Oct. 10, 2017

Surprise, Surprise!!!

I truly don’t know what’s the appropriate font to use when a blogger like myself attempts sarcasm within a written piece, so I’ll assume the target words be set in underscored italics with a several exclamation points following.  So be it, at least in this commentary. 

Of all the pre-game analytics, the most poignant was Wisky’s reputed superiority in personnel, per position, as compared with those same positions on Fitz’ 2017 Wildcat team.  Of particular note was the Drunkard’s much better regarded OL, DL and RB positions, all of whom proved their individual worth over the course of the hard fought contest.  However, it must be noted that in H-1, NU more than held their own with these positional players, maintaining competitive opposition that led directly to the ‘Cats capturing a very well earned 10-7 lead going into the halftime locker rooms.  That small 3-point lead hinted of a possible, if not improbable upset of the No. 10 ranked Drunkards in the making, if NU could just keep that competitive profile alive & kicking in the second half.   

●    Surprise No. 1:  H-1 Turn Overs
Three atypical home team turnovers in the first half will do wonders for bolstering the fragile psyche of a prohibitive underdog like the visiting ‘Cats when facing the Big Bad Wisky Drunkards and their rabid, out-for-blood fanbase of 81K seated in the stands of Camp Randall.  In essence, the recovered fumble on the game’s first play, augmented by 2 INTs in H-1 leveled the playing field, if only by punishing the Drunkard O to endure 3 virtual quiet time-out sessions – forcing them to ride pine on their sidelines while providing the ‘Cat O an additional 3 possessions.  Those TOs had the potential, in fact, to become monumental game-changers.  Unfortunately, Clayton Thorson & the Purple O never capitalized completely on these surprising French pastry turnovers, served-up hot & flaky by their motivated Purple D counterparts, by converting them into crucially valuable points on the scoreboard.  In fact, one could easily conclude that the paltry 3 points delivered by the Wildcat O from those 3extra offensive series proffered Wisky’s O a sense of self-confidence at having dodged a trio of kill-shot bullets whizzing by their cheese-heads from the sniper rifles of the fired-up Wildcat D Badger-hunters.  All Wisky QB Alex Hornibrook and his resilient O needed to do was to put those 3 gaffes in the rearview mirror, respond with appropriate resolve to convert upon their scoreboard tallied good fortune provided by the Drunkard D then focus on performing to their usual yardage production standards.  And they did so in H-2 with a vengeance. 

●    Surprise No. 2:  ‘Cat Stuffed Badger
Wisky’s standard paradigm for victory on the gridiron has been virtually the same over its last 3 consecutive coaching regimes – first conceived & employed under the HC scrutiny of Barry Alvarez, who now holds UofW’s AD reins; then used next under Bret Bielema, who in 2012 inexplicably switched residence from MadTown to Fayetteville, Arkansas assuming the HC of UofArk after a stellar HC stint for the Drunkards leading them to 3 Rose Bowl bids; and finally executed under current mad scientist HC Paul Chryst, who is building the perfect pigskin beast of his own.  That model for consistent excellence is simple: control the time of possession via a superior, clock-consuming ground game, thereby shortening the match to an approximate 30-45 minute arm wrestle; strangle the opponent’s offense by controlling the LOS; then score on at least 33% of your total offensive series.  And over the last dozen or more campaigns, that game plan has worked like a charm, allowing Wisky to win multiple B1G titles in the process.  To his credit, Pat Fitzgerald (and his coaching staff) has recognized the intrinsic value of this effective paradigm and has tried to emulate it as best he can throughout his tenure as Wildcat HC, albeit with relatively “lesser talent” across his 2-deep roster.  However, in one of the most welcome surprises of all last Saturday, the ‘Cats’ defensive front 7, under the mentorship of former Wisky DC, now current Northwestern DC, Doc Hankwitz, stood toe-to-toe with the Drunkard’s formidable ground-n-pound O, and, for the most part, were winning many of the individual 1-on-1 grapples with their Wisky combatants across the LOS throughout H-1.  The consequence of these “singular 1-on1 match-play victories,” when summed together into one massive effort, was that Doc’s heat-seeking missile defensive front 7 run-stoppers stuffed the Wisky O’s rushing attack at the LOS, strangling the red-clad team’s capacity to keep the bean in hand and control the game clock.  In other words, NU was executing the Wisky victory paradigm better than the Drunkards did.  The ‘Cats won the TOP (time of possession) battle, 17 minutes to 13 minutes; restricted Wisky’s prolific ground-n-pound rushing attack to 66 net yards, with 2 TFLs and a forced fumble & recovery; sacked Drunkard QB Hornibrook twice while consistently harassing him, all of which limited his characteristically unstoppable yardage production to 48 total yards off 5-for-11 pass completions with an additional sweet 2 INTs to boot.  SURPRISE!!!, Doc’s D played lights-out and gagged the usually raucous Drunkard fans in attendance into an eerie silence at the conclusion of H-1.  If only the game had ended after those opening 30 minutes… But it didn’t. 

