About EVR

"Expect Victory" is the well known battle cry of the Gary Barnett era Wildcats; a mantra continued today by Coach Fitz. "Victory Right" is, of course, the most recognizable single play in Northwestern Football history; capping off a 21-point comeback at Minnesota in 2000. "Expect Victory Right" is what Northwesten fans have become accustomed to as followers of the Cardiac Cats; another Victory Right game could happen any given saturday. It is also a nod to how Coach Fitz is dedicated to winning the "Right" way.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Game Preview: Northwestern 2-2 (0-1) vs. Michigan 5-0 (1-0)

Saturday, October 8, 2011, 6:00 CST (BTN)
Ryan Field at Night -- danonartframes.com
Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Saturday night fans will see one of the most anticipated one-on-one matchups of the season as reigning Big Ten Players of the Year Dan Persa and Denard Robinson will face each other for the only time in their careers.  Northwestern is coming off a heartbreaking loss to their in-state rival.  Michigan is coming off a rout of Minnesota, but is playing their first road game of the season after spending all of September in Ann Arbor. 
As seen on BTN Greatest Games
turner.com
Northwestern is 4-8 against Michigan since 1995; 2-4 at Ryan Field.  The Cats last beat Michigan at home in the famous 2000 game – 54-51.  Michigan won the last meeting in Evanston in 2007 28-16, in a game that Northwestern controlled for three quarters before giving way in the fourth.  Northwestern won the last meeting between the two schools in 2008, a 21-14 win in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern and Michigan both have dynamic rushing offenses – NU with a multi-player attack and UM based around Robinson.  The Cats have a very efficient passing game, which has not thrown an interception since the first quarter of game one.  Michigan’s passing attack has been inconsistent from an accuracy standpoint, but faces a secondary that was blistered for almost 400 yards against Illinois.  Much has been made of the Michigan defense, but they gave up chunks of yards and points against their only true test – Notre Dame.  There is a lot for both of these teams to prove on Saturday.
As a side-note unrelated to the game, four-star linebacker Quanzell Lambert (Sickerville, NJ – Timber Creek) makes his official visit to Evanston this weekend.  Lambert is the 8th ranked LB in the country according to rivals.com.  He is also making official visits to Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Alabama.  It is clear that Northwestern in the lost shot here, but there has to be a reason that the Cats are in the mix.  The Cats have three New Jersey players on the roster currently, including freshman center Brandon Vitabile.
Injury Report
Mike Trumpy
chicagobreakingsports.com
Northwestern lost tailback Mike Trumpy for the year with an ACL tear last week.  Expect Treyvon Green to carry the load along with Adonis Smith, who should be back to full strength and playing time after his leg injury caused him to miss the majority of two games.  Dan Persa is listed on the injury report as probable, and there is no indication that he will not be on the field as he has practiced all week.  Other less significant injury news is that LB Roderick Goodlow is questionable as he continues to nurse his leg injury; wideout Tony Jones is out and has yet to play this season because of his leg injury; and DT Brian Arnfelt will miss another game with a foot injury that has kept him from pushing for the starting job alongside Jack DiNardo.
Michigan’s report is relatively clean as well.  Left Guard Ricky Barnum has an ankle injury and is questionable – leaving Michael Schofield or Elliott Mealer to play in his place.  Both Schofield and Mealer are bigger than Barnum, but may not be able to match his agility.  Meanwhile, linebacker Cam Gordon continues to struggle with a back injury.  Gordon was fourth on the team in tackles in 2010, redshirt freshman Jake Ryan is listed as Gordon’s backup as the strong-side linebacker.
Weather Report: Tomorrow will be a perfect day for tailgating as Evanston is expecting a high of 81, with mostly sunny conditions during the day.  Winds at 10-20 mph will keep the day refreshing.  Kickoff temperature should be around 73, with the temp dropping to the mid-sixties by the end of the game.  Do not leave your jacket in the car.  Check with the Weather Channel for updates on the weather.
Inside the Matchups
Dan Persa
chicagonow.com
The return of Dan Persa was certainly the jump start that the Wildcat offense needed after a sluggish performance against Army.  While Kain Colter led a drive for what should have been the game-winning touchdown, it was Persa that was the difference maker, throwing a career high four touchdown passes.  But Persa’s stats demonstrate that it was not so much his performance as his presence that changed the game.  He only threw 14 passes and did not have a single designed run – although he was credited with 9 rushes, four of which were sacks.  In other words, the mere fact that Persa was on the field made the offense better, as the offense played efficiently against one of the better defenses that it will face all year.
Cam Gordon
annarbor.com
The Michigan defense has been given a lot of credit for its improvement over last season, and for good reason.  In four of their first five games, UM has given up one score or less.  But there are some aspects of the UM defense that the Cats can exploit. For instance, UM game up 198 yards on 6 yards-per-carry to Notre Dame.  Now, NU’s running attack is probably not as good as Notre Dame’s but the Cats’ backs are certainly better than Eastern Michigan, who ran for 207 yards.  Northwestern is averaging well over 200 yards rushing per game, and put up very nice rushing numbers over Boston College and Illinois (227 and 169 respectively), two of the better run defenses in the country.  Northwestern’s hurry up offense could be a key in the matchup as the hope to catch the young Michigan defense out of position.
