In as typical a Northwestern fashion as possible, Chad -- one of our thousands of resident Northwestern writers -- let someone else bring the food to the table. Just like the Northwestern graduates would have their Butlers pick up only the finest from the Chef around the corner, I'm doing my best to bring the quality that Chad usually does each week (Note: I actually did volunteer to give Chad a break and come up with questions from a non-Northwestern perspective. We should be nicer to our Northwestern overlords so that when they are actually our boss, they will take it easier on us.).
In today's fine-dining themed potluck we all use the fancy forks to talk about Northwestern's high expectations for 2013, the issues that face Northwestern's defense, the two-headed QB machine that the Wildcats look to push out, and what it means to be somebody's, 'Northwestern.' Bon Appétit!
"We won a bowl!!! We're the Kings of the World!!!"
1. Caviar and Salmon Blini Tortes Going into this next year, Northwestern is as good a bet as anyone in the Legends division and it seems like fans are carefully excited about the prospect of buying tickets to Indianapolis. And honestly, who can blame them? Northwestern returns its two-headed QB monster in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, its All-B1G Everything Venric Mark, and a slew of role players on both side of the ball. They definitely have some momentum and success with their first bowl win in forever, and Coach Fitz seems to have this ship sailing smoothly and in the right direction. Of course, expectations always seem to be the kryptonite to the Wildcat's success. [looks directly at Chad predicting 11-1]. With that in mind, what is Northwestern's ceiling this year? What do you all see as potential pitfalls to them achieving success?
Ted Glover: Disregard everything Chad says about Northwestern. Hell, disregard everything everyone says BECAUSE WE DON'T WATCH THE GODDAMN GAMES. In all seriousness, they have a tough opening slate of conference games. Ohio State will be their bellweather game; beat them at home, and assuming they're undefeated they'll move into the top 5, and anything is possible. But then they have back to back games at Madison and at home against an improving Gophers team who gave them a tough game last year. They also have a tough three game stretch at Lincoln, and then the two Michigans at home in back to back weeks. I can go back and forth in one conversation from Northwestern being the best team in the Legends to the third or fourth, depending on how MSU's offense shakes out.
C.E. Bell: Living up to high expectations involves: (a) having lots of returning/experienced talent, especially at key positions; (b) filling departing players' slots with equally/more talented younger players; (c) continuity/improvement in the coaching staff; (d) avoiding injuries/luck. Northwestern in 2013 certainly has talent returning at key positions (Mark, Colter/Siemian, Vitabile, most of the WRs, Tyler Scott at DE, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby at LB, Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose in the secondary, Jeff Budzien at kicker), and continuity on its coaching staff (zero turnover for I think the 3rd or 4th straight year). Injuries/luck are just that -- unpredictable. So the big question for Northwestern is thus whether the replacements for guys that graduated last year (Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward on OL, Brian Arnfelt at DT, Nate Williams at DE, David Nwabuisi at LB) can play at the same or even a higher level. So will they?
I think the answer is yes. Fitz and the NU staff have always done a great job of developing players, turning less-heralded (but truly talented) players into guys that win games in the B1G (frequently thanks to redshirting a LOT of guys). The question has always been recruiting. Anecdotal evidence from so-called recruiting experts says that Fitz's classes have improved significantly every year he's been there, which means our new players should/could be better than ones we lost. (You also have seen, every year, an increase in guys who NU lands that were offered by other major programs; whereas it used to be we were competing vs. the MAC for most of our players).
So what's Northwestern's ceiling? They were 5:03 away from a perfect season last year, and they could be better. The "ceiling" is undefeated and playing for a national championship.
