Category Archives: Football

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Northwestern Football Preview: Wide Receiver

For all of the questions surrounding who will be under center for Northwestern this fall, the group of guys catching the passes may be an even more unknown group. E7T5430-300x275

The wide receivers are one of the position groups that were hurt most in the off season with the losses of their top two targets from last year, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones. And with these two gone off of a group that really struggled even with them last year, the Wildcats could be in for another very rough showing from their receivers.

With only a few returning starters and a lot of unknowns and incoming freshman, the depth chart at wide receiver may be one of the most fluid heading into camp.

Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson highlight the returning starters, and with Jones and Dickerson both coming off of injuries, its hard to predict at this point what we’re going to see from them. Jones has top-receiver potential, but has struggled to stay healthy and Dickerson has the physical build for the role, but has a bad habit of dropping passes. Both will likely be thrown into bigger roles by necessity alone.

But spots are no doubt going to be up for grabs, and guys like Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary are going to have opportunities in camp to vie for a bigger role in the offense.

These questions are all underlined by the uncertainty at quarterback, which was covered in last week’s positional preview. Because none of these guys are proven, consistent big-play receivers, their success will live and die by the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to the right spot and make plays.

This could also play into coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision at quarterback. With so many questions surrounding how much production they could even have through the air, he may opt to go with someone like Matt Alviti, who could keep defenses off balance with his legs when there is nothing available down field. Alviti’s ability to run could also create opportunities for receivers if he can become a threat.

While Northwestern will likely depend primarily on the running backs on offense, an ineffective passing game will hinder their ability to run the ball. If they are not able to be a threat down field and keep linebackers and defensive backs on their heels, they are going to have a very hard time moving the ball and scoring on offense. Only truly elite wide receivers are able to compensate for or overcome weak quarterbacking or offensive line play, and it doesn’t appear Northwestern has any of those on their roster as of now. The best they can hope for is a balanced attack and it is unclear if they have the personnel or the talent right now to do that.

The best they can hope for at this point is to find the best combinations in camp, and that will be on Fitz and the coaching staff. They’ll need to evaluate which quarterback has the best feel for the offense, and based on that, see which receivers find the most chemistry with that quarterback. And since the three guys competing for the quarterback job are so different, it opens the door for any one of these receivers to step into a larger role.

Player to Watch: Christian Jones

The big question is whether or not Jones will be healthy and able to return to form from two seasons ago. Jones missed all of last season with an ACL injury and has had lingering knee issues since then. Jones is #1 receiver material but it is yet to be seen if he can live up to that potential. His health will be one of, if not the most important factors when it comes to the success of the receiving corps in this offense.

In 2013, Jones led the team with 668 yards and 4 touchdowns in a season that was capped off by a 182 yard, two touchdown game in a win against Illinois in the last game of the season.

If he can get back to that kind of production, he could be a very dangerous offensive threat.

Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

With only eight weeks until the start of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2015-16 football season, there are far more questions than there are answers about the roster going into this year. The offensive side of the ball saw graduating seniors Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater and Brandon Vitabile go and there are no sure fire answers as to who is going to take those vital starting positions.

While there will be position battles all around, football teams live and die at the quarterback position. And while Siemian was never a great quarterback, he was experienced, comfortable in the system, and will not be easy to replace.

Now with Zack Oliver the only returning QB with a start under his belt, which came in the final game of the year against Illinois and saw him throw three interceptions and lose two fumbles, the position is officially up for grabs with no clear favorite in the bunch.

Vying for the position with Oliver will be 4-star recruits from the past two years,  Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. While it is possible that coach Pat Fitzgerald will try a tandem quarterback scheme at times to start the season, ideally one of them will step up and become the consistent man under center.

Here is a bit about each player, what to expect to see from them this year and why each has a case to be the starter.

Zack Oliver:

What to expect – Oliver is most likely to be the starter when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford, though that distinction is primarily due to him being a senior who has a bit of experience coming in for the oft injured Siemian last season. But if he wants to remain the starter, he is going to have to earn it. Oliver may have the best arm strength of the three, and his familiarity with the system is a plus, but he hasn’t shown enough to make a strong enough case for himself as the regular starter. He’ll have to take care of the ball, and with Prater gone and wide receiver still being a position with as many question marks as quarterback, he won’t have a reliable weapon down field to make big plays or bail him out of poor throws. He could see three or four starts to start the year while he becomes more comfortable in that role, but that may be as far as his leash goes.

