bitched-about downs:
●    The reversed punt return for a TD:
    Wisky PR, Alex Erickson, waved his hands side-to-side below his shoulders.  The referees saw it clearly and flagged it as an illegal fair catch signal.  Period.  End of story.  It doesn’t matter if the PR waves his hands knee high like he’s dancing the roaring 20s-styled Charleston, or waves his hands in front of him at waist level like he’s cleaning-busing a restaurant table or waves his outstretched hands up and down at his sides like NFL WR Terrell Owens doing the “Dirty Bird” arm-flap.  It is an I-L-L-E-G-A-L fair catch signal because he doesn’t wave his hands over his shoulders.  Wisky fans can retort all they want in the courtroom of public opinion that the PR’s wave was never intended as a fair catch signal but was instruction to his punt return teammates to get away from him (and the bean falling into his hands) .  However, by rule, when a PR waves his hands side-to-side, it’s considered a fair catch signal, regardless of intention.  The side-to-side hand wave is a legislated mechanism whose sole purpose is to protect the PR; and Erickson’s wave did just that because it prompted NU’s converging punt coverage personnel (two of them, in fact) to pull-up, leaving the PR untouched and free to convert the catch.  Whether or not the PR wanted to deceive the Wildcat punt coverage team is immaterial.  Erickson did what he did and was called on the carpet for his infraction.  Next question.

●    The reversed 23-yard TD reception at the 0:31 mark of Q4:
    This play is the least controversial of all.  WR Troy Fumagalli, made a highlight reel catch of Joel Stave’s well-thrown 23-yard toss for an apparent game-tying TD.  However, in making the catch, the WR collapsed to the turf  to ensure a clean grab of the bean; and in doing so, his right his knee definitely touched the turf at NU’s 1 yard line before Fumagalli crossed the goal line.  Anyone ka-vitching this TD reversal needs to the remove the blinders off his face.

●    The reversed 1-yard TD reception at the 0:25 mark of Q4:
    This play is the most controversial and rightfully so.  WR Jazz Peavy attempts to snatch Joel Stave’s guided missile throw, gets both his mitts on it then struggles to maintain control.  Mind you, the Wisky WR needs to gain and show definitive control of the thrown pigskin throughout the entire action of the catch – which includes his fall/roll to the turf.  That’s the rule.  Period.  End of story.  Peavy has his fingertips on the pill and is trying to secure it to his chest.  NU cover CB Nick VanHoose gets his right hand under and through Peavy’s right arm onto the bean as it sits under the wrists – not in the hands – of the WR.  VanHoose yanks and dislodges the pill slightly from Peavy’s near grasp as the WR takes two steps to his right.  As the Wisky WR continues his motion into his fall and roll, the ball remains dislodged from his grasp – clearly noticeable in video replays.  Peavy falls to the turf, rolls then slides on his backside out of bounds across the end zone sideline, (and this is the IMPORTANT PART) with the ball laying atop the WR’s stomach with no hand(s) around the ball for a single, irrefutable instant.  Only after his slide motion ceased, did Peavy get both hands on the bean once more.  By rule, the WR didn’t maintain control of the ball through the entire motion of the catch, which includes his fall and roll to the turf, AND his behind was out of bounds when he finally did re-establish control.  The call: “Incomplete pass” is totally correct.  Wisky Nation can and will debate this pass reception-or-pass incompletion until Elsie the dairy cow rambles back to her barn stall.  However, it doesn’t diminish the fact that the referees established the correct call with an enormous assist from video reply.  And making the correct call on a close, eye-blink quick field play is what the appropriately employed video reply’s original purpose is all about. 

    Bitchin’ ‘bout it like Stephen A. Smith don’t mean a dang thang.

●    The uncalled illegal motion at the 0:06 mark of Q4:
    This uncalled infraction was a total miss on the officiating crew’s part and wholly understandable given the mitigating circumstances.  On the 2nd-n-goal down following the video reversal of Peavy’s TD “catch” bid, ‘Cat DE Deonte Gibson crashed into the Drunkard  backfield from his right defensive edge position, then  corralled Wisky QB Joel Stave standing behind his pocket protection and wrestled him to the turf for a 10-yard sack with an assist from fellow DT C.J. Robbins who fell on the Stave’s legs.  When the host team QB got to his feet, he definitely was in distress.  With the Wisky home crowd whipped-up into a frenzied lather screaming their lungs out; the Drunkards with no time-outs left and the clock winding down; the referees reset the LOS at the NU 11 yard line for a 3rd-n-goal down with 10 scant seconds left.  Once Wisky’s OL quickly lined-up on the LOS, Stave couldn’t ambulate quickly enough to his OC after having sustained a lower leg injury, so he directed his RB, Dare Ogunbowale, to get under center, receive the snap and spike the ball.  That’s when the officiating crew literally lost it.

     The refs full attention was diverted from the action on the field to the vengeful, boorish behavior literally thrown in their direction from the raucous, half-in-the-bag Wisky fan base in the stands.  After Stave got sacked, the scenario at Camp Randall, in a word, turned U-G-L-Y and downright dangerous.  Public address announcers and stadium security pleaded in vain to the vitriolic, out-of-control crowd in an effort to curb their abusive  activity (like throwing ice-balls and whatever else was at hand) directed against the players, coaches, officials, cheerleaders, chain gang, grounds crew and security personnel on field of play, on the sidelines and in the end zones.  Then it happened.

    Just as Ogunbowale reached under the center, Wisky QB Stave, standing behind his RB, took three steps towards the LOS, shouting instructions to Ogunbowale – a classic illegal motion infraction that occurred before the ball was snapped.  No call.  A moment after Stave’s leisurely waltz towards his RB, Ogunbowale took the snap from center then promptly spiked the bean, killing the game clock at 0:06.  Still no call.

    The BTN broadcast crew were equally confused and livid watching this passion play unfold before them; and stated on the air that there was a uncalled illegal motion penalty from Stave’s stroll to the LOS that dictated a 5 yard step-off AND a subsequent ten second run-off from the game clock – effectively ending the game right then and there.  Nothing from the referees.  Fitz was going bonkers along the NU sidelines; and when on-field broadcast cameras and mics were trained on the Wildcat HC, he could be heard calling for the penalty yardage assessment and the much more important 10 second run-off.  Still nada from the referees.

    With the clock stopped via the spiked ball, Stave limps to the Wisky sidelines and is replaced by a cold-as –ice 2nd string QB, Bart Houston.  The hastily installed QB received the snap from center in his shotgun set position then heaves a hard-thrown pass in the direction, but wide of his intended target WR, Tanner McEvoy.  Incomplete… Game Over.  Then a biblical shower of snowballs from the stands rained down upon the gridiron of Camp Randall delivered by a totally ticked-off, intensely intoxicated Wisky crowd.   

The itemized explanations above provide enough details on how and why the Wisky Drunkards’ 3 late-Q4 TDs were reversed – and rightfully so.  Tossing expletives or snowballs at the officiating crew doesn’t matter in the least, except to underscore the classless and ignorant demeanor of many, but not all, of the loutish, inebriated Wisky fans in attendance.  If the University of Wisconsin powers-that-be possessed any level of introspection and interest in the health and well-being for their fan base and the fans of visiting teams, they should be both embarrassed and ashamed into taking appropriate proactive steps to prevent its reoccurrence in future games at the Camp Randall Cathedral of the Holy Cow.  If not , I most definitely will not spend my time and hard-earned money to attend another NU football game behind the Cheddar Curtain.  Until those steps or sanctions are made (and I don’t expect the university administration of the MadTown Drunkards to do anything so rash), all I can say is: “Eff-You Very Much, Wisky.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.” 

So after having explained how Wisky lost this contest, permit me to itemize how NU won this game via the following Keys to Victory…
How the ‘Cats Jailed the Drunkards
With No Chance of Parole

French Pastry Chefs
The ‘Cat defense and special teams were an absolute monster as they forced 5 Wisky fumbles while recovering 3 in Wisky territory.  These French Pastry delights were very significant if only because they curtailed three Wisky offensive drives and proffered Clayton Thorson & Co. a trio of additional offensive possessions to make as much scoreboard hay as they could muster.  Regrettably, not one of these three post-fumble recovery drives resulted in points of any kind, despite giving the Wildcat O starting field positions at the Wisky 43, the Wisky 30 and the Wisky 37.  ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell didn’t enhance his reputation as NU’s unflappable, highly reliable 3-point generator when he missed a pair of FG attempts, a 27-yarder in late-Q1 and another 40-yarder at the start of Q4, both of which came on the heels of 2 of those 3 fumble recovery-provided possessions.  Had Jack converted either of those two FG attempts, then this knock-down, drag-out donnybrook transitions into a completely different prizefight.  

In contrast, missed extra scoring opportunities off TOs were not a part of the field play profile of NU’s lock-down secondary.

On Wisky’s second possession of the game, the inspired, relentlessly powerful ‘Cat pass pressure tipped a Joel Stave toss that was converted into a hot-n-flaky INT by ‘Cat CB Nick VanHoose, giving the Wildcat O a short field to paydirt from the Drunkard 19 yard line.  Three sequential Justin Jackson rushes delivered a first-score TD off that INT giving the visiting ‘Cats a 7-to-zippo lead in the first 6 minutes of the contest.  This crucial TD conversion literally set the tone for to-be-continued Purple defensive-to-Purple offensive handshakes to come throughout the contest and infused the collective Badger team psyche with deep-seeded doubts regarding what might be done to halt NU’s D from overwhelming the yardage production capabilities of their physically challenged Wisky O.

The coup de gras for Wisky’s O occurred after Joel Stave’s last and most damaging INT of the afternoon late in Q4, when he took possession of the bean following an impressively executed kill-punt off the foot of the ‘Cats’ newest defensive asset, P Hunter Niswander, that was downed at the Badger 3 yard line by NU’s punt coverage team.  Three plays later, the harassed and rattled Stave tossed his worst pass of the contest from the Wisky 11 straight into mitts of MLB Anthony Walker, who returned the hand-delivered French Pastry pick 3 yards to the Badger 20.  Facing that enticing short field, the enigmatic push me-pull you ‘Cat O drove the LOS to the Wisky 8, only to get pushed back to their original starting field position at the Drunkard 20 via a 7-yard TFL, followed by a 5-yard brainfart OL false-start penalty.  K Jack Mitchell wiped NU’s gaffe-plagued offensive slate clean as he provided the needful playmaking deliverable by booting his 2nd FG of the tilt to notch an additional three ultra-precious points to the Wildcats’ scoreboard total, giving the visiting team a 6 point lead with just under 4 minutes left in the contest.  From that point until the final gun sounded, the over-the-top histrionics regarding officiating calls commenced, along with the various consequences spawned from those highly-disputed call reversals.  

Bottom line: 10 of NU’s 13 total points were scored after the ‘Cats D forced the Drunkard offense to bake and serve satisfying turnovers back to the Wildcats, making Wisky’s 5 TO count to NU’s zero TO count differential the contest’s most significant, game-deciding Key to Victory of all.    

Sack ‘Em
Another super-important final game statistic for the Wildcat D tells the tale of overwhelming dominance over the Wisky offense quite succinctly: 6 total sacks on Drunkard QB Joel Stave along with numerous hurries and harassments of every sort, coupled with 11 total TFLs.  That factoid indicates that NU’s defensive front 7 held the Wisky offense to minus yards generated on 11 of its 62 total downs over the entire game: an utterly mind-boggling achievement. 

That one figure alone provides positive proof that the Wildcat defense consistently controlled the LOS, which ultimately forced the Wisky offense to become one dimensional and overly dependent on their passing attack – an offensive paradigm which, in the final analysis, is completely out of character with regards to the standard Drunkard offensive game plan that Wisky’s offensive brain trust had employed with great success over the prior 10 games in their 2015 season.  In other words, the ‘Cats beat the Drunkards at their own game of controlling the LOS and compelled Wisky’s offensive coaches to hand-over the team’s yardage production playmaking reins into the shaky, less-than-stellar hands and arm of their limited skillset QB, Joel Stave.  Despite collecting 203 yards of the host team’s total 229 total net yards through the air, the MadTown Drunkards could move the bean into the ‘Cats’ red zone on just 2 of its 14 offensive possessions, converting on only one of those two possessions – posting 7 measly points on the scoreboard for the effort. 

When facing a B1G opponent, that’s not a winning game plan.  When that pass-first game plan was exercised employing the offensive personnel recruited specifically to execute the Wisky Drunkards’ rush-dependent yardage generation paradigm, it was like pounding a square peg into a round hole with a heavy hammer.  In the end, the peg will get shredded in the process and be useless once pounded into place.  When competing against a B1G Division Championship Contender football program, like NU, it can be the Great Equalizer (read: The Kiss of Death).  And it was.

Holy Cow, Harry… Is it ever cathartic to write those last three words!  

This Key to Victory is essentially an extension of the previous Key, and expands upon the former’s message.  Since Wisky’s offense has been constructed following the exacting blueprint conceived and implemented by former Badger HC legend, Barry Alvarez, 2 full decades ago, with a predominant emphasis on their ground game prowess, to get stoned for minus yards over an entire 60 minutes is more that an mere aberration from the norm, it’s an unequivocal travesty.  The MadTown Drunkard O couldn’t maintain any semblance of yardage production continuity from one possession to the next – Wildcat DC, Doc Hankwitz, formulated a defensive game plan to achieve that specific objective; then turned it over to his defense.  The Wildcat defensive front 7 personnel populating Doc’s 2-deep depth chart responded to that game plan, executing it with passion, precision and reckless abandon.  True, the Badger passing attack did gain substantive yards against NU’s secondary, but to be limited to 7 total points for four quarters in the process, that’s a virtual failure.  Couple that limited point production with the statistical fact that the once-prolific Wisky ground game was stoned for minus-26 total net yards rushing over the entire contest, it’s a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Similar to what happened when the MadTown Drunkards competed against the Iowa HogEyes, scoring a miniscule 6 points against the HogEyes’ equally unimpressive 10, for Wisky’s first and only loss of the 2015 season some six weekends in the past.  

‘Nuf said…  Over and Out.

Stand & Deliver
Unfortunately for most of NU’s 2015 campaign, the week-to-week ‘Cat OL had resembled a patchwork quilt with ten different combinations of  mixed and matched personnel given the starter’s mantle before each of NU’s  ten games thus far.  Not once had the Wildcats’ full complement of 5 starting OL players been able to finish one game and then the same 5 be among the starting OL personnel heading into the following Saturday’s contest.  That circumstance meant that literally every individual OL player had experienced some game-ending injury that relegated him to the PUP list (Physically Unable to Play) and riding pine, giving him the time necessary to lick his wounds and eventually become healthy enough once more to rejoin the OL rotation for a future game – in other words, the injured OL player, despite being desperately needed, was forced to miss critical playing time.  This is nothing new for any collegiate OL squad, but for the ‘Cats, it’s been a particularly daunting challenge.  Status reports from winter workouts and pre-season Kamp Kenoshia practices cited OL coach Adam Cushing’s general missive given to every individual player in his cadre that he was NEVER to consider himself a 2nd stringer, but to work as if he was a starting OL all along in preparation to answer the call for “Next Man Up.”  In addition, every lineman was expected to hone his blocking skillset not towards one specific position, but have the capacity to assume the starter’s role for any OL position across the LOS.  Essentially, that directive upped the ante of what it would take to become a valuable “member in good standing” within Cushing’s OL rotation.  Each and every Purple offensive linemen, to a man, took Cushing’s off-season directive personally to heart and steeled himself with an attitude to become one of his OL coach’s complete set of interchangeable parts – with little to no field play drop-off whenever, wherever or however an OL substitute was needed.  As the individual battles within NU’s 2015 B1G conference war wore on, with its typically high attrition ratio among the Big Uglies, each OL’s determined due diligence when preparing himself to survive and thrive within this uncompromising “Next Man Up” war of attrition was reaping huge dividends. 

And the fruits of those labors were revealed in the biggest way against the Wisky Drunkard defensive front 7.  Although substantial single rushing play gains were limited, the ‘Cat OL opened large-enough seams within the MadTown Drunkards’ defensive front 7 often enough to allow ‘Cat RB Justin Jackson to do what he does best and collect 139 total net yards and NU’s only TD off 35 carries against the NCAA Division 1A’s best rushing defense.  Those results were possible only because NU’s stable of healthy ‘Cat OL players were totally prepared to fill-in for any injured OL teammate while still maintaining Cushing’s expected high quality blocking profile.  That’s saying a lot. 

Sleeping Dog Strategy
As the game wore on and the minutes inexorably burnt off the clock reducing the window of opportunity for either team to get that crucial score to capture the lead, it appeared that newbie QB, Clayton Thorson, was given the executive directive to NOT DO ANYTHING that would give the Drunkards any chance to take control of the game – like a devastating INT or a fumble deep in NU territory.  It was basically a “Let the sleeping dog lie” strategy, meant to ensure that the MadTown Drunkards were not given any emotionally charged momentum to awaken their offense from its slumber with enough time on the clock to drive the bean into scoring position and deliver the game-clinching points.  Unfortunately, that dubious directive nearly exploded in collective faces of NU’s offensive brain trust as the Wisky D turned the ball over to its O on downs with 1:48 on the game clock for one last-ditch possession; and the Badger O came to life and drove the bean down to the NU 1 yard line with 24 seconds remaining and an unreal, inexplicable chance to score that elusive prized TD.

In all honesty. this Wisky scenario where the host team was in position to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the game’s last 2 minutes never should have happened.  It did because Fitz and OC Mick McCall apparently lost all confidence in their newbie QB’s ability lead the ‘Cat offense and move the bean downfield in H-2 – to burn time off the clock and play the field position game via offensive yardage generated 1st downs rather than relying on ‘Cat P Hunter Niswander’s ability to boot the bean deep downfield into the MadTown Drunkards’ territory.   Consequently, this lack of confidence resulted in 3-n-out possessions on 6 of 8 ‘Cat offensive series in H-2, all characterized by an acute reticence among NU’s coaching staff to call a true vertical pass on a first or second down.  The only down in which Clayton Thorson was directed to throw was on third down – and never a vertical pass, but a dink-n-dunk variety.  This played right into the Wisky offensive coaching staff’s wish-list to garner that one final possession and steal the “W” flag after having chased the ‘Cats scoreboard-wise over the previous 58 minutes. 

To this writer, the jury is still out deliberating on the pros and cons of “letting Wisky’s the sleeping dog offense lie” dormant and controlled by the Wildcat D rather than allowing Thorson & Co. to seal the deal offensively.  One thing is certain, by calling for and exercising this HC-dictated strategy the ‘Cats dodged a kill-shot bullet not once, but 3 times in the last minute of play.   

Be careful what you ask for…  You just might get it.

This isn’t your “Old Cardiac ‘Cats”… It’s the “New, Improved Cardiac ‘Cats.”  This a Chicago’s B1G Ten Team that relies heavily upon its defense to eliminate scoring chances from their opponents while increasing possessions and providing more opportunities for its offense to score points; rather than crafting a victory paradigm in which its offense scores as many points as possible while playing a micro game of “keep away” that limits the number of minutes – and subsequently the number of possessions – an opponent’s offense can retain and operate with “ball in hand,” reducing that foe’s capacity to score points against a relatively more porous, vulnerable defense.    

To the faint of heart, you have been forewarned.  The New, Improved Cardiac ‘Cats have arrived and are here to stay.

Ahead lies a wounded but still breathing and ever dangerous Ill-Annoy team who would like nothing more than to lay a third B1G “L” on “Just NU” while snatching that hard-to-get 6th win to make the PumpkinHeads bowl eligible for their interim HC, Ryan Cubit - to be contested at Chicago’s very own “UFO by the Lake” venue. 

You can forget about the Ill-Wine-I’s dismal 5-and-6 record.  You can forget about the very forgettable “Land of Lincoln” Trophy as well (hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat – indeed).  This is Chicago’s B1G Ten Team squaring-off against Rantoul’s B1G Ten Team and all the bragging rights (whatever they might actually be) that go to the victor.  There’s a reason why the Ill-Annoy football program culture has put-forth so much effort to re-establish “Just Northwestern” as its primary rival: because no other B1G football program gives enough of a tinker’s dam interest to proffer Rantoul’s B1G Ten Team protected rival status.  Except, perhaps, Da BuckNuts and their equally forgettable mutual “rival trophy” The Illi-Buck...  Whatever.  Hey, the stupid thing is a turtle with Ill-Annoy v. BuckNut game scores etched into its shell for cryin’ out load.  It looks as silly as it is irrelevant to either team.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Senior DE Deonte Gibson. 

Actually, this week’s Lumberjack trophy very well could have been awarded to every member comprising NU’s defensive front 7.  However, Mr. Gibson’s dominant effort from his DE position and his personal resolve to pursue and attack the ball, especially within Wisky’s offensive backfield, was particularly noteworthy.  Mr. Gibson notched a personal career high of 4 TFLs off 6 total tackles – 3 of which were sacks that pushed the LOS upfield 24 yards.  His contribution towards stoning the previously prolific Wisky ground game to minus-26 net yards was duly recognized by the B1G football officials who awarded the Senior DE the B1G Ten’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week accolades for Week 12.  

Congratulations Deonte.  It’s been a long time in coming, but your intrepid leadership and commitment to defensive pigskin excellence underscores your qualifications to be called a Purple Lumberjack.

Nov. 19, 2015

Survive and Advance

The NCAA basketball tournament’s well-known, often quoted key phrase above apparently has transitioned into a Zen-inspired mantra for the 2015 Northwestern football team.  Whether in pre or post-game pressers, in locker room or sideline interviews and especially in his weekly Comcast Sports Net game review TV broadcast, Fitz consistently expresses his strategic imperative for his coaches and players to eschew focusing beyond the forthcoming game or the team’s relative ranking in any of the media-contrived beauty pageant polls and instead  concentrate on going 1-and-0 against your current opponent that coming Saturday.  It’s an exceedingly effective mental control and relaxation mechanism if only because it compartmentalizes a player’s complete attention to disregard the maelstrom of distracting attention and adulation, innocent as it might be, from family, friends, media and hangers-on swirling about you and your teammates and to keep your crosshairs centered squarely on the immediate task at hand – in essence, on the W.I.N.: What’s Important Now. 

The 2015 Wildcats are following their HC’s foundational strategy to the letter over their previous three games – against the UNL BugEaters, the Inmates of State Penn and last Saturday against the Purdue Broiler Chickens.  This prophetic W.I.N. script hasn’t changed one iota, because when the current contest gets to its final waning minutes and its outcome hangs in the balance, the Purple defense invariably channels its collective inner Brian Peters “Lumberjack” (attack the ball carrier with heavy lumber and extreme prejudice) to stone the opponent’s O dead in its tracks then forces them to hand the ball over to the Purple offense on downs; after which the near dormant Clayton Thorson-led O awakens in time to matriculate the pill downfield and score the game-clinching points mere minutes (or seconds) before the game clock reads 0:00.  Whenever it has happened, it definitely has all the characteristic drama and intrigue of an over-the-top Disney production Cinderella glass slipper-like moment as the clock strikes midnight, but it has worked.  Although plainly unbelievable and incomprehensible in its execution, the fact that it has worked is an indisputable fact on the face of it.  Despite the gut-wrenching, heart-palpitating, mind blowing angst, anger and frustration running rampant among Wildcat Nation at the time, the Cardiac ‘Cats make it work.

Survive and Advance…  Indeed!
How the ‘Cats Plucked the Broiler Chickens

Answering The Bell
In his post-game media Q&A/interview, ‘Cat HC, Pat Fitzgerald mentioned an analogy that I thought was more than slightly apropos when describing how this season’s Wildcats depend so heavily on their defense.  He stated (paraphrasing) when the offense or special teams gives-up a game-threatening turnover (i.e.: created adversity) and the fire bell rings, it’s the defense’s job to become firemen: to put-on the first responder equipment, answer the bell and put-out the fire.  I’ve got to hand it to Fitz, although he ventures into “coach speak” or sentimental semantic at times (like I do – mea culpa) when answering questions from the media, on this particular occasion, his aim was true and his explanation spot on in defining what one of his defense’s primary purposes is: to douse the raging firestorms that other units unfortunately ignite.  In last Saturday’s grapple against a very competitive, highly-motivated Purdue Broiler Chicken crew, the Wildcat defense was more than ready and willing to meet the challenge of extinguishing those flames, Doc Hankwitz’ squad was simply masterful, as they delivered fire-hose big plays whenever it was most needed against a prideful B1G team that has been playing its best football of the season despite its dismal 2-win record. 

Fitz’ second most-quotable axiom advocates the critical importance of how a football team and its players respond to adversity.  Fortunately, the Wildcat defense responded in champion playmaking fashion when they answered the bonfires ignited by three turnovers, a fumble and two INTs, proffered to the Broiler Chickens by NU’s offense. 

After JJ was separated from the bean in Q2 at the ‘Cats 38 yard line, it certainly seemed like PU’s offense was poised to convert the TO into points, perhaps even score a game-tying TD; after all, they had demonstrated an imperfect ability to move the ball downfield with limited success over the first 24 minutes of the tilt.  However, the ‘Cat defense seized control of the tense situation by bottling-up the Broiler Chicken O for 15 scant yards on 6 downs, highlighted by 3consecutive zero-gain passes, the last being an 4th-n-7 incompletion from NU’s 23.

The two INTs occurred on back-to-back ‘Cat possessions – the first at the 4:12 mark of Q3 and the second on NU’s drive spanning Q3 into Q4 – and were slightly less anxiety-filled than the fumble but still consequential.  The details are delved-into in Winning Key #3 below.  However, the response by the ‘Cat D to either of these TOs was the same: They brick-walled the Broiler Chicken offense with sequential 3-n-out series.  In fact, each of PU’s last 4 possessions of H-2, which included these 2 post-TO drives, were held in check with a 3-n-out stoning by Doc’s troops. 

A Wildcat fan couldn’t ask for a better defensive performance to close-out a game. 

‘Cat P, Hunter Niswander appears to be coming into his own in the biggest of ways in the final half of the 2015 campaign.  His situational punting acumen the previous weekend against State Penn was absolutely essential to the host ‘Cats’ bid to capture the ”W” flag late in Q4, especially when his back-spinning boot was downed at the Inmate 6 yard line with 3:16 remaining on the game clock.  From there, the ‘Cat D went to work, stoning the Inmates from collecting a game-clinching 1st down, and turning the ball over to their offensive teammates on downs for one last-ditch drive to move the LOS downfield into an advantageous position to convert a game-winning FG – all of which occurred with 9 seconds before the final gun sounded.  Niswander’s epic punting exhibition during the State Penn contest, while the score showed that it still was anybody’s ball game, was mere prologue to his invaluable kicking contributions one week later in NU’s slim victory against the Broiler Chickens. 