Do I think they get there? No. (A lot of that has to do with replacing IU and PSU with OSU and Wisconsin on the schedule). But 9-11 wins is certainly in play, as is an appearance in Indy.....and while my 2011 prediction went down in flames, that team dealt with Persa's injury, no running game, no pass rush, and very little talent in the secondary. This year, NU has TWO healthy QBs that can win, a 1300+ yard rusher returning in the backfield (plus some talented recruits in Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley coming off redshirt seasons), the B1G's returning leader in sacks (Tyler Scott) and....well, less questions in the secondary (VanHoose and Campbell are legitimately good). Stay healthy, stay focused, and play hard, and they should at least be in the running for a premiere bowl slot and in the conference title game discussion.
MNWildcat: Northwestern's ceiling is 12-0. Is that preposterous? You bet your ass. But what the hell, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. Before you all shit your pants though, that's the ceiling, and it's incredibly improbable. NU will be dogs to OSU at home, dogs to Wisconsin on the road, and dogs to Nebraska at Memorial. But I'd put the 'Cats at 25% to win two of those three, and about 10% to win all three. I'm comfortable expecting 10 wins in the regular season, possibly with some kind of crazy three-way 6-2 tie atop the Legends Division with UN-L, NU (no i dont care), and Michigan. I'd say the basement, not that you asked, is 7-5 on this team.
Aaron Yorke: Northwestern's defense will hold the team back again unless drastic improvement is seen. If you look at the schedule, the wind could be taken out of NU's sails pretty quickly this year. The first two conference games are versus Ohio State and at Wisconsin. Those are two Leaders Division teams that the Wildcats didn't have to play last season. If they can get off to a 1-1 start in conference play, we can start talking about a division title, but there's still a gauntlet to run in November with Nebraska and both Michigan teams on the slate. Northwestern's ceiling is a division championship, but it will almost certainly need help to achieve one (ie: the Wildcats aren't going undefeated in conference play).
Hilary Lee: I think their ceiling is certainly 11-1, as I can't realistically imagine an undefeated season. However, that's not where I realistically put them. The schedule is just too difficult for me to imagine that they won't trip up multiple times. That being said, I've learned never to count this team out, so who the hell knows where they will actually end up.
MSULaxer: The schedule makers did Northwestern no favors this year as they skip IU and Purdue and pull OSU and Wisconsin from the other division. Out of confernce games at Cal and against a resurgent Syracuse leave little room for error for the Wildcats. If Fitzies boys are able to put it all together this year...well wouldn't it be something for an undefeated NU to play for the NC (with wins over MSU, UM, Cal, NU-L, and OSU to their credit)? I think this is the strongest B1G we've seen in a while. UW even with a coaching change will be tough. UM appears by all accounts to be back. OSU is out of "Time Out". MSU has the best defense in the conference and a schedule made for a glory run and Nebraska is Nebraska. I'm really excited for some great, great games in conference come fall.
I understand that Northwestern held teams to low pass efficiency, but MSU threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern so there's that.
2. Cavatelli Pasta with Lobster, Spring Peas, and Mascarpone: One of the things holding Northwestern back last year is that they could not stop people from throwing the ball last year. In fact, Northwestern finished bottom of the B1G last season in passing defense and 99th overall. Those are not-so-great statistics that mask a pretty good run defense that finished fourth in the league. And really, this is the question going into 2013, can Northwestern stop teams from just throwing over their heads? More importantly, will it matter in the run-heavy Big Ten? Does Northwestern really need to have a great pass defense to succeed or will their run defense give them enough to make this a moot point?
Graham Filler: This is "the time" to have a terrible pass defense, if you have to have a terrible anything. Most teams are not featuring downfield passing games. In fact, only Indiana and Nebraska could claim some semblance of an effective downfield passing attack.
Ted Glover: Yeah, that's the rub about Northwestern, at least for me. Name a guy in the Northwestern secondary that scares you. On offense, Venric Mark and Kain Colter petrify me, but no one on their defense does. And let's not pretend Northwestern's run defense is something akin to the Berlin Wall, because it isn't. Big, physical lines can handle the Wildcats, and they don't have a guy that can shut down the top receiver on their opponent's offense. But Northwestern was staggeringly opportunistic in 2013, going +14 in turnover margin last year. It seemed that every almost every time they needed a turnover last year, they got one, and you have to ask yourself if a +14 is realistic again this year. I don't personally think it is, which means that they'll lose a couple more close games than they did last year.
