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Know thy Opponent 2008: Northern Colorado Bears

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I wanted to thank my readers for making the "Best Wins of the Tiller Era" such a rousing success. It was an incredibly fun series to write. A couple of you pointed out how nothing has been added to the list since 2004. I’m not really surprised, considering our best wins in that time have come against the champions of the MAC (Akron in 2005, Central Michigan twice in 2007). That may be good for keeping mediocre bowl streaks alive, but it gives an unfortunate definition of mediocrity to the program. The truth is that we haven’t had a program defining win in the past three seasons. In fact, the only win we had over a good team during the 2004 season came against Ohio State. We are way overdue to add to this list, and I hope we can get at least one in 2008. There are a couple of good candidates in Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, and even a Michigan team that appears to be a little down. It remains to be seen whether we will get one, however.

With that, we can look ahead to Joe’s final campaign. In doing so, I plan on expanding the "Know thy Opponent" series to involve the perspective of some other bloggers. That means a full two entries on at least nine of our twelve opponents. I can’t track down a Northern Colorado or CMU blog. I’m also pretty sure I am persona non grata with most Notre Dame blogs after last year's unpleasantness. Just because I ended up being exactly right doesn’t justify the tone I originally took.

2008 will begin much like the last couple of seasons started. We will face off against a 1-AA opponent in our home opener. In a bit of bizarre twist the 2006 opener against Indiana State, possibly the worst division 1 team in the nation, was frighteningly close. Though we won 60-35 it was a five point game with five minutes left in the third quarter and I had no confidence we could have stopped their offense had they gotten the ball. In 2007 against Eastern Illinois, a regular in the 1-AA playoffs, we crushed the Panthers 52-6. Our 2008 opener against Northern Colorado features an opponent much more similar to Indiana State in terms of record than Eastern Illinois.

Last Season for the Bears:

It is sad that the most famous thing Northern Colorado is known for football-wise is Mitch Cozad. You may remember him as the former backup punter that stabbed the starting punter in the leg in order to get more playing time. That was about the only way the Bears made headlines last season, as their only win in a 1-11 campaign came at home against #19 (in the 1-AA poll) Montana State 16-13. This is a team that lost 31-0 to Division II power Chadron State in its home opener. Northern Colorado wasn’t even able to lead a game until the Montana State game, which was the ninth game on the schedule. The Bears faced just one Division 1-A opponent all season and they didn’t fare well in that. They opened the season by heading to Hawaii for a 63-6 beating against the only team that finished undefeated before the bowls.

It is no wonder the Bears struggled, as last season was the first that they were eligible for postseason play after transitioning from Division II. In Division II they do have some history, winning back to back National Championships in 1996 and 1997. Playing in the Big Sky Conference with perennial power Montana has proven to be a difficult proposition. Northern Colorado has won just two games in the two past seasons, with the other win coming in a 14-13 upset of ranked Texas State in 2006.

There is a major link between Northern Colorado and Purdue. The Bears are coached by former Purdue assistant coach Scott Downing. Downing is entering his third year at the helm of the Bears, and only has a 2-22 record to show for it after leaving an assistant’s job at Nebraska. Downing was part of Tiller’s original staff from 1997-2002, which was easily the greatest period of success Tiller has had here. Downing served as assistant head coach as well as the coach of both special teams and running backs. Downing also was a long-time assistant to Tiller at Wyoming. He has been a quality assistant for years, but he has struggled as a head coach. This is of note considering he was once a candidate to replace Tiller.

Northern Colorado Offense:

Part of the reason Northern Colorado struggled mightily last season was its inability to score points. The offense managed to find the end zone just 18 times in 12 games while they only had four other drives end in successful field goal attempts. That means just 22 drives yielded points over the course of last season, slightly less than two per game. Remember, they were shut out by a Division II team.

Leading rusher David Woods returns for his senior season. Woods is a junior college transfer from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. He only stands 5’8", but has some size at 210 pounds. Last season he rushed for 715 yards and five touchdowns. Ironically he did not see action in the team’s only win against Montana State. Woods is fair and away the Bears’ best returning running back.

At quarterback starter Dominic Breazeale carried just 1400 yards and 8 touchdowns across the graduation stage with him. Mike Vlahogeorge was last season’s backup and he completed 66 passes for 606 yards and three scores. If that name sounds familiar to Purdue fans it should. Vlahogeorge re-wrote Indiana high school record books at Lafayette Jeff for three years before originally committing Indiana. The Hoosiers thought they had stolen a prize quarterback from Purdue’s backyard, but Vlahogeorge was never able to grab the starting job in Bloomington before transferring. He is moving to tight end for this season, while his former number 1 target in high school was recently selected in the first round of the NFL draft as a tight end. We know him as Dustin Keller.

According to the Northern Colorado website a transfer by the name of Bryan Waggener appears to be the front-runner for the starting quarterback job. The remaining returning players have completed a total of one pass, and that was a halfback pass from Woods. Incoming freshman Nigel Nelson is also expected to compete with Woods for the starting running back spot.

The returning receivers are underwhelming at best. All-Big Sky tight end Ryan Chesla was number two on the team last year with 37 catches for 444 yards and three scores. Cory Fauver was next with 41-404-1, but the number one and four receivers graduated.