Why he should start- There is a lot to be said about a player who is a senior, familiar with the system, and has real college game experience. If he can limit his give aways, he could be a good game manager in a “run-first” offense.

Clayton Thorson: 

What to expect – On the other end of the spectrum is the least experienced of the three, Clayton Thorson. Thorson is a big bodied pocket passer who comes in at 6’4″ and 200 pounds. And for his size, his footwork is solid and he does have the ability to run the ball. At Wheaton North High School he showed that he was a good situational passer with a high football IQ. I believe Thorson has the biggest long-term upside of the three quarterbacks with the potential for the most complete, all-around game. His size and ability to take a hit makes up for some of his lack of speed, and if he earns Fitzgerald’s trust early on, could see himself starting games and taking the majority of the snaps sooner rather than later.

Why he should start – Thorson may very well give them the best combination of winning games now and investing in the future. He has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback, and with no outright starter in place and so many questions at every other position but running back, the future is now, and that means starting Thorson.

Matt Alviti: 

What to expect – If Oliver has the arm and Thorson has the size, Alviti has the speed. In fact, his quickness and ability to run the ball is the best argument for him seeing time at quarterback. While Alviti likely doesn’t have enough of an all-around game to be an every down player, he could give them flexibility to run the bootleg. Alviti may be the most exciting of the three to watch, with a reputation as a “gunslinger”, but his height is in issue as a pocket passer. And while he did not see much time last season, knowing the offense and having some experience could help him to be more confident and comfortable going into this year.

Why he should start – If Northwestern is looking to “get off the bus running”, Alviti is their guy. He can take some of the pressure off of Justin Jackson, keep defenses guessing, and being a threat to run could open things up for his receivers.

No doubt quarterback will be the position battle to watch heading into the fall. Coach Fitz will have a lot of decisions to make, but this one will be the most important. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges as a favorite out of camp, or if this  remains a tight race heading into the first game of the season and beyond.

A First-Hand Look at Draft Town and the Bears Picks

Chicago played host to the  NFL Draft this weekend for the first time since 1963 and Grant Park was transformed into Draft Town, a football fan’s dream.

While everyone filed into the nearby Auditorium Theatre Thursday night for the draft itself, fans were treated to to a three day event which can only be subscribed as Disneyland for football IMG_1753lovers. There, fans could participate in combine-style events, visit tents hosted by their favorite NFL teams and get autographs from NFL players past and present.

The Bears’ fan base was the most present this weekend, but there was an undeniable camaraderie amongst fans of other teams. Fans from all 32 teams were represented and there was a lot of love shared as they connected in matching jerseys and hats.

There was electricity in the air all weekend. It was palpable. The city of Chicago and the NFL really got this one right. It was a fun, safe, family-friendly event with something for everyone.

A few current Bears were present and held Q&A sessions with fans, including Kyle Long, Martellus Bennett, Robbie Gould and Eddie Royal. They were all smiles and excited to be there repereseting the host franchise. And while the questions remained understandably light-hearted, it was clear this new regime has already been a welcome change.

“The new GM and new coaching staff has a new philosophy on drafting,” Long said in his Q&A.

When asked if he would rather the Bears go offense or defense in the first round he answered, “I just want a badass football player with a “C” on his helmet.”IMG_1737

The current Bears players who spoke at Draft Town were not only energized by the outpour of support from fans, but also by the chance to start over in a new year with a new GM and coaching staff.

“Attitude”, Long said, is the one word that stays on the board in the back of their locker room. One of many areas that will hopefully see drastic change this season.

If the selections the Bears made in the draft this year looked familiar, its because they were. In both 2014 and 2015, the Bears took a defensive tackle in round 2, a running back in round 4 and a safety in round 5.  A look at the picks the Bears made this weekend:

Round 1: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia

What it means: It means the Bears are still more concerned with finding Jay Cutler weapons in an attempt to save face on their “franchise” quarterback than they are with fixing their defense. White will attempt to fill the void left by Brandon Marshall.

Round 2: Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

What it means: The Bears are not confident they have the personnel to transition into a 3-4 defense, but confident enough to pass on a potentially better player at the position in the first round. It also means Ryan Pace and Co. are not confident in Ego Ferguson, last years big, run stopping second round draft pick.