Jeremy Ebert
blogspot.com
The Northwestern passing game has played a support role in the offense thus far, and if Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith can get things going, this should continue Saturday night.  The Cats have only attempted 86 passes this season – compared to 199 rushes.  But the cats use their passing attack very efficiently.  The team has a 67% completion percentage, including Dan Persa’s 10-14 effort last week.  Michigan Strong Safety Jordan Kovacs has started in 26 consecutive games, and will need to hold down the fort against the NU receivers.  Jeremy Ebert had no problem getting open against Illinois, scoring three touchdowns and re-emerging as Persa’s favorite target.  Michigan has four interceptions on the year, but only 1 since the Notre Dame game on September 10.  Three of the four starting DBs have picks for Big Blue.  Superback Drake Dunsmore will continue to be a size mismatch for the Michigan defense at 6’3” / 235.
The Michigan pass rush has been moderately effective, recording seven sacks in their five games.  Leading the charge are Kovacs, coming off the safety blitz, and Junior DE Craig Roh, who will likely draw the assignment opposite Al Netter.  Roh, at 6’5” / 269 is big and fast and will be a problem for the NU line, which has given up 10 sacks this season.  It will be interesting to see whether Persa has re-gained his confidence in running the ball, or if he will remain hesitant, which he appeared at times against Illinois.  Michigan’s ability to put pressure on Persa should be a major key to this game, especially if the Cats are put in a position where they have to throw the ball.
Denard Robinson
midwestsportsfans.com
When Michigan has the ball, all eyes will be on Denard Robinson, and for good reason.  Robinson is unlike any player that NU will face all season, and probably the best athlete at quarterback that the Cats have seen since Indiana’s Antwaan Randle-El.  Robinson has 603 yards rushing, and averages 7.8 yards per carry, including six runs of over 20 yards. Robinson’s passing, however, has been inconsistent.  He is 50-91 for eight touchdowns, but has thrown six interceptions.  His accuracy has been the biggest problem – both missing open receivers and throwing the untimely pick.  In order to contain him, the Cats will likely need to challenge Robinson to throw and hope for the best.
Which is a tall order, because the Wildcat secondary has been thrashed so far this season.  The Cats have giving up 240 yards passing per game – which is not a horrible amount, except when you consider that Army had only six.  Instead the true average is 317 per game.  Cornerback Jeravin Matthews has been burned by opposing receivers, especially, most recently, A.J. Jenkins.  Oddly, Matthews has been drawing the taller receivers this season, which means he will likely be covering 6’1” Junior Hemmingway, who is Michigan’s receiving yardage leader.  Jordan Mabin, on the other side however, has been the shutdown corner everyone has expected.  He recorded an interception and broke up a pass against Boston College – but has otherwise been avoided like the plague. Expect to not hear his name much again this weekend as an inaccurate Robinson would be wise not to look his way.
NU Linebacker Bryce McNaul
bleacherreport.net
Again, if Robinson is moderately accurate, Big Blue will be able to move the ball through the air.  But they are going to have to run the ball in order to win, in order to keep an equally potent Wildcat offense off the field.  This will probably be the most appealing matchup of the game because it is truly strength against strength.  The NU run defense is vastly improved from last year – but they have the tendency to give up the big play.  Again, removing the Army game – where Army ran the ball 75 times – NU has given up 318 yards rushing to the three conventional offenses it has played.  It has given up rushes of 69 yards (on the first play of the season) and 76 yards (with one minute left against Eastern).  But otherwise, it has been very stingy.  But including Robinson, Michigan has five players with more than 10 carries who are averaging more than 6.4 yards per carry.  If Michigan can establish the run game early, it will not need to throw and this game could get ugly.  If NU can contain the run and force Robinson to pass, the Cats put the game on his inconsistent arm, which looks like a much better scenario.
NU’s defense has played very well against the spread attack this season.  Most of Illinois’ big plays last week came when Scheelhaase took the snap from under center and used play action to free up A.J. Jenkins.  BC’s Chase Rettig also took most of his snaps the conventional way, on his way to a 350-yard passing game.  But when the QB is in the shotgun, the Cats secondary has played much better – and there has been success against the run as well.
NU DE Vince Browne
scout.com
The main question that any defense has to ask when playing Michigan is whether to put pressure on Robinson – or just to try to contain him.  Robinson’s best threat is the designed QB run.  Most players are accustomed to looking for a handoff or a pass.  But by the time they make that decision against Robinson, he is already hitting the hole.  The linebackers and safeties will need to look sharp, but not sell out the pass.  The defensive line will need to put some pressure on Robinson, but be careful not to force him out of the pocket, where he is a threat to run and is a more accurate passer.  Sacks like the Cats made against Scheelhaase will be key, where the pocket simply collapses around him.  Shockingly, all four of NU’s sacks against Illinois were with only a four man rush.
Finally, the turnover battle will be key.  NU and Michigan are the top two teams in the conference in turnover margin at +5 and +7 respectively.  The Cats only have the one interception from the first half of the BC game and the intentional fumble lost during the Stanford Band play at the end of the Illinois game.  Michigan likely would have not beaten Notre Dame had it not forced five turnovers.  Both of these teams have vulnerabilities on defense, so the ability to hold on to the ball – or take it away – could play a major role in this one.
Final Analysis
EVR expects this to be a high scoring affair.  Each offense has multiple dimensions to throw at the opposing defense.  Persa vs. Robinson should be as entertaining of a show as Cat fans have seen in years – and it may come down (again) to the last team with the ball.
Fitz, beating Michigan
thesportsbank.net
Expect Michigan to be able to move the ball very effectively and score on most of its possessions – although I think NU will hold a lot of these to field goals.  NU will get its points, but not as consistently.  Both teams will have the ability to enjoy long sustained drives as both defenses will focus on avoiding the big play.
