I asked our esteemed non-football watching panel to answer some questions and stream-of-consciousness their deepest darkest thoughts on Saturday's Game(s) Of The Week.
I received awesomeness. Here are my questions -
Penn State isn't exactly the toast of the B1G right now, football wise. They did something that no traditional Top-Level program (UM, OSU, PSU, Wisconsin) had done since 2002: They lost to Indiana. Where does Penn State go from here? Should they throwthrowthrow versus Michigan? Or runrunrun against the less than spectacular Michigan front four?
Northwestern: Everyone is going to be asking the same question: Can Northwestern bounce back from the Ohio State loss? What does Coach Fitz have to tell his squad?
Wisconsin: Did the Badgers learn anything from watching OSU/NW?
Michigan: Finally, a game where they played like they should play. Questions: How does D Gardner improve his accuracy? Can the run-game find its POWER RUN soul?
Here are the answers -
Northwestern, Wisconsin Are About As Evenly Matched As Possible
C.E. BELL says:
"Northwestern: Everyone is going to be asking the same question: Can Northwestern bounce back from the Ohio State loss? What does Coach Fitz have to tell his squad?"
I'm honestly not worried about Northwestern's ability to bounce back. Every time Northwestern lost in 2012, it bounced right back with a win (and most of the guys from 2012 are back in 2013). Fitz's constant refrain is to celebrate or mourn Saturday night after a game, and to flush it all on Sunday to focus on going 1-0 the upcoming week. This is a team with a lot of confident, experienced leadership (namely Kain Colter, Tyler Scott, and Venric Mark), and everything I've heard from the post-game reactions in the media suggests that the team isn't licking its wounds, but rather is fired up by the Ohio State game and dedicated to getting a rematch in Indianapolis.
What I am worried about, though, is figuring out how to stop Wisconsin's excellent run game, especially on the road in a hostile Camp Randall. The injury to Northwestern's best DT, Sean McEvily, clearly hurt the Wildcats' ability to bring pressure up the middle and clog running lanes against Carlos Hyde and Ohio State, and while there has been no official injury report, McEvily's name was notably missing from this week's 2-deep. Will Hampton, Chance Carter, CJ Robbins, and Max Chapman (as well as Deonte Gibson and Tyler Scott when Northwestern goes to it's all DE defensive line) are going to have to step up their game to slow down Melvin Gordon and James White.
I do think, however, that we'll see some improvement in Northwestern's run defense versus what it was against Ohio State. For one thing, Northwestern will be able to cheat a bit more against the run against the Badgers than against the Buckeyes. While Abbrederis is an extremely talented WR (if not the best in the conference), the rest of the Badgers' receivers don't scare me and Joel Stave isn't the same threat with his arm as Braxton Miller. Expect Northwestern to cheat up its safeties just a bit (at least one of them; I'd expect it to be Traveon Henry, with Ibraheim Campbell remaining back to offer help on whoever is covering Abbrederis) to help contain the running game. Also, whereas Hyde absolutely killed Northwestern with runs up the middle, Wisconsin's run game (at least from what I've seen) is focused more on off-tackle and jet-sweep action, which will funnel action towards Northwestern's excellent defensive ends and linebackers.
Now Northwestern won't shut down Wisconsin's running game by any stretch - Gordon and White are just too talented to not get their yards. But I think the Cats can slow them down enough to keep the Cats in this game and give the offense a chance to win.
Can NU's offense do that? The big question there will be converting red-zone opportunities into TDs; Northwestern was forced to kick 3 FGs against Ohio State after getting into the red zone, whereas turning even one of those FGs into a TD could have drastically changed the complexion of the game. Northwestern's offense moved the ball very effectively between the 20s against the Buckeyes, so they should be able to do the same against a Badger defense that isn't quite as talented (with some notable exceptions, like Chris Borland) as Ohio State's. The Badgers' secondary has also been very suspect in both losses to Arizona State and Ohio State, so I'd expect to see them tested regularly by Trevor Siemian, Kain Colter, and Northwestern's deep bench of receivers (four guys - Dan Vitale, Christian Jones, Tony Jones, and Rashad Lawrence - have had 90+ yard receiving games this season). But ultimately, it'll be NU's approach in the red zone that matters. I think NU's coaching staff learned their lesson from Ohio State, so I'd expect to see a lot more of Venric Mark and Kain Colter in the read option in the red zone, since that arguably gives NU it's best chance to convert. (Oh, and I have no particular reason for thinking this, but I think Venric Mark is going to have a huge game against Wisconsin. He was clearly fired up against the Buckeyes, but he was just getting back on the field....this week, he's going to come out like a man possessed. Again, just a hunch).