In last Saturday’s contest, Mr. Niswander averaged 42.8 yards for each of his 5 punts, with 2 travelling 50-plus yards and 3 of those 5 boots downed inside the Broiler Chicken 20 yard line, proffering the visitor’s offense the disheartening perspective of long green looming ahead of them as they commenced their subsequent drives after a change of possession on downs.   Of particular significance was Hunter’s beautiful foot-bomb that soared 52 yards downfield while the ‘Cat punt coverage unit surrounded and rudely downed the Purdue PR at the PU 5 yard line, pinning the Broiler Chickens deep in their own territory with 11:43 left in Q4 and the game tied at 14 points apiece.   It was the Soph punter’s finest example of winning the game within the game of field position with the final outcome yet to be determined, since… frankly… Hunter’s late-Q4 punting heroics against State Penn the prior Saturday.  And similar to the State Penn game, this timely deep-kill boot provided the necessary wake-up call that the sleep-walking Wildcats required to reinvigorate and re-commit themselves to the task of reaching-for and grabbing the brass ring of victory in their following possession.   Pinned-down in the shadow of their own goalposts, the Broiler Chicken offense was stymied by the ‘Cat D with another 3-n-out series that offered the ‘Cat O starting field position from their 42 yard line following the subsequent PU punt.  The host Wildcats wasted little time in kick-starting this possession and shredding the visiting team for a game-clinching TD that sealed the deal. 

All set-up by Mr. Niswander’s refined field position punting prowess.

It was no great mystery that Purdue HC Darrel Hazell and his DC John Shoop recognized NU’s quality ground game and consequently concocted a defensive game plan geared specifically to neutralize it as best they could.  The prime objective behind their strategy was to coerce the ‘Cat O into becoming one dimensional and heavily dependent on its less-than-stellar passing attack led by newbie QB Clayton Thorson or his limited experienced backup Senior Zack Oliver.  By stacking 8 or more defenders in the box coupled with formations which set their Safeties a mere 7 yards off the LOS at the snap in rush support, the Broiler Chicken defensive brain trust dared ‘Cat OC Mick McCall to turn-to his vertical passing game – a yardage production option that the OC had shown an obvious reticence to employ throughout much of 2015.  In the final analysis, the strategy was guardedly successful – at least to the point of compelling the Wildcats’ scoring capabilities to rely prominently upon the newbie QB’s questionable skillset to scan an opponent’s secondary, identify the open receiver then deliver the bean on target and in stride with consistent regularity.  

As predicted by PU’s defensive brain trust, Thorson’s performance when facing the inviting secondary sets of the Broiler Chickens was enigmatic and spotty.  Emulating Ill-Annoy’s rush-first offensive game plan from the previous Saturday (which gained over 380 yards), the Wildcat O went straight to their ground-n-pound rushing attack to open the game, shredding Purdue’s stacked-box formations and culminating with an easy TD off a 32-yard scamper by ‘Cat “heavy back” Warren Long.  Then the wheels fell-off NU’s offensive bus.  The Purple O didn’t move the ball at all on the ground or through the air over its next 3 drives, as Thorson’s passing couldn’t hit an elephant in the azz with an ironing board.  NU’s string of forgettable possessions was broken only after Safety Traveon Henry intercepted Broiler Chicken QB David Blough at the PU 41; whereupon the ‘Cat offense exclusively exercised its rushing attack to score its second TD of the game; after which the yardage production of the host Wildcats tanked once more for the remainder of H-1. 

In H-2, Thorson’s passing was on-again, off-again – as the newbie QB overthrew or badly threw behind open receiving targets constantly.  Watching his O sputter feebly on its opening possession of H-2, sandwiched by 2 consecutive Broiler Chicken drives: the first tying the game at 14 and the next ending on a missed 42-yard FG, had ‘Cat OC Mick McCall reaching for the QB eject lever.  On NU’s next possession, when Thorson rolled to his right and tossed a piss-poor pass that was tipped and picked by a PU CB, McCall had enough and pulled that eject lever, replacing his bumbling, stumbling newbie QB with Oliver, if only to light a flame under his flagging offense and give it a chance at redemption with a new primary ball handler behind at the helm. 

However, Oliver fared little better.  On his first drive, Zack connected on his first 2 passes, gaining 13 yards on a square-out and another 37 yards off an underthrown vertical toss respectively, that repositioned the LOS at the Purdue 29.  After NU’s next 1st-down play set stalled for a -1 net, the Senior sub QB faced a 3rd-n-11 at the start of Q4; then promptly threw his own piss-poor vertical pass to a well-covered WR that was deftly picked-off by a Broiler Chicken DB to quell the home team’s go-ahead scoring threat.   McCall let Oliver’s brainfart slide and gave him another possession to redeem himself.  Two incompletions and a sack ended Zack’s afternoon as sub. 

NU’s offensive brain trust was confronted with a confounding dilemma: Stay the course with the ineffectual Oliver or reverse their earlier executive decision to bench Thorson and hand the offensive reins back to their mystifying newbie QB, allowing him one last-ditch opportunity to capture the “W” flag in this tight game that was getting tighter by the minute.  Fitz and McCall chose the latter, Thorson, and it reaped immediate reward, as the emotionally recharged Thorson methodically marched the Purple offense 58 yards over 13 plays to score the game-clinching TD while burning 5:22 off the clock in the process.  At that juncture, the end-result of the contest was a fait accompli; while Clayton Thorson returned once more to the good graces of his HC and OC as their go-to QB of choice. 

Building The Beast
As counterpoint to complement its sporadic , unreliable passing attack, Fitz and McCall have turned, by design, to the Wildcats’ ground game as their number one yardage production option for this fall’s gridiron campaign.  This overt choice truly is nothing new.  The Wildcat offensive brain trust, since Fitz has become HC 10 seasons ago, has worked diligently to construct and emulate Wisky’s Barry Alvarez yardage generation rushing model, which is built on a rock solid foundation of ultra-high quality offensive linemen, operating in unison, to provide a phalanx of powerful, road grader-like blockers fronting its defense-penetrating spearhead of quick, bruising RBs who rush over, around and through those consistent blocks delivered by that unstoppable OL.  In essence, it’s Wisky’s way of building the perfect rushing attack beast; and NU’s talent pool of OL and RB players has become increasingly deeper and more talented with each passing season, in NU’s ongoing effort to mimic the Wisky paradigm of intelligent raw power mixed with elusive speed .  And 2015 is no exception to the trend.

Last Saturday, NU’s 2015 version of this rushing attack model might have played right into the hands of the PU coaching staff’s strategy to load the box with defensive numbers to stone the Wildcat ground game in its tracks, but it didn’t simply because the combination of the Purple OL’s superior personnel and the ‘Cat RB tandem of feature back Justin Jackson and his stablemate, “heavy back” Warren Long, was too overwhelming to be halted throughout the full 60 minutes of the contest.  Mind you, the Wildcat OL-RB beast wasn’t quite perfect against the Broiler Chickens; but it was effective and efficient enough to deliver the goods with the final outcome still hanging in the balance during NU’s last scoring drive that commenced at the 9:59 mark of Q4 and finished with the game-clinching TD score 4 minutes and change later. 

Now, the Wildcats are about to lock horns with the Big, Bad Wisky Badgers.  This Saturday’s epic grapple with the Drunkards of MadTown will be the ultimate measuring stick for DC Doc Hankwitz’ Bad Cats and OC Mick McCall’s Big Uglies – an honest, unbiased benchmark of where they currently stand within the B1G’s football power rankings.  NU’s sports information department better ready their video cameras to record the hard-hitting action of this tilt for their next video of “The Hunt.”  I can’t wait.  

Time to button those chinstraps high and tight, fellas. 

8-and-2, my friends.  Repeat after me: 8-and-2.  Lemme hear ya say it one mo’ time: Eight-And-Two! 

Yeah Baby!!!

True, the ‘Cats are not winning their pigskin tilts in angst-free, low-heartburn fashion.  In fact, some analysts might be more candidly straightforward to use the backhanded complimentary catch phrase: “Winning Ugly,” when labeling NU’s single digit margins of victory over the last 3 Saturdays.  In response to this trio of “eked-out” wins, many members of Wildcat Nation have begun to bemoan the repetitive, commonplace playmaking problems unveiled by OC Mick McCall’s starting QB of choice, Clayton Thorson, as the principal cause for the ultimate effect of the Wildcats’ subpar, under-performing offense.  While a modicum of truth may exist in this point of view, it’s important for the observer to remember not only this newbie QB’s youth, but his still extant inexperience.  IMHO, having started 10 games at the Division 1A level, Thorson is no longer a RS Frosh QB, but is essentially well in his second season – the first season being NU’s out-of conference slate of opponents; with the second being the B1G.  And it’s there – when dealing with the mental and physical rigors/challenges of competing against bigger, stronger, faster B1G foes week-in and week-out – that whatever chinks might exist in Mr. Thorson’s playmaking armor, they will be exposed and exploited with regularity – even by “lesser” B1G opposition like the Purdue Broiler Chickens.  And that’s exactly what has been happening.  Newbie QB Clayton Thorson remains a “work in progress” as he acclimates himself to the daunting role and responsibilities of being his team’s primary ball handler; and consequently he makes silly, boneheaded Frosh mistakes, even in his 10th game.  

I won’t take the easy route and hand Thorson and the ‘Cat offense a kitchen pass at this point because the 2015 season, as opposed to any one game, is in crunch time.  It’s make or break time; Show or go time; Fight or flight time.  To his credit, Thorson has piloted the Wildcats’ O to a commendable bowl eligible record, something that NU had missed the last 2 seasons with an experienced playmaking upper classman QB at the Pökelboot’s helm.  To this writer, that achievement alone speaks volumes.  However, there’s many more accomplishments that this team does, in fact, aspire to attain, which is characteristic of every highly reputed football team this late in the season.  

The first is to reach and REMAIN in the B1G’s top tier; to be considered among the conference elite.  IMHO, the ‘Cats are a borderline team – not quite an elite squad but definitely a recognized member of the conference's  football power programs.  To consistently be considered among the best and retain that heady designation, NU can’t lay an rotten egg whenever they compete against foes in the upper echelon of the B1G.  We card carrying members of the Purple Populace know all too well those tendencies towards frustrating field play failure when our Wildcats face those elite-level squads; and so does the national media and college football fanbase at large.  Consequently, the ‘Cats always have something crucial to prove each time they trot onto the gridiron across the field of play from any B1G team – including the likes of Purdue and Indiana (and now Rutgers and Maryland).  That’s the very reason why 8-and-2 overall and 4-and-2 in the B1G is so significant RIGHT NOW.

The second aspiration is to improve, to continually be upwardly mobile regarding your skillset and your impact on yourself, on your individual game and finally on your teammates.  High quality field play is very contagious, especially among high quality athletes, regardless of the sport.  The need to call-upon and escalate one’s field play to compete at the high level of your elite opponent is a dominant chromosomal pair within an elite athlete’s DNA.  That’s why and how the 2015 ‘Cats have shown the ability to stand toe-to-toe in the center of the ring with the BugEaters, the State Penn Inmates and the Broiler Chickens, face enormous adversity and pressure to perform and didn’t flinch, fold their tents or slink back to their corner chair; but instead, dug deep and tapped into those elite contender chromosomes in their DNA that allowed each player to fight his personal good fight; to strive and succeed; to survive and advance.  Each of those 3 games could have gone south in one maddening flash; leaving the ‘Cats with an empty kit bag.  However, they didn’t succumb in the pressure-packed championship rounds, but thrived in the midst of the good fight; bloodied, to be sure, gloves held chin high at the ready to deliver that necessary game-clinching haymaker right cross and singularly resolute to put their opponent down and out-for-the-count on the canvas.  It’s the fundamental difference between being “Just NU” and “That NU.”  

Fitz is so very correct.  Focus on W.I.N. – What’s Important Now – then win the immediate battle.  Go 1-and-0 each weekend, and the season will take care of itself.  In 2015, it has thus far.

It’s now up to Fitz’ Purple thoroughbreds to travel to the alcohol-addled den of iniquity that is the Wisky Drunkards’ Camp Randall Stadium, sweep around the far turn and head into their stretch run to cross the finish line in championship form.  Easier said than done; but doable all the same. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Soph MLB Anthony Walker. 

This is the second time in the 2015 season that Mr. Walker has been selected as the recipient of the Lumberjack Trophy, and the Sophomore’s outstanding linebacking performance throughout last Saturday’s Broiler Chicken game was testament to his why he was chosen.  Simply stated, Anthony’s defensive presence was evident all over the field of play as he collected 14 total tackles, 10 solo and 4 assists, while delivering a couple TFL stops against Broiler Chicken ball carriers.  Several of those tackles were instrumental in retaining field position on critical Purdue possessions that kept the visiting team from West Laughable, IN deep in their own territory, setting the table for eventual scoring drives by the Wildcat offense.

Congratulations Anthony.  Your consistent leadership and commitment to excellence inspires everyone who wears the Purple helmet with the White Block “N” stenciled on its side and underscores your qualifications to be called a Purple Lumberjack.

Nov. 12, 2015

Overcoming The 12th Man

Like the previous weekend’s NU v. BugEater game, this weekend’s tilt featured two evenly-matched foes, both of whom fielded an effective, occasionally great defense, especially a defensive front 7 unit that could dominate an opponent’s rushing attack, complimenting an adequate, sometimes formidable offense, led by an enigmatic, sporadically efficient quarterback who could flush his erstwhile brainfart-filled field play gaffes then blend his brilliant athleticism and playmaking skills into an overwhelming scoring force to be reckoned-with, especially in the contest’s decisive, crunch-time minutes.  However, unlike the UNL game, what occurred early and often throughout the NU v. State Penn grapple last Saturday never should have happened; and unfortunately it took on a life of its own, becoming a disruptive, forceful factor that mitigated much of the thrilling collegiate football theater that unfolded before an enthusiastically vocal home crowd at Dyche’s Ditch.  I’m talking about the utterly atrocious, game-changing officiating.

Mind you, I’m an old school football fan who steadfastly holds to the time-honored code that ka-vitching about officiating and blaming the outcome, or at least the debilitating effect that flag-happy referees can render upon a competitive, hard-fought contest, is a loser’s proposition.  Usually, overall poor officiating is an impediment to both combatants and their personnel’s ability to execute their positional techniques without the undo distraction of adhering to “selective enforcement” on “normal” borderline fair play activity.  However, throughout last Saturday’s contest, this referee crew didn’t simply pay unfair attention to infractions enforced against Wildcat personnel, both marginal and imaginary; they escalated things to an entirely stratospheric, one-sided level when they methodically turned a blind eye to numerous glaring transgressions from State Penn players – indiscretions which, if they had been addressed (and called) with a modicum of sensible pragmatism, would have allowed NU to capture control and momentum of the contest with much less angst and heartburn.  Instead, the host ‘Cats were obliged to contend-with and overcome the egregiously frequent and blatant favoritism proffered by those folks dressed in zebra-print shirts towards the Wildcats’ opponent from Happy Valley.

Over my many years of travel to various gridiron venues of the B1G conference and beyond, I have discovered that, in deference to the alcohol-addled, obnoxiously abusive fan bases of the HogEyes and Wisky Drunkards, the loyal followers of the Nebraska BugEaters and State Penn Inmates are among the nation’s most forthrightly congenial, fair-minded & knowledgeable with whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and conversing – and I’ve attended college football games at over 30 stadiums from coast to coast.  The universal perspective among both fan bases is that their respective football team is a reflection of their personal and community value system and consequently is held a higher standard of athletic honesty, fair play and class that is rarely equaled but never surpassed among all other pigskin programs populating the NCAA’s Division 1A ranks.  And to their credit, my incriminating critique of the dubious, seemingly-biased infractions called on the Purple players by this specific set of referees was openly agreed-to and communicated as such by many members of State Penn Nation in post-game one-on-one conversations held in the West parking lot and written-about in various PSU internet blogs (e.g.: Blue White Illustrated @ BWI-dot-com).

So with all this drivel regarding abysmal officiating, you, the reader, understandably should demand visual evidence of my claims of unabashed referee malfeasance.  To answer such calls, one simply has to peruse the game broadcast replay that is internet available via the BTN2Go-dot-com website.  I invite you to open any internet browser of your choosing and follow me down memory lane at the following video playback points:

●    8:52 mark of Q1
    Inmate PR, DeAndre Thompkins, gives a clear fair catch signal (right hand raised above his shoulder); then, after catching the booted bean at the PSU 17 surrounded by NU’s coverage who pulled-up to give the PR ample opportunity to make the grab, he bolts downfield 8 additional yards until the ‘Cats’ 2nd wave cover personnel escorts him out of bounds at the PSU 25.  No Call.  Wisky-Tango-Foxtrot!?!

●    7:57 mark of Q1
    On a 3rd–n-13 down, Inmate QB, Cristian Hackenberg, one of the B1G’s most widely promoted offensive playmaking personalities, gets snared in a bear-hug by ‘Cat TFL-specialist DE Dean Lowry 8-yards behind his pocket protection.  Hack struggles to separate from Lowry’s vice-like grip but realizes he can’t; so he raises the bean in a motion mimicking the set-up of a throw-away pass to avoid the sack.  Lowry sees the QB’s raised hand then instinctively reacts with a Jake Herbert-inspired freestyle wrestling takedown: lifting Hack off his feet at the waist, twirling both himself and the QB around forcing Hack to bring the bean back into his body to avoid a potential fumble, then driving himself and a ragdoll QB to the turf.  The ref viewing this takedown 2-yards in front of him blows his whistle the very instant Lowry completed his twirl and just prior to his plant of the media darling QB to the Dyche’s Ditch fescue. Late whistle be damned.  Jesus Effing Christ himself couldn’t have halted his momentum midway through the seamless motion of this takedown; but evidently the zebra closest to the action thought otherwise, citing Mr. Lowry with a roughing penalty.  Talk about imposing a pre-determined protectionist protocol to restrict routine physical field play against a highly-touted B1G asset…  I call B.S.!?!

●    7:28 mark of Q1
    Two downs following the B.S. roughing penalty laid on Dean Lowry, Hack hands the pill to his Frosh RB, Saquon Barkley, who takes a direct route to the play’s originally designed point of attack, the right B/C-gap at the LOS.  ‘Cat DT Tyler Lancaster, from his initial left A-gap set, executes an eye-blink quick inside stunt/move, crossing the face of the State Penn OC into the opposite (right) A/B-gap, straight into Barkley’s rush lane.  The OC sees that he’s totally whiffed on Lancaster, his blocking target, so he grabs the Soph DL with his right arm completely across the front of Tyler’s shoulder pads (i.e.: shoulder to shoulder) and takes the DT down to the turf 2 yards upfield from the LOS in plain sight.  The back judge has an unobstructed view of this brazen tackle/holding by the OC, yet inexplicably keeps his yellow hanky tucked neatly in his pocket.  I understand very well that holding can be called on virtually every offensive play over the course of a game, but this particular example, as well as another half-dozen similarly obvious samples, was clearly out in the open, but still ignored with a “play on” shrug from the backfield ref.  RU kidding me!?!

Want More?    
    10:43 mark of Q2 (PSU’s L-OG #53 tackle/hold on NU’s R-DT #67)
    12:50 mark of Q3 (PSU’s L-Slot-WR #88 tackle/hold on NU’s R-LB #55)
    07:41 mark of Q3 (PSU’s FS #2 horse-collar on NU’s RB #21)

●    6:57 mark of Q1
    On a 3rd–n-7 down, Inmate QB, Hackenberg, hauls back and heaves the bean in a high arc to his WR, Saeed Blacknall, running a Go route down the east sidelines into NU’s double-deep left boundary zone.  Wildcat just-returned-from-injury DB, Matthew Harris, had cover responsibility for this deep zone and was sprinting stride-for-stride with the PSU wide-out to his inside.  Unfortunately, Hack’s heave was slightly underthrown of its mark and dropping straight to the open mitts of Harris who prepared himself to convert an athletic INT from his inside position.  Blacknall recognized this potential pick scenario and shifted his field play from WR to full DB mode.  Pressing his right hand into Harris’ back to acquire leaping leverage, the WR jumped and lifted himself over Harris, his weight pinning the Purple DB firmly to the ground while shoving his left arm across and into the earhole of Harris’ helmet – textbook offensive interference.  Not only did the WR use Harris as a launching pad, he obscured the DB’s vision with that well-directed head-swipe.  Needless to say, the pill hits the blinded Harris in and through his hands to the turf.  Another “No Call” by a ref standing 4 yards away from this WR-DB tandem with a clear view of the action.  Gimme a break!?! 

●    3:20 mark of Q1
    On a 3rd–n-10 down, ‘Cat QB Thorson drops-back behind his pocket protection, waiting for his primary WR target, Christian Jones, to gain separation from his cover DB; then lofts a touch pass into the outstretched hands of a leaping Jones for a sweet pitch-n-catch1st down.  Meanwhile, once the ball exits Thorson’s hand, his pocket protection collapses and the newbie QB gets sandwiched between State Penn’s Sack Machine, DE Carl Nassib, and his teammate, DT Anthony Zettel.  Unfortunately, in Nassib’s zeal to become State Penn’s single season sack leader, he forcefully swings his left arm like a brickbat hard across Thorson’s helmet, while during the DE’s follow-through, his hand rakes the QB’s eyes through the open bars of his facemask.  If a similar head-hunting blow had been delivered to another more critically acclaimed starting B1G QB, like the BuckNuts’ J.T. Barrett, either a blow-to-the-head or a facemask penalty undoubtedly would have been levied.  However, since this head knock was applied by PSU’s fawned-over sackman Carl Nassib to “just Clayton Thorson,” the back judge assumed a blind man’s viewpoint to this conspicuous QB headgear blow violation.  Another “No-Call.”  Making this bad scenario worse, Thorson sustained a lower body injury via the Nassib-Zettel tandem’s fore & aft pincer hit, forcing the newbie QB to ride pine for the remainder of the contest.  At this juncture, the officiating crew’s prevailing “see-no-evil” perspective – as they continued to disregard many infractions that State Penn personnel laid on NU players – was reaching epidemic proportions.

●    5:37 mark of Q3
    Hackenberg gets flushed out from behind his pass protection umbrella by ‘Cat LB Drew Smith, and the PSU QB breaks downfield.  After rumbling 7 yards, Hack sees NU’s defensive pursuit and slides, killing the play.  ‘Cat DT C.J. Robbins, pursues Hack, trailing 2-yards behind him, sees the QB’s play ending slide, then awkwardly flops to the turf on both knees to arrest his forward momentum towards the prone QB.  Robbins ends-up sliding UP TO – not INTO - Hack from the QB’s right, and the DT’s torso lies next to the QB.  However, C.J.’s helmet ends-up lying in Hack’s lap – with no discernable, overt blow ever having been delivered whatsoever.  Meanwhile, MLB Anthony Walker has set himself in his standard pass cover location in the short middle third zone.  He sees Hack break downfield from behind his pocket protection straight towards the LB.  Walker closes on the QB from the front; and when Hack slides, Walker checks his forward momentum by “sitting down” to lower his center of gravity and twists his torso in place, spinning to his right.  This “sit down” and twisting motion completely stops the LB’s forward momentum, but Hack’s forward sliding motion cuts the feet out from under the stopped Walker.  With his feet pushed out from under him, the LB ends-up flopping harmlessly across the QBs knees – no blow delivered, he simply falls across the legs of the prone QB. 

    The ref nearest the action throws a flag indicating a personal foul, “roughing the QB” penalty, against DT C.J. Robbins.  Total and complete B.S. 

    To assess the relative severity of this “blow” to State Penn QB Hackenberg, take the time to compare it with this head shot laid on Wildcat QB Clayton Thorson:
     5:50 mark of Q1. 

    After comparing the two plays, I beg you, the reader, to please explain why the benign “body blow” to the B1G’s media darling Hackenberg warranted a roughing penalty while the slobber-knocker helmet-to-helmet shot to Thorson was ignored.   I’m still waiting for an honest, unbiased explanation on this comparison.  IMHO, it’s a “Protect The Popular QB” scenario.  Simply Unreal!?! 

Any casual observer witnessing the examples above needn’t possess a fertile imagination to draw the obvious conclusion that this game’s officiating crew was attempting to level the playing field between both combatants, particularly from Q1 through Q3, when it appeared NU had garnered the upper-hand against their all white-clad, traditional pigskin powerhouse opposition.  If the B1G powers-that-be possessed half the cahones that the ACC custodians employed when recognizing and dishing-out appropriate suspensions/reprimands on those numbskull referees who completely bungled Miami of Fla’s end-of-the-game, 8-lateral, one knee-down, 2 blocks-in-the-back-ignored KO return for a “winning” TD against Duke, then something must be done to ensure that the putrid officiating exhibited throughout this NU v. PSU football game is not repeated.  Without apropos redress of these “systematically ignored” infractions, the integrity of the college football is at risk – as well as the health and well-being of the players on the field.

Over and Out…
How the ‘Cats Handcuffed the State Penn Inmates

35 Minute Lockdown
The Wildcat defense did their best imitation of a Las Vegas Strip magic show as the rush yardage strangulation effort of the ‘Cat defensive front 7 coupled with the passing attack lockdown of the ‘Cat secondary rendered State Penn’s prima donna QB, Christian Hackenberg, virtually invisible for much of H-1 and into Q3.  Defense video review room banter holds a widespread theory that any opposing D that harasses or hits “The Hack” with regularity can get into the Junior QB’s head, making him “an ineffectual playmaker” at the very least or at worst “an offensive liability” during real-time, high-intensity competitive game situations.  This debilitating tendency became undeniably evident as the Wildcat D bore-down on “The Hack” with passion and purpose from the opening whistle.  

In Q1 alone, Hack’s overhyped passing acumen was limited to 1 completion on his first 10 attempts – a statistic born from a half dozen PBUs evenly distributed between the ‘Cat pass rush and secondary personnel.  Over that same timeframe, Wildcat DC Doc Hankwiz’ troops stoned the yardage production capacity of PSU’s combined ground game and passing attack to a paltry 22 net yards on 17 plays; while choking the visitor’s O with a steady diet of 3-n-out drives on 4 of their first 5 possessions (8 of 15 for the entire game) .

As expected, the ‘Cat D couldn’t sustain this comprehensive stoning for an entire 60 minutes.  Hackenberg’s somnolent passing prowess finally awoke from its early-game slumber at about the same time that State Penn’s offensive brain trust uncovered NU’s hidden vulnerability against defending a rushing attack using the Wildcat formation (called the “Wild-Lion” by the Inmates).  Consequently, having re-established its yardage production efficacy via a dual-threat collaboration between its vertical aerial attack and the offensive playbook chapters featuring its Wildcat-based ground game option, the Inmate O mounted a furious comeback starting with their first scoring drive launched after NU had increased its lead to 13-nil 6 minutes before the halftime intermission.  Over the next 25 minutes, Hack & Co.’s resurrection from offensive ineptitude dead to scoring juggernaut was impressive and motivating.  The sum effects of PSU’s vertical pass successes combined with several substantial yardage gains via their Wildcat-based running game knocked NU’s defense back on their collective heels and reeling from the Inmates’ skein of 3 TD scoring drives.  While the visiting team held-fast to a thin 21-20 lead with 12:16 remaining in Q4, the host ‘Cats searched for any defensive field play countermeasure to resuscitate their offensive teammates’ missing yardage generation mojo that was squelched throughout those last 25 clicks by a revitalized State Penn D after witnessing their own O’s triumphs. 

