Weekly Wildcat Watch

Last week was post-Hall of Fame enshrinement, post-U19 Gold Medal, and pre-Big Ten Media Days. But not to worry – there was still some news and speculation out there about Northwestern. This week's round-up includes stories from the Chicago Tribune, Big Ten Network, WNUR radio and more.

In the build-up to Big Ten Media Days – and media days across the nation – the college football chatter is intensifying....

Let's start with a pet subject of Purple Reign: What is going to happen in the Northwestern backfield this season?

That topic was addressed in this article at WNUR.org – an NU radio station – titled, Goodbye Sutton, Hello ...?.

The article reads,

Against Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois, (Stephen) Simmons gained the starting slot and was able to gain 159 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against three very tough Big Ten defenses. This year, Simmons is the elder statesman for the unit, the only junior or senior tailback listed on Coach Pat Fitzgerald's current depth chart.

Purple Reign investigated just how "very tough" those three defenses were that Simmons played against. The results...

Ohio State, as they often do, indeed had a killer run defense last year. After all, OSU was the team that held Northwestern to zero yards in 2007 on 33 carries. Thirty-three. In 2008, the Buckeyes were third in the Big Ten in rushing defense (110 yards per game) and third in yards per carry defense (3.5). So it's understandable that Simmons didn't run wild against OSU. He had 34 yards on 14 carries.

But Michigan and Illinois, the other two teams Simmons started against, weren't so stout against the run in 2008. The Wolverines entered the Northwestern game having surrendered 80 yards to Minnesota's DeLeon Eskridge the week before. And that was on just 11 carries, the longest of which went for 26 yards. So even if you ignore that one, Eskridge scampered for 54 yards on 10 carries – and that from a guy who averaged 3.7 yards per carry on the season.

The week before that, two weeks prior to the NU game, Michigan gave up 118 yards to Kory Sheets of Purdue, one of just three 100-yard games Sheets had on the season. And Sheets didn't have any carries of more than 18 yards, so he didn't pile up yards like he did against NU when he broke a 76-yarder.

The point here is that Michigan's run defense was leaky. In the two weeks leading up to the NU game, Eskridge and Sheets – two pretty average runners – combined for 198 yards. Simmons, meanwhile, managed just 56 yards on 22 carries against the Wolverines. Strike his longest run of that game, a 21-yarder, and we're talking about 21 carries for 35 yards.

It takes less convincing that Illinois' run defense was penetrable. The Illini gave up an even 4.0 yards per carry and 153 per game. Simmons, though, managed just 69 yards on 22 carries.

An asterisk on looking at Simmons' stats is that he had a tweaked ankle last season. So while his production wasn't great, he was reportedly playing a little dinged up.

Long story short: PR isn't sold on Simmons just yet. Look for sophomore Jeravin Matthews, currently third on the depth chart, to garner some touches too.

Moving on, the Chicago Tribune posed a flippant yet disturbing question in a brief preview of some of the biggest questions heading into Big Ten Media Days.

The question: "Can a team lose all of its top skill players and still improve?"

The article goes on to say,

That's the hope in Evanston, given that the Tyrell Sutton-less Wildcats return only 27.2 percent of their rushing yards and 18.6 percent of their receiving yards and must replace quarterback C.J. Bacher. Mike (Crazy Legs?) Kafka returns after rushing for 217 yards at Minnesota, a conference record for a quarterback. Eight starting defenders return, including 6-foot-7-inch end and All-America candidate Corey Wootton, who underwent major knee surgery in January.

This preview from Eleven Warriors -- an Ohio State sports Web site -- is an OSU fan's analysis of Northwestern this season. The article has input from Lake the Posts throughout, and it (thankfully) refrains from any rah-rah banter.

This article talks about how Pat Fitzgerald will be making an appearance, along with some of his players, at a little league venue where he used to play ball.

From the article,

Northwestern University Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald is returning to the field where he played youth football as an Orland Park Pioneer....

This here is not exactly Northwestern news, but it's worth noting that some Big 12 football teams are taking heat for their soft non-con schedules. This is relevant because the Big Ten in general, and Northwestern in particular, has been ridiculed for some cushy games leading up to conference play.

The title of this one: "Big 12 teams should feel slothful after these gooey treats."

Purple Reign has weighed in on this topic over on the Ryan Field Message Board, but to reiterate...

Basically I said that while the OSU-USC-type matchups are fun for everyone, it's hard to fault schools for front-loading their schedules with some sure-fire wins. Kansas, for example, has to play at Texas, at Texas Tech and will host Oklahoma in the conference schedule. What does a team like that have to prove by playing a bunch of juggernauts before they go play a bunch of juggernauts?

Similarly, Northwestern, which will play the likes of Towson, Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio) in the non-con, will have to play Penn State, at Iowa, at Michigan State, etc. Like I said, I love me a good non-conference throwdown. But when you play in a league as stacked as the Big 12 or Big Ten, there's something to be said for the "What's the point?" argument.

Moving away from the gridiron, here you can read about J.A. Happ, former Wildcat and current Philadelphia Philly. In the article, Tim Stoddard, who was Happ's pitching coach at NU, talks about how dominant Happ was in college....

"One coach comes over," Stoddard said over the phone last week, "and says, 'He's throwing nothing but fastballs. I can't believe it.' Hell, why should he throw anything else?"

And finally, here is news from the Big Ten Network about NU hiring a new wrestling assistant.

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