Opponents preview: Northwestern offense

Part two of BadgerNation.com's 3-part series on the Wildcats

Northwestern will certainly miss tailback Noah Herron and must replace four-fifths of its offensive line. But quarterback Brett Basanez is back behind center and he has a very talented corps of receivers to choose from. The Wildcats should be among the top half of Big Ten offenses.

2004 by the numbers

Total offense: 409.50 yards per game (No. 29 nationally); 367.6 yards per conference game (No. 5 Big Ten)
Scoring offense: 24.58 points per game (64); 21.0 (7)
Passing offense: 237.33 (41); 199.5 (6)
Passing efficiency: 110.14 (95); 100.3 (10)
Rushing offense: 172.17 (39); 168.1 (5)
Touchdowns: 35 – 23 rushing, 12 passing; 20 – 14 rushing, 6 passing (6)
Third-down conversions: 38 percent on 72 of 190; 39.8 on 51 of 128 (5)
Turnovers lost: 11 – 9 interceptions and 2 of 11 fumbles; 8 – 7 interceptions and 1 fumble (1)
Field goal kicking: 50 percent on 11 of 22; 55 on 6 of 11 (9 in percentage rank)
Kick returns: 22.22 (26); 24.8 (1)
Punt returns: 10.67 (44); 11.8 (4)

Quarterbacks analysis

Drew Tate's Houdini act, Chad Henne's stellar play and the emergence of Drew Stanton and Troy Smith will continue to get more publicity, but when considering the Big Ten's best quarterbacks, do not forget Brett Basanez, who just may be the most productive signal caller in the league this year.

In Basanez's three seasons as a starter he has accumulated 6,958 yards passing, more than all but one active quarterback in the nation (Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst). He has also rushed for 573 yards and 11 touchdowns.

He will be a fourth-year starter in 2005, having taken the reigns for 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2002. That year Basanez completed 190 of 325 passes for 2,204 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Basanez slumped his sophomore year, struggling to a 162-302-1,916-4-12 season. But he bounced back last season, throwing for 2,838 yards and 12 touchdowns, completing 247 of 460 passes with nine interceptions.

The nine picks in 460 passes is manageable, but Basanez could certainly improve upon his 55 percent completion percentage. Still, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound signal caller is the perfect fit for Northwestern's ball-control spread offense. Basanez also had his best season running the ball last year, as he was credited with 258 yards and five touchdowns rushing on 83 attempts.

He does not have a huge arm, but Basanez can make all the throws necessary in the Wildcats' offense and is adept at getting his receivers the ball with a chance to make a play.

Basanez's backup is redshirt freshman C.J. Bacher, a talented but obviously inexperienced reserve.

Offensive line analysis

When it was announced this summer that center Trevor Rees would not be playing this season due to academics, Northwestern's cache or returning starters on the offensive line shrunk to just one. The good news for the Wildcats is that one returner is a potential All-American in right tackle Zach Strief.

Strief (6-7, 335) is a respectable pass blocker and a crushing run blocker who will be relied upon to anchor a pretty green line. After starting the last three games of the 2002 season as a redshirt freshman, Strief started every game the past two seasons and enters 2005 with a 28-game start streak.

Replacing Rees at center is sophomore Austin Matthews (6-5, 285), a versatile player who would have pushed for playing time at guard had Rees remained eligible.

The guards will be juniors Ryan Keenan (6-4, 290) and Joe Tripodi (6-3, 200). Keenan spent all of 2003 and the first six games of 2004 on the Wildcats' defensive line. He had 26 tackles as a redshirt freshman and 10 last season. But he switched to offense last year, playing tackle briefly before switching to tight end. Now he appears to have found a home at right guard. Tripodi has been plagued by injuries but is expected to hold down the left guard spot.

Left tackle Dylan Thiry is purported to be one of the Big Ten's next great linemen. He has good size (6-8, 300) and athletic ability for the position. His experience is very limited but expect Thiry to combine with Strief to form one of the league's best tackle tandems.

Vince Clarke (6-5, 305) is the top reserve across the line but he has dealt with injuries every year on campus thus far. In both his redshirt freshman and junior seasons he missed the entire year due to injury.

Other top reserves include redshirt freshman tackle Alex Rucks (6-4, 300), sophomore center/guard Adam Crum (6-1, 280), redshirt freshman center/guard Joel Belding (6-3, 300) and redshirt freshman tackle Jim Lawler (6-5, 300).

