The B1G Picture: Northwestern

by Maxwell Brusky 

Coming off what's being termed a breakout 10 win season for the Wildcats, Northwestern comes into 2013 with a lot of optimism.  With the 2nd longest coaching tenure in the B1G, Pat Fitzgerald has a stable program that's looking to turn the corner into a perennial title contender.  We sit down with Jay of Lake the Posts and Rodger Sherman of Sippin' on Purple.  They give their takes on 2012, what they are looking for in '13, and a few thoughts on our Badgers.   

[BuckAround]:  For this season, the big question on everyone’s mind has to be how Northwestern will deal with having one of its most successful recent seasons and moving forward into 2013 with real expectations – both from fans and Big Ten watchers, locally and nationally. What’s your perception of those expectations and of how the team has dealt with that so far? Are they real?

[Jay Sharman]: NU fans are an interesting brood. We get ticked when we don't get respect from the media, but then when we do get it, we get all superstitious and conjure the nightmarish season of 2001 (when we were defending co-B1G champs, had everyone back and went in to October as a Top 25 team and conference contender before a collassal collapse). Honestly, though, this 2013 team has the highest expectations from the fan base since that season. This is a very mature (yet still young) team. 2012 was supposed to be a "build" year for us, as we were coming off a terrible 6-7 2011 season and another bowl loss, but loss what we thought were key pieces. Boy, were we wrong.  

The team has been all business so far. If media day is any indication, you can tell they have a quiet confidence, but simply are busting to get on the field to prove themselves. Fitz created T-shirts with the number 5:03, representing the exact time that separated the 'Cats from a perfect season last year (all three losses were 4th quarter comebacks including two (Neb, Penn State, that were two TD leads).  I can honestly say I haven't been this excited about a Pat Fitzgerald team. 

The schedule is pretty rough, but I like how we match-up with our in-conference opponents, especially Nebraska (extremely green on defensive front seven). Vanderbilt bolted on their contract with us after we beat them last year, but if we had that road game still on our slate, we'd be up for toughest sledding in the nation.  

 [Rodger Sherman]: Yeah, expectations are high, son!  Let's put it this way: last year, Northwestern had 10 wins for the second time since they started doing forward passes and won a bowl game for the first time since Harry Truman was president. Suffice it to say, IT DON'T HAPPEN TOO OFTEN. And the team returns eight offensive starters, including virtually every important skill position player, and eight defensive players, including almost all of their key playmakers. Not many teams win ten games in a major conference and then don't have any players drafted. They're real, because they're the same people who won ten games last year. 

As for how they're dealing with expectations? It seems like the team is pretty grounded. After all, they're Northwestern.

[BA]: Pretending for a moment that the ‘Cats win the Rose Bowl this season – a not altogether ludicrous suggestion this time around – is there a feeling that the Fitz might finally leave?  (Happened to Brad Stevens!) 

[RS ]:  Naaaaaaaaahhh. You know how coaches spew drivel about how much they love where they are and what their institution does and how great it is? Everybody says it, so typically you roll your eyes. Pat Fitzgerald is literally the only person on the face of the earth who means it. It's borderline creepy, but we're okay with it.

Pat Fitzgerald.jpg

He loves Northwestern, and still feels like he owes them for giving him a shot out of high school. And the school loves him back, and realizes he's the best thing ever to happen to the team. They've shown their willingness to give Fitz whatever resources he needs/wants to stay, whether it be money, years, new practice facilities, whatever. I see how it's analagous to Butler, but it doesn't hold up because there's genuinely no place Fitz would rather be.

[JS ]:  You can never say never, but president Morty Schapiro and AD (nay, VP of blah, blah blah) Jim Phillips are an extremely tight triumverate. They get the value of Fitz and what he brings. It's well known within the tighter NU circles that Notre Dame, Michigan and yes, even Wisconsin made overtures to Fitz, all of which were rebuked. Granted, he's been able to leverage it in to multiple changes in his contract which runs through 2020 (and is tied in with Phillips' deal).  

The big hang-up was facilities, but he got his dream scenario - a $225MM lakeside Monday-Friday practice facility that is going to be downright ridiculous. Then, it's known that Ryan Field is next on the extreme NU makeover plan. 