Michigan scores on all five possessions of the first half yet can only muster a 23-14 lead.  This continues in the third quarter, but Blue is unable to pull away and leads 40-28.  Michigan gets a little frustrated and starts taking some risks to put the game away and this opens the door for Persa and company.  NU outscores Michigan 14-0 in the final stanza and pulls out a thrilling 42-40 Wildcat Victory.
Go Cats!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Attempting to Make Sense of the Illinois Loss

EVR hates reviewing a loss, especially a loss like this.  Part of why EVR began this blog was to have the venue to evaluate matchups and statistics and take a pragmatic look at Northwestern football.  The idea is to remove the emotion from the analysis.  But after a game like Saturday, it is difficult not to sit there and cry: “Why?  Why?!?”
Fitz: perplexed
sbnation.com
Stop if you have heard this story before.  NU loses a close game in upset fashion to a team that is vastly overmatched – primarily because of the failures of the offense.  NU has two weeks to prepare for the next game, a game against an upstart Big Ten team who is off to its best start in decades.  After a tightly fought beginning, NU’s offense comes alive – punching their opponent in the mouth and taking a three score lead.  But then the defense slowly falls apart and the loss comes in excruciating fashion.  Sound like the 2010 Michigan State game?  Or last Saturday against Illinois?
The largest frustration for Cat fans coming out of this game is that it appears that the Cats have not found an identity yet.  84% of the team’s passes have been thrown by the backup quarterback.  A team with two mobile quarterbacks is giving up more than two sacks a game.  The supposed weakness of the team – the running game – is the most consistent element.  55% of the defense’s rushing yards were given up in one game.  And the secondary was billed as the best in 15 years… well….  And what is up with the rugby style punts?
Well, EVR has taken a look at the numbers and, like it or not, it looks like the Illinois game is the best measure of what Cat fans can expect to see out of this team for the rest of the season.  And that is appropriate.  After all, Boston College has turned out to be a failure; EIU is not something to judge against; and Army brought the quirky defense and saw the offense sputter.  The Illinois results are the best way to evaluate this team and the statistics support this.
This post will take a look at the Cats in six areas of the game.  It will show why the Illinois game is the best way to demonstrate what this team is capable of.  Like it or not, what this will predict is a lot of high scoring, heart-stopping games ahead. 
True Frosh Treyvon Green
ggpht.com
Rushing Offense:  One of the biggest surprises of the year has been the effectiveness of the NU rushing attack.  NU is averaging more than 200 yards per game –170 against the three FBS opponents.  The Cats gained 171 against Illinois – exactly at the average.  Also, Persa and Colter were expected to get their rushing yards – and it really is not fair to include the sack yardage in these totals.  The running backs are averaging 4.2 yards per carry for the year – they were at 4.0 against the Illini.  These are not world beating numbers, but they are more than adequate especially against the Boston College and Illinois run defenses. Expect more of the same for the rest of the season, even without Mike Trumpy.
Passing Offense:  If there is one word to describe the NU passing game in 2011, it is efficient.  67% completions, seven touchdowns, one interception (in the first half of the first game).  The average is 167 per game; the Cats gained 160 against Illinois.  Like it or not, the Cats offense is committed to running the ball, which will continue to allow Persa to be a surgeon with his arm when needed.  The key will be keeping the wide receivers engaged because they will need to be focused when they are called upon. 
Persa, sacked again
writingillini.com
Pass Protection:  NU was worst in the Big Ten in 2010 giving up more than three sacks per game.  Thus far in 2011 it has been only a little better.  Ten sacks in four games, including seven in the last two, is not good – especially given the mobility of Persa and Colter.  The Illinois defense sacked Persa a total of four times and after three of those, the Cats did not survive that set of downs – leading directly to three of the six NU punts.  In fact, the 10 opponents’ sacks have directly led to eight punts and a missed field goal this year.  The Illinois defense showed the Big Ten that the efficient passing game can be neutralized by an effective pass rush and the results demonstrated that it is worth the risk of Persa breaking away for a quick run.  Just like Saturday, this will continue to be the weakness of the offense.
Rushing Defense:  In 2010, the Cats game up 185 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.  In 2011, through four games, NU has allowed 175 per game, but only 4.1 yards per carry.  By removing the Army game, these numbers continue to get better – 106 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.  And even further, by removing a 69 yard run on the first play of the season and a 76 yard run with 1:27 left in the game against EIU and the defense allows 43 yards per game and 1.8 yards per carry.  Illinois gained only 82 yards on the ground, 48 of which were on three plays.  The Cats held the Illini to 2.2 yards per carry, their best output of the season.  Granted NU was focusing on the run to make up for the Wrigley debacle; but the run defense is the most improved unit on the team, and fans should expect to see more of this, even against the better running attacks in the Big Ten.
A.J. Jenkins just scored again
Passing Defense:  Oh Boy… After the BC game, EVR expressed some concern over the passing defense after allowing 351 yards to Chase Rettig; Chase Rettig!  Against EIU, there was more worry after the Panthers managed to squeeze in a bomb of a touchdown pass through a hole that was 25 yards wide.  And, well, everyone saw what happened against Illinois.  Without the Army game, the Cats are giving up a ridiculous 9.4 yards per attempt (12.2 against Illinois) and 16.1 yards per completion (18.6 vs. Illinois.  Just by comparison, NU’s numbers are 7.8 and 11.5 respectively.  The biggest problems seems to arise when the quarterback takes the ball from under center and especially when they use play action – which was especially prevalent in the Illinois game.  This should not be much of a problem against spread teams, but may be an issue against pro-style offenses such as Iowa, MSU, and Nebraska.  It is unlikely that every game will be quite as bad as the Illinois game, but this will be an ongoing problem.
