Breaking Down the Wildcats' Chances

Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

It's no secret: the Northwestern Wildcats are off to a 5-0 start, fooling almost everyone. Despite beating teams from four BCS AQ conferences, though, the 'Cats are lightly regarded as contenders for the Legends Division. Do our Northwestern pundits agree? Step into the NU Lounge--coat and tie not optional, and we'll know if it's cheap!

In the aftermath of the Northwestern victory over Indiana on Saturday, the OTE writers differed greatly on where exactly Northwestern stood in the Big Ten. Hilary, Chad, and I took it upon ourselves to discuss and handicap the Purple's chances. After pouring ourselves a glass of port and lighting an Arturo Fuente, we got down to business:

Cory:

I'll kick it off: Is this incarnation of 5-0 Northwestern football for real? 2008 was lots of good things before a loss to a turrible Indiana team, and the 2010 version included a derp-lol-tastic loss to Purdue under the lights. Why is this year any different?

Chad:

Yes. To paraphrase Sidra from Seinfeld: Northwestern is real, and they're spectacular. Or, at minimum, they're a dangerous team, and in this year's B1G, that may be enough.

How is this year's Northwestern team different? Let's count the ways, shall we?

1. Depth: in seasons past, Northwestern would be looking good until an injury ruined a good start (Bacher/Sutton getting dinged in 2008; Kafka going down against PSU in 2009; Persa in 2010; even Mike Trumpy getting hurt against Illinois and Persa being slightly dinged all of 2011). Even when relatively healthy, they didn't have enough depth to rotate in a bunch of players and keep their best guys fresh.

Now? They have 2 QBs who can move the offense (Colter and Siemian) and both play (sometimes, as against Indiana, simultaneously). They have two high caliber running backs (Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy), with capable backups in Treyvon Green and Tyris Jones (and that's not even acknowledging Colter as a threat on the read option or option pitch). Their WRs are insanely deep (Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Kyle Prater, Rashad Lawrence, Demetrius Fields, Kain Colter, Cameron Dickerson and Mike Jensen all have catches at WR this season...and NU hasn't been passing much since the running game has been so good). The O-line is experienced but has depth at all spots to cover up any potential injuries. And the defense (while still CLEARLY behind the offense) has enough depth on the D-line, LBs, and secondary to keep fresh legs on the field.

2. Special teams: Yes, Northwestern just gave up a kickoff return against Indiana. But otherwise? Northwestern's special teams have never been better than they are now.

Venric Mark is one of the most dangerous return men in the B1G -- just see what he did to Syracuse in the opener (he's rarely been kicked to since then, but someone is bound to slip up soon and Mark will take another to the house). Jeff Budzien is 19-for-19 on XPs and 11-for-11 on FGs (with a long of 44 yards)....meaning Northwestern's scoring points if they make it within the opponent's 30 yard line. And Brandon Williams drops punts inside the opposing team's 20-yard line as easily as Graham comes up with tortured analogies about how a certain thing/team/person in sports is like a date with a specific type of woman.

3. Offense: simply put, this is the best offense I've seen at Northwestern. Period.

I'm just not sure how you stop it -- both Colter and Siemian are 65%+ completion percentage QBs, so they won't shoot themselves in the foot much if at all. Colter is the most multi-dimensional player in the B1G (passing, receiving, and running the ball), and one of the 3 best running QBs in the B1G (with Denard and Taylor Martinez). And as I noted in the 2 sections above, Northwestern has

(a) depth at RB, with 2 guys who can rush for 100+ a game,

(b) depth at WR, meaning there are PLENTY of targets for Colter/Siemian, and

(c) solid place kicking, meaning they'll get points whenever they get inside the 30.

Throw in Siemian's ability to run the 2-minute offense and throw the deep ball, and there's not a lot of weaknesses on this offense. I'm just not sure opposing teams will be able to keep Northwestern under 21 points very often if ever -- and, keep in mind, in the 2 lowest scoring games for Northwestern this year (23 points vs. Vandy, 22 vs. BC), Northwestern was NOT using Colter in his "slash" role yet....and that totally changes the complexion of the offense.

4. Defense: and that brings us to the defense...

Look, I can't pretend that Northwestern's defense is great. It is and will (for the foreseeable future) remain Northwestern's big weakness. But with the NU offense, the defense just has to be good, or COMPETENT, for Northwestern to be one of the best squads in the B1G.

