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Know thy Opponent 2008: Northwestern Wildcats

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I feel like the tone of my previews so far have taken "the sky is falling" tenor that many Purdue fans are ascribing to these days. In reality, I have no idea what will happen after the first game of the season. Right now I have us at 2-4 six games into the season, but I really think we could be anywhere from 1-5 to 5-1 because each game (aside from Northern Colorado and Ohio State) is wide open. This can be evidenced by the fact that the Penn State, Oregon, and Notre Dame losses I have predicted are at least close losses. When all is said and done, I think Purdue can somehow find a way to 8-4, but the season very well could turn out to be a .500 campaign much like the 2002 season with a number of very close games.

Another one of those potential close games comes up next on the list as we head to Northwestern on October 18th. The Wildcats will be turning the tables on us by hosting us for homecoming as we have done to them more times than any other opponent in our history.

Last season for the Wildcats:

Ah, if not for Duke. Northwestern had quite an up and down season last night in finishing with a 6-6 overall record and 3-5 within the conference. Much to the lamentation of my colleague over at Lake the Posts, Northwestern continued its trend of completely botching one game of a fairly easy non-conference schedule. The Blue Devils broke a 22 game losing streak and notched their first win over a Division 1-A team since 2004 with a 20-14 win in Evanston last year. Sadly, that win likely cost the Wildcats a bowl bid, which would have been the Big Ten’s ninth last season.
The Wildcats did have some good moments last season. They were able to notch wins over three bowl teams in Nevada, Michigan State, and Indiana. That’s not exactly a who’s who of BCS powers, but they are quality wins that helped to set the stage for what could be a very big 2008. A 6-6 2007 is truly indicative of the Wildcats’ play last year. Northwestern got destroyed at Ohio State, but played Michigan very well. Four of Northwestern’s wins fall into the "close wins" category by a touchdown or less, but games against Iowa, Purdue, Michigan, and Duke were games the Wildcats shot themselves in the foot more than anything. Against Purdue Northwestern dominated the 2nd and 3rd quarters, but fell apart in the first and fourth quarters.

Much more is expected of Northwestern this season. The Wildcats open with Syracuse, at Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio for what should be a 4-0 start, but that is far from guaranteed given Northwestern’s history. Even in their shocking year of 1995 the Wildcats lost to Miami of Ohio after upsetting Notre Dame to start the season. The Big Ten schedule couldn’t start any easier as the Wildcats go to Iowa, host Michigan State and Purdue, then go to Indiana and Minnesota. Northwestern’s most difficult stretch is right at the end of the season, but two of its final three games are at home. A trip to Michigan is sandwiched between home games against Ohio State and Illinois. Because the Big Ten is so wide open this year and Northwestern has the fortune of not playing Penn State or Wisconsin, the Wildcats can realistically think of a 10-2 season.

Northwestern offense:

The mark of Northwestern’s most successful teams since their mid-90’s renaissance has been experienced quarterback play combined with a very talented running back. In 2008 the Wildcats will have both, and the rest of the league had better take notice. Throughout history, most Big Ten teams tend to look at Northwestern on the schedule and automatically chalk that game up as a win. Because of this, Northwestern has been able to sneak up on a number of teams in its successful seasons for surprise wins. This was the case in 1995, 2000, and 2005 when the Wildcats came from seemingly out of nowhere to pull upset after upset and get to bowl games.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher returns for his senior season after throwing for more than 3,600 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He ran Northwestern’s spread offense well last season, but for the Wildcats to have more success this year he must cut down on his interceptions. Bacher found the wrong guy 19 times last year, equaling his number of touchdown passes. Bacher also ran for four scores last year, but struggled behind an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks.

In the backfield with Bacher is Tyrell Sutton, who is one of the most talented running backs in the conference. Sutton struggled mightily with an ankle injury last season, but still led the team with 522 yards on the ground. His numbers have dropped off each season from 1,472 yards as a freshman and 1,000 as a sophomore, but Sutton did not have a carry in six of Northwestern’s 12 games last season. He also had just three carries for 14 yards against Nevada, meaning he averaged over 100 yards per game in the five full games he played. He is expected to be at full strength this season, so you can count on him to return to his freshman form of a few years ago. In his absence Omar Conteh filled in admirably with 447 yards and five touchdowns. He also had 20 receptions out of the backfield for 215 yards and two scores.

In Northwestern’s spread offense the ball is usually distributed fairly evenly amongst the receivers. This was the case last year as Northwestern did not have a single receiver over 800 yards, but the top three each topped the 600 yard mark. Kim Thompson graduated, but top target Eric Peterman returns having caught 66 passes for 744 yards and three scores. Ross Lane caught 49 balls for 649 yards and a team high 7 touchdowns last season and also comes back. Rasheed Ward will look to have a larger role in the offense afeter catching 46 passes for 434 yards last season, while the fourth starting receiver is listed as junior Andrew Brewer, who missed all of 2007 with a broken arm. Brewer is a former quarterback that lost the battle with Bacher and has since moved to receiver. Brewer is the only underclassman listed as a starter among the skill players. Everyone else at the top of the depth chart is a senior.

