Thorson, Walker Earn Weekly Big Ten Honors

Coming off their 16-6 upset victory over Stanford on Saturday at Ryan Field, more good news was announced today as sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) outruns Stanford linebacker Jordan Perez (15) en route to a long rushing touchdown in the first half of a game at Ryan Field on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern won 16-6. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) outruns Stanford linebacker Jordan Perez (15) en route to a long rushing touchdown

Thorson was the big story going into the opening week, after winning the starting job over the more experienced Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti. Thorson’s performance was up and down, a predictable outcome for a player making his first start against a ranked opponent. He finished the game going 12-for-24 for 105 yards passing with 68 yards on the ground and a touchdown.

He both shined in the win – the highlight coming on a 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter which put the Wildats up for good – and struggled at times to find open receivers, with at least three throws that could have been intercepted. The struggles were to be expected, and Thorson comes off as the type of player who won’t rest on this achievement.

“I think we brought Clayton in with the right game plan. It’s our job not to ask him to do too much,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He is really unflappable. He doesn’t get too high or too low”.

Fitzgerald was happy overall with Thorson’s first appearance, but they both know there is still a lot of work to do. In his weekly tele-conference, Fitzgerald complimented Thorson’s work ethic, citing extra motivation coming in practice from Oliver and Alviti, but also noted there was still a lot to clean up after watching the film.

“Our goal is for him to just get 1% better every day and become a winning quarterback”.

Walker was the star of a stellar defensive unit for Northwestern on Saturday, as they held Stanford to only six points and 240 total yards, which included only 85 total yards on the ground. He finished the day with 10 total tackles, 1 sack assist, 2 broken up passes, and a fumble recovery, as part of a swarming defensive attack. For this defense to continue to perform the way they did against Stanford, Walker will need to continue to lead by example.

“We wanted to let everybody know that we’re a physical football team”, Walker said after the game. “We wanted to be able to stop the run first and that starts with the front seven and I think we were able to get that job done today”.

The Wildcats return to action Saturday afternoon at home against an Eastern Illinois team that struggled mightily last week in a 33-5 loss to Western Illinois.






Northwestern on the Defensive in upset of Stanford

The Northwestern Wildcats entered this season with a lot of new faces in new places, and after their 16-6 upset over Stanford on Saturday, the faces are becoming more familiar and the questions are starting become answered.

So much of the focus this offseason has been on the quarterback position, with the job ultimately going to freshman Clayton Thorson. Thorson was far from perfect in his debut, but in the end did everything he needed to do, and a little bit more, to secure the win for  Northwestern. nuvstanfordpic

While the offense did just enough to help lead Northwestern to the win, it was the defense that ultimately look center stage. The Wildcats held Stanford to only six points and 240 total yards, which included only 85 total yards on the ground from Stanford’s highly touted running backs. All of this against an offensive line that ESPN had ranked 8th best in the country headed into the season.

That said, things were not looking good on Stanford’s first drive of the game, in which Northwestern’s defense looked underprepared and overmatched. On their opening possession, Stanford drove down the field easily with a 12 play, 64 yard drive which ended in a field goal. Coach Pat Fitzgerald claimed the team didn’t make any adjustments after that drive, but something was different, and it was all Wildcats from there.

“There was nothing that we needed to adjust”, Fitzgerald said after the game. “We had opportunities to get off the field on that drive and we didn’t and that was probably what we were most disappointed with, was our inability to get off the field on third down”.

Northwestern’s dominance on defensive started up front with the veteran defensive line, led by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, who kept the Stanford rushing attack at bay and put pressure on quarterback Kevin Hogan all day. But Northwestern was able to bring pressure from all over, with sacks by Ifeadi Odenigbo and Traveon Henry.

“This game needed to be won up front. I thought there was a dominant performance by our defensive line. It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play”, said Fitzgerald.

It was a balanced attack on defense from Northwestern, but the guy who spent the most time standing over tackled Stanford players was Anthony Walker. The promising young linebacker was all over the field, in on nearly every play, totaling 10 total tackles, 1 sack assist, 2 broken up passes, and a fumble recovery.

“We wanted to let everybody know that we’re a physical football team”, Walker said after the game. “We wanted to be able to stop the run first and that starts with the front seven and I think we were able to get that job done today”.

