"...Everybody wrote us off. Everybody... But there are still a few out there who believe in you."
-- Coach Eric Taylor
I. Case History/Opening Argument
A. Case History
The story with Northwestern football this year is the same as it is in every pre-season in recent memory. The drive for a bowl win. The search for respectability, both within and out of the conference. The first post-season victory in 61 years. That's all we fans ask. And, honestly, is it all that much to ask?
No matter how many winning seasons Fitz puts together, how many appearances in any bowl not held in Detroit the Wildcats make, or how many vague memories of late 90s glory we fans may hold, it's all worthless without a bowl win. Why? Because the media doesn't take you seriously if you can't produce victories where it counts, where the whole of the college football world is watching (or at least, that portion which is up at 10am and not ridiculously hungover on New Years Day). It doesn't matter if you can crush the undefeated hopes and ankles of the conference's golden team in a single spectacular play, or if you can bounce back from a dismal season start to leapfrog a (possibly, though, not really) more deserving team for a prestigious New Years Day bowl slot. Winners write the history, as they say, and without the wins, your team is a mere footnote.
And the Wildcats have come oh so close in recent years. Cardiac comebacks with record setting offensive performances... incredible plays, which only led to incredible disappointment. But surely this can't continue forever, can it? Surely the Chicago area can't support two post-season cursed sports franchises? This has to be the year, right?
More Closing Arguments:
So is this really the year? Will Northwestern finally end their drought? My honest answer is that I don't know. I am this year, as I always am, a pre-season optimist. I see nothing but sunshine and kittens on the horizon until my team sees fit to let me down. And yet, the realist portion of me knows that the Wildcats are experiencing some changes, most notably under center, that serve to cast a cloud over the future.
For a school that relies primarily on a throw-happy spread offense, it's never easy to switch quarterbacks, especially to one whose arm strength and durability are a serious question. It could be that the loss of Mike Kafka to the NFL dooms this team to a year of mediocrity. Or it could be that the combo of Fitzgerald and Dan Persa stuns everyone and leads this squad to the promised land we Cats fans dream of. And then there's always the wildcard of a vastly improved run game for 2010 that Coach Fitz has hiding up his sleeve...
A. Opening Statement
Ladies and gentleman of the Jury, I rise in defense of my client, Northwestern University. Some may have told you that this will be a down year for the Wildcats. Opposing counsel may have filled your head with images of a sorry squad that will have to scratch and claw its way to even a Detroit bowl game. You may have even been so misled as to believe that without the rocket arm of Mike Kafka under center the entirety of Northwestern's offense will fall apart. But I ask, I plead, that you not be deceived.
It is true that Dan Persa, at first blush, does not seem to be up to the task of equaling Kafka's offensive potential. But you must not forget the most important thing about this team -- our coach is a wizard. Seriously. Just ask Iowa fans.
In support of this premise, I offer you the following facts.
Let's take a trip back to 2008. That year, Mike Kafka filled in for C.J. Bacher in two games. He played in five others, but only had meaningful passing chances in games against Minnesota (where he's mostly remembered for his running) and Ohio State. His stats in those two games average out to:
160 passing yards / game, 1 passing TD / game, 1.5 INT / game, 150 rushing yards / game, .5 rushing TD / game.
Projected out to a 13 game season in 2009 (including a bowl game) his season stats would be:
2,080 passing yards, 13 passing TDs, 19.5 INT, 1,950 rushing yards, and 6.5 rushing TDs
His actual 2009 stats (also over 13 games)?
3,430 passing yards, 16 passing TDs, 12 INT (worth noting that five came in the bowl game alone, so he only had seven on the regular season), 295 rushing yards, and 8 rushing TDs.
In other words, Mike Kafka was a vastly improved QB from an offensive perspective in 2009 than what any football fan could have predicted he would be from his limited action in the 2008 season. Dan Persa may offer a similar profile this year.
His snippets of playing time filling in for an injured Kafka during the Penn State and Iowa games would suggest a season with passing yard totals in the 1,200 range, and passing TDs in the single digits. Yet, just as Kafka was reported to be working hard on improving his arm in the off-season prior to the 2009 campaign, Persa has also been working on his throwing this year. That off-season work that Kafka put in translated to a near 1,500 yard increase from what his projected 2009 stats could be. Even if you remove the insanity of the record setting bowl game from Mike Kafka's stats, you end up with 1,000+ yards that seemed to come out of nowhere. And the truth is, even if Pat Fitzgerald's magic fails to work on Persa, the 'Cats have some intriguing other options in the passing game, including red-shirt freshman Evan Watkins, and true freshman Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian who could potentially grab the reins of the offense.
This is Venric Mark. Take a good look now, because you won't be able to keep up with him during the season.
Beyond the QB hope, Northwestern also has some intriguing developments coming out of the pre-season. Namely, an actual running game. The Wildcats look to start the 2010 season with a RB-by-committee approach of "I'm thinking Arby" Arby Fields, mid-season standout "Who the hell is that guy?" Scott Concannon, and "Evanston's version of a mini John Clay" Jacob Schmidt. Drake Dunsmore (mostly remembered for dragging an Auburn defender almost all the way into the end-zone on a game tying Outback Bowl catch) will also be returning in a hybrid TE / RB role.
