Northwestern vs. Illinois State: the Brutally Honest Game Preview

GO-CATS!

GO CATS!

Last weekend, I drove to both Ohio State and Notre Dame to cover their openers. Therefore, the Indiana Toll Road and I became quite familiar with one another. This weekend I’m home; back in Chicago’s Lakeview East neighborhood, a placed described by Baseball Prospectus writer Christina Kahrl, in her latest Cubs piece as…there are still enough trust funders knocking around Lakeview, the Corn Belt’s Riviera, to keep their sozzled watch with semi-indifference.

Uh-oh! trust fund babies afoot! And I have to go up Lake Shore Drive to an elite, private University to take in the Northwestern Wildcats home opener! I better a bring a gun to protect myself from the two comma kids (yes, I did make a “Finding Forrester” reference)

Hopefully, I’ll survive the 25 minute trek to NU so we can discuss the game.

Chicago’s official Air and Water Show may have been last month, but I expect airspace over Evanston’s Ryan Field Saturday to be busier than the final approach corridor of O’Hare International Airport. Why? Read on…..

By Paul M. Banks

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College Football hope springs Eternal in April

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By Paul M. Banks

EVANSTON, IL- In this city, the phrase “wait till next year” is a natural part of the local dialect. It specifically refers to the Chicago Cubs’ postseason ineptitude since 1908. (And if early returns are any indication, things will likely not change this October.

But the phrase also applies to another Chicago area team: the Northwestern Wildcats, who have the dubious distinction in the college football world of zero bowl wins since 1949. And they’ve plenty of chances: 1995, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2009. The connection between the two teams grew even stronger yesterday, as it was formally announced that the Wildcats will play their in-state rivalry game with Illinois at the Cubs’ home of Wrigley Field this fall. The revelation created even more optimistic buzz within the program.

Today, the day of the NU spring scrimmage concluding spring football practice, is the first major step towards ending the 0-for-7 drought. And this same feeling of eternal optimism is present on campuses everywhere during this college football Saturday. Well, it’s sort of a college football Saturday.

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2011 looking good for Northwestern

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By Paul M. Banks

Once again, the Northwestern Wildcats are not advancing past the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Once again they are not going to the NCAA tournament. This happens every March. But this year is a lot different, because this year they won 20 games. The program has never even won 19 in a season prior to 2010. And in 2011, they really could win 25 or more.

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Bill Carmody Comments on the Cats Upcoming Season

Ohio State Northwestern Basketball

By Paul M. Banks

Bill Carmody may not have gotten his Northwestern Wildcats their first NCAA tourney bid last year, but he did accomplish a few things that hadn’t been done before. The Cats set a new school record for home wins with 13, and they finished just one victory shy of the school record for wins in a season. Carmody himself is now 2nd in program history for coaching victories.

This year, they’ll have more games scheduled, and even more games, as their lone road non-conference game is at N.C. State, the ACC’s likely bottom-feeder. They’ll have a school record 19 home games this season, so this could be the year the tourney drought ends. Here are some of Bill’s more notable things that he’s said to the press about the year ahead

This year’s outlook…

“We had a decent year last year and we’re all pretty enthused about some of our wins and heartbroken with some of our losses, but I think our guys are pretty confident that they can play with just about anybody. I think the confidence level is right where it should be, not crazy, but just right where it should be. They’re working hard in practice and that’s good.”

The main two offensive weapons on this team will be the one and two scorers in last night’s 78-49 exhibition win over Robert Morris University-  Kevin Coble and John Shurna…

“You have (Kevin) Coble up front who has led us in scoring and rebounding the last three years. He got stronger. Those of you who have been around a while know that when he was a freshman and he came here and he wasn’t really a three-point shooter. He didn’t shoot long shots. He was a scorer, but he’s moved it out further and further. Each year he’s gotten better and now he shoots two-and-a-half steps past that three-point line pretty consistently. He’s getting to the hole, getting to the rim, not getting knocked down as often. Still getting knocked down; he went down three times today on his drives, but he’s definitely stronger and heavier and that’s good.”NUCOURTSIDE

“Shurna had a very good summer. He made the Under-19 USA team where he played for about two weeks down in Colorado Springs, made the team, and went to Sydney, Australia, for three or four days then to New Zealand and he was a significant part of that gold-medal winning squad. So he’s confident.”

