A way too early look at the 2009 Schedule - Week 4 - Northwestern

Northwestern, at a glance:

Location: Evanston, Illinois
Stadium: Ryan Field (size: 41, 130)
Expected Attendance: about 20,000, especially if the Cubs and White Sox are in the playoff chase.
Undergraduate population: 8,000 (by far the smallest in the Big Ten + 1).
First season: 1876
Number of Big Ten Titles: 7
All-time record: 458-600-44 (average season record for Northwestern: 3.4 wins - 4.5 losses).
All-time bowl record: 1-7 (let's remember that 7 of those bowl games have been since 1996 - all losses. The only victory was the 1949 Rose Bowl, 20-14 over week three opponent California).

Who is the preeminent Northwestern alum: Charlton Heston, Ana Gasteyer, or Samantha Harris (from Dancing with the Stars)? Well, let's ask Northwestern blogger Lake The Posts:

 

LTP: Hmmm...I'm more of the Michael Wilbon, Stephen Colbert, Brent Musberger variety, but I'd go with Samantha Harris (from Minnesota!) simply because we lived on the same hall back in the day. She was Samantha Shapiro then, but the same nice, fun woman.

Lucky guy - Harris's shoulders (yes, her shoulders) are one reason alone to subscribe to HD service. Other not as hot or culturally relevant alumni include Rod Blagojevich, Stephen Colbert, Charlton Heston, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and Adlai Stevenson.

Okay great. Why mention all these alums? Well, frankly, there's not much too sexy to look at when previewing Northwestern football this year. Yes, last year the team went 9-4. Yes, that marked the third straight year of improving records for Coach Fitzgerald. Yes, Northwestern is 24-24 in Big Ten play since 2003. However, the Wildcats lost their veteran QB C.J. Bacher, four-year starting RB Tyrell Sutton (and backup Omar Conteh), and their top four wide receiving targets. Those who attended the 2008 NW - Minnesota were wiping the drool off the side of their lip in anticipation of overtime when Brendan Smith decided to end the game by intercepting Adam Weber and returning it for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining.  Of course, this led to the question of why Tim Brewster decided to start passing with under a minute to go inside his own 20 yard line. Perhaps this was Mike Dunbar's way of thanking his former employers, which led to Minnesota's end of season meltdown, and Dunbar's ouster after the Insight Bowl loss to Kansas.

 

Minnesota and Northwestern are both predicted by national prognosticators to finish between sixth and ninth in the conference. In all, that ranges between 5 and 7 wins on the year. In other words, for both teams nationally, a bleh regular season followed by a possible bowl game in Detroit or Toronto.

Let's move on to a little offensive analysis:

Northwestern on Offense:

Yes, this could be a little offensive. As mentioned above, the Wildcats lose their backfield and their wide receiving corps. The team returns 4 starters from a young offensive line. Of course, Minnesota will remember the team's new QB, senior Mike Kafka, who is nominated for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (it should be mentioned that only seniors are eligible for the trophy, that the undrafted Graham Harrell won it last year, and that Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic), Tyler Sheehan (Bowling Green), and some dude named Tim Tebow are also nominated.

Kafka went 12-for-16 for 143 yards and 2 TDs, and rushed 27 times for 217 yards against Minnesota, in what seemed to be a year-long attempt in 2007, bowl game notwithstanding, for the Gophers to make experienced QBs look bad (see: Curtis Painter, Juice Williams, Smith, Sheehan), and backup or young QBs look like All Americans (Kafka, Nick Freaking Sheridan, Terrelle Pryor, Ricky Stanzi).

A problem for Northwestern is that it loses 81.4% of its receiving production. The top returning WRs are Andrew Brewer, Sidney Stewart, and Jeremy Ebert, and they only signed one wideout in the 2009 recruiting class (Drew Moulton from Freeland, MI). The passing game was not prevalent last year with Kafka, (though Minnesota fans probably remember Kafka's 40 yard TD to Ebert in 2008) especially once Northwestern got a lead. It may not feature much this year either.

Wait. I didn't recall Kafka passing that well against Minnesota. Lake the Posts continued to jog my memory:

TDG: How will your passing game look with Kafka? I don't recall him passing against Minnesota during his Pat White impersonation at Metrodome.

LTP: Funny...he did not throw a bunch against Minnesota, but the TD pass to Jeremy Ebert in the 1st quarter was one of the best pass-catch timing routes I've seen in years. I pointed to that play as a question mark for why we didn't throw more. Kafka is very underrated as a passer and is a good decision maker. Keep in mind he started in 2006 before getting injured and now enters his final season as one of the more experienced back-ups you could hope for. I believe Kafka's passing ability will be one of the surprise storylines of the season.

Oh yeah. Now I remember that pass.

So, if Kafka plays, I expect the Gophers to bottle up his running and shift his focus to passing. Look out, however, if he is injured and speedy backup QB Dan Persa is inserted into the lineup. Minnesota would probably then get torched in a Wildcat (get it) running formation.

