Oct. 20, 2003
Game Notes vs. Wisconsin
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Northwestern, tied for seventh place in the Big Ten standings with defending co-champ Iowa, seeks its second straight league win this Saturday when it hosts the nationally ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Prior to last weekend's open date, the Wildcats defeated Indiana 37-31 in overtime for their season's first Big Ten victory. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. at Ryan Field. ESPN2 is televising the game nationally.
The Wildcats (3-4), trying to reach the .500 mark since early in the season, are facing a Wisconsin team that is coming off two emotional home contests. Two weeks ago, the Badgers ended Ohio State's 19-game unbeaten streak with a 17-10 victory. This past Saturday, Wisconsin lost a last-second heartbreaker to Purdue, 26-23. At 6-2, the Badgers have equaled their 1999 start when they won the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, in his 14th season with the Badgers, has 98 career victories and has guided the Badgers to three Big Ten crowns since 1993. This year's Badger team is balanced on both sides of the ball, ranking 51st nationally in total offense (390.8 ypg) and 44th nationally in total defense (346.6 ypg). Quarterback Jim Sorgi (169.2 ypg, 7 TDs), running back Anthony Davis (111.2 ypg, 5 TDs) and receiver Lee Evans (84.0 ypg, 6 TDs) lead the Badger offense. Sorgi did injure his left knee against Purdue and his status is unknown for Saturday. Matt Schabert will start at quarterback if Sorgi cannot play. Safety Jim Leonhard (50 tackles, 4 INT), linebacker Jeff Mack (66 tackles, 4 TFL), left tackle Anttaj Hawthorne (39 tackles, 11.5 TFL) and linebacker Alex Lewis (54 tackles, 11 TFL, 6 sacks) lead the defense.
Northwestern is coming off its most productive offensive performance of the season, scoring 31 points in regulation and another six in overtime.
Saturday is Nextel Day at Ryan Field.
The Series With Wisconsin
Series Record: Wisconsin leads 53-30-5
At Evanston: Wisconsin leads 29-15-2
At Madison: Wisconsin leads 24-15-3
Last Result: 47-44 (2OT), Northwestern (in Madison)
Series Streak: 1, Northwestern (dating to 2000)
Series Notes: This is the first meeting between the two schools since NU's 47-44 double-overtime win at Camp Randall in 2000. That victory ignited the Wildcats' 2000 Big Ten championship season ... The NU-Wisconsin series dates to 1890, making this rivalry the Wildcats' oldest versus Big Ten schools. Only Illinois has played more games (96) versus Northwestern than Wisconsin has (88).
Northwestern Head Coach Randy Walker
Randy Walker's passion for excellence continues to be the driving force in his mission to return Northwestern's football program to the top of the Big Ten Conference, and among the nation's elite. A 27-year coaching veteran who has been associated with some of the game's greatest mentors, Walker places a high value on a student-athlete not only excelling on the field, but also in the classroom and in the community.
In his fifth season with the Wildcats, Walker has produced a 21-32 record, highlighted by an 8-4 mark in 2000. That season, the Wildcats won a share of the Big Ten title-NU's third conference crown since 1995. Overall, in his 14th year as a college head coach, Walker is 80-67-5. He spent his first nine years at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Walker departed his alma mater as the program's winningest coach with a 59-35-5 (.621) record.
The Northwestern-Indiana Recap
Led by four touchdowns from Jason Wright (Diamond Bar, Calif./Diamond Bar), Northwestern pulled out a 37-31 overtime victory at Indiana and remained unbeaten (3-0) all-time in extra-session games. NU also improved to 3-1 on the road this season with the victory.
Wright's two first-half touchdowns helped the Wildcats move ahead 24-14 at halftime. The Wildcats also received a touchdown from receiver Brandon Horn (Farmington, Mich./Detroit Country Day), a 77-yard pass play, and a 32-yard field goal from Slade Larscheid (Spearfish, S.D./Spearfish). Northwestern totaled 299 yards in offense, led by Wright's 95 rushing yards. In the second half, however, the Hoosier defense tightened and kept Northwestern under 100 yards of total offense. After falling behind 31-24, NU got a huge lift from Mark Philmore (Reynoldsburg, Ohio/Reynoldsburg), who returned a punt 60 yards to the Indiana 6-yard line. That set up Wright's third touchdown of the day.
In the overtime session, the 'Cats won the coin toss and put Indiana on offense first. Northwestern's defense tightened and an Indiana pass into the end zone was deflected by Marquice Cole (Hazel Crest, Ill./Hillcrest) and into the hands of Bryan Heinz (Lone Tree, Colo./Highlands Ranch). On NU's offensive possession, the Wildcats methodically marched down field before Wright scored the game-winner on a 4-yard run.
