Nov. 16, 2018

Timely Playmaking

OK. Let me set the stage for this contest… Here were the underwhelming Wildcats coming into a very hostile and frigid Kinnick Stadium to lock horns with their locker room rival Io_a HogEyes harboring their somewhat wishful hopes at maintaining their prospects to earn a seat at the B1G Conference Championship banquet table as West Division representative still within reach.  When one considers how verifiably distant those prospects were after the ‘Cats’ had bumbled and stumbled their way to an utterly woeful 1-3 record over the first third of their 2018 gridiron campaign, the fact that these hopes were still alive and viable in the hearts & minds of the NU football team and their faithful supporters heading into this, their 10th game of the season, clinging to a 5-1 conference record, was nothing short of miraculous.  No way in the world would anyone claiming to possess even a modicum of the common sense that Providence had given him/her at birth would have given the Wildcats a snowball’s chance in hell of still competing for a West Division title at this advanced stage of their current season considering that 1-3 start; but then again, here the ‘Cats stood, with their dreams of capturing that coveted Divisional Championship still intact, eager and anxious to prove that they deserved that honored table reservation.

How the ‘Cats Wrestled a “W” from the HogEyes

Outstanding D
Any casual observer of this fall’s version of the Wildcats will come to the irrefutable conclusion that the No. 1 strength of the team is their defense.  And that strength never had been put to the test more than it had facing the Io_a offense last Saturday, despite the HogEyes having dropped their last 2 consecutive B1G games, both of which were on-the-road, tooth & nail, high-scoring “Ls” against State Penn (30-24) and Perdue (38-36).   In fact, the pervasive opinion among the most reputed collegiate football pundits, prognosticators and “informed” media talking heads was that DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive ‘Cats were little more than paper tigers and primed to lay an egg, especially since the HogEye O was rounding into form and scoring with consistent regularity, averaging 34 points over their last 5 contests.

Per usual, in the week leading up to last Saturday’s brawl, Io_a HC “Captain Kirk” Ferentz had his corn-fed offensive conscripts physically pumped-up and emotionally charged to dominate the incoming ‘Cats and dash the visiting team’s dreams of tightening their tentative grip as the B1G West Division’s frontrunner.  This attitude of projected offensive dominance was bolstered by several strategic pre-game advantages –

●    The Wildcat secondary had been bitten hard by the injury bug over the last several games with 3 of Doc’s 4 starting DBs sidelined and declared PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) – both starting Safeties and a CB.  The roster replacements for these MIA DBs consist of 2 lightly used upper classmen and a true Frosh.
●    These 3 “next man up” DBs were slated to face an experienced HogEye passing attack that featured 3-year starting Junior QB Nate Stanley throwing darts to one of the best TE tandems within the B1G in Noah Fant and T.J Hockenson, who, thus far in 2018, have accounted for 980 total receiving yards & 10 TDs, many of which were red zone receptions.  If Stanley finds his passing rhythm, especially employing easy pitch-n-catch tosses to his NFL-ready dynamic TE duo, a 200 yard passing yardage production day is a viable possibility.
●    The HogEye O had been among the most efficient of all Division 1A teams in regards of “moving those chains” on 3rd down situations, converting 50% or more of these scenarios for 1st downs across 5 of their last 6 games.
●    The Io_a offense prided itself on winning the time-of-possession sweepstakes, holding the bean for 34-plus minutes on average across all games played in 2018 – 7th best TOP among Division 1A teams.  Combined with an up-tempo field play style, intended to wear down an opponent’s D over the course of a game, time-consuming offensive possessions which ultimately end in scoreboard points are a trademark of “Captain Kirk” and his HogEye O.

Needless to say, Doc and his defensive brain trust were extremely familiar with these salient advantage points, so they game-planned specifically to neutralize them.  Did they ever! 

