Football Preview: Northwestern Wildcats vs. Towson Tigers
Saturday, Sept. 5 11:00 am CDT
Radio: Up for grabs, due to the Cubs. WNUR and WGN Internet will carry the game.
Time for the first full game preview of 2009 as Northwestern (0-0, 0-0) kicks things off, facing FCS (formerly known as I-AA) opponent Towson Tigers (0-0), a public school on the outskirts of Maryland. This will be the second-ever FBS opponent that Towson has played (they lost to Navy last year 41-13), and will be the first time they've traveled out of Maryland to face an FBS opponent. Northwestern is familiar with their conference, though, having played fellow members of the Colonial Athletic Association New Hampshire and Northeastern in 2006-2007.
The Wildcats will also be facing the first of their opponents with a new head coach in 2009; NU faces five such opponents, including all of their four nonconference matchups, and all in the first six weeks of the season.
Northwestern looks hungry to get back onto the playing field as the senior-laden team (10 seniors in starting roles) will be looking to rebound from the disheartening Alamo Bowl loss after an intense offseason. The start of 2009 marks year two with the current coordinators (DC Mike Hankwitz and OC Mick McCall) in the program; Hankwitz is looking to continue the vast improvement experienced with the 2008 defense, while McCall is still looking to getting his offense rolling for the 'Cats.
Head Coach Fitzgerald is, of course, looking to continue the trend, which had NU winning four, six, then nine games in his first three seasons at the helm—and it will be the first season in which NU is widely expected to make a bowl game, so we will all see how Fitz coaches when expectations are relatively higher.
For the Wildcats, many expectations will be measured and set based on the results of this, their first live action, especially on offense where NU replaces all of its starters at skill positions from last season. And NU will see if the D can continue what it started last year, especially with eight starters returning and significant backups allowed to step up into starting roles.
Although Northwestern knows more than anyone to take each and every game seriously, the fact is that Towson is hardly a power at the FCS level, and this game is shaping up to be little more than an official scrimmage with NU in the position of an easy win. In fact, anything less than an easy win could foreshadow not-so-great things to come in 2009.
Towson went 3-9 a season ago, and 3-8 the year before that, which led to their firing of HC Gordy Combs after last year (their three wins last year were by an average of just under six points each). The Towson Tigers' biggest advantage is, surprise, that they have a new head coach, Rob Ambrose, and will also have a new QB (who is TBA as the competition is still ongoing). Not only is this the first game of the year for both teams, but NU already has seen little of Towson with them hailing from the FCS. As Fitz said in an interview over the past week, it will be a good test of in-game adjustments for the Wildcats, which is a valuable skill if NU can use it later in the year.
Towson is in much of the same position as NU going into the year, with a solid defense but a lot of unknowns on offense, which will put the Wildcat offense in a bit more challenging position, given what they have to prove. It looks to be a great kickoff to the 2009 season for Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field, and hopefully the results on the field will be something good to build off of for the Wildcats.
Line: No Line (Sagarin Predictor differential: Northwestern -27)
Who Should Win: Northwestern, easily. Yes, NU has been defeated by an FCS opponent before and shouldn't take any opponent for granted, but this game is setting up to be one of the biggest gimmes in recent years for the 'Cats. Towson is not only an FCS team, but a bad FCS team that has gone 6-17 over the past two seasons and is breaking in a new coaching staff in addition to new players at key positions (like QB, where the starter is still undecided).
The 'Cats D should be able to win this game by themselves (as they almost did against Syracuse in last year's openers), but hopefully the offense can get in sync and contribute as well.
Upset Factor: We've seen NU lose "gimme" games in each of the past three years, and 'Cats' fans know not to take any opponent for granted. The Tigers will be a surprise in many ways for NU - it's a new season under a brand new coaching staff - and NU has seen little to no tape on their first opponent. If the Wildcats can't adjust and take this opponent for granted, an upset is theoretically possible.
What to Look For
(Note: offense/defense/special teams stats will appear starting next week once there are stats for this season. )
Northwestern Offense/Towson Defense: Well, it's time to see how NU is doing replacing all of those experienced skill position players from a year ago.
