Happy Wednesday morning Rivalry readers! Today's installment of Big Ten 2010 is a Northwestern blogger round table, with a special guests Rodger Sherman from the SBN Northwestern blog Sippin' On Purple, and LTP from the excellent Wildcats blog, Lake The Posts. Read on as we answer five burning questions on Northwestern in 2009 and 2010...
1. If you could pick one word to describe the 2009 season, what would it be and why?
Rodger: Elevating. It's really cliche to say a team improved or gelled as the season went a long and became better as a unit week-to-week, but, well... they did. Each week, this team got better. In week 2, they barely scraped out a 24-21 victory against Eastern Michigan (final record: 0-12, 0-8 MAC, led in the nation in making small children cry). The next two weeks were losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, games in which Northwestern's run defense seemed like they couldn't stop a limbless infant if they were forced to, which, luckily for everybody, they weren't.
That crappy-looking team would win six of their last eight, beating two of three ranked opponents they faced, and even in those wins, they went from eking out comeback wins over Indiana and Purdue to simply outperforming Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. (Stanzi injury notwithstanding.) And their loss in the Outback Bowl was their best performance of the year. A bunch of inexperienced guys kept coming back from week to week, and when NU teams tend to fall apart down the stretch, this one came together.
Tiring. I've said before that the theme of the decade for Northwestern is "resilience
" but, just taking a look at this season, my word is tiring. Seriously. After the Outback Bowl I was exhausted. Pooped, even. In classic Cardiac Cats fashion, Northwestern spent the season digging themselves into holes -- in games (see: Indiana, PSU, Auburn) -- and in the season as a whole (dropping the two to Syracuse and Minnesota) before climbing right back out of them.... well.... sometimes, at least. All of that up and down kept my attention riveted but definitely, definitely wore me out. All I want to know is, when's it start again?
LTP: Roller-Coaster. The season was choppy - a painful loss at Syracuse, a near fatal collapse against Eastern Michigan and then wins over Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin to close out the season and nab a January 1 bowl. Even within games they had extremes. The 'Cats had the biggest comeback in school history to pull out a win over Indiana and were down huge at Purdue before they went in to a takeaway game at the end of the first half that might have been the craziest two minutes of NU football I'd seen - until the Outback.
2. Who is your MVP for the 2009 season?
Mike. Kafka. Northwestern didn't have an offense in 2009. We had Mike Kafka
, and every once in a while ten other guys would show up and allow Northwestern to win football games. He led the Big Ten in every passing related category, and is the reason that a team that may or may not have had any running backs on its entire roster was above-average offensively. He went from a fast guy whose first instinct was to scramble (mainly because his quarterback IQ and throwing skills seemed more suited for my 1-3 IM flag football team) to a pocket passer able to distribute the ball without turning it over for about 300 yards a game over the course of 12 weeks and a bowl game, and that's damn impressive.
Hilary: I have to agree with Rodger here, but unfortunately you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read my full answer, as we feature our 2009 season MVP profile.....
LTP: It's gotta be Mike Kafka. Sherrick McManis gets my 2nd place vote. Most fans were worried about - get this - Kafka's passing ability. When you combined Kafka's productivity with the fact we had to replace Ross Lane, Eric Peterman and Rasheed Ward fans now EXPECT the same thing in 2010 with a new starter at QB (Dan Persa) and new starters at WR.
3. Are you concerned about the departure of Mike Kafka (a surprise 4th round selection in the NFL Draft!) and the starting of Dan Persa, or no?
Rodger: Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. For stuff about Kafka, look above! Dude was good and stuff! Dan Persa, on the other hand, well, I'm not sold. Persa was forced into spot duty against Penn State and Iowa last year, and although he led us to victory against Iowa - sort of - he's not a thrower. Like Mike Kafka in 2008, he seemed speedy and mobile and all that good stuff, but straight up scared to throw, much more content to sprint headlong at the line of scrimmage after making a feeble show of looking downfield and pick up a four-yard gain than air it out, and I fear the reason is because, well, he can't. He's a short guy, never shown much of an arm, and to get the defense to open up enough for him to hurt him by throwing, he's got to QB draw our offense into oblivion first - which, admittedly, did work against Iowa. He'll be a work in progress. It worked for Kafka - not sure Persa can pull off the transition from scared backup to fearless leader.
Hilary: I am... but I suppose like a Cubs fan in April I believe that hope springs eternal. Er... make that, Fitz knows what he's doing. Rodger mentioned Mike Kafka in 2008 and I think that's an apt comparison. Prior to the 2009 season, Kafka was most well known for his crazy game against Minnesota in which he set all sorts of QB single game rushing records and led the Wildcats to an amazing victory. Passing? Not so much. While Persa didn't have an amazing game filling in for Kafka this year, he did look like the same sort of "run first, pass only if I have to" QB that Kafka sometimes looked like in 2008. Hopefully whatever transformation magic was pulled on Kafka can be done to Dan Persa.... Help us Fitz, you're our only hope!
LTP: See above. Based on the fact we just went through this not only at QB, but at WR (who knew Zeke Markshausen would be so critical a year ago - had one career catch entering last season and promptly posted the 2nd most receptions in a season in school history) I think many of us believe the offensive system is now a re-load scenario vs a re-build process. Persa is gutsy - he's got the Zak Kustok moxie gene and he looked solid in the Spring Game and has some big game experience under his belt. I'm cautiously optimistic.
4. What do you think of the now scheduled Northwestern-Illinois game at Wrigley Field this year?
Rodger: Indescribably pumped. A lot of people are making big deals about "what these means for Northwestern football," and, well, that's huge. If NU can use a Wrigley game to sell season tickets, get us some national - but more importantly, local - exposure, and win us a few thousand extra fans by playing an Illinois team we'll probably beat, that's great.
But I'm just as excited for the game itself. Wrigley is freakin beautiful, and this event is going to be unique and historic, and in short, just awesome. I was at the press conference last week, and between me, Dan Persa, and Corbin Bryant
, I'd say we spent about total eight minutes of the entire shebangabang paying attention to what was going on, and the rest of the time just looking around and soaking in the building, the ivy, the big ol' scoreboard, and the concept of purple filling the right field bleachers.
Hilary: I too am out of my mind with excitement. I live only a 15 minute walk away from Wrigley Field and the thought of strolling down there on a crisp fall morning to watch the Wildcats once again take down a rolled over Illini team.........ahhhhh. I also think that the game will be a nice exposure to more Chicago fans for the Wildcats. I'm not sure if it will actually make a difference in attendance, but, hey, every little bit helps, right? Finally, with all the talk of Big 10 expansion, a game like this, which will get national play, can only be a + for the conference as a whole. Now I just have to find a way to get some tickets...
LTP: I was against it for awhile as I am concerned about how we translate the novelty in the butts in seats in Evanston. I also wish we could've negotiated a 2-year deal, but I'm now adopting a local writer's point of view that if it takes NU taking teams out in the street to beat them in front of the masses to start grabbing attention then that is what we'll do. The fact the average resident in Illinois STILL doesn't know NU is a much better football program over the past 15 years is a joke.
5. We all know that Northwestern has a small undergrad population, lack of current tailgating atmosphere, and decades of football futility. These are often cited as the reasons that the Wildcats do not draw well in comparison to their Big 10 brethren. What can be done about this, and is there anything that Northwestern should be doing that the currently are not?
Rodger: I think about this a lot, and I'm not sure. Some people think that NU has the potential to - if we do everything right, everything the way other football programs do - we'll hypothetically be able to sell out every home game at Ryan Field someday. I'm not convinced this is true. Northwestern has been winning relatively consistently for the better part of two decades, and, well, nobody cares. We're tiny, we're in the suburbs, and we've been content to not have a fanbase outside of students and alumni since the Big Ten had ten teams, and one of them was the University of Chicago. Jim Phillips would probably cut off a hand or two to even make slight inroads in the Chicago market. Yes, the things that NU does in terms of marketing and selling aren't perfect, but I doubt they'd sell out this stadium even if they did.
The way I see it, yes, it's frustrating that our stadium is half-full for Big Ten home games. But you know, I'd rather be the only dude in the stadium watching a 9-3 team than one of 110,000 watching a team that stays home for bowl season. I encourage my opposing NU blogs to mock the hell out of us for our attendance issues - I'll mock you right back Sunday, after we won a road game in your stadium.
Hilary: Sigh. It's such a tough issue. In addition to all the listed issues, Northwestern could probably be doing a better job of advertising in Chicago but... well I think we all know that football loyalty is not really something you can just persuade people into having. The alums who remember crappy football up until the mid-90s aren't necessarily going to come on back just because we finally seemed to have figured things out. I've also heard that we should have a different stadium. While I'm no fan of Ryan Field, I'm not sure that such changes would be of any real help.
I was discussing the popularity of the Cubs in the city of Chicago with a friend last night while we took in a spontaneous free game at Wrigley (I know, it's such a hard life I lead...). One of the things that most people don't know when they think about the Cubs is that Wrigley Field used to be practically empty. The Cubs were really bad for a really long time, and even though they have a good size fanbase and a fantastic stadium, they still weren't drawing all that well. That changed around 1998 when the Cubs started being consistently good and going to the post season on a regular basis. Sure, there were some stinker years in there, but as soon as they started winning regularly people started showing up. So, maybe if Northwestern can keep this all up and knock out a bowl win or two, the attendance problems will magically solve themselves...
LTP:T he obvious is continue winning. NU has won 17 games in the past two years, attendance is still an issue. It hasn't budged. Jim Phillips is making some internal personnel upgrades in areas that will directly address this head-on, but creative marketing is going to be key. The decades of futility thing is just about out of mind. Think about it - if you are 25 or younger you know Northwestern as a Big Ten champ as much as any other school besides Ohio State and Michigan.
I believe the single biggest needle-mover for attendance and atmosphere is start time. An 11 am game with a heavily slanted family crowd is a killer. I've lobbied as hard as I can to NU for more night games and there is one major barrier to this - overturning an Evanston ordinance that limits NU to one night game per year. NU recently announced the October 9 Purdue game will be a 6:30 pm night game - the first Big Ten night game in Evanston in some 60+ years. I would have every Big Ten non-conference (the conference games are tough because of TV controlling start times) at night.
Well, thanks again to Rodger from Sippin' On Purple and LTP from Lake The Posts for joining us today for our Northwestern week, and Go U! NU!