One of the four Wildcat sacks
daylife.com
Pass Rush:  The Wildcat pass rush has vastly improved in 2011 as well.  After only recording 17 sacks in 2010, NU has already made 10 in four games so far.  Part of this has been the health of the offensive line, but a large part has been the aggressiveness of the defensive play-calling.  Oddly enough, all of the sacks against Illinois were earlier in the game, while sacks against the other three opponents all occurred later in the contest.  Regardless of when the sacks occur, the team has shown that they have the talent to put pressure on the passer – which was exhibited by the four sacks of Nathan Scheelhaase.  But they will need to be able to do this during the entire game as the season goes on.
Now that the Cats are four games into the season, the raw data begins to play itself out and Cat fans can start to see where this team is headed.  If the Illini are indeed one of the better teams in the Big Ten, this comparison is a promising one.  And if the Cats continue to play to their statistical averages, they should be able to pull out some nice victories.  But on the other hand, the games will not be without their share of drama and fireworks.  EVR predicts excitement for the rest of the season, beginning with a Michigan team that the Cats really should match up well against. 
In the end, blowing an 18-point lead is hard to swallow.  There were some good things to take from the Illinois game. But the pass protection and the pass defense is going to need to improve vastly if the Cats want to make a push for a decent bowl game.
Go Cats!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Game Preview: Northwestern 2-1 (0-0) at Illinois 4-0 (0-0)

Saturday, October 1, 2011, 11:00 CST (ESPN2)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
The Land of Lincoln Trophy
hailtopurple.com
Northwestern looks to bounce back from a stinging defeat after a bye week which saw some key players return to the field at full strength.  Illinois looks to continue its best start since 1961 – before Dick Butkus was on campus.  This rivalry game has taken on a new flavor this season as both players and coaches have spoken openly about competing to be Chicago’s Big Ten Team.  It is the 105th meeting between the schools.  Northwestern is 10-6 against Illinois in the Expect Victory Era.  Illinois won the most recent meeting in 2010 in the Wrigley Field game.  Northwestern won the last game in Champaign.
Illinois and Northwestern both bring strong running games to the field on Saturday as both are averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game and are in the top 25 nationally in that category.  Illinois has a softer secondary but a fierce pass rush – which will create an interesting matchup for senior quarterback Dan Persa, who returns to the field for the first time in 2011.  Northwestern also returns three key defenders, but will it be enough to stop the dynamic Illinois offense?
Injury Report
Northwestern’s injury report is as positive as it has been all year.  DT Brian Arnfelt (Foot), S Jared Carpenter (Wrist), and WR Tony Jones (Leg) are all out – but none of them are starters.  On the other hand, Dan Persa, Adonis Smith, Jack DiNardo, Colin Ellis, and David Arnold will all play for NU after missing at least one game each.  This is as healthy as the Cats are going to get.
On the Illini side, their injury report is pretty clean as well.  Reserve fullback Zach Becker broke his leg against South Dakota State and will miss the season.  Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase banged up his shoulder against Arizona State but that did not limit him at all last week.  The only major loss for Illinois is starting left tackle Corey Lewis, who blew his ACL in February and is missing the entire season.  Otherwise, both of these teams will be pretty much at full strength – which is how fans should want to see the game played.
Weather Report: Tomorrow will be a cool day, perfect for October football.  Champaign is expected to have a kickoff temperature of 54 with a high of 59.  There is a slight chance of rain at 10%, but otherwise mostly sunny.  Weather will not be an issue in this game.  Check with the Weather Channel for updates on the weather.
Inside the Matchups
Dan Persa
espn.com
It is no secret that the key to the Wildcat offense will be the return of Dan Persa.  After the blowout in Wrigley Field, Cat fans were quick to point out that Persa was unable to control the ball for NU; while Illinois fans were quicker to point out that not even Dan Persa could have tackled Mikel Leshoure.  There is no question that the NU offense will be a more efficient attack with Persa at the helm.  But that is not to say that the offense did not stall under him at times in 2010.  The team will have to quickly adjust to having its #1 guy behind center if they want to stay in this game.
If he is given time to throw, Dan should have the chance to move the ball through the air.  Last year, of course, he set a Big Ten record and was the nation’s leader in completion percentage.  Illinois defensive backs are inexperienced and are having some growing pains.  Only cornerback Tavon Wilson had any significant starting experience before 2011.  This defense has given up 231 yards passing per game and more than 250 yards in three of its four games.  Illinois does have six interceptions on the year, but only two by defensive backs.
Michael Buchanan
cstv.com
But Illinois’ strength on defense is the pass rush.  They have 14 sacks in only four games including four by junior DE Whitney Mercilus and 3.5 by junior “bandit” Michael Buchanan.  They will put a lot of pressure on Patrick Ward and Al Netter.  NU has given up six sacks, but gave up three to Army.  Giving Persa time to throw will be integral to the Cats ability to move the ball.
When Dan does throw, he will have his All-Conference WR Jeremy Ebert raring to go.  Ebert scored his first two touchdowns of the year last week and continues to pose a threat with his precision routes.  It is likely that he will see coverage by Wilson, who actually has a slight size advantage over Ebert.  But look to see Persa go to Ebert if he is found matched up against Terry Hawthorne or Justin Green.  Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones may see some more touches this week as well.  Illinois DB’s are unusually large and NU needs to take advantage of the size advantage that these two present.  Of course Drake Dunsmore will be the primary Safety valve.  And Persa will look to see him lined up against sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown for the mismatch.
