The Northwestern Wildcats continued their reputation as a dangerous opponent last year. They are part of the mushy middle of the Big Ten that doesn't contend for the BCS but is still capable of knocking off a better opponent on any given Saturday. They went 7-4 in the regular season with a 5-3 record in the Big Ten including wins over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State. And of course Nittany Lion fans remember the Wildcats were a 4th and 15 desperation throw from Michael Robinson to Isaac Smolko away from defeating Penn State. But Northwestern went on to earn an invitation to the Vitalis Sun Bowl to play UCLA where they lost in a 50-38 shootout despite a 416 yard and 2 TD performance by Brett Basanez.
Tragedy struck the Wildcat program in June of this year when head coach Randy Walker died from a sudden heart attack. Former All-American Wildcat linebacker Pat Fitzgerald was named the new head coach in his place. Fitzgerald was instrumental in raising Northwestern from status of Big Ten doormat to respectability in the early 1990's winning the Bednarik award as well as winning the Nagurski award twice. Now he is tasked with taking Northwestern from respectable to powerhouse status.
In their first game this year, Northwestern won an emotional game at Randy Walker's alma mater, Miami (OH), by a score of 21-3. In their home opener the next weekend they lost another emotional game to Div. I-AA powerhouse New Hampshire. They regrouped and managed to pull out a hard fought 14-6 victory over Eastern Michigan the following week. Then last week they had five turnovers in a 31-21 loss to Nevada on a Thursday night game.
The Wildcats are led, if you care to use that word, by their redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Kafka. Kafka had everyone saying "Brett who?" after his 13-17 and 1 TD performance against Miami. But after that stellar 148 QB efficiency rating performance, his QB rating has gone 59.4, 55.6, and 42.9 in the last three games. Kafka has 5 INT and only one passing TD on the year. But besides having perhaps the coolest last name in college football, Kafka is also a dangerous weapon with his legs. On the season Kafka has rushed for 275 yards and 2 TD, including a 111 rushing yard performance against Nevada. Freshman quarterback Andrew Brewer also saw significant playing time against Eastern Michigan which may indicate a QB by platoon against the Nittany Lions if Kafka struggles early.
RB Tyrell Sutton returns from his outstanding 1474 yard 16 TD freshman campaign from a year ago. Last year he was a workhorse against the Nittany Lions carrying the ball 32 times for 112 yards and 2 TD and catching 3 passes for 32 yards. Sutton has yet to break 100 yards in a game this season, but he has topped 90 yards in each of his last three games and has 2 TD on the season. He is also a threat to catch a pass with 8 receptions for 59 yards and a TD on the year. Also seeing significant playing time at running back this year is senior Terrell Jordan who is averaging 4.6 ypc and has 3 TD.
When passing the ball the Wildcats still love to spread you out and try to hit several different targets. Kafka's main target is senior Shaun Herbert who leads the team with 18 catches for 133 yards. Rasheed Ward is second on the team with 12 catches. Ross Lane, who torched UCLA for seven catches and 138 yards in the Sun Bowl has yet to duplicate that performance. Eric Peterman and Sam Cheatham may slip in there with a catch once in a while, but right now much like Penn State this group of receivers is being prevented from showing what they can do as their quarterback struggles to learn the college game.
The offensive line is a respectable group, but they miss the leadership of right tackle Zach Strief. Center Trevor Rees returns after sitting out 2005 for academic reasons, but he was the regular starter in 2003 and 2004. Overall this group is doing a fine job averaging 195 yards rushing per game and have only given up 5 sacks on the year. If you take out Kafka's 275 rushing yards they are still respectable at 126 ypg. So far they have outrushed all four of their opponents.
One thing Pat Fitzgerald vowed to do when he took over was toughen up the defense. This is like Bob Dylan vowing to improve his English. It can't get much worse than it already is. The Wildcats were abysmal last season allowing opponents to score an average of 32.3 ppg while giving up 193.6 yards on the ground and 306.7 yards through the air. But hand it to Fitzy, this year the Wildcats are quite respectable as the #27 ranked defense in the NCAA, only two spots behind Penn State. We'll see if they continue that trend against the Big Ten teams.