The first defensive countermeasure came at the 7:24 mark of Q4.  Hack, who had been the Inmates’ poster child of passing reliability – not throwing a single INT over his previous 6 games – made his most damaging mistake of the current contest when he telegraphed his intent to toss the pigskin to his target, WR Saeed Blacknall, who was camped-out and awaiting the arrival of the bean along the east sideline, after having run a stop route into the right middle boundary zone.  Veteran Wildcat CB, Nick VanHoose, recognized this pass pattern, saw Hack poised to chuck the ball to Blacknall from behind his pocket protection umbrella then broke hard to front the receiving target just as the bean left Hack’s throwing hand.  VanHoose’s timing couldn’t have been better, as he deftly converted the pick via a leaping grab of Hack’s dart throw two yards upfield from Blacknall.  Although the Purple DB lost his balance when he came back down to the turf and landed on his backside at NU’s 32 yard line, Nick’s attention remained riveted on keeping the ball in hand for a clean, indisputable INT – Hack’s first in his last 201 attempts.  With this timely pick, Miss Momentum returned to the host team’s side of Dyche’s Ditch and gave the Purple O another shot to close-out this tooth-n-nail battle with a game-winning late score. 

Unfortunately, the ‘Cat offensive drive following this INT stalled at the PSU 38 yard line, a LOS location that Fitz and ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell concluded was too great a distance for a high percentage FG attempt.  So Fitz played the field position card one final time and ‘Cats P Hunter Niswander came through in the clutch with one of his finest deep-kill punts of the season that NU’s punt coverage downed at the State Penn 6, setting the table for a win-or-go-home end-game scenario.  Either the ‘Cat D turns the ball over on downs to its O through three crucial defensive countermeasure stops or fails and loses the game trying. 

With 3:16 left on the clock and his offense facing colossal pressure to perform, Inmate HC Franklin fielded his Wildcat-based rushing attack once more – against which the ‘Cat D had demonstrated only a limited ability to detain for short yardage gains in PSU’s previous H-2 possessions.  Responding to Franklin’s call to employ his Wildcat ground game to burn those last remaining minutes and preserve a 1-point victory, Doc stacked the box with 8 of his most experienced, aggressive defenders to stone State Penn’s prolific Wildcat O for a desperately needed 3-n-out series.  Amazingly, Doc’s countermeasure strategy worked like a charm – especially on a heart-stopping 3rd–n-1 down at the PSU 15, in which RS Frosh LB Nate Hall crashed through the Inmate A-gap and nailed Wildcat RB Saquon Barkley for a one yard loss, blowing-up State Penn’s bid to secure a game-clinching 1st down and forcing the Inmates to punt the ball back to NU’s offense, as strategically designed, and proffer one last go-for-broke drive to the Purple team.  
Can you say, “Clutch?”

The Replacement
The situation looked pretty bleak when newbie QB Clayton Thorson absorbed that hard head shot from Inmate DE Carl Nassib giving him a reserve seat on NU’s PUP (Physically Unavailable to Play) list for the remainder of last Saturday’s contest.  Thorson’s replacement, as recorded on the pre-game depth chart, was listed a one of two lightly experienced, 4-star recruit 2nd stringers: Junior Matt Alviti or Senior Zack Oliver.  When OC Mick McCall tapped the helmet of Mr. Oliver to assume the role as the ‘Cats’ primary ball handler, I had a great deal of trepidation because Oliver was primarily a drop-back QB, while Alviti had a well-chronicled QB skillset as a dual-threat playmaker, which was more in tune with the repertoire wielded by the sidelined Thorson than what Oliver’s appeared to possess.  Be that as it may, Oliver made the most of this unexpected PT opportunity and wasted little time confirming that his drop-back QB skills were more than apropos to fill NU’s vacant primary offensive playmaker role and get the job done as McCall’s replacement QB of choice for the injured Thorson.   

Throughout the remainder of the game, Oliver performed adequately as a hastily “thrown into the maelstrom” substitute, completing 11 passes off 24 attempts, while gaining a pedestrian 111 yards and tossing a confidence-building 14-yard laser beam TD completion to WR Christian Jones in his second possession as NU’s QB in Q2.  He added another TD via a 2-yard scamper off an expertly executed QB read option play at the State Penn goal line giving NU a 20-7 lead just before halftime.  In Q4 crunch time, trailing 21-20 with time winding down and the game’s final outcome on the line, the cool, calm and collected Oliver methodically marched the Wildcat O downfield on its last possession, starting from its own 46 yard line then settling into position at the State Penn 18 for a medium-length FG attempt, a drive highlighted by a terrifically-thrown 23-yard, drive extending pitch-n-catch completion to WR Austin Carr.  Whereupon, Oliver handed the scoring reins into the capable hands – and foot – of ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell, who confidently booted the game-winning 35-yard FG with 9 seconds to go in the contest.  To my mild, satisfied surprise, Mr. Oliver didn’t have the look of a 2nd string QB.

Way To Make It Happen Zack!!!

Back On Track
The 2015 Wildcats’ most effective offensive attack option is its ground game featuring the prolific yardage production tandem of the ever-elusive starting RB, Justin Jackson, backed-up by his talented “heavy back” alternative RB, Warren Long.  Over the course of their previous three conference games, the Wildcats’ foes: the Dazed & Blue Horde, the HogEyes, the BugEaters, fielded the three best, stingiest rushing defenses in the B1G.   Consequently, it wasn’t much of a surprise that NU’s normally productive rushing tandem was summarily bottled-up and ignominiously cast overboard (bobbing on the surface of “The Sea of Irrelevancy”) after having gained meager, and equally embarrassing, net rushing totals of 38, 51and 42 (non-Thorson yards) against these three opponents, respectively.

Suffice it to say, JJ and his back-up RB stablemates, Mr. Long and Solo Vault, were in dire need to flush their running failures of the last 3 offensive outings, paddle back to the shores of relevancy and get themselves back on track by reestablishing their game-time presence as the ‘Cats’ feature offensive weapon of first choice while showcasing their collective yardage production acumen as a unavoidable force to be reckoned-with once more.  And they succeeded in doing just that – with the invaluable aid of the Wildcat Big Uglies who spearheaded the Purple RB tandem’s resurgence to rush into, around and through State Penn’s defensive front 7. 
Final game rushing stats speaks volumes: 
●    227 total net rushing yards gained (186 by JJ off 28 attempts; 39 by Mr. Long off 4 attempts) –
●    1 TD scored
●    Set the table for a 2nd TD score in Q2; & the game-winning FG at end of Q4
●    Explosion rushing plays: 
-    48-yards and 25-yards in Q2 by JJ
-    35-yards in Q2 by Mr. Long
-    30-yards and 17-yards in Q3 by JJ
●    Crunch-time, game-clinching drive rushing plays: 
-    5-yards; 7-yards; 2-yards; 3-yards; 1-yards by JJ

I cannot write enough regarding the enormous contribution that OL coach Adam Cushing’s troops had in this contest’s revitalization of the Wildcats’ previously dormant ground game.  The ‘Cat OL never truly blew State Penn’s defensive front 7 yards downfield off the LOS; but they successfully did shove their “outside” blocking targets hard towards the defensive edges of the LOS and sealed their “inside” blocking targets equally hard towards the center of the LOS with controlled purpose and increased efficiency, opening gaping holes in the process as the game wore on.  In addition, the ‘Cat SBs and WRs locked-horns with Inmate DBs and shielded them from pursuing the rushed bean all game long.  The high-quality blocking capability of NU’s OL, SBs and WRs was the number one reason why JJ and Warren Long broke explosion play rushes into and through huge holes all along the LOS and into open space within State Penn’s defensive second level early and often.  They most certainly were the primary reason how and why the LOS was repositioned into comfortable FG range with “relative ease” in the last minute of play.  Despite losing two stalwart OL starters in OG Geoff Mogus and OC Ian Park to early game injuries, Cushing’s remaining OL rotation soldiered-on and hardly ever missed a beat – or missed a block.

‘Nuf said…

“Not So Special”
Without a doubt, the most inept, ineffectual squad that State Penn HC James Franklin rolled-out onto the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch was his “not so special” Special Teams – and in particular, his wholly enigmatic, grossly under-performing kickoff unit.  I cannot speak to its causes, but Franklin’s executive decision to allow his K to boot low line-drive kickoffs on a continual basis, rather than booting the standard high-arcing ball was beyond all comprehension or subjective analytics.  Gawd only knows what Mr. Franklin’s thought processes were regarding this odd field play choice; but this one thing is certain: the State Penn HC did not intervene to halt or correct its reoccurrence, so its use WAS a strategic decision – and its ultimate effect on the field position game was significant and lasting.

I can only hazard an unsubstantiated guess, but I believe Franklin’s intent was to drive the kicked ball into the corner of a chosen half of the kickoff receiving area’s total width, which would allow his coverage personnel to converge and attack the KR toting the pill in a much-reduced space.  Good in theory (I suppose); but terrible in its raw, unrefined execution (as State Penn employed it), if only because these oddball KOs consistently gave NU starting field positions from their 25 or further downfield. 

The most lasting effect that this strategy had on the contest was in favor of the host Wildcats.  On State Penn’s only kickoff of H-1 following their late Q2 TD scoring possession, ‘Cat KR Solomon Vault corralled the KO’s rolling pigskin in the northwest corner of Dyche’s Ditch.  He lost control of the bean for an instant, then picked it up off the turf and sprinted upfield.  When he reached his KR blocking line a second or two later, a thin seam opened along the west boundary.   With over half of State Penn’s KO coverage positioned at least 10 yards to his left and virtually removed from the hand-fighting action inside this open seam, Solo ignited his afterburners, shooting into and through the seam, untouched, into open space behind the wall of NU KR blockers in a locked-horn embrace with their Inmate KO coverage counterparts.  14 seconds and 96 yards later, Solo scored a huge response TD to the Inmates’ only TD score of H-1, reprising the Wildcats’ 13 point lead over the visitors before both teams adjourned to their respective halftime locker rooms. 

How’s that knuckleheaded KO strategy working for you now, Mr. Franklin?   

You’ve heard the title of this tune before: “Survive and Advance;” and that’s exactly what the Wildcats did in securing this epic, hard fought victory against a very game, but very beatable State Penn Inmate team. 

This contest was similar to last weekend’s grapple with the UNL BugEaters in the respect that its final outcome hinged upon the Wildcats’ capacity to execute a sound offensive drive during the end-game’s waning minutes while contending with the opponent’s frantic defensive measures to prevent the ‘Cats from capturing the “W” flag as the final gun sounded.  In the BugEater fracas, the ‘Cats held a tenuous 2-point lead with 4:18 remaining and that crucial possession dictated that Clayton Thorson & Co. craft a sustained drive while collecting multiple first downs to keep it alive and burn precious time off the clock– essentially playing a strategic game of keep-away to prevent the BugEater offense from getting its hands on the pill one last time as those last few minutes evaporated.  Not only did NU’s offense execute this keep-away strategy to perfection; the effort was aided greatly by a dead ball personal foul penalty assessed to a frustrated Nebby DL who head-butted ‘Cat OG Matt Frazier with 90 seconds left that literally hand-delivered the game-clinching 1st down to the grateful Wildcat O. 

In contrast, the ‘Cats’ most crucial possession of the State Penn game arose when the Inmates’ bid to convert a game-clinching first down via that late Q4 3rd-down Wildcat-formation rush by RB Saquon Barkley was stoned by the ‘Cat front 7 for a monumental 1-yard loss at the PSU 14 yard line (described in key #1 above).  After NU received the ensuing punt, the Oliver-led Wildcat O mounted their carrousel pony having been given a one more fleeting chance to reach for the brass ring of victory via their own game-clinching offensive drive (described in key #2 above).  The recipient of this “W” flag was determined by these 2 back-to-back significantly desperate drives, one of which was executed by the offense of each combatant and transpiring over the contest’s final 3:16 – with State Penn’s possession ending in failure and NU’s possession ending in success.  The margin for victory was silk thread thin.  Thankfully, the Wildcats rose to survive this “winner-take-all” challenge then afterwards, reaped the rewards – the most mind-boggling of all: being recognized and ranked as #18 team in the College Football Playoff  Poll (the most important of all college polls), after having advanced three spots from last week’s #21 poll position.    

Who’da ever thunk it three months ago in mid-August!

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Every Member of Northwestern’s Offensive Line. 

For further details regarding this unit’s qualifications for being selected and winning this award, refer back to the last paragraph of…
Winning Key #3 above:  Back On Track

‘Nuf said…

Oct. 30, 2015

Livin’ Just Enough For Eligibility

Stevie Wonder composed a poignant song, recorded on his Grammy award album Innervisions, that very well could have been the theme for Northwestern’s wild, improbable and wholly satisfying win over the BugEaters in Lincoln last Saturday.   Its lyric tells a tale of a hardscrabble black family who are poor in dollars but rich in mutual love and support of one another as they strive to persevere and overcome an inner-city minority culture rife with daunting socioeconomic hardship and heartache. 
For both the host BugEaters and the visiting Wildcats, gridiron hardship and heartache were in great supply as both team defenses exposed their own particular brand of vulnerability to the other’s passing attack while each teams’ offense was forced to tolerate its receiving corps’ peculiar penchant to drop an accurately thrown ball.  Coupled with these offensive and defensive passing woes was both team’s relatively equal defensive efficacy in neutralizing their opponent’s ground game.  When these individual positive and negative field play tendencies were combined for each combatant, the contest quickly transitioned  into a push-me/pull-you bug tussle, with neither team able to sustain a definitive advantage over the other as the game progressed.  Field play successes and breakdowns abounded for either team, often on sequential downs.  To most any casual observer, it become obvious that the game’s final outcome would be solidified by the crew who mustered enough of a coordinated, unified effort among its discordant offense, defense and special team squads to keep their collective gaffes to a relative minimum while delivering just enough decisive plays to capture the “W” flag and bring it home.  All of  which meant that securing victory would come down to a brutal head-to-head stretch run to the finish line wire between these two thoroughbreds, which is precisely what occurred.  And for the 7-point underdog Wildcats, the stakes for winning this match race couldn’t be much higher: locking-up post-season bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012.
How the ‘Cats Barely Eradicated the BugEaters

Mutual Contagion
A common field play characteristic shared between the relative offenses of both the ‘Cats and the BugEaters throughout the 2015 season has been the frustrating predilection to contract the debilitating disease of “The Dropsies,” a malady that once it has infected one member of an O’s receiving corps, would spread like wildfire among every other player within its WR cadre.  I’ve never been able to determine if The Dropsies is a natural consequence born of the lack of proper focus by a target receiver to make the grab of an accurately thrown pill or if it’s an unexpected erosion of that wide-out’s intuitive confidence when the pressure to perform is at its greatest during critical moments of a game.  Frankly, I believe it’s a combination of both.  Regardless of the cause(s), its ultimate effects on the outcome of a football game are typically pivotal and decisive; particularly since this mutual contagion infested both teams’ receiving corps from the opening whistle.  Unfortunately for the home team of the NU vs UNL contest, it proved to be more of a game changer than it was for the visitors.

Usually, my standard keys to victory involve specific items that the winning team (the ‘Cats in this case) had done to secure the “W”; but this key is based on what the BugEater offense didn’t do: complete a potential TD pass between BugEater QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. and a target WR who had gained clear separation from his Wildcat coverage DB and was open, running an unimpeded route to the UNL endzone.  On three of four distinct downs, Armstrong failed to connect with his open target receiver on what certainly would have been a sure TD reception, any one of which would have shifted momentum to the UNL sidelines dramatically.  But they didn’t; so it wasn’t - which contributed greatly to the scoreboard advantage retained by the visiting ‘Cats when the final gun sounded.  Had the BugEaters converted even one of these explosion-play TD tosses, the Wildcats would have been hard-pressed to recover from the shock simply because they hadn’t shown much proficiency to do so at any point in their previous 2 blowout losses, especially given the fact that this was a road game against a motivated Big Dog B1G foe at their house in front of a enthusiastically vocal sellout audience.

Luckily for the ‘Cats’ secondary, they dodged these 3 impending kill-shot TD pass completions from the rifle-arm of Mr. Armstrong Jr. and kept NU’s competitive edge throughout H-2. 

Absolutely nothing positive would have resulted from this game if it hadn’t been for the Wildcat D’s wholesale stoning of the usually dependable and prolific BugEater ground game.  Period.  End of story.  With an inspired, hungry DL spearheaded by Senior DE Dean Lowry (10 tackles) and adroitly supported by the dynamic LB trio of Soph Anthony Walker (13 tackles),  Junior Jaylen Prater (8 tackles) and Senior Drew Smith (8 tackles), the ‘Cat defensive front 7 performed magnificently, swarming to the BugEater ball carrier and abruptly dropping  him to the turf for modest yardage gains over entire periods of the contest. 

Final statistics tell the tale of just how effective this unit was in keeping the UNL rushing attack at bay:
●    82 net yards team rushing off 38 attempts (2.2 yards average)
●    6 of 19 rushing 1st downs (the non-penalty variant)
●    52 net yards for UNL’s leading rusher, RB Terrell Newby (who averaged 85 yards in 7 games)

The ultimate effect from the ‘Cats’ stoning of the BugEater rushing attack was similar to the consequences from the BlackShirts’ defensive focus at stopping NU’s ground game: the yardage production of the Nebby O was going to rely heavily on their passing attack.  The main issue for the ‘Cat D regarding this game plan was that UNL’s starting QB, Junior Tommy Armstrong Jr., was projected by many college football pundits and media gnomes alike to be among the top 3 in the B1G; whereas Wildcat newbie QB, Clayton Thorson, was viewed as a “work in progress” and not worthy of much consideration.

So NU’s defensive brain trust picked their poison and made the decision to limit the BugEater ground game as best as it could and let the chips fall where they may when defending their opponent’s aerial attack.  The results would be TBD.

Pick-6 Anyone?
The Wildcat s’ biggest, most crucial play of the game wasn’t delivered by the Purple offense, but by its defense – in particular, from NU’s secondary.  Since ‘Cat DC Doc Hankwitz’ D effectively neutralized the BugEaters’ ground game for the greater part of the first 2 quarters of the game, 1st-year Nebby HC Mike Riley turned to his passing attack, led by his talented and experienced Junior QB, Tommy Armstrong Jr., who admirably answered his coach’s call as a productive throwing weapon alternative.  Mr. Armstrong parlayed his superior ability to scan the ‘Cat secondary to identify the open WR with his accurate passing technique to carve-up the frequently back-on-their-heels Wildcat DBs with a cool, calm and deliberate demeanor that netted substantial yardage, especially on 3rd-n-long downs to his speed-merchant tandem of Junior WRs Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly. 

However, Armstrong’s most damaging QB brainfart of the game occurred on a 3rd-n-4 down at the 7:34 mark of Q2, when, on a standard drop-back pass play, Wildcat DE Deonte Gibson flushed Armstrong out from behind his pocket protection and forced the BugEater QB to scramble quickly away from him to NU’s right defensive edge.  While most of his immediate attention was focused on gaining separation from Gibson, Armstrong spied a WR target camped-out at the right boundary in the middle-deep right zone of the Purple secondary then robotically threw the bean in the direction of this open receiver.  Thankfully, Armstrong never noticed that ‘Cat CB Nick VanHoose, who recognized the open receiver waiting patiently for the arrival of the bean, drove hard to front Armstrong’s target receiver, jumped the BugEater QB’s throw, made the easy INT grab in full stride then sprinted upfield into the open space beyond.  72 yards later, VanHoose crossed the NU goal line untouched to deliver a nifty Pick-6 interception that increased the visiting ‘Cats’ lead to14-5.

Mr. VanHoose’ colossal INT and burst to paydirt not only gave the ‘Cats renewed incentive to flush their earlier pass defense failures and maintain their competitive mindset to get control of the game; it planted an enormous seed of doubt in the host team and their fans that this toe-to-toe prizefight might become the latest round in their 2015 house of horrors fisticuffs video…  Which it was.

Breaking Away
I have been a vocal critic of OC Mick McCall’s decision to anoint RS Frosh, Clayton Thorson, as his starting QB of choice; and with good reason. 

First, it’s not as if Thorson has demonstrated his playmaking prowess as NU’s primary ball handler on a reliable enough basis throughout the first 5 contests in 2015 – an inherently crucial characteristic that normally would be THE most important criteria in determining whether or not Mr. Thorson was the best candidate to assume the role of the ‘Cats’ starting QB.  But apparently the newbie QB did show more than the occasional glimpse of his quality quarterbacking skillset in the pre-season and those initial 5 tilts that set him apart from his competition to warrant that decision from Fitz and his OC.  Secondly, McCall did have talented quarterbacking options in his QB stable who possessed a modicum of experience facing B1G competition on their collegiate resumes in Senior Zach Oliver and Sophomore Matt Alviti, both heralded 4-star QB recruiting prospects from state high school powerhouse programs, that were never adequately explored.  IMHO, that prior-game experience carried considerable weight.  But in the final analysis, Fitz and McCall made their QB selection and steadfastly have stuck with it despite the well-noted yardage production struggles exhibited by NU’s Thorson-led O, especially as the B1G campaign commenced.  However, in the Wildcats’ last 2 B1G games, Thorson’s playmaking coefficient disintegrated markedly from guardedly passable to ominously dismal, almost to the point of being counter-productive.  And that’s when I, as a card-carrying member of Wildcat Nation, drew a line in the sand: that Thorson either start to show his coaches and teammates the necessary goods that earned him the starting B1G QB nod on a more consistent basis or be replaced as damage control to NU’s waning hopes of garnering post-season bowl eligibility and inheriting all the coveted ROI positives that a collegiate football program receives from such a bid.

Consequently, IMHO, this NU versus BugEater tilt represented a monumental offensive crossroads point in the ’Cats’ 2015 season.   

By design, the BlackShirts’ defensive strategy intended to shut down the Wildcat RB tandem of Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault to insignificance while it forced the majority of NU’s yardage production to depend heavily on the limited-experienced arm and fragile psyche of McCall’s QB of choice.  It was a game plan that Michigan and Iowa had implemented successfully to stymie the ‘Cat O into becoming one-dimensional and one that the UNL defensive brain trust imitated to achieve similar potential yardage-limiting results for the host BugEaters over this game’s first 40 minutes – with a couple of super-significant exceptions.

What available yards newbie QB Clayton Thorson and his butter-fingered WR corps could not wrest from the BugEaters by throwing against the worst pass defense in the B1G when executing OC Mick McCall’s insipid passing game plan, Thorson surprise everyone standing along either sideline and throughout the stands by using his legs.  That’s right, by exercising his painfully methodical, loping running style (which I panned profusely in my NU v. HogEyes game commentary), Thorson was able to break-away from the BlackShirts’ defensive front 7 on two separate plays that set-up desperately needed Wildcat scoring opportunities. 

The first occurred on a QB scramble off a well-defended pass play that netted 68 yards, giving the Wildcats a 1st-n-goal down at the BugEater 2 yard line; which promptly was converted into the ‘Cats’ first TD of the game 3 plays later.  The second was a 49-yard scamper by Thorson off another broken pass play when the BlackShirt pass rush pushed NU’s pocket protection umbrella flush into his grill, forcing the newbie QB to tuck the bean and burst through several hand-fighting OL-DL tandems into open space within the middle second level of the home team’s secondary with 20 seconds left in H-1.  When Thorson eventually was escorted out of bounds by the thoroughly dumbfounded BugEater DBs, the ‘Cat O had repositioned the LOS at the UNL 11yard line and owned a 1st-n-goal down with 8 ticks remaining before the H-1 intermission.  On the next play, Thorson tossed an accurate low-n-outside pass, just beyond the fingertips of his cover DB, to a diving Christian Jones who couldn’t quite collect the pigskin via a barrel-roll circus catch.  Instead, ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell booted the gimme FG as time expired adding 3 more precious points to NU’s H-1scoreboard tally.  The stunned BugEaters and their fan base gazed upon whole the scene in slack-jawed silence as the jubilant ‘Cats jogged into the locker room sporting a 17-12 halftime lead and huge grins on their faces. 

With this last-second H-1 score, the threat of witnessing a second home-field collapse to yet another B1G Western Division Championship “also-ran” contender (i.e.: the ‘Cats), as monitored on the home team’s “Victory Hazard Barometer,” transitioned from the passive yellow-hued “Possibility” zone into the fire engine red-tinted “Very Real” zone.

In H-2, the game would be in the hands (& arm, quite literally) of the Wildcats’ Thorson-led O to seal the deal.         

Getting Its Act Together
It’s no great secret that the 2015 ‘Cats offense has been tremendously challenged to accumulate any type of   consistent yardage production when competing against their last three B1G opponents.  In fact, when facing the BugEater D, the Clayton Thorson-led Wildcat O regressed several levels further down the abyss of offensive irrelevance as they seemingly were incapable of gaining even a single first down on any H-1 possession.  But  some of NU’s ineffective yardage production woes were understandable, at least those pertaining to its ground game, since the BlackShirts fielded the 3rd best statistical rushing D in the B1G – behind the Dazed & Blue Horde and the HogEyes, the B1G’s 1st and 2nd-ranked rushing defenses respectively.  This impressive 3rd place ranking showed Big Time as the host BlackShirts outplayed the visiting ‘Cat O and stuffed their running attack for most of H-1 and the first half of Q3 – except for the two most important offensive plays the Wildcats pulled-off within those first 3 quarters of the contest (detailed in the winning key above).

Then suddenly at the 8:52 mark of Q3, during the Wildcats’ first possession of H-2, something categorically  wondrous happened…  The Wildcats’ Thorson-led O began to compete-with and beat the BugEater D to the proverbial punch with sustained regularity.  Perhaps the UNL defense was gassed (doubtful); or perhaps the BugEater defensive brain trust simply didn’t call the appropriate match-up formations and plays to counter the points-of-attack which ‘Cat OC Mick McCall ordered his troops to probe (possibly); or perhaps NU’s offensive brain trust finally uncovered weak points in the BugEater defensive armor and made appropriate adjustments to their game plan which Thorson & Co. successfully exploited with extreme prejudice when they returned to the field of play from their halftime locker room skull sessions (most likely). 

Whatever the root cause(s), the results were very impressive, as the Wildcat O got its collective act together and began to move the pill methodically over, around and through the BugEater D early and often from mid-Q3 and beyond.   Like two battered and bloodied boxers standing in the middle of the ring exchanging haymaker head and body blows, the lead changed hands from one combatant to the other 4 times in the contest’s final 23 minutes, transitioning this grapple from mundane bug tussle to thrilling theater between two evenly-matched opponents.  During this furious scoring exchange, the ‘Cat offense delivered 2 scores off a pair of highlight reel pass plays.  On NU’s second possession of Q4, Thorson tossed a beautiful 37-yard TD pitch-n-catch to Senior SB Dan Vitale as he sprinted down the left boundary into the open behind his cover BugEater DB, to recapture a 27-22 lead for the ‘Cats.  On the ‘Cats’ next drive, Thorson delivered a short dink-pass to RB Justin Jackson running a short square-out, who rumbled 27 yards down the open space along the right boundary to the UNL 13 yard line.  At that juncture, the BlackShirts stiffened, stalling the drive; and ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell booted another successful FG, his third of the game, that extended the Wildcat lead to 30-22. 

As minutes melted off the clock, the endgame scenario of this back-and-forth chess match was not determined by the ‘Cats’ offense – yet – but was set-up by their most noteworthy defensive stop of the game: a PBU by the Wildcat secondary off the BugEater’s 2-point conversion pass attempt, following UNL’s final TD of the contest scored at the 4:18 mark of Q4, that, if converted, would have tied the score at 30 apiece and, most likely, sent the game into overtime.   

