Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds.
1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?
Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.
Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.
2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?
Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.
Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.
3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?
Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.
Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.
Former Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien will serve as an honorary captain for Northwestern’s game against Illinois State on Saturday.
Budzien is the program’s all-time leader in field goal percentage, (.872) single-season field goals (23) made and most consecutive field goals (17). He received the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year Award during his junior and senior years.
Former Northwestern superback Dan Vitale has landed with the Buffalo Bills just a few days after being cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ProFootballTalk and ESPN reported Sunday.
Buffalo claimed Vitale on waivers after he failed to make Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster in the preseason. The Buccaneers had selected Vitale in the 6th round (197th overall) of April’s NFL Draft.
With the Bills, Vitale will likely serve as the backup fullback to Glenn Gronkowski, younger brother of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Should Buffalo coach Rex Ryan choose to utilize the ex-Wildcat at tight end, Vitale would fight for playing time with Charles Clay, Jim Dray and Nick O’Leary.
Summary: The Wildcats got off to a good start, with Justin Jackson scoring a one-yard touchdown on Northwestern’s opening drive. Thorson was 5-of-8 on the first drive, but 2-of-6 since. Western Michigan converted 1-of-2 field goals, with the first attempt (a 50-yarder) off the crossbar. Broncos’ top receiver Corey Davis broke free from the Sky Team and nearly hauled in a 35-yard touchdown pass, but it was just out of his reach. Zach Terrell has led his team down the field multiple times, with the Cats struggling to tackle, but the Broncos have been unable to find the endzone.
Northwestern stats to know:
Clayton Thorson: 7-for-14 with 69 passing yards, 3 carries for -2 rushing yards
Dan Vitale, Northwestern’s leading receiver in 2015, has been cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay Times reported Friday morning.
Vitale was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft (197th overall) by Tampa Bay as a fullback, but had shifted to tight end during the preseason. Undrafted free agent Alan Cross, a former walk-on at Memphis, beat out Vitale for a roster spot.
As a Wildcat, Vitale totaled 135 catches for 1427 yards. His 11 career receiving touchdowns are tied for 10th-most in program history.
Big news at tight end for Bucs: Draft pick Danny Vitale has been cut today, and undrafted rookie Alan Cross of Memphis has made the team.
UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter has been released by the Buffalo Bills, the NFL Network reported.
Colter gained national fame after moving to unionize NU’s football team in January 2014. Two months later, the National Labor Relations Board for Region 13 ruled in favor of Cats players, establishing the College Athletes Players Association as a union and claiming the players are employees of the University.
However, the NLRB dismissed Colter’s petition by declining to rule on the case in August 2015, effectively declaring that student-athletes are not university employees.
With NU, Colter thrived in dual-QB system. He threw for 2,160 yards and 18 touchdowns against nine interceptions, rushed for 2,180 yards and 28 touchdowns, and amassed 683 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He had transitioned to wide receiver and bounced around the NFL for a few years, including stops with the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, before signing with Buffalo at the beginning of August.
#Bills WR Kain Colter, who famously fought for college athletes’ rights at Northwestern, has been released by the team, source said.
Northwestern’s vaunted “Sky Team” secondary will have a bit of a different look in 2016.
Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have graduated, leaving a Wildcats defense that allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the country last season. To fill the void, NU will look to senior cornerback — and recently-named team captain — Matthew Harris to head up the defensive backs. A shutdown player, Harris led the team with four interceptions in 2015.
The Wildcats had originally planned for junior cornerback Keith Watkins II to start opposite Harris, but after a knee injury during training camp left him sidelined for the season, the only other cornerback on the roster, sophomore Montre Hartage, is expected to jump in. Hartage played in every game in 2015, though mostly on special teams, and had four tackles as a backup.
Meanwhile, the middle of the field will likely be filled by junior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Igwebuike burst onto the scene as a freshman after intercepting three passes in the Cats’ upset win over Wisconsin and improved last year as a sophomore, starting every game and finishing second on the team in tackles. Queiro has spent most of his career as a backup and missed eight games in 2015 due to injury,but that will change this season.
Behind the wall of Igwebuike and Queiro, there are only two other true safeties listed on the roster — a potential cause for concern if injuries start to mount.Sophomore Jared McGee looks to have a role as a backup after being listed on the opening two-deep, and sophomore defensive back Parrker Westphal, a former four-star recruit, made the two-deep for the first time in his career for the Cats’ opening matchup vs. Western Michigan. Junior Tommy Odell should factor in at some point as well.
Additionally, NU has eight players rostered simply as “defensive back” but most of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen who don’t have any experience or a true position yet. That’s not to say they won’t see the field at some point this season. Redshirt freshmen Trae Williamsand Alonzo Mayo will see some action and compete for playing time as reserves, with the winner to fill in at Queiro’s old role last year as a backup rotational player.
