In an effort to help us decipher the enigma that is Northwestern's change from "MACrifice victim" to "Creator of Badger tears", I reached out to some writers from our fellow SB Nation blogs. Jared Slanina (@JaredSlanina) from Black Shoe Diaries and Andrew Rosin (@thegnc) from Bucky's 5th Quarter were both kind enough to relive the pain that was their teams' losses to the Wildcats. For science of course.
My goal was to see if they could shed some light on what has brought about Northwestern's recent change or some things Gopher fans should keep an eye out for on Saturday. We'll start with Jared...
The Daily Gopher: What were your expectations for Northwestern coming into the Penn State game? Did they do anything that surprised you? Or did they simply do what you expected at a higher level than you might have anticipated?
Jared Slanina: Northwestern's performance at Penn State definitely surprised me. I have a lot of respect for Pat Fitzgerald since he typically is forced to do more with less, so I was expecting a tough game, especially considering Penn State's shortcomings. But my expectations were that Northwestern would put up a fight for most of the game, until Penn State would eventually outclass Northwestern in the second half thanks to the Wildcats anemic offense and just average defense. Instead of getting the team that struggled against Cal and Northern Illinois, Penn State got a team that more resembled the 2012 squad that was a few plays from going undefeated.
TDG: Given that Minnesota is known for running the ball, I know Gopher fans would be interested in hearing your thoughts about how the Wildcats defend against the run. What did Northwestern do well? Any weaknesses you think Penn State could have exploited? Did NU beat your O-Line or did they do a great job of making PSU's o-line pay for any mistakes?
JS: It's tough to judge Northwestern's run defense against Penn State because everyone has shut down the Nittany Lion's running game thus far with the exception of UMASS. Penn State has a very poor offensive line because they are forced to play many young and inexperienced players because of the scholarship restrictions. If Penn State is able to run the ball, something is terribly wrong with the opposing defense.
I would say the biggest difference was the addition of freshman linebacker Anthony Walker into the starting lineup. The Penn State game was his first career start and he definitely made the most of it. He was constantly around the ball, and was so disruptive he elevated the play of everyone around him. He's only going to keep getting better, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him leave Northwestern as an All-American.
TDG: Northwestern's running game seemed to come together against Wisconsin. Was there anything about their backs, line, or playcalling that stood out to you? Anything you think Gopher fans would want to watch for?
JS: I'll admit my attention was divided between four games last Saturday afternoon thanks to the amazing an amazing slate of college football. But from what I saw, it looked as though Northwestern has an entirely different running attack from what we witnessed earlier in the season. It seems to be the case of a team needing some time to gel, and now they look like a completely different offense once they developed a trust and understanding with each other, as well as the confidence that came from a big victory on the the road against Penn State. Northwestern was in a tough spot at the beginning of the season because they had to replace many key starters and then unexpectedly lost a very talented running back in Venric Mark. It took the staff a few games to figure out what they had to work with, but have done an amazing jobs working around the team's strengths and weaknesses. Fitzgerald and company deserve a lot of credit for bringing the running game along so quickly. Northwestern should be a very dangerous team for the remainder of the season as long as they are able to stay healthy.
SUMMARY: Fitzgerald is a wizard. Damn wizards and their gelling freshman players. On to Andrew...
The Daily Gopher: Clearly the interceptions played a big part (understatement) in Wisconsin's loss to Northwestern last weekend. The expected points for those four drives add up to more than the 6 point loss plus there was the missed field goal (yes there is a question coming). Given the...uncertain...nature of the Gopher passing game right now, I know Gopher fans are interested in knowing how much of the 4 INT day was caused by the Wildcat defense. Is there anything that NU did that you think future opponents like Minnesota should be looking out for? Or were the TO's mostly on the Badger QB's?
Andrew Rosin: Short answer, If you have people who can rush the passers, you can force the Badger passers into mistakes. In Madison it's almost universal that Tanner McEvoy was a square peg in the non-rhombus that is Andy Ludwig's offense. Stave's decent, but he's always gonna be a little interception happy. I'm not saying this to discount the Northwestern D. They played well. They got pressure. Interceptions are always a little luck based, but the Wildcats defense is legitimate.
TDG: Melvin Gordon had a career day while Corey Clement was held pretty much in check. But as any NU fan will tell you, the bulk of Gordon's yards came from a small number of carries. What did Northwestern do well against the run? Do you think UW got beat up front or did Northwestern capitalize on issues UW was having along its line?
AR: I honestly think Wisconsin underestimated a good front seven and thought they could overpower them. Wisconsin didn't run one jet sweep during the game and consistently ran between the tackles. Northwestern held up very well. It's a testament to Melvin Gordon that he broke so many long runs. The line's healthy. Northwestern just handled everything they called. And Wisconsin didn't call everything they could have.
TDG: The other thing Gopher fans have heard a lot about is how Northwestern ran the ball well against a stout Badger run defense. What impressed you about Northwestern's run game? What do you wish Wisconsin had done better against it?
AR: The two situations where Wisconsin had trouble in the running game was when they had 5 healthy defensive linemen. One was the fourth quarter of the LSU game and one was Northwestern. The Badgers ran this 2-4 nickel defense. Add to that the fact that Marcus Trotter was injured, and Northwestern didn't get the Badgers best shot on defense. Not to discount anything from Justin Jackson. The opportunity was there to have himself a day, and he did. He didn't break any big runs either. He just consistently kept gaining yardage.
TDG: Overall thoughts and takeaways you have about Northwestern as you look back on the game?
AR: I keep going back and forth. Last year Stave threw 17 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the Red Zone. That first and goal play works and the Badgers escape. A healthier defense and the Badgers escape. But, the Badgers left a pass catcher like Sam Arneson alone until the 4th. There were no designed runs for the mobile quarterback. Northwestern's front 7 held up against an offensive line that's going to have multiple players in the NFL. I guess what I'm saying is that the Badgers were a little unlucky but Northwestern's defense was good, and made great by questionable playcalling.
SUMMARY: Fitz is still a wizard, Limegrover better not be stubborn with the #RUTM, Stave is terrible.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Overall it felt like Jared and Andrew echoed many of the comments of the writers over at Inside NU. Not surprising, but it's important to hear certain points reinforced. As I've said far too many times, if the Gophers play as bad as NU fans think they are then Northwestern can (and probably will) win. If they live up to the hopes of Gophers fans, they'll probably win. And if they cough the ball up, bad things...bad things...
TL;DR: Anecdotally Northwestern looks like a good test.