However, with 4 minutes and change left on the game clock after the ‘Cat secondary delivered this critical PBU, the final score remained fluid, where the next explosion-play or turnover could have been the deciding factor for the game.  That was the point when Thorson called-upon his previously somnolent crunch-time QB playmaking skills and virtually took the game over.  The RS Frosh piloted the ‘Cat O from their own 25 to BugEaters’ 30 in 6 successive plays, highlighted by a second 28-yard explosion-play pass in as many possessions from Thorson to JJ running a short route to the right flat, that burned slightly less than 3 minutes off the clock in the process.  When a frustrated BlackShirt DL head-butted ‘Cat OG Matt Frazier after the drive’s 6th play was called over giving NU an extra 15 yards off the called unsportsmanlike penalty, it was game-over.  Thorson & Co. had risen to the daunting challenge of executing clutch play after clutch play when it was needed most by his Purple teammates.

This timely exhibition of Thorson’s late-game, dual-threat QB playmaking acumen, when this hard-fought donnybrook was still on the line, could be the newbie QB’s real-time coming-of-age moment.  If so, then I’ll happily chow down on a couple heaping helpings of well-cooked crow for my earlier doubts.              

Well, I’ve blathered-on much too much already; despite the fact that many diverse details begged for written attention regarding the hows, whys and wherefores behind the ‘Cats victory over the BugEaters.  Was this game a seminal “W” within the Wildcats’ 2015 football campaign?  I honestly believe so.  Numerous previously dormant field play items finally came to the fore within the individual squads comprising NU’s football team, especially on the offensive side of the LOS, after having fought the good fight and won competing against such a worthy and equally talented team as the BugEaters.  It’s up to Fitz and his coaching staff to exercise/exploit these newly risen playmaking aspects to deliver their most decisive positive results when the ‘Cats face the last half of their challenging B1G schedule.

Right now, it’s time for the Wildcats to take a well-earned respite to lick their wounds and assess all they have accomplished in their successes and what they missed in their failures.  Hopefully, the team will return to their competitive grind next week with more sorely-needed players returning from their stint on the ‘Cats’ PUP (Physically Unable to Participate) list and onto Fitz’ active 2-deep roster once again.  It would be a tremendous boon for NU to field a depth chart that approaches its pre-Stanford game status against the State Penn Inmates two weekends hence at the Friendly Confines of Dyche’s Ditch.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Senior DE Dean Lawry. 

Mr. Lawry set the Northwestern football record for TFLs in a single game with a six-pack of athletic throw-downs laid on BugEater ball carriers.  As the elder statesman and most experienced member of NU’s much maligned defensive front 7 who had been mercilessly gouged for considerable yardage gains by the offenses of their previous 2 B1G opponents, Dean rallied his teammates to reverse that alarming trend by leading through example, accruing 10 total tackles, 7 solo, bolstered by 2 sacks and a PBU, while he constantly harassed anyone dressed in the host team’s all-black uniform who toted the bean with equal parts unflagging resolve and ruthless ferocity, often on the BugEater side of the LOS.  It was the most dominant playmaking performance that I have witnessed from a Purple defensive lineman since I observed the gridiron feats of near-legendary ‘Cat DT Louis Castillo ravaging opposing offenses a full dozen seasons ago.  The conference football powers-that-be agreed with my assessment by awarding Mr. Lowry B1G Defensive Player of the Week accolades on the following Monday.

Congratulations Dean.  Your leadership and commitment to excellence in neutralizing the BugEaters’ offense underscores your qualifications to be called a Purple Lumberjack.

Oct. 22, 2015

The “Tin Man” Syndrome

Key descriptive phrase for NU’s homecoming football game against the Iowa HogEyes last Saturday: A tale of 2 halves. 

With the HogEyes’ first 3 possessions as the only exceptions to the host Wildcats’ unremarkable, lack-luster field play profile in H-1, both the ‘Cat OL and defensive front 7 were plainly manhandled and pushed around like an overmatched, weak-sister sibling by their HogEye counterparts across the LOS.  Then half-way through Q2, NU appeared to awaken from its self-induced, somnolent funk and began to compete on somewhat of an even basis with their corn-fed foe from Iowa S#itty-City.  The only problem: by the time they answered this wake-up call, the ‘Cats were gazing up at the visiting 6-win HogEyes from the bottom of a deep 16-0 hole of their own making, highlighted by devastating drive-extending penalties and a minimum 3 bungled turnover opportunities from the Purple D coupled with out-and-out craptastic yardage production from the Purple O. 

However to their credit, the Wildcats quite literally picked themselves up off the Dyche’s Ditch turf and took control of the game on their second last possession of H-1, when the newbie QB Clayton Thorson-led ‘Cat O methodically drove 76 yards in 14 plays to cut their deficit to 16-7 at the 6:17 mark of the first half.  Then, for some inexplicable reason, the Wildcat D suddenly shed its turn-over bungling ways and finally delivered an INT by ‘Cat DB Treveon Henry off a piss-poor pass during the HogEyes’ following possession, giving the NU O a short field possession starting at the HogEye 25 to convert a desperately-needed TD late score just before halftime.  But then, the wheels seemingly came off the NU offensive wagon once more.  After smartly driving to a 1st-and goal at the HogEye 5-yard line, the ‘Cat OL reprised their craptastic zone blocking profile and the drive stalled, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a FG instead of the expected TD to keep them within striking distance of the HogEyes despite the many field play gaffes sustained by the host team.  Still, this late score gave Fitz’ Wildcats and their supportive homecoming crowd cause for hope that the NU resurrection started late in H-1 would be continued in H-2.   

Regrettably, that positive mindset proved itself nothing more than wishful thinking.  Over the next 2 quarters of the game, the HogEyes imposed a full Montezuma on the ‘Cats, stretching them across a slab of granite then cutting their athletic pride and still-beating, will-to-compete hearts clear out from their collective chests with a dull obsidian knife.  This public evisceration left the Wildcats playing very much like the Tin Woodsman from Wizard of Oz fame, rusted and frozen in-place for whole periods of the game while verbally wishing for anyone among them, especially their coaching staff, to lead them to some kind, portly, white-haired Wizard, who might proffer them the valued gift of a replacement competitive soul.  But they might as well have sought-out and pleaded for this essential organ transplant from that portly, white-haired gentleman who hawks greasy fried chicken from fast food franchises throughout the US. 

Instead of looking for assistance from other outside parties, the ‘Cats, to an individual, should give that man in the mirror a deep, hard inspection and ask him for his assistance – after all, he’s the one most in control of the immediate situation.

How the ‘Cats Got Run Over By the HogEyes

Unfortunately for the ‘Cat O, they continued their Gawd-awful S-O-S (Same Old S#it) field play debacle from the previous weekend’s tilt against the Dazed & Blue Horde into last Saturday’s contest facing an undefeated, highly enthused HogEye team.  I truly can’t fathom the brittle fragility of the Wildcats’ mental state as they held the fate of their B1G Western Division Championship aspirations in the palms of their own hands.  Despite getting humiliatingly skunked by a high quality Michigan team on the road in front of an extremely-hostile full house audience, the Wildcats, most especially their offense, had every motive to call-upon and exercise their competitive resolve entering into this game week against their arch-rival HogEyes.  But instead of rising to this daunting challenge with equal parts of universal determination and personal grit, they simply fell flat on their faces and assumed fetal position as the HogEyes pummeled them into submission throughout H-2.  Where was the commitment to excellence; the fire; the leadership; the uncompromising heart and will to grasp that shiny brass ring that was just within their reach? 

I could flippantly call it a colossal choke job; but over the course of NU’s last two contests, the situation has developed into something much more ominous than that.  On the biggest stage and in the brightest spotlight, a true champion will embrace the opportunity to face and compete against the best that his opposition has to offer.  Instead, the Wildcat O apparently becomes systemically catatonic and enervated.  Three-n-out possessions have been a frustratingly frequent theme, intermixed with debilitating turnovers that hand-delivered the opposing HogEye offense short field positions which they exploited into easy scores with regularity.  What exacerbates the whole scenario even more is the predictability of the Wildcat play-calling.  This is Big Boy college football played by personnel wearing Big Boy pants; and yet, the game plan thoroughbred conceived by NU’s offensive brain trust consistently breaks from its proverbial starting gate like it’s afraid to dare make a go for the designed explosion play.  Only after an opponent secures a double-digit lead does Fitz or OC Mick McCall opt to open their playbook to the chapters on the play action-based vertical passing attack or, even rarer still, the counter action ground game.  Instead, it’s a steady diet of the read option or power option play with a newbie QB who appears downright frightened to take a hit and who routinely telegraphs his option choice, especially any pitch to his RB driving towards the defensive edge, that torpedoes any chance for sustained success.  Those easily recognizable real-time, in-play hesitations and “tells” among ‘Cat primary ball handlers could not be concealed from the critical eyes of NU’s OL and subsequently were reflected even more so in the real-time, in-play blocking schemes and execution breakdowns by the Purple Big Uglies.  One or more blocking breakdowns per offensive down were commonplace, especially at the point of attack.  Throughout the contest, except for the two scoring possessions in Q2, poor play-calling combined with failures in both blocking strategy and execution plagued the Wildcats’ ability to generate consistent yardage or to sustain drives for entire quarters (e.g.: see Q1).  When taken as a whole, it was as much a recipe for failure against the HogEyes as it had been against the Dazed & Blue Horde.  An utterly unacceptable, controllable phenomenon.       

The Dropsies
Another frustrating ongoing facet of the ‘Cat O has been its under-performing WR corps.  Not only are these crucial offensive playmakers tremendously challenged to gain any semblance of consistent separation from their coverage DB when running a pass route; if or when a receiver finally does break into the open space within the opponent’s secondary, it’s a virtual crapshoot whether or not he will complete the grab successfully.  It’s as if, whenever a WR effectively executes the necessary foot plant and cut to provide that anticipated separation and the bean is delivered to him on target and in stride, the circumstance that every one of those divergent pass play pieces have coalesced together during one single down is too much to grasp mentally; and consequently, the receiver will lose both his focus and grasp on the arriving pill at the same time.  In H-1 alone, a well-thrown, accurately-delivered pill from newbie QB Clayton Thorson inexplicably was dropped at least a half-dozen times – and by the best, most experienced WRs in Fitz’ stable of receivers.  This wholly debilitating WR disease has often been tagged with the unofficial moniker: “The Dropsies” – an equal opportunity malady that, once one WR is infected, it quickly spreads to others members of a team’s receiving corps.  It’s particularly problematic to remedy or reverse and whose ultimate consequence will be to stone many a promising offensive drive, even against the softest, most porous of opposing defenses, dead in its tracks.  If contracted when facing a premier collegiate D, like the HogEyes possess (and Dazed & Blue Horde, for that matter), it is a virtual blueprint for disaster.  This is exactly what occurred in last Saturday’s game.  Coupled with the first reason for NU’s loss given above, the Wildcat O, again, didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at calling-upon or exercising any aspect of its competitive winning edge that had been demonstrated successfully over NU’s first 5 games of its 2015 season.

When witnessing this conspicuously contagious disease of “The Dropsies” time and again among the ‘Cat WRs over their last two defeats, my standard response was:

“C’mon Man… C-T-F-B” (or “Catch The Effing Ball”).

Mailing It In
It’s an outright fact: the Wildcat defense finally broke down completely and miserably in H-2 after having been thrown repeatedly “behind the eight ball” and forced to defend short field scenarios stuffed flush into their faces by:
●    Another totally avoidable turnover by the ‘Cat O – often given-up deep in their own territory
●    Another 3-n-out possession from NU’s flagging O – failing to garner even one 1st down in the series
●    Another piss-poor post-possession punt by the ‘Cat special teams – of 30-yards or less
Any casual observer couldn’t help but come to the inescapable conclusion that the ‘Cat O did their D no great favors by constantly tanking in horrific fashion when attempting to deliver upon many of the above-mentioned offensive field play opportunities – routine plays whose success would be a natural expectation from any other  top-20 ranked Division 1A offense.  But then again, Fitz and OC McCall simply don’t field a complimentary top-20 offense that operates in seamless unison with their quality defense.  Not by a longshot.

Exacerbating this dire situation was the defense’s penchant towards handcuffing themselves with their own offensive series-sustaining self-inflicted wounds, primarily in the form of senseless, brainfart penalties, like lining-up off-sides at the LOS or receiving a personal foul by hitting a ball carrier as he steps out-of-bounds. 

In addition, to my trained eye, the ‘Cat defensive front 7 constantly aligned themselves incorrectly when facing a specific HogEye offensive formation; and frequently this initial out-of-position set forced key defenders (like NU’s LB corps) to operate independently in an attempt to make a desperation defensive stop on the play, which just made a bad situation worse.  On many downs, the LBs simply guessed where the HogEyes’ point of attack was and were incorrect on approximately 66% of them, frequently blocking themselves out from their assigned area of rush support responsibility by getting caught in the wash of the OL-DL tandems, locking horns and hand fighting one another in front of them, which shielded the LBs from reaching the point within the LOS that they were assigned to defend originally.  In the Northwestern Football fan website, InsideNU-dot-com, former ‘Cat LB Nate Williams authored an informative article last week reviewing details of what had happened on specific downs – one rushing and one passing – taken from the Dazed & Blue game.  His observations and conclusions were very insightful and paralleled my own almost to the letter (the similarity is no great revelation, since both of us were trained in offensive set recognition, although our semantic differ).  I strongly suggest you, the reader, go to this website, and read/listen the content of Nate’s well-written article and vocal commentary.  Then watch the HogEye video (a quality broadcast video is available for rewind-capable viewing via the BTN2Go website) and recognize similar errors in the Wildcats’ defensive field play.  It is VERY telling, indeed.

The final addition to this defensive failure festival is realizing that the Wildcat D squandered numerous golden opportunities to deliver the bean back into the possession of their O via a timely fumble recovery or a dramatic pick or even a quickie 3-n-out stoning laid against the Hog offense.  A cursive review of the HogEyes’ initial offensive series of the game will provide the intrepid B1G football fan several undeniable, obvious examples.  In that one drive alone, the ‘Cat D failed to convert on two errantly thrown tosses by HogEye QB, C.J. Beathard, each of which coulda, shoulda been snagged for an easy INT –unfulfilled bookend picks that framed 3 defensive penalties, any one of which, if avoided, would have halted that HogEye drive in short order.  If either INTs had been converted, or had the Wildcat D stoned that opening HogEye drive in minimum downs, I believe that it would have set the competitive tone for the home team defense for the remainder of the game.  Instead, the HogEye O appeared to become progressively more confident and assertive as the game wore-on while the disheartened Wildcat D kept failing to halt the visiting team’s yardage production, especially when attempting to defend Iowa’s dominating rushing attack – one of the B1G’s most efficient and prolific.

By mid H-2, the ‘Cat defense was totally gassed and the HogEye ground game was running roughshod over them at will, steamrolling the Purple defensive front 7 into flattened “sail-cat” roadkill.  A Wildcat fan seated behind me in the West stands opined that NU’s D was “mailing it in.”  I couldn’t disagree with such an honest assessment.

More “Back To Square 1”
IMHO, the playmaking abilities of OC Mick McCall’s starting QB of choice, RS Frosh Clayton Thorson, have regressed completely to what they had been prior to pre-season practices at 2015 Kamp Kenoshia.  I’m certain that there are many among the card-carrying members of Wildcat Nation who would voice their dissention on this opinion with equal parts vigor and conviction; however, I don’t make this all-encompassing conclusion in a vacuum.  Therefore, allow me to provide reasons behind this damning evaluation:

1.  Clayton Thorson seems capable of seeing defensive movement or action only directly in front of him and in the immediate timeframe.  However, he cannot or does not recognize peripheral motion or delayed movement or stunts by opposing defensive personnel, nor does he prepare or react to counter that defensive action with timely, efficient playmaking movement of his own.  Proof:  His sack and fumble off a delayed blitz in the ‘Cat possession spanning Q3 into Q4.  Thorson was set behind his pocket pass protection umbrella (weak as it was) with his full focus downfield, locked exclusively on his primary WR target and never saw the delayed-blitzing HogEye MLB, Josey Jewell, shooting a huge hole in the right A-gap nor did prepared himself for the MLB’s blast into his solar plexus that dislodged the pigskin from his clutches.  Opinion here: A more experienced QB would have recognized and countered the delayed blitzing MLB, especially in identifying the immediate need to get rid of the bean before the MLB’s arrival or at least in attempting to cover/protect himself to absorb the expected blow and avoid the fumble. 

2.  When running, Thorson doesn’t dig-in and sprint hard.
On designed QB keepers, options or when flushed-out from behind his pass protection umbrella, this newbie QB never digs his cleats into the turf then drives hard off that foot then immediately plants his opposite foot and drives hard off it (repeating this hard-driving foot-to-foot, leg-to-leg technique) when running to open space.  Instead, he tends to lope when running, with a slow, exaggerated long-stride gate; and consequently, he fails to cover open, available yardage in the process.  The only exception this loping running style was his explosion play off a designed QB off-tackle burst to daylight and NU’s first TD of the season against Stanford.  His slow loping running style gives opposing defensive front 7 personnel ample time to read his motion then react and attack it, especially during read option and power option rushing play actions toward the defensive edge zone.  This QB’s sluggish running style results in very slow play development and the ball fails to reach its designed point of attack at a quick, decisively-short timed pace, often resulting in a TFL by the pursuing opponent’s D.    

3.  When passing, Thorson focuses strictly and solely on his primary receiving target.
Thorson rarely goes through any type of receiver progression; but instead, if his primary receiver is covered, the newbie QB panics and frequently resorts to forcing the bean to that covered target WR with little to no regard to the blanket single, double or triple pass coverage the defensive secondary has applied on target WR.  In short, as a drop-back style passing QB, Thorson is a nothing more than a turnover waiting to happen, a colossal liability because executing even a simplified receiver progression is foreign to him, especially when facing the increased speed and quickness of B1G pass coverage and pass rush personnel.  On WR routes, complimented with a QB sprint-out passing motion, Thorson is noticeably more comfortable in his delivery timing and “on the run” feet-to-leg-to-torso-to-arm-to-release passing technique; but he still heavily focuses on his primary receiver running that square-out or slant to the boundary pass route and no one else.  Period.  Against better, higher-skilled pass coverage personnel, the newbie QB’s eyes consistently telegraphs his intentional target and are totally readable.  Subsequently, he gets eaten alive by a better-than-average defensive secondary.  Proof:  Review his INT on the ‘Cats’ first possession of the HogEye game, in which a single-cover DB recognizes Thorson’s obsessive focus on his boundary-route running primary WR target, makes a very methodical break to front the target receiver long before the ball exits Thorson’s throwing hand and converts the easy-as-pie pick at the NU 21-yard line. 

4.  Thorson’s real-time in-play decision-making is glacier slow.
As a team’s primary ball handler and playmaker, quick, intuitive decision-making is an essential paramount skill to the success and survivability of any collegiate QB, regardless of his age or experience level.  This fundamental quarterbacking characteristic is painfully under-developed in Thorson at this stage of his young collegiate career as NU’s QB of choice, and it negatively affects every aspect of his field play, be it rushing, passing, or transitioning the bean to another playmaker (e.g.: a RB handoff).  It matters little if this newbie QB’s playmaking decisions involve when, where or how to tote the pill on a QB keeper, or in determining the exact split-second instance to lateral the bean to a RB in option action or exercising appropriate avoidance recognition and reaction moves to elude the pass rush of the B1G Behemoths bearing down upon him, as he does his best imitation of a weed, firmly planted to the turf and growing roots, in drop-back passing action behind his pocket protection umbrella looking for his primary receiving target to gain separation from his cover DB.  Thorson can't yet make an appropriately quick, reactive, viable playmaking decision before disaster strikes in the form of a quick take-down before he makes that definitive plant and cut downfield on that QB keeper; or a series-stifling TFL against that RB on the receiving end of his telegraphed option pitch; or gets buried by a sack as he plays the part of an immobile traffic cone-like passing QB.  The NCAA Division 1A game is just too fast and quick for Thorson’s Frosh-level decision-making capabilities.  End of story.

So last Saturday’s in-game details and final box score results were déjà vu all over again.  The widespread deficiencies in offense, defense and special teams play exhibited in the ‘Cats’ whitewash at the hands of the Dazed & Blue Horde were reprised one weekend later against the HogEyes.  The major difference in this latest Chapter Two, the HogEye version, is the disturbing conclusion one is drawn-to when he notices that the current story line contains most of the same unchanged details regarding field play deficiencies written in Chapter One, the Dazed & Blue version.  That story line is now beginning to have the look and feel of the trend first unveiled in the craptastic second half of NU’s 2014 campaign.  You know, that losing last half of the Purple’s 2014 war of attrition in which the ‘Cats’ positive early-season competitive profile was vaporized into irrelevancy by a team whose remaining personnel admitted to simply “mailing it in” in various Stanford game week interviews. This infectious negative attitude became the primary cause in 2014 the football team’s well-chronicled “reversal of fortune” meltdown highlighted by its embarrassing oh-fer (as in 0-for-7) record.  This current team’s two-game losing streak smacks of an eerily similar characteristic field play pattern: poor offense production leading to the eventual wholesale collapse of the more experienced defense. 

I must admit, my confidence in the ‘Cats ever recapturing their competitive mojo in 2015 is compromised and waning fast.  IMHO, they will be hard pressed to earn that 6th “W” and garner post-season bowl eligibility.  This dismal point-of-view also heralds a foreboding forecast that Fitz and his 2015 Wildcat team stand at the brink  of repeating their devastating, disconcerting poor performance from 2014 and of missing yet another post-season bowl bid for the third consecutive football campaign in as many years.  I hope to ever-lovin’ Gawd I am wrong, dead wrong!    

A road game against the BugEaters awaits the ‘Cat this coming Saturday.  If Thorson and the Wildcat O show little to no discernably marked improvement, the ‘Cats are in for a very harsh and unhappy afternoon reception in Lincoln, NE.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s Not a Lumberjack – Part II
For the second consecutive week, no Lumberjack Trophy will be awarded to any Wildcat since no one player on the roster came close to toting lumber of any weight or substance against anyone populating the 2-deep road roster of the hated, rival HogEyes.  Another distressing trend to be sure.  The late Q1 injury to Iron-HogEye RB Jordan Canzeri came close; but that injury was more a result of getting his already-injured ankle rolled-up on in the midst of a 3-tackler scrum rather than via a notable haymaker hit. 

Oct. 14, 2015

Exposed and Eviscerated

Purposefully, I’ve taken a full 48 hours before even thinking of composing this commentary.  I knew damn well that it would take at least that period of time to quell my ire at what I witnessed go down between the Wildcats and the Dazed & Blue Horde last Saturday.  And in all honesty, as I begin to type these first few sentences, all those gut-wrenching emotions come washing over me once more like an overpowering, foul-smelling tsunami.  

I truly never expected it would happen in this manner, but it did.  Prior to the opening kickoff, I understood very well that the Dazed & Blue Horde from Annie’s TreeHouse was a sleeping giant poised to awaken and notice all the “little people” scurrying about his feet trying to control him by beating his big toe with tiny pitch forks and shovels.  I’m certain it was a curious sight for the host team players to see the visiting NU Wildcats running about attempting to compete on even par with the resurrected pigskin might that new HC, Jim Hair-Ball, had elicited from this talent-laden team after so many sequential seasons of field play mediocrity under the deficient leadership of prior HCs, like Brady Hoke, who frankly didn’t possess the coaching patience and wherewithal to nurture high quality college level gridiron skill via appropriate player mentorship rather than simply “driving the monolithic Michigan football program bus” and piloting it to expected victories/championships as a made-for-media, pseudo celebrity figurehead.

Consequently, it was no surprise that the abundantly gifted Big Dog Dazed & Blue Horde exposed the ‘Cats as merely another precocious pup in the competitive kennel that is the B1G and eviscerated the Purple team within minutes of having been thrown into the unforgiving fighting pit of The Big Dog-House, leaving them battered, bruised and bleeding profusely.  However, to this writer, the single, most remarkably painful item that became apparent, again, was the virtual ease in which the host team did it.  Mind you, the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats clearly are not some pushover.  In fact, although relatively young, especially within the offensive skill position ranks, they progressively have become a quality, battle-hardened squad who has proven that they can and will perform at a high competitive level.  However, when it comes right down to reasonable expectations, NU doesn’t possess the across-the-board gridiron assets that could or would match up, week in and week out, with the elite pigskin personnel that a Big Dog program like Michigan, with its relative unlimited budget and state-of-the art professional-level facilities, can attract and roll out onto the field of play at so many positions on either side of the LOS.  That comparable gap between the players populating an up-and-coming pup program, like NU, and perennial powerhouse teams, like the BuckNuts, the State Penns, the BugEaters, and of course, the Michigans, has been and continues to be exceedingly wide.  And that obscenely wide gulf was never more blatantly obvious than it was in the just-concluded NU versus Michigan contest.  OK…  So enough of the indisputable “NU’s football program assets and facilities are dog-lay compared to Michigan” drivel, and allow me to dutifully continue with my game evaluation. 

The thumbnail version: The Dazed & Blue Horde beat the Wildcats like a petulant, red-haired step-child in all phases of the football game, including those incompetent water girls passing-out the Gatorade to players during play stoppages.  Period.  End of story.  It was the most comprehensive, merciless, good ol’ fashioned country azz-kicking laid on NU’s bare bottom since… well… the Iowa contest from the 2014 season.  Beyond that unambiguous missive, there isn’t much upon which anyone needs to define or elaborate.  Subsequently, in regards to whatever salient points associated with this disastrous debacle might command further expansion, they will be addressed with fitting candor and brevity.

How the ‘Cats Got Flattened
By the Dazed & Blue Horde

The Opening Salvo
Throughout NU’s 2015 season, quality special teams play has been a steady, dependable staple for the Wildcats.  However against the Dazed & Blue Horde, that previous model of trusted consistency took little more than 10 seconds to blow-up flush into the faces of the visiting ‘Cats in dramatic fashion when Mich KR Jesu Chesson returned K Matt Micucci’s opening kick-off 96 yards to the house, giving the home team a 7-point lead before many of the partisan onlookers had time enough to settle into their narrow seats.  Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, that single explosion play set an ongoing “beat ‘em to the punch” performance tone that the host Horde was to repeat time and again over the course of the game.  As Mr. Cresson swiftly cruised past them, the “C’mon Man; Not Again” body language of Wildcat team members standing along the Purple sideline was all anyone needed to confirm that NU’s bad Hair-Ball afternoon was just beginning.  It was the harbinger of many, many field play breakdowns by the ‘Cats across all three aspects of the contest – offense, defense and special teams. 


Digested, Then Discarded
As this fall’s campaign progressed through the first 5 games, the Wildcat’s OL personnel were starting to show signs of their own physical and mental renaissance.  First off, from a general health standpoint, NU’s OL finally was getting to a point where most of its opening game starters had convalesced and recovered from their rash of early season injuries – rolling off the PUP list and acclimating themselves with the rigors of locking horns with counterpart DL across the LOS without enduring further physical distress either during practice sessions or in limited game play rotations.  Still from week to week, OL coach Adam Cushing’s 2-deep roster resembled a revolving door, with valued players like OT Adam DePietro and long-time starting OT Geoff Mogus falling victim to the ever-present injury bug, while other OL players, like OT Matt Frazier who had suffered through his own private hell of life-threatening septicemia, were actually returning to NU’s ready-to-play fold. 