First & foremost, Doc’s schooled his defensive front 7 to stone the HogEye rushing attack with quick, correct point-of-attack recognition coupled with efficient, effective tackling techniques, especially when converging on the ball carrier in the open field.  Doc’s LB corps and 8-man rotation DL turned the tables on “Captain Kirk’s” patented ground-n-pound rushing attack, limiting this normally reliable weapon to a paltry 64 yards gained off 22 rushing attempts.  The trench warfare between the dominating ‘Cat D and the ineffectual Hog OL was a thing of beauty for the visiting team as the Io_a rushing attack was summarily shut down, rendering ‘Captain Kirk’s” offense one dimensional and wholly dependent on their passing attack for their yardage production throughout most of this toe-to-toe donnybrook. 

The second impressive aspect of Doc’s defensive schemes was the manner in which the Wildcat secondary, populated with relatively inexperienced replacement players, rallied together as a bend-don’t-break collective.  Io_a’s QB Nate Stanley-led offense did accumulate significant yardage through the air (gaining 269 yards off 27 completions on 41 passing attempts), but the lion’s share those yards-gained were relegated mostly between the 20 yard lines.  When NU’s secondary did succumb to the HogEye passing attack, it restricted the damage to a single FG in late Q2, and a short field TD scored on a 28 yard explosion pass play in late Q3 that was set-up by a boneheaded Clayton Thorson INT that gave the Hog O starting field position at the ‘Cat 42.  Nevertheless, for this cobbled-together secondary to hold the prolific Io_a offense, that had averaged over 34 points scored in each of their 5 previous B1G games, to 10 total points was an amazing accomplishment, especially considering that NU’s most experienced lockdown DB, Senior CB Montre Hartage, was sidelined permanently by a freak lower body injury in mid Q3, which meant that all 4 positions within the Wildcat secondary were forced to depend upon newbie coverage personnel to neutralize Stanley and his WR corps over the game’s final, hectic 20 minutes.  And this group of Purple defensive playmakers not only rose to meet this daunting challenge, they threw a cold blanket over the Io_a passing attack with an efficiency that belied their relative inexperience while validating their individual and collective pass coverage skillsets.  It certainly was NOT a suffocating coverage effort, but it did have its moments; and in the end, the newbies delivered the asked-for goods. 

This communal defensive success easily could be considered the Wildcat D’s season-defining outing and the defensive coaching staff’s greatest teaching achievement in 2018.

“The TD Scamper”
The most impactful offensive weapon over NU’s last 4 B1G games has been the much welcomed ascendance of True Frosh RB Isaiah “King Koopa” Bowser into the role of OC Mick McCall’s featured RB. 

Since the forced medical retirement of former featured RB, Jeremy Larkin, virtually every media outlet report regarding the operational status of NU’s offense has obsessed with fundamental fact that the Wildcat O had become irrevocably one dimensional and overly dependent on the fickle playmaking skills of their “damaged-goods” Senior QB Clayton Thorson and the ‘Cats’ on-again/off-again passing attack.  The major sub-plot to this scenario was that Thorson assumed his accustomed role as NU’s primary offensive weapon while in the midst of adhering to a strict recovery protocol dictated by his knee reconstruction surgery 9 months ago to repair that damnable and wholly avoidable ACL injury sustained in the ‘Cats’ 2017 Music City Bowl game facing the Kentucky Wildcats.  Shouldering this one dimensional offensive attack restriction, Clayton had performed his passing playmaking duties with variable levels of success, which was an admirable feat in and of itself, since opposing B1G defenses designed their game plans specifically to neutralize the Wildcat passing attack and exploit CT’s understandable lack of mobility.  Despite CT’s diminished capacity to avoid a hard pass rush from an opponents’ DL, the ‘Cat O retained the ability to execute its passing game well enough to capture the “W” flag against 2 of their first 3 B1G foes via dramatic, gut-wrenching single digit victories that were secured in Q4.  However, such late-game offensive heroics by Thorson & Co. was proving to be unsustainable as the pressure to compete and overcome these tailored defensive game plans became increasingly complex from one Saturday to the next.