[BA]: Fitz seems to have been recruiting at a stronger clip in recent years.  Is there a feeling that it will continue to the point where Northwestern can maintain success year to year, rather than wait every third or fourth year to play on New Year’s Day? 

[RS]:  Making bowl games every year for five years isn't consistent success? (Three of those have been on New Year's Day, BTW.) Northwestern hasn't had a losing season since 2006, when Fitz took over a few months before the season because Randy Walker died. That was an outlier. 

The exciting thing NU did that with teams that recruiting experts didn't have much talent, and now Fitz is reeling in that talent. If being a winning team is the base line, it'll be interesting to see where the sky is.

[JS]: I'm going to answer this question and the next one now, since they go hand in hand. Having now gone to five straight bowl games, I feel as if we're entering in to that Joe Tiller-esque run that Purdue had, when they were respected and competitive for seemingly a decade plus. Fitz, at age 38, is the second longest tenured coach in the B1G and has just set the wins record (50) at NU.  Consistency and a raised bar is in full effect. Recruiting has steadily increased each year, despite what the biased recruiting rankings spit out (Fitz's classes average about 15-17 scholarships per year, b/c he takes a 5-year redshirt approach and the recruiting services ding NU based on class size). However this year has been simply unreal. 

The 2013 class featured the likes of national top ten QB Matt Alviti along with some instant impact players like DB Godwin Igwebuike, Keith Watkins and others. However, the momentum we got from winning the Gator Bowl was underestimated by most NU fans. I thought ending the "streak" (nine straight bowl losses) was that final negative perception item, but I thought it was more of a fan thing. I was wrong. Fitz had 13 of 15 (it's now 16 due to a recent transfer) scholarship slots filled by the end of June. 'Cats fans are freaking out b/c we've already landed more 4-star recruits than we have in the history of the school and we've got some incredible players still in the mix, in fact more than we can even land.  When we beat out Texas for a speedy Texas RB as well as Michigan in head to head recruiting, man, are hopes flying high. For good measure, we added yet ANOTHER 4-star QB (Clayton Thorson) and are at a point where Fitz has the competitive depth across the board that he's wanted. 

[BA]:  How big of deal was getting the “bowl monkey” of the ‘Cats’ back? – loved the actual monkey, too, by the way. 

[RS ]:  YES. IT'S GONE. IT'S DEAD. WE DON'T HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT ANYMORE.  

I don't think y'all non-Northwestern people get it. Every year, there was one goal for most NU fans: win a damn bowl game. If it's the Rose Bowl, great. If it's the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, fine, it's a win. 

And yet Northwestern kept losing, in more and more comical ways. It got to the point where NU had not only the longest bowl drought in terms of time, but also the longest in terms of games lost. It's not like they weren't going to games, they just kept ending up slightly worse than the competition, no matter how good the competition was.

AND NOW IT'S GONE. Now we can focus on other stuff. Now we don't have to see that damn chyron. And we'll always have that day, that beautiful day, when that damn monkey finally keeled over and died, a primate that lived far, far too long.

[BA]:  What’s the ceiling for Kain Colter this season?  In the conference this year, the top QBs are Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner – at the end of the season, will we mention Colter with them or will he still be a notch below? 

[JS]:  I don't know if he has a ceiling. You can't mention Kain colter w/o Trevor Siemian. I'd never believe in a million years a 2 QB system could work, but it does. Kain is a flat-out magician on the zone read option and with Venric Mark back there, wow.  Colter still struggles to stretch the field with downfield accuracy, but you have to remember this is a guy who literally alternates between QB and WR from one play to the next. Kain had 20 combined TDs and nearly 1,000 yards rushing and he split most of the snaps.  Fans are buzzing about some Venric Mark in the slot this year which would just be an offensive three-ring circus. Kain has that "it" factor that is really indescribable. I'm expecting him to potentially be a 1,500 yard passer and 1,000 yard rusher. The question is can he set the NCAA record for most yards passing, rushing and receiving in a season.  

Kain Colter.jpg

[RS]:  I don't think it's offensive to say Colter is a notch below. Hell, he's not even the best passer on Northwestern -- he's gonna be splitting snaps with Trevor Siemian, and nobody sees any problem with that, because it worked fine last year, with Siemian handling two-minute drills and other pass-heavy series and Colter murdering people out of the option.

But he's close to the most exciting QB in the league. Not many guys have the athleticism to make the plays he does, and although his throws trend more towards short, accurate looks than beautiful bombs, dude deserves his own playbook.