Secondly, in those 5 weekends, the ‘Cat OL, as a unit, also were jelling into that cohesively dominant blocking ensemble that was first unveiled and exercised its efficient dynamic throughout the ‘Cats’ opening game against a highly-ranked Stanford squad, with consistently progressive improvement from game to game.  By the time the Minnie Golden Rodents invaded Dyche’s Ditch for their grapple with the Wildcats, the OL had turned the performance corner, so to speak, and once more, was a powerful force to be reckoned-with, as the squad had its best offensive showing of 2015 in both their ground game and pass protection grades.  At last, the typical hard luck fortunes of the ‘Cat OL had been shed and this band of brothers apparently had assumed its upwardly mobile performance profile again.  The unit’s prospect of facing and holding their own against the daunting challenge of B1G competition for the rest of this fall’s campaign was a promising one, especially heading into the Michigan game. 

However, against the Dazed & Blue Horde defensive front 7, all that recognized progress and anticipated rising improvement in overall competitive capability came crashing down to earth with a resounding thud.  Many in-season evaluations from media talking heads and collegiate football fans alike of the personnel populating the Mich defensive front 7 were neither kind nor sympathetic, pinpointing this specific unit as Michigan’s supposed weakest link in its defensive chain.  Consequently, when the 13th ranked Wildcat O and its reputed improving OL darkened the doorstep of The Big Out-House, these much-maligned players carried a chip on their collective shoulders the size of a railroad tie and felt that they had a great deal to prove in addressing and correcting that widespread misconception.  And their dominating field play against the now-considered “overrated” Wildcat OL reflected that attitude and resolve. 

Simply stated in layman’s terms, the Dazed & Blue defensive front 7 summarily gobbled-up then spit-out the ‘Cat OL, never even bothering to swallow the visiting linemen once they had been masticated into something resembling a sticky, foul-tasting paste.  I apologize to the more sensitive members among this commentary’s readership, but this graphically repugnant portrayal of what transpired between the host team’s defensive front 7 and NU’s OL during last Saturday’s tilt is 100% spot on; and anyone resident in the football offices of Nicholet Hall would be plainly insincere if he attempted to repudiate it’s direct and unambiguous message (and I’m NOT claiming that anyone is).  To be sure, it categorically disturbs me to make this explicitly harsh critique: the Mich defensive front 7 literally bombed the Wildcat offensive linemen back to the Stone Age.  NU’s offensive situation was THAT bad. 

Final game offensive statistics bear-out this irrefutable meltdown by the ‘Cat O:
●    38 net yards rushing on 25 attempts (1.5 yards average per rush)
●    130 total yards passing (13 completions on 33 attempts – 39% completion rate)
●    4 sacks given-up (w/ 23 yards lost)
●    2-of-13 3rd down conversions; 0-of-1 4th down conversions
●    Zero red-zone possessions
●    22:35 total time-of-possession
All of the above stats directly attributable to the utterly atrocious field play by the Wildcat offensive line.

Fitz and OL coach Adam Cushing have the unenviable, monumental task to reposition this decisively decimated unit back upon the road to competitive recovery before they must face an even better defensive front 7 hailing from Iowa City, Iowa this coming weekend.   

Ineffective, Then Inconsequential
Unfortunately, any honest, straightforward assessment of the Wildcat defensive front 7’s field play over the afternoon’s proceedings would run parallel to that proffered for the ‘Cat OL.  On the Dazed & Blue Horde’s first true offensive possession of the game (following the opening kick-off return for a TD), this unit, who had been applauded far and wide as one of the NCAA Division 1A’s best, was hastily hog-tied and dragged to some dilapidated shed behind The Big Out-House by the Dazed & Blue Horde OL; ruthlessly beaten to a bloody pulp with a rusty shovel; then the host team’s offensive line buried the dented shovel rather than bother themselves with digging a pit and throwing the remnant of the ‘Cat defensive front 7 into it.  This initial drive methodically covered 59 yards in 7 plays, highlighted by an 18-yard pass completion from Iowa-transfer QB Jake Rudock to speedy WR De’Veon Smith and another 32-yarder from Rudock to his bruising TE, Jake Butt – all in a scant 3:39 burnt off the game clock.  Not only was the ‘Cat defensive front 7 ineffective in their vain effort to prevent consistent yardage gains by the Dazed & Blue O during its opening series; by Q4, they became entirely inconsequential.

Many more sympathetic Wildcat readers of this commentary may claim that this analysis is much too disdainful and exaggerated; however IMHO, it most certainly is not.  NU’s defensive situation was THAT bad.

Again, final game defensive statistics attest to this extensive, widespread meltdown by the ‘Cat D:
●    21 1st downs
●    201 net yards rushing on 46 attempts (1.5 yards average per rush)
●    179 total yards passing (17 completions on 23 attempts – 74% completion rate)
●    7-of-14 3rd down conversions; 1-of-1 4th down conversions
●    3-of-3 red-zone possession scores
●    37:05 total time-of-possession
The statistics above decisively confirm the wholesale domination of the ‘Cat D by the Dazed & Blue O.

I can imagine the defensive game review sessions chaired by ‘Cat DC Doc Hankwitz and his defensive brain trust the following Sunday was akin to attending a cold, rain-soaked funeral.  The ‘Cat D better get its collective act together because the Iowa HogEye passing attack, the best, most prolific yardage production squad in the B1G, is about to test their mettle against the Big, Bad Northwestern Defense come next Saturday.  I clearly can envision that the rival offense from Iowa City is champing at the bit to have at the porous Wildcat defense and serve them a second heaping helping of humble pie.   

Back To Square One
The most distressing circumstance of all was newbie QB Clayton Thorson’s regression back to a wild-eyed, inexperienced RS Frosh quarterback, the antithesis of the QB end-product that OC Mick McCall’s due diligence and one-on-one coaching had worked towards in his attempts to instill early maturity and field generalship as the Wildcats’ primary ball handler into this young player.  It’s an undeniable fact: last Saturday, the Dazed & Blue defense took Mr. Thorson totally out of his game and the newbie QB looked every bit the rank neophyte – totally in over his head, completely out of his comfort zone and thoroughly incapacitated when playing amidst the superior real-time speed and unrelenting aggression thrown into his youthful countenance, as designed, by Michigan’s defensive coordinator.  At times, Clayton looked like he was adrift in a sea of confusion and Mick McCall’s playbook was written in Chinese logograms.

Personally, I don’t have an clue what is required to resolve this Clayton-as-newbie-QB dilemma.  My only hope in regards to reversing this critical player’s total field play regression rests in trusting the capable hands-on mentorship of Fitz and McCall and their skills to salvage and restore the impressionable RS Frosh’ offensive playmaking abilities towards a more confident, dependable state.  Otherwise, it’s high time to shift the 2015 quarterbacking duties to Matt Alviti or Zack Oliver.   

One major consequence from this undeniable dismantling of the ‘Cats at the hands of the Dazed & Blue army of motivated, fire-breathing pigskin antagonists, is the unequivocal fact that the rest of NU’s 2015 B1G foes now have been proffered a viable blueprint for steamrolling the Wildcats into roadkill.  In addition to this paradigm for defeat, the most discouraging repercussion to be gleaned from this debacle is that Fitz and his coaches must remedy this season’s most devastating deficiency: the substantive lack of maturity within virtually every player on their roster, especially with respect to leadership.  Frankly speaking, Saturday’s potentially most damaging and long-lasting effect was the acute absence of viable on-field leadership to challenge and halt the unrelenting Dazed & Blue juggernaut by anyone on the field of play dressed in Purple and White.  And if leadership from trusted NU players was being voiced or demonstrated, then their shell-shocked teammates just didn’t respond.  That’s downright alarming because it mimics the exact internally destructive circumstances which occurred in the Wildcats’ last 7 games from the 2014 season.

I truly cannot comprehend the cause(s).  Perhaps it was the intense intimidation factor of entering one of the grandest gridiron stages in the B1G coupled with playing in front of the largest, vehemently hostile opposing fan base they will ever experience in 2015, who ferociously urged their 18th-ranked Wolves to surround, take down, dispatch and devour their 13th-ranked Wildcat quarry with heartless efficacy.  Whatever might have been ultimate the cause, that environment profoundly demoralized the collective ‘Cats, burrowing under their previously impenetrable thick skin and into their granite-walled psyches, and completely disrupted their normal focus and will to compete, turning the wide-eyed visiting team into confused, vulnerable prey.  That unforeseen scenario was as uncharacteristic of this ball club as anything I have witnessed to date this fall.  But it happened. 

Will the ‘Cats flush the memory of this latest crushing defeat or will those negative consequences infect their remaining conference games and undermine the many laudable accomplishments that this team had forged throughout their OOC campaign and against the Minnie Mighty Marmots?   Conventional wisdom dictates that Fitz and his coaching staff will exercise their mentoring skills to get the Wildcats back on track and I trust that is exactly what’s gonna happen.  However, what’s even more imperative in the short term: how will the Purple team respond to this ignominious beat-down over the course of this coming week as the ‘Cats anticipate and prepare for the invasion of their most despised B1G rival, the undefeated, self-absorbed Iowa HogEyes, into Dyche’s Ditch?  There is little time to waste on salving those wounds delivered by the Dazed & Blue Horde. 

It’s HogEye game week, fellas.  Tighten-up your chinstraps and get ready for a war of bloodletting attrition.      

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s Not a Lumberjack
No Lumberjack Trophy will be awarded to any Wildcat player this week since no one on the roster came close to toting lumber of any weight or substance into The Big Out-House, let alone wield it against any Dazed & Blue Horde personnel.  ‘Nuf said.  The HogEyes await the pleasure of your greeting them with the idle lumber from last weekend.  Apply it with relish and extreme prejudice, s’il vous plait

Oct. 7, 2015

Building the Perfect Beast

“The power of reason, the top of the heap
We’re the ones who can kill, kill baby
The things we don’t eat”

“And now the day is come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah
We’re building The Perfect Beast”

Song:  Building the Perfect Beast; Lyrics by Don Henley

OK, I’ll admit it...  Prior to last Saturday’s tilt against the Minnie Mighty Marmots, I was a seditious skeptic, a true unbeliever, a died-in-the-wool Wildcat fan who steadfastly refused to even think of drinking from the cold, frosted pitcher of Purple Kool-Aide sitting on the granite countertop in my logic kitchen.  I just couldn’t help it.  The hard-wired synapses in my head superceded whatever emotional notes would ever plucked on the strings of my sentimental heart regarding the field play capabilities of the 2015 ‘Cats – either real or imagined. 

First and foremost, IMHO, the Golden Rodents simply couldn’t be that bad.  After all, HC Jerry Kill had his unranked team well prepared and in good competitive running form in their season opening match race with the then 2nd-ranked TCU Horny Toads as both thoroughbreds sprinted neck-and-neck down the backstretch and rounded the turn heading into the stretch only to get left in the dust when the Toads’ shifted gears into their final furlong kick to the finish line, losing by a respectable 23-17 margin.  But then the injury bug bit the collective Mighty Marmots flush in their derrières when they eked-out three tenuous 3-point victories against what was considered much lesser opposition – the Colorado State Big Horns, the Kent State Hot Flashes and the Ohio U. BobbleHeads – on consecutive weekends following their TCU tussle.  Those 4 contests left the Rodents beaten, battered and deeply bruised, with walking wounded and MIAs populating 2-deep roster positions across their defensive secondary, their defensive front 7 and their offensive line.  However, despite these dire health rumors, media and B1G pundits still testified that Kill had his confident Rodents primed and ready for their conference opener against a “Just NU” Wildcat team they unabashedly considered profoundly over-rated; and the visiting Marmots weren’t discreet whatsoever about expressing this strong conviction.

And I must confess that, prior to last Saturday’s grapple, I was swayed significantly by both the Marmots’ state of self-assured hubris and the opinions given by those vociferous pundits I read in print and saw on the boob tube, who, together, had planted a basketball-sized seed of doubt regarding the competitive proficiencies of my beloved ‘Cats.  After all, the Wildcats were dealing with their own injury-riddled roster, especially among key personnel within their starting OL and defensive secondary.  Then there were the well-chronicled field play pitfalls and inconsistencies of the ‘Cats’ primary ball handler, Mick McCall’s newbie RS Frosh starting QB, Clayton Thorson.  Seeing the first true gridiron action of his collegiate career against two quality foes in the Stanford EverGreens at home and the Dookies in Durham, NC, and another pair of outmanned FCS-level opponents during NU’s OOC campaign, Mr. Thorson was serviceable at best when he assumed the starting quarterbacking duties for the ‘Cats.  Yet, he never seemed ready and able to fulfill the potential that made him the coaching staff’s choice as the most qualified QB on the team adequately enough – except in H-2 of his last OOC game against the deplorable pass defense of Ball State the previous weekend.  In that momentous half, he piloted the Wildcat offense on 2 impressive TD scoring drives while displaying confident field generalship and a proclivity for pin-point passing that he hadn’t shown in his prior 14 quarters of game-play. 

Definitely, the talent was there, but could this newbie QB wield that same leadership profile and superior QB skills for an entire game against his first B1G competition in confronting the Minnie Mighty Marmots?  It was a substantial challenge to be sure; and reservations as to whether or not he could or would actually deliver the goods abounded, at least for me personally.

How the Beastly ‘Cats Devoured
the Minnie Mighty Marmots

The Spark
Or to describe this crucial momentum-shifting play more precisely, THE highlight reel punt return spark that literally lit the fuse of the ‘Cats’ subsequent scoring explosion prior to heading into the halftime intermission.  With the ‘Cats holding a precarious 3-0 lead, Doc’s D had laid a 3-n-out stoning of the Golden Rodent O with slightly less than 2 minutes remaining in H-1, forcing a change of possession with a punt by the visitors from their 7 yard line.  Off what appeared to be a routine punt reception, PR Miles Shuler eschewed a conventional fair catch signal and, instead, opted to take a crack at a high-risk/high-reward grab-n-go of the booted bean with Minnie’s punt coverage personnel bearing down on him.  Schuler made the catch at the NU 40 yard line, juked once to his left then made a nifty 2-footed hop-cut to his immediate right and bolted straight to the east sidelines skirting just off the fanny of a NU blocker engaged with a Minnie cover man.  Using the hand-fighting duo as a screen to mask his movements, once past this locked-horn pair, Mr. Shuler made an eye-blink cut to his left, and facing upfield, spied an open seam between the converging Rodent coverage team then ignited his afterburners sprinting into and through that seam, towards then along the east boundary with paydirt in his sights. 

With the Rodent punter as his final potential obstacle who might keep him from scoring a tremendously needed punt return TD just before halftime, Shuler followed closely behind his last escort blocker chugging up the east boundary.  The punter recognized this desperate scenario, intelligently positioned himself between his goal line and the hard-charging tandem of Shuler and his escort blocker and steeled himself to make a gutsy last-ditch tackle attempt to prevent the score.  Using textbook open field defensive technique, the punter deftly shed the fronting escort blocker, regained his balance by gathering his legs underneath himself then threw his pads at the churning legs of Shuler, making enough contact with the Wildcat PR to knock him out of bounds at the Minnie 5 yard line, while stopping the game clock with 1:42 left in H-1. 

The home crowd went absolutely bonkers both at the visceral thrill of viewing Shuler’s scintillating punt return and at the anticipation of converting a wholly unexpected, very welcome late-first half TD.  On the Wildcats’ next play from scrimmage, ‘Cat QB Clayton Thorson executed a classic QB read option to the right side of the LOS, completing a fake handoff to his shotgun partner RB then keeping the pill himself and trotting untouched into the Minnie end zone for NU’s first TD of the game that extended the ‘Cats’ lead to 10-0,  Those two consecutive downs, Shuler’s monumental punt return and Thorson’s follow-up TD trot, were executed over a scant 15 seconds elapsed off the game clock and proved to be the final score-clinching play sequence of the entire game. 

For all intents and purposes, once Thorson crossed the goal line on that 5-yard QB scamper, the newbie RS Frosh’s 7-point score laid a full Montezuma on the Golden Rodents, virtually cutting the still-beating hearts out from the chests of the Maroon-helmeted visitors from Minnie-Ha-Ha.  The game may not have been finished at that juncture officially, but the Mighty Marmots never came close to re-establishing their competitive pre-game edge for rest of the contest.  All this having been set-up and initiated by Shuler’s intestinal fortitude to forego a fair catch and challenge the punt coverage capabilities of the Golden Rodents with his tuck-n-run heroics.

And there was a whole half yet to play.  Suh-Weeeeeeeet!!!

Feed the Beast – Part Two
The most impressive aspect of the 2015 ‘Cats has been their outstanding, lock-down defense, by far.  Without question, this unit can and will get gouged for the occasional big yardage gain from time-to-time – even the best collegiate football defenses exhibit a similar vulnerability.  However in the final analysis, when the outcome of the game is on the line and a cold-as-ice stoning of an opponent’s O becomes an absolute necessity to quell their current threat, the Wildcat D brings heavy lumber to the hit parade and swings it unerringly across the grill of their enemy’s offense with extreme prejudice on every down.  Among us long-standing and steadfastly loyal members of Wildcat Nation who had witnessed the now near-mythical Saturdays of Northwestern’s 1995 and 1996 Big Ten Championship seasons, whispered comparisons between this fall’s current defense and those historic defenses coached by HC St. Barney, his DC Ron Vanderlinden and led on the gridiron by two-time Nagurski award winner and Hall Of Fame MLB Pat Fitzgerald some 20 years ago are beginning to be heard.  Although a more prudent NU fan might deflect such an association as frivolous and premature, to me, the very thought of this comparison having viable credibility makes the follicles on my neck stand on end and sends shivers down my spine.  It’s THAT remarkable.

In analyzing the ‘Cats’4 OOC games in earlier commentaries, I’ve used the catchphrase “poetry in motion” to describe the irrefutable athletic and effective playmaking prowess demonstrated by various squads or individual players who comprise the 2015 Wildcat D.  When it comes right down to any emotionless, honest critique, DC Doc Hankwitz’ present-day defense has shown an unquestionable pattern of asserting itself upon their foes with progressively dominating field play game-after-game; and to date, the players haven’t even scratched the upper echelons of their full potential.  If this upwardly mobile trend in lock-down defense among Doc’s personnel is sustained throughout the 2015 campaign (and the roster doesn’t get depleted through major injury or “the creek don’t rise” in the communal egos of the players), this D most assuredly will carve-out its very own, hard-earned niche within the hallowed history of Northwestern Football defenses, even those of 1995 and 1996. 

And this commitment to defensive excellence was on undeniable display against the Minnie Golden Rodents last Saturday. 

Fitz constantly professes an unflagging personal mantra regarding game statistics that I agree with… to a point: “Stats are for losers.”  However, when unpolluted proof of a unit’s field play efficacy is sought, game statistics frequently provide a credible foundation for intelligent analysis of what had occurred during the heat of battle on the gridiron.  And last Saturday’s final defensive stats substantiate an overwhelming fact: Doc’s D kicked the livin’ bee-jeezuz outta the Minnie Mighty Marmots.  Period.  End of story.

A drive-by “tale of the tape´ inspection of Minnie’s final offensive production speaks volumes:
●    173 net yards (74 rushing & 99 passing) total
●    11 total 1st downs 
●    4-for-16 3rd down conversions and 0-for-4 4th down conversions
●    25:58 total time of possession
●    10-for-21 pass completions: 72 yards total; 1 INT – for starting QB Mitch Leidner

And THE most significant offensive statistic of all
●    0 TDs & 0 FGs = A bagel; A Cheerio; Zero, Zip, Zilch for the entire game

After the initial 12 minutes of Q1, when NU’s D was becoming familiar with Minnie’s offensive tendencies and blocking schemes, the Golden Rodent OL couldn’t push their way out of a wet paper bag facing the Wildcat defensive front 7, led by ‘Cat DE Dean Lowry and seconded by the extraordinary heat-seeking run support of SS Godwin Igwebuike who seemingly converged to the ball from anywhere and everywhere on the field at once.  Doc’s defense kept the pressure on the Minnie offense by shutting-down most of their ground game for entire periods of the game.  With their rushing attack stoned to a virtual halt at the 3:45 mark in Q1 and beyond, the Minnie O became one dimensional, forcing an inordinate percentage of their yardage and scoring production to depend heavily on the middling passing skillset of QB Mitch Leidner and his receiving corps.  This scenario was a recipe for offensive ineptitude because NU defensive secondary coach Jerry Brown had his Wildcat DB personnel fully prepped to take the advantage of Minnie’s questionable passing attack with their relatively tight, dominating pass coverages.  And so it went…  A short yardage rush here; an inadequate short pass completion there; followed by an incompletion on 3rd down; the sum of which equaled one more change of possession on downs to the ‘Cat O.  For 3-plus quarters, the hungry Beast that is NU’s defense enjoyed a voracious feeding frenzy at the expense of the floundering Minnie Mighty Marmot offense.  Wildcat MLB Anthony Walker’s 13-yard scoop-and-moonwalk TD return off a forced fumble by DT Tyler Lancaster at the 11:41 mark of Q4 turned into the cherry atop the ‘Cat D’s hot fudge sundae.

Doc’s D was the obsidian knife that cut the heart out of the Mighty Marmots.   Nothing more need be said.

True to his word voiced in various game-week pressers, Fitz kept this contest’s bean toting responsibilities evenly distributed across all the thoroughbreds in his RB stable… finally.  Rather than depend on featured RB Justin Jackson’s pluck and stamina to endure the rigors of carrying the pill 30-plus times, Fitz and OC Mick McCall were much more judicious when calling their primary ball carrier’s number against the Golden Rodents.
This share-the-workload strategy not only saved wear and tear on Jackson’s body, but showcased the rushing skills of RB backups, Warren Long and Solomon Vault, in the process.  These three RBs combined to collect 165 total net yards off 35 rushes, with the lion’s share of the ground-based yardage production, 120 yards off 20 rushes, accounted for by Mr. Jackson.  Not a bad afternoon’s results for the unit when toting the bean against the Mighty Marmots.

Not to get lost in the euphoria of this laudable ground-n-pound performance, was the effective overall blocking show staged by the Wildcat OL.  The Purple Big Uglies didn’t miss a blocking beat when their starting senior teammate, OT Geoff Mogus, was relegated to riding pine due to injury, as the OG-OT tandem of Blake Nance and Connor Mahoney filled-in quite nicely for the MIA Mr. Mogus; and augmented admirably by OC/OG Brad North and OT Matt Frazier, among several other very capable OL subs, who freely rotated into lineup over the course of the contest.  312 net yards total offense was a decent-enough performance profile for OL coach Adam Cushing’s troops.  However, 3 sacks given-up was a glaringly noticeable field play nuisance for the unit for the day.  That black stain must be addressed and rectified before this squad faces their next B1G challenger, The Dazed and Blue Horde next weekend. 

No Star, But a Rising Contributor
Second only to NU’s final two plays of H-1 which resulted in the ‘Cats’ first TD of the game that successfully secured Miss Momentum presence on the Wildcat sidelines for the remainder of the afternoon, was the much-anticipated quarterbacking coming-out party of OC Mick McCall’s newbie QB Clayton Thorson.  Mind you, Thorson didn’t light-up the Dyche’s Ditch scoreboard with some phantasmagorical exhibition of his superior passing skillset; but he was methodical in his execution of McCall’s game plan; was reliable in doing only what was in his immediate control well and did not over-extend his QB field play reach, which eliminated baking hot-n-flaky French Pastry turnovers and serving them to the Golden Rodents on any down throughout the game.  To this writer, that final item, no TOs, was the most significant game-control detail Thorson manufactured to ensure the ‘Cats’ success; and I truly believe that this one field play positive came as the greatest surprise of any to Mighty Marmot HC Jerry Kill.  After all, Thorson had shown a particularly annoying penchant towards TOs throughout his OOC campaign which proffered his opponents short fields to convert into scoreboard points; and I easily can envision that Kill and his coaching staff fully expected one or more giftie short field possessions hand-delivered by Mr. Thorson to alleviate the pressure on his scoring-challenged O to covert drives into points.  By eliminating this single newbie QB negative, Thorson upped his game to where he wasn’t a liability to the rest of his Wildcat teammates. 

For the game, Clayton completed 14 of 19 passing attempts for a pedestrian 124 yards net with zero TDs; but then again, he didn’t have a single INT.  A good thing.  In addition, he used his feet in NU’s short-field goal line possessions to convert 2 sorely needed TDs, again, with no fumbles in any of his rushing attempts.  A second good thing.  Another notable item was that Mr. Thorson delivered on 7-for-17 3rd down conversions coupled with a 1-for-1 4th down conversion, primarily via his accurate throwing arm.  Certainly not fantastic, but still a commendable accomplishment.  A third good thing.

Bottom line: in its entirety, Clayton’s French Pastry-free quarterbacking day contributed greatly towards the ‘Cats’ drama-less dispatch of the heart-less Golden Rodents.  All a very good thing, indeed.

I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat amused at the ease with which the Wildcats handled what I anticipated would be a quality, competitive Minnie Mighty Marmot team last Saturday without much of the dogfight I had envisioned beforehand.  Especially since so many collegiate football prognostication “experts” had given this tilt an “upset alert” status, because NU has hauled-around a burdensome “burr-under-the-saddle” past reputation for underperforming in their B1G opener after going undefeated or having a one loss record through their OOC campaign.  Well, the Golden Rodents proved themselves to be little more than a toothless paper tiger, limping back to Minnie-Ha-Ha much worse for wear after having absorbed the brutal beat-down laid upon them by a still-hungry Wildcat team.  Truth be told, Minnie HC Jerry Kill will have his hands full trying to schedule an emergency heart transplant for his entire football team – if he can find an appropriate organ donor.  Therefore in retrospect, having bested an already a badly-maimed Mighty Marmot team in its B1G opener, the ‘Cats’ initial 1-0 B1G record is diluted heavily if one exercises due diligence honesty in assessing whatever substance exists behind the achievement.

In contrast, Fitz has the unenviable task of keeping the emotional lid on his undefeated, 13th-ranked AP media darling ‘Cats.  Exacerbating this whole scenario, now the national football media hype machine will commence to crank-out gushing platitudes, effusive appraisals and garish expectations for the now highly-regarded 5-0 Wildcats to inflate their relative marketing worth among its college football fan base.  This newly bestowed popularity resonates eerily with the poignant lyrics written by ‘70’s pop singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell: “Stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”  And as I write, the 2015 ‘Cats constitute the B1G’s “popular song” du jour of the current pigskin game week.  That is… until they meet the B1G’s other media darling football team, the newly-resurrected, highly fawned-over, one-loss Big-Dog Dazed & Blue Horde next Saturday at their own House of Horrors, The Big S#it-House, situated in the quaint rural-Michigan village of Annie’s Tree-House.  The visiting ‘Cats have been the recipient of little affection from those same collegiate football forecasters who have installed the Wildcats as double-digit dogs to the host Dazed and Blue Horde this coming weekend.  After all, the ‘Cats had crushed the “Just Minnie” Golden Rodents in a virtual walk-over, so consequently, there is no carry-over value to be transferred from that blow-out to this upcoming battle. 

So the home-field Meat-Chicken’s historical conference Big-Dog reputation precedes the “Go Blew” team once again when facing the visiting “Just NU” MildCats.  Many ominous final score forecasts possess considerable merit simply due to the skull-n-crossbones, black-flag fact that the Dazed and Blue Horde D has restricted the scoring production from their last 4 foes to a mere 2 TDs, including a whitewash of a highly competitive BYU Congas team at home two weekends ago followed by a second wipeout of the B1G’s East Coast newcomer, the woeful Maryland Twerps, in a road game at College Park last Saturday.  The 14 points-allowed statistic across their last 4 contests holds a LOT of defensive credibility for the Horde, to be sure.

