Northwestern Gives #8 Iowa First Loss 17-10

Northwestern

By Paul M. Banks

All year long, Iowa wasn’t just wining ugly, they were winning HIDEOUSLY. To their immense credit, the un-sexiest 9-0 team in college football history kept winning, despite a starting quarterback, Ricky Stanzi who is to throwing interceptions what cable news is to covering celebrity deaths. The Iowa Hawkeyes got off to the best start in school history with mediocre-to-bad statistical rankings in every major category and zero skill position players that anyone other than the geekiest of college football geeks has ever heard of. Yet, their solid running game, seasoned linebacking corps, and loads of NFL ready talent on both lines kept them perfect and grabbed them the cover of Sports Illustrated. Dreaded SI cover jinx anyone?

They were finally done in by their deficiencies, some bad luck, and the bite from the injury bug swelling to crippling infection. They entered the game down to their third string tailback. Stanzi, their starting QB, went down with an ankle sprain in the first quarter and the Hawkeyes were forced to play backup James Vanderbeek. Whoops, I meant to say James Vandenberg. The freshman from Keokuk, not the actor best known as Dawson from “Dawson’s Creek,” who played a QB in two different films (“Angus” and “Varsity Blues”)

But Vandenberg was about as effective in running the Iowa offense as “Dawson’s Creek” writers were to having characters with realistic dialogue. The Northwestern secondary truly shut him down.

Coincidence that the team finally doing them in, the bowl-eligible 6-4 Northwestern Wildcats, have likewise experienced a season filled with injuries and insanely erratic play. Northwestern gave Iowa, the #8 team in the AP, #4 in the BCS, their first loss despite missing their MVP Mike Kafka for much of it.kafkadualthreat

The senior QB leads the team in rushing and leads the Big Ten in both passing and completions. He started, but a hamstring injury limited his passing effectiveness, and completely “hamstrung” his ability to run out of the pocket.

Therefore, the Wildcats were forced to go with backup QB Dan Persa much of the day, a former state of Pennsylvania high school player of the year, who like Kafka has a great ability to run, but has yet to have a Kafka like metamorphosis in the air attack.

Northwestern has had a perplexing season, losing to lowly Syracuse, but also holding a 4th quarter lead in every game but one this season, even when they were playing much more talented competition. They truly embody that cliché of “playing up (or down) to their competition.” Two of their non-conference wins were alarmingly close over two of the absolute worst squads of the 120 team FBS. (Miami of Ohio, Eastern Michigan). But this win, ugly as it was for both sides, was as sweet as it gets for Northwestern.

It’s the “signature win” that Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald was looking for. One of the youngest coaches in the FBS, he’s guided his Wildcats to three bowl-eligibility seasons during his four year tenure, but this is his first win over a top ten team. He’s known as one of the most emotionally intense coaches in all of college football, so he is no doubt grinning ear-to-ear today

And he truly has Iowa’s number: Northwestern has won 4 of their last 5 against the Hawkeyes, and three straight overall in Kinnick Stadium, where almost nobody wins.

And for the Hawkeyes, the nation’s second longest winning streak ends. Their most recent loss prior to today came at the hands of the Illinois Fighting Illini in November of 2008. With the loss to a team that calls Evanston, IL home this afternoon, I’m guessing Hawkeye Nation has a very bitter view of the Prairie State right now!

The Sports Bank’s Live College Football Blog: Week 2

charlie-weis-is-fat

Greetings college football fans! Well, it’s week two of the college football season and since our live blog went so swimmingly last week, we thought we’d come back and do it all over again.

I’m your host, H. Jose Bosch and I, along with a host of TSB writers will take you on a magical journey throughout the Big Ten and the rest of the nation throughout the day. There may be some more Arby’s jokes, Paul Schmidt might break all rules of journalistic integrity and pound Ron Zook’s face in when Illinois inevitably has another disappointing weekend and David Kay will once again risk his life covering a swine flu-infested football team.