The bottom line is that the Cats’ secondary will be one of the best in the nation again in 2016. NU clearly has confidence in its defensive backs, so much so that the team released a Costacos Brothers themed poster earlier this offseason. All that stands in the unit’s way is another freak injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald moved Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese to wide receiver in February, a good move which shored up a paper-thin receiving core, but if another defensive back gets hurt, especially after Watkins II went down, secondary depth may soon become an issue.
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Western Michigan Broncos.
1. Clayton Thorson’s rushing touchdown in last year’s season opener against Stanford put him on the map. How will he perform in this year’s season opener?
Half-full (Tim Balk): If Trevor Siemian’s meteoric rise to starting QB of the Denver Broncos means Wildcats fans might have underappreciated Touchdown Trevor in his time in Evanston, Clayton Thorson certainly went undervalued as a redshirt freshman last fall. Sure, Thorson’s passing numbers were spotty, but with a weak receiving corps and a perpetually banged up offensive line, it’s hard to fault Thorson for NU’s oft-anemic pass offense. The fact remains, Thorson was a FRESHMAN, and he still led NU to 10 wins while showing flashes of brilliance on the ground and through the air. Expect a big leap from Thorson this year — the experience will pay dividends and an improved, healthy front will allow Thorson more time in the pocket. Expect it to start against Western Michigan, a team which gave up 250 or more passing yards nine times last year.
Half-empty (Max Gelman): Thorson was not a great quarterback last season, there’s no way around it. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes, and while he was a redshirt freshman, he would need to improve a lot in order to be considered good. His receivers, aside from Dan Vitale, did him almost no favors and this year the Cats’ No. 1 receiver — senior Austin Carr — is basically at the top of the depth chart by default. I also don’t totally buy the “10 wins” argument because the Cats only outscored their opponents by 12 points all season. In its three losses, NU was outscored 123-16 — that’s over 100 points! Western Michigan’s run defense isn’t very good, so if Thorson can make plays with his legs I think he’ll be OK in the opener, but regardless I don’t think he’ll throw for more than 150 yards through the air.
2. Will the Wildcats play well enough against a non-conference opponent that they can rest their starters in the fourth quarter?
Half-empty (MG): The formula for the Cats in 2015 was to win low-scoring games with their defense. Last year, NU scored more than 30 just once — an easy, 41-0 blowout of Eastern Illinois. Other than that, the Cats never really got a chance to rest their starters. Even late in the season when his team went up 21-7 against Illinois in the second quarter, coach Pat Fitzgerald took his foot off the gas pedal after halftime. Justin Jackson was still toting the rock, Thorson was still throwing the ball and NU only won the game 24-14. Western Michigan is also too good of a team for the Cats’ offense to run up the score, so I think we’ll still see all the starters right until the clock reaches zero.
Half-full (TB): NU is going to put up some points on the Broncos. Western Michigan’s spotty defensive front will receive a gnashing early from Jackson, and Thorson should have a fun day going over the top of of one of the MAC’s worst secondaries. The Broncos will try to keep pace with their dynamic offense, but it won’t be easy against a stellar NU defense which brings back some key pieces from a group that shut down Stanford a year ago. NU has tended to come out of the gate fresh and ready under Fitzgerald (the 2014 trainwreck against Cal notwithstanding), and there’s little reason to expect anything different in 2016. Western Michigan is not terrible, and won’t go down without a fight, but come the fourth quarter NU will have a lead wide enough to give its first units a late game break.
3. How full will Ryan Field be with classes not scheduled to start until Sept. 20?
Half-full (TB): I’m supposed to be good cop here, but it gets harder with this question. Ryan Field tends to be a graveyard in September and crowds in excess of 30,000 represent relative successes before Big Ten play kicks off. There’s reason to think the turnout could clear that benchmark against Western Michigan. Fresh off a top 25 finish, excitement is up a bit in Evanston, and the weather Saturday afternoon is expected to be beautiful. Perfect weather and some good, clean, American fun! Why not?
Half-empty (MG): Fitzgerald has lamented in the past about the atmosphere at Ryan Field before students show up, and I think he’ll have good reason to do so again Saturday. NU struggles to draw large crowds before conference play starts, and it’s not just because of the student section. A home stadium that seats fewer fans than any other Big Ten program and a smaller alumni base than the large, public Big Ten schools are just a couple reasons why I believe Ryan Field will only be about 50 to 60 percent full for Week 1. (And even when the Big Ten schedule rolls around it doesn’t get much better — the Cats are basically playing a road game whenever Nebraska visits Evanston.)