●    Surprise No. 3:  Burnin’ Desire
A quote from the 1999 comedic science fiction film Galaxy Quest: “Don’t Give Up; Never Give Up.”

True to form, Wisky stormed out of their halftime locker room and played like their hair was on fire, scoring an astonishing 24 consecutive points off their first 4 offensive possessions in H-2.  Needless to say, the ‘Cats were shell shocked and reeling in its aftermath.  After having been summarily thrown face-first down this deep 31-10 hole with a little less than 10 minutes left in the contest, the daunting deficit faced by the somnolent Clayton Thorson & Co. offense appeared more than dire, it seemed downright insurmountable.  Upon returning to the gridiron after their halftime respite in H-2, the ‘Cat O was stoned on 5 sequential series, gaining an embarrassingly ignominious 10 total yards; and there was little, if any indication that this scenario would change much in the final 10 clicks.  Exposed to such overwhelming odds, most any other Purple O in prior seasons would have folded their tents, cinched them to the backs of their camels and limped back to the soothing waters of their Evanston oasis to lick their wounds and reflect upon the steamrolling by the Drunkard D that had rendered them into roadkill sail-cats (read: what a run-over kitty looks like after being squished into something resembling a pancake on I-94 then baked to a hardened Frisbee-like state under a whole day of scorching 98 degree sunshine). 

Then, SURPRISE!!!, something remarkable happened as the downtrodden ‘Cats gathered their wits enough to pull their collective heads out from their moons in time to mount an utterly unbelievable comeback.  On NU’s 6th possession of H-2, Wildcat OC Mick McCall shelved his Wisky-styled ball-hawking offensive game plan and dialed-up his vertical passing attack that had laid dormant for most of the previous 50 minutes.  Finally permitted to flex his aerial acumen, QB Clayton Thorson responded to this long overdue change in game plan and piloted the Purple O to TD paydirt via a 13-play, 75 yard drive that burned over half of the remaining 10 minutes off the scoreboard clock and cut the ‘Cat deficit to 14 points.  Inspired by this swift turn of events from the ‘Cats’ offense, Doc’s D stoned the Wisky O into a rare but equally critical 3-n-out series, forcing a change-in-possession punt within the shadow of the Drunkard’s goal line at their own 3 yard line – a boot that afforded NU’s O its first true short field starting position of H-2, at the ‘Cat 45.  In the ensuing possession, Mr. Thorson went into aerial overdrive to efficiently push the bean those 55 yards in 7 plays via the vertical pass to score a 2nd amazing TD – accomplished in a miniscule 88 seconds.  NU’s 2 TDs in 7 minutes made it a 7-point game with approximately 3 minutes left on the game clock – just enough time for McCall’s QB to wave his aerial magic wand to concoct a highlight reel, game-clinching scoring drive… if Doc’s D could come through in the clutch once more following a recovery of the expected on-side kick attempt.  When Wisky’s “good hands” kick return unit grabbed the pill off the on-side kick at the ‘Cat 43, the game’s outcome seemed relegated to its logical fait accompli.  But as fate would have it… SURPRISE!!!.  The Purple D delivered a 2nd consecutive 3-n-out stoning of the Wisky O, once again forcing the Drunkards to punt the bean over to the ‘Cat O and its white hot QB, Clayton Thorson, with 1:09 remaining.  Suddenly, the match’s intensity meter, flat-lined a mere 9 minutes before, now was pegged dead red.  My heart raced with in anticipation of relishing what just might be a fantastic finishing kick by the thoroughbred Cardiac ‘Cats offense as it rounded the far turn and sprinted into its final furlong stretch run to the “W” wire.  Just then, a crazy thought popped into my head… “What shoulda, woulda, coulda been had OC-turned-jockey Mick McCall loosened his tight-fisted game plan reins to allow this Thorson-led aerial circus racehorse to run wild at the start of Q4?”  The reply to this rhetorical question came to me just as quickly: “Better late than never, Mick!”