Also, one additional cool fact for the Northwestern-Wisconsin game: Kain Colter enters the game with 1,945 career passing yards and 1,944 career rushing yards, which is just insane balance. He has a shot to go over 2,000 yards passing and rushing in his career against Wisconsin. (Coincidentally, he also has 676 career receiving yards, which means he has an outside shot this season of finishing with 3k passing, 2k rushing, and 1k receiving if the Wildcats line him up in the slot some more)
HILARY LEE says:
I went to the NU - OSU game on Saturday night (thanks Chad!), proudly wearing purple, of course. One thought occurred to me during that game: no matter who wins this, I know right now that I'm watching a game between the two best teams in the conference. Yep, that means right now I think, on the whole, Northwestern is a better team than Wisconsin.
Buuuuut (there had to be a but, right?) I'm still not sure that Northwestern will go up to Camp Randall and win on Saturday.
Like I said, Northwestern is on the whole probably a more complete team right now than Wisconsin is. In large part, this comes from three factors:
A more consistent passing game - Joel Stave had a good game against OSU. There's no doubt about that. When OSU managed to contain Melvin Gordon, Stave stepped up and showed that the Wisconsin offense could still function. It wasn't quite enough, but it was impressive. Still, until I see that happen more often, I'm not convinced that Stave is that great of a passer consistently. And consistency matters. Northwestern, between Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, has put together better passing showings throughout the season than Stave and the Badgers have.
More wideout threats - No doubt about, Jared Abbrederis is dangerous. But, if you do manage to contain Abby, Wisconsin turns to its tight ends and.....? There are no other receivers on the team quite as dangerous as Abbrederis. I'm not entirely sure that Northwestern CAN contain Abby, given that OSU had problems with it, but there's no doubt that the Wildcats have more receiving options that can cause significant damage than the Badgers do.
A better secondary - I don't think Northwestern's secondary is the best in the conference. But, they showed admirable ability to contain OSU's air game this past Saturday. I'm not sure if that was because they played particularly well or because Miller had an off night. Even if it was the latter, though, they're better than the weak point that is the secondary of the Badgers.
But. Here's two other things I know about Wisconsin/Northwestern:
Wisconsin is insanely difficult to beat at home. In the last five seasons (including 2013), Wisconsin has lost just 3 times at home. Two of those losses came in overtime last season against MSU and OSU. And, at least as far back as 2002, Northwestern hasn't beaten Wisconsin at home. Granted, they've only played against each other at Camp Randall three times over these past eleven years. But, still.
I also know that Northwestern has a pernicious habit of playing to the level of the team they are facing. So, that great performance that we saw out of the Wildcats against OSU? There's nothing about Northwestern's play this season or the last few that convinces me that they will play that well against the Badgers.
Finally, it's true that Carlos Hyde is a good running back. But, any honest person will tell you that Melvin Gordon is better. Yes, the Badgers run game does tend to involve a lot of jet sweeps and runs to the outside in addition to runs up the middle. Yes, the lesser quality of the Badgers passing game probably lets Northwestern stack the box a bit more. But, Melvin Gordon has acceleration that Hyde simply does not have. He also has the ability to break tackles or simply make guys miss. If Northwestern doesn't consistently bring him down at first contact he will burn them for huge yardage, and possibly touchdowns.
Maybe Northwestern doesn't suffer a let down going up to Madison. But I wouldn't bet on them coming out of Madison with a W.
I, too, went to the OSU-Northwestern game. I may have, um, written something about it. I'm not sure.
I don't like playing Wisconsin anywhere, be it at Camp Randall or in your home stadium. Maybe it's something about watching the 2005 blocked punt with my Gophers fan dad. Maybe it's going to Safetyfest '08 with him at Camp Randall. Maybe it's 70-23. If that team gets rolling, seemingly no matter what the year, they're pretty tough to stop. I had the good fortune to witness the 'Cats upset of the Badgers in '09, which propelled them to the Outback Bowl. That, though, is an aberration in my memory of 23 years.
Northwestern's habit of "playing to their opponent" doesn't suit them poorly against Wisconsin, on the road, though. This is going to be an amped-up Badgers squad trying to avoid (1) an 0-2 conference start, and (2) a .500 record for the first time since 2008. I don't think it's going to be tough for Northwestern to find a good team to play "up" to. Matchups, however, are a different thing.