I think the only things that needs to be said about Northern Colorado’s offensive line is that it allowed eight sacks in a spring scrimmage (not game, scrimmage) against its own players. Something tells me the Bears don’t have the New York Giants’ defensive line, either. Jacob Thornbrue is the best lineman at 6’6" 320 and is a three year starter at left tackle. 6’5" 315 pound lineman James Zapp is the only other lineman even close to Big Ten-sized.

Northern Colorado Defense:

This unit wasn’t terrible last season, but since the offense couldn’t score in a women’s prison with a fistful of pardons it didn’t matter. The offense scored just 136 points all last season while the defense gave up 415. Sadly, this unit will be the strength of the team as they return several players with experience. Senior Cristian Sarmento has led the team in tackles the past two seasons from his linebacker position and is paired with Joe Kenney to form a decent core. Defensive end John Eddy also brings two years of experience as a starter on the defensive line and seven sacks to go with 12.5 tackles for loss. Mike Vlahogeorge’s brother Matt is also a linebacker for the Bears.

Three different players tied for the lead last season in interceptions, and two of them in Max Hewitt and Stephen Michon return. All told the Bears picked off 14 passes last season. The Bears also recovered 14 fumbles, so ball security could be an issue against them. Seven starters return on the defense as well as the offense. They are a very young unit, but Downing appears to be building for the future with this defense. They should provide a bit stronger of a test than your typical 1-AA team.

Northern Colorado Special Teams:

Cozad is currently in jail and Rafael Mendoza, the guy he stabbed, has graduated. I have no idea who will be the starting punter, and with a history of the starter getting stabbed by jealous backups I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to step forward. As a team Northern Colorado was just 4-9 on field goals last season. Both Michael York (1 of 4) and Zak Bigelow (3 of 5) are back to compete for the starting job. All three of Bigelow’s makes came in the win against Montana State including the game-winner with four seconds left. Often times the offense was so punchless they couldn’t get into range for either kicker. The two split PAT duties, each missing one on the season.

On the rare occasion that Northern Colorado got to kickoff last season their coverage was atrocious. They gave up an average of 27 yards per return and surrendered two touchdowns. Punt coverage wasn’t much better at 8.6 yards per return and another touchdown given up.

Intangibles:

The altitude to Greeley, Colorado is 4,658 feet. This is much higher than West Lafayette’s 614 feet, so the Bears should be well-conditioned. Downing has also been with Tiller for years, so he knows Joe’s tendencies. Absolutely no one will be giving Northern Colorado a shot in this game. The same thing happened to Indiana State two years ago and the Sycamores scared us to death through most of three quarters before we finally pulled away. That was the first game I covered for this blog. It was about two and a half quarters longer than they should have stayed competitive. Since all 1-A vs. 1-AA are now measured vs. last year’s App. State-Michigan game we should beware. Appalachian State was a very, very good football team. Northern Colorado is far from that.

Game Outlook:

If we struggle with Northern Colorado for longer than the opening few series panic alarms should be going off in everyone’s head. We’re opening the season a week later than everyone else and I would honestly rather play someone else on August 30th then move another team to this date in place of Central Michigan so we can have an off week to prepare for Notre Dame. The only thing we truly stand to accomplish from this one is to give Joe Tiller his record-tying 84th win at Purdue. Considering that it would be the fourth such win over a Division 1-AA team I think we should strike the wins against Illinois State, Indiana State, and Eastern Illinois from the record. At least he can get revenge for Northern Colorado beating his alma mater last season.

I don’t like playing 1-AA teams. There is nothing to gain from playing them and everything to lose (ask Michigan). The Big Ten has also been embarrassed four times in the past two years with losses to 1-AA teams as Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota have fallen victim. At least Appalachian State, Southern Illinois, New Hampshire, and North Dakota State were really good 1-AA teams. Northern Colorado may be the type of team Indiana State would schedule for homecoming. Most of the time, though, these games are the blowouts they are expected to be. That means teams try to avoid major injuries in them, which we were unable to do against Indiana State two years ago.

If the Bears manage more than one scoring drive against our defense I would be shocked. They struggled to move against their own division last year and even got shut out by a Division II team. Our defense, while far from being the 1985 Chicago Bears, is still a Big Ten defense. It played well at times last season and I honestly think it will surprise some people. I expect the defensive line to be able to get into the backfield whenever it wants to based on the spring performance of Northern Colorado’s line.

Offensively we may struggle just a bit, but I do expect Painter to get into a rhythm and have a three or four touchdown day. This game could be a good warm-up as our own offensive line starts to gel together. Northern Colorado can play a bit of defense, so we should have to work just enough that it will be good for the line to come together. The same can be said for the receivers, as they need a game like this to get on the same page as Painter with Oregon coming to town the next week.

Prediction:

Even if the offense has a horrible day it would take something drastic for this game to be close. Northern Colorado couldn’t score points last year and has a brand new quarterback playing against a Big Ten defense. I don’t often predict a shutout, but this easily could be one. Painter throws for at least three scores while Sheets and Taylor each find the end zone once before giving way to the second string. A special teams or defensive score wouldn’t be shocking, either. Purdue 49, Northern Colorado 0 as Tiller ties Mollenkopf’s record easily.