The Mega Michigan Q&A with three rival bloggers was so much fun I decided to do it again! Here are this week's players...
Lake The Posts is from Lake The Posts, a blog which, in my personal opinion, has just about the best history behind it's name in all of college blogdom. Twitter: @LakeThePosts.
Chad Bell is a Manager at fellow SBNation blog Off Tackle Empire. Twitter: @RevDJEsq
Kevin Trahan is a Manager at SBNation blog Inside NU. Twitter: @K_Trahan
1) Let's hold off on talking about the last couple of games for Northwestern for a moment. Tell me, following a 2013 that was a big disappointment for Wildcat fans, what were your expectations for this team coming into 2014?
Lake The Posts: Wait...what? That's like asking us to not start the history of NU with 1995. Why the no fun police?
Expectations were somewhere between looking skyward for falling pianos and beckoning JoBu Voodoo from Major League fame. When Venric Mark transfers and your leading wide receiver (Christian Jones) goes out for the same season on the same day you started to really wonder.
Personally, I think the folks at Iowa sent some version of the AIHRBG to Evanston. As NU fans we're just a wee bit sensitive to finding ways to lose and considering we literally were leading two games last year with :00 on the clock in regulation - and lost, there was a whole lot of rationale going on to get pumped for this year.
We had 17 returning starters and were hopeful that Trevor Siemian would be a lethal passer, our receiving depth was deep and that our O-line would magically improve - all while resting our running game on a pair of true freshmen. Most of that has come to be somewhat reality. None of us saw the young guns on "D" being the story line of the season.
Chad Bell: I've always been an optimist on the Cats, and while 2013 was a disappointment, it wasn't like we were getting dominated by any opponents out there. We lost a game on a Hail Mary (Nebraska), another game after a FG in which the offensive line never got set sent the game to OT (Michigan), another in OT after fumbling/penalizing our way out of scoring position (Iowa), another after we got a bad 4th down spot on what could have been a game tying/winning drive (Ohio State), and another due almost solely to points scored directly off of turnovers (Minnesota). Michigan State and Wisconsin were the only teams to really punish the Cats in 2013 (and even MSU only did so after a dubious headshot by an MSU defender knocked Kain Colter out of the game), so there were plenty of reasons to assume we'd be back and playing NU-level ball (i.e. bowl eligibility, with a chance for some upsets to make some division winning noise) in 2014.
However, when looking at things preseason I saw a tough conference slate (crossovers at PSU, and hosting Michigan), Wisconsin/Nebraska coming to Evanston, Minnesota and Iowa on the road (both of whom beat us in 2013), a late season road trip to South Bend, hosting NIU in a game they'd definitely be up for, and, oh yes, we lost Kain Colter (and, closer to the season, Christian Jones and Venric Mark). But with improved recruiting/depth and a chip on our shoulders, I think I predicted 8-4 (5-3 in conference) or 7-5 (4-4) preseason for the Cats. I expected both our offense and defense to be better (offense mainly due to passing more often with a better armed Siemian; defense thanks to young talent and the best secondary in recent memory at NU) and special teams much, much worse (where are you Jeff Budzien?). But now? Well, I'm excited how our conference slate is shaping up.....
Kevin Trahan: This was still one of the more talented Northwestern teams in recent history. The 2012 team got incredibly lucky with injuries and the successful teams that came before it were incredibly lucky in close games. The 2013 team was unlucky to an extreme with both of those things, and really, if you consider close games to be random, that team should have been at least 7-5, even with all the injuries to Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian, the defensive line, etc. So knowing that, and knowing who was coming back, I expected a pretty solid team. This team might finally be getting there, but in a different form than I expected.
2) Northwestern started 2014, if I can make up a word... uninspiringly. Losses to Cal and Northern Illinois at home were a dubious start, but Northwestern got back on track against Western Illinois and then stunned Penn State and Wisconsin. What changed for this team during its bye week before reeling off three wins in a row?