How Wisky Turned NU Into Sail-Cats

Lips Knocked Off
In his post-game media session, HC Pat Fitz used this damning phrase to aptly describe just how poorly his OL played for the 1st 50 minutes of the game. Simply stated, NU’s offensive line was horrible beyond imagination, even during the desperation TD drives of NU’s monumental comeback bid in mid Q4.  To be perfectly clear, allow me to emphatically state that message once more… The Wildcat OL was absolutely horrible.  The most effective strategy to blow-up the blocking schemes of the 2017 Wildcat OL was demonstrated during the ’Cats’ season opener bug tussle against the Nevada Woof Pucks – unleash your defensive front 7 war hounds to attack the LOS with reckless abandon from the opening whistle to the final gun.  And never, ever let up.  By either driving straight into the chicklets of the individual NU OL’s grill or shooting the A-gap (between OC & OG) or the B-Gap (between the OG & OT), the players populating OL coach Adam Cushing’s unit cannot or will not pick-up and block these opposing players on a consistent basis as they execute pile-drive, bull rush attack techniques across the LOS and into the NU offensive backfield.  In doing so, the collective blocking capabilities of NU’s OL can and will be neutralized.  This red letter deficiency was exposed and exploited by the Nevada defensive brain trust and obviously was identified and mimicked first by the Dookies in their blowout “W” against the ‘Cats, and again last Saturday by Wisky’s defensive coaching staff. 

Examples of the Purple OL’s exceedingly craptastic field play blocking can be viewed everywhere on the BTN game video. 
●    On the ‘Cats’ first possession following the forced fumble recovery on the Drunkards very 1st play from scrimmage, Thorson & Co. faced a 3rd-n-1 at the Wisky 15.  Of course, McCall’s mindset was to stick to his original offensive game plan of ball control & clock management, so he called for a quick snap dive into the LOS with JJTBC toting the bean and the OL utilizing stretch blocking to the short side of the field (the right side of the LOS).  The Wisky D set 9 in the box: 5 DL, 2 LBs & both safeties pulled-in at the LB level.  This defensive set screamed for Thorson to audible to a short controlled pass of any kind, but instead, he ran the called play.  I swear that UW’s defensive brain trust knew full well the play-calling tendency of Fitz and McCall in this down-distance scenario.  The LOT got stuffed by the Wisky DT & pushed 2 yards into the NU backfield, straight in the grill of JJTBC, stopping him before he took a 2nd step towards the LOS with ball in hand.  Meanwhile, the right DE crashed to the inside of the LOS, and with NU’s LOT getting his butt blasted backwards, he had a free, unblocked line to JJTBC and hit Jackson flush & hard, driving him to the turf for a 2 yard TFL. Talk about getting your lips knocked off…  First, the called play was totally wrong for the defensive formation it faced; second, the blocking scheme (stretch blocking to the right side of LOS) was absolutely inappropriate for a dive play when attacking 9 defenders in the box; thirdly, the LOT got his azz handed to him halting JJTBC in his tracks; and lastly, the crashing DE was left unblocked by the NU SB across from him (which actually appeared to be an influence block intended to let the DE overshoot the ball carrier, which he didn’t do).  The wrong play coupled with categorically piss poor blocking by the OL killed any momentum the ‘Cats had garnered via the remarkable forced fumble recovery deep in Wisky’s territory.  This one play set an ominous “Red D vs Purple O” precedent for the majority of the game.

●    On the ‘Cats’ second possession following a booming 48 yard punt that was fair-caught by PR Flynn Nagel at the ‘Cat 7, Thorson & Co. faced a 3rd-n-9 down.  When Thorson grabbed the snap from center standing in shotgun positon behind his “wall” of OL blockers, the same LOT mentioned in the bullet point above got his azz handed to him for the 2nd time in consecutive offensive series when his blocking target, a stunting-blitzing LB, bull rushed him flush into his grill, lifted the overwhelmed LOT clear off his feet then pancaked him flat on his derrière a yard in front of the feet of Thorson.  (I always assumed that a pancake was when an offensive player, usually an OL, rudely deposited his defensive blocking target on his behind.  My bad, I guess).  Meanwhile, the Wisky DE, a true frosh starting in his first career B1G game, in a designed stunt, slanted to his right across the LOS & flush into the chicklets of NU’s Senior SB, blasted him straight backwards and into Thorson chest in approximately 2 seconds time then planted the QB for what was to be the first sack by the Drunkard D for the day.  Can you say: “Lips Knocked off?”

●    10 sacks given up by the Purple OL – an NU and B1G record.  Craptastic “Lips Knocked off” blocking confirmed.