Currently, Northwestern is 13th nationally (1st in B1G) in rushing yards allowed at 90.0 ypg. Effectively, Northwestern is taking away opposing teams' running games, and forcing teams to throw against them. That's an improvement on the last few seasons, when teams could run AND pass against Northwestern at will. Even in pass defense, Northwestern is playing better -- DBs are in position on coverage (vs. last year, when....well, just look up what Illinois' AJ Jenkins did to the Cats by getting 15 yards of separation each play), the pass rush is improved (they already have 8 sacks and 25 tackles for loss, compared to just 17 sacks all last season), and they're forcing fumbles, getting some INTs, and tackling well.

5. Improvement is Ongoing: Here's the other thing, and this is totally intangible, but this Northwestern team ACTS differently than past editions. It starts with Pat Fitzgerald, who seems to be focused on keeping this team locked in on the next task at hand. After Cuse, he built up the defense's confidence and it performed well against Vandy....only to be told they didn't play well the next week, which caused them to UP their game against Boston College. Fitz and the coaching staff are pushing all the right buttons so far. Throw in the fact that this summer was the FIRST TIME under Fitz that all (or all but 1 of) the freshmen were on campus for summer school means this team is in better shape, better prepared, and closer as a unit than past editions (thanks to offseason work together).

And Northwestern teams have, under Fitz, improved as the season goes on. Just see his 13-8 record in November, vs. a 10-15 mark in October. It's a sign the Cats play better football as the season goes on (particularly as the B1G season goes on, since B1G games are almost exclusively played in October/November). Northwestern's schedule is almost tailor-made for them -- if they can beat Penn State (no small order, particularly on the road, given the way the Nittany Lions have been playing), and survive Minnesota, they'll be 7-0 before running a rather daunting 5 games in 6 weeks stretch (Nebraska, Iowa, BYE, at Michigan, at Michigan State, Illinois) to close the season.

What's the ceiling for the Cats? Who knows? None of the remaining teams on their slate have looked flawless (Nebraska comes closest, but even they were down 17 at home to Wisconsin before rallying, and gave up 653 yards of offense to the only decent/good offense they've faced in UCLA), and none save perhaps Michigan State have demonstrated the ability on defense to slow down an attack as multi-faceted as Northwestern's. If we're talking absolute ceilings.....well, Northwestern can beat every team remaining on its schedule. Will it? No, it likely won't.....but it may not have to in order to win the Legends.

Here's my question for Cory and Hilary: why do you doubt Northwestern (if you do)? Who remaining on the schedule do you think is clearly more impressive based on their performances so far? Who out there can stop the Northwestern offense, and how do they do it? Is this the best Northwestern team you've seen, and if so, why not? And am I crazy for thinking Northwestern deserves serious consideration as the Legends' division favorite (and, thus, the potential B1G champs)?

Cory:

First, I doubt Northwestern because I've seen this show before. Close wins over not-so-good teams (Vanderbilt, CMU, Minnesota) in 2010 brought this team to 5-0 and #25, then Purdue under the lights happened. The zone read tore us apart, I traded in my clarinet for a friend's sousaphone for NUMB postgame, and drank that game away as soon as it was done. Penn State is actually a good team as of late, unlike that Purdue team, and the one and only Matt McGloin (who threw for 225 and 4 TDs in 2010) could go full soulless ginger on us again. Beat PSU, and we'll talk.

On the schedule, no one is that impressive, but then again, is Northwestern that impressive? Sure, we've allowed 90 ypg rushing... I forget: did Syracuse try to run the ball against us? I just remember Ryan Nassib dropping back to pass (and Demetrius Dugar was called for another DPI as I wrote that). Vanderbilt and Boston College are not as good as we let on. Sure, MSU, Michigan, and Nebraska have all lost games they probably should've won. But I'll take Nebraska for showing real resolve and bouncing back after losing to a UCLA team who's not half bad and coming back against Wisconsin.

And the stopping the offense. I don't really know: it seems like if you try to clamp down on Kain Colter in the secondary, he can move into the backfield. If you clamp down on Kain Colter in the backfield, he can do enough with his arm to be "that Northwestern quarterback" and dink-n-dunk down the field. Moreover, I'm convinced we haven't seen the last twist from Mick McCall and the Northwestern offense: think UL-M's two-quarterback zone-read. Mark it down. It's happening. Penn State's front seven will be the test--if the 'Cats can find a chink in the PSU armor (I'm thinking Colter at WR), this offense might roll up enough points to shoot out enough teams.

