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Reports: Ex-Wildcats Dan Vitale, Kain Colter cut from 53-man rosters

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Reports: Ex-Wildcats Dan Vitale, Kain Colter cut from 53-man rosters
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

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.

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.

2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes

2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

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 Williams and 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.

Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 1

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 1
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

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.)

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

If Northwestern is to compete for a first place finish in the Big Ten West, it will need its linebacker unit to perform at an exceptional level.

The good news: the Wildcats’ linebackers are among the best in the conference, if not the nation.

Anchored by superstar Anthony Walker, NU’s linebackers were instrumental in leading a defense that allowed just 18.6 points per outing last fall. Walker, now a junior, finished the year with 122 tackles (20.5 for loss) and garnered All-America honors, while Drew Smith contributed double digit tackles for loss as well. Junior Jaylen Prater started nine before a season ending injury sidelined him for the Cats’ final four games. Sophomore Nate Hall filled in for Prater during that period and performed admirably as a redshirt freshman, making key plays in a critical win at Wisconsin and finishing the year with 56 tackles.

Smith graduated in the spring, and NU will miss his experience, but the nucleus of Walker, Prater and Hall should put the Cats in good stead going into this fall. The sensational Walker will prowl the middle of the field, while flanked by an experienced senior in Prater and a potential rising star in Hall.

The position features both star power in Walker — whom the program is promoting as “The Franchise” — and depth. Sophomore Cameron Queiro appeared in every game as a freshman, while another member of the unit, senior Joseph Jones, recorded 18 tackles and a pair for loss last fall. Jones has made 24 appearances in three seasons in Evanston, and earned the start at SAM linebacker for the Cats’ opening game against Western Michigan.

That said, it will be crucial for Prater, Hall and especially Walker to stay healthy. NU’s frontline in the middle could be a destructive and dominant force.

Walker has already proven himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, and a Bronko Nagurski-winning type of season from the junior, a la coach Pat Fitzgerald who twice won the award given to the nation’s best defensive player, could allow the program to rise to new heights following its 10-win 2015 season.

Fresh off a campaign in which the athletic Florida native wowed with a 19-tackle performance at Duke, a 14-tackle show against Purdue and a stellar performance against Illinois featuring 3.5 tackles for loss, a further improved Walker is a scary prospect for the rest of the Big Ten.

But Walker will not be expected to do it alone. Expectations are far from modest for Hall and Prater. And the emergence of other young members of the unit such as redshirt freshman Nathan Fox could boost an already strong unit.

Razor sharp performances from Walker and the whole unit will be a weekly must for a team with numerous offensive weaknesses, a reshuffled defensive secondary and a defensive line that may take some time to recover from the losses of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Fortunately for NU, the unit appears to have the personnel to smooth over some of the squad’s other weak points.

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, The Daily will take an early look at Northwestern’s opponent, breaking down the biggest facets of the game. Up first is the Wildcats’ Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan.

The last (and only) time Western Michigan traveled to Northwestern — Sept. 14, 2013 — coach P.J. Fleck had just inherited a basement-of-the-MAC team that was no match for the Wildcats, losing 38-17, and eventually went 1-11 on the season.

The Broncos’ trip to Evanston this Saturday has a much different feel.

Since that rough 2013 campaign, Fleck has led Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and returns all of the weapons in an offense that was one of the most explosive in the country last season. Senior receiver Corey Davis is projected to be the first WR off the board in next spring’s NFL draft and the Broncos enter the season as the favorite to win their first-ever MAC title.

The Cats will have their hands full with upset-minded Western Michigan in this weekend’s season opener. Below is a more detailed scouting report on the Broncos’ most pressing strength, weakness and question mark.

Biggest Strength: Entire offense

The combination of senior quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis forms the backbone of the Broncos’ offense and will provide a big test for NU’s “Sky Team” secondary.

Terrell completed 67 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions last season, ranking 8th in FBS in yards per attempt (Clayton Thorson, by comparison, was 118th).

