As is the norm, we took some time to try to get some perspective on our upcoming opponent by asking some questions of a rival blogger. This week we were happy to receive answers from Rodger Sherman from SBNation blog Sippin' On Purple.
JDMill: Let's start here: Northwestern was beating PSU in Happy Valley 28-17 after 3 quarters and then managed to give up 22 unanswered points in the 4th to the Nittany Lions. What the hell happened?
Rodger Sherman: The first thing that happened is Penn State started picking up fourth down conversions. You've probably heard of Penn State's kicking woes. PSU got into some fourth-and-five or so situations all game, but in the fourth quarter, they stopped punting - smart, one punt was returned for a TD by Venric Mark - and didn't kick field goals. NU could get keep them from getting off the field in three plays, but four was too much to ask. They went 5-for-6 on fourth downs in the game, mainly late.
Second, Kain Colter was absent from the game. NU has used two QB's all year, but in Big Ten play, Colter has only thrown three passes in two games, filling in mainly as a pure running QB and wide receiver while Trevor Siemian does the throwing. With NU announcing it would pass the ball with Siemian in the backfield, the Nittany Lions keyed in and gave NU nothing.
JD: Northwestern has beaten 4 teams from BCS conferences (including the B1G), but many would argue that those 4 teams (Syracuse, Vandy, Boston College & Indiana) are the worst teams in each of their respective conferences. Convince us that beating the doormats of four BCS conferences is noteworthy.
RS: It's a hell of a lot more noteworthy than going 3-1 against four crappy teams, ain't it? Most of the Big Ten put worse teams on their non-conference schedules and still dropped a game, so the criticism that NU's wins weren't quality falls on deaf ears over here.
Oh, and sorry to nit-pick, but there's no real conceivable way to argue Syracuse or Vanderbilt is the worst team in their conference. Indiana and BC... well, yeah, those dumpsters are burning strong.
JD: Two quarterbacks. Trevor Siemian has 67% of the Wildcats passing production, but Kain Colter is still throwing the ball over 11 times/game. That doesn't sound like a simple "wildcat" or change of pace QB. Both Siemian and Colter have 2 TD passes against 1 INT. For those of us that haven't watched Northwestern play a down of football this year, how is this offense balancing these two?
RS: For the first few games, it was very balanced: Colter started the games, Siemian came in to spell him. Colter's fast and can kill people scrambling, while Siemian has the indisputably better arm.
But it's gotten weird since the conference schedule hit. Colter had 100 yards receiving and rushing against Indiana - not surprising, he was the team's leading returning receiver and rusher - but he's completely fallen out of the passing game. One of my co-writers did a really nice breakdown of how one-dimensional Colter's snaps were play-by-play against PSU, which really hurt the Cats. If NU wants its offense to work more effectively, they have to make sure every play is considered a threat to go through the air or on the ground, while that wasn't the case last week.
JD: The Wildcats are doing a lot of damage on the ground this year with over 230 yards/game rushing, ranking them 16th in the nation for rushing. Venric Mark is the stud and the workhorse, averaging 19 carries/game, 5.4 yards/carry, 101 yards/game, while Colter carries the ball over 10 times/game for over 6 yards/carry. Is that the story of this running game? Just a talented RB and a running QB who can change pace?
RS: Mark is tiny but super fast - he has two punt return TD's on the year too - and Colter's down with the quickness as well. As such, the zone read and option plays are murderously effective: against Indiana, a play with Mark or running back Mike Trumpy with Colter on a read play, then Colter splitting to the outside with the other back as a pitchman worked for three easy touchdowns.
JD: The Gophers were beaten and battered by the Hawkeyes on runs up the middle. Does Northwestern have the horses on the offensive line to play smash mouth football?
RS: Yeap. The right side of the line has been a carousel a bit but Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe are both studs on the left. However, I think the real reason for NU's running success is just how shifty Mark and Colter are.
JD: Fill in the blank: If the Gophers can slow down _________, they will have a much greater chance of beating Northwestern.
RS: Kain Colter. He was ineffective and taken out of the gameplan on Saturday for the first time all year, and it was Northwestern's first loss. So, one for one when teams do that.
JD: Okay, on to defense. On pass defense, Northwestern is giving up nearly 288 yards/game and almost 7 yards/pass attempt. True or False: if the Gophers are going to beat Northwestern they will do it through the air. Explain.
RS: That's a little bit skewed by Ryan Nassib's 470 yard performance Week 1. We've since benched starting cornerback Demetrius Dugar, who was responsible for over 100 yards of offense in one-on-one coverage, including three pass interference penalties, in the second half game alone, and replaced him with Stanford transfer Quinn Evans.
NU had looked stout on the run through five weeks, holding BC to 25 yards on 21 carries, but this past week got eaten up by Penn State's running backs, who bounced off tackles on what had seemed to be the best unit at wrapping guys up NU had seen in some while. Meanwhile, Matt McGloin had a great game without throwing the ball more than 15 yards in the air. So the deep ball isn't the only way to kill NU.
JD: Nothing about Northwestern's defense makes me nervous. They are giving up over 5 yards/play and just shy of 390 yards/game. Give me something (a name, a stat, a formation... anything) about the Wildcats defense that should make Gopher fans nervous.
RS: NU's linebackers: David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby, and Chi Chi Ariguzo. Like I said, this week was their first bad outing, but before Saturday they'd really menaced opposing running backs.
JD: What is your prediction for the game?
RS: Let's go with Northwestern, 38-28. Not buying Minnesota's defense being as firm as PSU's, and I don't think we make the same playcalling mistakes as last week.