C.E. Bell: A couple cautions before we throw the NU secondary under the bus. First, two of their worst performances (against Michigan and the 2nd half versus Nebraska) came with redshirt freshmen and VERY talented cornerback Nick VanHoose on the bench with injuries (oh, and the Syracuse and Penn State games? VanHoose's first game and first road B1G games, so I'll cut him a bit of slack for having "off" days). Second, that same NU secondary/defense picked off Mississippi State's Tyler Russell 4 times in its bowl game and held him to 42.9% passing and just 106 passing yards (by comparison, his season average without that game: 59.8% completion rate and 232.6 ypg. Russell threw just 6 INTs in 12 total other games compared to his 4 vs. Northwestern). Third, passing yards allowed tend to increase when the other team is behind and passing to catch up/stop the clock; even in Northwestern's 3 losses in 2012, it was winning late into the 4th quarter (see: 5:03), meaning ALL of Northwestern's opponents were throwing the ball more than normal to attempt comebacks. And finally, pass defense isn't just about the secondary - it's also about the pass rush, and Northwestern's should be solid if not improved, with Tyler Scott, sophomore Dean Lowry, and redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo (an ESPN Top 150 recruit who chose NU over Alabama and Ohio State, amongst others) bringing heat on opposing QBs in 2013.
NU's pass defense needs to improve (ideally to the Gator Bowl level) if it wants to have a truly special season, but I think the concerns are slightly overblown. NU's not an elite defensive team by any stretch, but the run defense is VERY good and makes most opponents pretty one-dimensional offensively. Do that (and combine it with a good offense and solid special teams) and you'll win a lot of games regardless of how many pass yards you allow.
MNWildcat: A-HEM. Had you read my Smartest Guys post, Jesse, you big jerk, Northwestern turned in a Pass Efficiency defense of 119.87 in 2012, 33rd best in the nation. Their raw yardage allowed was abysmal, but it was a classic bend-don't-break NU defense that finally did less breaking, save for in their memorable 4th quarter collapses. What hurts the 'Cats is not that they let teams throw over their heads, but that their secondary failed more by the end of the season, seemingly, at stopping (or containing, even) elite WR talent like Kenny Bell or Roy Roundtree. Northwestern needs to sustain their run stats from 2012 and marginally improve the pass defense, avoiding those breaks at the wrong time.
Aaron Yorke: Here's another question for you: Was Northestern's rush defense even that good last season? Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska didn't have much trouble running the ball on the Wildcats last season, and two of those teams are back on the 2013 schedule. When you add in Wisconsin and Ohio State, you have to figure that Northwestern is in trouble if the run defense isn't as good as advertised. But let's just assume for argument's sake that Northwestern will be able to stop the run against good team this year. A good pass defense still matters in the Big Ten. Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner have proven to be perfectly capable throwers when given the opportunity. I'm assuming that Braxton Miller has been working on that part of his game as well, since, you know, these kids tend to want to play quarterback in the NFL some day.
Hilary Lee: Eh... maybe? There's some intriguing signs of defense improvement, but I still don't know how much they'll be able to cover up that glaring weakness. I think the Wildcats will still be relying on outscoring opponents and forcing turnovers to win games. If they do that well, I'm okay with it.
Yes, this is MS Paint made.
