Is purple finally back in style? The Northwestern Wildcats sure think so, as they look to take over the now up-for-grabs Big Ten conference.
After their 16-8 defeat over Ohio, the Wildcats are 4-0 for the first time since 1962, and find themselves tied for first place with Minnesota and Penn State.
As conference play begins next weekend, the team must remember to take one game at a time, as the rise in competition will be more dramatic than they think.
Reasons for Optimism
The Offensive and Defensive Lines
The Wildcats have dominated teams where it matters most: at the line of scrimmage. There was a lot of criticism directed heavily toward the offensive line in the summer, but the group has been the biggest surprise of the 2008 season so far, allowing just half of a sack per game.
The defensive line is what strikes fear into the heart of opponents. Major contributions from linemen John Gill and Corey Wootton, the Big Ten’s best running backs will need to bring their “A-game” on every play.
With stars such as Michigan State’s Javon Ringer and Ohio State’s Beanie Wells set to make their season debuts, Gill and Wootton must remain the team’s biggest strength if the Wildcats are to be considered contenders. Redshirt freshman Vince Browne officially joined the purple people eaters on the line, registering three sacks against Ohio.
Linebacker Malcolm Arrington says: “We have a lot to prove; we've always been a question mark as far as the defense, and we've been looked down on for the last couple of years. A lot of guys play with a chip on their shoulder.”
Play-maker in the backfield
As running back Tyrell Sutton goes, so goes the offense. The Wildcats suffered when their star went down early last season but are reaping the benefits in 2008.
Sutton has been phenomenal in all phases of the offense, doing his best to score touchdowns from everywhere on the field. If he stays healthy the entire season and the leg injury he suffered against Ohio isn’t serious, he can be the best tailback in the conference.
Adapting to Change
New coordinators on both sides of the ball left the Evanston faithful unsure of how the team would adapt to the new schemes. So far, so good, as both Mick McCall’s no-huddle offense and Mike Hankwitz’s heavy blitz scheme have inspired their units to play at the highest level, specifically in the trenches, where games are won and lost.
Sutton says: "I would say the spring practices helped us get an advantage in running that no-huddle attack and you can see we are using it to our advantage. We try to wear teams down in the first half and we condition for it every single day. Other teams aren't conditioned to come right out and go fastball and get the tempo going. We try to control the tempo by going as fast as we can."
Cornerback Jordan Mabin says: "The defense this year is just playing and having more fun. This year we are thinking less and just reacting. We're playing physical and we're playing fast, from the defensive line to the defensive backs."
Arrington says: “It's also our new coordinator and our new schemes. It is a very aggressive style of defense, and it allows our play-makers to be play-makers."
Reasons for Concern
Lack of Competition
Sure, the Wildcats are undefeated, but who have they even played? Syracuse is the laughingstock of the Big East. The Duke Blue Devils are known for their dribbling skills and nothing more. Southern Illinois and Ohio both aren’t nearly as talented as Northwestern, as both were handed big losses each. The 4-0 record looks nice, but one must take it with a grain of salt, as most would consider them everyone’s new favorite term, “cupcakes.”
No Big Plays
Before the Ohio game, Bacher was acting more as a game manager than the passing yard machine he was in 2007. When high-powered offenses come into town and challenge the Wildcats to a shootout, Bacher must be ready to return the fire and keep it in the hands of his own teammates. Only one touchdown and five interceptions through four games simply won’t cut it.
Fitzgerald says: "We cannot turn the ball over like that and expect to win football games. It's on us as coaches to get it fixed, and it's on our players to take responsibility…”
Bacher says: “We have a ton of players who can make explosion plays. It just comes down to doing your job every play and being more consistent."
Northwestern has allowed only one touchdown pass in four games, while holding opponents to a minuscule 11 points per game. Is that a factor of a great defense, a result of weak competition, or a combination of both?
Turnovers are what make a defense great, yet the Wildcats are severely lacking in that department. As nationally acclaimed quarterbacks like Purdue’s Curtis Painter and Illinois’ Juice Williams prepare for the purple defense, the Wildcat secondary must be ready to get the offense the ball back, and forcing turnovers are the only way to do it.
Fitzgerald says: “We need to take the ball away better on defense. We need to heighten our awareness about taking the football away.”
Yes, Northwestern can make a bowl game, and will become eligible with two more victories. As long as they can stay afloat during conference play by proving their worth against true competition, the Wildcats could actually play in a more significant bowl game than originally forecast.
Biggest Test Games at Home: Ohio State (Nov. 8), Illinois (Nov. 22)
These are two extremely important games. The Wildcats will essentially be playing their two toughest opponents within a three-week stretch, as "do-or-die time' is set for November. If the Cats can win at least one, their schedule will continue into December (and possibly into January).
Biggest Test Games on Road: Iowa (Sept. 27), at Michigan (Nov. 15)
The opening conference game of the season against the Hawkeyes is Northwestern’s first shot to make some noise in the Big Ten. If they can post solid numbers offensively against one of the better defenses in the country, the Wildcats can use it as fuel for the rest of their schedule.
When they travel to Michigan and invade “The Big House,” a stadium where fans cause people to go deaf, the Wildcats will look to silence the down-spiraling Wolverines.
Fitzgerald says: “…our focus is we'll be 0-0 tomorrow. We need to load it up and get ready to get back into Big Ten play."