Walker came onto the scene unexpectedly last season as a freshman, when he was thrust into battle after an injury to Colin Ellis. He very quickly emerged as a star for Northwestern in 2014 with dominant performances in wins over Penn State, Notre Dame and Purdue. He is a player we featured as someone we were looking toward to make the next step and emerge is a true star and leader on this defense. This victory was a very big first step in that direction.

To put this game into perspective, last season Northwestern opponents averaged 25.2 points per game. This game was the lowest point total they’ve given up to an opponent since defeating Penn State 29-6 on September 27th, 2014. In fact, it was the first ranked team they’ve held without a touchdown in 20 years.

Stanford’s offense averaged 27.2 points and 388.6 total yards per game last season, compared to just 240 total yards against Northwestern on Saturday, with an offense almost entirely intact from last season. It was their lowest output on offense since their 45-16 loss to Oregon last season.

Of the game, Fitzgerald said, “It was probably one of the best performances I’ve seen our group play, top to bottom, against a ranked team, maybe in my time (here)”.

It was only fitting that the game ended on a touchdown saving interception by Kyle Queiro with under a minute to go in the 4th quarter.

This was a big win for Northwestern but also a big statement game for this defense, which came into the season with a lot of questions surrounding who would step up and be difference makers, particularly behind the defensive line.

“We unleashed a cage bull today”, said Lowry after the game. “It’s just a start though. Just a start”.

This win over Stanford set the tone for the Wildcats, and set the bar for the defense to be the group they believe they can be, but haven’t been over the last couple years. But with a young, albeit promising quarterback at the helm, the defense is going to need to be counted on to, at the very least keep them in games, and at times, win games for Northwestern this season. Now they’ve shown what this defense is capable of, and now that they are on the radar of the rest of their opponents, they know the real work is still ahead of them.





Northwestern Football Preview: Running backs

We are ten days away from the start of the college football season and as this article is being written, no decision has been made about who will be starting at quarterback for the Wildcats when they open the season on September 5th against Stanford. We still don’t know exactly how the offense line will be put together or who  the top wide receiver targets are going to be with Siemian-Jacksonso many young players being given an opportunity this week in Kenosha. The one position with no doubt surrounding it is the last in our offensive positional previews, running back.

Player to Watch – Justin Jackson

This is a no-brainer. Perhaps the only certainty on the Northwestern offense is at the running back position, which starts and ends with Justin Jackson. Jackson was named to the Big Ten’s Preseason Players to Watch list last month, and is going to be the focus of the Northwestern offense again this season. Jackson rushed for 1187 yards on 245 attempts last season as a freshman, scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground and one more through the air.

Jackson was a bit of a surprise as a freshman, especially with Treyvon Green and Solomon Vault on the roster, but he very quickly became the team’s number one back last season. Jackson was ranked 7th in the Big Ten in rushing yards, and with so many of the backs ahead of him on that list gone to the NFL, Jackson has an opportunity to be one of the best in the conference this season.

Jackson’s success is going to depend on a few things, one being his health. He is coming off some minor knee surgery and his ability to carry the offense and stay healthy all season is going to be a key to the offense. A big part of that is the rest of the offense’s ability to carry their weight and take pressure off of Jackson in the run game. If the passing game can be a factor and keep defenses honest, it is only going to aid Jackson’s success, but if the Wildcats are not a threat through the air, they will become a very predictable, one-dimensional offense and, in turn, hinder Jackson’s production.

That said, the production of Jackson and the rest of the backs could help the receivers. If defenses find themselves too worried about what he is going to do, it could lead to play-action and opportunities down the field.

While the success of the position and the entire offense rests on Jackson’s shoulders (or better yet, legs), he is not the only back who can make an impact this season. I was very impressed with Auston Anderson in spring practice. What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed and agility. Anderson scored one of the only touchdowns during the scrimmage that day, and while that is a small sample size in a low-pressure environment, I think he can add a dangerous element to the run game and take some of the pressure off of Jackson and give him some rest. The challenge will be finding playing time in a crowded backfield alongside Jackson, Vault and Warren Long, but if Anderson is fully recovered from his hip surgery that caused him to red shirt last season, he can add an entirely different element to this offense.

With so many other questions at so many positions on offense, the 2015 Wildcats will no doubt be a run-first team. A lot of other things will need to fall into place to make this a truly potent offense, but the running back position gives them the best chance to succeed and be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten this season.