3.Roast Magret Duck Breasts with Shaved Black Truffles There seems to be a bit of debate on the Northwestern Two-Headed Quarterback situation. On one hand, Colter and Siemian execute the plays they need to execute, give Defensive Coordinators a nightmare scenario of preparation, and the weapons at Fitz and Companies disposal are infinite when you mix the two skillsets. Conversely, when you have two quarterbacks, you really have none, right? In the Nebraska game, the interesting thing was that coaches seemed to know what to expect the moment the two quarterbacks rotated in and out. The element of surprise decreases throughout the season and while Northwestern has a good offense, it did not have a good enough offense to tell you the play and expect it to always work. With that in mind, how successful do you see Northwestern's Dual Quarterback scheme working this season with each coach having more film than before? Is there any scenario where one quarterback wins the job? If so, which one?
Graham Filler: The 2 quarterback system, while beautiful and working as magically as possible right now, is also a lightening rod to discussion and criticism. One loss and immediately it becomes topic de jour for placing blame. It would be interesting to know the interworkings of how the 2 quarterback system is run at Northwestern; how the playbook gets set up, who preps the quarterbacks, who makes in-game changes to game plans...
Ted Glover: I'm not a fan of the two QB system, but that's just me. I think Kain Colter is the better option and gives Northwestern the best chance to win. But it's tough to argue with the success they had last year shuttling Colter and Siemian.
C.E. Bell: I shamelessly ripped this off from a comment at Lake the Posts, but which QB would you want based on these 2012 numbers?
QB 1: 1,271 rushing yards (5.6 YPC); 13 rushing TDs; 58.3% completion rate; 2,039 yards passing; 15 TDs, 6 INTs
QB 2: 942 rushing yards (4.9 YPC); 13 rushing TDs; 62.4% completion rate; 2,184 yards passing; 14 TDs, 7 INTs.
Pretty close, huh? All things equal, you could go either way but you probably pick QB1 thanks to the extra rushing yards and one more TD pass/one fewer INT.
QB1 is preseason Heisman watch list candidate Braxton Miller in 2012. QB2 is the combined 2012 output of Colter and Siemian. So would you rather entrust your offense to one man, or two? If one guy gets dinged for Northwestern, the other guy can still move the offense.
Also, keep in mind -- last year was an experiment for NU with the 2 QB system. Mick McCall is a VERY good offensive coordinator, and will do a much better job keeping the element of surprise in the offense in 2013; spring practice reports suggest lots more option looks (and more depth in it, thanks to Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley), Colter with better/improved arm strength, and Siemian doing very well (albeit not Colter-level) running the ball. And keep in mind, Colter wasn't exactly a slouch throwing the ball in 2012 (he had a 68.7% completion rate, which was HIGHER than Siemian's at 58.7%, and Colter threw for 872 yards and 8 TDs), and Siemian can run the option (he faked the entire Mississippi State offense out in the Gator Bowl). So I think the dual QB system will work....provided injuries don't derail it.
MNWildcat: If Kain Colter shows up and can throw the ball efficiently, a la Dan Persa, the job is his. Otherwise, Northwestern will always need to throw the ball, and if Colter can't, Siemian will retain his role. To your other point, I think that Northwestern showed in the bowl game that Mick McCall is going to use both QBs in both roles (Siemian's rushing TD, Colter's 16 attempts to Siemian's 20). Getting Colter marginally more comfortable passing the ball and Siemian to improve at the read-option would do wonders for being able to use the two more interchangably and cutting down on predictability.
Aaron Yorke: So far it looks like I'm really low on NU this season, but I really dig the two-QB system. Most of the time two quarterbacks equals none, but that's because most of the time the team in question has two crappy quarterbacks. That isn't the case with the Wildcats, and as long as they're willing throw the ball around a little bit with Colter in the game, opponents will be kept off balance. With Siemian, you can run a pro-style offense, especially considering how dynamic a back Mark is. If I had to choose one guy to win the job outright, it would be Siemian because I'm not sure Colter's athleticism a very big an advantage against the more athletic B1G defenses. That said, Colter has more upside because of a more untapped potential in the passing game. I can't tell you if that potential will materialize this season, though.