Speaking of running and the line, Northwestern's men up front only allowed 22 sacks in 2008, but that was probably more a function of the spread offense, Bacher's decision making, and Kafka's scrambling ability, than quality play from the line. The line does welcome Aaron Nagel, a transfer from Notre Dame. However, the present first-team RBs, Stephen Simmons (5' 8", 175 lbs), Jeravin Matthews, a converted WR and Alex Daniel (6'0", 195 lbs) are tiny:

TDG: Tyrell Sutton has graduated, right? I recall your running back named Simmons getting tackled by Terrance Taylor in the Michigan game last year via back suplex. Ric Flair would have been happy with that effort. I don't think he weighs more than 150 pounds. Is he your running back hope for 2009, or does Kafka have to carry it again?

LTP: Good memory - yes that was not pretty. The RB slot is wide open heading into the fall with a trio of candidates - Stephen Simmons - who was the 3rd string last year but was forced to step in after both Sutton and Omar Conteh were injured - Alex Daniel, who many like as he is more of hard-hitting RB and converted WR-to-RB Jeravin Matthews who is lightning quick. I expect all three to use the non-conference as the competition for becoming the starter. Our line is solid, but this is the major point of concern. Kafka's ability to run should open things up for the RBs, but we clearly don't have the Tyrell Sutton or Jason Wright of recent years.

The "Superback" position (who would undoubtedly feel at home in Coach Brewster's "Special Forces") is a hybrid tight end/fullback (think H-backs for the Washington Redskins during the first Joe Gibbs era) and has two returning players, Drake Dunsmore and 6'6", 215 pound Josh Rooks. Despite four returning linemen and LTP's hopes, the running game will likely be average at best for Northwestern due to inexperience, and will rely heavily on Kafka's existential running. Minnesota's stable of D-linemen and strong linebackers, including Lee Campbell and Sam Maresh, should be able to stop the run.

Bottom Line - Northwestern's Offense: Northwestern's offense, while a spread offense, plays very close to the vest. Think ball-control, the limiting of turnovers, and fundamentally sound football. This is not the Mike Dunbar - era Northwestern offense. And, it should be easier for the Gophers to defend with their continual influx of talent.

Northwestern on Defense:

It's not a shock that Northwestern's strength is on defense. Coach Fitzgerald was a two-time Bednarik and Nagurski Award winner. This team is molded in his image. And no player fits the coach better than Corey Wootton. Well, pre-ACL tear Corey Wootton. Standing in my second-row seats behind the Northwestern bench, I repeatedly pointed Wootton out to my wife at the game last year. We then watched him with interest during the game and saw a star. In 2008, he had 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. His injury in the Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri will likely find him getting back into game shape during the early part of the 2009 season. It's probably better Minnesota encounters him in September than in November this year.

However, the rest of the defense is also solid. Northwestern returns eight starters, including two defensive linemen, two linebackers, and its entire secondary (including the aforementioned Brendan Smith). Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who was hired away from Wisconsin, managed a defense which held eight teams to 20 points or fewer in 2008.

Lake The Posts opines:

TDG: What is the strength of the NW team? Can Corey Wootten win the Heisman this year with a reconstructed knee? What part of the Minnesota offense can most effectively be counteracted by the NW defense?

LTP: The strength heading into the season is clearly the "D". No, Wootten won't win the Heisman nor will any DE, but he has a chance to be a first team All-American if he fully recovers. All signs point to him returning as strong, if not stronger so hope[s] are high. That's a great question about counteracting Minnesota's offense. Considering the Gophers are transitioning and I've yet to see it, it is hard to say. You can bet any gameplan will involve containing Eric Decker.

Bottom Line - Northwestern's Defense: The Wildcat defense is solid and returns most of its core players. Minnesota will have to probe to find the right way to attack the team. A drop-back, pro-style QB probably doesn't fit right into what Northwestern is used to playing against. Use of the tight end and fullback sets will probably be necessary to get favorable match ups against a Wildcats defensive unit used to seeing a spread offense in practice every day. After a half of mixing up the attack with short passes and play action, the Gophers should spend the second half running the ball right at the defensive line, and utilize the size advantage they possess with their monstrous O-linemen.

Northwestern Recruiting?

Errr, not so much, allegedly. The national outlets ranked Northwestern 11th out of the 11 teams in the Big Ten + 1 Conference in recruiting in the 2009 class. This is worth a mention: the Northwestern Wildcats, which regularly recruits one of the "worst" classes of incoming freshmen in the Big Ten, went 9-4 last year. This makes Ron Zook, Rich Rodriguez, and yes, Tim Brewster's 2008 efforts look very poor by comparison. Northwestern, along with Iowa, probably get more out of their rosters than any other team in the Big Ten + 1.

Will we see any true freshmen on the field wearing black and purple? 6 in one....

