Basanez keeps surprising Wildcats focused

Brett Basanez wasn't perfecting his Bob Knight impression, nor was the Northwestern quarterback demonstrating the decibel level of a nuclear explosion at ground zero.

It sure looked that way Saturday, though, when Basanez stifled his teammates' satisfaction with a 21-7 lead over Michigan State by going postal right there in plain view on the Spartan Stadium sideline.

Here the Wildcats were, en route to their widest margin of victory in a Big Ten road game in 62 years, and Basanez was unloading on guys like they'd missed curfew for a bender on Rush Street.

What's the matter, Brett?

The pressure of graduate school getting to you?

"I saw guys starting to smile and joke around a little bit," Basanez said. "It scared me, to be honest, because we've had a tendency to get up on teams and then not play very well. I didn't want that to happen again, so I had to say some things."

Northwestern coach Randy Walker didn't hear Basanez's tirade, but he's heard about it since that eventual 49-14 throttling of MSU.

That's why Walker is strolling into a Saturday night kickoff against visiting Michigan with yet another reason to be confident in a team no experts figured to still be hanging around the first division this late in the season, with records of 3-1 in conference and 5-2 overall.

Precious few coaches count themselves fortunate enough to have an experienced QB like Basanez, a four-year starter, running the offense.

But it's rarer for a team to have a player at any position who can get it done on the field, plus sense when things are going south and have the cachet to correct it before disaster strikes.

"Everybody wants to be liked," Walker said. "Everybody likes to be buddies with their teammates. But being a leader sometimes means you're not going to worry about what people think. I like to call it running for election. Brett's not into that. He's interested in winning football games. He has that knack for being able to be real clear about where we need to be and still have everyone's respect."

It's difficult not to respect a quarterback completing 67.5 percent of his attempts, with 12 touchdowns against only one interception.

Those are Basanez's video-game-like numbers as the detonator in a Northwestern spread attack that averages 529 yards and 37 points per game.

He passed for two scores and ran for two more in the Wildcats' rout of Michigan State, Northwestern's third straight win after blowing a 23-7 lead at home against Penn State.

Without a collapse that day, Northwestern would be the Big Ten's lone unbeaten in conference play.

As it is, the Wildcats share third place with Ohio State, a half-game behind co-leaders Penn State and Wisconsin (both 7-1, 4-1 in the league).

That's a much higher rent district than Northwestern seemed suited for after surrendering 773 yards in a 52-21 humbling at Arizona State in week two.

But since then, Walker's young defense has developed an affinity for stealing, as evidenced by 20 takeaways, and the offense has been so lethal it's scored 51, 34 and 49 points in successive weeks.

"I'm not sure many people felt we'd be in this position after our Arizona State loss, but our kids are working hard and getting better each week, which is what we preach," Walker said.

Walker was among the first disciples of the spread attack, applying the elevated ACT scores of his recruiting classes to an offense that worked for a share of the Big Ten title in 2000.

"The only limitation we have is us as coaches," Walker said. "Our guys are going to get whatever we teach them."

For proof, look at freshman tailback Tyrell Sutton, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound sprite who was Ohio's Mr. Football last season, but deemed too small by Ohio State, despite 9,400 rushing yards in his prep career.

Sutton has had no problem adjusting to Northwestern's intricate scheme.

His 139-yards-per-game rushing average ranks second in the Big Ten, and his 14 touchdowns tie Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun for conference leadership.

Basanez adds another 42 yards per game rushing, which keeps linebackers and safeties honest and allows him to spread the ball evenly among four receivers.

Shaun Herbert leads the team with 44 catches, but Jonathan Fields has 33 receptions and Mark Philmore and Kim Thompson each has another 29.

Sutton can't be left alone, either, given his 19 catches.

"We're going to run the football, but if you load the box, we're not going to pound a square peg in a round hole," Walker said. "We'll throw it every down."

That's the challenge for Michigan as it enters Northwestern's lair, which surely sounds backward, given the performance of the two programs over time.

History, though, hasn't meant much in this quirky Big Ten season, and it surely doesn't mean much to Basanez and Co., unless it's making some of their own.

"It's anyone's championship now," he said. "We know we hold our destiny in our hands. Michigan is going to try to take that from us. They're Michigan. They have athletes all over the place. But we realize we're not playing the helmet. We're not playing the tradition. We're playing who Michigan is right now. And if we execute our game plan, we're going to be fine."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM1460 in Columbus, Ohio.