Receivers analysis

This is one of the league's best receiving corps. The top three wideouts statistically all return in 2005, led by senior Mark Philmore (5-10, 185), who missed the last four games of 2004 after spraining his knee. But he still was named honorable mention All-Big Ten after catching 54 passes for 633 yards and two scores. If he can stay healthy (his 2003 also ended prematurely due to a knee injury) he could be a star.

Also returning are senior Jonathan Fields (5-8, 175), who caught 48 passes for 560 yards and a team-best four touchdowns last year, and junior Shaun Herbert (6-1, 200), who went 32-465-1.

The Wildcats lose just one of their top four wideouts from last year, Ashton Aikens, who was 32-401-0. But there is plenty of talent to spread around his receptions.

NU also returns top reserve receivers such as senior Brandon Horn (6-1, 220), sophomore Kim Thompson (6-4, 195) and sophomore T.J. Jones (6-2, 180). Jones spent last season primarily on special teams, where he scored a touchdown off a blocked punt. He has yet to catch a pass in college but is considered a pretty talented option. Horn was 24-205-2 as a receiver last year. He and Thompson (11-122-1) give NU a pair of big targets for Basanez.

Junior Erryn Cobb (6-1, 255) shifted from fullback to tight end this year after caching one pass for seven yards.

Running backs analysis

With feature back Noah Herron and his 1,381 rushing yards gone, NU will likely turn to a committee approach at tailback.

Senior Terrell Jordan (5-10, 200) is capable of being a feature back, but he needs to stay consistently healthy for that to become a reality. Still, Jordan has a nice blend of power, athleticism and all-around skill for the position. He ran for 315 yards and three touchdowns last season on just 65 attempts. He also caught four passes for 29 yards and had 405 yards as a kick returner.

Sophomore Brandon Roberson (5-9, 195) could split carries with Jordan. He had just two carries for 15 yards last season and also returned three kicks for 38 yards. But Roberson will head into fall camp as the No. 2 tailback and he could work into a steady rotation.

There are several other backs who could play a role this fall: redshirt freshmen Gerard Hamlett (5-10, 185) and Akeem Hunter (5-11, 205), sophomore Nathan Shanks (5-11, 220) and true freshmen Omar Conteh (6-0, 200) and Tyrell Sutton (5-9, 190).

Sophomore ‘R-back' Frayne Abernathy could see playing time at fullback or tight end.

One of the Wildcats' more intriguing players is sophomore converted quarterback Chris Malleo (6-3, 220). Basanez's backup last season could end up starting at fullback or serving as an H-back or slot receiver. He is a good athlete who can be effective as a runner or receiver.

Special teams notes

The place kicking has to be better than it was last season, when it was atrocious at times.

Junior Joel Howells (6-4, 220) moved into the position late last year and was effective, making 4 of 5 field goals and 9 of 10 extra points.

Junior Slade Larscheid (6-1, 205) served as the starting kicker for the first seven games of 2003, making 2 of 6 field goals and 19 of 19 extra point attempts. But missed the last six games of that year and all of 2004 with injuries.

With Jordan and Jeff Backes leading the way, the kick return game was excellent last year. Jordan is back after averaging 23.5 yards per return last year. And Roberson could handle the job as well.

Matching up with Wisconsin

This is a tricky matchup for the Badgers, particularly since the game is in Evanston, which has not been kind to anyone lately, as UW well remembers from two seasons ago.

Assuming Brett Bell is healthy at cornerback, UW's secondary should match up okay with the Wildcats' receivers at most spots, but NU's depth at the position will likely be too much for the Badgers to handle for four quarters.

The key to the game, however, will be how well Northwestern's interior line has gelled at this point. The Wildcats' tackle tandem will pose quite a challenge, though expect Jamal Cooper to have success rushing off the edge against either Thiry or Strief. That tandem will have a clear advantage against Cooper and the rest of UW's ends in the running game, however, and if NU's other three linemen can hold their own inside, the Badgers may be in for a long day, watching Jordan, Roberson and Co. pound out yardage. NU loves to spread defenses out and then gash them with the running game.

And if UW's safeties are forced to hone in on the running game, Basanez will pick the secondary apart.

That worst-case scenario is unlikely to play itself out in full, but the Badgers could have their hands full with NU's offense.

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