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Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

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 Duke Blue Devils.

1. Will NU reach double-digit points?

Tim Balk (Half-full): Duke’s defense is respectable. And NU’s offense is scuffling beyond belief. But I still cannot see the Cats failing to reach 10 points again after scoring just seven against Illinois State.

For one, NU is due to get some points out of its defense and special teams. The Cats were often able to make up for poor offensive production with defensive scores and big plays in the return game last year. In their 19-10 win at Duke, Solomon Vault returned a kickoff for a touchdown and a Godwin Igwebuike fumble recovery set up the offense for an easy field goal. NU’s 19 points came in spite of one of the worst starts of Clayton Thorson’s career. It was a familiar theme throughout the 2015 season. This fall, the Cats’ defense has yet find the end zone and has made few big plays. It’s about time that changes.

Plus, NU’s offense is equally due to find something resembling a rhythm. After the ill-advised air attack backfired against Illinois State, look for NU to find some success with its bread and butter — the run game — against a Duke team that surrendered 239 yards on the ground last week against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons managed to score 24 against Duke. It’s not too much to expect NU to at least reach 10.

Max Gelman (Half-empty): The Wildcats are coming off a week in which they scored just seven points against an FCS defense and have only scored 28 points through their first two weeks. I find it hard to foresee a situation where NU manages to score more than 10 points.

While the special teams unit may be “due” to score some points, let’s not forget it also seems to hurt the Cats’ chances at scoring quite regularly. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed another field goal against the Redbirds last week and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed extremely reluctant to try another field goal following the miss. If the Cats can’t kick, their drives will continue to stall around their opponents’ 35-40 yard lines.

But the biggest problem is NU’s offensive line — it’s a mess. Thorson was forced to throw 41 times against Illinois State, a career high, because the line couldn’t open any lanes for running back Justin Jackson (who is battling an injury). Until the O-Line improves, it will be extremely difficult for the Cats to put up 10 points.

2. Will the Cats keep Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to under 250 passing yards?

Gelman (Half-empty): Right now, the Cats’ secondary is a major concern. Starting cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are out, as well as safety Kyle Queiro, whose name popped up on the injury report out of nowhere.

Igwebuike is the only starter still healthy at this point. That leaves the rest of the secondary to be comprised of sophomore corner Montre Hartage, whose only two starts came in the first two weeks of this season filling in for Watkins II, redshirt freshman corner Trae Williams, who has never started a game before, and sophomore safety Jared McGee. The situation is so dire, that third-string quarterback and baseball pitcher Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at corner in practice this week.

What’s surprising about Duke is that Jones, as their backup quarterback, threw for 332 passing yards last week. Although that was against a bad Wake Forest team, it’s still cause for concern. The Cats’ secondary is at DEFCON 1 with all the injuries.

Balk (Half-full): Yes, with three out of its four projected opening week defensive back starters sidelined by injuries, the NU defensive secondary has to be a cause for concern at the moment. But, there’s plenty of reason to think NU will keep Duke to fewer than 250 passing yards. NU is giving up just a touch over 250 passing yards per game through two contests, but those numbers are inflated due to the fact that opponents have had far too many opportunities to sling it.

Opponents have dominated possession because of NU’s offensive trials and the lack of big defensive plays. So, naturally, they’ve picked up tons of yards. But the Cats’ front seven seemed to be finding its legs last week, even as the offense struggled through a nightmare. The progress is likely to continue against a Duke team with a subpar offensive line and a freshman quarterback.

Look for a strong performance from NU’s defensive line to keep Duke’s pass attack in check.

3. Over/Under 4.5 freshmen will trip while running onto the field?

Balk (Half-full): Obviously, you have to go under on this one. As far as I can recall, not a single freshmen tripped last year. The Class of 2019 was smooth and poised under pressure. And each class is supposed to be better, brighter (more athletic?) than the last, right?

Gelman (Half-empty): Almost everything else has gone wrong so far this year for the Cats, so why wouldn’t that extend to the Wildcat Welcome Dash? Under the bright lights of primetime, there will definitely be some jitters Saturday night. I can see about a dozen unlucky new students taking a fall while the Ryan Field crowd tries to hold in its laughter.

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Northwestern’s once-vaunted defense struggled for the second consecutive week in a loss Saturday against Illinois State, and the Wildcats’ Week 3 depth chart for their upcoming contest against Duke reflects some changes coaches hope will jumpstart the lagging unit.

The most dramatic move comes on the defensive line. Senior CJ Robbins moves from defensive tackle to left defensive end after a strong showing in that role against the Redbirds, replacing incumbent senior Ifeadi Odenigbo in the starting lineup. Junior Xavier Washington will switch sides from left to right defensive end in order to accommodate the move, and sophomore Fred Wyatt will step up to fill Robbins’ former spot at defensive tackle.

Robbins shifted out to defensive end fairly early against Illinois State and didn’t look back, recording two tackles for loss and five tackles total. The 305-pounder doesn’t look like a traditional defensive end, but his move outside will bulk up a group which has struggled so far in short-yardage situations.

The defense has also adjusted for injuries at cornerback to senior starter Matthew Harris and backup redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo. Redshirt freshman Trae Williams will replace Harris, and true freshman Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are now listed as the backups. Bullock has yet to appear in a game this season, reflecting the depletion of depth NU faces at the position.

Another true freshman will be stepping in at wide receiver. Ben Skowronek logged his first career catch against Illinois State, and has supplanted junior Marcus McShepard as a backup receiver. Listed at 6-foot-4, Skowronek is tied for being the tallest wideout on the roster and adds size to an otherwise small unit.

Cornerback Matthew Harris to miss Saturday’s game against Duke

by Max Schuman 0 Comments
Cornerback Matthew Harris to miss Saturday’s game against Duke
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Senior cornerback Matthew Harris is expected to miss Saturday’s game against Duke, coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Monday’s press conference.

Harris suffered an upper-body injury while covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Illinois State. He walked off the field and into the locker room with the help of trainers and was ruled out for the remainder of the game shortly afterwards

Losing Harris for any amount of time is a big blow for Northwestern, as the captain is a major part of a banged-up Wildcats’ secondary and was named to the All-Big Ten third team after his work last season. Redshirt freshman cornerback Trae Williams took over after Harris’ injury Saturday and will likely be asked to fill in until he returns.

Williams and sophomore Montre Hartage are listed on the Week 3 depth chart as NU’s starters, and true freshmen Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are backups. Redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo, who saw some playing time against Illinois State but also left with an injury, did not appear on the Week 3 two-deep.

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.