LTP: You're too kind. We have all kinds of words for the start - embarassing, lethargic, sucky - take your pick. Despite what Fitz will tell you about not changing his philosophy, he changed his philosophy. The senior leaders approached him and told him to be more hard on them - so he did. He went old school - had them practicing in the rain, doing up-and-downs after any mistake and in general he and the staff became a cantankerous lot.
Really though, what changed going in to the Penn State game was injuries and a game plan that called for young defensive talent to step in. Anthony Walker came from nowhere to play the best defensive game most of us have seen this century at NU. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington blew up the Penn State line. Future NFL safety Ibraheim Campbell went down and then Godwin Igewbuike - a RS freshman - stepped up.
On offense, Mick McCall FINALLY cranked the tempo up and we went back to our NU offense of old. RB Justin Jackson continued to impress with his YACs and all of a sudden we had confidence. The Wisconsin game was much of the same - Godwin had 3 INTs in the same freakin' game. The "D" - despite getting gashed on 3 big plays by Melvin Gordon - was able to keep Wisconsin out of the end zone. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - this resurgence has been all about NU's "D" and the young ones on "D" at that.
CB: I saw that Western Illinois game, and trust me: no one thought we were "back on track." That one was ugly.
I think what changed was the energy level and commitment at practice and in games. We were, for arguably the first time in Fitz's tenure, flat against Cal and NIU (side note: when this season ends, neither of those are going to be "bad losses," as I think Cal and NIU are proving themselves to be pretty good this year....still, NU should have beaten both, and there was nothing fluky about the losses, as both Cal and NIU deserved to beat us those games). No energy on the sidelines, lazy routes/dropped passes by WRs/superbacks, an offensive line that just wasn't opening up holes or protecting the QB, defensive lapses in concentration, horrible spectial teams, and a QB that wasn't looking downfield and had poor mechanics.
Basically, after the NIU loss, the team leadership and coaches decided they'd had enough. Mistakes in practices were followed with up-down drills; teammates started holding each other accountable on and off the field; we practiced outside in the rain instead of moving practice indoors; freshmen were given more playing time if they pushed upperclassmen.....basically, as Fitz put it, the coaches put their size 12s up the players' asses and demanded more (and the players themselves demanded more from themselves and the coaches). The coaches also decided to be more daring -- more going for it on 4th down, a few trick plays (including a failed fake FG against PSU, and the reverse that worked spectacularly against Wisconsin), and a renewed focus on pushing the players more.
And all that work paid off in an increase in the energy level on the team. The defense has been SWARMING at guys lately, and redshirt freshmen like Godwin Igwebuike and Anthony Walker have responded (and that's ignoring the tremendous pressure Ifeadi Odenigbo has been bringing on the D-line....he basically cannot be blocked on pass rush without holding him). Wide receivers have held onto balls and are throwing hellacious blocking on the edge in the running game. The O-line has opened up holes for freshmen running backs like Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. FG kicking still sucks, but the return game and coverage teams have been good. And Siemian has settled down and started looking down field more, instead of immediately checking down.
Most noticeable, though, is the energy level on the BENCH. Just look at the Wisconsin game highlights, and you'll see guys from the bench BLOWING UP, waving towels, screaming, jumping and down, and encouraging the fans every time a Wildcat player makes a play or a play needed to be made. That type of energy level is infectious, and I honestly think it's helped our guys play with more passion, energy, and execute plays better.
KT: Well nothing really changed in the bye week because the game against Western Illinois was probably their worst yet. They averaged 4.29 yards per play, which I didn't even know was possible against an FCS team. Luckily, the defense stepped up and forced too many mistakes for WIU to stay in the game. The real turnaround came in the Penn State game. Defensively, they started bringing more pressure and got more turnovers, which helped a lot. Offensively, they stopped trying to mix in power packages with spread personnel. It's still a work in progress, but both of those schematic changes have helped a lot. Also, not dropping passes has been helpful.
3) Northwestern is 13th in the B1G in scoring offense. 12th in rushing offense. 9th in passing offense and is averaging just 12 yards/game more then the Gophers. For Gopher fans who are used to explosive Northwestern offenses, can you explain how this happened?
