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Closing Arguments: Northwestern

"Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they'd leave me alone."
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game, Ch. 3

"With Ender, we have to strike a delicate balance. Isolate him enough that he remains creative--otherwise he'll adopt the systems here and we'll lose him. At the same time, we need to make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead."
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game, Ch. 4

"It was a strategy. Graff had deliberately set him up to be separate from the other boys, made it impossible for him to be close to them....And with that anger, he decided he was strong enough to defeat them-the teachers, his enemies."
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game, Ch. 10

I. Case History/Opening Statement

A. Case History

Much like Ender Wiggins (and if you haven't read Ender's Game, you really should), Northwestern is different from the rest of the B1G. A private school. Small (8,400 undergraduates, compared to Ohio State's 43,000). Academically elite (which is saying something, since the rest of the schools in the B1G are themselves elite academic institutions -- Northwestern is an elite among elites). Located in/near/next-to a large city (rather than being an autonomous college town). Refusing to drop its academic requirements for student-athletes. And, prior to 1995, no tradition of athletic success.

Faced with these obstacles, Northwestern had to "remain creative." Isolated from the other schools in the B1G and unable to compete on a balanced playing field because of those differences (admittedly, some of them self-imposed, such as Northwestern's academic requirements), it adapted. Got angry. Used its differences to its advantages.

Bam! Four straight bowl seasons (a school record), and recruiting that is improving according to all the experts in the "caring is creepy" world of recruiting. Magic? (Or should I say, Fitzwizardry?):
  • The spread, up-tempo offense -- an offense that can keep a smaller, less-physically talented team competitive through scheme and strategy, allowing Northwestern to maximize the brains (and frequent fifth years in the system) of the players Northwestern recruited. (It also allowed Northwestern to stockpile talented but overlooked skill players, who Northwestern could then spread into space to make place, eliminating any disadvantage Northwestern had on the offensive line in regards to size).
  • Catching opponents who overlooked the Cats (and frequently scheduled them as "homecoming" cannon fodder) by surprise on an annual basis (welcome to the B1G, Nebraska!).
  • Bringing in one of the youngest head coaches in the nation to lead the team -- a coach who himself had played at Northwestern, understood the challenges, and moreover was ready to build the program up in a sustainable way. For Fitz, Northwestern isn't a stepping stone -- it's the Holy Grail.
  • And beginning to leverage its differences to improve the team. Not being in a college town? Sell recruits (and potential fans who might one day fill Ryan Field with purple) on being part of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." High academic requirements? Tell recruits they're joining a "family" or "brotherhood," and sell them on the opportunity to leave college with a chance at the NFL (around 14 current NFL players hold Northwestern degrees) AND a degree from one of the best universities in the nation (or, in the case of the multiple fifth-year seniors, an undergraduate degree AND a masters degree). No tradition? Sign up for your uniforms with an up-and-coming uniform company (Under-Armour) to unveil one of the most highly regarded new-uniforms in college football this offseason.
  • And if you're going to lose bowl games (and yes, we certainly have), at least make them entertaining. (An OT thriller against Mizzou in the 2008 Outback Bowl, an OT thriller in the 2010 Outback Bowl, and two high scoring shootouts in the 2011 TicketCity Bowl and 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas).

B. Opening Statement

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, conventional wisdom says Northwestern should be a doormat. It's win totals have gone steadily down -- from 9 in 2008, to 8 in 2009, to 7 in 2010, to 6 in 2011. It lost its starting QB (Dan Persa), its top 2 receivers (Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert), two offensive linemen (Al Netter and Ben Burkett) and 3/4 of what was already a disappointing secondary in 2011 (Brian Peters, Jordan Mabin, Jeravin Matthews). Their leading returning receiver, rusher, and passer is the same man -- Kain Colter (who will be QB this year, and thus probably not leading the team again in 2 of those 3 categories). They made no coaching changes this off-season (despite cries for wholesale changes to the defensive staff from disappointed fans). Their Board of Trustees continues to drag their feet on a comprehensive athletics facilities overhaul, so they continue to play in the worst stadium in the B1G and practice at facilities that might best be described as " MAC standards." They play against a stacked Legends division (at Michigan State, at Michigan, and hosting Iowa, Nebraska, and improving Minnesota), and foolishly scheduled THREE BCS conference opponents (at Syracuse, hosting Vanderbilt and Boston College) for their non-conference schedule.

Conventional wisdom says Northwestern is doomed.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

Pat Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips, and the coaching staff are building a team that is becoming more athletic, more competitive, and tougher to beat every year. Yes, the win total has been declining recently...but that ends this year. Let's show you how....


II. Discovery

A. What We've Written About Northwestern This Offseason

B. What We Can Learn From Pop Culture

    US3's under-appreciated gem "Cantaloop" says a lot about Northwestern football heading into 2012.
    First, for the offense:
    Groovy groovy

Jazzy funky pounce bounce dance
As we dip in the melodic sea
The rhythm keeps flowin, it drips to MC
Sweet sugar pop, sugar pop rocks it pops ya
Dont stop till the sweet beat drops
I show and prove as a stick in move
Hear the poems recited on top of the groove
Smooth, mind, floating like a butterfly
Notes start to float, suttle like a lullabye
Brace yourself as the beat hits ya
Dip trip, flip fantasia

Northwestern's offense is a smooth, well-oiled machine at this point, capable of jazz-like improvisational multi-faceted attack: screen passes, option runs, QB read-option attacks, 4-WR fly's all in Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall's playbook. Hell, Northwestern calls their tight ends "superbacks," they're so jazzy.