Looking at the schedule, could we go 12-0? Yes. Could we also go 2-6 in the B1G and go into bowl play 6-6? Yep. Until this Northwestern team can go on the road to someone other than Minnesota and be expected to win, they are not odds-on to win the Legends, let alone the B1G. On the whole, though, this year is "the chance" for NU: the 'Cats avoid OSU and a resurgent Purdue, and while they have to play Michigan and MSU on the road, the Spartan offense doesn't scare me, and odds are the Wolverines can't win this year's game of "500" quite as well as they did last year. Add in a suspect Nebraska defense and a bipolar Iowa team in Evanston, and why not? But logic would imply that this defense, is somewhere between the first half against Indiana and the second half against Indiana.

I'll let Hilary answer if she wants.

Hilary:

I'll weigh in tomorrow morning once I've had my coffee. Tonight and last night have been nights of drinking. (ed note: everyone congratulate Hilary on passing the bar!)

Chad:

Are you finished Cory? Well then allow me to retort....

Unlike 2010, this Wildcats team (a) has an offense that can do multiple things well (short spread passes, downfield deep passes with Siemian, run up the middle with RBs, run with the QB, read-option runs, traditional option runs), something that the 2010 Wildcats lacked (they basically were a short spread pass team, with the occasional threat of a Persa run); (b) has a defense capable of stopping the run (see: 1st in B1G, 13th in the nation, 90 ypg rushing allowed -- and remember, Vandy has Zac Stacy, the SEC's leading returning rusher); and (c) has good special teams (please note in this box-score/recap (http://espn.go.com/ncf/recap?gameId=302820077) of that 2010 loss to Purdue that Demos was 1 for 3 on FGs, and that the Cats got ZERO return yards on 3 punt returns).

And while I agree with you that the PSU game is a benchmark for this year's Cats team, I have a feeling we'll be hearing the "you haven't played anybody" refrain about Northwestern all season, or at least until the late November stretch at Michigan and at Michigan State. I mean, while the Cats have the 112th hardest strength of schedule, here are the strength of schedules of their upcoming opponents: PSU - 107. Minnesota - 119. Nebraska - 63. Iowa - 116. Michigan - 2. Michigan State - 17. Illinois - 66.

NO ONE in the B1G on the Cats' remaining schedule (save Michigan and Michigan State) has played anything resembling a tough schedule yet.....and yet only Northwestern is undefeated. I'm supposed to believe a 4-1 Nebraska squad with the 63rd "hardest" schedule in the B1G (that needed a furious 2nd half comeback AT HOME to beat Wisconsin, and who has beaten exactly 1 BCS conference team this year, and lost to UCLA, SOS: 62) is demonstrably better than a 5-0 Northwestern team that beat Syracuse (SOS: 79) on the road, and beat Vandy (SOS: 37) and Boston College (SOS: 88)?

You laud Nebraska's ability to "bounce back after losing to UCLA," but Northwestern only put itself in a position to NEED to bounce back when it played Syracuse....on the road....in a sauna....and it did so.

I guess I'm buying on Northwestern because it's not like anyone else has given us any reason to believe in them in the Legends, and because I'm starting to believe that Northwestern's offense is the best single unit in the B1G -- especially when they deploy Colter in multiple positions (which I'm fairly certain we'll see the rest of the season -- it seems like McCall and Fitz were holding that particular wrinkle for conference games only). Is there someone else we should believe in for the Legends?

Hilary:

Okay, here I go...

Is this team for real: Ehhh.... with every week that goes by, I'm becoming more convinced. I'm not quite there yet, my drunken power poll vote this week notwithstanding, but I'm getting there. The fact is, there were games this year that we've played that we would have lost in other years that I've watched this team. Syracuse was vintage Cardiac Cats, but that game against Vandy and the game against BC could easily have been lost by Wildcat teams of old. In the worst years, that Indiana game would have been a goner as soon as the Hoosiers mounted any semblance of a comeback.

But this year seems different. We aren't losing those games. I know, I know, we've yet to beat anyone TRULY impressive, but as I look at the carnage in the rest of the conference, I'm not sure that could be said about most of the other B1G teams. Excepting OSU (and even their resume this year has serious flaws), who out there has any signature wins right now? Who looks like they could really steamroll the conference?