Mostly High’s on Northwestern Basketball’s Trip to Spain

The Northwestern men’s basketball team just completed their trip to Spain, which featured five exhibition games against European professional teams.  The Wildcats finished the trip 4-1, their only loss coming in the trip’s opening contest against Estudiantes.

While the all around level of competition may not be on par with what the NCAA, or certainly MG_2340-300x200the Big Ten, have to offer, it was an opportunity for them to face competition long before most teams hit camp.

Before they left, coach Chris Collins spoke about this being an opportunity for them to spend time together, bond as a team and form chemistry. The trip would act as an extended training camp of sorts with a little European vacation thrown in, an opportunity that any college student, or anyone in general, would jump at.

In the game highlights the team looked good, struggling at times out of the gate but making adjustments and finishing strong. Their defensive intensity, something Collins has emphasized in pre and post game comments, was apparent in each of the last four games.

What jumped out to me was how balanced the scoring was. The Wildcats shared the ball, and outside of two dominant performances by Tre Demps in the last two games, the scoring was spread out pretty evenly, with as many as six players scoring in double digits in an individual game.

In game one, the team’s only loss, they allowed the most points to an opponent on the trip, 21 more than the next highest scoring opponent. It was a helpful wake up call for the ‘Cats, who may have underestimated their competition or had trouble adjusting to the different style of play. Northwestern made it close near the end of the game after a run by Estudiantes, but it wasn’t enough as they fell short 84-82. Demps led the way with 19 points, but they struggled to get stops the entire game.

Game two against Eurocolegio Casvi  was an entirely different story, as they started the game on an 8-2 run, and finished the half scoring 16 unanswered points. Sophomore Scottie Lindsey led the way with 21 points, but the broader story in this game was the dominent low post play of Joey van Zegeren, and the hot shooting of freshman Aaron Flazon. The two came off the bench and made huge impacts immediately, van Zegeren with some monster dunks and Falzon from beyond the arc. It was never much of a contest, as the Wildcats took this one 98-50.

In game three the Wildcats got off to a slow start against UCAM Murcia and only led by seven at the half, but another huge second half run put them up by 28 after three quarters. The scoring was led again by Lindsey, who had 20 points, and Demps who had 18. It was the second 20-point performance in a row from the second year forward Lindsey who is looking to make himself a regular rotation player come November. The ‘Cats breezed through the rest of this win, coming out on top 94-54.

Game four against CB Tarragona followed a pattern that had started to become all too similar on this trip – a slow start in the first half and a blowout in the second. The second half domination was due primarily to Demps’ hot hand from behind the arc. Demps finished the game with a trip-high 38 points in a 86-63 rout.

In the team’s final game against USA Toulouges, the Wildcats kept the pattern going with a slow start and a strong finish. The game was close until the end of the first half when Demps and Falzon got hot from behind the arc and put the Wildcats up for good. Demps led the way with 23 points, while Aaron Flazon scored 16 points and Scottie Lindsey added 13.

The biggest take away from this trip was never going to be the wins and losses, but rather the way in which they executed in these games.

There were concerns to focus on in these games primarily against teams that did not seem too terribly competitive. The slow starts are something to keep an eye on. It could have been a case of playing down to their competition or just not being focused to start games, but against better NCAA teams, they will not have the same ability to bounce back. Especially for an underdog Big Ten team like the Wildcats, they cannot afford to start games slow or complacent.

All in all this was a good trip for the team, if for no other reason than they all came back healthy. Some of the highlights of the trip included the play of Scottie Lindsey, who was consistently one of the top one or two scorers. Lindsey certainly made a case for increased minutes this season (he only averaged 15.1mpg last season), alongside starters Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law, Demps and Olah. The Wildcats’ bench showed that it could be promising, with solid play from their newest transfer van Zegeren and the freshmen Falzon and Dererk Pardon. Depth is going to be important this year as they look to win now and also develop their young players for the future.

The Wildcats will have a little time off before they really have to start focusing on the season, which kicks off in November with the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.


Northwestern Basketball Gears Up for Spain Trip

Northwestern basketball embarks on a trip to Spain this weekend, where they will tour the country and play five exhibition games against professional European teams. Schools are only NU Media Day Photo 8:19eligible for the trip once every four years, the last one made by Northwestern was in 2010.

Collins is clearly setting the pace and the mindset for the players as they prepare for the trip, where they will face Estudiantes, Eurocolegio Casvi, UCAM Murcia II, Andorra and US Toulouges.

