The Wild Wild B1G West

wills mith

 

It’s game week. I honestly can’t believe it’s really here. Northwestern has a game on Saturday. Life is good.

This time of year is rampant for wild speculation about who will be in the playoff, who will win their division, which teams are dark horses, how long Lovie Smith will continue to cash checks at Illinois, etc. What’s fun is that no one really knows for sure, so you can really say whatever you want and bet that somewhere out there, there is someone that will agree with you (and an army of people who will disagree).

Much has been written about the B1G West race this year – not in the context of the CFP title race or even really in the context of competing for the B1G title, but because the division seems so up for grabs.

We’ve made the joke many times about the B1G “Wild Wild” West, and I can think of a few instances where our Thursday Pump Up Jam featured the sweet sweet tenor of Will Smith from the late 90’s. Rarely has the B1G West seemed as wild and open as it does this year.

There is a clear basement on our side of the conference, with Illinois having won a total of four B1G games in the last three years. But, aside from Lovie’s crew, you can make a case (and people have) for every other team in the division to take the West. Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue and the ‘Cats all have been talked about as a potential West champ.

A lot of the B1G West race will, as it does every year, come down to each team’s schedule and specifically who they face on the other side of the division. I’ve done a highly scientific analysis to look at how difficult each team’s schedule is based on two key factors: 1. who they play in the East, and 2. how many road games they have against their fellow B1G West competitors (I eliminated Illinois from this mix because, well it’s Illinois).

In the East, there is a pretty clear hierarchy of teams. You’ve got Ohio State and Michigan on the balcony popping some Veuve Cliquot, Penn State and Michigan a floor below sipping some Burgundy, Maryland and Indiana on the first floor drinking some Miller High Life and then Rutgers chilling in the basement with Natty Ice and a pack of Malboro Reds. For the purposes of our scientific schedule analysis, I’ve assigned games against Ohio State or Michigan a value of four, PSU or MSU three, Indiana or Maryland two and Rutgers one point.

Then, I’ve assigned one point to every road game the B1G West ‘contenders’ have against the other set of contenders in the division. The more points a team has, the more difficult their schedule – let’s see how it shakes out:

Iowa – 11 points

Rutgers (1), @Michigan (4), PSU(3), Purdue, @NU (1), @Wisconsin (1), Minnesota, Illinois, @Nebraska (1)

 

Nebraska – 10 points
@Illinois, OSU (4), NU, @Minnesota (1), Indiana (2), @Purdue (1), Wisco, @Maryland (2), Iowa

 

Purdue – 11 points
Minnesota, @PSU (3), Maryland (2), @Iowa (1), Illinois, @Nebraska (1), @Northwestern(1), @Wisconsin(1), Indiana (2)

 

Minnesota – 9 points
@Purdue (1), Illinois, Nebraska, @Rutgers (1), Maryland (2), PSU (3), @Iowa (1), @Northwestern (1), Wisconsin

 

Wisconsin – 13 points
Michigan (4), Northwestern, MSU (3), @Illinois, @OSU (4), Iowa, @Nebraska (1), Purdue, @Minnesota (1)

 

Northwestern – 11 points
MSU (3), @Wisco (1), @Nebraska (1), OSU (4), Iowa, @Indiana (2), Purdue, Minnesota, @Illinois

 

What does this mean? Based on this very subjective taxology, Minnesota has the easiest schedule, Nebraska second easiest, Purdue, NU and Iowa are fairly even, and then Wisconsin has the most difficult schedule. Wisconsin is the only team that has to face both Michigan and Ohio State…plus they also get a fun home game against Sparty. That is brutal. Meanwhile Minnesota gets Penn State at home, and then has very manageable crossover games at home against Maryland and on the road against Rutgers.

 

What does this really mean? I have no idea. The ratings could be way off – maybe Michigan State will have a down year while Indiana could take a step forward. We won’t know until the games are played.

 

We can only hope that, once the dust settles on the Wild Wild B1G West, our ‘Cats are riding off into the sunset with Will Smith.

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.

 

The Great Debate

B1G-Championship-Logo

The ‘Cats have somehow clinched the West with two games left to play, and now will go to Indy on Dec 1st for a chance to make the Rose Bowl. A pipe dream that led the West Lot Warriors to name our beloved van Rose is now very much a real possibility – if we can win one game, we’ll make the trip to Pasadena (and so will Rose the van…somehow, someway).

