I should have titled this, "Northwestern Addition," because they're all so smart. Right?
/shows self the door
Northwestern has been one of the surprise teams in the country, and hold one of the most impressive wins in all of college football – their week one triumph over No. 9 Stanford. They've flustered a bit in the past three weeks, falling to Michigan and Iowa and nearly Nebraska, but they are still one of the top teams in the Big Ten. They were also ranked No. 21 in the new College Football Playoff rankings earlier this week.
Penn State seems to be clicking at just the right time, with the offense looking like it's finally realizing some of its potential heading into the Northwestern-Michigan-Michigan State gauntlet to end the regular season. Will they be able to continue rolling against what is statistically one of the better defenses in the country? Will the Nittany Lions be able to solve the somewhat dual-threat-ish quarterback style of Clayton Thorson?
For help with those questions and more, we spoke to Zach Pereles of InsideNU, the wonderful Northwestern blog of the lovable and dysfunctional SB Nation family. Thanks to Zach for taking the time to answer our questions, and be sure to check out my answers to his.
Black Shoe Diaries: Northwestern started 2015 off blazing hot particularly with the Stanford victory, which looks better and better each week. It's not fair to say they've taken a downturn, considering they've lost to two top-16 teams in Michigan and Iowa. However, giving up 27+ points in four consecutive weeks seems like it might be a problem. What should we think of the Wildcat defense right now?
InsideNU: It's certainly not unfair to say the defense has regressed. This is still a very good unit, but not the elite one it was for the first five games of the year. The key is the defensive linemen. When they are effectively occupying blockers, that allows standout linebacker Anthony Walker to play downhill and make plays on the ballcarrier. But when the opposing offensive line gets a push, Walker sometimes struggles, and Northwestern as a whole struggles to stop the run. Additionally, Northwestern lost Matthew Harris, an outstanding cornerback, in the Michigan game to injury, and he has missed the past two games since. But he's returning this week, which will be a huge boost.
BSD: On the flip side, the Northwestern offense has been lackluster overall. The leading receiver is Dan Vitale, who has fewer than 300 yards. Is a strong passing game necessary for this offense to succeed?
INU: Northwestern doesn't need a strong passing game, necessarily, but they have to find a way to get yards from Clayton Thorson. Against Nebraska, that meant on the ground in the first half and through the air in the second. When Northwestern hasn't been able to run the ball, the passing game usually hasn't been able to salvage the offense. Northwestern doesn't need huge numbers through the air, but they do need efficiency to balance the ground game.
BSD: Justin Jackson has been awesome this season. What is making him so successful? Do the Wildcats typically go as he does?
INU: Jackson was terrific for the first five games of the year and has seen a steep dropoff in carries since. He's a patient runner who has outstanding vision and agility even though he doesn't have breakaway speed. Nebraska managed to bottle him up on the ground somewhat in Northwestern's most recent game (two weeks ago), but he responded with two big catches, including a huge 3rd-and-3 catch-and-run that basically sealed the game. The offense does typically go as he goes, though, and for Northwestern to get back to its winning ways consistently, Jackson will have to start finding more holes to run through.
BSD: Carl Nassib has been an unstoppable force all season for Penn State. How has Northwestern fared so far in shutting down opposing pass rushers? Should Penn State fans expect to see Nassib contained this weekend, or will he run wild in the backfield as he has so often this season?
INU: Northwestern has held up decently in pass protection, partially because of good play by the line and partially because of good mobility and awareness from Clayton Thorson. But Nassib is a whole different animal, and he'll be a nightmare for Eric Olson and Blake Hance, the two tackles. They've been ok in general, but again, Nassib is terrific. Expect to see a lot of running backs staying in to chip him.
BSD: It seems as if the rankings are valuing their losses to Iowa (No. 10) and Michigan (No. 16) more so than their wins over Stanford (No. 9) and Duke (robbed by Miami). Is this fair? Do Northwestern fans feel their team is underrated heading into this game?
I think Northwestern fans are generally satisfied with the ranking, especially considering that the two losses weren't even close. I'd say Northwestern is appropriately ranked. Yes, Stanford has looked terrific since Week 1 and Duke still has a shot at the ACC Championship with a win this weekend over UNC, but two huge losses showed Northwestern isn't near the tier of the nation's top 15 teams, but probably just outside that, as they are currently ranked.
BSD: Who wins this game and why? Do you think the 2.5-point spread in Northwestern's favor is a fair one?
Northwestern is 1-8 in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure coming off a bye, but I think this is the week that trend changes. The Wildcats get Jackson back on track and Clayton Thorson takes care of the ball. The defense, revitalized after the bye week, will get to Christian Hackenberg early and often as Northwestern squeaks out a 17-14 victory, legitimatizing the 2.5-point spread.
Thanks again to Zach for taking the time to answer our questions, and remember to read up over at InsideNU to get the true inside scoop on all things Northwestern this week and all season long.