"Life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable. And we will all at some point in our lives fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts. That what we have is special."
"Don't look at him, don't even think about him. You understand me? Stay inside yourself, and think about the next series."
"Nothing's gonna crush Matt Saracen. He's like a little stinkbug, you can't crush him. He's tough, he'll be fine." - Coach Eric Taylor, Friday Night Lights
I. Case History/Opening Statement
A. Case History
7-3 with Dan Persa. 0-3 without Dan Persa.
Much like any episode of Friday Night Lights (one of the top 10 television dramas of all time -- honestly do yourself a favor and watch the whole series), the story of Northwestern's season climaxed in one, bittersweet moment on November 13, 2010: the thrill of watching a fluttering touchdown pass fall into the outstetched arms of Demetrius Fields to clinch Northwestern's now-nearly annual victory over Iowa, followed by the emotional gut punch to the stomach of seeing Dan Persa crippled on the ground with a ruptured Achilles. If I would have known what was going to happen, I would have cued up some Explosions in the Sky at the Ryan Field DJ booth to provide the perfect soundtrack to the moment.
With Persa, the Cats were much like their 2008 and 2009 versions -- a short-pass heavy and weak-run game offense that nonetheless was efficient and methodical thanks to the talents of its QB, paired with a bend-but-don't-break defense that gets just enough turnovers/keeps the score just low enough to turn losses into wins. A team, in short, that plays a lot of close games, wins more than its fair share of them, but nonetheless fritters away some second-half leads thereby losing games a better, championship-level team would win. The 2010 Wildcats with Persa stuck almost verbatim to this script -- in fact, in some ways, 2010's team with Persa was BETTER than 2009's squad:
- The Cats running game continued to struggle, but showed signs of life later in the season with Mike Trumpy, who rushed for 100+ yards against Indiana and Illinois before being injured and lost for the season. In fact, through 10 games, the Cats had a more effective running game in 2010 (145.4 ypg) than in 2009 (119 ypg).
- Despite the running game woes, Persa nonetheless managed an offense that led the entire NCAA in methodical (10+ play) drives -- in 12 games against FBS opponents, Northwestern led the entire nation in methodical drives, running off 10+ plays in over 23% of their offensive drives. However, the Cats were woeful on explosive plays, as they were lower than 70th nationally in all points-per-play offensive statistics.
- The 3 losses with Persa (Purdue, Michigan State, and at Penn State) all involved the Wildcats losing a 2nd half lead in games that were close/closer than their final score.
- The Cats defense with Persa gave up yards to opposing teams but was respectable at preventing scoring -- in fact, through 10 games, Northwestern's 2010 defense had given up fewer points per game (21.4 ppg) than in 2009 (23.3 ppg).
After Persa's injury.....well, the wheels fell off, both offensively and defensively. The Cats couldn't sustain drives behind either redshirt freshman QB Evan Watkins or true freshmen QB Kain Colter (the Cats managed a 10.2% methodical drive percentage, WAY under their rate with Persa), turned the ball over far too often (including 7 turnovers against Wisconsin), and as a result couldn't stay on the field and lost the time of possession battle (Illinois held the ball for 41:16; Wisconsin for 37:15). The result? A gassed defense playing frequently with poor field position gave up 163 points in just 3 games -- a 54.3 ppg average for those 3 games, nearly 33 points more than their average through the previous 10 games.
B. Opening Statement
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'd like you to close your eyes. Now I want you to imagine a bowl-eligible team that was 7-3 with its starting quarterback. A team that returns 16 starters (9 on offense, 7 on defense). A team with one of the most experienced offensive lines in all FBS, an experienced and talented secondary, a team with a deep and talented squad of wide receivers led by an untackleable superback (Drake Dunsmore) and the Big Ten's leading receiver in 2010 (Jeremy Ebert -- 953 yards receiving and 8 TDs, and among the most efficient WRs in the nation), and a pre-season All-Big Ten defensive end (Vince Browne). A team that was 6-1 in the month of November in 2008 and 2009 -- demonstrating an ability by the coaching staff and team to improve and peak throughout the season. A team that has improved its recruiting year after year, and frequently redshirts the majority of its players so they gain extra experience. A team that has gone to three straight bowl games (yes, all losses -- but two in overtime, and all by one score or less). A team led by a dynamic, young coach with a penchant for wizardry who was pursued by one of the biggest programs in the conference (Michigan), but turned them down to sign a contract through 2020 at his alma mater. A team that misses Ohio State and Wisconsin on its conference schedule. A team led by a Heisman candidate quarterback who led the NCAA in completion percentage last year (73.5% -- a Big Ten record), who threw 15 TDs and only 4 interceptions, who added 519 yards rushing and 9 rushing TDs, and who was named by ESPN as the strongest QB pound-for-pound in the nation.