Who knows what kind of wacky mayhem will happen!

So sit back, relax and enjoy yourself. Questions, comments or concerns may be addressed in the comments section, where we encourage you to add your input on any game you’re watching. Bonus points for finding/highlighting embarrassing moments. If you can provide a picture, even better. This thread will be for the noon games and we’ll have a second thread for the 3:30 games and beyond.

Oh and yes, Charlie Weis is fat. Go Blue!
[Read more…]

Northwestern 09 Season off to Fantastic Start

 

smithrobiskie1

By Paul M. Banks

Chicago’s hometown Big Ten team, the Northwestern Wildcats, began the season in a manner that most predicted they would. Granted it was against Towson, an FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent, but a 47-14 win is still a 47-14 win.Quarterback Mike Kafka made a lot of plays, starting 7-8 passing and finishing 15-20 for 192 yards. The strength of the team, the secondary had a good day picking off Towson QB Peter Athens twice and holding him to just 140 passing yards. Senior safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith led the way, as their experience helped them make the proper reads and coverage adjustments into what the opposing offense was doing.

The NU air attack was led by senior Andrew Brewer, who caught a 72 yard TD pass from backup QB Dan Persa, and finished with 6 catches for 145 yards. Since NU lost all their starting receivers from last season, the faithful dressed in purple were glad to see somebody step up. “Everyone talks about our no-name receiving corps, but now you guys know Andrew Brewer, so that’s one,” Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

But it wasn’t just Brewer, as many receivers got in on the act. “It’s always exciting to spread the ball around on offense, I heard 8 different guys caught the ball,” Brewer said.
The spreading the wealth around philosophy also translated to the running back corp, where three of the tailbacks rushed for 30 yards or more, and three of the backs saw at least six carries.

Expect most of the trends from this game to carry over to the rest of the season.

Note: today marks the first installment of The Sports Bank’s new Saturday Live College Football Chat. Check it out here.

Each and every week, we’ll have numerous writers blogging from the press box, at home on the couch, the sidelines, sports bars etc. all around the Big Ten and Midwest. Our comment boards are lighting up with over 60 comments so far, so please join in on the discussion by clicking here.

Senior Safeties Lead Way for Wildcats

bphillips1_400

By Paul M. Banks

Watching Illini football closely for the past couple of decades (wow did that sentence sound masochistic) I’ve noticed that the seem to have a good season, at least defensively, when they have to good senior safeties. When they don’t have that talent and experience at that position, they struggle mightily on defense. I wonder if that can be extrapolated across college football? One thing’s for sure, their rival Northwestern has that luxury this season. So it will be interesting to see how their D performs with two excellent seniors playing the safety position.

Free Safety Brendan Smith ranks ninth on NU’s career list for interceptions with seven. He was elected a captain this fall, becoming just the eighth player in NU history to earn repeat captaincy. “Smitty” discussed the importance of playing the safety position.

“They’re the guys that have to be the vocal leaders. they’re the guys that have to make the checks, formation variation if the offense goes into motion. If they (opposing offense) come out in a certain formation, we have to make a call to the corners and also to linebackers. They’re the deepest guys back there, the ones who are the safety valves. With them out there, it maybe gives a confidence level to the rest of their team,” he said before discussing how he’s dealing with all the accolades the team secondary and defense is receiving.
“Once you get ahead of yourself, or think you’re too good for something, that’s when they get ahead of you, or throw a double move on you to catch you off guard. The key to football and the key to our success is when every guy does their job. It’s when I want to make that play, and want to do too much that I mess up.”