“I think more than anything [we’re looking forward to] the team bonding, the camaraderie, the chemistry”, said coach Chris Collins when he spoke to reporters at their practice on Wednesday. “Obviously you want to win the games, you wanna play well, you wanna try to see things about your team, but those things are secondary to what I think a trip like this can do for a team in terms of how they bond and the chemistry they have going forward”.

The biggest adjustments being made in practice as preparation for this trip involve playing with European rules, including a small ball, deeper three point line, wider lanes and a 24 second shot clock.

“Its been great to see guys up against the clock”, said Collins. “So you learn you have to push it up quicker, you have to get into your sets quicker, and then when it does get to five or six seconds on the shot clock, you can’t panic. You have to use those last few seconds to really get a good shot and I think those are gonna be huge things as we head into the college basketball season”.

Coming off a positive end to last season, the Wildcats are looking at this trip as an opportunity to build off of that success both on and off the court. The team has been spending more time together in the offseason, building their chemistry but also focusing on their games and their conditioning. There were some noticeable changes in some of the guys when they came out for practice Wednesday. Senior center Alex Olah is leaner, as are fowards Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and point guard Bryant McIntosh. They are hoping to gain more versatility in their lineups where Law can not only be stronger in the post, but can also bring it up at times, taking some of the pressure off of McIntosh and allowing him to play off the ball at times.

Even with all of that, the success of the Wildcats this season will on their leading scorer, senior Tre Demps. Demps is coming off his best season at Northwestern and is looking to continue to improve as a player a leader, which starts with keeping the high expectations in check.

“I’m really not thinking about March”, said Demps. “If you’re thinking about March then you’re not really thinking about what it takes to get there, and what it takes to get there is buying in every single day, doing things right every single day, practicing hard, and not letting a day go by where you didn’t get better.”

Collins is very high on Demps, who he has only had for two years. He has worked hard this offseason on being more efficient in the lane, being able to finish more consistently at the hoop and improving his defense as well, a shortcoming in his game he is not afraid to address. He has matured nicely, as evidenced by his feelings about not looking too far ahead, and his eager to take on a leadership role this season along with fellow captains Alex Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin.

“He’s gotten better each year”, said Collins”. “No one works harder on their game. There’s an added maturity to him….and its nice to have that on the team. He’s obviously gonna be a big scorer for us and thats gonna be a great role, but, he’s also gonna have some ball handling duties as well, which he was anxious to add to his game and give him a chance to have the ball in his hands and bring it up a little bit, so I think you’ll see him in that role a little bit as well”.

This trip will be a great opportunity for this team to get a head start on the season, playing against international competition. It will not only benefit the players, but it’ll also benefit Collins, who is entering his third season and is really starting the settle in with this group. He knows that there will be a sense of urgency for his seniors this season, but he is quick to temper the excitement surrounding the team.

“We wanna be a team that’s talked about in March, but to do that, you can’t skip steps along the way. It’s August right now and we don’t talk about March, we talk about what we’re doing for this Spain trip. I think teams can really hurt themselves if they get too far ahead. I tell our guys all the time, to me words like “upside” and potential”, the only thing that means is you haven’t done anything. And even though its exciting to hear positive things, we have a long way to go and we have a lot to prove and I want these guys to come to the gym everyday trying to get better, not only individually but as a team.”

The team takes off on August 22nd and returns on September 1st.



Cubs Ahead of Schedule, But Fans Should Still Practice Patience

The Cubs’ 9-game win streak came to an end this weekend, after a dominant 15 strike out performance by Chris Sale in a loss to the White Sox on Sunday at U.S Cellular Field.

And this is no disrespect to the Cubs, but when I saw Sale vs. Haren, I knew the end of the road was near. Oy-Cubs

The loss ends an exciting run of games by this young Cubs team who are performing well above expectations and ahead of schedule.

The last time the Cubs won nine games in a row was in May of 2008. The fact that they are in playoff contention and winning in this fashion so late in the season is not only remarkable, but also completely unexpected. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this was their longest streak in August or later since they won 10 in a row in September, 1953.

After being swept by the Phillies at the end of July, many analysts thought this would be the beginning of the downward spiral for this young Cubs team. They had kept themselves in contention for longer than anyone expected, but lack of experience was finally going to get the best of them as the games started to matter more and more.

The Cubs didn’t see it that way.