Mike Trumpy
bleacherreport.com
NU’s running game is both improved and healthy for the Illinois game.  This squad has averaged over 200 yards per game led by Mike Trumpy and quarterback Kain Colter.  Saturday will also see the return of Adonis Smith, who will add a dimension to the attack.  Colter will probably still see the ball in some capacity, even if not by direct snap.  But Illinois’ run defense is one of the best in the nation, giving up only 56 yards per game.  It is led by senior linebackers Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry.  NU will need at least 100 yards on the game to keep this competitive because, while they should be able to move the ball through the air, the Cats will need to mix it up a bit – not only to keep the defense honest but to tame the Illini pass rush and keep Persa upright.
When Illinois has the ball they bring with them the 16th most efficient passer in the nation with Scheelhaase.  He not only averages 212 yards per air through the air, but has also gained 224 yards on the ground through four games.  This is the first true dual-threat quarterback that the Cats will see this year – and they will need to get used to it with Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez on the schedule. NU’s ability to contain Scheelhaase will be telling as to how they will perform during the season.  NU’s pass defense has shown some inconsistency, giving up 351 yards against BC and two big pass plays against EIU – but then only 6 yards passing against Army. 
Leshoure finds another hole
redeyechicago.com
But honestly, the reason for only six yards against Army was the run defense, which Illinois knows a lot about.  But there are some differences between the NU run defense in Wrigley and the one at West Point.  At Wrigley, NU was over pursuing and out of position.  This lead to a lot of missed tackles and put a great deal of pressure on the secondary to help stop the run.  But in West Point, NU was actually pretty disciplined with positioning, they were just caught up in the Army cut block scheme and gave up too many yards after the first hit.  If NU can complete tackles, they really should see some more success against the more traditional running attack of Illinois.  The debut of highly-touted freshman linebacker Colin Ellis and the return of run-stopping safety David Arnold are expected to be a major help in this department.
Jason Ford
heraldreview.com
Illinois will look to give the ball not only to feature back Jason Ford, but also senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young.  The Illini have shown the propensity to give the ball to the hot hand all year and should continue to do such.  If there is a weakness to the Illini running attack it is on the left side, where freshman tackle Michael Heitz replaces injury starter Corey Lewis.  Inside of Heitz is senior Jack Cornell, who started at the end of last season, but is not nearly as experienced as the other side of the offensive line.
Heitz and Cornell will be charged with stopping Jack DiNardo and Vince Browne, which could be one of the key matchups for the Cats on defense.  If Jack and Vince can contain their blocks in the run game, they will win this matchup, because they should be able to create some pressure in the passing game.  Illinois has given up 10 sacks itself (NU has forced six in one fewer game), so it is not immune to the sack, despite its mobile quarterback.  Expect Illinois to run a lot until NU can stop them, but if and when they do pass, the NU pass rush could be a key factor.
A.J. Jenkins
fansonly.com
Senior A.J. Jenkins is Scheelhaase’s favorite target and already has pulled in 28 catches.  Jenkins is a smaller speedy receiver who can get lost in the NU zone if the Cats are not careful.  Look for Jordan Mabin to attempt to shut him down.  Meanwhile, Jeravin Matthews will draw the assignment on sophomore wideout Darius Millines, who is also a smaller player, and should not give Jeravin the problems he has had with the larger receivers.  Illinois will look to use tight end Evan Wilson near the goal line.  Wilson only has four catches, but two of them are for touchdowns.
Final Analysis
By all accounts, Illinois should win this game.  But NU has the x-factor of having five players return from injury – all of whom should contribute at varying levels.  The Illini have a very favorable schedule, and do not want to blow an opportunity to have a special season by losing to their rivals. Illinois was already given a scare last week, so it should come out focused for its homecoming crown.
Fitz will be looking for answers
espn.com
NU is going to need to get its head on straight on special teams as well, which is an area that has struggled a bit this season.  NU has the ability to win this game, but it will have to avoid the penalties and mental mistakes that have plagued the team in the first three games.
Expect this to be a hard-fought game, one of the better matchups this rivalry has seen in a while.  Persa will have a solid, if not spectacular game, but may not have the stamina to keep it together for 60 minutes.  In the end, the Illinois run game will overpower the NU defense and it will control the fourth quarter.  NU will get a final shot at it, but may fall just short.  Hopefully, this is wrong, but EVR is calling it at 31-24 Illini.
Go Cats!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Positive Injury Report; the Battle for Chicago; and Big Ten Power Rankings

The Northwestern Wildcats made good use of their bye week by getting themselves well.  Four Wildcat players find themselves back on the two-deep depth chart for Illinois, and a fifth may play Saturday as well.  The Cats will have their work cut out for them in another road test, so this could not have come at a better time.
Chicagonow.com
The biggest news is, of course, Dan Persa.  Persa should be the difference maker who will electrify an offense that was stagnant at best against Army.  The only concerns with Dan will be adjusting to the speed of play and keeping him from being too excited about the game.  Fitz will not commit that Dan will take all of the snaps, but the presumption is that if he feels well enough, he will.  But expect Colter to see the ball in some way, as his speed is too good to not utilize.
One of the more exciting returns is not a return at all but the Wildcat debut of redshirt freshman linebacker Collin Ellis.  Ellis has been highly touted by the coaching staff and should make an impact on the defense.  He will begin by backing up Ben Johnson, but the coaches expect Ellis to get into the game.  Anticipate seeing Ellis as the starter by homecoming.
Jack DiNardo will be back in his starting role on the defensive line.  After a strong effort against Boston College, Jack sat out the last two games.  Against the dynamic offense of the Illini, DiNardo’s stability in the middle will be necessary.
David Arnold will return but will not regain his starting spot as Ibraheim Campbell appears to won the job outright.  But Arnold will certainly see playing time, especially in running situations.  Arnold is a big hitter and will be needed to stop the Illini backs from breaking the big one.