LTP: The simple answer is for three games we were a train wreck on offense. Trevor Siemian struggled and when he didn't, the receivers were dropping passes left and right. Throw in some God awful, conservative play calling and it is the equivalent of getting a 2.0 GPA in your first semester - you never recover statistically. The 'Cats have looked vastly improved since game three and the balance between the passing and running game is a pleasant surprise. Justin Jackson's 162 rushing performance against Wisconsin was might impressive. The receivers have stopped the drops and if Tony Jones can be at full speed this weekend, we seem right on the cusp of some very good offensive numbers.
CB: A couple things: first, we weren't all that explosive on offense last year, with Kain Colter/Venric Mark (and, to a lesser extent, Trevor Siemian) hurt, so starting this season without either of those guys means it's not exactly shocking our offense hasn't been stellar. Second, while I like Siemian, he's not as sound mechanically/as accurate (and nowhere near the runner) that some of our past QBs were who could light up the spread (see: Persa, Dan; Kafka, Mike; Bacher, C.J; Basanez, Brett; Kustok, Zak). Third, Northwestern lost Bret Ingalls, it's O-line coach, after the 2008 season to the New Orleans Saints, and Kevin Johns (our WR coach) after 2010 to Indiana.....since their departures, I would argue you've seen our O-line and WR play go downhill overall (with some blips of competence). And then, for this year specifically, I'd say the late losses of Venric Mark, Christian Jones, and Tony Jones (who has since returned from injury) kind of put our offensive game plan into disarray. Another argument/explanation could be Fitz and Mick McCall attempting to get this offense to do something it can't do -- namely, play I-formation, smash mouth offense with guys recruited to be in the spread. Luckily, this last trend seems to have been addressed lately.
KT: There are a few issues. The first is that for the first three games (and some of the Penn State game), Pat Fitzgerald was intent on mixing power packages into the offense. They wanted to be a more "complete" offense, according to one of the tight ends. Of course, this didn't work, because the players NU recruited, specifically on the offensive line, are better out of the spread. They have smaller, more athletic linemen, who are better at zone blocking and creating space, not just pushing a pile. So in the game they committed the most to the spread (against Wisconsin), it's no surprise that the blocking was far better and running back Justin Jackson had a big day against a pretty good defensive front.
The passing game has been another issue. Trevor Siemian has really struggled this year, and he's been sailing a lot of passes. He's improved a bit since the beginning of the year, but it's still an issue. The receivers have stopped dropping balls, which has helped, but it's still not the same Trevor Siemian we're used to seeing.
4) Trevor Siemian hasn't had a 300 yard passing game yet this season. Northwestern has one 100 yard rushing game (Justin Jackson had 162 vs Wisconsin), and one 100 yard receiving game (Dan Vitale had 100 yards vs PSU). What is this offense's identity and how have they scored points?
LTP: See above. Trevor has struggled to be consistent but he's vastly improving each week, In fairness to him, he's been at about 75% because of an injured ankle suffered late in the NIU game. The 'Cats are averaging 8 receivers making grabs the past two weeks so it is spreading the wealth. Against PSU we had 7 different receivers make grabs - in the first quarter. The offense is very unselfish, but Vitale and Prater have been the most frequented targets.
Don't let the rushing stats fool you - Justin Jackson is the real deal. He was the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and put up video game stats in high school and is clearly the featured back just five games in to the season. Keep in mind he's a true freshman. Jackson is starting to get Darnell Autry comparisons for his style of play - nothing flashy, but a guy who gets an extra 3-4 yards on every single carry. He's fun to watch.
We've had some huge takeaways, special teams plays and great field position wins thanks to punter Chris Gradone becoming a master at pinning opponents inside their 10. We're not the explosive NU offense you've come to know, but we're getting a little better each week. We still have trouble cashing in with TDs.