They went on to win 16 of 19 after that series, including a 4-game sweep of the defending champion San Francisco Giants. During that stretch, Kris Bryant had a 12-game hit streak and Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler both hit near .400, not to mention the hot run Kyle Schwarber has been on since his most recent call up. But it hasn’t just been the bats. In his last 10 starts, Jake Arrieta is 7-1 with a 1.23 ERA, which is 3rd best since late June. The Cubs also have the best road record in baseball at 33-25.

This is not a fluke. The Cubs really are this good. They’ll tell you themselves.

And it has been so much fun to watch, in part because you can tell it has been so much fun for them. This does not feel like a “curse-busting” team of strung-together players like we saw during the playoff runs in 2003 and ’07-’08. This does not feel like a group carrying the baggage of 109 years of losing like those teams did. This is a whole new type of Cubs team, a complete re-build of not just a roster, but a way of baseball in Chicago.

The Cubs are somehow still “quietly” sitting with the fourth best record in baseball, in part because of the quality of their own division. Two of the three teams with better records than the Cubs also reside in the Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the exception of the AL Central, the Cubs would be in first place in every other division in baseball. The fact that the hype machine has not completely overtaken Chicago yet is a factor I believe is helping the Cubs focus entirely on improving as a team and winning games.

As great as they are playing on the field, I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the work Joe Maddon is doing. As exciting as the Maddon hiring was prior to the start of the season, expectations were still not through the roof. Baseball managers do not add more than 3-4 wins above replacement, especially on a team with their best days still expected to be ahead of them. As much as Maddon is known for his personality and antics, his biggest role so far in Chicago has been to keep them grounded – focusing on fundamentals, not taking anything for granted and earning their way onto the field every day. So far there has been very little drama and they look like a team that belongs in the playoff race every time they come out onto the field.

But as I watch and as expectations continue to rise, I feel it is important to make a plea to Cubs fans not to forget to exercise patience in a sports world focused on results, viewing anything short of a title as a failed season.

As great as they have been, there is plenty of time to regress. We’ve seen them go through stretches where they struggle to score runs, and with a tough final 7 weeks ahead of them that will see two series’ each against the Cardinals and Pirates, it is still possible that despite their record, the Cubs could still miss the playoffs – be it by record or a loss in a play-in game.

It is important to remember, we were not supposed to be here yet this season. This is still a team with four rookies that are more or less everyday starters. We were not even supposed to see Schwarber or Addison Russell until next season. Let’s not let our history of bitterness and cynicism spoil what this team has already done. I hope as much as anyone that this continues into the playoffs, but if it doesn’t, this season was still a huge success. The Cubs are finally moving in the right direction. It is not always going to be an exponential growth, there will be setbacks, but the fans on the north side need to appreciate that they have the privilege of watching the Cubs play in games that matter in August and September. That even if they lose those games, the fact that they are happening at all is something to be grateful for.

Northwestern Basketball Names 2015-2016 Team Captains

Entering his third full season as Northwestern basketball head coach, Chris Collins has named his team captains for the 2015-2016 season – redshirt senior Tre Demps, senior Alex Olah and redshirt junior Sanjay Lumpkin. MG_2340-300x200

Last season was a mixed bag for this young but promising Wildcats team. After a strong start to the season, the team went on to lost ten straight games, before finishing off the season strong with big wins over Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and a double overtime win over Michigan.

While the team’s overall record last season was among the bottom tier of the conference, the team has a lot to look forward to entering the season and the positive outlook starts with these three captains.

Demps was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.5 ppg. He was a big part of the team’s final five wins and has emerged as their most reliable scorer and one of their best perimeter shooters.

Olah was the team’s second leading scorer last season behind Demps, and led the team in rebounding. Last season was his best yet and enters his senior season as the Wildcats’ all-time leader in blocked shots.

Lumpkin emerged last season as a defensive specialist, leading the team in steals.

The Wildcats are not expected to make a huge jump in the Big Ten next season, a conference still stacked with powerhouses, but there is reason for optimism. Collins has clearly had an impact on the team both on the court and off, including recruiting. Collins agreed to an extension this off season. They will return all five starts from last season, which will allow them to build off the chemistry they began to establish at the end of last year as they hope to contend for the school’s first NCAA tournament bid.

They will play five exhibition games in Spain from August 22nd – September 1st, and will kick off the 2015-2016 season on November 13th at home against the UMass Lowell River Hawks.