At the strong side of the safety position, NU has Brad Phillips, tabbed a first-team preseason All-Big Ten selection by Sporting News and Athlon Sports. In ’08 he was the recipient of the team’s Marcel Price Award (given to player who best exhibits enthusiasm and dedication to the Wildcat program and is symbolic of the former NU player’s desire) He was also named to ESPN’s “All-MayDay” postseason team. I asked him about how important is to have experience at the safety positionNorthwestern Michigan Football

“The most important thing is- the experience slows down the game for you, you’re able to see things more, you’re able to make your reads better, it helps you with checking coverages…Brendan Smith helped me out a lot when I was younger, now it’s kind of me and Brendan are the old guys and we’re helping out the young guys now.”
In the Alamo Bowl, slowing down a powerful offense like Missouri, who averaged over 40 points a game last season, helped the team prepare for the powerful passing offenses that they’ll face later in the season.

“I think it was a big confidence booster, we didn’t finish the job, but I think the guys that are coming back, it gave us the confidence that we can play with the best of the best. The Big 12 North Champion, All-American at tight end, receiver being drafted in the first round, and in the off-season it gave us the hunger to finish the job, hopefully with a bowl win this year,” Phillips said.

bsmith

Northwestern led by Stellar Secondary

northwestern_football_helmet

By Paul M. Banks

With the college football season set to kick off on Saturday, time to forecast how I think Northwestern will finish. But before that, I’ll profile the team’s biggest strength: the DBs. Very few secondaries in the nation return four starters, who each earned postseason recognition in 2008. Northwestern has both its cornerbacks (Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin) and safeties (Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith) returning in 2009, along with several key reserves.
McMannis, Phillips, and Smith each earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors while Mabin was tabbed a Freshman All-American by several outlets. In 2008, Northwestern’s secondary helped the Wildcats rank 25th in the nation for pass efficiency defense with a 111.8 rating. ESPN.com ranked NU’s secondary as the second-best in conference.

“I think we’re finally as a program at the level where we can consistently compete year and year out for the Big Ten championship. This year we have a lot of good experience on defense and a lot of young athletic guys on offense who can play,” said Phillips said Phillips before continuing. “We have three guys who have been starting for three years or more, and then Mabin, who’s been starting for a whole year last year, and it’s really helped us to be able to build that trust together to be able to play as one.”

McMannis also discussed the unit’s strength as a whole “I feel that we have a lot of leaders on this team, and in the secondary we’re perhaps the most experienced group on the field, we’ll use that as an advantage and help out the younger guys.”

But perhaps the most colorful aspect of the secondary is their hairstyle. Senior captain Brendan Smith sported a Mohawk at training camp last year, and plans to do so again this year…at times when his public presentation doesn’t have to be conservative. “Guys had Mohawks, but they had to get rid of them for today (Northwestern Media Day) the defense was supposed to all have them last year, but then they bailed on me, so it was just me and Brad, but I think 3 or for 4 guys have it, but I think they shaved them now,” Smith said before adding that he couldn’t sport his Mohawk for his Leadership council duties. “I’m excited. There’s not many times that a Northwestern defense gets praise or compliments, but we just go out, do our jobs and take it back to the basics. Not get ahead of ourselves, do what we do,” Smith added.smithrobiskie

Prognosticating 2009:

I see big lopsided wins Towson, at Syracuse, Indiana, Eastern Michigan, at Purdue, so we’ll begin with a 5-0 template.
Since there’s no Ohio State on this schedule, I’m not predicting any big lopsided losses, but I do see narrow-to-decisive losses at Michigan State, at Iowa (why are they playing there in consecutive years? Shouldn’t that one be at home this season?), an upset to Miami of Ohio (remember 1995?) which makes them now 5-3.
I do forecast the Wildcats to pull of an upset at home over Penn State on Halloween, and also take the remaining three games on the schedule that are close and could easily go either way (at Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin) which gives them a final season record of 9-3. And yes, I do think this will finally be the year the Bowl game victory drought ends. I think they’ll get passed over for a better bowl that they deserve to be in (like last year with the Outback choosing Iowa over them.

And being able to drop down will make them able to get past some overrated SEC team. Thus ends the “wait till next year” attitude in Evanston as the Cats will get their first bowl since 1949.

By the way, 9-3 is where they finished the regular season last year. I predicted them to be 8-4 in August of ’08.