The most exciting new entry to that crew is RB freshman Adonis Smith. Smith is a former three star recruit who was once ranked #62 at his position while in high school. For Northwestern, this is the type of player that doesn't come around all that often. Indeed, the most recent RB that Northwestern has had of Smith's caliber was former #59 ranked Tyrell Sutton, who finished his career at NU as the school's number two all time rusher with 3,883 yards. Yeah. That's what we might be looking at if Smith plays anywhere near what he is capable of. His contributions may not materialize until the 2011-2012 seasons, but I'm excited for his impact either way.
Though the 'Cats have lost walk-on standout Zeke Markshausen, they do have some add-ons to the receiving game that will hopefully help make up for the difference. Returning junior Jeremy Ebert will most likely fill Markshausen's role, but I would draw your attention to Venric Mark (pictured above). I'm not sure if he will show up in the receiving game at the start of the season, but he will definitely be making an impact on Northwestern's special teams almost from the get-go. Either way, I expect him to be a significant piece of the team this year.
So, even though it looks like Northwestern has lost a lot of play makers heading into this season, they've also reloaded in some very surprising ways that may alter the shape of the Wildcat offense. The defense is currently much more uncertain -- the losses of Sherrick McManis and Corey Wootton to the NFL will certainly impact the team, but it's too early to say if the rest of the defense and the new additions can pick up the slack or not. Next to Purdue and/or Indiana, this team might be one of the biggest surprises of the conference in 2010.
II. Factual Summation, or Discovery, as the Barristers Might Say
A. Off Tackle Empire Says
Here's some of what we've written about the Wildcats over the off-season:
- Evaluating the Mechanics of Big Ten Quarterbacks: Dan Persa, Northwestern
- Spring Field Guide
- Big Ten 2010: Keeping the Enemy Close
- Northwestern's Achilles Heel: Running the Ball
- Northwestern Blogger Roundtable
- Northwestern in the Aughts
- Northwestern Women's Lacrosse: Inside an Unlikely Dynasty
B. Northwestern's Got the Magic
As mentioned above, Pat Fitzgerald is a wizard. Literally. So it only seemed appropriate that our pop music analogy feature the latest catchy tune from artist B.O.B. entitled, "Magic." Hopefully Coach Fitz will work his magic over the throwing arm of Dan Persa this year.
I kick it like Adidas, flowin' sticky like adhesive
Be cautious, 'cause what I be on'll leave you with amnesia
I break all the rules like Evel Knievel
It's a spectacular show, 'cause my heart pumps diesel
So whatever you saying, it don't entertain my ego
I do this everyday, Hocus Pocus is my steelo
I got the magic in me (I got the magic, baby)
Everytime I touch that track it turns into gold (Yes it turns to gold)
Everybody knows I've got the magic in me (I got the magic, baby)
When I hit the floor the girls come snapin' at me (They be snappin' baby)
Now everybody wants a burst of magic
Magic, magic, magic
Magic, magic, magic
Magic, magic, magic
I got the magic in me!
III. Emotional Plea
A. The Northwestern Challenge
I challenge you to not write Northwestern off this year if they suffer early losses to teams like Central Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. Oh, sure, their second half schedule (@ PSU, vs. Iowa, @ Wisconsin) isn't exactly laden with cupcakes, but they went into that same group last year and came away with two victories and a trip to the Outback Bowl. You never know what might happen.
Here are the three games I'm most looking forward to:
Northwestern v. Iowa (Nov. 13)
Always a good match-up, Northwestern will look to repeat its success against what will once again be one of the heavyweights of the Big Ten. Can Northwestern do to Iowa at home what they did to them at Kinnick last year? I'm excited to find out.
Football returns here on November 20th...
Northwestern vs. Illinois (Nov. 20th)
Two words: Wrigley Field. Yes my friends, this is the game that will be played in the friendly confines on the North Side of Chicago. It might even start a tradition. Even though the game is against lowly Illinois, it is probably the match-up I'm looking forward to the most this season.
Northwestern at Wisconsin (Nov. 27th)
The last game of the season. The Wildcats may have a bowl spot on the line, and the Badgers may have a BCS spot or Big Ten championship to claim. And it gives me an excuse to make a trip to Camp Randall. Behind walking down Sheffield to Wrigley in the crisp fall air, spending a Saturday in Madison is right up there for me on the list of best ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
A. The Staff Calls the Games
7-5 (3-5) with losses to Purdue, MSU, PSU, Iowa, Wisconsin
6-6 (3-5) with losses to Vanderbilt, Minnesota, Indiana, PSU, Iowa, Wisconsin
6-6 (2-6) with losses to Minnesota, Purdue, MSU, PSU, Iowa, Wisconsin
10-2 (6-2) with losses to MSU, Wisconsin
7-5 (3-5) with losses to Purdue, MSU, PSU, Iowa, Wisconsin
8-4 (4-4) with losses to Purdue, PSU, Iowa, Wisconsin
8-4 (4-4) with losses to Purdue, MSU, PSU, Wisconsin