Bostonherald.com
Finally, there is no official word yet on Adonis Smith.  He is not listed on the two-deep, but he may simply be the third guy behind Trumpy and Schmidt.  Smith is still the best back at grinding out the extra yard in a pack and would have been helpful in the failed third-and-short situations against Army.
Both the coaches and the players have ratcheted up the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry a bit this week.  It seems as though the Illini have taken offense to the Wildcats claim of being “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”  It also seems that the Wildcats are pretty serious about that claim.  The Chicago media has had a field day with this war of words and this is perhaps exactly what this rivalry needs.  Many of the games over the last 10 years have been blowouts, and the closer games generally were comebacks that fell short – rather than outright barnburners.  Perhaps the early season matchup is the key – the last three NU-Illinois games played in October have all been decided by three points.
Most fans look at a team like Northwestern, look at the offense’s performance against Army, and they immediately blame the playcalling.  The presumption is that Northwestern is a bigger, faster, and stronger team, and that they should have no problems moving the ball against Army.  But the average fan does not know a thing about playcalling, it is just the scapegoat. 
Now, EVR does not pretend to know anything about offensive playcalling either, but after reviewing the play chart for the Army game, a few interesting things popped out.
OC Mick McCall
cstv.com
NU ran 23 plays on first down against Army.  They called 8 runs and 15 passes, although two of the runs were Colter runs, which may have been initially called as passes.  There is no way of knowing without re-watching the entire game, but assume for sake of argument that they were designed runs.  In the first half, the Cats passed on first down and ran on the following second down five times – and converted (eventually) the first down each time.  The Cats also threw a first down pass complete for a first down.  This means that six of the ten first half first downs were the result of passing on first down, and primarily the result of running on the following second down.
The statistics very clearly support this.  For the game, NU was 9-14 with one sack passing the ball on first down, for an average of 7.8 yards per play call.  This leaves the cats with a second and short (less than 3) – where the Cats averaged 3.7 yards per carry.  Even when the pass was incomplete, the Cats averaged 14 yards per carry on 2nd and long (7-10 yards).  On the other hand, passing in those situations netted a combined 2-6 with a sack.  Clearly, the pass on first / run on second plan was having success.
But in the second half, the Cats passed on first down and ran on the following second down only once.  It was not successful primarily because of a third down penalty.  This playcalling progression was the bread and butter of the team in the first half, and was completely abandoned in the second half.  Perhaps it was panic.  But there were no situations, except for the final drive, where the score and time situation was any different than the first half.  The Cats spend most of the game down by 7 points; the game plan should have been consistent throughout.
Now whether or not the pass-run combo will work against Illinois, no one knows.  But hopefully the coaching staff will look to their own charts and see what is working for them rather than continuing to try to reinvent the wheel.
Legends Division
1 Nebraska: Nebraska escaped its trap game on Saturday with a solid victory in Laramie against Wyoming.  After two sluggish performances, the Huskers showed a more dominant face, which they will need moving forward to the Big Ten season.  While Nebraska and Wisconsin may not be the sexiest matchup of the weekend, it is certainly the most important – and may not be the only matchup of the year.
2 Michigan State: Michigan State got back in the saddle on Saturday with a commanding 47-7 win over Central Michigan.  The young defense will have an interesting matchup against the youngest quarterback in the conference when they face the Buckeyes on Saturday.  Given that this is a down year for OSU, this is Sparty’s chance to prove that he belongs in the upper tier of the conference.
3 Michigan: There was no intent to move Michigan up to 3 until after they played Northwestern on the field, but the defensive performance against San Diego State could not be ignored.  Yes, the Big Ten opponents will provide more competition on both sides of the ball; and Denard Robinson will need to get better at passing the ball (two more picks against SDSU).  But Blue has passed the first tests of the year and earned this spot.
4 Northwestern (-1): A statistic posted on Twitter over the weekend which said that NU’s winning percentage is a full .200 higher in years when they are “upset” during the season than years when they are not – since 1995.  While this is certainly testament to the annual Wildcat upset, it is also demonstrative of NU’s resolve.  The Cats get an army (sorry) of players back for the Illinois game and had two weeks to prepare; so they may be primed for an upset.
5 Iowa: Iowa was impressive against a relatively unimpressive team.  But this is a team that will still have problems.  After a bye week the Hawkeyes have Penn State and Northwestern, so if they want to prove that they belong in the top half of the league, they will have their chance.
6 Minnesota: After an embarrassing loss to North Dakota State, the Gophers are staring down the potential for a 1-11 season – and they do not play Indiana and have Purdue on the road.  With a coach that is going through some health problems right now, this could be a dark time for the Minnesota program.
Leaders Division
1 Wisconsin: Madison hosts Gameday on Saturday as the Badgers welcome Nebraska to the Big Ten.  Wisconsin is more talented on both sides of the ball and their dynamic offense should be able to put up some points against a Nebraska defense that has been weaker than expected.  The Badgers have yet to show their weakness, if they have one.  Stopping Taylor Martinez might just be the test to see if Bucky belongs in the national title discussion.
2 Illinois: The Illini narrowly avoided a choke with a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan.  The secondary was thrashed for over 300 yards passing, which will perk the ears of offensive coordinators across the conference.  Illinois is the deserved favorites this weekend, but if Dan Persa can get things going through the air, it could be a dogfight to determine Chicago’s Big Ten Team.
3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes won handily against Colorado last weekend and are now bracing for a near impossible stretch against the conference’s best four teams.  MSU is their only opponent of the bunch where they will be without the Tattoo Four.  If they can sneak out a win Saturday, OSU will be back in the discussion.