Wisconsin has made its living, for as long as I've been alive, on running the Ron Daynes and Montee Balls and Melvin Gordons of the world, straight up the gut, right down your throat until it's 70-23 and you're crying at a bar while your three Badger friends from high school are making fun of you and DON'T YOU KNOW IT'S THANKSGIVING, YOU JERKS. Where was I?
Oh yes, Wisconsin. I've seen Scott Tolzien and Brooks Bollinger and God only knows what other nameless, faceless quarterbacks hide behind that hulking offensive line and make their living finally throwing their first pass at the end of the first quarter, by which the opposing defense is so run-committed that they can't help but give up long play-action looks. Joel Stave is not Brooks Bollinger. He's not even Scott Tolzien. Northwestern, while not handling the run well, handled Braxton Miller shockingly decently on Saturday. I think they can handle Stave again, with lots of 7-man boxes, LBs reading and covering the TEs, and pressing Abbrederis on the CBs' part with a safety over that top. That, at least, is how I want to handle them. I think Wisconsin has just that one weapon less than Ohio State which makes gives Northwestern a better chance on defense.
As for the offensive side for the 'Cats? I feel like I'm strutting just a little too much after Saturday. Bad day in the red zone? This coaching staff will analyze what they did wrong and fix it. I expect to see, like Chad, a lot more speed option with Kain Colter, who will also feel free when he drops back to tuck it and run. And run he will. In case you were wondering (SHUT UP YOU WERE), Colter was 12/12 passing against Ohio State with an 8.2 ypp average. That speaks not only perfectly to what he does as a quarterback, but why he's so tough to beat when he's in. Venric Mark, on the other hand, carried "just" 17 times for 60 yards. I'd like to see that carries number stay the same, but an even bigger commitment to the option as a way to free him up. Then again, this means leaving Trevor Siemian on the bench after he went 13/18 for 245, with 2 TDs to 1 INT. My head hurts...
What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Northwestern is going to throw everything they have at Wisconsin on offense again. I put the keys for Northwestern winning as the same ones as I had last week: win the TOP battle, win the turnover battle. Force Stave into some bad throws, strip Gordon once, and get the Colter/Mark machine humming on the ground. Northwestern wins this in a close one if that happens.
Underperforming Units Will Decide PSU-UM Game
BRIAN GILLIS says:
Michigan is not finding its power running soul anytime soon. Moving Graham Glasgow to center helped some, and the prospect of Chris Bryant at guard is promising, but the fact remains that an interior consisting of second and third year players is not going to dominate the line of scrimmage. The o-line was among the most talked about storylines of the off-season, with the (misguided) hope in Ann Arbor that this group would buck the historical trend and compete at an elite level early in their careers. That is not happening. So Michigan is faced with the same issue it had last year, when it struggled against physical defenses and prospered against overmatched defenses, as evidenced by Michigan averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground in games against Illinois and Purdue and less than half of that against the much stouter Alabama, Notre Dame & Michigan State defenses. So perhaps the real question is, what kind of defense does Penn State really have?
AARON YORKE says:
Penn State has a defense that is much more susceptible through the air than on the ground. The unit allowed Indiana halfback Tevin Coleman to rush for 92 yards on 20 carries, but most of that was on a single 44-yard zone read burst. UCF also had success running the ball on PSU, but again, it was mostly because of a few big plays. The experienced Penn State defensive front is not going to just let the opponent waltz down the field five yards at a time.
The passing defense is a different story. Last week, inexperienced cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams were ripped by IU wide receivers Cody Lattimer and Kofi Hughes for a combined 225 yards. A seasoned pass catcher like Jeremy Gallon should be able to have his way with the PSU secondary.
As for the original question, Penn State should run, run, run, and run some more against Michigan, even if it isn't working that well. Last week coach Bill O'Brien didn't give a lot of work to Akeel Lynch despite the sophomore halfback's 7.7 yards per carry average this season. There's nothing wrong right now with the combination of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, but Zwinak could be a little quicker and Belton could be a little stouter. Lynch might be the full-time bell cow in State's future, and when you're playing a freshman quarterback, the future is now.
Speaking of Christian Hackenberg, Penn State needs to run the ball just to keep him out of 3rd-and-long situations where he has the opportunity to telegraph his throws and turn the ball over. Hackenberg has a heck of an arm, though, and O'Brien should take advantage of it by running lots of play-action and hoping stud wide receiver Allen Robinson can get a step on the safety that will be shadowed over him.