Does that sound like a possible Big Ten title contender to you? It should....
Now open your eyes. Here is that team -- the 2011 Northwestern Wildcats.
A. Some of What We've Written About Northwestern This Offseason
- 2011 Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview
- Northwestern Point/Counterpoint
- Sippin On Purple Relives Persa-To-Fields to Beat Iowa
- A Northwestern Potluck
- Pat Fitzgerald's Insatiable Hunger for Ass
- Can Dan Persa Win the Heisman?
B. Northwestern - What We Can Learn from Pop Culture
Why Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" for the 2011 Northwestern Wildcats? (Be careful -- link probably NSFW for your office, although it's just the song, not the actual video above). Well:
- The Wildcats play and win a disproportionate number of "close games." Under Fitz since 2006, the Wildcats are 21-9 in games decided by 8 or fewer points, an aberration that drives the statheads crazy.
- "Help me, I broke apart my insides....I wanna feel you from the inside..." -- The entire Wildcats season? It pretty much depends on what's going on inside of Dan Persa's repaired Achilles tendon. Every Cats fan is wondering what Persa's Achilles feels like...on the inside.
- In the actual video (which I couldn't link to above), there's a bunch of weird footage of Trent Reznor levitating, and a decapitated Hog's head. Appropriate for a team with a wizard for a head coach who loves destroying
- "I wanna f*&$ you like an animal..." Ummmm.....f*&$saw. That is all.
This offseason sucked. Whether it was the rampant abuse of oversigning by
cheaters coaches in the SEC like Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, and Houston Nutt....or Texas' greed and desire to give itself an ESPN-assisted recruiting advantage by airing high school games on the Longhorn Network....or the downfall of Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State....or North Carolina finally ditching Butch Davis after his years of scandal....or the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami....it all sucked.
We need a virtuous champion to help wipe away this scandal. Certainly many programs in the B1G fit the bill -- we don't oversign (a disgraceful practice that gives the SEC a competitive advantage), we graduate players at rates far above almost every other conference, our teams stay out of the Fulmer Cup (for the most part), we have young men like Kirk Cousins who make us proud of B1G players both on and off the field, and we even have two athletic departments who have never had a major NCAA violation in any sport (Penn State and Northwestern), with numerous others that have never had a major football violation (I believe Iowa and some other schools fall into this category as well).
But for the sake of this emotional plea, I want you to picture Pasadena on January 2, 2012. The Rose Bowl filled with purple (Northwestern) and red (Stanford). The Heisman winning QB vs. the Heisman runner-up QB (Luck vs. Persa or vice versa) -- guys who graduated/were fifth year seniors. Announcers bending over backwards to praise two programs from two conferences that do things the right way -- student-athletes in that order, high APRs, credits to the sport of college football and its ideals. Pat Fitzgerald getting to lead his alma mater onto the Rose Bowl turf, this time without a broken leg.....
What scandalous offseason? I've totally forgotten it.....
IV. Verdict - The OTE Staff Calls the Games
While I'm clearly a homer for Northwestern this season, the OTE staff generally thinks Northwestern is once again bowling this season -- a composite 8-4 (4-4 conference) record seems to be the belief here, with two writers believing that Northwestern wins the Legends, while another believes they'll lose a tiebreaker to Nebraska.
Bama Hawkeye: 7-5 (3-5), losses to Michigan, Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan State
Ted Glover: 6-6 (3-5), losses to Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State
Jonathan Franz: 6-6 (2-6), losses to Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
Chadnudj: 11-1 (7-1), loss to Nebraska (and loss to Wisconsin in Big Ten Title game).
MSULaxer27: 7-5 (4-4), losses to Boston College, Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
Ricardo Efendi: 10-2 (6-2), losses to Michigan and Iowa (and loss to Wisconsin in Big Ten Title game)
Paterno Ave: 8-4 (4-4), losses to Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Michigan State.
Kennard Husker: 10-2 (6-2), losses to Iowa and Nebraska.
Hilary Lee: 9-3 (5-3), losses to Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
JDMill: 8-4 (4-4), losses to Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
Graham Filler: 9-3 (5-3), losses to Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State.