●    NU rushing statistics for the game: 67 total yards rushing off 20 attempts (this total does not include Thorson’s plus 15 yards rushing and his minus 51 yards from the 10 sacks added into the mix).  Craptastic blocking re-confirmed… Most definitely.   ‘Nuff said.

My stomach is turning over with the recollection of this whole sorted mess; so I’ll stop here for an overdue Maalox moment. 

Lack of Discipline
To beat the No. 10 ranked team in Division 1A, a team must play a near perfect game over the full 60 minutes.  Unfortunately, NU’s defensive secondary didn’t – and that unit’s collective multiple brainfarts cost the ‘Cats dearly.  True, this unit played very well in H-1, limiting Wisky’s media darling QB Alex Hornibrook to 48 total yards on 5-for-11 pass attempts with a forced fumble and 2 INTs to boot, all of which contributed mightily towards NU holding a tentative 10-7 scoring edge going into halftime.  However, I truly cannot say with any certainty what exactly occurred in H-2, but there were coverage breakdowns across many of these same players to fuel the imagination of interested onlookers such as myself.  Perhaps the members comprising this unit just ran out of gas or their individual coverage deficiencies basically got exposed (e.g.: getting suckered into run support mode reacting to a Wisky play-action pass play, instead of preserving discipline for their original pass coverage responsibilities), but the personnel from this unit didn’t play to the lofty playmaking reputation that earmarked them as a definite strength of the Wildcat D in several preseason evaluations. 

On the 3rd play from scrimmage in H-2, Hornibrook connected with favorite WR, Quintez Cephus for a 61-yard explosion pitch-n-catch with the veteran but oft injured Wildcat DB, Kyle Quero, in coverage, setting the table for an 11 yard TD scamper by Wisky’s feature RB, Frosh Phenom Jonathan Taylor on the very next play that erased NU’s short-lived lead and handed the home team a 14-10 scoreboard advantage.  On Wisky’s 2nd offensive series of the 2nd half, Hornibrook connected with fav WR #2, Danny Davis, for a 32-yard explosion pitch-n-catch with Montre Hartage covering, giving the Drunkards a 1st down at the NU 6.  2 plays later, the Wisky QB found Davis again for TD No.2 in as many H-2 possessions, expanding the Drunkard’s lead to 21-10, having burned a measly 3:50 off the scoreboard clock between scores.  Clearly, Wisky’s offensive brain trust uncovered an exploitable chink in the coverage armor of the Purple team’s secondary.  And the route was apparently on.  A 3rd explosion pitch-n-catch completion, that gained 33-yards and relocated the LOS at the ‘Cat 11, set-up a Wisky FG that added another 3 points, pushing the Drunkard lead to 24-10.  At this juncture, I felt that the Wildcat defensive secondary was breaking down and gassed simply because Mick McCall’s offense was mired in the muck of their 4 sequential 3-n-out series that spanned all of Q3 and into Q4.  The fatigued ‘Cat DBs failed to maintain their collective pass coverage disciplines and were falling victim to Wisky’s typical ball control formula for victory.  Ugh!!!

Shaken, Rattled & Rolled
To beat the No. 10 ranked team in Division 1A, a team must play a near perfect game over the full 60 minutes.    Unfortunately, NU’s ballyhooed, “NFL-Ready!!!” QB didn’t – and he hurt his team when it mattered most.  Upon multiple review sessions of BTN replay video, I’ve come the conclusion that Clayton Thorson did not (or wasn’t permitted to) audible when NU’s O faced a Wisky defensive set that was designed to stone that specific play cold – a restriction that was over and above the defense recognition factor.  I could be wrong, but IMHO, Mr.  Thorson was apparently handcuffed by some irrevocable dictum that mandated him to execute the exact play called by NU’s offensive brain trust (read: OC Mick McCall), because, when it was an absolute necessity to steer the Wildcat attack away from the Wisky D’s pre-set area of strength, he never did so.  Then again, perhaps he couldn’t switch to a more potentially successful play choice owning to the cumulative effects sustained from the incessant physical beat down that 10 sacks, multiple hurries and frequent post-release hits are bound to deliver on the Senior QB’s body, to say nothing regarding the associated mental beating he endured over the first 50 minutes of the contest.  As the beat down continued into Q4, it became painfully obvious that Thorson was pressing hard to make a significant play, or any positive play for that matter, that could reverse NU’s somnolent offense back to its proactive, competitive self.  I believe that his competitive mental state to make such a play was the major contributing factor that led Thorson to lose his sense of QB composure and throw a desperation pass on a 3rd-n-8 down from the NU 27 during the ‘Cats’ first possession of Q4 with the Wisky pass rush flush in his face.  That ill-advised pass attempt resulted in a Pick-6 INT by the Wisky secondary and handed the Drunkards a gift-wrapped defensive TD that increased the Wildcat deficit to 21 point (setting the score at 31-10).   I also believe that this impactful gaffe shook Thorson from his painful funk to reboot his mental computer to call & complete the play(s) that he is/was capable of making.  However, the lasting damage had been done because those critical 7 points off that Pick-6 represented Wisky’s margin for victory as the final gun sounded to end NU’s comeback bid. 

