The 2006 season was disasterous before it even started for the Northwestern Wildcats. The sudden unexpected death of head coach Randy Walker just weeks before the season devastated the team and university. To fill the void left by Walker's passing, Northwestern turned toward Pat Fitzgerald, the standout Northwestern linebacker from the early 1990's.
Their season started off with an emotional win over Walker's alma mater, Miami of Ohio. But then it all came crashing down. It started with an embarrassing loss to Div. II-A New Hampshire. Once the conference schedule started the offense struggled without Brett Basanez. Quarterback CJ Bacher was injured in August forcing the Wildcats to play freshman Mike Kafka. With nothing resembling a passing game, defenses teed off on Tyrell Sutton. The ultimate insult came when the Wildcats gave up a 35 point second half lead to Michigan State to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Though they didn't make a bowl game, Northwestern did finish strong by playing tough against Michigan and pulling out victories over Iowa and Illinois after Bacher returned from his injury. Going into this season the Wildcats return 16 starters and Pat Fitzgerald is fully established as head coach. It's his team now, and expectations are Northwestern will improve from last year.
As I said, the 2006 offense was terrible, but then the injury to Bacher made them a one dimensional team. Kafka and Andrew Brewer shared the QB duty but neither player could put points on the board. When Bacher returned he ignited the offense throwing for 1172 yards in the last five games. This year he has a firm grasp on the starting job despite sitting out the spring with an off season injury. In fact the coaches are so certain of Bacher's starting status that Brewer has been moved to wide receiver to take advantage of his athletic ability.
Bacher will have one less target to throw to since Shaun Herbert is gone from the wide receiver squad. Herbert led the team in catches the past two years, so his loss hurts. But the good news for Northwestern is that they do return Ross Lane, Eric Peterman, and Rasheed Ward. The trio combined for a total of 75 catches last year. With Brewer in the mix, the coaches are very optimistic their wide receivers can be play makers. With Bacher at quarterback they should be more productive in 2007.
Without question the key player on the offense is running back Tyrell Sutton. How is this guy just a junior? It seems like he's been around forever. With a more effective passing game to loosen up the defense, Sutton has a chance to return to his freshman form that saw him gain 1474 yards. In 2006 it was like the coaches forgot how good he was giving him 60 fewer carries than his frosh season. Still he managed to crack exactly 1000 yards. This year I have to think the coaches will wise up and feed him the ball regularly. He's the best player on the offense, so they would be crazy not to.
The offensive line has some good points and some bad points. The center position is nailed down by senior Trevor Rees. He may be the best center in the conference, but he has a troubled past. He sat out the 2005 season with academic problems, and this year he was suspended from spring practice with a DUI. He may be questionable for the first few games but he'll be back in time for conference play.
Dylan Thiry anchors the left tackle spot. He's a superb pass blocker but some say he's a liability in the run game. The guards and right tackle spots are not 100% settled yet, so expect some shuffling around. They have some good candidates with starting experience for the guard spots so they should be ok there. But right now it looks like the right tackle spot will fall on sophomore Kurt Mattes. He was highly recruited out of high school, but hasn't seen the field in college yet.
Though the coach has changed the philosophy has stayed the same. Northwestern likes to spread you out with four wide receivers hoping to find a mismatch. They will run the powerful Sutton at you very effectively. What this team misses is the scrambling ability Brett Basanez brought to their arsenal. The key player will be Bacher. If he can throw the ball effectively the running game will open up and this could be a good offense.
|Linebacker Adam Kadela|
Last year the defensive line was inexperienced and not very deep. They had trouble pressuring the quarterback and gave up 4.3 ypc. Two freshmen emerged to claim starting positions, and now Corey Wootton and Adam Hahn look like they have major star potential. Wootton has the most potential to be a major offense disruptor. He'll likely draw the double teams that allow the other linemen room to make plays. Everybody in the two deep returns, and with all that experience this could be the best defensive line the Wildcats have seen in years.
Losses are heavy at linebacker as Northwestern has to replace Nick Roach and Demetrius Eaton who combined for 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 3 TFL. The leading candidates to replace them are Eddie Simpson and Mike Denard. Simpson claimed the starting job for the last four games of the year so the drop off isn't that bad there. Denard takes the weak side spot, but he's a bit slow and probably better suited for middle linebacker. The good news is Adam Kadela returns in the middle. He led the team in tackles last year, but has a history of leg injuries. Overall the group has great size and won't get pushed around, but as you would expect they are a bit slow meaning they could be a liability in coverage and probably will not be very effective in blitzing the quarterback.
The secondary is anchored by the safeties. Brendan Smith and Reggie McPherson don't have NFL potential, but they are solid players and Smith earned honorable mention Big Ten honors last year. Cornerback is another story. Deante Battle is small (5'10" 180 lbs) and teams love to pick on him. He's a senior though and with his experience Northwestern is depending on him to be the #1 corner. Lining up on the other side will be sophomore Sherrick McMannis. He's bigger than Battle and more potential. He started four games last year so he's not totally green either.
Overall this defense should be better than last year. Some young players should start coming of age. The defensive line should hold up better and get more pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers will be physical, but slow, and the secondary should be good down the middle and adequate on the outsides. There is talent in some places, lack of it in others, and not much in reserve. Riding this defense is like driving your 1984 Chrysler across country: It's running ok now, but one or two key injuries and you could be in big trouble.
|Reggie McPherson is thankful he doesn't have to tackle Derrick Williams this year.|
The Wildcats have to replace their kicker and punter. Three guys are still jockeying for the two spots, which tells me none of them must be all conference material. Brendan Smith will get a crack at returning punts. He returned four punts and averaged almost 12 yards per return last year. Sherrick McMannis will return kicks after averaging a respectable 21 yards per return in 2006. The kicking game will struggle while the return game should be ok.
The schedule is a very favorable one that gives Northwestern the chance to qualify for a bowl game. The non-conference schedule features Northeastern, Nevada, Duke, and Eastern Michigan. Nevada will be surprisingly tough, but three wins should be manageable there. The conference schedule gives the Wildcats a break with Penn State and Wisconsin missing. They get Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana at home and should win two of those. Northwestern could go into the last game of the year sitting on five wins and needing a win at Illinois to go bowling.
Call It A Good Year If...
Bacher throws for 2500 yards. The offensive line holds up and Tyrell Sutton rushes for 1500 yards. Corey Wootton registers 15 sacks and the defensive line stuffs the run. The linebackers play above their potential and the secondary does ok. The kicker situation works itself out and special teams turn out alright. They win three of four out of conference games and manage wins against Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, and Indiana. Best case scenario I could see this team winning seven games.
Call It A Bad Year If...
Bacher gets injured for the third time and they have to go back to relying on Mike Kafka. The offensive line doesn't come together and struggles. Fitzgerald forgets that Tyrell Sutton is good and stuff and fails to give him 200 carries. The linebackers chase people all over the field but never seem to catch anyone. The corners get smoked often. One or two injuries anywhere force them to dip into the reserves. I can't see them losing more than one non-conference game. But I can see them losing to Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. A worst case scenario should be finishing 4-8.
The Wildcats should be better than last year. Fitzgerald has been in the job for a year now so stability should be setting in. They return eight starters on offense and eight on defense, and some of those guys are actually kind of good. Sutton and Wootton are stars. But there are issues to be addressed. The offensive line is unsettled, the kicking game is a wildcard, the linebackers are slow, and the cornerbacks are suspect. I think they will win three out of four non-conference games. Early conference losses to Ohio State and Michigan will battle test this team. Provided they stay healthy, I think they will beat Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana. That will give them six wins and should qualify them for a bowl game.