Clinching with two games to go gives us the chance to scout our Indy opponent and debate about who we want to face out of the other side of the Big Ten. The B1G East is down to two teams who will play each other in the last game of the year – Ohio State and Michigan. So, who would we rather face?

Michigan:

The ‘Cats played Michigan very tough earlier in the season, taking a 17-0 lead on the Wolverines in Evanston before slowly but surely relenting to a methodical Michigan attack. The Wolverines ran in a TD in the fourth quarter to take a 20-17 lead that would end up as the final margin. Michigan, as they always have under Harbaugh, runs a pro-style offense that the ‘Cats have fared well against this year. The ‘Cats have given up less than 16 points per game to Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan – the three teams we’ve faced that feature that grind it out pro-style offense.

After losing a tight game at Notre Dame to begin the year, the Wolverines have pretty much skated through the rest of their schedule. Other than the tight three point win in Evanston, the next closest Michigan win was by 14 points at Sparty. Does that mean the ‘Cats match up well against the Wolverines, or was our first matchup a fluke? I tend to think it’s the former, and you can certainly argue that Northwestern now is a better team than we were on 9/29 when we first matched up. At that point, we had just learned that our star RB Jeremy Larkin was retiring from football, and reeling after a loss at home to Akron. We rushed for 28 yards in that game, and with the way Isaiah Bowser’s playing right now, you’d have to imagine we’d do better on the ground.

Everyone counted the ‘Cats out, and we showed up in a big way for that next game. If we end up playing Michigan in Indy, we’ll still be widely counted out and large underdogs as Michigan would be playing for a spot in the Playoffs. Vegas would have Michigan as about a 17 point favorite over the ‘Cats in Indy.

Ohio State:

Now we come to Ohio State. You could say they’ve got a worse QB and a worse defense than Michigan. They also got blown out at Purdue, in a tough West Lafayette atmosphere where the ‘Cats prevailed earlier in the year. All in all, they seem like they’re trending downwards whereas Michigan is on the up and up. Should be a no-brainer we want to face OSU right?

Not so fast. I think OSU boasts more talent at the skill positions. They can chuck it deep to a slew of skilled receivers – they remind me of Notre Dame, at least on offense. They have the #3 passing offense in the nation, and would be going against a beat up Northwestern secondary.

Their defense is better than people think, coming in at #56 in total defense, just behind the ‘Cats at #50. I also think people are counting OSU out right now – if they were to get to Indy they’d be coming off a huge upset win over Michigan and have a lot of momentum going in their favor.

The Verdict:

I think we match up better with Michigan than Ohio State and have a better chance to slow down their offense than we would against the Buckeyes.

Even though this seems like it’s Harbaugh’s year, he’s never actually won a big time game at Michigan. The Wolverines have never been to the B1G Title game, just like the ‘Cats. You’d think there’d be no way that he could get all the way to Indy only to lose a play in game against Northwestern that would have placed his team in the College Football Playoff. But, the pressure would really all be on the Wolverines in that scenario. I’d rather face a team that is new to this situation and hasn’t overcome that type of pressure yet, than an OSU team that has been there many times and won the big games in convincing fashion. I have flashbacks to last year when Ohio State looked so much faster than Wisconsin in the B1G title game.

Feels like a game against Ohio State could turn into a track meet, whereas a game against Michigan would be a rock fight. The ‘Cats perform much better in rock fights than track meets.

For all of these reasons, I’d rather play Michigan. Either way it’s going to be an incredibly tough game, but either way we’re going to have a chance. This will be the biggest Northwestern football game in at least 18 years. Let’s hope it comes up roses.

 

A Refresher On An Improbable 10 Win Season

Northwestern returns a host of exciting players with a chance to improve on an improbable 10 win campaign in 2015

Northwestern returns a host of exciting players from last season with a chance to improve on an improbable 10 win campaign in 2015

Week 1: NU 16 – Stanford 6

I’m sure everyone remembers this game, but maybe you didn’t realize at the time just how incredible the result was. Here are some interesting stats:

Stanford Points Scored: 6

In the other 13 contests they played, Stanford averaged 40.2 points per game. Their lowest scoring total (other than against NU) was 30 points. To say this data point is an outlier is an understatement.

Christian McCaffrey Rushing Yards: 66

Other than one play where McCaffrey broke off for 27 yards, the ‘Cats dominated Stanford’s run game, holding them to a measly 85 yards on the ground for the game. McCaffrey averaged 150.2 yards per game against teams not named Northwestern.