NU Receives Academic Recognition From the AFCA ... Again
Once again, Northwestern's football program was lauded for its exemplary graduation rates by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) in 2003. Since the Wildcats have been eligible for the award (starting in 1998), they have either won the award (1998 and 2002) or received honorable mention recognition (for a graduation rate of 90 percent or better). Northwestern was one of six schools with a 90 percent or better graduation rate (for its freshman class from the 1997-98 academic year), joining Boston College, Connecticut, Rice, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. Duke won the 2003 title with a 100 percent graduation rate. Northwestern or Duke have held the title all but two years since 1993. Big Ten schools became eligible for the award in 1998.
NU Picks Up a Pair of Early-Season Big Ten Honors
In the season's first two weeks, Northwestern players were honored by the Big Ten Conference for their performances against Kansas and Air Force. For his performance in the season-opening victory over Kansas, senior running back Jason Wright earned his fourth career Big Ten Player-of-the-Week. In that game, Wright equaled a career high in rushing yards (196) and rushing touchdowns (4). He also set a personal best with 41 rushing attempts. The 196 yards were the second-most on college football's opening weekend.
The following week against Air Force, and for the first time since the 2000 season, a member of Northwestern's defensive unit picked up Big Ten Player of the Week honors. Junior safety Marvin Ward (Landover, Md./Eleanor Roosevelt), who was a late replacement in the starting lineup for the ailing Louis Ayeni (Woodbury, Minn./Woodbury), shared the honor with Ohio State's Will Allen. Ward collected a career-high 17 tackles (11 solos) and a key fumble recovery in the Air Force game. He played a key role in helping contain the Falcons' vaunted option attack. Only three of Air Force's 53 rushing plays went for distances of 10 or more yards.
Ward is seventh on Northwestern's tackle chart with 31 hits.
Wright One of NU's Four Academic All-America Candidates
Northwestern running back Jason Wright is one of four Northwestern players up for Verizon/CoSIDA Academic All-America honors. To be nominated, an athlete must be a starter and/or key reserve, carry a 3.20 cumulative GPA and be in his second year of athletic eligibility. Also up for the honor is defensive tackle Luis Castillo (Garfield, N.J./Garfield), linebacker Braden Jones (Harrisburg, Ill./Harrisburg) and cornerback Jeff Backes (Columbus, Ohio/Upper Arlington).
The Wright Stuff
The 2002 season was a breakout year for running back Jason Wright. After toiling as a reserve receiver in 2001 (7 catches for 48 yards), Wright finished 2002 by being named an honorable mention all-Big Ten running back. In the Wildcats' last outing vs. Indiana, Wright scored four rushing touchdowns-the third time he has done that since taking over the primary running duties last year. He is now third on NU's all-time rushing TD list (25) behind Damien Anderson (38) and Darnell Autry (35). He also continues to climb NU's all-time rushing list (see chart to the lower left), moving to sixth place after his 141-yard effort vs. Indiana. Wright, who has 11 100-yard games in has last 17 outings, is third in Big Ten rushing, second in Big Ten scoring, and fourth in Big Ten all-purpose yardage. With 43 more yards, he will become just the sixth player in NU history to top the 2,000-yard mark for a career.
Wright is one of 39 preseason candidates for the Doak Walker Award, awarded annually to the nation's top running back. He is one of four Big Ten running backs on the list.
An update on some other notable items/numbers for Wright:
* Owns a string of 361 consecutive carries without a fumble (fumbled once in 2002).
* Needs 43 rushing yards to reach 2,000 yards for his career; he needs 58 yards to move into fifth place on NU's all-time rushing list.
* Needs 108 all-purpose yards to move into ninth place on NU's all-time list; 120 yards to move into eighth place.
* Averaging 111.8 rushing ypg in his last 17 outings.
* Missed NU's preseason scrimmage (Aug. 16) in order to take the medical school entrance exam (MCAT).
* Delivered the players' keynote address at the 2003 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon.
* Sang the national anthem prior to an NU men's basketball game (vs. Ohio State) and prior to a 2003 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament session at the United Center.
That's More Like It
Throughout his coaching career, Randy Walker has proven to be nearly unbeatable when his teams carry a lead into the fourth quarter. The Wildcats added to that impressive mark when they took a 21-10 lead into the final frame at Duke last month. Walker's club uncharacteristically lost a fourth-quarter lead earlier this season, letting a 21-7 advantage turn into a 22-21 defeat to unbeaten Air Force. In his 14 years as a head coach, Walker's teams have compiled a 64-3-1 record when leading at the end of the third quarter. At NU, he is 15-2. (The other loss came to Penn State in 2001.)
Playing the Best
Several publications noted that Northwestern's 2003 schedule would be one of the toughest in the country, and seven games into the season, the facts support that claim. According to the NCAA statistics service, Northwestern's 12-game schedule presently ranks as the 19th-toughest slate in Division I-A football. NU's 12 opponents presently have a combined record of 53-36 (.596). Northwestern's first seven opponents sport a 32-19 (.627) mark, making that the 19th-toughest schedule played to date.