Enter Isaiah “King Koopa” Bowser.  I cannot fathom how this resuscitated rushing attack came to fruition for the ‘Cat O in mid-season, but the fact that it happened at all was nothing less than a veritable godsend.  When I first witnessed how efficiently IB toted the pigskin into & through seams in the LOS opened by the ‘Cat OL against the Rutgers Scarlet Blight D, it left me downright speechless.  “King Koopa” not only hit the correct holes/seams at the designed the point of attack, he did so with authoritative quickness, power & precision that were common characteristics of the featured RBs who carried the bean for the Wisky Drunkards and their offensive brain trust throughout the last 2 dozen-plus seasons.  But here was a relatively unknown ‘Cat newbie, a True Frosh RB dressed in a Northwestern uniform, who possessed the equivalent size, rugged physiology, eye-blink quick reactions, honest straight-line speed and appropriate “angry” attitude to attack the LOS as might be expected of a grizzled veteran B1G RB and who seemed to have been cloned from genes of Wisky’s current feature RB, Jonathan Taylor, or the BugEater’s starting RB, Devine Ozigbo. 

And it didn’t take long for IB’s rushing attack contributions to come to the fore:
●    113 yards gained on 21 rushes against the Scarlet Blights
●    118 yards gained on 34 rushes against the Wisky Drunkards (besting the yardage production of featured Wisky RB, Jonathan Taylor – 46 yards on 11 carries).
●    94 yards gained on 21 rushes against the Noted Dames (besting the yardage production of featured Fuggin’ Irish RB, Dexter Williams – 59 yards on 19 carries)

Subsequently, in last Saturday’s grapple against Io_a, when the ‘Cat offense needed it the most as QB Clayton Thorson vomited his guts out on the NU sidelines due to some virulent stomach ailment and was incapacitated to perform with anything approaching his usual consistency, “King Koopa” Bowser carried the pigskin-hauling load in career PR fashion, collecting 164 yards off 31 rushing attempts against a stout HogEye defensive front 7.  Bowser’s timely rushing afternoon not only diverted the pressure to perform away from Thorson by giving the ‘Cat O another healthy viable yardage production option from their current passing woes, it literally helped the Wildcats manage the scoreboard clock in NU’s favor, shortening the game via extended possessions by the ‘Cat offense as Thorson & Co. played a controlling game-within-a-game of ball-hog “keep away” with the Io_a offense.  And did that tangential consequence frustrate the ever-lovin’ bejeesus outta the home team HogEyes.

Then came one of the game’s seminal offensive plays for the Wildcats.  At the 11:43 mark of Q2, with the ‘Cats trailing the HogEyes by a 0-3 score in what, at that juncture, had been a titanic push me-pull you scrum between the two combatants, Thorson & Co. got the bean back in hand via another change-of-possession punt that gave the visiting team starting field position on their own 20.  Utilizing an up-tempo style of offensive play execution coupled with OC Mick McCall calling for a mix of alternating pass and rushing plays, the ‘Cat O methodically drove the LOS downfield to the Io_a 34 yard line.  That’s when it happened…

On one of ‘Cat OL’s best run blocking plays of the entire contest, on a 2nd-n-6 down, “King Koopa” took the handoff from CT, sprinted to his left and settled behind his pulling OC-ROT tandem executing a counter trey blocking scheme.  When the pulling tandem opened a 3-yard wide seam off the LOT’s original position on the LOS, the True Frosh RB turned into & through that seam and broke into open space in the HogEyes’ defensive 2nd level beyond.  Upon entering this open area, Mr. Bowser correctly recognized that he was free & clear of virtually every Io_a defender on the field of play; so the newbie RB ignited his afterburners, turned his route downfield then raced untouched 34 glorious yards, crossing the Io_a goal in a matter of seconds to score the ‘Cats’ first go-ahead TD of the contest.  Talk about a timely scamper… This uninterrupted rush was that and more!

I truly couldn’t determine who was more stunned at what had just transpired – the HogEye team and coaching staff standing along the Io_a sidelines or the faithful HogEye fans watching the proceedings from their frigid seats in the Kinnick Stadium stands.  Whichever it might have been, the stadium became eerily quiet.  Then the Black & Gold Boo Birds began chirping loudly at the home team’s irreversible defensive blunder.  Upon hearing the Boo Birds’ vocal displeasure, I couldn’t help grinning broadly in a moment of pure schadenfreude glee. 

Die HogEyes, DIE!