I would agree. This year Shurna seems more sure of himself both on the court and when he takes the podium to speak with the media this year. Last season, as he was getting used to speaking with the media, he often had a Paulie Bleeker from “Juno” like sheepishness. This fall, he’s got a much more commanding presence.

Defense is often overlooked on all levels of basketball, but stopping people consistently will be critical to this team’s success, and they have a really good, and very underrated defender in swingman Jeremy Nash…

“We haven’t played that much man-to-man, but when you play match-up you have to keep the guy in front of you a little bit. I’d say Nash is pretty good, not just because he steals balls but because, when he wants, he can keep his body in front. Coble is a very good low post defender. Even though he’s a skinny guy, he’s long and he runs around guys. Once they get it, it might be troublesome sometimes but he keeps balls away from guys so he doesn’t have to play defense, which is okay. I think that Kyle (Rowley) and Luka (Mirkovic) will be pretty good defenders. They’ll be pretty good defenders as they move along.”

On scheduling, scheduling teams that could help RPI and if scheduling differently would have helped them make the tournament…

“I don’t think that it matters. I think we had a pretty tough out of conference schedule. You play 30 games and 19 or 20 of them — 19 are against — if you just play one game in the Big Ten tournament against conference foes and then you have the Big Ten-ACC challenge, and we had DePaul last year and Stanford. We had some pretty decent teams in there, and Florida State in the challenge.NUCOURTUDE2

I think we lost a couple of games that we sort of gave away and that was the difference. But every program is at a different stage. So you’re trying to balance that out wins and tough schedule and RPI and all that kind of stuff. But I think that last year we hit it just about right. And I think if we held on to a couple of leads, I think we would have gotten into the tournament last year.

Tom Izzo said this is the year they make the tournament. Others are jumping on the purple bandwagon. His response to the idea of the pressure being on him.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s that much pressure. If you have some good players, which I think we do, we look forward to it. That’s why you’re here. There’s 330 Division I teams and that’s everyone’s goal right now to get in the NCAA. And we’re just really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a tough year in the conference. CARMODYPROFILE

I think we have probably one of our better teams coming up. But just looking around from top to bottom that the league is very strong and so it’s going to be difficult. But I don’t see it’s really pressure. I think the guys sort of embrace that.”

Where Drew Crawford, a two guard who choose NU over Wake Forest and Oklahoma State, fits in…

“Drew Crawford is a true freshman from Naperville. We lost Moore who is a long-range shooter. Drew makes shots, but he’s not the kind of shooter that Craig is. But I think I’m going to throw him in there because he’s a pretty athletic kid. He can score — makes a jump shot. Gets to the basket a little bit. Gets a few rebounds, couple blocked shots.”

Senior Safeties Lead Way for Wildcats

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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.

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DE Corey Coreysaurus Wootton leads Northwestern’s Defense

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By Paul M. Banks

In 2008, Northwestern finished just one win shy of the school record. They found success primarily because of their defense, as the ’Cats set a single-season defensive rushing record, holding their foes to 126.4 yards per game. Ahead of the previous school record from the Wildcats’ mythical 1995 Rose Bowl season. Newly installed defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz brought in a new attacking-style defense, and the aggressive style paid off as NU recorded a Big Ten-best 34 sacks, 18th-best in the country.