The offensive line will be the difference maker for the Wildcats this year, and a pair of redshirt freshmen must perform. Al Netter at one of the tackle positions and Ben Burkett are listed as starters after spring ball and both will need to grow up in a hurry. Northwestern’s line is a bit undersized by Big Ten standards, as senior guard Joel Belding is the only player listed at 300 pounds or more. Kurt Mattes and Keegan Kennedy are currently listed as the other two starters. All told, the Wildcats return just a pair of starters on the offensive line from last season. As Lake the Posts mentioned yesterday, these aren’t minor tweaks. This could be a good thing or a bad thing considering the sack issues from last year.

Northwestern defense:

The Wildcats return a surprisingly experienced team defensively, with 10 of the 11 current starters in at least their junior seasons. Only sophomore cornerback Justin Vaughn is an underclassman. This unit will need to show improvement against the run. Northwestern allowed its opponents to run for more than 2,200 yards against them last season. Opponents also found the end zone 26 times on the ground. Purdue had perhaps its best rushing day against them last season when Jaycen Taylor returned from his broken arm in a big way for 157 yards and two scores. He would have had a third if not for a goal line fumble that was recovered in the end zone by Dustin Keller.

Northwestern’s defense did not feature a wealth of tackles last season, as Adam Kadela was far and away the leader with 128. The linebacker has graduated, but his mates in Prince Kwateng and Quentin Davie saw significant action last year and return to anchor the linebacker spots. Malcolm Arrington will step into the third starting linebacker role. Arrington has notched a lone interception as his only defensive statistic during his first three years in Evanston.

The defensive line should be the strength of the unit, but they will need to improve on a pass rush that only had 18 sacks last season. David Ngene led the team with five of those sacks, but he needs to be replaced. 6’7" Corey Wootton is an absolutely massive defensive end that will cause tons of matchup problems. He only got to the quarterback once last season, but was a team leader in pass breakups with his frame. He will be paired with Kevin Mims on the other side, while tackles John Gill and Adam Hahn will plug the middle. Gill is supposed to be the best player on the D-line. Gill had 50 tackles with four sacks last season, and can disrupt things in the middle quite nicely.

The secondary only managed nine interceptions last season, but allowed fewer than 3,000 yards passing. All four listed starters also saw some action last year, though safety Brendan Smith played in just three games. Sherrick McManis is a good junior corner to build around. Last season he was third on the team in tackles with 75.The other safety position is manned by junior Brad Phillips, who had 55 tackles last year. Expect Northwestern to struggle defensively until a consistent pass rush develops, but the secondary is experienced enough to hold the fort down if needed.

Northwestern Special Teams:

Northwestern returns both of its specialists in punter Stefan Demos and kicker Amado Villarreal. Villarreal was 12 of 18 on placements last season. He was almost automatic inside 30 yards and from beyond 40, but for some reason he struggled in the 30-39 range. In that range he hit just one kick in five attempts, but had enough range to be 3 of 4 from further distance. Demos was good, but not great with a 40 yard punting average.

McManis is expected to be the top kick returner for the second year in a row. He averaged 23 yards per return last year and could be a threat to break one. Peterman will handle the punt return duties again. Last season he had only 11 returns and averaged nearly seven yards per return. Both coverage units were pretty good for Northwestern last season, though they did surrender one kickoff return for a touchdown.

Intangibles:

I am not sure if getting on a roll can be an intangible, but that is often what happens when Northwestern has a good season. They get hot and end up beating two or three teams in a row they probably shouldn’t beat, giving them all kinds of confidence. They rode this momentum to an undefeated Big ten championship in 1995. The same nearly occurred in 2000. That season they got a surprise share of the championship after losing to Purdue, and would have won it outright if not for a shocking upset against Iowa. More than anyone, I think, Northwestern thrives on taking advantage of teams looking past them.

It also helps that coach Pat Fitzgerald is settling into his third season as coach. He is the youngest head coach in the country, but as a Northwestern legend as a player it would take an awful lot to draw him away from his alma mater. He showed some success last year, and with a breakthrough season this year he could easily set himself up for a JoePa like career if he is able to maintain success in Evanston. The Northwestern administration is understandably patient with him, and this could be the year that it begins to pay dividends.

Game Outlook:

In a season full of toss-ups, this may be the biggest one. Last season we were able to score a victory because Jaycen Taylor had maybe his best day as a Boilermaker. As a team we ran for more than 200 yards, and in our style of offense it is very hard for us to lose when we run for such a high number. If we are able to do that again, and it is possible, I can see us winning this game with ease.

I think confidence will play a large role in this game. The only two times we have lost to the Wildcats under Tiller have been in the midst of long losing streaks. Facing Northwestern after Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State (and the fact it is in the middle of our usual Black October) means we already could have our confidence stripped. Conversely, the Wildcats could have a ton of confidence in themselves and be on a long winning streak by game time. How we respond to the first half of the season will determine how we start the second half.

Prediction:

We have always played Northwestern very well, even when they are good. I think we can get to the quarterback and move the ball on them. Because of that, I think we can win, and they can busy themselves with knocking off everyone else. This is one of the few teams where I feel we match up very well. Purdue 35, Northwestern 31

Additional note:

The Big Ten announced kickoff times for the first three games of the season today. Not surprisingly, Central Michigan and Northern Colorado carry noon kickoffs. I thought maybe Central Michigan would be on ESPN again, but it joins Northern Colorado on the Big Ten Network. Oregon will be at 3:30 and national televised on ABC. I'll have more thoughts in this week's Boilermakings later.