CB: The offense's identity is decidedly a work in progress, but you can see the progress week-to-week. Siemian's mechanics have improved every week, and he's starting to look more and more like the guy who put up great games in the past, and less and less like the guy checking down on 3rd and 8 to a running back for a 3 yard gain. He's hitting more receivers in stride and looking more downfield. The o-line is starting to develop a good running rhythm with freshmen running back Justin Jackson, opening up holes in the spread that Jackson hits well; Jackson himself doesn't have blazing speed, but he cuts EXTREMELY well and almost never loses yardage -- indeed, he seems to consistently fall forward for an extra yard or two (plus he's been inches away from busting open some huge plays, so he's due). Less heralded (mainly due to injury) is fellow freshman running back Solomon Vault, who should be healthy for Minnesota and has shown flashes of talents similar to Jackson.
This NU offense scores points thanks to methodical drives (20% of their drives against FBS competition are 10+ plays, 13th highest in the nation) featuring short passes in the flat to the WRs or up the middle to the superbacks and positive runs behind an improving O-line and great set of run-blocking WRs, getting first downs (75% of their drives against FBS competition gain at least one first down or TD), and then flipping field position thanks to their defense (leading to short fields). Not a lot of explosion here in this offense yet (although an argument could be made that they're overdue, given some of the talent on this team), and the FG kicking is iffy (meaning we do go for it where other teams might kick FGs, if only out of necessity).
KT: Well now that they've seemingly recommitted to spreading the field and using their personnel how they should, I think we're going to see a pretty balanced offense that relies on Justin Jackson and a mix in the receiving game. The offense you'll see will probably look more like the one against Wisconsin than the one against Cal, NIU, WIU or, to an extent, Penn State (not necessarily success-wise, just in how they operate). Keep an eye on the superbacks (NU's version of a tight end). Vitale, Jayme Taylor and freshman Garrett Dickerson are all really big targets who NU has had some success throwing to downfield. They're too fast for linebackers and too big for safeties, so they've been an important part of getting this offense rolling.
5) The Wildcats defense is clearly the story and has been the difference in your wins holding PSU and Wisconsin to 9 & 14 points respectively. But Northwestern gives up over 375 yards/game, including 150 on the ground. How has this defense kept opposing offenses out of the endzone giving up those kind of yardage numbers.
LTP: Those Penn State numbers are deceiving. It was absolute domination and Penn State got some passing yards when we took the pedal off in the third quarter. For Wisconsin, give Melvin his due. I've never seen a guy run off more than 150 yards on three rushes in the course of the game (career high 259 rushing yards) and yet somehow, I swear, we felt like the "D" played very well.
The simple answer is that our "D" is living the cliche of bend-don't-break. Four INTs against Wisconsin, including a pair in the end zone and we managed to kill several potential momentum drives by the Badgers. Again, the stellar "D" play has really only been in the past two weeks. The "D" played well enough to win early in the season, but the offense didn't show up.
Also, like Minnesota, the "D" and special teams have helped to serve up some juicy field position for the 'Cats. Whether it has been blocked FGs, blocked punts a pick 6 or an INT, we're really winning the field position battle big time in B1G play.
The slowly improving offense and markedly different aggressive approach (yeah!) are giving fans confidence that the 1-2 combo of a semblance of our old offense with the incredible play by our young freshmen, RS freshmen, sophomores on "D" can make us a legit contender.
CB: Obviously there's been a ton of stats talk here and at Inside NU about this, so I won't delve too deeply into that (except to say that NU giving up yards hardly tells the entire story, and their rush defense has been good when you factor in the level of competition faced). Instead, I'll tell you what I've seen during this current three game winning streak, and how the Northwestern defense beats teams.