The one thing that really makes me willing to believe is how the offense has been evolving over the last couple of games. Trevor Siemian isn't just a backup to Kain Colter these days -- he's a legit second option, and when he comes in, Colter often stays in to line up at receiver. The two of them seem to have a great chemistry going on now, and I think the variability you get with the two of them (not even touching on the run game or the option looks) makes the NU team a hard team to game plan against. The only questions I have remaining are thus: what's the deal with the occasional stall-outs in the red zone? And, can our defense hang with legit offenses? I'm concerned about our secondary.

The only defense I'm really worried about on the schedule is Michigan State. All of their problems thus far seem to be on offense, with everyone knowing that their defense is the real deal. William Gholston is legit scary. And he's the key to stopping the NU offense. The best way to stop Northwestern is via the sack. Turn Wildcat downs into negative yardage. Why? Because that makes Northwestern's play calling a bit more predictable. The scary part about our offense is that we have a lot of options to pick up five or six yards. But if you make us have to pick up 10 or 15 because we lose yardage on a down, then it'll be easier to guess what we're going to do.

My question for Chad and Cory: I don't think that this team is 2011 Illinois, but could we be? Is that even a realistic possibility?

Chad:

Could this team be 2011 Illinois?

No. Hell no. A THOUSAND TIMES no.

Is this Northwestern team coached by Ron Zook? No.

Is this Northwestern team completely terrible in 2 phases (like Illinois was in special teams and offense)? No.

Is this Northwestern team competing in the better 2011 B1G vs. the allegedly weak 2012 B1G? No.

Now, could Northwestern's fast start end up less than stellar? Yes. We could see Northwestern drop, in my opinion, AT MOST 5 games (probably MSU, UM, Nebraska, Penn State, and Iowa....I don't think they get beat by Minny or Illinois). But they won't pull the worst choke job of all time, winning 6 only to drop 6. Fitz won't allow it, the team leadership on this Northwestern team won't allow it, and having the worst team in the entire B1G (Illinois) as the last team on your schedule won't allow it.

Cory:

Hilary's drunken Power Poll vote, I feel, encapsulates what I have to feel to put Northwestern at #1. Is that to say that you have to be drunk to think Northwestern could be left standing at the end of the B1G season? No. (You might also have to be Chad.)

In all seriousness, Chad, I have to take a little exception with your reasoning here:

I guess I'm buying on Northwestern because it's not like anyone else has given us any reason to believe in them in the Legends, and because I'm starting to believe that Northwestern's offense is the best single unit in the B1G

I agree that no one in the Legends has given us real reason to believe in them, and I chose Nebraska because I think that if they can keep Taylor Martinez from armpunting and Rex Burkhead chugging downhill, they could do damage. But I understand your logic that Northwestern, by virtue of their offense, deserves consideration.

Here's the thing.

Northwestern's defense has to hold teams. Chad, I see you reaching for your "but but but 90 ypg rushing" card. Put it away. The stat that matters is pass defense. And Northwestern's vitals are 2 INTs, 1.6 sacks/gm, and289 ypg. Those are not impressive numbers. I've watched too many Vikings defenses have a Top-5 rush defense in the NFL, then give up ten billion yards passing. Ted knows what I mean. I need to see the 'Cats defense go toe-to-toe with an upper-level pass attack in the B1G before I can crown their asses (my homage to a Northwestern coach gone by).

The only other real "thing" I want to see, besides a real passing test (which we by all accounts failed at Syracuse and need to try at again), is NU facing a between-the-tackles runner. I want to see NU stop Burkhead, Weisman, and Bell. If we can control those rushers and force Martinez, Vandenberg, and Maxwell to beat us in the air, I think we have a legitimate shot to win each and every one of those games.

This team isn't 2011 Illinois. Northwestern is better-coached, -disciplined, and -balanced for a Big Ten season than the Illini. I just point to the Minnesota-Illinois game from last November. Those Illini players had visibly (and I hate talking on-field psychology) quit on Ron Zook. That doesn't happen under Pat Fitzgerald.

That leaves me revising my prediction upwards by 1 game. 7-5/8-4, with a 9-3 (5-3) record being eminently possible but still a distinct challenge. Is that vague enough to work? Welcome to Northwestern football.

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