Round 3: Hroniss Grasu, OT, Oregon

What it means: Two offensive players in the first three picks tells me the Bears are still invested in Cutler. It also tells me that Will Montgomery, who was signed in the offseason to replace Roberto Garza, will have competition for the starting job.

Round 4: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

What it means: The Bears already have depth at this position, but it appears Matt Forte’s days in a Bears uniform may be numbered. With Forte’s contract expiring in a year, and John Fox being a fun-first head coach, this could be a look into a future where the Bears are once again defined as a bruising force in the run game.

Round 5: Adrian Amos, S, Penn State

What it means: The Bears have not had luck finding a safety in free agency the last few years, so perhaps they see Amos and last year’s selection Brock Vereen as their young safety core of the future.

Round 6: Tayo Fabuluje, OT, TCU

What it means: Hard to say with a sixth round pick, but it does mean the Bears spend four of their six draft picks on offense. Hey, at least it wasn’t a punter!

I don’t think it makes sense to grade a draft because its impossible to know if these picks pan out until you see them play, but I did not like that the Bears focused so much more on offense than defense. I was surprised, actually, since the defense has been in such shambles and John Fox is a defensive coach. What it does say to me is that Ryan Pace stuck to his guns and went for the best available player instead of stretching for need. Or so it appears. I am more than willing to give Pace the benefit of the doubt in his first draft, if for no other reason, because it couldn’t possibly get worse. Right?

 

Tillman Departure Marks the End of an Era

 

Charles TillmanThe Charles Tillman era has come to an end in Chicago as the creator and master of the “Peanut Punch” made his windy city departure official, inking a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. The signing marks the end of Tillman’s 12 year stay in Chicago, which included two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. The move will reunite Tillman with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who ran the defense in Chicago from 2004-2006. 

While Tillman will go down as one of the best defensive backs in franchise history, the last two seasons have been frustrating for the veteran. A torn right tricep two seasons ago kept Tillman out eight games and he went on to miss all but two games of last season after suffering the same injury.

Tillman, Lance Briggs and Roberto Garza were the only remaining starting position players left on the roster from that 2006 team (kicker Robbie Gould still remains), and with Garza’s release and Briggs all but gone, this marks the end of an era for the Bears and their most successful defense since the 1985 “Monsters of the Midway”.

The truth is, everything started to change when Lovie Smith was fired at the end of 2012. That season was also Brian Urlacher’s last, whose tenure with the Bears came to a rocky end when his agents proposed a two-year, $11 million contract to the Bears, and Bears management came back with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of one year at $2 million which he decided to leave. To call the break up between Urlacher and the Bears unfriendly would be an understatement, and with the hiring of Marc Trestman in 2013, the Bears marched out two of the worst defenses in franchise history in consecutive seasons. The defense never truly believed in Trestman or defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who failed to provide the team with any kind of defensive prowess or identity.

And while it is easy to focus on the bad ending with Urlacher, the unrest with Briggs last season and the injuries that have plagued TIllman the last couple seasons, it is important to not only acknowledge but to celebrate the great Bears teams on which they played significant roles. The defense carried the team during Tillman’s time in blue and orange, with the defense priding themselves on forcing turnovers and scoring points. It wasn’t just a strength of the team, it was necessary. With struggling offenses led by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears relied on the defense to win them games and they consistently came through, often scoring more points on defense than on offense. This defense was not as good as the ’85 Bears or even the ’63 Bears, but they did lead a team to a Super Bowl. It was a special team and Tillman will  no doubt be remembered as one of the pillars of that group.

Through all of the drama of the last couple seasons, Tillman has remained a consummate professional. He was not only a hero on the field, but in the community as well. The Charles Tillman foundation has given more than $1 million to families in need. Tillman won the NFL Salute to Service Award in 2012, and in 2014 received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.

Letting Tillman walk was probably the right decision for the Bears as they try to  remake their defense, but his leadership will be missed. As of right now there is no clear leader on the Bears, something they’ve been lacking of late. A new era is starting in Chicago. How this next chapter will look is yet to be seen and who will lead them forward is still a question mark – but hopefully they can learn from someone like Tillman, who always led with passion, dedication and class.