“The Catch”
With the Wildcat rushing attack clicking on all cylinders, there was little wonder why OC Mick McCall kept his vertical passing game in check for major portions of the contest.  After all, the proficient efficacy of the ‘Cats’ ground game permitted Thorson & Co. the discretionary freedom to pick and choose when, where an how they would exercise their vertical pass weaponry, rather than allow pressure filled down & distance situations or a suffocating Io_a defensive stand to dictate the necessity for turning to downfield pass plays for better yardage production by the visiting team.  However, when the HogEyes converted CT’s brainfart pick in late Q3 into a quickie short-field TD and a 10-7 lead, the pressure on the Cat offense to push the ball downfield via the pass began to build as the scoreboard clock wound down.

After Io_a’s 1st offensive series of Q4 was stoned in 3-n-out style by Doc’s D obliging a change of possession, ‘Cat WR Flynn Nagel returned the subsequent HogEye punt 14 yards to reposition the LOS at the home team’s 46 with 10:26 remaining on the game clock.  When NU’s first play in this ensuing offensive possession, a rush by Bowser, was stopped cold for a 1 yard gain and Thorson’s easy, on-target 2nd down pass was dropped by True Frosh WR JJ Jefferson, standing all alone in the HogEyes’ short right boundary zone 8 yards downfield, things appeared to have taken a grim turn for the worse for the Wildcats.  In response, ‘Cat OC Mick McCall dialed-up a vertical pass attempt to one his most reliable target receivers, Junior WR Ben Skowronek, to test the deep coverage skills of Io_a’s secondary personnel deployed to defend this upcoming 3rd down scenario.  That’s when the 2018 season’s most unbelievable pitch-n-catch phenomena happened.

But first, with everyone watching from the coaches’ box and seated in the Kinnick Stadium stands expecting a desperate vertical heave attempt by CT to move the bean beyond the line to gain for a possession extending 1st down, McCall employed reverse psychology and called a simple draw play to the Cats’ “Flyin’ Hawaiian” RB, Chad Hanaoka.  NU’s diminutive former walk-on ball carrier promptly took the handoff from Thorson, blasted untouched straight through a huge hole in the right A-gap and didn’t stop picking ‘em up & laying ‘em down until he was wrestled to the turf by a HogEye SS after a 13 yard gain that gave the ‘Cat O that highly prized 1st down at the HogEye 34.  At this point, the Io_a defensive coaches were thoroughly baffled by the unorthodox play call; the defensive players were knocked back on their heels and reeling at the swift shift in field play energy; while the HogEye Faithful were left in slack-jawed silence having witnessed yet another abrupt turnabout in the game’s real-time momentum.

Then McCall made the game-clinching coup de gras play call, directing Thorson to receive the snap from center in his standard shotgun position; set-up calmly behind his pocket protection; wait for his receiving target, Mr. Skowronek, to gain separation from his cover DB as he ran a contested fly route straight down the left sidelines and into the deep left boundary zone, then let the bean fly in a gentle arcing trajectory to the sprinting WR.  Just as Skowronek crossed the Io_a goal line, he correctly calculated that the ball was dropping too swiftly for the Junior wideout to attempt the catch in stride.  So instead, he dove forward, his body fully stretched-out and extended parallel to the turf, then reached his left hand far out to snare the bean in flight.  Suddenly, not only did Big Ben capture the thrown ball cleanly in the palm of his left hand, but as he pulled the bean into his body, it rode up the WR’s arm and nestled firmly in the crook of his elbow, with his forearm positioned below the ball, just as Skowronek hit the end zone turf.  To his credit, Ben maintained his focus and finished the reception motion by squeezing the captured ball and anchoring it between the crook of his elbow and his shoulder pads while he kept his forearm below the ball, preventing the pigskin from ever touching the end zone turf.  To be sure, this circus grab and textbook finish was the most indisputable, incontrovertibly cleanest reception that this writer had viewed in over three decades of watching pass completions at all levels of the game, from Pee Wee football to the professional ranks. 

Without a doubt, “The Catch” will be a staple red-letter play on NU football highlight reel videos for years to come.  