And although he loses his top volume receiver in Daniel Braverman, he’ll still have Davis, and that could be all he and the Broncos need.

The 6’3”, 215-pound receiver has reportedly bulked up in the offseason after a 1,436-yard season in 2015, averaging more than 10 yards each time he was targeted and more than 130 yards per game over the latter half of the season.

While NU cornerbacks Matthew Harris and thrust-into-action Montre Hartage are challenged by Terrell and Davis, the Broncos could be able to take advantage of the relatively sparse box with a multi-headed rushing attack.

Western Michigan was actually nearly as good of a running team (30th in the nation) as a passing team (27th) last season and did so with a three-speared attack composed of a sophomore and two freshman, all of whom return. They can attack NU’s rush defense in every way with 6’1, 228-pound wrecking ball Jarvion Franklin charging up the middle and undersized scatbacks Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 touchdowns last year) and LeVante Bellamy racing for the edges.

Biggest weakness: Rush defense

Western Michigan’s most gaping hole just happens to align perfectly with NU’s most definite strength, which will provide a much-needed target for the Cats to exploit Saturday.

The Broncos’ rush defense allowed 5.3 yards per carry in 2015, ranking 117th among 128 FBS teams. Their linebacking corps fluctuated wildly week to week last season, as no combination seemed able to consistently stop the run. Additionally, five of the top eight tacklers (excluding the secondary) graduated in the offseason.

Indeed, in their losses last year, it was opponent’s rush games that most frequently burned them.

Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 124 yards on 16 carries in a 38-12 rout; Georgia Southern racked up a whopping 413 team rush yards in their 43-17 win; Northern Illinois’ Jordan Huff ripped off 159 yards on just eight carries against the Broncos; even Eastern Michigan, which ranked 85th in rushing offense for the season, recorded 226 yards on the ground against the Broncos.

Justin Jackson, Warren Long and even scrambling-minded Clayton Thorson should be excited for this matchup.

Biggest question: Can Broncos handle Big Ten-level play?

Western Michigan is no stranger to Big Ten teams — it faced two great ones last year (Michigan State and Ohio State) and has played 14 games against the Big Ten over the past seven years, including bowl games  — but the team is a stranger to success in those matchups: Western Michigan lost all 14 of those games.

Since beating Illinois 23-17 in late 2008, the Broncos have been occasionally competitive, but never the victors, against their “big brother” Midwest conference. If this year’s loaded team is to prove it’s a different Western Michigan than in the past, it will need to break that slump by beating Northwestern.

The national ESPNU cameras will be there, the media has jumped on board their bandwagon and even the betting lines (NU minus-5) are remarkably close — but can the Broncos live up to the hype?

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.

But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.

Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.

Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.

Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.

The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.

The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.

Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.

And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.

2016 Football Preview: Wildcats’ defensive line hopes to counter departures with depth

2016 Football Preview: Wildcats’ defensive line hopes to counter departures with depth
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Anytime an opposing ball carrier got dragged down in his own backfield during the 2015 season, there was a 30 percent chance Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson made the tackle.

That’s how dominant Northwestern’s defensive end pairing was last year. With the duo off to the NFL — Lowry was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and Gibson signed with the Detroit Lions — the Wildcats face an uphill challenge in replacing the production that powered a stout defense. NU’s solution for the 2016 campaign rests on spreading the workload as much as possible.

“I have full confidence in anybody who enters the game,” junior defensive end Xavier Washington said when asked about the position group’s depth. “We have enough people who know what they’re doing and are prepared to go in at any moment and change the game.”

Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are the nominal stars of the unit. Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, has toiled as a reserve and situational substitute the past three seasons, racking up 14.5 tackles for loss over his career. Now thrust into the starting role, Odenigbo — listed at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, the same as Gibson — must prove he can be more than a pass rusher and also stand up to the Big Ten’s punishing running attacks.