4 Penn State: Penn State for the first time all season looked like a Penn State team as they rolled over an Eastern Illinois team who was simply overmatched.  Penn State still insists on alternating quarterbacks, which will eventually be their undoing.  The Lions have a chance to get hot with games against Indiana, Iowa and Purdue upcoming.
5 Purdue: The Boilers had the week off and now host Notre Dame on Saturday.  If Purdue can force turnovers, they have a chance.  But Notre Dame is a supremely more talented team, and this could finally be the blowout that Irish fans are thirsting for.  Either way, Purdue seems like it may rise above Indiana and Minnesota at the bottom of the Big Ten.
6 Indiana (-1): Like Minnesota, the Hoosiers are facing a 1-11 season now that they have lost to both Ball State and North Texas.  North Texas was actually up 24-0 in the fourth quarter before a fierce IU comeback fell short.  Bottom line, this is a bad team.
Go Cats!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Revisiting Army; the Anatomy of an Upset

First off, EVR apologizes for going AWOL this week.  The post-Army hangover was too great on Sunday morning and EVR’s “real job” has been getting in the way.  Even EVR needs a bye week.
NU lost to Army.  There is not much more to say about it.  Those who watched know how it happened; those who did not watch – well those fans are probably better off.  There are three things that can be said about losing to Army.  The first is that Northwestern should not lose to Army.  Period.  End of discussion.
But it is also very little to get upset about losing to Army or any service academy.  The service academies represent everything that is good and pure about college football.  And if the Cats are going to lose to any team, Army is one of the few that are tolerable. 
Finally, the one thing that gives Cat fans solace about losing to Army is the very thing that frustrates them the most.  And that is this: this was an upset; NU is better than Army; NU will make a bowl; NU will beat someone that it should not to make up for it.  Why do Cat fans feel that way?  Well, that is the frustrating part… because NU has seen this all too often…
’06 New Hampshire; ’07 Duke; ’08 Indiana; ’09 Syracuse; ’10 Purdue; ’11 Army.  Every year of the Fitz tenure, NU has suffered a devastating upset.  Cat fans have grown to expect it; and those with negative inclinations even picked Army as the trap game of the 2011 season.  In attempting to process the Army loss, EVR has done some research.  And while this will not necessarily demonstrate why NU has a tendency to lose these games; the goal is to show how it happens.
The easy way to describe this trend is that NU comes into these upset games overconfident.  And there is some merit to this.  NU is an incredible 18-1 going into the 6 Fitz upsets.  There is some indication of looking ahead as well.  NU’s opponents after the upsets included Ohio State (’07), a red hot Minnesota (’08), a decent Minnesota (’09), an undefeated Michigan State (’10), and a likely undefeated Illinois this year.
But there is far more similarity to those losses than meets the eye.  Look at the Duke, Indiana, Purdue and Army losses.  The New Hampshire game is Fitz’s second career game and had a freshman at quarterback – not to mention that New Hampshire was probably actually better than NU that year.  The Syracuse game showed us one of the best passing performances in NU history – but for the brutal Kafka interception that set up the game winning field goal.  NU also had a secondary that was decimated by injuries, so it is a bit of an outlier.
Here is a look at the four remaining upset games, as compared the NU’s season stats.  Note that the season stats are the game-by-game average with the upset game removed:
NU Pts. NU Pts. Opp Pts. Opp. Pts. NU off yds. NU off yds. Opp. Off yds. Opp. Off yds
Year Game Game Season Avg. Diff Game Season Avg. Diff Game Season Avg. Diff Game Season Avg. Diff
2007 Duke 14 25 (11) 20 28 (8) 506 386 120 309 370 (61)
2008 Indiana 19 25 (6) 21 20 1 316 362 (46) 319 342 (23)
2010 Purdue 17 27 (10) 20 30 (10) 389 391 (2) 279 438 (159)
2011 Army 14 33 (19) 21 19 2 309 430 (121) 387 398 (11)

This explains a great deal.  NU consistently scored considerably below its season average in its upset losses.  Meanwhile its offensive yardage output was not too far off.  Thus suggests that the team is moving the ball at its normal rate, but not converting the scores.  It is clear that offensive efficiency is a clear indicator that an upset is in the cards.
Meanwhile, in the four subject games, the defense plays to its average, if not significantly better than normal.  In the Purdue game last year, the defense played one of its best statistical games of the season, but it was not enough.
Another common theme is the setting of the game.  Each of these losses – and you can throw back in the Syracuse game for this one – was either on the road or at night.  In other words, it was a setting that is out of the Wildcat comfort zone.
So how does this happen?  Stop if you have heard this one before.  NU comes out and the offense sputters.  Underdog gets an early score.  Underdog’s defense makes a few nice stops and gains some confidence.  Halftime is uncomfortably close.  As the game wears on NU starts to doubt itself on offense, while its defense begins to tire.  While the defense is playing well, it can no longer withstand the disadvantage in the time of possession.  Underdog gets a late score.  NU has a chance to win or tie at the end, but the highly confident and rested underdog defense makes the final stand.
Granted, not every upset happens this way.  But it certainly is closer to the rule than the exception.  Just look at the low scores in NU upsets over the years (defined as unranked NU teams over ranked opponents):
·         2010: NU 21 Iowa 17
·         2009: NU 17 Iowa 10
·         2008: NU 24 Minnesota 17
·         2004: NU 13 Purdue 10
·         2003: NU 16 Wisconsin 7
·         1997: NU 19 Michigan State 17
·         1995: NU 17 Notre Dame 15
·         1993: NU 22 Boston College 21
·         1991: NU 17 Illinois 11
While NU has certainly had some higher scoring upsets, the low-scoring affair is generally the more likely recipe.  As can be seen by the stats above, the underdog has a much better chance when their defense is playing well.  On the other hand, generally, when the teams are locked in a shootout, the favored team will prevail.  College football is a game of emotion and defense is the more emotional side of the ball.  If your defense makes some stops early, the offense will eventually score a few points and keep you in the game.  That is when upsets happen.