Week 2: NU 41 – Eastern Illinois 0

Nothing spectacular here. Northwestern got the job done against the lone FCS opponent on its schedule. The highlight was a 71 yard pick-6 by Matt Harris in the 3rd quarter.

Week 3: NU 19 – Duke 10

Northwestern’s offense was outright awful in this game, and we again managed to hold on by a thread as our defense came up huge yet again. Want to see something disgusting? Check out Clayton Thorson’s passing stats from his first road game as the starter:

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 12.51.33 PM

Northwestern managed just 57 yards of offense in the first half, and it looked as though our only opportunity to score a touchdown would be a defensive touchdown. However, the first Wildcat touchdown actually came from the 3rd phase in the form of a 97 yard kickoff return by Solomon Vault (oh, and of course the PAT was blocked). Other than a Warren Long 55 yard TD run, the offense looked totally incompetent for the entirety of the game.

Week 4: NU 24 – Ball State 19

Clayton threw a career high 3 TDs this game. Fun fact, he only threw 7 total TDs last year, meaning in the remaining 12 contests he only threw 4 TDs. For those counting at home, that’s a third of a touchdown per game. #ThatsNotALot

Week 5: NU 27 – Minnesota 0

This game was freaking awesome. Our offense wasn’t stellar, but it wasn’t painful to watch either. Clayton got robbed on an overturned TD pass and we held a B1G offense (albeit a bad one) to zero points and 193 yards. Needless to say, spirits were pretty high after this one.

Week 6:  Michigan 38 – Northwestern 0

Boy this was brutal. The game was over before the first play from scrimmage, after Jehu Chesson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. NU blew it’s only chance to score by missing a 42 yard FG attempt. Michigan outplayed and outcoached us, and it broke my heart, just as Week 6 has done many times in the past.

Week 7:  Iowa 40 – Northwestern 10

Well, at least we scored in this one. Despite the awful scoreline, this one wasn’t a total blowout until sometime in the second half (it was 16 -10 at half). The offense just couldn’t get anything going and our defense ran out of gas after being on the field for way too long for a second week in a row.

Week 8:  Northwestern 30 – Nebraska 28

This game had a number of ups (Nick VanHoose pick-6, Clayton Thorson 68 run which set up a TD) as well as some downs (Safety on the first play of a drive, a lot of punts) but the ‘Cats came out with a W.

Week 10:  Northwestern 23 – Penn State 21

What a terrible game to watch. After a flurry of offense in the second quarter which lead to three touchdowns, a 13 point lead, and of course a missed XP, the game seemed all but over. That was, until we didn’t score again until there were 8 seconds left in the game. The missed XP almost cost NU the game, but Jack Mitchell was able to redeem himself with a 35 yard FG.

Week 11:  Northwestern 21 – Purdue 14

Nothing to see here. Zach Oliver saw some action as the ‘Cats managed to eek past the worst team in the B1G.

Week 12:  Northwestern 13 – Wisconsin 7

In what was one of the wildest and weirdest endings to a football game, Northwestern managed to somehow come out on top. I’ve never felt so strange and disappointed after a win. Wisconsin had a game tying TD overturned twice, then there was a sack which appeared to end the game, then there was a spike, then a long pause while the refs figured everything out, then Wisconsin’s backup QB came in to finally lose the game for them. Our defense was spectacular as always, however.

Week 13:  Northwestern 24 – Illinois 14

A few highlights here and there, but again, nothing special beating a team that was pretty darn bad. Roger got kicked out of the game, however (unjustly I might add).

Bowl Game: Tennessee 45 – Northwestern 6

Embarrassing. That’s all I’ll say. Mick McCall needs to figure out how to get this offense moving this year.

All in all, a pretty wild and exciting season despite the fact that our offense was generally unbearable to watch. Our defense on the other hand was unreal, and I can’t wait to see what they can do in 2016. Look for more content as the ‘Cats wrap up camp and the season rapidly approaches! Go ‘Cats!

 

What Is It About Week 6?

michigan

Michigan ran over our dreams with a stunning 38-0 win over Northwestern

After an unexpected and exciting start to the season, the Wildcats had found themselves in the top 15 of the AP poll and in discussions as a dark horse for the College Football Playoff. The Wildcat faithful were riding high, the B1G West was looking soft, and we we’re thinking surely this could be a special season.

Then we played football (sort of) on Saturday. We had all of our flaws exposed, and many of our dreams were dashed. And while it was only one game, and there still is plenty of opportunity to bounce back and “accomplish our goals” as Fitz loves to say, I find myself thinking “here we go again.”

