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:

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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!

 

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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

We’re Ranked…Dammit.

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Northwestern has crept into both the AP and Coaches polls after a solid Week 2 performance against FCS foe Eastern Illinois. While most NU fans are excited by this news, yours truly couldn’t be more upset. NU has a huge challenge ahead of them next week on the road at Duke, and now that both the members of the media and head coaches have chosen us worthy of their top-25 lists, we’re almost assuredly going to lose.

Why, you ask? Well let’s take a look at all games during the Fitz era where NU first entered the polls.

Date Opponent Rank Result Score Notes
August 31, 2013 at California #22 W 44–30
October 6, 2012 at Penn State #24 L 28–39
November 10, 2012 at Michigan #24 L 31–38 OT
October 9, 2010 Purdue #25 L 17–20
November 20, 2010 Illinois #25 L 27–48 at Wrigley Field
December 29, 2008 #25 Missouri #22 L 23–30 OT Valero Alamo Bowl

Other than the season opener in 2013 where Collin Ellis put the team on his back, NU has lost every single game after debuting in the polls. You could even argue that they didn’t technically debut in the polls at Cal since they finished the 2012 season ranked in the final polls.

Let me just say – this trend is frightening. The only games NU has won as a ranked team during the Fitz era all came in 2013 (@Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan, and Maine), arguably the most disappointing season in Northwestern football history. Is the coaching to blame? Was it just the luck of the schedule? It’s tough to say.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m as excited as you are that the ‘Cats are 2-0. I just wish we could have stayed out of the polls for at least another week.

Five Observations From NU – Stanford

It feels pretty darn good to be 1-0. The ‘Cats shocked the #21 Stanford Cardinal on Saturday 16-6 behind a dominant defensive performance. The youth on the team showed what it could do, and with a very manageable schedule for the rest of 2015, the future looks bright. After watching a replay of the game, here are five observations from the huge opening win.

Anthony Walker is a star. The redshirt sophomore was all over the field on Saturday. Dropping back in coverage, blitzing, playing spy on the QB, defending the run. No matter which, he pretty much always made the right play. He was constantly in the passing lane – if he can develop a pair of hands to pick off more throws, then watch out. Walker almost seemed like he knew what the offensive play was going to be before the ball is snapped. His anticipation and instincts are great, and he will be a joy to watch the next few years. I thought he was the best player on the field against Stanford.

 Our offensive and defensive lines outplayed the Cardinal. We won this game in the trenches, plain and simple. Since line play was supposed to be Stanford’s calling card, this was hugely encouraging. 225 yards rushing for the ‘Cats, and 85 for the Cardinal – enough said.

Clayton Thorson was clutch. Of his 12 completions in the game, seven went for third down conversions. His cross-the-field bomb to Shuler late in the fourth was a huge throw at a huge time, and helped us seal it. To be fair, he had some fluttering throws that almost looked Tebow-esque, and a few boneheaded decisions that looked Cutler-esque. Luckily the Stanford secondary had almost as bad a case of the dropsies as the Stanford wide receivers on Saturday. So yea, maybe he got a little bit lucky, but the point is he came through when it mattered…and we won. He played within himself, managed the game, and delivered in crunch time. Not bad for a 19 year old making his first career start.

The defense didn’t miss a tackle. OK they probably did at some point, but I didn’t notice any missed tackles when watching the replay. The entire defense swarms to the ball as the play develops, and once they get there they make sure it stops. There were several huge open field tackles by Walker, Henry and Lowry that stood out. This D has attitude, talent and speed – they will keep us in games this year.

We might be pretty good. The ‘Cats came into this game with low expectations for the year (at least from fans and media), but this win turns it all on its head. We just beat the best team on our schedule, and did so in decisive fashion. Yes, Stanford was sloppy and had some big drops that could have flipped the momentum, but all in all we looked the better team. What’s most encouraging is that we have an identity – we’ll run the ball down your throat, play suffocating defense and not make mistakes. Clayton Thorson and JJ together in the backfield is very tough to defend. While Thorson may not be as shifty or agile as former QBs like Kain Colter, he has more downhill speed. Once he gets going, he can hit another gear – I loved to see him actually pulling away from the Stanford secondary on his TD run. He may have made a few tough decisions on Saturday, but that part of his game will only improve with more experience under center. He’s going to keep getting better, and guess what – so are the rest of the ‘Cats.

Moving On Is Hard To Do

We knew it before the Illinois game last year. I guess you could say we knew before the season even started. There’s death, taxes and the end of a college football player’s career. All are inevitable and somewhat distasteful.

Trevor Siemian’s playing career is over – as a Northwestern Wildcat. But he’s born anew, metamorphasized into a buckin’ Bronco from Denver. A backup to Peyton Manning, no less.

As an aside, do you realize there were only seven quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft this year? That’s literally one quarterback per round. Seven quarterbacks out of more than 100 college football teams. And Trevor Siemian was one of them. I’m not sure he was a top seven quarterback in the Big Ten last year.

But darnit, I’m going to miss the guy. His goofy smile. The way he locked in on a receiver from the snap and threw into triple coverage. The shaved head. Those fun times where he ran the ball, or rather lumbered forward several yards and fell down. The initials T.S…

Some people dare to criticize Trevor because of his mediocre stats throughout his career. I’m with Fitz – stats are for losers. And losers who criticize Trevor Siemian are for losers. I’m not ashamed to say it – I was a big fan of the guy. Sometimes you have to accept someone’s imperfections and focus on the good. As boneheaded a play as he could make – he could snap back and do something ridiculous two plays later. He came through when it mattered – more often than not. He beat Notre Dame, right?

But regardless, here we are – in a brave new world for Northwestern football. No Trevor Siemian. In fact, no returning quarterback with any real semblance of experience. I’ll admit, I haven’t been a fan of the ‘Cats for “that” long. I’d say 2007. But in those eight years, I don’t remember a year where we had an absolute, brand new spanking quarterback taking the reins. In a way it’s terrifying, but also thrilling. Just like the Trevor Era – you don’t know what to expect. You could see something insanely awesome and ridiculous, or something boneheadedly brutal. The important part is that it’s unknown, and unexpected – whatever “it” is.

Hope can take you to the highest highs, and the lowest lows. And hope comes from the unknown, the unexpected. The Northwestern Wildcats are in a new spot, at least for me as a fan – they have a blank slate. Taylor Swift meets Rousseau, man.

And that’s the beauty of college sports. All of a sudden you could find a diamond in the rough – a kid who comes out of nowhere to become a star. Someone who has the moxie and talent to take us to the next level. Is Clayton Thorson that guy? I don’t know. Do I want to find out? Hell yes.

Go ‘Cats.

RIP Trevor Siemian

2010-2014