Playboy Preseason All-America Defensive End Corey Wootton led the way with 16.0 TFL’s and 10.0 sacks. He enters his final season ranked fifth on NU’s career list for TFL’s (16) and fourth on NU’s career list for pass sacks (15.5). “Coreysaurus” Wootton also enters Saturday’s season opener against Towson on the watch lists for the Hendricks, Bednarik, Nagurski, Lott and Lombardi Trophy. The 6’7” Wootton explained to me how he got that moniker:

“I got dubbed that nickname from a teammate of mine that just graduated, Todd Dockery cuz of my long neck. I used to be real thin when I was a freshman. Since then he’s always called me “Coreysaurus.” Excuse me for not having a Coreysaurus graphic from PhotoShop. Although a picture of the Coreysaurus Rex stomping on opposing QBs is something the NU marketing department should seriously look into making and distributing. I also asked Wooton about his height affecting his game:tyrannosaurus

“It works to my advantage having a long wingspan, the height, being able to get my hands into the passing lanes, leverage and separation from people. But at the same time it can be a disadvantage. You’re more of a target o get cut {blocked underneath by opponents} things of that nature,” he stated. I brought up how his long arms helped disrupt the passing lanes of Missouri’s Chase Daniel, a 5’10” quarterback, in last year’s Alamo Bowl.

“When you have a shorter quarterback, the angle that they’re projecting the ball isn’t going to be as high as someone who’s 6’4”, 6’5.” You just got to get your hands into the passing lanes a lot and hopefully bat it down,” he responded.

Wotton is tabbed a first-team All-Big Ten preseason selection by Lindy’s, Athlon Sports, Phil Steele’s and Sporting News.  He’s got his eyes set on improving a few things to live up to that. “Working on my second and third moves, I feel like I have a pretty decent first move, but working on that second move, that counter, improving aspects of my footwork, run defense, and all that I’ll continue to work on though the season,” Wootton said. Last year, he set the bar high, so he’ll need a really big year to top it.

He was voted first-team All-Big Ten by conference coaches and the team’s Most Valuable Player. For the second season in his career, he recorded a statistic in every major defensive category (tackles, TFL’s, sacks, pass deflections, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, QB hurries and blocked kicks).

Moving forward, I asked Corey who he thought the best player comparison for his game would be “It would be cool if they said the next Julius Peppers. He’s a tremendous player, a tremendous athlete, we have kind of similar size. One day I hope to even touch the waters of what he is, a truly tremendous a player,” Corey answered.

I then mentioned how rare it was for a defensive player to receive Heisman votes, and Peppers actually finished in the top 10 in 2001 voting. “It’s expected for mostly offensive players, quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs to get those awards, but when you get recognized for that, especially at defensive end, a position that’s not as highly publicized as other positions, it’s a great honor and it shows what a legacy he left. Not only at North Carolina, but in college football,” He replied. It’s true that DEs don’t often get the pub, but perhaps that’s changing?

Ohio State Northwestern Football

“Defensive ends get publicized more than interior linemen and offensive lineman probably because they’re the pretty version of a lineman. You stand up sometimes, you’re on the edge. They’re a little leaner. So they’re publicized, but not as much as linebackers and defensive backs. The game has changed so much over recent years. Julius Peppers was a freak of nature back then and now you’re seeing guys who have tremendous size and athleticism everywhere,” Wooton said.

Pat Fitzgerald Previewing Northwestern’s Upcoming Season

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By Paul M. Banks

College Football season is a little more than three weeks away, and when things get underway September 5th, Northwestern will look to build upon last year’s success. In 2008, they finished one win shy of the single season school record for wins. “We’re Chicago’s Big Ten team,” Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald proclaimed at NU Media Day. I’m sure many people at the University of Illinois might disagree. But as Fitz gets ready to hopefully take the purple to Pasadena, here are some of the highlights of what he had to say when he rocked the mic at Big Ten and Northwestern Media Days.

Read below to see what his expectations are.

And to see Media Day pictures, a few of which feature yours truly click here.

“As I mentioned at the Kickoff Luncheon, currently the market remains very difficult and it affects you as members of the media so I want to say thanks for coming out.”

Couldn’t agree more on that…so how about all those newcomers in 2009 at the positions that get all the glory and publicity?