Hilary Lee: I think it only works if the coaches try to mix it up a little. While we don't expect Siemian to do much running, Kain Colter did suffer arm injuries last year that limited his throwing ability. Before injury, he actually could throw the ball when necessary. I don't really see them abandoning the two-headed QB system unless one of the QBs gets seriously hurt or develops serious effectiveness problems. Besides, just because another team can anticipate what type of play is coming doesn't mean they can necessarily stop it.
I hate this guy.
4. Les Jardins de Pierre Hermé Macarons: Last year, I did the hate piece on Northwestern and I likened them to Iowa State because really, they seemed like a team that you should beat, but you never feel comfortable going in. With that in mind, other than Northwestern, what is your school's version of 'Spoiler Team'? That is, what team do you find most annoying because on paper you should beat them, but the reality is you just can never get them to go away. It's okay if you choose Northwestern. That feels very meta of you, though (Our Northwestern is Northwestern... woah).
Graham Filler: Because of the oddness of "incredibly consistent UM program" v. "RichRod years", Michigan doesn't really have a team like this. UM either dominated you for years, lost to you during the RichRod tenure...or you're Ohio State. So I'll go with Michigan State on this one. Even when MSU would struggle so mightily during these last few years, they would end up beating Michigan (four out of the last five). Even when the coaches would go conservative and allow Michigan back in the game, Sparty was still winning.
Ted Glover: Dear Ohio State, if you lose to Purdue this year, you will be able to see the light from The Great Columbus Couch Burning from outer space.
C.E. Bell: Who is Northwestern's version of Northwestern? I'll go with.....Purdue. Northwestern is 6-10 vs. since the beginning of college football in 1995. Purdue's win over Northwestern in 2000 in part resulted in a 3-way tie between NU, Purdue, and Michigan for the B1G title, sending Purdue to Pasadena, and NU (and me in my senior year as a fan) to the Alamo Bowl to get trucked by a pissed off Nebraska (screw you Solich for running a flea-flicker/halfback pass up 52-17....yes, that happened, and yes, it still makes me hate Nebraska to this day, their way too nice fans notwithstanding). The 2010 loss to Purdue in Evanston when Northwestern was 5-0 and on the verge of being ranked? Gut wrenching. And in that entire 1995-2010 time period, even the NU wins are close -- only the 2008 (48-26 NU win) and 1995 games (23-8 NU win) were by more than one score.
Plus, really.....who is Purdue? What is a West Lafayette? It's baffling to lose so often to something that does not exist.
MNWildcat: Indiana football. I mean, yeah, Northwestern is Northwestern's Northwestern, because you never know when they're going to fantastically shit the bed (Indiana '08, Army '11, etc). But Indiana. I'm never comfortable against that offense.
Aaron Yorke: Penn State's "Spoiler Team" is kind of Northwestern, because it always gives State a hard time. The Lions usually come back and win though, no matter how far they fall behind the Wildcats. There's also Iowa to consider, even though the beatdown that PSU laid in Kinnick last season did a lot towards exercising the demons there. If I had to choose one, I'd say Northwestern, just because its chances of beating Penn State in the future seem greater than Iowa's right now. Neither team is on Penn State's schedule this season, so maybe someone else will emerge, but really I'm hoping that the Lions spoil someone else's season.
Hilary Lee: For Wisconsin, that team is Northwestern. For Northwestern, that team is Purdue.
MSULaxer: It goes with out saying: Purdue. The all-time series between MSU and Purdue is 32-28-3 in favor of MSU including win streaks of 6 games (1978-84) and 4 games (2001-06) for the Boilermakers. It seems like with the assets and resources that MSU has that the series should be more lopsided in MSU's favor. Generally speaking its a really competitive series. Wins for MSU are usually too close for comfort and losses are of the headscratching variety. If MSU is to achieve the top of the conference finishes we hope for - teams with histories like Purdue are ones we have to beat on a consistent basis. Our record in the last 10 meetings is tied 5-5. That's got to turn into 7-3 or 6-4 at worst going forward.