Wildcats on the prowl

By Derek Barichello

Anything can happen when Northwestern takes the field on Saturday. With an offense that can strike quickly, the Wildcats are never out of any game. And with a sometimes-porous defense, it makes it all the more interesting.

The Wildcats find themselves bowl-eligible with a 6-4 record overall, going 4-3 in the Big Ten. They were ranked in the top 25 on two occasions but most recently dropped out of the polls after a 48-7 loss to No. 9 Ohio State.

Northwestern has played in many close games this season, earning them the nickname the “Cardiac Cats.”

An example of the Wildcats’ magic was Nov. 5 against Iowa. Down 27-14 with three minutes to go, aided by an onside kick recovery, senior quarterback Brett Basanez led the Wildcats down the field twice for touchdowns for the narrow 28-27 win.

Against No. 25 Wisconsin the magic was on a defensive play. The Badgers scored two touchdowns to cut a 51-34 lead down to three, with three minutes remaining. The Badgers were driving for the go-ahead score when Wildcats safety Reggie McPherson intercepted a pass to put the game away for Northwestern.

The Cardiac Cats were not always successful in the waning minutes, as they dropped a close one to No. 5 Penn State 34-29 and another to No. 17 Michigan 33-17 late in the game.

The Wildcats run a no-huddle spread offense out of a shotgun formation that is hard to defend against because of play fakes and equal ball distribution.

Their offense ranks third in total offense in the Big Ten, ninth in the country with 482.4 yards per game and first in the conference in passing with 302.5 yards per game.

“There are a lot of fakes, so you have to play your gap and try not to guess,” said Illinois senior defensive tackle Ryan Matha. “Sometimes you think you have them stopped for a big loss and find out that guy doesn’t even have the ball.”

The man who runs the offense for the Wildcats is Basanez. In his fourth season at quarterback, Basanez is a Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist for quarterback of the year and owns the career record for most passing yards at Northwestern with 9,924.

Basanez, like many in the Big Ten, can beat a defense with his arm and his feet.

“He’s been there for four years, so he’s in reaction mode,” Zook said. “What he does best is spread you out. He does a phenomenal job and causes a defense a lot of problems.”

Complementing the passing game is freshman running back Tyrell Sutton. He has burst onto the scene, making it the fourth straight season Northwestern has had a player rush for over 1,000 yards. Sutton has rushed for exactly 1,178 yards this season and is on the Doak Walker Award watch list for running backs.

“He’s a real quick back,” Matha said. “Not only do they throw for a lot of yards, but they can beat you on the ground. When he gets outside he can really hurt you. Our goal is going to be to keep him inside.”

If there is a Wildcat weakness to exploit, it is their defense. Currently ranked at the bottom in the Big Ten in total defense, the Cats have given up 487.2 yards a game and rank 10th in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 33.6 points.

Although the defense has not been stellar, middle linebacker Tim McGarigle is one of the best in the country. McGarigle is Northwestern’s all-time leading tackler and is a Dick Butkus Award semifinalist.