“On offense, none of you know any of our guys’ names so I’ll spare it for now, but you will. That’s exciting for us as a staff and as a program. We have great competitive depth across the board on offense.”


So who are the new guys at the skill positions?

“From a competition standpoint at tailback, Matt MacPherson and I are just chomping at the bit to get out to the practice field every day. Stephen Simmons, after the role he had a year ago with Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh going down, is kind of the elder statesman but he’s being pushed by Jeravin Matthews, who is maybe the fastest player in our program and has bulked up to about 180 pounds now after a tremendous summer. Alex Daniel is a young player who redshirted last year and had a great spring so based on the empirical data from last year those would be the guys, but Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt are also in the mix along with Mike Trumpy and Arby Fields.

At receiver, Andrew Brewer has now moved to the outside after a great summer, Charles Brown is inside, with Sidney Stewart on the opposite side doing some nice things early. All those guys are being pushed by Lee Coleman and Jeremy Ebert as he comes off his injury. The position I think that gets lost occasionally for us is superback. Josh Rooks has done nothing but excelled at the point of attack blocking, his routes have been outstanding. We have a healthy Drake Dunsmore along with Brendan Mitchell and Mark Woodsum so our superback position will be involved in our offense. Mick McCall and our offensive staff have a lot of flexibility.”patfitzgerald2

On the importance of having two senior starters at safety, the leadership they provide and what it means to the success of his defense…

“On defense, it’s like baseball in that it’s important to have a great pitcher, catcher and centerfielder up the middle. Your safeties have to be able to come downhill and play the run but also be effective in the passing game. The play-making ability of Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips is as good as any in this league and they’re being pushed by younger guys also in David Arnold, Brian Peters and Jared Carpenter, who we were pleasantly surprised by in his spring.”


On winning consistently each year to take the program to the next level…

“Well, you look at our record in the regular season and we’re 83-79 since 1995 so we’ve gotten over the hump of being able to say we can win consistently. When I was being recruited in 1993 that was the only thing being used against Gary Barnett’s staff, that they’ll never win consistently there. 6-6 is not the destination but I think our program has proven over time that we can win here on a consistent basis. The hallmark of consistent teams is winning bowl games and that’s our goal. But that’s down the road, right now it’s more important to consistently prepare for practice and that’s what we’re focused on.”


What does he think the team will do best…

“I know that we’ll play hard and give maximum effort in everything we do. You look at the job we did academically last year, that’s one part of our character. The second is on the football field and one of our hallmarks is the effort our young men play with. It starts with the way we practice. I thought we had a great effort on our second day and I’ve always known our guys will play as hard as they can as long as they, from when I was a student-athlete to when I was an assistant coach.”

On the league’s competitive depth…

“If I were a fan of Big Ten football and went to games, I’d be excited because a lot of times you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think anyone sneaks up on anybody. There’s great players, great coaches in this league and for my role as a head coach, it’s why I’m going gray at 34, because it’s as competitive as it’s ever been.”northwestern_football_helmet


About all his effort in the community to increase brand awareness of the program, “Shot the Puck” at the Blackhawks playoff game, Pat Fitzgerald Day in his hometown of Orland Park, IL etc…

“I wouldn’t say I “shot” the puck at the Blackhawks game. There are some things that rank highly on the embarrassing scale and that was one of them for me. But it’s fun to be in Chicago, we’re in the third-largest media market in the country, right in Chicago’s backyard, and it’s great to be part of the Chicago landscape. We’re Chicago’s Big Ten team. To be asked to be part of that is humbling and it’s an honor as a Chicagoan. I went back to the John Humphrey Complex last week for the first time since maybe I was an umpire in high school, where I played football and baseball for the Pioneers, and I saw a lot of folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. Through the support of (director of athletics and recreation) Jim Phillips and the athletic department I’ve gotten to do a lot of things. Our program is on the rise and to be part of the Chicago landscape is exciting and I look forward to it growing even more.”