But what is it about Week 6 that seems to take the wind our of sails? In seasons past  it has made us go from dreams of Big Ten Titles to big time empty bowl stadiums somewhere in Texas. It’s taken us from hopes of rebuilding to hopes of the season being over. Since 2008, Northwestern is 1-7 in its sixth game of the season. The lone win comes in 2009, against an abysmal Miami (OH) team which finished 1-11 (and the ‘Cats squeaked out a sloppy 16-6 win).

Let’s take a look at some of the heartbreaks that have come after a loss in Week 6:

2008 – NU Loses to #23 Michigan State 37-20

While this wasn’t totally unexpected or devastating, our shot at a Big Ten Championship essentially vanished. Believe it or not, had the ‘Cats won that game (and managed to not lose to an awful Indiana team) NU would have tied for a share of the B1G title.

2010 – NU Loses to Purdue 20-17

This one really stung. Northwestern was 5-0, riding high after a huge 29-28 win at Minnesota the week before. Aspirations of a B1G Title were beginning to brew and a win over Purdue seemed almost assured (Purdue went 4-8 that season). Instead, the Wildcats looked terrible and missed a last second field goal which could have sent this one to overtime. Makes you wonder what could have happened that year if we pull this one out (and Persa doesn’t get hurt against Iowa).

2012 – NU loses at Penn State 39-28

Yet again, the Wildcats remained undefeated after 5 weeks. We headed to Happy Valley with a chance to prove we were for real and came up short. NU blew a 28-17 4th quarter lead by allowing 22 unanswered by the Nittany Lions, and yet again hearts were crushed.

2013 – NU loses to Wisconsin 35-6

A week after what appeared to be the biggest game in recent memory, the Wildcats headed to Wisconsin with hopes to bounce back and continue its quest for a Rose Bowl birth. Instead, NU got completely waxed by a good Wisconsin team and this loss set the tone for the rest of the season (NU finished 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2007).

2014 – NU loses to Minnesota 24-17

The start of the 2014 season was a fairly disastrous one, and after loses to Cal and Northern Illinois most people had written this team off. However, the ‘Cats came back and won back-to-back B1G games against Penn State and Wisconsin and people started thinking maybe this team had done some serious growing up in the past few weeks. However, a kickoff return right after NU tied the game at 17-17 in the fourth quarter cost the ‘Cats, and broke our hearts yet again.

2015 – NU loses to Michigan 38-0

You guys all know what happened here, so I wont rehash it.

Long story short – it looks like its time to start bringing back a Miami (OH) for Week 6. Let’s at least let our dreams remain intact going into the second half of the season. But enough about Week 6 – let’s beat Iowa next week, and hopefully start to bring back hope of a B1G West Title.

Gravy Train

Northwestern’s 27-0 beatdown of Minnesota on Saturday announced the ‘Cats as a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West. Heck, after the team vaulted to #13 in the AP poll this week, it’s hard to argue against them being a playoff contender.

The defense did its normal thing on Saturday, absolutely smothering a suspect Minnesota offense, and creating some timely turnovers. Even the offense started to pick up, with Clayton throwing for an efficient 14-19 and JJ picking up 100 yards in the game without Fitz running him 67 times. When it all came together against the Gophers, man did it come together. I don’t remember a statement win like that since I’ve been a Northwestern fan.

In the past ten years we’ve had success going to bowl games and being ranked on and off over that span. But, as Andy Day mentioned in a previous post, we tend to lose very soon after climbing into the top #25. It seems like the ‘Cats seem to thrive in the role of an underdog, but as soon as they’re thrust into the spotlight and the pressure ramps up…they wilt. In past years when we’ve crept into the top #25, I’ve never felt really solid about wherever we were ranked. I was always ecstatic waking up on Sunday to find our team listed on the bottom of the ESPN ticker as a top 25-er, but never fully believing that we deserved to be where we were placed.

This time, it’s different. This team not only has the resume of a deserving top-15 team, it has also passed the eye test. Our defense not only looks good – the stats also back it up. We have the top scoring defense in the country, giving up less than seven points per game. When you’re watching a game, you think that more often than not our defense is going to shut the opposing offense down. I’m surprised at this point when our opponents convert on third down.