The same goes for Washington, who has spent the last two seasons as a rotational player but now will be called upon more than ever. And listed at a scant 243 pounds, he’s out to prove he can battle, play after play, with offensive linemen who may have as many as 80 pounds on him.

“I would define my game as ‘surprising,'” Washington said, shedding the undersized pass rusher stereotype. “A lot of people do look at my size and think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pass rusher,’ and I believe that’s what helps me in the end because if you’re not ready for me in the run game, if you’re thinking I’m going to be light, then that just gives me an element of surprise.”

Countering the Cats’ slight composure on the edges is some serious bulk and talent in the middle. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster might be the lynchpin of the entire unit, and is looking to improve upon a breakout 2015 campaign. The 310-pound Lancaster is joined by 305-pound senior C.J. Robbins, a veteran in his sixth year with the program thanks to two medical redshirts, and burly reserve senior Greg Kuhar, listed at 309 pounds.

A key player at both the tackle and end positions figures to be sophomore Jordan Thompson. One of a handful of true freshman to play last year,Thompson notched 15 tackles while appearing in every game as a rotation player along the line. His ability and willingness to play any position will be critical for the defense’s ability to handle varied offensive looks.

“I played outside in high school, and I played inside when I’m here,” Thompson said. “Every D-lineman needs to know inside and out. … Inside’s fun, outside’s fun, just being on the field is fun.”

Versatile players like Thompson are what will facilitate NU’s strategy for replacing the production of Lowry and Gibson — rotating the defensive line as much as possible. Washington said the plan is more about getting fresh legs onto the field rather than leveraging specific skill sets, and with the Cats’ bench as deep as it is that plan seems poised for success.

NU has six capable veterans jockeying for playing time, and joining the mix are redshirt freshmen Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano and sophomore Fred Wyatt.

Everyone among those nine is in line to receive at least a little bit of playing time. Given that formula — even with the impressive individual talents present — the output of the defensive line figures to be greater than the sum of its parts.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Trevor Siemian starts third preseason game for Denver Broncos, plays entire first half

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Trevor Siemian starts third preseason game for Denver Broncos, plays entire first half
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Ex-Wildcat Trevor Siemian started the Denver Broncos’ third preseason game Saturday night, solidifying his chances to begin the regular season as the team’s No. 1 quarterback.

Siemian started in front of rookie Paxton Lynch and veteran Mark Sanchez in the dress rehearsal, completing 10-of-17 passes with 122 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. Lynch took over after halftime with the Broncos leading 10-9.

The Broncos’ Week 1 starter against the Carolina Panthers will be announced at a later date, but coach Gary Kubiak said earlier this week he would make a decision sometime after Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Denver began with a heavy run attack Saturday, as Siemian did not attempt a pass through Denver’s first two drives — both three-and-outs. Later in the second quarter Siemian got into a bit of a groove, hitting his targets consistently, but threw the interception on about a 30 yard pass by the front corner of the endzone, killing the drive’s momentum.

However, on the very next drive, Siemian completed all four of his passes to lead the Broncos down the field on a 67-yard scoring drive, capping it off with a one-yard TD pass to tight end Virgil Green. Denver went ahead 7-6 at the time.

Over the course of his Northwestern career, Siemian threw for 5,931 yards, fourth-most in NU history, in addition to 27 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. After relieving Sanchez in the Broncos’ preseason opener, Siemian started last week’s game and went 10-for-14 with 75 passing yards and one interception in four drives. Siemian had been announced as Saturday’s starter earlier this week, but Kubiak did not decide on the order behind him until shortly before the game.

Siemian was drafted by the Broncos in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft (No. 250 overall) and played one snap — a kneel-down to close out the first half against Pittsburgh on Dec. 20 — during Denver’s Super Bowl run last season. After Peyton Manning retired and Brock Osweiler signed with the Houston Texans, the Broncos traded for Sanchez and drafted Lynch to compete with Siemian for the 2016 starting job.

Watch below to see Touchdown Trevor’s touchdown pass: