Zach Pereles, a contributor over at Inside NU, graciously took some time to answer some questions I had about the upcoming matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Northwestern Wildcats. Here is a summary of our correspondence:
TDG: Alright, so be honest, who had the Wildcats at 4-0 entering conference play over at Inside NU? Because from my point of view during STRONG DISLIKE WEEK, you guys have just been lucky...
Inside NU: To answer your question in a sentence: Absolutely no one. At Inside NU, and around the nation, the decision was picking between a 3-1 and a 2-2 non-conference slate, with Stanford being a loss, Eastern Illinois and Ball State being wins, and Duke being a toss up. As it turned out, Ball State wound up playing the Wildcats closest. Has Northwestern gotten lucky? Sure. But they've also played extremely well on defense and gotten contributions from some unexpected sources.
TDG: All joking aside, Northwestern has impressed everyone, including the pollsters, during the first third of the season. Outside the obvious elite defensive play, what other specific contribution has been an essential component to the Wildcats' success thus far this season?
Inside NU: The biggest thing has been the Wildcats' ability to pound and pound and pound the ball on the ground with workhorse back Justin Jackson and their two capable backups: Warren Long and Solomon Vault. While they rarely run for explosive plays (just 4.53 yards per carry), the Wildcats are 14th in the nation at 265 rushing yards per game and first in rushing attempts. Both Long (a bruiser who also had a 55-yard touchdown against Duke) and Vault (a quicker option who had a kick return TD against the Blue Devils) will see 5-10 carries, and Jackson will see 25-35. Having an athletic, mobile quarterback in Clayton Thorson also helps those numbers, as he has averaged over 35 yards per game on the ground. He'll likely have 5-10 carries, too.
TDG: Mitch Leidner is constantly lambasted by posters on OTE, media types, and heck, even his own fans as illustrated by The Daily Gopher being a constant #QBGAZE zone for the first third of the season. Clayton Thorson, on the other hand, has been generally praised by most accounts I've seen. Do you think this juxtaposition is solely based on the age difference between the two, with Thorson getting some slack because he is a true freshman while Leidner is expected to play "better" (his statistics have improved across the board as compared to last year) due to him being a redshirt junior? Has Thorson really just been a better "game manager" quarterback? Feel free to expand on Thorson's play thus far this season.
Inside NU: It's partially based on age difference-- mistakes by a young guy are generally less-criticized because they are learning opportunities while mistakes from veterans show that they haven't progressed as hoped-- but it's more based on expectations. I think a huge reason Clayton Thorson won the job this year was because it's far more important for him to get experience this year than it would have been to plug Zack Oliver, a senior, in there. It's a very young backfield. All three above-mentioned running backs have eligibility left, and obviously Thorson does as well. Going into this season, predictions were around 5-7 or 6-6 as it would likely be a transition year. Until Thorson causes Northwestern to lose a game, though, he will be praised because he will have quarterbacked the team to another victory, regardless of how well he plays. Pat Fitzgerald's biggest thing has been winning, so until Northwestern loses, Thorson will, in general, be praised or at least his mistakes will be tolerated.
Having said that, Thorson has not necessarily been very good this year, and in fact he was pretty awful against Duke and for the first half against Ball State. But that third quarter against Ball State showed what he can do when he's feeling it. This year, he has struggled to make short throws, but his receivers have also struggled to get open for him at times. Overall, he's still learning, and until Northwestern loses a game, his performances will either be praised or at the very least tolerated. Like they say, winning takes care of everything. Thus far, that's all Clayton Thorson has done.
TDG: Northwestern's advanced statistics profile (F/+ 26th, S&P+ 38th) doesn't quite sync up with current public opinion (AP #16, Coaches #17). Do you have any non-statistical observations as to why the Wildcats would have a 4-0 record with multiple P5 wins that their advanced profile has been unable to recognize?
Inside NU: Northwestern does not play pretty football. In fact, at times, it has looked Minnesota-esque on the gridiron this year. Tough defense and solid special teams combined with just enough offense has done the trick. Additionally, Stanford played uncharacteristically poorly against Northwestern in Week 1, and Northwestern's defense really showed well against Duke. Thus far Northwestern has been the king of the transitive property. In Week 1, they beat Stanford, and then Stanford upset USC at The Coliseum. Two weeks ago, they went on the road to beat Duke (note: this was Duke's first game against legitimate competition), and the next week Duke beat Georgia Tech. It's yet to be seen whether Northwestern is really better than those two (both of which have a major win directly following a loss to Northwestern), but that's a main reason why the Wildcats are liked so much by the AP and Coaches.
What the heck is M00N?
What the heck is M00N?
TDG: We appear to be headed for a spectacular event where an immovable object meets another immovable object this coming Saturday. Minnesota's defense is ranked 11th by S&P+ while Northwestern's is one place better at 10th. Are you prepared for M00N Part II, the Reckoning? Or do you think this is one of those times where everyone predicts a low scoring affair and the opposite occurs?
Inside NU: Yes, I'm expecting #M00N Part II, the Reckoning. Last year, I was in the student section for #M00N and it was downright awful, but I'm preparing for more. I can't see either of these teams putting up big numbers offensively, but unlike #M00N Part I, this will be more because of two outstanding defenses, not two completely incompetent, laughable offenses. Neither team is really built to produce big plays. Both are built to win the time of possession and field position battles. (Read: boring football) That's what we'll see Saturday.
TDG: Lastly, what is your official game prediction? Gory details are encouraged.
Inside NU: This game will be fun if you love defense. Lots of hard hits, lots of solid tackling, and lots of punting. If you like offense, explosive plays, points, mascots doing pushups and fight songs, don't even turn this one on. Find something from the Pac-12 or Big 12. I've got Northwestern taking this one 10-9. Yes, 10-9. Northwestern's stingy redzone defense and a game-winner off the foot of kicker Jack Mitchell get the Wildcats to 5-0. And yes, #M00N might be in effect for a long time in this one.
A big thanks to Zach for taking the time to answer our questions at TDG. Good luck to your Wildcats! Let's hope for an exciting contest. Beware of the full #M00N on Saturday everybody!