Doc Hankwitz’ Wildcat D had better tighten-up their collective chinstraps.  This next one’s gonna be the true real-deal, season-defining dogfight. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to True Sophomore Safety Godwin Igwebuike. 

As was mentioned above, Mr. Igwebuike was all over the field against the Golden Rodent offense, especially in rush support.  The young man possesses an instinctive ability to identify an opponent’s point of attack amid the forest of fast moving torsos-trees crisscrossing in front of him, then once that attack point is recognized, he counterattacks that gridiron position quickly knowing that the ball will fill that space.  He has amazing innate confidence in his attack point identification skills, refined through countless hours of doing so on the practice field and precision-tuned like a high-powered sniper’s riflescope.  When he does pull the counterattack trigger, he does so with reckless abandon and very bad intent indeed, bringing a massive load of heavy lumber to cold-cock the bean with every ounce of energy his 6 foot, 200 pound athletic frame can muster.

Against the Minnie Mighty Marmots, his devastatingly effective counterattack skillset was brought to bear early and often on any Golden Rodent ball carrier, whether they were an RB or receiver, who happened to ramble into his personal riflescope’s field of vision and its deadly accurate crosshairs.  Godwin’s final game tackling totals, recorded at 8 solos with 1 assist, are completely off.  The Sophomore Safety “knocked the lips” off so many Minnie rushers in H-1 it was difficult to keep an accurate count.  Personally, I honestly believe he had a minimum of a dozen or more stops, most of which were of the “stone the ball dead in its tracks” variety.  Many of the Wildcat fans seated around me in the east stands had the exact same impressions.  Surely, Igwebuike’s tackling totals would have doubled had Minnie’s offensive brain trust not abandoned their ground game in lieu of turning to their somnolent passing attack for much of H-2 in a frantic bid to crawl out of the double-digit deep deficit into which Doc’s D had thrown the Marmots.   

Congratulations Godwin.  Like Justin Jackson who was awarded last weekend’s trophy, you are a true IronCat, an invaluable puzzle piece to your Wildcats teammates’ aspirations to capture and wear the 2015 B1G Western Division Championship crown and deserve to be called a Purple Lumberjack.

Oct. 1, 2015

Night of the Living Dead Birds

In many a pregame conversation I had with members of Wildcat Nation, the enigmatic label: “trap game” was voiced frequently when describing the Wildcats’ upcoming night game against a good but not necessarily great Ball State Dead Birds.  “Trap game” has connotations that run the gamut of the college football pessimist, from the mildly cautious to extremely apprehensive.  But at its foundation, the moniker denotes a game in which the potential for an upset at the hands of an identified but capable underdog is substantial, regardless of whether or not that threat is real or imagined, especially when that next match follows immediately upon the heels of a tough, competitive contest wrought with high emotions and even higher expectations towards demonstrating much-improved levels of quality field play carried-over from the previous weekend. 

By that very definition, the 3-0 ‘Cats, who had taken the measure of an undefeated team from an academic rival, the Dookie Blue Dumpsters, last Saturday in a thrilling, passionate, hard fought road game in Durham, NC, that was secured only in the grapple’s waning minutes, were ripe for the picking by that respect-starved MAC team from Muncie, Indiana.  If the double-digit dog Dead Birds could steal a victory over the mentally and emotionally hung-over ‘Cats, the game most certainly would end-up being the crown jewel of Ball State’s 2015 season.  Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the NU football program possesses an abnormally exasperating penchant in recent fall campaigns to lose at least one such walk-over tilt per season as a prohibitive favorite.

And the Dead Birds nearly pulled-off the “W” rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick on the Elysian fields-like turf of Dyche’s Ditch.

One major item of note: at 2-1, Ball State is not your run-of-the-mill, cannon fodder, Division 1A Tier-2 foe.  To his credit, Dead Bird HC, Pete Limbo, had recruited particularly well on the offensive side of the LOS with serviceable, if not commendable skill position talent, especially at QB in fearless True Frosh gunslinger Riley Neal and at WR, specifically in Senior catch-everything-thrown-his-way Jordan Williams, who most assuredly will collect Sunday paychecks for his gridiron services in 2016.  Thus far this fall, the Dead Reds canned a putrid VMI squad in their season opener and bested their first 2015 MAC opponent, a woeful Eastern Michigan, last weekend, rallying from a 17-point deficit with 28 unanswered points in H-2 for the win.  In its ‘tweener game, Ball State showed its offensive mettle once again, scoring 23 points in a losing cause on the road against the 14th-ranked aTm Horticulturalists.  In short, the offensive cupboard of NU’s MAC opponent was not bare… No Sir, not by a long shot. 

However, the Dead Birds’ defensive talent larder is the antithesis of its offense – they are virtually thread-bare and porous; and have shown a marked tendency to give-up substantial points to their opposition in all 3 games they played in 2015.  Consequently, battling Ball State’s deficient defense might prove to be the sorely needed booster shot of corrective confidence that attending physician OC Mick McCall planned to inject into his QB of choice, Clayton Thorson, in order to remedy the newbie RS-Frosh’s near terminal malaise of poor playmaking exhibited over his first three games as the ‘Cats’ starting quarterback.  I suspected that this “prescription” was one of several prevalent field play performance “cures” concocted by Fitz and his offensive brain trust.  Most logical pre-game assessments of the relative offensive scoring capacities of either team predicted that whatever points the Ball State O might tally on the Dyche’s Ditch scoreboard would be doubled-up by the “cured” and revitalized Thorson-led ‘Cat O competing against the sieve-like Dead Bird D.  Prospects for an easy “W” looked very promising.

However in reality, Ball State assumed their self-designated role as spoilers to NU’s current undefeated status very seriously indeed and was primed to stick a poison-tipped shiv between the ribs of the 17-point favorite, media darling ‘Cats whenever, wherever the opportunity presented itself.  In fact, the visitors broke customary entrance protocol when the Dead Birds waited until the ‘Cats took the field first, with Fitz leading the charge of his purple-clad troops.  Only after waiting for the host team to finish their jog onto Ryan Field and for the accompanying enthusiastic cheering from their Purple fan base in the stands to die down, did the visiting team from Munchkin, IN run onto the gridiron of Dyche’s Ditch.  To many Wildcat fans in attendance, this breach of entrance sequence etiquette meant little, if nothing at all.  Nevertheless, when the Dead Birds entered the field of battle last among the two combatants, to observant traditionalists and former football players witnessing this subtle unfolding drama, it represented a veiled snub – a thumb of their noses at and a poke in the eye to the host ‘Cats. 

So…  A venom-filled gauntlet had been thrown at the feet of Fitz and the ‘Cats.  Then the referee blew his whistle sounding the commencement of hostilities…

How the ‘Cats Survived
Their Night of the Living Dead Birds

Feed the Beast
Heading into this contest, the Wildcats’ fielded what on paper was the nation’s No. 1-ranked statistical defense among all 129 member football teams which comprise the NCAA’s Division 1A (a.k.a.: the “FBS”).  It’s a sad but poignantly true fact that this high defensive rank was nothing more than a gratuitous platitude because, in their previous 3 matches, the ‘Cats either competed against a wholly inept offense (read: Eastern Illinois) or faced an offense which underperformed remarkably below their noted potential or reputation (read: the 21st-ranked Stanford and the ACC Coastal Division Championship contender Dookies).  In fact, when the Stanford EverGreens and Dookie Blue Dumpsters had regrouped their offensive player personnel in the week following their respective individual loss to NU, then reviewed game films and applied the necessary strategic corrections to reverse their devastating poor field play tendencies, both team offenses went out and absolutely destroyed the defenses of the next ranked opponent they confronted.  For Stanford, that would be the 6th-ranked USC Trojan Condoms; and for the Dookies, it was the 20th-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Stains.  Fortunately for NU, DC Doc Hankwitz and his motivated Purple defenders had caught the high-powered offenses for each of those two quality foes with their proverbial right wrist hog-tied to their left ankle resulting in an ultimate bad yardage production afternoon.  

In contrast, the Dead Bird O, much to their credit, wasn’t the accommodating stumbly-bumbly opposition that the ‘Cats opposed in those first 3 games, but had prepared themselves to take-on the Wildcat D’s best and play the part of ravenous flesh-eating zombies, reminiscent of the undead from the classic horror flick: Night of the Living Dead, with a focused determination to pursue and devour any opposing NU defensive player with a vengeance.  Essentially, the trench warfare between the Dead Bird OL and the ‘Cat D, especially their defensive front 7, transitioned into a tooth and nail dogfight from which only the fittest or luckiest survived unscathed. 

The Wildcat secondary took the most critical body blows.  CB/Safety Kyle Queiro suffered what appeared to be a broken forearm when trying to tackle Dead Bird QB Riley Neal running a QB keeper off the read option into open space in Q1 and could be lost for the season.  SS Godwin Igwebuike absorbed a major ding, was removed from the field and remained parked on the bench for the remainder of the game.  During his Monday presser, Fitz mentioned that Godwin’s availability was day-to-day.  On the offensive side of the LOS, hapless veteran OT Geoff Mogus sustained a bone jarring helmet-to-helmet shot in Q1 that could keep this integral cog in NU’s OL wheel out of the ‘Cat lineup for several weeks.  During a Q1 kick-off return, Sophomore SB/Special Teams Specialist Garrett Dickerson got his ankle rolled-up from behind and was assisted off the field.  On the last down of Q1, DT C.J. Robbins sustained a shot to his left shoulder/arm and walked to the NU sidelines.  From the accounts above, it’s an easy task to draw a visceral image of the hard-hitting, take-no-prisoner war of attrition unfolding on Ryan Field.

From the opening whistle, Ball State’s OL took the fight flush into the grill of the ‘Cat DL and beat them to the punch at the point of attack with surprising regularity, especially in H-1.  Final Dead Bird offensive statistics accumulated for the game tell the tale: 181 total yards on 34 rushes (a 5.3 yards-gained average); 18 total 1st downs (8 via the rush, 7 via the pass & 2 on penalties); and although first-time starter QB Riley Neal completed only 14 passes, the dual-threat QB still threw for 178 total yards, rushed for an additional 74 yards primarily off the QB read option, and scored 2 TDs, each off explosion play pass completions.  Most significant of all, the ‘Cat D recorded only 3 TFLs and no QB sacks or hurries over the game’s entirety.  That’s right…  Zero, Zip, Zilch noteworthy shots laid on Ball State’s newly-installed primary ball handler.  Although the Dead Bird O, with a newbie QB Neal at its helm switching between running the read option and throwing pin-point darts to his talented WRs, like Jordan Williams, necessarily may not be the second coming of the BuckNut offense led by QB Cardale Jones and Co., the unit certainly gave the vaunted ‘Cat defense all they could handle for whole portions of the game.  The visitor’s offensive field play successes in H-1 exposed many shortcomings in the process, like continually catching NU’s LB corps out of position or slow to react against Dead Bird read option rushes, or better still, neutralizing the normally high-powered Purple Pass Rush with well-conceived roll-out pass plays and zone pass blocking schemes.   

So much for the Wildcats’ media-hyped “No. 1 Division 1A defense in the land” nonsense.  

However, contrary to the above negatives, all wasn’t black crepe and morbid failures for the Purple D.  Doc’s defense did awake, in fact, from their first half-long stupor and began to assert itself just in the nick of time to coordinate some tactical stoppages laid on the Ball State offense in H-2 with newbie QB Clayton Thorson’s personal performance resurrection from the dead in Q3 and beyond (e.g.: respecting the damn bean and holding onto it with added due diligence).  One notable positive: the Purple D’s demonstrated an ever increasing ability to stone Ball State’s QB read option with more thorough consistency as the game progressed, despite giving-up ground game explosion plays of 22-yards to Mr. Neal, 21-yards to RB Darian Green and another 34-yard jaunt to RB James Gilbert just before Neal and Green’s miss-handled pigskin handoff that resulted in that timely TO fumble recovery by the ‘Cats at their 4-yard line.  Another positive: the Wildcat D was able to limit the Dead Bird O to just 5 (of their 18 total) 1st downs in H-2, one of which was a giftie to the visitors off a holding penalty by the ‘Cat defense.  A third crucial positive: NU’s defensive secondary did a relatively decent job of containing the aerial circus bloodletting by Ball State’s gunslinger QB Riley Neal despite the injuries to key secondary personnel.  Both Dead Bird TD pass completions were explosion plays – a 22-yader in Q2 and a 29-yarder in Q3 – in which the ‘Cat cover DB exercised textbook pass coverage technique and positioned himself right on top of the target WR for a potential PBU; then the receiver simply out-stretched (on TD #1) and out-jumped (on TD #2) the NU defender to make an outstanding grab of the bean around/over the defensive back’s outstretched hands, respectively.  On either completion, you simply have to tip your hat to the Ball State WR for his superior pass catching execution.

Bottom line: the high quality playmaking beast that is the Wildcat defensive 2-deep personnel exercised Doc’s game plan and kept plugging away, feeding off each other’s successes while shrugging-off their failures and progressively improving their overall field play effectiveness as the game wore on (a common characteristic of superior college defenses), even when the contest’s competitive intensity meter red-lined.  A few misinformed fans grumbled about MLB Anthony Walker’s limited impact on NU’s defensive efficacy, but that was due primarily to his responsibility assignments which directed him away from the eventual path of the ball carrier.  Sometimes a defensive scheme will take the best defenders out from the offensive play’s flow; and it happened early and often to Mr. Walker and other valued Wildcat defenders.  Not to worry.  Doc has enough talent depth at every defensive position to collapse-on and halt the advance of the ball, regardless of mounting injuries.

Audentis Fortuna Iuvat
This famous Latin proverb is attributed to the Roman playwright, Publius Terentius, from his 2nd century BC play, Phormio; and quoted most notably in The Aeneid by Virgil.  Translated from Latin to English, it means: “Fortune Favors the Bold” (or “the Brave”; also “the Prepared” or “the Well-Armed”).  And when defending the point production prowess of the Riley Neal-led Dead Bird O, the ‘Cat D, on occasion, was in dire need of the Roman Goddess Fortune’s favor in the biggest way, especially in H-1. 

In Q1, the ‘Cats dodged a Ball State bullet when the Dead Birds’ True Frosh K, Morgan Hagee, pushed his 43-yard FG attempt wide right.  The ‘Cats dodged another shot to the solar plexus when Mr. Hagee missed his next FG attempt, a 40-yarder in Q2, that he pushed wide right once more.  Newbie K Hagee’s personal place kicking nightmare continued when his PAT attempt late in Q3 was blocked cleanly by ‘Cat DE Dean Lowry.  Then, in a possession spanning Q1 to Q2, the Dead Bird O displayed their yardage production acumen as they gobbled-up 67 yards in 6 plays, setting the LOS at the NU 6 yard line and poised to deliver a go-ahead TD.  On the very next play from scrimmage, the first of Q2, Ball State QB Riley Neal collided with his RB James Gilbert while attempting a routine read option handoff.  The bean dropped to the turf and was summarily scooped-up by ‘Cat SS Traveon Henry at the NU 4 to thwart the Dead Bird’s golden scoring opportunity to take the lead.  This hot-n-flaky French pastry proved to be THE most significant turnover of the game for either side.

The sum total of missed or bungled scoring opportunities by the Ball State O over the course of the contest amounted to 14 precious points, which, if converted, shoulda , woulda, coulda made all the difference in the world in the game’s final scoreboard tally.   Indeed, Miss Fortune smiled sweetly on the ‘Cats last Saturday.

This acronym is a play on the well-known baseball-softball acronym, H&C-T-F-B, meaning: “Hit and Catch-The-Effing-Ball.”  A quick substitute of the baseball “H” with a football “P” – for “Pass” – then the gist of the acronym’s message becomes clear.  When Ball State’s D consistently stuffed OC Mick McCall’s designed early down rushing plays for little to no yardage gains, I began to openly grouse to anyone within earshot that it was becoming imperative that the ‘Cats’ offensive game plan adjust from its original run-first model to a pass-first paradigm, if only to get better yardage production on 1st down. 

It wasn’t that the Dead Bird D was loading the box with defensive numbers; it was more the case where one or two individual ‘Cat OL per play appeared to be sleep-walking and plainly whiffed on their assigned blocking targets, while newbie QB Thorson experienced his typical somnolent, on-again/off-again break out from the passing attack starting gate.  Exacerbating Thorson’s early passing woes were more out-n-out drops even when the bean was thrown accurately in stride and on target to its intended receiver.  A controlled pitch-n-catch pass between Thorson and his focus-challenged receiving corps on 1st down could provide the necessary mutual dynamic to settle the RS Frosh into a more effective throwing rhythm and to allow his receiving targets to synchronize themselves with their QB for the rest of downs in an offensive series.  Or so it would seem.

Finally, at the start of H-2, OC Mick McCall abandoned what I correctly construed was his run-first offensive plan for a pass-first substitute in earnest, and the switch paid immediate yardage production dividends, even if that first pass went incomplete.  In the ‘Cats’ opening offensive series of the second half, 3 consecutive pass completions by Thorson, complimented by good positive yardage rushes by JJ, had the Dead Bird D stumbling back on their heels and reeling from the Wildcats’ up-tempo onslaught.  Thorson and Co.’s newly discovered confident body language spoke volumes.  Then… Bang!  After carrying-out a play-action fake to hold Ball State’s secondary for a split second in run support , Clayton spied Dan “The Man” Vitale wide open downfield, having sprinted past the dead Birds’ right Cover-2 safety, and delivered an easy pitch-n-catch toss to his SB for a 21-yard quick-strike TD that recaptured the lead for good.  And that was just the beginning.

After the Wildcat D stoned the Dead Bird O into a 3-n-out series; the ‘Cat offense got the bean back on downs and  continued where they left off on their previous possession, calling pass plays with complimentary rushes for good yardage gains once again.  Starting from the NU 20 yard line, Thorson and Co. methodically marched 80 yards in 9 plays in less than 3 minutes.  The series was capped-off with a beautiful 25-yard pitch-n-catch TD completion to WR Auston Carr, who ran a simple “Go” route down the left boundary into open space in the left deep third zone behind Ball State’s left Cover-2 safety.  This nifty TD drive gave the Wildcats a comfy 11-point lead over the Dead Birds mid-way through Q3.  After this possession, NU never looked back.   

Can you say C-T-F-B?  I knew that you could!

Superman - Reprised
In his weekly Monday presser, Fitz admitted that he might have overextended the playing time of his 1st string RB, Justin Jackson after handing him bean 35 times last Saturday in the heat and humidity of Durham, NC, against the host Dookie Blue Dumpsters.  The Wildcat HC stated that this dependency on the True Sophomore’s indefatigable durability was a questionable coaching call, vowing not to repeat it but to distribute the rushing workload strategically across Jackson’s RB stablemates in the Ball State game.  Notwithstanding the honorable intentions of this prudent plan, Fitz and OC Mick McCall went against the sage advice of their better angels and called JJ’s number 33 times against the Dead Bird D.  The elusive Purple RB ignored his fatigue and answered the call of his HC and OC with Superman-like strength and effort, gaining 184 net yards, despite having to deal with a radar MLB who tracked JJ’s every move in the NU backfield and did his worst to meet-n-greet Justin at the point of attack whenever he received a handoff and turned towards the LOS.  However, shouldering such a heavy load did have its consequences.  When Jackson broke into the Ball State defensive 2nd level with a free and clear path to paydirt in Q3, the RB ignited his afterburners as best he could and advanced the ball 62 yards to the Dead Bird 13, where the totally gassed ball carrier was caught from behind by a very swift Ball State DB who punch-stripped the pigskin from Justin’s grasp and sent it flying out of bounds.  When the ‘Cat possession stalled at the Ball State 4, Fitz settled for a gimme FG, which K Jack Mitchell easily converted into 3 invaluable points, stretching the ‘Cats’ lead to 24-10.

Hey now…  Superman can only leap so many buildings in a single bound in one evening, No?

So the ‘Cats did the expected and dispatched an offensively competitive but defensively challenged football team from the MAC.  Make no mistake, the Ball State Dead Birds can and will make some noise in their conference division if or when they ever resolve the field play deficiencies of their defense.  And with HC Pete Lembo leading the way to the MAC pigskin promised land, I’m certain it will be sooner than later.  

As for what this “W” ultimately means to the Wildcats in the long run…  I, for one, am satisfied with the following two significant items:
●    Newbie RS Frosh QB Clayton Thorson finally got out of his quarterbacking funk and showed signs of what he is capable-of when he relaxes and allows the game come to him.  In doing so, the seemingly ultra-fast-paced field play swirling about him will begin to slow-down due to his increased game-time experience and he will exercise his subsequent improved confidence to trust himself to perform more consistently at the very level that convinced Fitz and McCall that he was NU’s best QB option to garner victory. 
●    The Dead Bird O took the Wildcat D to the wall for an entire half, forcing Doc Hankwitz’ defense to dig deep in order to compose themselves and retain their collective competitive edge to limit the yardage production and scoring capabilities of a good, effective offense. 

Regardless of their many successes or failures, both real and imaginary which were unveiled over the course of their 4-game OOC campaign, the 2015 Wildcats remain a raw, unfinished work-in-progress; while their noted accomplishments represent exciting prelude to their positive near future potential as they prepare to face B1G competition.   It’s not a bad thing, either.

HC Jerry Kill and his Minnie Mighty Marmots invade the Friendly Confines of Dyche’s Ditch next Saturday.  This will be a true test for all three phases of the Wildcat team: offense, defense and special teams and will determine just how strong and resilient each unit actually is.  Despite the many injuries sustained in the OOC, the 2-deep talent depth across all offensive and defensive positions remains for Fitz and his coaching staff to deploy and utilize in the most productive, efficient strategic ways they can devise.  Mr. Kill has always challenged Fitz and his staff to bring-out the very best in their collective coaching skillset.  Saturday’s tilt will be more of the same.

I have confidence that the ‘Cats will capture the “W’ flag from the Golden Rodents in close, low-scoring affair.   

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Sophomore RB Justin Jackson. 

After having completed the OOC portion of the 2015 Northwestern Football season, it would be a veritable travesty of justice to award this trophy to any other Wildcat player under the tutelage of ‘Cat HC Pat Fitzgerald.  In these first 4 games, JJ is building the brick and mortar foundation to what someday might be chronicled as one of the most memorable gridiron careers in the annuls of NU football.  Although diminutive in stature and weight (5’11”; 190 lbs), no one player has stood taller or enthusiastically assumed a heavier load of ownership and accountability to perform at the highest levels of football athleticism than Mr. Jackson.  I have waxed poetic when referencing the monikers of various personalities from myth or legend in attempts to accurately describe this Tiny Titan’s contribution to the NU football program: Herculean, Ironman, Superman.  This young player is only in his second season as the Wildcat’s primary ball carrier, yet he embodies the team’s collective work ethic: a selfless willingness to sacrifice himself for team goals coupled with an indomitable determination to succeed and an unobtrusive sense of humility as he stands on the precipice of great personal athletic achievement.     

Fitz has described his 1st sting RB as a throwback in the mold of a Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders,
who focuses his attention and positions his body to deliver the blow to potential tacklers rather than absorb the big hit whenever he totes the bean.  In present day football parlance: Jackson “plays behind his pads.”  I’ll add the phrase “Brings heavy lumber” – the very essence of the Gridiron Lumberjack – to that assessment.  Justin’s last two games are testimony to his mental awareness and skill in execution to advance the pigskin downfield when carried in his hands.  Two Saturdays ago against the Dookies, the Sophomore netted 120 yards rushing on 35 attempts while adding 16 more via 2 pass receptions.  When facing Ball State last weekend, JJ collected 184 yards on 33 carries with an additional 20 on 2 pass completions.  Now recall per game rushing attempt numbers of a Brown, Payton or Sanders, and picture becomes clearer.  In bygone Wildcat football years, 58 carries for a 2nd-year RB would have been considered a season’s worth.  But that sum represents the last two in Jackson’s total over the 2015 OOC campaign: 118 rushes for 540 yards gained – counts which hark back to OOC totals on record for Darnell Autry, Damian Anderson or Tyrell Sutton.  That’s very lofty company, to be sure.

Congratulations Justin.  You are an IronCat, the tough-as-nails linchpin in the Wildcats’ aspirations to capture and wear the 2015 B1G Western Division Championship crown, and deserve to be called a Purple Lumberjack.


Sept. 23, 2015

Winning Ugly: It’s Still a “W”

I truly can’t fathom the amount of solace Fitz and his coaching staff might have extracted from NU’s razor-thin victory over the Dookie Blue Dumpsters last Saturday, but then again, a "W” is still a “W” regardless how few style points might have been associated with it. 

One major positive point is that the game was a road win, the first of the 2015 season for the ‘Cats and against a team considered by many pre-season college football pundits to be a quality ACC foe and a projected contender for the ACC’s Coastal Division crown.  Another was that the ‘Cats overcame their pre-game status as a 3.5 point dog, that final spread reflecting an additional half-point escalation in the Dookies’ favor from Sin-City gambling talking heads, upon which the betting public at large demonstrated their agreement by wagering their hard-earned dollars on the Blue Dumpsters in earnest.  A third positive was the fact that, in spite of Wildcat OC Mick McCall’s RS Frosh QB, Clayton Thorson, having what only could be labeled as his worst gawd-awful quarterbacking day within the first three starts of his collegiate career, the newbie QB didn’t throw the ‘Cats down too deep of a hole with his frequent rushing miscues and passing brainfarts as NU’s primary ball handler.  (Note: It’s much more preferable that Thorson’s horrific field play day was against OOC opposition rather than a B1G rival). 

The forth positive was that the Wildcats’ patchwork quilt OL relatively held their own against a reputedly descent Dookie D that had been very stingy against their first 2 opponents in 2015, holding the weak-sister Tulane Green Algae to a single TD in game 1 and blanking an extremely out-manned FCS North Carolina Central Beagles team the following weekend.  The fifth and most crucial positive of all was the undeniable circumstance that the outstanding overall performance of the Wildcat defense coupled with the complimentary efficacy of their special team units proved to be enough of an overwhelming force to overcome the myriad field play shortcomings and gaffes of the Thorson-led Purple offense.  Essentially, they were NU’s indefatigable game-clinching Dynamic Duo.  

How the ‘Cats Set the Dookie Blue Dumpsters Aflame

Head Up; Wrap-Up; Lift-Up…
… Then drive the ball carrier to the turf with purpose.  A major improvement in Doc Hankwitz’ personnel across all field positions has been their universal due diligence to use correct technique in every tackle they attempt.  And this attention to tackling detail has delivered substantial rewards.  I cannot praise this welcome escalation in overall tackling technique among everyone populating Doc’s defensive and special teams roster enough – it’s that profound an advancement.  

In past seasons, if the bean was repositioned into open space, via the rush or pass, NU tacklers had serious targeting problems.  The defender would swarm to the ball, close the space between himself and the ball (a good thing) then throw himself at or into the ball carrier’s beltline, hoping to wrap his arms around the carrier and take him down as best he could (more often than not, a bad thing).  It was often a literal hit or miss affair.  On many open space tackle attempts, the defender would successfully get his mitts on the ball carrier and grasp whatever he could.  However, too often, that defender’s lack of body control made the rest of his body whip around that carrier’s midsection, breaking his hold, and the carrier was free to reset his feet and continue running.  Wildcat fans frequently described this failed tackling technique as a “missed tackle” (and rightfully so). 