First, the D-line has been incredible at getting to the QB. Ifeadi Odenigbo cannot be stopped without holding him (forced 3 fumbles against WIU, has 3 sacks this season, and hit the QB forcing Jimmy Hall's INT against Wisconsin....seriously, he will be held and our fanbase will be furious it was not called), true freshmen Xavier Washington has put some hellacious hits on opposing QBs (he absolutely trucked Hackenberg, forcing a fumble), and Dean Lowry is getting double teamed constantly because he's really, really good. Second, the good D-line play (particularly against the pass) has freed up NU's speed LBs to make plays against opposing RBs, and during the 3 game winning streak they've been making them and not missing tackles. Yes, Melvin Gordon got a ton of yards...but Corey Clement got nothing, Northwestern took away the passing game entirely, and there were a significant number of zero/lost yardage plays, meaning the NU defense put Wisconsin behind the chains and forced them into what they were uncomfortable doing (namely, pass). This was bend-don't-break with some teeth. Third, obviously, we've forced turnovers during our win streak, which helps....but I should note that "force" is the correct word, as our guys are making some great plays (even the 1st and goal from the NU 3 interception was "forced" by NU d-line pressure, great coverage, and a really athletic play by Igwebuike, even if Stave should have thrown it away). And fourth, our secondary has played very well, and our young players have really stepped up. So long as the guys keep playing with this level of energy and Mike Hankwitz resists rushing 3 (we ALWAYS get burned when we rush 3), I'm confident in this defense....maybe more confident than at anytime since 1995-1996.
KT: Part of it is that those two teams are terrible at finishing drives, but the good news for NU is that most of the Big Ten is terrible at finishing drives. As far as the yardage goes, those numbers are a bit skewed because of how fast Cal and NIU play. On a yards per play basis, and a success rate basis, NU is actually pretty solid. But they're definitely a bend/don't break kind of team. They're okay with giving up small chunks of yards while avoiding the big play, and so far, they've done a pretty good job of that. Turnovers have also helped. The key to beating the NU defense is to be patient, finish drives, not turn the ball over and hope you have success with a shot or two downfield.
6) Prediction time. Who wins? How do they make it happen? What is the final score.
LTP: I love this match-up for NU right on the heels of a similarly one-dimensional Wisconsin team. I respect Jerry Kill a ton and you know they'll be ready, but NU is playing at such a high level on "D" with the type of vicious hits and athleticism we've so rarely seen on "D", I believe we pull out a close, low-scoring game like we seem to do more often than not against Minnesota. Cats win 20-17 returning the favor from last year with the same exact score.
CB: First things first -- this is a TREMENDOUSLY even match up. Good teams on both sides, lead by good coaches. I'm not confident at all in my prediction here, and I'm not going to be shocked by either team winning....about the only thing that would shock me is a blowout by either squad.
That being said, I'm a Northwestern fan. I also have a newborn son who arrived on September 14th. Since his birth, Northwestern has not lost (and Michigan has not won). I've nicknamed him the Purple Messiah.
So I'm not going to pick against the Purple Messiah. And I'm not going to pick against Fitz, who's 2-0 in TCF Bank Stadium. And I'm not going to pick against a Northwestern team that is on a hot streak, and on a revenge tour against teams that beat it last year/historically. I'll say Northwestern wins 27-20, picking off a late Mitch Leidner pass to seal the victory. NU's speedy linebackers make enough plays to hold Cobb under (maybe JUST under) 110 yards rushing on around 25+ carries, but more importantly do a great job in coverage on Maxx Williams, while the secondary shuts down an anemic Minny WR passing game and the D-line brings heat on Leidner all day. On offense, Siemian continues his improvement, mainly by targeting Vitale up the middle seam (where he has an advantage on the LBs in coverage). The big story for Northwestern will be WR run blocking (Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson, and Kyle Prater all excel at run blocking and are huge), opening up holes for Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault (if Vault plays), as well as opening up some good WR screen plays (keep an eye on Miles Shuler, who has some speed). I think energy and continued improved execution carries the day for Northwestern, but it's not going to be easy at all against a good Minnesota squad.
KT: Both of these defenses are pretty good and both offenses have struggled. Looking at the full season, the NU offense is worse, but as I wrote yesterday, there's reason to think the NU offense will be a little bit better, given the schematic changes. I'm thinking NU wins 21-17 or something of the sort.