Thursday, April 12, 2007
The reason? Not TV, according to an Eastern Michigan spokesman, but high school football.
According to the spokesman, the Wildcats-Eagles game was pushed ahead because of the Detroit Catholic High School League's playoffs. Representatives for Ford Field and the Catholic League could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but a schedule released on the Catholic League's Web site says the league's Prep Bowl is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Ford Field. Ford Field's online schedule lists very few events, showing neither the high school game nor the NU's game -- as well as no games for the NFL's Detroit Lions.
TV for the 6 p.m. game has yet to be determined, the spokesman said, with Eastern Michigan's games typically being broadcast locally by Comcast. ESPN will carry the Louisville-Connecticut game that evening.
And that's a big deal for Northwestern. The Wildcats' typically heralded offense sputtered in 2006, doomed by coaching mistakes, inconsistency at quarterback and some shoddy line play. Now, despite some questions on defense, nearly all eyes will be on how this unit -- for lack of a less NU-ingrained word -- responds.
Here's a position-by-position breakdown of a unit that finished 92nd nationally last season.
Running back: Two words -- Tyrell Sutton. Instead of asking "Why me?" after a 2006 campaign during which he was grossly underused, the junior now is taking on a stronger, more vocal leadership role, and apparently really impressing coach Pat Fitzgerald in the process. Also, though he had 474 fewer yards in 2006 than in 2005, his yards-per-carry was nearly as strong last year (5.3) as in 2005 (5.9).
Add senior Brandon Roberson (whose injury in 2005 opened the door for Sutton), and NU appears to have as strong a one-two combination as anyone in the Big Ten. The only problem: depth beyond No. 2. Junior Omar Conteh has missed all of spring and only has 12 career carries, senior Nathan Shanks switched to superback and redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons is, like all redshirt freshmen, unproven.
Wide receiver: Where are the stars? Actually, here's a better question: With this unit, who needs 'em? Assuming senior Kim Thompson (broken leg) gets healthy, this unit could go 10 deep with scholarship players. Granted, three of those are redshirt freshmen, but add to those seven diverse, multi-skilled players who all have multiple catches in an NU uniform, and you could have serious matchup problems for an unchanging group of opposing corners.
Junior Ross Lane has emerged as the top player in this group, using his size (6 foot 3) and speed to his advantage. Thompson (6 foot 4) also is tall and fast, while juniors Rasheed Ward and Eric Peterman have shown flashes. Nobody in this group is truly special (yet), but the depth is pretty much unparalleled.
Quarterback: QB? A question? But didn't Bacher clearly show he's ready to take over, navigating NU to two wins in his final three games? Yes. He did. But he also missed the beginning of the season with an injury, and, as mentioned before, missed the beggining of this spring with a different ailment. So durability is a question. As Bacher said himself Tuesday, "You need to learn how to stay healthy."
But that's not all. After the way Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee handled the quarterback situation last season, this position doesn't look to be 100 percent settled until Bacher takes that first snap against Northeastern ... and takes the first snap against Nevada, too. Sophomore Mike Kafka was the opening-day starter last year, and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has looked impressive this spring. You never know, but in all likelihood, only injuries will force Bacher out of the lineup -- meaning NU indeed might have its Brett Basanez replacement.
Superback/Tigh end: Hard to call this a weakness when the position traditionally has little impact in NU's spread offense, but if the Cats' bevy of recruits the last two years develops, this actually could turn into a weapon. That includes sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell (a somewhat-touted recruit in 2006), along with three incoming freshman. Cameron Joplin, who looked like an absolute monster in his highlight tape, could make an immediate impact.
Offensive line: This unit struggled more than any other in 2006. The line lost All-Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief and, more importantly, offensive line coach James Patton (who left for Oklahoma) -- and it showed. The Cats allowed 26 sacks in 2006, compared to 11 the year before. The 2005 Cats rushed for 2,323 yards on a 5.0 average, while the 2006 Cats totaled just 1,705 yards on 4.0 yards per carry. Now, tackle Ryan Keenan and guard Joe Tripodi are gone. Can coach Bret Ingalls and seniors Dylan Thiry and Trevor Rees get this unit to jell? It might be the key to the Cats' success.
... One thing not mentioned above is coaching. After all, NU had most of this talent last season and did very little with it -- instead spending most of the early part of the season with an attack so conservative it would put *insert really conservative Republican here* to shame, and one that seemed to go out of its way to not give Sutton the ball. Will that come back, or will the balanced attack seen late in the season continue into next? It seems that's a question, too, and maybe that's the real key to the Cats' offensive success.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
But what about the other eight games? The big ones -- the ones that earn bowl berths and, during those rare years, conference championships?
So, in Part 2 of our 2007 preview, we'll analyze the Cats' conference schedule. But instead of breaking it down game-by-game, the contests will be lumped into categories.
Addition By Subtraction: Wisconsin and Penn State
Before they even play a game, the Cats are big winners for avoiding these two teams. Bret Bielema, in his coaching debut, pushed the Badgers to a one-loss season, and they should be just as dangerous this season. Meanwhile, after looking like a program in peril a couple of years ago, Penn State has returned to its intimidating status thanks to a remarkable job by Joe Paterno. Missing these two isn't quite as big as skipping Michigan and Ohio State, but it's close.