This season, the ‘Cat defenders have been going one better and it’s making all the difference in the world.  Now, when a tackler closes the gap, he “breaks down” into a sitting posture, the degree of which can vary… from slight (a little dip); to moderate (like you’re “about” to sit in a chair); to full (you’re seated in chair); to extreme (described as “ass-to-grass”) – all with: feet spread wide, legs bent at the knees, head up, butt down, eye on his tackling target’s belt with body and muscles coiled for the final strike – then “fronting” that carrier, placing himself in the carrier’s intended running lane or path, with patience to trust his ability to react to the carrier’s next move.  When the ball carrier jukes/fakes or attempts to drive past the fronting defender, the defender takes a single controlled step towards (good) or into (better) the path the ball carrier has taken and uncoils into the carrier’s midsection with head up (maintains sight of target), arms wrapped up (maintains contact with target), then lifts carrier up off his feet (controls his target), finally driving the carrier into the ground (finishing his target).  It’s classic tackling technique. 

From my description above, you can conclude that correctly executing this technique’s many subtle moves is a VERY complex skillset, indeed; and its degree of difficulty is the reason that it isn’t as successfully performed as one might expect.  It is honed through many hours of repetitive practice to establish instinctive muscle memory and maintaining an exceedingly challenging sense of self-awareness and subsequent self-evaluation of what one is actually physically doing and not doing.  A player’s proficiency in maintaining that refined mental awareness during his tackling preparation and execution is what differentiates the average tackler from the great tackler. 

Throughout the off season and into the ‘Cats’ 2015 campaign, Fitz and Doc have instilled an acute, pride-driven sense of tackling technique ownership and accountability in every defensive and special teams player they’ve coached.  In NU’s game versus Dookie, the dividends reaped from the ‘Cat tackling personnel’s constant commitment to practice and improve upon their technique was what kept the Wildcats competitively in the game when the team’s O was floundering.  The greatly improved tackling technique skills of the ‘Cat defense and special teams players were on full display for any observer to witness and recognize from the contest’s opening whistle until the final gun sounded.   It was a game-changer.  As a former ‘Cat MLB, my chest swells with pride.
3 and O-U-T
While the Wildcat’s newbie QB-led O struggled mightily with yardage production issues of every sort, the responsibility to secure a viable controlling influence on the game and scoreboard fell squarely on the shoulders of the Wildcat D.  Stating the obvious, it was a monumental Do-or-Die situation.  The ‘Cat defense would either come through or the ‘Cat team, as a whole, simply could call it a day, fold their tents and unceremoniously stash them on their charter plane for what surely would have been a sobering, silent, soul-searching return flight back to Evanston.

In truth, at the start of the game, the ‘Cats’ defense didn’t exactly break cleanly from the starting gate in full stride, but stumbled somewhat in their own right when facing the Dookie offense, especially on the Blue Dumpster’s 2nd possession of the game after Thorson made the worst miscue of his 2015 season when he forced an ill-advised pass to his target receiver who was blanketed by triple coverage.  That wholly regrettable throw was picked-off easily by a cover DB and returned upfield to the NU 26 yard line; whereupon Dookie Senior QB Thomas Sirk went right to work towards capitalizing on the inviting short field to paydirt presented to the Blue Dumpster O via that pick.  5 plays later, aided by an NU off sides penalty, Sirk weaved through the pliant ‘Cat defensive front 7 on a designed QB keeper to score the Dookies’ first TD of the game, shoving the ‘Cats down into a 7-point hole dug by the combined poor initial field play of the Wildcat O and D over the first 6 minutes of the contest. 

However, instead of hanging their heads and pinching their noses at the craptastic failures of Thorson’s putrid INT followed by NU’s equally fetid defensive execution when attempting to halt Sirk & Co.’s bid to convert the giftie pick into points, the Wildcat defense collected themselves and renewed their resolve to implement Doc Hankwitz’ defensive game plan more efficiently and effectively. And did they ever.

With MLB Anthony Walker leading the charge, the ‘Cat D stoned the Dookie O into consecutive 3-n-out series over the Blue Dumpsters’ next 4 possessions.  On the Dookies’ next offensive series, the 5th  following their TD possession, they garnered another 1st, with another assist from an illegal substitution penalty assessed to the ‘Cat D.  Plainly miffed at this latest self-inflicted wound, the Wildcat defense shook-off that annoying non-field play blunder and forced another 3-n-out on the Blue Dumpster offense across the next 3 downs.  At this juncture, Dookie HC David Cutcliffe had the look of a desperate navigator at the helm of his own foundering Titanic Offense.  

On the Dookies’ next possession, their 6th since their TD scoring drive, the Blue Dumpster O gained traction against the Wildcat D, moving the bean 52 yards to the NU 10 yard line.  On the next play from scrimmage, Sirk attempted a soft toss to his RB waiting in the Dookie right flat over the outstretched arms of ‘Cat DE, Dean Lowry who was collapsing the offensive backfield from his left defensive corner contain position straight back into Sirk’s face.  Rattled by sight of the hard-charging Lowry, the Dookie QB miss-judged his touch-pass over the ‘Cat DE, who promptly reached-up, tipped Sirk’s soft toss to himself for an INT and rumbled back upfield, with ball in hand, 18 yards to squelch the Blue Dumpster scoring threat and turn the ball back over to the ‘Cat O.  Now Sirk had the look of a desperate man on his face as well.

After Thorson failed miserably once more to move the ball during the possession afforded him by Lowry’s INT, the ‘Cats turned the ball back over to the Dookie offense on downs, the Blue Dumpster’s 7th since scoring their lone TD.  On the Blue Dumpsters’ first play from scrimmage, ‘Cat DB Godwin Igwebuike chased-down a Dookie RB from behind, who was still chugging-along after gaining 11 yards, stripped the bean from the RB’s grasp, maintained his balance, kept his eyes on the prize then pounced on the ball to convert one of the most athletic fumble recoveries you will ever witness.  This defensive play was utter poetry in motion; with Mr. Igwebuike’s nifty strip and fumble recovery setting-up the ‘Cats first score of the game, a FG by Jack Mitchell that cut the Dookie lead to 7-3.  

The Dookies’ next offensive possession, their 8th removed from their Q1 TD drive, was yet another 3-n-out total whitewash by the Wildcat defense just prior to the halftime intermission. 

It doesn’t take a very fertile imagination to form a clear mental picture of how the Wildcat D demonstrated their wholesale dominance over the Dookie O as the game progressed.  This pattern of suffocating defense persisted for much of the remainder of the contest, with the ‘Cat defense giving-up only one additional FG to the Dookie offense in Q4, while the on-again/off-again Wildcat offense found their rhythm just long enough on occasion to convert a couple scoring opportunities into precious scoreboard points. 

All-in-all, it was ugly, but it was enough to take-down the home-field Dookies.  And it all started and ended with the stifling domination of the Wildcat Defense that stuffed multiple 3-n-out possessions down the throat of the Dookie Offense. 

Something Special
I know; I know… before last Saturday’s grapple with the Blue Dumpsters, the ‘Cats had played only 2 games in 2015.  However, IMHO, NU’s special teams’ effectiveness has languished at a pro-forma level (read: nothing special) throughout this early season.  Kick-offs and kick-off coverages have been serviceable; punting has been rather pedestrian along with punt coverages; kick-off returns have had some limited success; while punt returns have been virtually non-existent.  Beyond that, the single laudable exception to the unremarkable assessments itemized above for this critical phase of the Wildcat football team’s field play has been the notable FG kicking success of ‘Cat K Jack Mitchell who delivered 5 successful FG boots in 6 attempts over those first 2 contests.  Incidentally, Mr. Mitchell’s only recorded missed FG was on an almost impossible 48-yarder into the teeth of a 15 mph headwind that summarily knocked the ball back down to the ground. 

Then finally, seemingly right out of the blue (and against the Blue Dumpsters, of all teams), every kicking game unit – the kick-off and kick-off return squads, the punt and punt return squads and their kick coverage squads which together comprise the ‘Cats’ special teams – coalesced and played what only could be described as NU’s finest single game performance since those games played throughout NU’s 10-win, Gator Bowl victory season of 2012.  Each of these individual units executed with an intensity, a focus towards discipline and a passion simply to get the job done across all 11 players sprinting around the turf of Wallace-Wade Stadium, that even the most casual football fan couldn’t help but notice and be impressed by their collective field play.  And I was one, among that cadre of Purple Populace cable viewership, who was blown-away by the following examples: 

●    P Hunter Niswander’s very commendable day punting the bean: 10 boots, averaging 41 yards apiece.  Those impressive boots kept Dookie QB Thomas Sisk and his Blue Dumpster O consistently looking at long green downfield after every 4th-down change of possession.  Outstanding!

●    NU’s punt coverage unit holding the Blue Dumpster punt return team to 3 measly yards across the 4 Niswander kicks (out of those 10 total punts) which were caught and returned.  Excellent job!

●    K Jack Mitchell going 2-for-2 on FG attempts, one of 37 yards and another 44 yarder, in a game where point production opportunities of any kind were at a high-priced premium for either team.  That gave Jump-In Jack 7 very valuable FG conversions off 8 attempts for the season.  Right On!

●    The contest’s pièce de résistance: KR Solomon Vault’s scintillating, highlight reel 98-yard kick-off return for a TD at the commencement of H-2 that start jump-started NU’s scoring activity for the remainder of the game.  Those 7 points scored off that return gave the ‘Cats a tenuous 2-point lead over the Blue Dumpsters, a lead that Fitz and his troops never relinquished.  In any observer’s final analysis, the importance of this single super-significant special teams play was incalculable.  It not only lifted the spirits of the entire Wildcat team literally off the charts, it inspired every player wearing the white helmet with the N-Cat logo stenciled on its side to up his level of consistent hard-nosed field play against the Dookies, regardless of whatever squad  an individual player was a member.  That one return set Big Mo’ to whisper sweet nothings within the heads and hearts of all the athletes standing along the Purple sidelines, urging them to bigger and better performance heights.  The effect was palpable.  W-O-W!!!

●    Last but not least, the contest’s ultimate final score-clinching moment occurred when the Dookies’ usually reliable and ultra-speedy punt returner, Ryan Smith, parked himself at the Dookie 49 yard line and awaited the arrival of ‘Cat P Hunter Niswander’s last punt of the game, booted from deep in NU territory in the shadow of the Wildcat goal-line, with just under 6 minutes left to play in Q4.  With ‘Cat punt coverage personnel converging on him from all sides, Smith lost his concentration on the flight of the bean as it fell into his hands. The pigskin slipped through the returner’s fingers, rolled down his shoulder pads, popped-off his belt and dropped 2 yards in front of him onto the Wallace-Wade turf; whereupon it was snatched-up immediately by none other than… Fitz’ Mr. Do Everything, RB-slash-Special Teams Specialist Warren Long.  Yes, Martha, that Warren Long.   Following Long’s recovery of Mr. Smith’s muffed punt, newbie ‘Cat QB Clayton Thorson’s previous dreadful 3-n-out offensive series was reversed and OC Mick McCall’s mistake-prone play caller of choice was given possession of the pill an additional 39 yards downfield, safely removed from most potential game-altering dangers, like, getting tackled in his own endzone for an embarrassing safety.  Responding to this golden opportunity to ice the game, Thorson piloted NU’s O for two additional 1st downs, primarily via a revitalized ‘Cat ground game, which burned the remaining 5:44 off the scoreboard clock and prompted the jubilant Wildcats to hoist the “W” flag and haul it to the visitor’s locker room, enthusiastically cheered-on by the many very vocal NU Faithful in attendance who travelled to Durham, NC to bask in the warm Southern sunshine and witness this defense-dominated dogfight against the Dookies.  ‘Cats Win; ‘Cats Win!!!

I simply love it when the Wildcat O executes a routine play that turns into an explosion play – one that gains 20 yards or more from the LOS.  In fact, I more than love the explosion play… I crave it; I lust for it; Hell, I’ll pay double-up the price of admission for my seat to witness it in person.  And the Wildcats pulled-off two.

Explosion Play Exhibit No. One: KR Solomon Vault’s kick-off return for TD, referenced above. 

As sorely needed and inconceivably critical as Mr. Vault’s sweet TD jaunt at the start of H-2 was at the time, it was overshadowed by Explosion Play Exhibit No. Two: RB Warren Long’s 55-yard burst to TD paydirt through a crease in the right C-gap off the outside shoulder of the ‘Cat RT.  In layman’s terminology, it was THE indisputable coup de grace play of the game. 

Mr. Long’s eye-blink quick dart into and through that seam within the Dookie defensive brain trust’s called set,  a gap-8 goal-line alignment – intended to stymie Mick McCall’s bid to convert a 3rd-n-1 down at NU’s 45 yard line in the ‘Cats’ first possession of Q4 via a tooth-n-nail zero-yards gained stoning by the Dookie 9-in-the-box defense – a strategy that was reversed 180 degrees right back into the grill of the host Blue Dumpster D.  The Wildcat offensive linemen parlayed a double-team down-block by the ‘Cats’ right-side TE-OT tandem laid on the Dookie MLB-DT tandem, lined-up on the inside edge of that right C-gap, with a complimentary devastating kick-out block delivered by a pulling Purple LG that crumpled the Dookie DE to the Wallace-Wade turf, who was set at the snap of the bean to the outside edge of that C-gap.  This well-designed and well-executed inside-then-outside cross block at the right C-gap was a virtual text-book exhibition of Power off-tackle blocking by the ‘Cat OL and opened enough of a crease at the LOS for Mr. Long to blast through into the Blue Dumpster defensive second level.  In an instant, the ‘Cat RB found himself sprinting free and clear into open green space that extended from that second level all the way to the Blue Dumpster goal-line, with a single Dookie DB trailing 7 full yards behind in Warren’s rear-view mirror.  Long could have moon-walked the final 15 yards for the Wildcats’ first and only offensive TD of the afternoon. 

Warren Long’s 5-second TD dash literally ripped the heart out of the host team by expanding the Wildcat lead over the Blue Dumpsters to 9 points.  From this point forward, the Dookie O had possession of the bean for only 2 more short inconsequential series, which were limited by the surging Wildcat D to 2 first downs gained; and of course, capped-off  by that Dookie fumbled punt that was scooped-up by a rabid ‘Cat punt coverage unit to ice the game for Northwestern. 

OK, Everyone in Wildcat Nation… Let Me Hear Ya… stand-up and sing:

GO ‘CATS Go-oh-oh…
GO ‘CATS Go-oh-oh-oh
Hey Chicago Wadda-ya say,
I will exercise a leap of faith and assume that, as card-carrying members of Wildcat Nation, we can agree that this game was nothing more than pure U-G-L-Y.  Conventional sports wisdom states that a hallmark of a high-quality football team at any level is that it will secure and deliver a victory despite not performing at its peak.  That distinguishing characteristic describes the Wildcat versus Blue Dumpster game in a nutshell because neither team played to its full potential.  Not even close.  However, it was the Wildcats who came-out on top because the playmakers on its defense and special teams just made more plays, period; and those critical plays executed at critical junctures of the game overcame the frustrating ineptitude  and inconsistency of the ‘Cat offense.  In essence, Fitz’ players didn’t focus on the failures of their teammates, but kept their composure in the face of adversity and played their own game to best of their abilities.      

For the ‘Cats, the shear will and selfless determination to succeed exhibited by virtually every individual player, combined with heaping helpings of collective resolve by the entire team to “take the fight to the enemy” was the overwhelming order of the day.  Together, those three factors – will, determination and resolve – shown by NU players were instrumental in breaking-down their Blue Dumpster counterparts across the LOS and uncovering whatever deficiency might exist, however minor, within the Dookies’ game plan or within the skillset(s) of Dookie rostered personnel.  As the game progressed, I honestly felt that the overall field play of the ‘Cats improved quarter- by-quarter; until by Q4, the visiting team dressed in the white-on-white unis demonstrated that they clearly were better than the host team wearing the blue jerseys.

The AP media and FBS coaches, recognizing that the Wildcats had met and overcome the daunting challenge of beating a reputable ACC Divisional contender Dookie team in the first roadie of their fall campaign, rewarded NU by anointing the team with their #17 and #19 national ranking among FBS football programs, respectively.  Once again, I believe this ranking accolade(s) to be pre-mature;  but then again, the NCAA’s main occupation is to promote their Power 5 Conference collegiate football product to an adoring and fickle fan base market, so they will do whatever they feel is appropriate to nurture national interest in that product.  So I guess, draping the No. 17 and No. 19 national ranking mantel on the ‘Cats is an approved PR decision towards that promotional objective. 

In a tangential piece of news, the Stanford EversGreens, the first team to fall to the Wildcats in 2015, took the measure of the No 6-ranked USC Trojan Condoms in a well-fought road game victory, one of several notable upsets against ranked teams which occurred last Saturday.  Although transitional victory in college football is an enormous myth (e.g.: NU beat Stanford; Stanford beat USC; therefore, NU can beat USC), public perception of the relative strengths between NCAA Power 5 conference teams are foundationally structured on such false-bottomed myths.  Consequently, Stanford’s victory over a highly-ranked USC gave more credibility to NU’s victory over Stanford – which most likely provided a huge assist in NU’s rise from last week’s #23 ranking to this week’s #17/#19 ranking among FBS football teams (go figure).  The mind boggles at the thought.

So next weekend, the ‘Cats return to the Friendly Confines of Dyche’s Ditch to face-off against a middling MAC football team, the Ball State Dead Birds, a squad that possesses a talented, scoring-capable offense (Ball State laid 23 points on the #16-ranked aTm Farmers in week 2 of their 2015 season), yet unfortunately is handcuffed to a vulnerable, hole-laden defense.  Although the Dead Bird O appears proficient at lighting–up a scoreboard with points, the team’s Achilles Heel remains their porous D that will give-up points to their opponents in bunches. 

At the risk of playing the part of a pompous jack-azz, I predict that the visiting Dead Birds will prove themselves little more than roadkill to the host Wildcats.     

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to… well, uh… quite honestly… every motivated tackler on the Wildcats’ defense and special teams roster. 

Slobber-knocking, concussion-rendering, haymaker reeling, queer-street transporting hits abounded on virtually every third defensive and special teams down – and by many different players, both no-name and well-known alike, who just chose to “bring heavy lumber and swing it hard and flush into the grill of his tackling target” with extreme prejudice. 

Sitting in Tommy Nevins Pub with friends by my side and many members of NUMB within earshot, I couldn’t help but shout “Ouch” or “Bang” or “Boo-Yaa” at every 4-by-4 plank of heavy lumber that connected and…
●    stoned a Dookie ball carrier to a dead stop in his tracks or
●    knocked a Dookie player a full yard backwards on wobbly knees or
●    got completely spun–around, facing in the opposite, up-field direction with a head full of fluffy cotton balls  
… After having absorbed a good, clean, All American monster shot

Many may conclude that this non-selective choice is a cop-out; but I beg to differ. So many tackling players on NU’s defense and special teams took the initiative to “bring it” with total reckless abandon that choosing one over the other or singling-out any one as better than the rest became a moot exercise.  Simply stated, they were all effective and consequently they are all deserving.  And that’s what I’m gonna do this week.

Congratulations to Every Player on the Wildcat Defense and Special Teams.  Each of you deserve to be called a Purple Lumberjack. 

Keep this up for another 9 games and the shiny brass ring signifying a B1G Western Division Championship could be within your reach.

Sept. 16, 2015

Batter Up! NU Pancakes EIU

Your Northwestern Wildcats did the needful and expected when they literally devoured the Eastern Illinois Pancakes during a late brunch (or was it an early dinner) all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at Dyche’s Ditch last Saturday.  Simply stated, this game was virtually OVER midway through Q2 – and the Pancakes’ bad hair day got even worse from that point on until the game’s final gun sounded, marking what best could be described as a mercy killing.  Unfortunately, it was an extension of Eastern’s dire football fortunes that began the previous weekend in their season opener against another FCS Directional University from the State of Illinois, that being the Western Ill-Annoy FeatherBeds, against whom EIU absorbed a comprehensive 35-3 shellacking which underscored the Pancakes’ acute dearth of talent among their pigskin brethren.  And to emphasize what most informed college football fans already knew about Eastern, their very first opponent, Western Ill-Annoy, got their lunch handed to them by that power-house B1G Team from Rantoul, the Ill-Whine-I, 44-to-zippo, on the same afternoon the Wildcats were noshing on the Pancakes.  Subsequently, on paper, against this overmatched opponent, this glorified scrimmage was essentially a walk-over (or perhaps more of a roll-over) for the ‘Cats.  In a word, it was nothing less than “ugly,” at least for the visiting team and provided more convincing evidence that, in this day and age of collegiate haves and have-nots, a Power-5 football team should NEVER be allowed to schedule an FCS foe unless sanctioned by some collegiate competition oversight commission.

The only item more disturbing in regards to this contest were those gawd-awful throwback white helmets worn by the ‘Cats – headgear that, even now, harkens-back to very forgettable bygone seasons from NU’s dreadful Dark Ages within which similar damned white helmets were used in the NU football program’s desperate weak-sister PR effort to demonstrate any semblance of resolve to reverse and climb-out of the hole of its despicable NCAA record for consecutive football losses (34 straight – Ugh!!!).  I can’t help it.  Recollection of the totally stupid and woeful “Expect the Unexpected” promotion, coined amidst the Dark Ages years and forever linked with those irritating white helmets, irks me as much today as it did back then. Whenever or wherever I view Wildcat football players donning a white helmet with an “N” stenciled on its side, my head throbs and stomach turns in short order because that pigskin wardrobe choice is irreversibly cursed with failure, like the Chicago Cubs are forever damned by their association with the infamous Billy goat.  It’s a painful reminder among proud Wildcat Nation elder statesmen, like myself, of just how precipitously far the appalling the state of NU football had fallen and, worse still, how the ambivalent and uncaring University administrations of that era condoned its demise (and the demise of all sports at NU for that matter).  If Northwestern is ever to permanently slam the door shut in the face of its persistent, life-of-its-own national reputation for football futility, whether or not those perceptions are legitimate or merely loathsome memories, the white football helmet should be cremated and buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave, never to see the light of day again.  My wine cooler holds a very fine bottle of Dom Perignon 2012, if and when that day arrives.  

OK… enough mulling-over the regrettable past, and on towards analyzing the praise-worthy present.

How the ‘Cats Consumed the EIU Pancakes

A Bagel for the Pancakes
For the second consecutive week, Doc Hankwitz’ defense stoned their opponent’s offense, refusing to allow a single TD to be scored against them.  The fact that the ‘Cat D went one better and pitched a scoreboard bagel against the EIU Pancakes, a feat which was no surprise whatsoever to anyone in attendance simply because the overall field play of NU’s defensive personnel across all positions was that much quicker off the snap of the ball, faster to recognize the point of attack, swifter to identify and converge on the ball carrier and quite plainly, more adept at halting the advance of the ball in its tracks than their counterparts across the LOS could prevent.  The afternoon’s stonewalling was so complete, that Eastern’s O had accrued a miniscule 48 yards total over 7 offensive series in H-1, prompting NU’s defensive brain trust to commence garbage time at the beginning of H-2 and extending it through to the end of the game.  In media interviews following last weekend’s “W” against the then-ranked #21 Stanford EverGreens, Fitz alluded to a general coaching decision to exercise more free substitutions among the rostered personnel from either side of the LOS over the course of this game, and that directive was implemented early and often, especially in terms of the ‘Cat D.  The only compromise to this pre-planned free substitution paradigm was within the ranks of the ‘Cat OL, in which 4 key players among its initial  2-deep prior to 2015 ’s first official game were missing in action and relegated to riding pine during this contest while nursing injuries of varied severity.  Hopefully, the full week of R&R afforded these crucial OL to lick their wounds will pay return-to-health dividends when the ‘Cats face next weekend’s much more challenging foe, the Dreaded Dookies of Durham, NC.  One painful reminder of the game’s volatility was the knee injury sustained by starting RT, Adam DePietro, who crumpled to the Dyche’s Ditch turf with what appeared to be something serious.   My heart and best wishes for a speedy recovery go-out to the lad.    

In the meantime, Fitz’ strategy of free substitution kept the Wildcat defensive player personnel fresh, aggressive and singularly focused to roll-over the EIU offense, limiting them to the following very telling stats:
●    138 total yards gained – 90 in H-2 garbage time
●    8 total 1st downs allowed – 6 in H-2 garbage time
●    zero-for-11 3rd down conversions
●    zero red-zone possessions allowed – and no scores whatsoever
●    2.8 yards per offensive play – most of which were given-up in H-2 garbage time
●    1 explosion play (over 20 yards) – a 23-yard pass in H-2 garbage time
●    3 Turn-overs – 1 returned for a Pick 6 TD
●    34 total yards lost by TFL       

Reading the statistics above paints an indelible picture of unbridled carnage upon which I need not elaborate further.  Simply stated, the ‘Cat D flattened their opponents from Charleston, Illinois into, well… you know, Pancakes.
Prior to the start of the ‘Cats’ first offensive series of the game, I focused my field glasses on the opposing linemen on either side of the LOS and made a thumbnail comparison of the physical stature of NU’s O-line to their defensive competitors from Eastern Illinois.  My inescapable conclusion was: there was no comparison.  The ‘Cat linemen looked markedly larger and stronger than EIU’s defensive front 7, and from the game’s first play forward, the OL in those damnable white helmets proved that they could road grate their blocking targets with predictable impunity– if and when they exercised the mental composure and discipline to do so as a cohesive unit.  Mind you, not one member among the Wildcat offensive linemen graded-out with a perfect blocking performance score.  There were too many downs when a single player’s breakdown at getting off the LOS quickly on the snap count as needed or his technique in getting-to & locking horns with his defender at the point of attack was too deliberate and/or off-balance, either of which left available yards waiting to be gained.  However, many of those minor but significant technique miscues among OL coach Adam Cushing’s troops didn’t stymie the ‘Cat offense’s yardage production on a consistent basis because most were overcome by the shear speed and athleticism of the ‘Cat RB corps. 

NU’s Dynamic RB Duo of Super-Soph RB Justin Jackson, playing the role of a ball-carrying Batman, and his 2nd string companion, Warren Long, playing the part of an elusive Robin, proved a substantive 1-2 punch that froze the EIU defensive front 7 on its collective indecisive haunches before they attempted frantic last-ditch arm tackles against them, grabbing nothing but thin air for their vain efforts throughout much of the game.  This effective rushing tandem darted around or sliced through the Pancakes’ D with virtual abandon, gaining 153 yards on 34 carries while scoring a TD apiece – a laudable workload, especially considering neither played another down after JJ scored his TD at the 9:18 mark of Q3.  From that juncture on, OC Mick McCall gave his 2-headed starting RB the rest of the afternoon off and handed the ball toting duties the newest weapon in his offensive arsenal, his Speed-Merchant Smurf Attack, consisting of oft-used Sophomore Solomon Vault, and the diminutive, yet eye-blink swift Scatback Trio of True Soph Corey Acker, Redshirt Frosh Auston Anderson and True Frosh Jelani Roberts.  When the ground-n-pound rushing yards from Walk-on Junior RB-Kicking Team Specialist Tom Hruby in Q4 were added to team totals, the Wildcat ground game accrued a commendable 347 total yards by the end of the contest – all kick-started by the moderately improved, yet occasionally inconsistent Wildcat OL. 