The defensive line was quite doubtful going into the season, as Second Team All-Big Ten tackle Barry Coefield as well as his DT partner Trevor Shultz are gone. Starting in their place are two freshmen, Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas. Hahn has pretty decent size at 295, but Thomas is undersized for a DT only listed at 265 lbs on the roster. Junior David Ngene has considerable playing time at the one DE position and redshirt freshman Corey Wootton is making some considerable noise at the other DE with 20 tackles and 2 sacks.
Northwestern has recently had a tradition of great linebackers. Nick Roach is the leading tackler with 21. Adam Kadela is second on the team with 15. Fans may remember Kadela intercepted a pass against Penn State last year. They are two fine linebackers but they miss NCAA career tackle leader Tim "Angry Irishman" McGarigle. Kadela has moved to MLB this year and replacing McGarigle is Demetrius Eaton at OLB. This group doesn't have any A.J. Hawks or Paul Posluszny's in the group, but they are probably the most solid group on the defense and do a decent job when the defensive line can keep them from being swallowed up by 300 lb offensive linemen.
The secondary is functional, but not great. Senior Marquis Cole starts at corner and has 5 career interceptions including one against Michael Robinson last year. Deante Battle is the other corner. He has one INT this year. Strong Safety Reggie McPherson has played in every game since 2003 but only has one career INT. Sophomore Brendan Smith seems to be more of a playmaker with 3 career INT. Overall this group is pretty good on experience, but then they are pretty good at giving up a lot of yards last year.
The kickers? Eh. Not so good. PK Joel Howells went 11 for 21 last year and was mostly used only on short field goals. You may also remember him kicking two onsides kicks against UCLA that were returned for touchdowns by the same guy. This season he is 1 for 3 on FG attempts with one FG blocked. His one make was from 39 yards. So while Penn State fans may be moaning about Kevin Kelly's 8 out of 12 performance so far this year, take heart, at least we don't have this guy. Slade Larscheid does the punting duties for the Wildcats and is averaging a very mediocre 38.4 yards per punt. The one bright spot on special teams is freshman kickoff returner Sherrick McManis who is ranked 18th in the NCAA in kickoff returns with a 27.8 yard average.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Expect a lot of the usual "spread them out and attack them" offense you're used to seeing from a Northwestern team. Only without Brett Basanez, Mark Philmore, and Jonathan Fields there won't be much attacking outside footballs attacking the chests of Penn State defenders. Their best chance for success is to run QB draw plays all day long and try to take advantage of Kafka's running ability. They are not very good outside of Terrell Sutton and the "ok" offensive line. The Wildcat offense is averaging 2.5 turnovers a game against some pretty weak defenses by Big Ten standards. I expect Penn State will put some decent pressure on Kafka using only the front four. The linebackers will key on Sutton all day and swarm on him immediately. And after playing against Ginn and Gonzalez, the secondary will shut down this less than average group of receivers. After playing Ohio State in the rain and muck in the Shoe last weekend, this team is going to feel like playing St. Kathrine's Pop Warner team. I'll be shocked if Northwestern scores in double digits. It's almost not even fair.
When Penn State has the ball
I'm looking for Penn State to come out throwing. Anthony Morelli looked pretty dejected on the sideline after giving up those two late picks last week. The coaches are going to try to get him going early so they can pat him on the butt and say, "See, you won't have to play Ohio State every weekend." Either Butler or Williams will have a big day in this one. Once Penn State gets out to a lead the Tony Hunt show will begin. Their inexperienced defensive line should be no match for our running game so we will grind them down with Hunt, Kinlaw, Hahn, and Snow until they cry uncle. All in all we should be able to do whatever we want with this team so I look for the coaches to work on some new things and try to build some confidence in the passing game.