The Highly Unlikelies: at Ohio State (Sept. 22), vs. Michigan (Sept. 29)
As usual, these are the two least winnable games on NU's slate. The Cats have been rolled by Ohio State the last two seasons, and this year should be no different. Even though the Buckeyes will lose Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith and several other playmakers, most of their stifling defense will be back.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, are the opposite (several defenders gone, most of the offense back) -- but still likely too much for the NU, which lost at home to Michigan in 2005 when it arguably was the better team.
The Tough'n's: at Purdue (Oct. 27), vs. Iowa (Nov. 3)
Curtis Painter and Purdue's prolific passing attack will be back, but Purdue's been shaky on defense the last couple of seasons. Also, some offseason turmoil involving a stabbing and a DUI arrest give the already-mediocre Boilermakers a little to be concerned about.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, stumbled to a 6-7 mark in 2006, and lose QB Drew Tate. Still, while Iowa often struggles with NU (it lost 21-7 at home last season), never underestimate coach Kirk Ferentz.
The Questions: at Michigan State (Oct. 6), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 13)
Two teams, two loads of talent, two new head coaches. The Spartans underachieved at record levels the last few seasons -- and lose QB Drew Stanton, to boot -- but they did put up that ridiculous, record-breaking 35-point comeback on the Cats last year. Still, can former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio (not to be confused with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni) halt the underachieving?
As for the Golden Gophers, they were on the wrong end of an epic comeback last season (blowing a record 31-point lead to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl), which cost coach Glen Mason his job. Instead of hiring in the college ranks, Minnesota went pro, snagging Denver Broncos tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Only time will tell whether Brewster will resemble Charlie Weis or Ron Zook, but it doesn't hurt the Gophers to have 1,200-yard rusher Amir Pinnix back and former NU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar heading up the attack.
The Should-Wins: vs. Indiana (Nov. 10), at Illinois (Nov. 17)
These teams still are the bottom-feeders, though they've become much more competitive recently. It's not "Who's that?" anymore for the Hoosiers, who went 3-5 in the Big Ten last year (better than NU) and came one win short of being bowl-eligible. Indiana still has a long way to go, however, having lost to UConn and Division I-AA Southern Illinois last season. Sophomore QB Kellen Lewis might give NU's defense fits, though.
As for the Illini, the aforementioned Zook's off-publicized recruiting class probably won't help them this year. Neither will Zook's horrific track record as a coach. And that hyped QB Juice Williams? He completed just four of 17 passes in Illinois' season-ending 27-16 loss to NU, the Illini's fourth straight Sweet Sioux Tomahawk defeat.
... So what does this all mean? Aside from the typical trouble with Michigan and Ohio State, all the other games are winnable. But, if 2006's mistakes continue, each could be lost, too.
One thing's for sure about the Big Ten in 2007: With two new coaches, five new quarterbacks and a whole lot of turnover, questions greatly outnumber the certanties. NU looks like it can win anywhere from two to six conference games this season. But which one will it be?
Monday, April 9, 2007
Mike Kafka thinks otherwise.
"I mean, obviously my goal is to go and get the starting job," said the sophomore, who started NU's first four games last season, "and that’s what I’m going to try for every day."
Bacher's injury is giving him the chance. Though coach Pat Fitzgerald keeps saying there is no first team and no second team, Kafka has been playing with all the players who, well, are expected to take the first snap of this season's first game.
That included a "start" in NU's 60-play scrimmage Saturday, during which Kafka completed 10 of 17 passes for 97 yards and an interception, according to NUsports.com.
All those reps are just what Kafka needs, Fitzgerald said.
"He can't get enough reps," Fitzgerald said. "He just really can't.
"Going into Mike's career, he's about a thousand reps behind -- only really playing one year of quarterback in high school. And the amount of reps he's getting right now, it couldn't be any better."
Fitzgerald said he was impressed with Kafka's demeanor Saturday -- the quarterback shrugged off his early interception -- but said he wants Kafka to make more plays, to "make some things happen."
"The one thing I don't want Mike to be is a robot," Fitzgerald said.
But Kafka also must learn to make plays with his arm.
Although he occasionally used his athleticism for big runs (he tallied 111 yards against Nevada) last season, he often settled for the carry instead of the pass. Many times, he appeared to make just one read down the field before tucking and running.
While the run has been used quite often by past NU quarterbacks (see: Zak Kustok and Brett Basanez), it's the prolific passing that made those two so special while in Evanston.
Also, the pass is what made NU's offense click under Bacher -- and what made Bacher, according to Fitzgerald, the likely No. 1 next season. Even if Kafka completes his metamorphosis.
- Speaking of Bacher, the quarterback is expected to be active Tuesday, though Fitzgerald said Bacher likely would participate in about 20 percent of the Cats' drills. "I'm looking for him just to get back out there and get back in shape," Fitzgerald said. "He hasn't done anything since his surgery."
- Junior running back Tyrell Sutton was held out of Saturday's scrimmage due to "some little injuries," but Fitzgerald shrugged it off. "I think I know everything I need to know about Tyrell Sutton," the coach said. "I need to know a lot more about Brandon Roberson and some other guys." Roberson, a senior, made some shifty runs and notched 52 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
- Center Trevor Rees and backup offensive lineman Tyler Compton both left the scrimmage with leg injuries. Fitzgerald said Rees would be fine, but Compton's status is to be determined.