Now we could easily lose to Michigan this week. We started out as a double-digit underdog (way too high of a line), and have our freshman QB going on the road into the Big House. Bigsby Thorson didn’t play well in his first road game at Duke, and it’s hard to really even consider that a road game since the stands were so empty. Playing at Michigan will be a whole different animal.

And yet, I’m not giving up hope for a win this week. Because I’ve seen this team play. And unlike past years, I’m not gripping the edge of my seat in fear every time they take the field. They look fast. They look hungry. They look confident. They look like they believe. It has been exactly 20 years since the 1995 Wildcat team turned around the program, expected victory and kept winning all the way to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. It’s pretty poetic that we again are a legit contender exactly 20 years later.

But, having come into the year with no expectations at all – you have to take a step back as a fan. No one thought we would be 5-0. At this point, it’s all gravy. I’m typically a very pessimistic sports fan (watch out Cubs), since if you always think your team is going to lose, then any win is just a bonus. But when it comes to the ‘Cats, I’m pretty positive and optimistic relative to other fans. Maybe it’s naivete from only following the team for eight years or so; who knows. I do know that going into the year I was very pessimistic for the first time out of those eight years. Even I couldn’t construct an argument for how this team could be a contender for a bowl game, let alone the Big Ten title.

But here we are. 5-0. 13 in the country. This is closed to uncharted territory for Northwestern. Fans are toeing the line right now between playing the “happy to be here” card and the “lose and the sky is falling” card. I’m somewhere in the middle. Yes, I’m giddy to be undefeated. But yes, I’ll also be very disappointed if they lose this weekend. I’m disappointed every time the ‘Cats lose.

There is a big difference this time. Never in my fandom have we had this much unexpected success in one year. In 2013 and 2014, for the first time I experienced what it was like to follow a losing team. And to put it in perspective, those two 5-7 seasons were exponentially better than the average for the majority of past Northwestern teams. That’s what’s fun about 2015 – this came out of nowhere. We can truly appreciate this success because of the context of two straight losing seasons. That’s why I may be disappointed if we lose Saturday, but will revert right back to giddy when I wake up on Sunday. Because it’s fun to be good again. It’s fun to see our name on ESPN.

For all those starting talk about playoffs, and Big Ten championships – I’d say slow down. Focus on the now. Take it one game at a time.

Chill out. Enjoy the ride. Stop and smell the roses.

Dear Fitz

Will Justin Jackson be a big enough stud to bring NU's offense back to life?

Dear Fitz,

Congrats on a real nice season so far! Helluva win against Stanford. Nice guts last week to pull that one out in Durham. Way to go 1-0 each week, amirite?

Not to nit pick, but just thought I’d shoot you a note with a quick suggestion. Take it or leave it – up to you – but as a friend, wanted to give you some bud-to-bud advice.

First off – great job on recruiting this Justin Jackson fellow. Man, that kid can really run. Hard to believe that as a true freshman he put up a 1,000 yard season last year. Even harder to believe that you refused to start him until several games into the season, but whatevs, it’s cool. Not like he could have really helped us in those home losses against Cal and NIU.

But the good thing is, you adjusted. You made him the bellcow for the majority of the season, averaging 20 carries per game. This season, however, you’ve gone a bit overboard. Let’s check out his numbers so far:

2015 GAME LOG RUSHING
DATE OPP RESULT   ATT YDS AVG LNG TD
9/5 Stanford W

16-6

28 134 4.8 21 0
9/12 Eastern Illinois W

41-0

22 78 3.5 11 1
9/19 @Duke W

19-10

35 120 3.4 11 0

I know you’re not a big fan of stats, so let me do that math for you. Justin’s had 85 carries so far, or an average of more than 28 per game. That’s insane, dude. Watching the Duke game (35 rushes for JJ), I could tell he was wearing down. You know you have other running backs on the team, right? And they’re not too shabby either – may I remind you that Solomon Vault and Warren Long scored our only two touchdowns against Duke. Outside of the Eastern Illinois game this year, those two only have 17 total carries.

Not telling you to how to do your job or anything, but maybe consider giving them the ball a bit more? It’s a deep position for the ‘Cats, so let’s spread the wealth. Just, ya know, a bit concerned that JJ is going to get hurt carrying the ball 28 times a game. And since running the ball seems to be our only way to move on offense, maybe we try and avoid an injury to our best player on that side of the ball. Again, just a suggestion – take it or leave it. And hey – if this is more of a McCall question, just let me know. Happy to reach out, as I’ve got a lot to talk to that guy about.

Yours truly,

A devoted ‘Cats fan