Still, despite all the negatives regarding the ‘Cats’ prior offensive field play breakdowns, Clayton & Co. had ball in hand with 69 clicks left on the game clock to deliver some miracle ESPN Top Ten highlight drive to tie the score at 31 all.  That pipe dream proved itself to be as short-lived as it was a fanciful fabrication when the ‘Cats stared at the formidable  playmaking challenges of pushing the bean 97 yards to score that crazy equalizer TD in the game’s final minute.  The fact that Thorson held onto the pill much too long while scrambling around his own end zone scanning the Wisky secondary for an open WR target only to get sacked one final time for a game-ending safety, was no great surprise.  It was simply the last reality check in a series of previous reality checks shoved down the throats of the Wildcat O at the hands of the well-coached Drunkard D.  It’s what the 10th ranked team within the pantheon of 2017 Division 1A football programs is supposed to do when battling a pesky, weaker conference foe that will not surrender meekly.      

Vanilla Is Still… Well, Vanilla
Silly me… I must admit that I played the ultimate fool after last weekend’s blowout “W” against the ‘Cats’ previous opponent, BuGS-U.  That was the game in which NU’s offensive brain trust rolled-out a game plan that included a heavy dose of their vertical passing attack.  So naturally, I assumed that the yardage production success that Thorson & his WR corps had garnered against the Gnats the previous Saturday would be reprised against the No. 10 ranked Wisky Drunkards, if only to set-up the Purple’s rushing attack and loosen-up an opposing D whose first priority was to keep a lid on the ‘Cats’ elusive feature back, JJTBC.  Boy, was I ever wrong on that supposition. 

I’ve repeatedly harped on the dubious play calling of Fitz and his OC Mick McCall in comments above, so I won’t belabor the point(s) by restating them here.  Suffice it to say that if a team’s offensive play callers insist on rolling-out and executing plays from the same section of the offensive playbook week in and week out, like holding fast to a game plan with a hefty emphasis on the rushing attack, if that plan doesn’t produce expected results, then it’s incumbent upon those same play callers to switch to other playbook chapters in which their O has demonstrated success in prior game time situations.  It took Fitz & McCall 50 minutes to reach that change point, and when they did, their QB, their WR corps and their much maligned OL responded with some of their best offensive field play of the contest via the vertical passing game.  Again… If only that change point had arrived 10 minutes earlier and allowed the Purple D enough time to catch their collective breaths and, perhaps, had given Thorson pause to reconsider the consequences of his frenetic attempt to pull a scoring rabbit out of his Purple helmet.  Yes, this ka-vitching is all shoulda, woulda, coulda; but it’s a substantial item of note.  The deep scar from that damn avoidable Pick-6 is gonna smart for quite a long time.   


So after losing their B1G conference opener against the reigning West Division champion Wisky Drunkards, the Wildcats’ preseason goal of competing for that elusive B1G Division championship is nothing more than a painful distant memory.  If that train ever reappears, it will be the direct result of another West Division team having their way with the Big, Bad Badgers if/when they deliver the goods off their own successful upset bid.  Frankly, those trump cards ain’t in the hand that the ‘Cats have dealt themselves.  The only thing left to do from this point forward is flush the past and exercise the appropriate due diligence to control the challenges that are currently visible in your sniper scope – and the immediate target in the Wildcats’ crosshairs is the 4th ranked Division 1A State Penn Inmates, NU’s homecoming foe this coming Saturday.  If the ‘Cats play the entire 60 minutes of that grudge match with the same ultra-competitive passion, heart and intelligence demonstrated over those final 10 minutes from last Saturday’s come-from-behind effort against the Drunkards, they can and will acquit themselves with the pride of knowing that they played their very best ball of the 2017 season thus far, regardless of the final scoreboard tally. 

I fully expect the ‘Cats to do just that.   

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.

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