Why make this analysis?  Well look at how it applied to the Army game.
While the defense gave up 381 yards rushing, it only gave up 6 yards passing.  Army was the best offense that NU has seen in their three games and they held them to their lowest output of the year.  The 387 was still 50 yards less than the average given up by the Cats in 2010; and the 381 rushing by Army was lower than its average in its first two games.  So while it is easy to blame the defense, the statistics suggest otherwise.
That said, the NU defense failed to make big stops when they needed to and the most telling stat of the game was Army’s 3-3 on fourth down.  Army scored on its first drive of the game – but NU made some adjustments and stopped them the rest of the half.  Army made halftime adjustments, and scored on their first drive of the second half.  The NU defense then made four consecutive stops including three drives which totaled nine plays.  But in the end, the NU defense was tired and worn down from the option attack.  After a 14-play drive ended in a missed field goal, NU scored on a quick three-play drive.  The Wildcat defense was gassed and gave up the winning score.
But it was the offense that was the scapegoat in this game.  NU had four three-and-outs including three drives which resulted in negative yardage.  They had three consecutive three-and-outs in the second half.  Prior to the quick touchdown drive late in the game, NU had zero yards of total offense in the second half.  NU’s failure to convert on the first drive of the game and then again on the field goal attempt at the half was the beginning of the end.  These are the things that give an underdog defense its confidence.
One final note: Saturday marked the first time that Fitz removed a QB for strictly performance-based reasons.  Certainly he has sat a starter late during a blowout – and the two-QB system during the end of 2010 was by design.  But for the first time in six years, Fitz made the election to go with someone else while the game was still in doubt.  How this plays in the mind of Kain Colter moving forward will be interesting to watch in the next few years.  With all due respect to Kain, here’s hoping that we do not see him again this season – with the return of Dan Persa on the horizon.
So with no NU game this weekend, let’s look at the Big Ten Power Rankings.
Legends Division
1 Nebraska (+1): Nebraska gets the top spot back by default.  While the game ended in a convincing win, Nebraska again looked mediocre in the first half.  They may have some early issues again when they go to Laramie to face an undefeated Wyoming team.  While Nebraska will likely win, their confidence will continue to be shaken, which is not a good preparation for the Wisconsin showdown.
2 Michigan State (-1): Michigan State managed to force a few turnovers in South Bend and still was destroyed by the Irish.  The young Spartan defense was exposed by the Notre Dame skill players.  While ND sports a better offensive cast than most of the Big Ten; MSU still has some defensive concerns going into conference play.
T-3 Northwestern: If history repeats itself, the Cats will recover from their upset loss and prove that it was just that, an upset.  Dan Persa should return and the Cats should still be an outside contender for the Legends crown.  On the other hand, they had an off week after the Purdue loss last year and still lost to MSU; so the extra week before Illinois may be a non sequitur.
T-3 Michigan (+1): Michigan moves up as one of the four undefeated teams in the conference; although they probably do not deserve the promotion.  Blue’s next test is against NU, so EVR will let them decide it on the field.  They do have a tough test against Brady Hoke’s former team, San Diego State, on Saturday.
5 Iowa: Iowa needed a miracle to avoid losing their season against Pitt.  And this was clearly a game where Pitt simply lost their focus.  Iowa needs a lot of work to get back to where they expect to finish and until then will be secured in the 5 spot.
6 Minnesota: EVR was happy to see the Gophers pick up their first win after two heartbreaking losses.  Minnesota is probably better than Indiana and Purdue, but without playing IU, that still only results in a 3-9 season.
Leaders Division
1 Wisconsin: Wisconsin is sleepwalking through their non-conference schedule.  They should and will be favored against Nebraska on October 1.  With chinks in the armor on the Legends side, November 19 at Illinois could be the Big Ten game of the year.
2 Illinois: Very impressive.  Illinois passed their first true test with flying colors; issuing a minor upset against a ranked Arizona State 17-14 (see analysis above).  Ron Zook has these guys playing very well.  They are the second best team in the division, they avoid Nebraska and Michigan State, and they get Wisconsin and Ohio State at home.  Their toughest road game is Penn State.  The Illini could win 10 games easily.
3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes played one of their most pathetic games of the last ten years Saturday night.  Even the 2008 loss to USC was a loss to a clearly better team.  Miami is a good-but-not-great team made to look like world-beaters by a Buckeye team on the brink.  Colorado has looked competent; but it is a must win as the Buckeyes follow the Buffs with Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin – in that order.  Brutal.
4 Penn State: For the second year in a row, Penn State almost lost to Temple.  But they are still better than Purdue and IU.  PSU will get well with a handful of winnable games which they must sweep if they want to be assured of a season above .500.
T-5 Purdue: Purdue and IU get back their T-5 position after a pair of solid wins over inferior opponents.  Purdue was very efficient on offense and looked like a pretty good team -- even against an inferior opponent.  They get two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame, when reality will set back in. 
T-5 Indiana: The Hoosiers face North Texas in week four – which is their last legitimate chance to win a game until the Purdue game at the end of the season.  Kevin Wilson will do some nice things once Gunner Kiel gets on campus.  But he will need to wait until next year to start that project.
Go Cats!