Sealing the Deal
With the ultra-valuable 7 points from “The Catch” giving the ‘Cats a tenuous 4 point lead, the game clock still showed 9:27 remaining in Q4 – ample time for the Io_a O to recover their scrambled wits and refocus their attention towards sustaining a methodical drive of their own to score the game-clinching points in the final minutes of regulation time.  As was the case for most of the game, NU’s kicking off coverage game remained an enigmatic liability, even after the momentum shift that ”The Catch” seemingly delivered to the Wildcat sidelines.  To help counteract the negative field position effects regarding the inability of the ‘Cats’ newbie place kicker to boot the ball at least to the Io_a goal line on kickoffs, Fitz decided to employ the squib kickoff following “The Catch” in the fleeting hope to give Doc’s defense a better chance at keeping the starting LOS position within a reasonable distance from the standard touchback LOS of the 25 yard line.  Unfortunately, NU’s kickoff cover team failed to converge properly on the squib kick and the HogEye kick return team pushed the picked-up ball to their 37 yard line, putting even more pressure on the Wildcat defense to make a significant drive stopping play against the Io_a offense.

As fate would have it, both the HogEyes and the ‘Cats exchanged 3-n-out offensive series on each of their own relative possessions following this squibbed kickoff return.  On Io_a’s second possession following NU’s squib kickoff, ‘Cat replacement Safety, Cameron Ruiz forced a fumble from hands of HogEye RB Mekhi Sargent that was recovered by ‘Cat replacement CB, Travis Whillock at the NU 49, effectively halting this second HogEye endgame drive.

When NU’s offensive possession following this first fumble recovery stalled on its own forgettable 3-n-out series, the ‘Cats punted the ball back to the HogEyes at their own 10 yard line with 2:41 left on the clock.  On the 5th play from scrimmage in this third Io_a possession, Joe “The Wizard of Gaz” Gaziano punched the ball out from the grip of HogEye RB Ivory Kelly-Martin as he sprinted into the C-gap to the inside the Wildcat DE.  This forced fumble was recovered by NU’s Cameron Ruiz, ending this final ill-fated drive at the Hogs’ 42.  From there, the Wildcat offense simply burnt the remaining time off the scoreboard clock.

So it was Doc’s fumble-forcing D who finally and rightfully sealed the deal for the victorious ‘Cats.
As improbable as it was unthinkable prior to the commencement of last Saturday’s slate of games involving the B1G teams which were remained in contention to win the West Division Championship – namely the Wisky Drunkards, the Perdue Broiler-Chickens, the Io_a HogEyes and, of course, the Northwestern Wildcats – the only team among these four contenders to capture the “W” flag in their respective game and keep their dream of a Championship season alive & kicking was the Wildcats. 

This unbelievable series of events didn’t merely keep that dream alive, it hand-delivered the B1G West Division title to the ‘Cats with 2 games left to play in their 2018 conference campaign.  I’m still numb at the thought of the B1G Football planets aligning to do so.  I’ve often listened, albeit half-heartedly, whenever Pat Fitzgerald alluded-to a West Division Championship as an annual team goal at the start of every season since he became NU’s HC in 2006.  Even now, I remain a bit skeptical that the Wildcats actually deserved the honor of winning this title outright rather than the 3 other contending teams losing the title via their own series of “Ls” which, consequently, allowed NU to back into the title at this early date. 

However, when taking into account their current 6-1 record across all B1G foes AND their undefeated, untied 4-0 record across the West Division rivals that the ‘Cats have faced to date, the Northwestern Football Wildcats most certainly earned the title; if only because they did the needful to capture the “W” flag when the final gun sounded marking the end of each hard-fought battle against these 4 opponents.   

Still, the war has not been won with two significant B1G West Division battles yet to be fought.  Only when the ‘Cats take care of business, going 1-0 against this Saturday’s opponent, the Minny Golden Rodents; and then repeating the 1-0 trick once more against the arrogant, full-of themselves Ill-Annoy Fighting Lovies, will I truly be satisfied and convinced that the Wildcats deserve the honor of representing the West Division in the B1G Championship game this coming December 1st. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

Be Bold.  ”Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat,” indeed!

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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