First, can QB Mike Kafka throw as well as he run and, at the same time, run an efficient offense? Signs are pointing to yes, but many still question his throwing ability due to the reliance on his legs during his two starts last season.
Can NU find an effective running back? There is definitely a heated competition: Stephan Simmons is listed as the starter, but true freshman Arby Fields will definitely see some carries, as many are very high on him coming out of camp. Others, including Jeravin Matthews, Scott Concannon, and Jacob Schmidt may also see playing time, especially if NU can build a significant lead. And at WR, this year's starters Andrew Brewer, Zeke Markshausen, Sidney Stewart, and Jeremy Ebert will be looking to fill the big shoes of Peterman, Lane, and Ward.
The potential is there in all of these areas, but there will be many doubters until they produce on the field. Fortunately, the Wildcats will be fielding one of the best offensive lines in recent years (likely the best since Fitz has taken over as head coach), featuring highly touted sophomores C Ben Burkett and LT Al Netter. The other starters are RG Doug Bartels (also a sophomore) and seniors Desmond Taylor and Kurt Mattes at LG and RT, respectively.
A couple of highly touted youngsters are also listed on the two-deep: true freshman Patrick Ward at LG and redshirt freshman Neal Deiters at RT; that second string will likely see the field assuming the 'Cats can mount a big enough lead.
The young OL definitely took their lumps last year, especially in run blocking, but with that valuable experience and a bump up in internal competition with Fitz's top recruits now in the program, hopefully this unit can take a step forward in 2009. The only thing holding back the Wildcat offense in this opener will be themselves—Towson brings in a very young squad with only one senior (MLB Alex Butt), with three underclassmen starters and their backups and 3rd string filled with freshmen and sophomores.
It will be up to the Wildcats' offense to dictate the tempo and prove that they can move the ball and put points on the board. Although I'm sure Towson HC Ambrose will have his team ready to play, it will likely be tough going for such a young FCS team.
For NU, it's a chance to prove themselves before facing tougher defenses once the Big Ten schedule begins.
Northwestern Defense/Towson Offense: The experienced Wildcat D will have a chance to build upon its success in 2008 and will be facing a young Towson offense. The Tigers feature just three starting seniors (two WRs and one TE) and will be in a very precarious situation with three QB co-starters: one a redshirt freshman and the other two true freshmen, who will likely have a rude start to their collegiate careers against one of the best Northwestern defenses in basically the past decade.
The NU defense has little to prove in their season opener, although Hankwitz likely has them fired up and ready to get off to a good start in 2009. It all starts up front, and all eyes will be on DE Corey Wootton, returning from that knee injury sustained just about nine months ago in the Alamo Bowl. The 'Cats will be replacing two starters on the line, though, and DT Marshall Thomas and DE Vince Browne must show that they can perform consistently as starters after a solid 2008 as backups in the defensive line rotation. The linebacking corps is young, but talented, and now must begin to live up to the potential seen by coach Fitz, who knows how to be a successful linebacker as well as anyone. Juniors Nate Williams and Quentin Davie return as starters from last year, but sophomore Ben Johnson will take over on the weak side after a strong spring and summer.
They are backed up by a sophomore and two redshirt freshmen, making up a young but talented unit that will have to live up to high expectations this year.
Finally, we have the secondary—which is potentially the best defensive backfield in Northwestern history. The starting cornerbacks are Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin, with Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips at safety, all of whom should be household names to NU fans by now.
McManis is likely the best "lockdown" corner NU has had in over a decade, and Mabin is an up-and-coming sophomore who showed a lot of upside in '08. The backups have been pressing hard, and feature safety Brian Peters who garnered a good amount of playing time last season when NU played nickel D, along with backup CB Justan Vaughn, a former starter before injuring his shoulder early last year.
This unit will be very strong for the 'Cats in '09 but will need help from the guys up front to create pressure and give them a chance to generate turnovers and stop their opponents. The question here is: can NU pitch a shutout? If NU builds a large lead, expect those talented backups to get playing time, but even so, Northwestern will have a chance to keep their first opponent off of the scoreboard.