TDG: I have read on your site and elsewhere that Coach Fitzgerald likes to redshirt most of his incoming freshmen classes. Do you think any true freshman has a chance to play for Northwestern this year? If so, which is most likely to play? And finally, if he does play, should it be because of his talent, or would it cause you concern due to lack of depth?

LTP: Let me caveat this response with the fact that my opinion is relatively baseless speculation. Incoming kicker Jeff Budzien is likely to compete as a starter as a placekicker for both the fact he is very good and also we're lacking depth there. As far as regulars, you would think incoming OL Pat Ward would be a candidate to be an instant impact player as he is our first 4-star recruit in more than half a decade. However, our line is experienced and still young (we lose only one starter AFTER this season) so my guess is he'll redshirt.  However, you never know as last year I didn't expect true frosh WR Jeremy Ebert to even be the freshman at that position that would get the chance, let alone be an impact player. We have the most talented defense at Northwestern since the 1995 team so the only depth question marks are at the skill positions on offense (and a big question mark that is). In general, the talent level continues to rise as Fitz is increasing the level of target recruits and has landed more and more eary impact players. Phil Steele has this incoming class ranked 44th - not Minnesota-level hype, but definitely steps in the right direction.

Any other factors to consider? Well, Northwestern probably won't have any inherent advantage over Minnesota in playing outdoors this time around, as Minnesota now takes part in outdoor football save its appearance on 9/5 in the Carrier Dome (old habits are indeed hard to break).

Here is a little more background from our Evanston correspondent:

TDG: What are your impressions of Tim Brewster, and his coaching change to a pro-style offense? Are you surprised the Dunbar era ended so meekly and after two years?

LTP: I think Brewster has recovered nicely after being a tad too over-exuberant in his year one "we're going to be world champs" mantra. Obviously we're familiar with Dunbar (former NU OC) and I'm very surprised it didn't work out better as most NU fans thought Dunbar was solid in the spread. So, yes - very surprised. I think Minnesota is very similar to the Brett Basanez era Cats - you've had an influx of great talent mixed with guys who are solid, but not stars - who now combine to have great experience. Adam Weber has been through the wars and Eric Decker is my favorite non-NU WR in the Big Ten. Kuznia is solid (and the brother-in-law of fomer NU QB Zak Kustok who you remember threw the Hail Mary to beat the Gophers in '00) and I think is going to have a breakout year. I'm very interested to see how MN adapts to the offensive change. Massive scheme changes tend to scare me as I think there is a learning curve and I believe this is the year that MN could really strike and surprise folks. I do believe that last year's late season collapse will have most non-Gopher fans not believing until MN closes some deals in November.

TDG: What does Northwestern have to do to win this game?

LTP: Minnesota can relate to NU fans. We both look at each other on the schedule and say "that's one we should win". It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that Brewster will be likely heavily preparing to shore up the run defense against Kafka after last year's "Pat White" performance. I'm fairly certain Brewster's gameplan -at a top level- will be "make them beat us in the air". Thus, I believe we're going to have to really play mistake free passing and really utilize the many options at wideout to open things up on the ground.

TDG: How do you think this game will end up? Specifically, please predict the style of heart-breaking, last-second victory that Northwestern will impose on Minnesota in 2009.

LTP: Hmmm..considering The Daily Gopher won the weekly pick 'em contest last year I should be asking you. As you alluded to you can almost count on this being a one possession game. I have no clue who will win, but obviously think NU has a good chance to win. I simply hope we haven't cashed in all of our last second game-winning chips already!

Final Thoughts:

Minnesota is positioned as a team with upward momentum despite the end of the 2008 season. New stadium, good recruiting, new coaches, new style. Northwestern, on the other hand, may have hit a plateau with the 2008 season, though a 9-win season is a nice place from which to take a step back. Coach Fitzgerald, while Tweeting, doing a Harry Carey impersonation at Wrigley, and trying to bring ethics to Illinois politics (good luck pal), hopefully will have overlooked Gopher game prep.

We'll have an interesting indicator as to what's going to happen between these teams by the time they meet on September 26th, as both play Syracuse. Indeed, while Northwestern should be 3-0 (Towson, Eastern Michigan and Syracuse? Come on), Minnesota has a mixed bag, and could be anywhere from 3-0 to 1-2 and still be a very good team (Syracuse, Air Force, California).

Minnesota will benefit greatly from confronting Cal's incredibly difficult secondary on September 19th, which has a first-team All American and three returning starters. Cal has speed, a Heisman candidate RB, and will be a preseason top 15 team. Playing against Northwestern will not be as difficult. On the other hand, Northwestern will easily be playing their toughest game when Minnesota shows up near Lake Michigan. While there is the fear of a letdown for the Gophers, especially if they beat the Golden Bears, if the recruiting and Fisch-effect is to believed, there should be more than enough talent on the Gophers squad for them to neutralize Kafka, establish a running game, and defeat the Wildcats.

Prediction: Minnesota 28 - Northwestern 20.

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