[BA]:  In the past, and especially including last year in those fateful fourth quarters, it seemed to be defense that faltered at the critical times.  This year, it looks like the personnel is even stronger than last year, and there will be some new faces poised to make an impact – what’s your gauge on this year’s defense and its potential?   What position group do you see as the strongest or weakest – the ‘Cats look like they have stars all three levels, no?

[RS]:  Yeah yeah yeah fourth quarters blah blah blah not talking about it not talking about it. The defense will be fine. Although Mark and Colter get all the hype, NU's defense really carried the team last year -- NU had the 42nd-best scoring offense and 29th-best scoring defense. NU lost two key players in weakside linebacker David Nwabuisi and defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, but Nwabuisi has a pair of very suitable replacements and Arnfelt wasn't crazily important. Like with the offense, most of the playmakers are there, so it's tough to be disconcerted.

There are stars on all three levels -- Tyler Scott is a damn bull, leading all returning B1G players in sacks and could be all-B1G at DE, Ibraheim Campbell is a great safety and Nick VanHoose really shined as a freshman cornerback. 

But the best unit is linebacker. Scott is the only proven player on the line, and NU only has half of a competent secondary. But linebacker is solid throughout: Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby return after strong years, and there are two guys with starting talent between Drew Smith and Collin Ellis. Each progressing year for the past through years, Northwestern's linebackers have had a higher proportion of tackles while NU's line and secondary have had a lower percentage. They have one of the best linebacking corps in the conference, with sound tackling ability and the athleticism to get to the spots they need.  

[JS]:  Arrow is way up on the defense, because we lose so little from last year's squad.  I pin as much of the fateful 4th quarters on our offensive, ultra-conservative play-calling than our "D".  Also, Nick VanHoose, our lockdown sophomore CB, went out injured vs Nebraska and they just picked his replacement apart plain and simple. 

Tyler Scott is the B1G returning sack leader at DE and we've got Dean Lowry on the other side. Ibraheim Campbell is an All-American candidate at safety and VanHoose is a beast on the corner. We've turned in to a really respectable LB corps now, with Damien Proby leading the way and we've got a ton of depth and athleticism on the DL.  The biggest question mark is the one CB slot (Traveon Henry is going to be a stud at the safety spot), which is still up for grabs.  

This was a top 25 rushing defensive squad last year. I expect much of the same this year, and a vastly improved passing "D". The defense overall is pretty balanced. We've got some potential depth issues at LB, but a strong nucleus there. It really comes down to the one CB slot as the big weakness at this point. 

[BA]:  How do the fans feel about the job Mike Hankwitz has done – although there was some shock when Bret Bielema let him go after 2007, we eventually got over it when Dave Doeren had success, especially against the run.  Fitz must like him, certainly. 

[RS]:  He's the one who knocks. 

Seriously, tho, Mike Hankwitz has been pretty solid since coming to Northwestern. There have been a few weaknesses -- defensive backs, mainly -- and some NU teams have gotten reputations for scoring a lot of points and giving up a lot of points, too. But I don't think that's fair, especially looking at NU's two most-recent nine-win years, 2008 and 2012, where the defense was pretty strong and the offense just scored enough to earn wins.

[JS]:  It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride. He came in to try and clean-up after an absolutely terrible predecessor, the only assistant Fitz has asked to leave the program (Greg Colby, who is now at Illinois). Early on folks were sky high on Hank, and then by the time we got through a disastrous "D" in 2011, fans were starting to call for some fresh blood.  Last year's rush "D" improvement, along with the emergence of Venric Mark, were the two most stunning developments of the season.  If Hank could improve the passing game, and continue to be more aggressive on pass rushing like he was in 2012, he'll have everyone behind him.  

[BA]:  Northwestern didn’t get a good draw out of the Leaders with Ohio State (home, at night) and Wisconsin (road), but several have said that if they can one of these and one of Michigan or Nebraska, they’ll likely have an inside track on a Legends title.  Do you buy into that as a likely scenario in 2013, or do you see them tripping up sufficiently in other games to be knocked out of a title game berth by November – especially with those expectations? 

venric mark.jpg

[JS]:  I really do. Keep in mind, we could lose to both OSU and Wisconsin, but get to Indy by holding court in our own division. Northwestern's past two games with Nebraska have both been classics (we beat them in Lincoln in '11, and missed a 53-yarder woulda been game-winning FG last year), Michigan beat us on a Hail Mary and I like our chances against Sparty, Iowa and Minny.  The Wisconsin game is a very intriguing and important game, especially if we lose to Ohio State the week before. I see the 'Cats in the race in November.  The two games that we really have to win to contend are @Nebraska on 11/2 and vs Michigan on 11/16. 

