The Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 1-1) have completed the first half of the 2009 regular season, and while the season may already seem like a disappointment to some, NU is still in control of where it will spend its holiday season this year.
Many expected the 'Cats to be 5-1 or 6-0 at this point in the year, so a 4-2 mark may seem like a disappointment, but the fact is that NU had a fourth quarter lead in both of its loses, so things were much closer than it may look on paper.
Yes, NU has also looked shaky against weaker competition (like a 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan that required a last-second field goal or a 16-6 win over Miami (Ohio) where the offense looked ugly, at best), but the 'Cats came up with a big road win over a conference opponent (a 27-21 win over Purdue) and have been "in" every game so far this season.
The defense, that was expected to be one of the strongest units on that side of the ball at NU since the mid 1990's, seemingly faltered starting in the second half against Eastern Michigan (game two) and lasting into the second quarter of the Purdue game (game five), allowing 114 points in that 12 quarter span (that's 38 points per game).
Thankfully, the Wildcat defense has turned it around since then, allowing just six points in the subsequent six quarters and forcing 10 turnovers in that span.
On the other side of the ball, the offense has looked better than many thought going into the year, after having to replace every starting skill position player from last season. Despite averaging over 29 points per game, though, the NU offense had costly fourth quarter turnovers that cost the 'Cats chances for victory in both of their losses, and have not been able to muster a semblance of a running game after a concerted effort at running the ball through the first two weeks of the season.
Special teams, meanwhile, have done an admirable job on everything except for returns. Stefan Demos is 9-for-10 on field goals and 17-for-18 on extra points, with his only non-converted field goal coming on a blocked 40-yard attempt against Miami (Ohio).
Demos is averaging 60.7 yards per kickoff (35 kickoffs on the year) and 35.7 yards per punt with 9 of 25 punts placed inside the opponents' 20. He did hit a game-winning 49-yard field goal to beat EMU, the first time NU has hit a game-winning field goal since 2001.
One could look at Northwestern's first half in one of two ways. NU either looks like a decent team that has managed to win two third of its games and had a chance to win the other third (NU had a fourth quarter lead in those as well).
Or, one could view Northwestern as a team that has lost to the only FBS/I-A its faced with a winning record (Minnesota) and otherwise lost to a bad team (Syracuse) and barely skated past other teams with losing records (Miami (Ohio), EMU, and Purdue).
The fact is that Northwestern is basically what its record says it is —a middle of the road team that's had its ups and downs. NU is not as bad as it's looked in some games and not as good as "a few plays away from being undefeated" makes them sound.
First Half MVP
P/PK Stefan Demos (9-of-10 field goals with 49 yard long, 17-of-18 extra points, 44 points total, 35.7 yards per punt average with 9-of-25 inside 20, 60.7 yards per kickoff, 2 tackles)
For lack of anyone better, the first half MVP has to go to Demos, who has taken home two player of the game honors from my analyses (EMU and Purdue) and has proven to be a reliable kicker after taking over all kicking and punting duties this season (his only FG miss came on a blocked attempt).
He's also taken all of his kicking duties in stride and has put the coverage units in a good position to limit returns, and also added an excellently-placed punt that hit an opponent that NU recovered (against Purdue).
Best Game of the First Half
Northwestern 27, Purdue 21 at Purdue.
The best team that NU beat in the first half is a currently 1-5 Purdue team, but a Big Ten road win is never an easy task, so this goes down as the game of the first half of 2009.
The game had a huge comeback by NU thanks to a half-dozen takeaways by the 'Cats (NU was down 21-3 in the second quarter), and came down to the last second where the Northwestern defense had a huge stand to keep Purdue out of the end zone (they had first and goal inside the 10).
The victory gives the Wildcats a fighting chance for a bowl berth; if NU had lost, their season may have a very different tone right now.
Surprise of the First Half
QB Mike Kafka's Passing (139-of-208 passing for 1464 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 66.8 percent completion rate).
Kafka's passing ability was doubted by many heading into 2009, mostly because of his preference for running the ball as shown in his previous six starts (four in his redshirt freshman year to start the season and two last year due to a CJ Bacher injury).
NU took the wraps off of its passing-focused attack against Syracuse and Kafka flourished, carrying a completion rate of over 70 percent into the 'Cats' sixth game (where he failed to reach a 50 percent completion rate in his worst game of the season so far). Kafka's efforts led to game-winning drives against Eastern Michigan and Purdue and kept NU in close losses against Minnesota and Syracuse.
Disappointment of the First Half
Northwestern Defense (second half of EMU game through first half of Purdue game: 38 points per game yielded).
The defense came into the year with high expectations after a 2008 season where it yielded less than 20 points per game in the regular season. Eight starters plus some major contributors returned this year.
The year started off on the right foot, allowing points to FCS/I-AA Towson after NU had built a 30-point lead and helping NU attain a 21-3 halftime lead over Eastern Michigan. Then, the wheels feel off.
They let EMU come back to tie the game late in the fourth (fortunately the offense mounted a game-winning drive). Syracuse opened up a 17-point lead and generally could not be stopped on its way to a 37-34 victory.
Minnesota decided to run the ball and NU couldn't stop them. And then, the Wildcats allowed Purdue to score touchdowns on the first three drives of the game.
Although the defense turned things around and allowed just six points in the next six quarters and grabbed 10 turnovers in that span, those earlier lapses cost NU two potential victories and made NU fans question the defense that was supposed to be the cornerstone of the 2009 season.
Sophomore S Brian Peters (25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 interceptions, 1 pass break-up, 2 fumble recoveries).
After being used in spot duty last season as a fifth defensive back, Peters has continued his solid play into this season including playing most of the Miami (Ohio) game after starter Brendan Smith went out with a hand injury.
There have been many underclassmen who have garnered playing time so far this year, and although some have respectable statistics, mistakes have limited their overall value.
Running back Arby Fields, a true freshman, technically leads NU in rushing (although Kafka would have the most if not for sacks counting against rushing), but has had multiple costly fumbles.
Jacob Schmidt has been called upon as the short-yardage back and did well earlier in the year, but has been unable to help NU convert in the past couple games.
They will all continue to have chances to contribute in important games down the stretch for Northwestern, so hopefully they will improve under the tutelage of the Wildcat coaching staff.
Overall Offense: C
Running Backs: C-
Wide Receivers/Superbacks: B+
Offensive Line: D
Overall Defense: B -
Defensive Backs: B
Overall Special Teams: B +
Place Kicking: A-
Punts, Kicks, and Coverage: B+
Coaching: B -
After a shaky period of about three games in the early part of the season, NU has responded nicely and has a two game winning streak going into the second half of the season. Yes, the resume doesn't look good, but the 'Cats are squarely in the mix for a bowl berth going into a key part of the season.
Hopefully the Wildcats can continue to progress on both sides of the football. With the defense returning to the form it should have had starting the year and the offense finding a groove that we've seen it can have (i.e. the Syracuse game).
The second half starts with two key games for NU's bowl hopes—a trip to East Lansing to face MSU and a homecoming bout versus Indiana.