Special Teams: Well, according to the depth chart, it looks like Stefan Demos will indeed be handling all kicking duties starting the 2009 season: kickoffs, place kicking, and punts. Hopefully his leg won't fall off. Although common in high school, it is relatively rare to find a kicker handling all duties at this level of collegiate football; fortunately, Demos is reportedly at full health after playing through some injuries over the past wo seasons (along with an injury suffered during his redshirt freshman year).
The talented youth of this team will get a chance to make an impact on special teams, particularly on the coverage teams where Schmidt, Matthews, and Johnson made an impact last year that vaulted them into competitions for starting spots. NU will be looking to invigorate its return teams in 2009 after a lackluster past three seasons under Coach Fitz. Concannon and Simmons are listed as kick returners—Concannon reportedly has the speed to make a difference, and Simmons has already shown his skills with a kickoff return for TD against OSU in 2007.
Fitz is on record saying that others are in the mix at KR; Matthews, McManis, and Mabin are just a few who have returned kicks successfully in the past that remain on the roster.
On punt returns, Smith and Brewer will be handling those duties—and Smith will be looking to build off of his 50+ yard punt return against Illinois (NU's longest since 2005) that helped secure the win for NU.
Thankfully, Fitz has taken special teams to a new level of consistency under his tutelage, something that was always shaky under Coach Walker - despite the occasional big return for NU. The 'Cats must continue their success on coverage teams which definitely helped the D last year by pinning opponents in their own end. Northwestern will be affected by the change in the roughing the kicker rules that basically negates the use of the 3x3 rugby-style punting that NU utilized heavily last year (since there won't be roughing the kicker once the punter exits the "tackle box," which is very small in the formation used by NU), but hopefully the gunners can get downfield quickly enough to make the stop on Demos' punts.
Many will be watching placekicking to see how consistent Demos is in that aspect of the game, but likely the most important aspect of this phase in 2009 will be NU's return game, which will be vital to giving the depleted offense a spark.
NUMB: The Northwestern University Marching Band won't be at NU's first game since band camp doesn't begin until the following week, but a pep band will be performing at the game.
Attendance: Things don't look good for attendance, the biggest bugaboo for the Wildcats, in their 2009 opener. It's Labor Day weekend, and NU is facing an FCS opponent that isn't exactly close by, and the students are not yet on campus. 20,000 could be a stretch, much like some of the early games early last season.
This despite numerous promotions for the game, including "North Shore Community Day" where $13 tickets were offered to those from Evanston and nearby cities.
NU-Towson Lacrosse Connection: NU athletics should be familiar with Towson, the site of the last two NCAA women's lacrosse championships (NU won both, as a part of their current five-year NCAA championship streak).
Depth Chart Notes: No real surprises for the starters, except for the fact that the OL will feature seniors Taylor at LG and Mattes at RT—both were competing for that RT spot, but apparently forced Keegan Grant into a backup role at RG. Some surprises at backup spots, though, with true freshmen RB Arby Fields and OL Patrick Ward cracking the 2-deep. A lot of youth has made the jump onto the 2-deep on defense: only 1 of 11 spots features an upperclassman (Vaughn at CB), and includes four redshirt freshmen.
Northwestern: DT Adam Hahn (unknown), Alex Daniel (unknown).
Northwestern has been fortunate to escape major injury during preseason camp this year, although a number of players are returning from injuries sustained late in the 2008 season (Bryant, Wootton, Phillips, Ebert, amongst others). Hahn appears to be the only potential starter being held out for week one; although he was in a close competition with Marshall Thomas for the starting DT spot alongside Bryant. While this will reduce some of the depth at DL, it will give some of the younger members of the DL to get playing time under their belts (in fact, all off the backups on the line are underclassmen). Alex Daniel looked to be in the heat of the RB competition in the spring, but an injury has kept him out for much of August camp.
Prediction: Northwestern 31, Towson 0 . NU hasn't had a shutout since the 2007 opener against another FCS foe from the CAA (Northeastern), despite the improved defense in 2008, but I'll predict another shutout here, assuming the backups can hold the line once they are put in the game. Given that many of the current players were on the squad when the 'Cats lost to UNH in 2006, expect NU to be focused on the task at hand and to play an efficient game and show that Towson is just overmatched in this game. Hopefully, the offense will prove to be effective, giving them some momentum going into the rest of the season when they will be relied upon more heavily.
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