In the latest Anderson and Hester computer ranking (one of the computer rankings used in the BCS formula), NU's strength of schedule is ranked seventh nationally; the Sagarin rating ranks it the 28th-most difficult.
Although the Wildcat defense is still surrendering more yards than they would like, they are stiffening when the opposition gets inside the 20-yard line. In the latest Big Ten statistics, Northwestern is ranked first in the league in red-zone defense with a .600 percentage. The opponents have been inside the 20-yard line 25 times, but only 15 times have they come away with points -- 10 touchdowns and five field goals. Conversely, NU has gone inside the opponents' 20-yard line 23 times and scored 19 -- 17 TDs and two FGs.
With the losses of offensive linemen Austin King and Jeff Roehl to graduation and the NFL, there were off-season concerns about replacing those two players up front. Those fears have been reduced somewhat, after Northwestern's starting offensive line, which weighs an average of 310 pounds (12th heaviest in I-A football), has helped the Wildcats total 400-plus yards on three occasions (a season-high 467 yards vs. Kansas). Redshirt sophomore Zach Strief (Milford, Ohio/Milford), the Wildcats' biggest player at 6-foot-7, 335 pounds, has led the way this season with six "championship-game" performances in seven outings.
Patrick Leads Nation in Reception String
Dating to his freshman season, receiver Kunle Patrick (Brooklyn, N.Y./Poly Prep Country Day) has caught at least one pass in 41 consecutive games, which leads the nation. USC's Kareem Kelly set the NCAA Division I-A record last year, concluding his career with a 47-game streak.
Patrick caught three passes vs. Indiana, and now ranks third and fourth, respectively, on NU's career receiving and receiving yardage lists.
Return of the Return
Last year, Northwestern's kickoff return unit ranked as one of the country's best, averaging 24.1 yards per return -- sixth-best in I-A football. In the past two games, NU has returned to last year's form, averaging 23.4 yards per return (11 for 257 yards). Three of those returns, including two from Jason Wright, went for more than 30 yards. Jeff Backes added a 37-yard return vs. Minnesota. Through five games, NU was averaging just 14.8 yards per return, last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally.
In the 'Cats' last outing vs. Indiana, NU also had its best day returning punts, thanks to Mark Philmore's 60-yard punt return.
Debut of the 'Rells
The "'Rells" -- sophomores Terrell Jordan (Clarkston, Ga./Tucker) and Derell Jenkins (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook) -- got their first crack at returning kickoffs as a tandem versus Indiana. Jordan returned three kicks for 73 yards while Jenkins had one return for 10 yards. The duo is expected to return kickoffs against Wisconsin.
Durr's Return Helps Spark Defense
Northwestern's 2002 defensive woes are well-documented, and the rough year was certainly not helped by the absence of Pat Durr (St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles), who tore every major ligament in his right knee in the season-opening game at Air Force. Durr has since completed an impressive rehabilitation process and registered some solid play in the early going of the 2003 season. He had 15 tackles at Ohio State on Sept. 27 before eclipsing that previous personal best with 22 tackles at Indiana (Oct. 11). After seven games, Durr is first on the team's tackle chart with 77 hits and second in sacks with two. He now has 250 career tackles.
Baz in the Top 10
In just 13 career games, sophomore quarterback Brett Basanez moved into the Wildcats' No. 10 spot on the school's career passing yardage list. He nearly recorded his ninth 200-yard game against Indiana, finishing with 191 yards. Basanez now has 3,411 yards (17 career games). Also, he is 10th on NU's all-time total offense list (3,615 yards) and eighth in career pass completions (297).
After suffering a broken fibula midway through the 2002 season, Basanez came back to play the final three games and lead all freshman quarterbacks nationally in passing yardage (220.4 ypg). He concluded his season with a career-best 368-yard effort vs. Illinois.
Holding on to the football has been one of Randy Walker's credos for years. Thus far in 2003, the Wildcats have done a solid job of keeping possession of the ball. Although Northwestern has been credited with 11 fumbles, it has only lost two-those coming against Duke and Ohio State. NU has a +2 turnover margin this year, which ranks third-best in the Big Ten.
* Led by sophomore Loren Howard (Scottsdale, Ariz./Saguaro), Northwestern has three blocked kicks this year. Howard has two of those blocks-one on a field goal attempt and the other on a PAT attempt. Northwestern did not block any kicks in 2002, and just two in 2001.
* Punter/kicker Brian Huffman (Schaumburg, Ill./Schaumburg), a Ray Guy Award candidate, now has booted 12 of his 44 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Another four punts have found the end zone for touchbacks. Huffman is currently 37th nationally with a 42.2 ypp average.
* Northwestern's opponents have only returned 10 kickoffs (out of 28) this year (for a total of 170 yards and a 17.0 ypr average).
* With three roads win in 2003, NU has equaled its road victory total of 2000, when it won the Big Ten championship. NU has not won four road games in a season since 1996, when it went 9-3.