Want a statistic to impress your friends at the next tailgate? Northwestern's scoring offense has improved each of the past 4 seasons: 24.4 ppg in 2008, 25.8 ppg in 2009, 26.4 ppg in 2010, and 28.9 ppg in 2011. And with Kain Colter in the backfield (a triple threat who completed 67% of his passes last year for 673 yards, 6 TDs and 1 INT, ran for 654 yards and 9 TDs, and had 466 yards receiving and 3 TDs) along with speedy Venric Mark at RB (he's small, but VERY shifty) and what ESPN says is the best WR corps in the conference, expect to see more offensive fireworks (including a lot of option attack utilizing Colter and Mark's excellent speed). Opposing defenses will need to brace themselves as the beats hit them....Northwestern's offense is one dip trippy flip fantasia.

Second, the defense:

Jump to the jam, boogy woogy jam slam
Bust the dialect I'm the man in command
Come flow with the sounds of the mighty mic masta
When I rhyme on the mic I bring a sucka disasta
Beaucoup bucks and I still rock Nike
With the razzle dazzle star I might be
Scribble scrabble on the microphone I babble
As I flip the funky words, into a puzzle

Northwestern's defense has been nonsense lately. No pressure at the line of scrimmage, and communication breakdowns ("bust the dialect" certainly, and they're definitely babbling to each other) in the secondary. Word out of camp is the defense has simplified things, has better (if younger talent) and more depth....but the question remains whether the Wildcats defense will "bring a sucka [Northwestern fan like myself] disasta" or be "the man in command." Truly a funky puzzle.

III. Emotional Plea

I wrote a lot about why Northwestern is getting better in this column, and some of it bears repeating -- they've stopped having numerous blowout losses (15+ points or greater), their offense has steadily improved, recruiting is getting better, and the fan base/administration is starting to line up to better support the team. Incremental progress, but progress nonetheless. As Paul Myerberg points out at Pre-Snap Read:

Unlike a certain quarterback's Achilles tendon, Northwestern is firmly attached to its current location: six or seven wins in the regular season, followed by a loss during bowl play. This is Northwestern football as run by Pat Fitzgerald, the legendary middle linebacker who has lifted N.U. into a position where a postseason run isn't merely a nice surprise but a designated expectation. Unfortunately, those who have seemingly forgotten the Wildcats' dire past - you wouldn't think it was possible - are no longer satisfied with six or seven wins; to this slice of the fan base, six or seven wins should have already been used as a springboard to Rose Bowl contention. I can think of three things wrong with that point of view: Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska - and that's just in the Legends division. It pays to be pragmatic, especially when your pragmatism involves Northwestern football.

But this is an emotional plea, so here goes: college football's offseason this year sucked. It sucked worse than we can possibly imagine, and it gave numerous programs black eyes for all types of scandals.

No one can claim omniscience when it comes to whether a program is "doing things the right way." Certainly, we have no room to say that in our own conference.

But if we have to put our faith that a team is "playing the right way," that the concept of "student-athletes" means something real (and in that order) somewhere, and that underdogs can compete, and dare I say win at the top levels against opponents that outmatch them in many ways....

Why not Northwestern? Why not a school coached by one of its finest alumni? Why not a school that (allegedly) doesn't bend its academic requirements for athletes? Why not a school that excels in the APR rankings (along with other B1G programs, I should note)? Why not a school that (knock on wood) has had no off-season arrests or trouble with its players for....well, frankly I don't remember the last time a Northwestern player got arrested in the off-season? Why not a school that is looking to end an ugly streak (the bowl losing streak dating back to the Truman administration)?

In a cynical world, maybe all of us should be rooting (even just a little bit) for the guys in purple.

After all, the concept of "just Northwestern" can stand for the Wildcats insignificance (they're just Northwestern)....or their elite singularity (There's just Northwestern....and no one else.)

Also, it's fun to root for Northwestern because when Northwestern beats a team like Nebraska, it feels like this:


IV. Verdict

The OTE staff predicts Northwestern will finish with 7.1 wins and 4.9 losses, with a 4-4 (or 3.8 - 4.2) conference record. The OTE staff was not polled on what Northwestern would do in a bowl, however....but since the rest of our writers are degenerates who like to laugh at the suffering of others, I'd predict they'd all expect Northwestern to blow its bowl game in some spectacularly painful yet entertaining fashion. (Also, for entertainment's sake, please note that NO ONE has Iowa beating Northwestern in Evanston this year, suggesting that Fitz's hunger for Iowa ass and associated wizarding power continues unabated)

OTE Staff: 7-5 (4-4 in Conference)

Ted Glover: 7-5 (3-5 in conference) with losses to Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, and Illinois

Jesse Collins: 7-5 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Vanderbilt, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State

MSULaxer27: 7-5 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Vanderbilt, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State

Baba O'Really: 6-6 (3-5 in conference) with losses to Syracuse, Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois.

Mike Jones: 6-6 (3-5 in conference) with losses to Vanderbilt, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State

[REDACTED] Avenue: 7-5 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Vanderbilt, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State

JDMill: 7-5 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Boston College, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State

Brian Gillis: 7-5 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, and an unknown non-conference opponent (I'll guess Vanderbilt on his behalf)

Hilary Lee: 8-4 (5-3 in conference) with losses to Boston College, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska.

Jonathan Franz: 8-4 (4-4 in conference) with losses to Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State.

C.E. Bell: 8-4 (5-3 in conference) with losses to Vanderbilt, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State.