[RS]:  Of course NU could get tripped up, but last year Northwestern won games against lesser teams regularly and easily. And we have the same team. So we're somewhat confident.

But it's no fun. NU could be from first to fourth in the Legends Division in terms of talent, but the schedule just doesn't pan out for NU to be the champs this year. It's possible, but it will be tough, and other teams have much easier roads. 

[BA]:  Can the fans or will the fans “Lake the Posts” if the Cats beat Ohio State on October 5? 

[RS]:  Unfortunately, the posts are cemented in pretty good, so they can't come down. But that would be huge, especially since it's likely NU enters the game 4-0. A win over OSU to push them to 5-0 would be possibly the biggest game in Northwestern history, or close. 

[JS]:  Well, Gary Barnett ended that tradition by ensuring the FG posts are reinforced about 100 feet deep, but you can bet if we beat Ohio State in primetime, with a likely ESPN Gameday presence, it will be the single biggest party in Evanston since 1995. 

[BA]:  What's the feeling towards Wisconsin - both as a program and a fanbase - amongst Northwestern fans?  How are they perceived? 

[JS]:  Fans love this "rivalry". Yes, we still have a bad taste in our mouth from when you Nebraska-ed us in our last meeting, right after we lost Dan Persa, but this series has been essentially split since 1991 and featured all kinds of wacky, classic games. There is something about the border state backdrop that adds to the friendly disdain. NU fans admire what Wisconsin has become, especially we historians, who know Wisky fans know what it's like to suffer through decades of miserable records (see: 1964-1992).  I remember going to Camp Randall when it was a ghosttown and Badger football was a joke. So, to me, there is that kindred spirit of seeing the program rise from the ashes.  

The Wisconsin brand of football, featuring OLs that simply are like worms that regenerate at NFL levels every year, and your ability to develop offenses around stellar RBs is admirable.  You seem to do it with underrated talent in many cases and the program seems very likable. Add in the fact that Madtown is pound for pound the best place to see a game and experience a fall gameday and you have a ton of admiration from E-Town. I still can't believe the success that Bielema was able to sustain following Barry and the fact you have a chance to compete for a fourth straight Rose Bowl (albeit with some sanction help last year) is crazy.  

[RS]:  I mean, we're obviously not rivals. And being on different sides of the conference meant the last time we played you was 2010, when y'all hung 70 points on us. 

I think Wisconsin might be the football team we want to be: not OSU/Michigan, but able to stay powerful, stay ranked, and fight for championships.

[BA]:  Any first impressions of Gary Andersen from down there?  Does the departure of Bret Bielema shake up the conference in any way? 

[RS]:  Andersen seems so Utah. I'm curious to see how he handles the transition from a place where nobody's allowed to drink to WISCONSIN. 

I don't think it shakes up the conference -- it's weird, for a team that's been to the Rose Bowl three straight times Bielema never seemed like A FORCE in the conference. He was just Bert. 

[JS]:  I think NU fans are psyched we get you early in the season. Those of us in the know, know he's a great coach. You possibly upgraded at DC, which is saying a lot. Admittedly, after watching your final few games last year, including the clinic in Indy, I'm pscyched short term about the switch.  Andersen, from what I read is a 2/3 run, 1/3 pass kind of guy, which means much of what we've come to expect from the Badgers. I'm not particularly intimidated by your QBs, but of course, you're still stocked at RB and I anticipate an NFL-like OL.  Clearly containing Jared Abbrederris is priority one for any NU defensive gameplan.  I'm not up to snuff on your "D" this year quite yet. We're hoping we get you in transition and before the team has fully adjusted to the Gary Andersen way. I wouldn't want to face you in November. 

Conversely, expect to see all kinds of up-tempo gadgetry out of us in Wisconsin.  I'm hoping for a 2005-esque type output and result!

[BA] :  Thanks for your time, guys!