California Dreamin’

Image result for pat fitzgerald dreaming

Football is almost back. The ‘Cats are almost back. The Warriors are back.

Specifically, Dr. Michael Roche has rejoined the gang in Chicago after a stint in Central Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of enemy Penn State territory. As a resident at PSU for the past few years, Doc Roche led the Nittany Lions to a B1G title and a Rose Bowl berth – we’re hoping he can bring that spark back to Evanston and our beloved Wildcats.

The ‘Cats are obviously focused on Pasadena as well, with our three featured players at B1G media days all rocking Rose Bowl pins. 2019/2020 is another year where the playoff/championship games will not be held in Pasadena so it’s another opportunity for the ‘Cats to smell the roses should we win the B1G Championship Game. The loss in last year’s Champ game has been a big talking point for Fitz and the squad this year, leveraging that as motivation to get back to Indy for another opportunity to win and take NU to another level.

It will not be an easy task, as Northwestern has lost a good number of key players going into 2019, starting with QB Clayton Thorson. Thorson has not been the most highly praised quarterback, even amongst the Warrior crew, however you can’t balk at his 36-17 record in college – winning the most ever games for an NU QB. No matter how pedestrian Clayton looked at times, his leadership and ability to win games will be missed and there will be a turnover in leadership to transfer Hunter Johnson.

Hunter comes in as a five star recruit out of Clemson, who transferred away from last year’s National Championship team after realizing he was not going to get playing time behind Trevor “Sunshine” Lawrence. Clemson’s loss is our gain as he is the highest rated recruit to EVER come to Northwestern. However, reports out of camp have been mixed about Hunter’s progress and play in practice…there are rumblings that he hasn’t looked great and hasn’t yet won the starting QB job from returnee TJ Green. I say phooey to these reports – Fitz is someone who notoriously keeps QB updates close to the vest and I don’t believe all that I’ve heard. Hunter very may well not look great but I’ll reserve my judgement until he steps on the field against the Cardinal on Aug 31 (and no doubt he will be named the starting QB). I do believe that we can’t expect Hunter will come in right away and look like the second coming of Dan Persa – it will take time for him to adjust and get used to playing in full speed games. The kid’s only played in one actual college game. Everyone’s thinking about Hunter’s arm but I’ve got a feeling he’s more of a runner than people think – he was a track star in high school and I’ll look for him to tuck it and run a good amount.

So what’s Hunter working with? Our offense under Mick McCall has been quite poor the past few years, to put it mildly. This year there is more depth at WR than we’ve had in recent memory, and our starting RB Bowser is quite simply my favorite player to ever don the NU purple. At WR, look out for freshmen Bryce Kirtz to make an immediate impact – Kirtz played with Hunter in high school and there’s got to be some familiarity that will help off the bat. We’ll get solid production from Skowronek, Lees and Bowman – in particular I think Lees will play a huge role in the offense this year and step into that Flynn Nagel / Austin Carr type role. We essentially have no superbacks to speak of so that is a huge question mark heading into this year – Cam Green’s retirement at the end of the last year was an enormous loss that can’t be understated. Cam was a security blanket for Thorson last year and our most reliable receiver – certainly happy that he made the decision that he did to preserve his health, but he will be sorely missed.

At running back, my boy Bowser is back after a stellar freshman effort. The ‘Cats lost Jeremy Larkin to retirement early in the year – a brutal setback for the kid given the career he’d had up until that point. Larkin looked on track to be the next Justin Jackson and was forced to retire after just three games last year. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been to stomach – essentially overnight your college experience and potential career path is turned upside down. Larkin did not hang his head but instead became an assistant coach for the team and was there on the sideline for every game, pumping his teammates up and contributing however he could. From everything I’ve seen he seems just like a solid all-around guy, and we send him a Warrior salute.

Back to our running backs this year – Bowser stepped up big time once he got his opportunity in 2018, and injected life into our running game. This year I’m looking for him to take another step forward as he continues to mature and get fit for the college game. He’s spelled by senior John Moten, who is a pretty solid second back and took it 80 yards to the house against OSU last year. We’re going to need more balance between the running and passing game this year if we want to take a step forward.

On defense, we should be solid in most spots. Our linebackers are studs, our safeties our studs, our D ends are studs. Where I’m most nervous is at the cornerback position – without Montre Hartage we’ll need Greg Newsome to step up and serve as our lockdown corner. There were too many games last year (Purdue, Duke, Nebraska, OSU come to mind) where we simply could not stop the other team’s passing attack and they marched up and down the field at will. Our run defense will be great again this year but we certainly have our weaknesses through the air. The good news is we’re in the B1G, where not too many teams will exploit that weakness. We’re more a “ground and pound” conference then “air it out”.

So where will that leave us for this year – what can we expect? I like to say that the ‘Cats like to zig when we think they’ll zag – whatever we expect from them, they’ll do the opposite. It’s probably why they went 8-1 ATS last year when underdogs, and 2-4 when favored. Signs this year point to an upgrade from last year, but it all depends on Hunter “Gatherer” Johnson. If he steps in right away and takes command of the offense, the sky is the limit for this team. We could barely move the ball last year so any spark of life on offense would be a significant upgrade. Our team last year made the B1G championship with simply mediocre stats. We were really only good at three things – limiting penalties, getting off the field on third down, and turnover margin. That in my mind is all about coaching – no doubt that Fitz has entered the conversation for “Who is the B1G’s best coach?” With Fitz at the helm, and more talent than we’ve had in recent years, it feels like we’ve got a chance for great things. I think we’ll struggle against up-tempo, pass-first teams (e.g. Nebraska)  but we match up well against most of our B1G West opponents (as well as Stanford). The ultimate goal is Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, but we’ll need to get through a tough slate to do so and take our program to new heights.