A tip o’ the hat to you, the ‘Cat Big Uglies, for the obvious progress in your blocking expertise from week 1 through week 2 of this 2015 campaign; and here’s to fulfilling your potential even more in gaining additional field play improvement and efficacy in the current week leading to this Saturday’s Dookie game.

Every blocking shortfall I witnessed is very fixable.  Follow the advice and mentorship of your coaches; each of you can and will get better at executing your craft.

Baby-Faced Assassins / Speed Kills
The most surprising and entertaining component of the afternoon came when ‘Cat OC Mick McCall unveiled his newest secret weapon, the afore-mentioned Speed-Merchant Smurf Attack, comprised of the 3 swiftest players on the NU roster, each of whom stands no taller than 5 foot, 9 inches and weighs no more than 180 pounds soaking wet.  As young and inexperienced as each of these 3 players assuredly are and as diminutive as these 3 players might appear height and weight-wise, each is extremely fleet of foot and possesses an uncanny turn of foot coupled with an advantageous low center of gravity which, when employed in unison, proffers them a remarkable ability to cut on a dime and give you 5 cents change.  Their individual superior speed and elusive change-of-direction rushing skills were on full display against the Eastern Illinois Pancakes in Q4 last Saturday when Fitz and McCall continually substituted all three Smurf Attack RBs among themselves without hesitation.  This free substitution strategy was highly effective in keeping a fresh, fully-capable speed-merchant Scatback on the field of play, while affording equivalent playing time and number of rushing attempts evenly distributed between the three ball carriers.  This tactic provided each Smurf rusher enough downs to demonstrate how he could and would keep EIU ‘s normal-skilled defensive front 7 players completely befuddled and bewildered, slow to react and even slower to make a substantive hit on them, forcing those defenders to make desperate attempts at completing a tackle and leaving them to grasp at shadows and eat rubber shavings thrown-up off the Dyche’s Ditch turf as that particular running back left them far behind in his wake. 

Then couple this free Scatback substitution Smurf Attack with NU’s spread offense standard of taking 20 elapsed game clock seconds between snaps of the ball on sequential plays that totally exhausted the Eastern D.  By play 5 of NU’s first Smurf Attack offensive series in Q4, the EIU defenders were totally gassed –breathing heavily, hands on hips, tongues literally hanging-out and flapping in the gentile, constant afternoon breeze rolling into Dyche’s Ditch from the north endzone. 

Final rushing statistics bear-out just how effective and elusive each of these 3 Smurf Attack Scatbacks was:
●    Corey Acker:    57 net yards – on 5 rushing attempts
●    Auston Anderson:    56 net yards – on 9 rushing attempts
●    Jelani Roberts:    20 net yards – on 3 rushing attempts

Watching these three Smurf ball carriers cut Eastern’s front 7 defenders down to size, turning the on-field visiting team players into wheezing hulks who desperately looked towards the EIU sidelines for their substitutes to offer them enough down time to catch their breath between plays, was an absolute delight.  McCall’s Smurf Attack engaged his 3 baby-faced assassin Scatbacks to kill their opposing defense’s will to compete with their universal speed and quickness. 

Yes Martha, it’s true… Speed really does kill. 

Prior to the Tuesday practice within Eastern Illinois week, ‘Cat HC pat Fitz challenged the entire Wildcat team to redefine its competitive mindset following their thrilling upset victory over a ranked opponent the previous Saturday.  Fitz was well aware how even an experienced team might become complacent at this early stage of a season, to internally “take a couple days off” as a well-deserved reward for having made the superior sacrifices necessary to capture the “W” flag when facing the daunting pressure to meet and overcome the many offensive and defensive weapons possessed by their #21 Stanford EverGreen opposition.  It’s just human nature to do so.  And Fitz is all too familiar with the damaging negative ramifications that such a relaxed approach might render upon a susceptible team after delivering such a major upset to an erstwhile “superior” foe, especially since he personally experienced firsthand that exact emotional rollercoaster during the first two games of the 1995 season as the ‘Cats’ starting MLB and recognized defensive leader for then HC Gary Barnett.  All the honors and emotional euphoria of having taken the winning measure of the highly-ranked Noted Dames in that historic first roadie of NU’s well-chronicled break-through championship season at “The House That Rockne Built” those 20 long years ago were summarily dashed in that team’s very next game, the season home opener played-out at Dyche’s Ditch the following weekend and its classic letdown loss to a prohibitive underdog opponent, Miami of Ohio. 

With the ghosts of that equally historic devastating “L” still haunting his memory, Fitz was determined that his present-day Wildcats would not repeat the mistake of falling victim to a similar overconfident state of mind that had been assumed by the 1995 ‘Cats and mimicked again in an eerily similar scenario in 2015: a game week rife with relief and self-congratulations after securing a season-opening upset win, followed by the team’s second contest of the season, a home game against an inferior FCS foe, Eastern Illinois.  Essentially, as a valued player and team leader in 1995, Fitz witnessed and learned many harsh lessons from those circumstances associated with that now long-past letdown loss, one of the most painful and consequential of his own collegiate football career; and through this challenge that he extended to his 2015 team to maintain their attention to finish the job at hand of conquering EIU, he, as current Wildcat HC, was trying to impart the wisdom of those same poignant lesson points he had absorbed way back when to his current crop of ‘Cats…

Specifically: “Control the things that are within your control.”

There are myriad destructive demons lurking in the shadows of everything and everyone surrounding an unwary team which will attack gullible individual players and groups of players alike, both overtly and covertly, at every possible turn following a nationally televised upset victory.  Demons in the form of complacency; mixed with the weighty baggage of extravagant excess heaped upon you from well-intentioned adoring friends, doting family, mesmerizing media and fawning peripheral fans at large; mixed with self-absorption; mixed with way-overblown confidence that you’ve finally “arrived at the gridiron mountain top”; mixed with false notions that you’ve instantly become ironclad and bullet-proof to spirit-sapping, focus-leaching influences of every type, shape and color. 

The ultimate warning message voiced by Fitz to his troops was to control whatever internal and external forces might divert their collective due diligence and attention to detail away from successfully executing the task at hand: going 1-and-oh against last week’s opponent, the EIU Pancakes.  The team made good on that objective.

Now this week, there’s even more pressure on the 2015 ‘Cats to deliver another significant “W”.  The AP media and national collegiate football coaching community have anointed the 2015 Wildcats with this week’s #23 and #24-ranked team moniker, respectively.  Without a doubt, this heady team accolade is more than premature, it’s downright unwarranted.  The only noteworthy achievements accomplished by Fitz’ current team were to beat an overrated Stanford EverGreen team and a way overmatched Eastern Illinois squad on consecutive Saturdays on their home field turf.  Frankly, from my perspective, those two victories just aren’t enough to have garnered this level of recognition this early in the season.  Unfortunately, now a fetid albatross of impulsive media attention has been draped about the neck of the Northwestern Wildcats.  The AP media voters might as well have painted a big red bullseye on the backsides of the ‘Cats.

So… it’s up to the “Not quite ready for prime-time” 2015 team, once again, to call-upon and redirect those same life lessons learned from their HC against this week’s much more competitively motivated opponent, the Dookie Blue Meanies, in the ‘Cats’ first road test of the season.   

Those timeless lyrics from Bob Marley’s well-known tune keep echoing in my head…
“I say, pressure drop; Oh-oh pressure drop; Oh yeah, pressure gonna drop on you-oo-oo-oo.” 

Time to survive and advance fellas!

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy is awarded to Junior RB/Kicking Team Specialist, Tom Hruby.

This award does not commemorate some devastating, slobber-knocking, haymaker hit applied by Mr. Hruby to an Eastern Illinois defender’s grill, but rather the unflinching passion, dedication and intestinal fortitude shown by this 31 year-old former Navy Seal, husband and father of 4 and walk-on football player who has followed his long-standing dream of becoming a valued member of a Division 1A collegiate football team and who has been recognized and applauded by both NU coaches and teammates alike for his selflessness and concerted effort in reaching-for and achieving that goal.  And last Saturday, his dedication and resolve to put everything football that he possesses out there on the field of play in NU’s final possession of the game is what makes Tom the undisputed winner of this week’s Lumberjack Trophy. 

When the game’s outcome was solidified in favor of the ‘Cats, Fitz and OC Mick McCall called Tom’s number to tote the bean as NU’s primary ball carrier; and did he ever make the most of this opportunity to play the sport he loves.  At the 5:36 mark of Q4, he lined-up in I formation behind ‘Cat QB Matt Alviti, received the handoff, lowered his pads and plowed his way into and through the C-gap to the outside of the ‘Cat RT for a 5-yard gain.  Then Hruby toted the bean as the feature I-back on 3 more sequential downs, playing behind his pads, plowing headlong into EIU defenders with abandon and amassing an additional 18 yards and gaining a 1st down in the process.  The Purple Partisan home crowd went bananas at the sight, lustily cheering-on Tom and wanting to see more from the 30-something RB from Crown Point, IN.  On the next play, a 3rd-n-1 at the Eastern 34, Smurf Scatback Corey Acker, replaced Hruby, took the handoff, burst through a crease in the right A-gap and swiftly sprinted down the east sideline for a 31-yard gainer, setting-up a 1st-n-goal for the ‘Cats at the EIU 3.  In comes Mr. Hruby once again. Similar to his previous 4 carries, Tom toted the bean on 3 consecutive downs, probing the right side of the LOS each play for any seam to blast through & score a TD, but was stoned for two 1-yard gains on the first 2 rushes by Eastern’s goal line D.  Nevertheless, this offensive possession was a seminal athletic moment of great achievement for Mr. Hruby; and appreciative members of Wildcat Nation still resident in the stands acknowledged his resolve to play hard with a standing ovation as time expired on the game clock. 

Congratulations Tom.  You are an inspiration to all NU football players everywhere, especially those running at your side in 2015, and deserve to be called a Purple Lumberjack.

Sept. 9, 2015

Giving the EverGreens Fitz

When the final gun finally sounded signaling the ‘Cats’ mind-boggling victory over the Stanford EverGreens last Saturday, a well-worn maxim kept echoing in my head: “If the shoe fits, wear it”… along with its corollary warning: “Beware where that shoe might be laced” (e.g.: on that appendage just south of your ankle or, worse still, in that “black hole” due south of your backbone’s sacroiliac area).

For the final 54 minutes following Stanford’s 1st offensive series, Wildcat HC Pat Fitzgerald and his focused, fired-up troops made damn sure that said footwear was crammed well into the collective knot-holes of the EverGreens – with extreme prejudice to boot.  As a card-carrying member of the Purple Populace in attendance, I was giddy as a schoolboy watching the memorable events of this season opener unfold.  The wholly satisfying, euphoric inner glow that burned brightly in my chest as I sauntered down from the East stands of Dyche’s Ditch was exceedingly reminiscent of the feeling I experienced after having personally witnessed the ‘Cats’ wholly unexpected dismantling of the #15-ranked Noted Dames in Sow Bend last fall. 

Ah yes, the sweet taste of victory against a ranked foe.  It doesn’t get any better.  Nor any more unexpected.

However, prior to the game’s opening whistle, all was not sweetness and light as myriad negative perceptions regarding the overall competitive competency of the 2015 Wildcats were noted after having undergone harsh scrutiny from the likes of uninformed media analysts, questionable college football pundits, self-promoting gambling gurus and an ever-fickle college football fan community at large.  Could or would this version of the ‘Cats put the dismal 5-win records from the past 2 seasons in their rear-view mirror and re-establish themselves as a gridiron force to be reckoned-with once again, both in and out of the B1G?  Could or would NU’s much-maligned O-line shed the foibles of those same 2 injury-filled seasons and coalesce into the determined unit that dominated the LOS in 2012?  Could NU’s D-line forget their past failures and finally realize their potential to become the immoveable objects that NU’s high-quality defensive coaching staff aspired them to be?  Would members from NU’s current WR corps finally reveal the manual dexterity to snatch a pass thrown in their direction?  And most of all… Could or would a newbie red-shirt Frosh QB demonstrate the necessary courage and capability to assume the reins of the Wildcats’ offensive leader without succumbing to the daunting pressure to perform at the B1G level?

Pregame prognosticators of every ilk considered all these potential deficiency points and subsequently voiced doom and gloom at NU’s slim prospects to pull a purple rabbit with a “W” branded on its forehead out from its  top hat, as the double-digit home dog ‘Cats faced the Big, Bad EverGreens.  Virtually every talking head from every college football betting advisory service hailing from Sin City, Nevada selected this specific contest as their overlay play of the weekend.  “Bet the house on the Stanford Cardinal,” these pundits chortled.  “The 2015 Wildcats return to their Mildcat ways of the last 2 seasons.  In fact, this game is such a stone cold, sure-fire lock, you should wheel it in any 2, 3 or even 4-pronged parlay your greedy little heart can concoct and not give it a second thought.” 

Upon hearing all this dire drivel, I wondered aloud: “Do any of these jokers have a clue that Fitz and his teams hold an 8-1 record in season opening games since he became HC?  Apparently not!” 

In retrospect, all I could say was: “That’s why it’s called gambling!”

How the ‘Cats Cut the #21 EverGreens Down to Size

“If a Tree falls In the Forest…
…And no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  In the case of the Stanford offense’s sonic response at getting smashed in the mouth by the ‘Cats’ Defensive Front 7 play-after-play, I will state with confidence that the sounds emanating from the EverGreen players and coaches prowling the sidelines and sprinting about the gridiron of Dyche’s Ditch certainly didn’t mimic the thunderous crash of a mighty Sequoia, but was more comparable to the meek whimper of a team being bludgeoned into submission. 

Mind you, I don’t make this “beaten” analogy out of blatant arrogance or disrespect for the Cardinal; but more to the point of stating the obvious to describe what transpired between NU’s D and their Stanford counterparts across the LOS.  As a die-hard ‘Cat football fan, in 2014, I was forced to admit that, as NU’s football campaign wore on, the ‘Cats too often found themselves on the battered, bloodied and bruised-end of the current pigskin contest as their opponents emphatically laid an undeniable beat-down on them (for the best example, refer to last season’s finale against Ill-Annoy).  Still, those same Wildcat warriors, to their credit, emulated their HC’s fundamental character trait for maintaining their competitive mindset in the face of adversity and never did wave the white flag of surrender, especially when fielding a mere 38 healthy scholarship players in that final forgettable game against the Fighting Beckmans.  Therefore, in being so familiar with the pain and humiliation of injury-induced deficient gridiron field play, I feel very qualified to identify what exactly the ‘Cat Defensive Front 7 did to the Stanford O-line.  This contest wasn’t one in which a healthy opponent pummeled an injury-riddled foe.  It was quite the opposite, in which both teams were relative healthy, at full strength and eager to get it on in this season opener.  It’s just that Fitz and his coaching staff had this fall’s version of the Purple D fully prepared to carry the fight flush into the grill of the No. 21-ranked offense from The Farm with unbridled passion and dogged determination to exorcize the defensive shortfall demons from the previous 2 seasons.   And did that attitude ever show big time in the field play and eventual statistics for the Wildcat defense.

On Stanford’s opening offensive series, the EverGreens employed a balanced attack to methodically grind out 64 yards on 12 plays burning 6:27 of game clock in the process.  However, instead of capitulating against the Cardinal bid to score the contest’s first TD on their first possession of the game, the ‘Cat D stiffened and forced the them to settle for a 22-yard FG from the NU 12.  This defensive stand, mounted within the shadow of their own goal line, was super significant.  It empowered the Wildcat D while underscoring the dual points that they possessed both the defensive personnel and appropriate game plan to counter the EverGreen O very effectively, especially their high-quality power rushing attack, which reputedly was Stanford’s greatest strength entering the 2015 season. 

After Stanford notched these initial 3 points on the scoreboard, the ‘Cat defense went into unadulterated lock-down mode, limiting the EverGreen offense to a paltry 54 yards gained over the next 41 minutes & change.  Mind you, this lock-down was not accomplished by stacking the box with numbers (read: regularly positioning 7 or 8 defenders between the DEs) but was achieved by each defender concentrating on successfully executing his individual assignment within the defensive scheme or down-n-distance play called.  The Cardinal O failed to mount another viable scoring threat until the 7:26 mark of Q4.  By then, the ‘Cat O had tallied 13 points of their own, proving to everyone on and off the field of play that the Wildcats could compete against their nationally-ranked rival from Palo Alto, CA, and beat them at their own game strategy of stifling clock-management and converting on scoring opportunities whenever or wherever they appeared.  Over the game’s next 4 minutes, the two combatants exchanged FGs, which ended the afternoon’s scoring for either team.  With 3 minutes to go, the EverGreen faithful had seen enough to understand that a outright miracle would be needed to cut into the ‘Cats’ 2-score lead and headed to the exits en masse, as most of whom, in their eagerness to depart, missed the INT by nickel-back Kyle Queiro that clinched the “W” for the host Wildcats.     

Notable defensive effort was everywhere, but most praise-worthy among the ‘Cat Defensive Front 7 personnel: 
●    LB Anthony Walker was a virtual menace to any ball carrier toting the bean;
●    Safety-duo Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike were heat-seeking missiles;
●    DEs Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo played like men possessed compressing the EverGreen backfield, especially on passing downs;
●    DL Deonte Gibson. Max Chapman, Tyler Lancaster and C.J. Robbins were absolute beasts repeatedly blowing-up blockers between Stanford’s OT positions. 

In post-game interviews, Fitz and media analysts used the word: “Dominant” to describe NU’s D.  However, I’ll employ a more succinct adjective to provide a better mental picture of the Wildcat Front 7’s performance – both starters and substitutes alike: “Overpowering.”  I haven’t used that unambiguous descriptor when assessing the performance of a ‘Cat defense since Northwestern’s championship teams of 1995, 1996 and 2000. 

If the personnel populating this squad remain relatively healthy throughout this fall’s campaign, 2015 could be a very fun season to be a Wildcat spectator.  I’m juiced at the prospect, indeed.
A Work In Progress
Not to be outdone or overlooked, members of the ‘Cats’ offensive line accounted themselves adequately, if not admirably.  Although not an example of flawless execution, this unit’s overall quality blocking profile was the main reason why newbie QB Clayton Thorson remained upright and his fanny grass-stain free during pass plays and why Super-Sophomore RB Justin Jackson collected 134 hard-earned rushing yards net over the course of the contest.  In fact, NU’s O-line was the major factor whereupon the Wildcat ground game amassed 210 yards compared with a mere 87 yards total for the Cardinal rushing attack through the first 3 quarters of the contest, while making Stanford’s defensive front 7 appear little more than pedestrian in their capacity to halt the yardage production of Clayton Thorson & Co.  

Another significant item to note was that the ‘Cat OL kept the self-inflicted wounds to an absolute minimum, accruing a single holding penalty coupled with NO false start infractions over the entire 60 minutes of play.  (Actually, NU had 2 holding calls – one was given to WR Cristian Jones, so I won’t count that gaffe against the ‘Cat OL.)  I honestly can’t recall a Purple OL unit who played with better self-discipline and mental awareness, in terms of penalties assessed over a single game against a respected, quality opponent, in quite some time.   

Yet, despite these commendable accomplishments, the Wildcat OL left much room for improvement across the entire LOS.  As a former MLB, I specifically concentrate first and foremost on the OL (via a critical eye with an assist from a great pair of binoculars) when viewing the ‘Cat O – first, to determine a play’s point of attack and second, to assess the line’s level of quality blocking while paying particular attention to the unit’s discipline in getting off the LOS at the snap of the ball then getting to and latching onto their blocking targets.  And I must state that while the OL acquitted themselves well at times, there were way too many downs where indecisive motion led to missed blocking assignments which led to unrealized positive yardage production.  I’m sure that this fact didn’t get past the critical eyes of Fitz and OL coach Adam Cushing in post-game video reviews; and I’m equally confident that these shortfalls will be addressed and remedied in practices this week as the ‘Cats prepare to meet Eastern Illinois next Saturday.

So when grading the ‘Cat OL, I’d give them a solid “B” for their efforts against the EverGreens with “work in progress” potential for improvement.  

“There Once Was A Girl…
…Who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead.  And when she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.”  The message of that nursery rhyme aptly sums up the performance of Mick McCall’s starting QB of choice to a “T”.  Although red-shirt frosh QB Clayton Thorson showed flashes of brilliant field play throughout his first career start as the Wildcats’ primary ball handler against the Stanford EverGreens, he unfortunately demonstrated a newbie QB’s penchant for frequent questionable decision making and poor execution techniques of even the most basic of quarterbacking skills on an equal number of downs.  Simply stated, the ‘Cats were plain lucky that Thorson’s miscues literally didn’t hand this game to the EverGreens all by himself, especially when he tossed a minimum 3 passes straight into the stone mitts of various Cardinal DBs who accommodated the newbie QB’s lack of consistent throwing acumen by dropping those miss-thrown balls to the turf of Dyche’s Ditch.  If any one of those potential picks was converted into an INT, it surely would have shifted the momentum of the game irrevocably in the favor of the visiting EverGreens in short order. 

But they didn’t; so it wasn’t; and consequently, all is forgiven, right?  Hardly!!!

Still, the newbie QB’s occasional, yet inconsistent, successful playmaking proved to be enough of a difference-maker to keep Big Mo comfortably resident on the Wildcat side of the LOS.  Clayton’s indisputable shining moment came on a quarterback keeper in Q2 off what looked like a read option play in which he received the snap in his standard shotgun position behind the OC, drifted to his left and waited patiently for his blocking to develop.  When a 5 yard-wide opening appeared in the C-gap outside the LOT, he tucked the bean; drove hard into and through that gaping hole; then, with nothing but long green in front of him, ignited his afterburners and didn’t shut them down until he crossed Stanford’s goal line 42 untouched yards downfield for the game’s only TD, giving the host ‘Cats a lead they never relinquished.  Wildcat Nation erupted at the sight.

As for Thorson’s passing problems, most happened primarily on offensive drives headed towards the south end zone with a steady 12-15 MPH wind blowing into his mug.  When throwing into those gusts, the RS Frosh’s passing accuracy became erratic at best with several passes fluttering well off its intended target WR and frustratingly, more in the direction of a wide-eyed EverGreen DB, every one of whom demonstrated an acute lack of eye-to-hand coordination as they promptly brain-fart bumbled Thorson’s gift-wrapped INT toss away. 

Conversely, not all of Clayton’s passes were a total bust.  He did have several quality QB moments in which his passes were thrown in-stride, on target with good pace and a dash of touch in the process, especially on critical downs which extended possessions and burnt precious time off the game clock.  One came in Q3 heading south into that pesky headwind: a 3rd-n-15 yards-to-go completion to Cristian Jones running an outside slant route into the east sideline.  Behind his pocket protection, Clayton watched Jones make his cut and gain separation from his cover DB then delivered a frozen rope right into his target WR’s hands for a nifty 17-yard pitch-n-catch and a needed 1st down.  It was his best pass of the afternoon besides…  That 25-yard high-arcing touch pass to Miles Schuler running a fade route along the east sideline towards the north end zone in NU’s last scoring possession in Q4.  Clayton confidently lofted the bean with a touch and finesse belying his newbie experience level and dropped it deftly into the outstretched mitts of the streaking WR who never broke stride, completing a highlight reel-worthy over-the-shoulder catch on a critical 3rd down.  This grab was THE major positive yardage play in NU’s drive that culminated in K Jack Mitchell’s monumental 49-yard FG that threw the Cardinal back down a deep 2-score hole with 3:38 left on the game clock.  After that successful FG attempt, the EverGreens were essentially toasted to perfection.       

Bottom line: Mr. Thorson has a good bit of on-the-job QB maturation to undergo.  It will come, especially with one-on-one mentoring from Mick McCall both in the film room and on the practice field and with Fitz stuffing a buzzing cicada in his ear regarding assuming starting QB field play ownership and accountability.  Thorson’s QB quality stock will be upwardly mobile as the 2015 campaign progresses.  You can take that to the bank.

Coming Of Age
In 2014, Wildcat K Jack Mitchell had his successes and failures, often on sequential FG attempts (e.g.: see last season’s game against the Noted Dames).  Prior to the ‘Cats’ grapple against the EverGreens, I anticipated that opportunistic point generation for NU, especially successful FG attempt conversions by Mitchell, would be a major factor whether or not the Wildcats would maintain striking distance of the #21 Cardinal long enough to snatch the “W” flag via a late score at game’s end.  That prediction was spot on.

Of Mitchell’s 3 successful FG conversions (out of 4 attempts), two were of the ultra-crucial variety (as if any FG attempt in a game where point production was at a premium isn’t crucial).  Jack’s first FG, a 31-yarder with the wind at his back, not only tied the game at 3-all, it emphasized the point that the 2015 ‘Cats possessed the FG weaponry wherewithal to match the quality kicking game of the Cardinal and bolstered Mitchell’s kicking confidence going forward as well.  The Junior K’s last FG, that enormously critical, wind-aided 49-yard blast that sailed over the crossbar with a yard to spare, not only matched the EverGreens’ bid to grab momentum and scoring control of game with 7 minutes & change left in the match, it expanded the Wildcats’ lead to double digits once more and virtually knocked the wind out of Stanford like a round-house right to the team’s solar plexus.  With that FG’s points added to NU’s scoreboard total, the contest’s victor was a fait accompli.

The age of Jack Mitchell as a viable Northwestern Football Team scoring threat has arrived.  His final FG wasn’t merely a game-changer, it was a game-decider.  Ka-Boom!!!       


As I stated above, at first glance, this “W” was as notable and utterly satisfying as the “W” secured in that road victory against TTFSB (read: “That Team From Sow Bend) garnered in the second-to-last game of the 2014 season.  And in heartfelt retrospect, the amazing primary take-away point to this latest signature program win remains: The 2015 version of the Northwestern Football Wildcats has enormous upside potential for marked improvements still to be aspired-to and realized in all facets of field play.

Without a doubt, the overall improvement in competitive profile for the current team has its foundations in NU’s much improved recruitment results.  The team’s current roster possesses quality personnel depth across every position that hasn’t been witnessed since the ‘Cats’ very own “Era of Ara” (Parseghian).  I understand that comment sounds all too much like overblown hyperbole and bluster; but to be sure, it is lurking right there under the surface of the general public perception of the program.  My hat is off to the Herculean recruitment investment in time and energy contributed by Fitz and his entire coaching staff.  Its successes are beginning to pay dividends that will be realized in the short term (i.e.: this current team) and should last for years to come. 

I hope you are as juiced as I am.  I can’t wait to see what’s next!!!

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

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

This award commemorates Mr. Smith’s uber-hard clean-up crunch laid on Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey as he fought for an extra yard after having absorbed an initial momentum-stuffing blow by ‘Cat SS Traveon Henry on the Cardinal’s 3rd possession of Q2.  Henry literally had stopped the RB and held him extended upright, set-up and poised to receive a knockout clean-up punch from any defensive teammate converging to the ball carrier that would drive the aggressive RB rudely to the turf.  And Drew gladly obliged, delivering a clean, resounding shot directly on the ball tucked under McCaffrey’s left arm.  McCaffrey’s grasp on the bean was dislodged and fell to the turf to the immediate left of the three opposing players.  It was summarily snatched-up by Wildcat MLB teammate Anthony Walker to completing the 1st of two turnovers forced by the Northwestern D.  

Congratulations Drew.  You deserve every bit of the recognition that comes forcing the D’s first TO of the 2015 season.

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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