We start the season in California, and let’s hope we can end it there too.

 

‘Cats take on Bulldogs in the ‘Ville

The ‘Cats are going to Jacksonville for a New Years Day matchup versus Mississippi State. Out of the three potential Florida bowl options for Northwestern, we received a bid to the lowest in the pecking order. This is a disappointment, in that the ‘Cats won’t be playing in a higher profile bowl against a bigger name opponent, but there are some positives. In the USA Today Sagarin rankings, NU sits at #32, while Mississippi State ranks seven spots lower at #39. We’re ranked in the BCS, but the Bulldogs are not. They are definitely a more manageable opponent than an A&M or Georgia.

As a ‘Cats fan, this scares me a little bit. We’re actually playing a lower ranked team – we will probably be favored in this game. We rarely win when we’re ranked/favored going into prime time matchups – we relish the underdog role. Win this and we’ll finish the year in the top 15 of the BCS and most likely be ranked in the 2013 preseason – there is a good amount at stake. Although the Gator Bowl against Miss. St. is a bit of a letdown compared to the alternative scenarios, I feel much better about our chances in this game. We have a great shot to pick up the first bowl win in 60 years for the ‘Cats.

Bowl Projections – Some Thoughts

A quick search of teh interwebz for bowl projections landed me at SI, CBS, ESPN, and Off-Tackle Empire. Let’s dissect the predictions.

Sports Illustrated: Outback Bowl vs. Georgia

According to Roger, our resident SEC expert, this matchup could get ugly. “That is probably the worst conceivable matchup other than maybe Alabama.” Georgia still controls it’s own destiny to the BCS title game. A drop from that to a matchup against the ‘Cats? I love the ‘Cats, but I have to be realistic. This would be ugly. Georgia would absolutely dominate in the trenches, and the Bulldogs would rack up 6-8 yard runs like clockwork. 

CBS: Outback vs. South Carolina

This is a different South Carolina team without Marcus Lattimore, who has been out since October 27 with multiple ligament damage in his right knee. I’m not going to link the video to that. It’s awful. Knees shouldn’t bend that way. That said, we’re still talking about an upper echelon SEC team here, who would have a field day in the trenches. I like this matchup better than the matchup against Georgia, but not by much. Six of one/half dozen of the other. 

ESPN/OTE: Gator vs. Mississippi State

I like this one. I think the #B1GCats can win this one. By which I mean I don’t think they’ll get blown out of the water. Mississippi State has beaten zero bowl bound team this year. Granted, their three losses have been to TAMU, Alabama and LSU. The ‘Cats have beaten Vandy, Syracuse and Minnesota. Not world beaters, but whatever, GO CATS. 

Conditions 

These are projections. So, if the ‘Cats lose to Illinois somehow (oof), these all go out the window. Additionally, the Outback Bowl projections hinge on the belief that Wisconsin will lose out to Penn State and Nebraska. Even if UW beats PSU and loses to Nebraska, they’re going to finish 8-5. The Outback bowl cannot pick a team with two more losses than the next available team (9-3 NU vs 8-5 Bucky). Also, if UW wins the CCG and goes to Pasadena, we can count on Nebraska getting picked ahead of us in either the Capital One Bowl or the Outback. 

Saturday’s Bowl Implications – Go Gata

It is generally accepted that the winner of NU @ MSU will be heading to the Gator Bowl and the loser will be eating Buffalo Wild Wings in late December. Things could get dicey if Michigan beats OSU next week, but lets not get ahead of ourselves…

The Gator Bowl, however, still claims that nothing is set in stone yet!

Our very own Roger Rankin is predicting Vandy to represent the SEC in the Gator Bowl, which could make things that much more interesting. Regardless of the opponent, I think we’re all hoping for a Jan 1 bowling date and a chance for the ‘Cats to get the infamous monkey off of their back. To keep our thoughts in Florida (#CatsToFlordia) we post this video! Tim Tivo, Percy Harvey, and Irving Meyers would be proud.

Wooing a Better ‘Cats Bowl Bid via Twitter

Ah, what wonderful things the birth of social media has allowed us to do. We’ve discovered a great new use for it, and that is harassing bowl games and letting them know that we think the ‘Cats will travel well. This was all spawned from an article saying that the Gator Bowl didn’t want Northwestern. Let’s take a look at some highlights from our tweeting at bowl games. We’ll go in order of bowl selection…

Capital One Bowl:

The Capital One Bowl twitter account is run by an enjoyable follow. And, he’s a Northwestern Alum! There is actually a scenario where NU could basically be guaranteed a bid to this bowl, but that’s a discussion for another time and place.

Outback Bowl:

Let me just say, the Outback bowl was maybe the most exciting sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. I had a great time in Tampa (where there are the best titty bars in the nation according to Stevie Janowski) and would love to go back to Raymond James on New Years. They didn’t give us any love, but here’s our tweet anyway.

Gator Bowl:

We kind of went crazy and started tweeting at every bowl game we could think of… One bowl caught on.

Also there seemed to be a good amount of confusion on the Wildcat message boards regarding who picks first, Gator or BWW. Here is the answer:

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl:

The BWW Bowl doesn’t have a Twitter account… What year is this 1995? (I wish, because then we would be going to the Rose Bowl)

Ticket Shitty Bowl:

Intentional misspelling. But seriously, when the ‘Cats went to the Ticket City Bowl the stadium was EMPTY and Dallas just isn’t all that cool.

Little Caesar’s Bowl:

Just a note, the West Lot Warriors are this bowl’s ONLY follower.

Orange Bowl:

And just because were feeling optimistic, we gave a shout out to our friends in Miami about the ‘Cats heading to the Orange Bowl. Could it happen? Theoretically, yes. Will it happen? Certainly not. It’s fun to dream though.