Conversation with a Wildcat
Northwestern comes to town on Saturday. There is not much history between the Cats and Huskers. So, to help us get ready for the game, we enlisted the help of our friends from Lake the Posts - a Northwestern blog (and the unofficial Wildcat Ministers of Information). Our preseason discussions with them were lively and informative. They even took my colleague Steve's good natured ribbing pretty well earlier this Fall. By all means, check out Lake the Posts. We answered some of their questions, too. And, here are their answers to some questions I had about Saturday's game and the state of the Wildcat season so far.
BRN - When we chatted in the preseason, both of us were optimistic about Northwestern's prospects. So far, not looking so good... The first question has to be - hey, wha happened? Feel free to go on a rant, if you like.
LTP - Got a few hours? OK, let’s get the caveat out of the way. Great programs and their fans don’t make excuses. Every team, every year is “this play” or “that play” or “that injury” to “that player” away from being undefeated. But, YOU asked, so I will answer.
First is the Dan Persa factor. Our pre-season Heisman candidate, aka “#persastrong", had his incredible work ethic and recovery well documented by every major media outlet. Apparently the ruptured Achilles was very bad and despite what many will tell you is the hands-down hardest working player in NU history did everything right but had a setback in June, which wouldn’t become public until October. Persa missed the first three games and Kain Colter (much more on him later) stepped up and was brilliant in his first two starts and then had a very bad day against Army. The Armchair QB Club, Northwestern chapter, points to the Army game as the first sign this was going to be a very weird, and bad, year. Persa was cleared to play by the MEDICAL staff, yet, the NU coaches huddled the night before the game and agreed to only use him in an emergency. Well, between our “D” being terrible vs Army (we allegedly practiced the option “D” since spring ball and it was as poor of a defensive performance as I’ve ever seen) and Kain being “off”, we found ourselves down in the second half. I for one was pulling the “emergency” alarm. We inserted our 3rd string, Trevor Siemian, way too late and he instantly drove us for a TD against a terrible pass “D”. I believe Persa would have hung 40 on Army. In three quarters.
The real story of the season has been our deplorable defense. You can look it up but we are either 11th or 12th in the Big Ten (and 100+ in FBS) in every single defensive category. Fitz always preaches the NU philosophy of “players, plays, schemes” and that has turned in to the answer to “what is wrong with our “D”. The secondary has been crucified by the media and rightfully so. We’re giving up career receiving game after career receiving game (BC, Illinois, Iowa) to the best WR on the other team thanks to miscommunication and major blown plays vertically. We’ve got a solid CB and safety, both seniors, on one side of the field and the other side of the field has been a football experiment gone terribly wrong. Our D-line has had zero pass rush and compounding this is that our DC has yet to call up blitzes. When we do, they are primarily D-line contain with LB blitzes and we simply don’t get it done.
Offense is not an issue. There isn’t a fan of NU worried about us moving the ball against Nebraska and scoring points. Persa and our receivers are THAT good. However, we’ve put up sick first half numbers from the moment Persa got under center against Illinois (he had 4 TDs in his first game and only passed for two quarters) and we blew an 18-point second half lead. We put up 24 on Michigan in the first half (24-14 at the break). We piled up 400+ yards on Penn State and put up 24 on them in the first half (only Alabama has scored more – 27 points). The second half has been an unmitigated disaster. Is it our inability to adjust? Is it team psyche? Is it opponents outcoaching us? Is it our lack of depth on “D” caving in (in defense of the “D” vs PSU we gave up only 88 yards and 7 points in the second half).
This has been the toughest season for NU fans since 2001 when we had similar expectations with a senior-laden skill position team. We all feel so damn bad for Dan Persa who, despite the 3-5 record, is putting up an incredible year.
BRN - The offense has been a bright spot, especially lately with 59 points against Indiana and 24 against a very rugged Penn State defense (albeit in a loss). What's the offensive recipe for the Wildcats? Is it more than just Dan Persa's return to the lineup?
LTP - It is indeed. I loathe the QB platoon. Hate it. However, in this very rare case in 2011 it is working. Persa’s Achilles injury has limited his Taylor Martinez-like escapability that made him so ridiculous in 2010. However, we’ve got back-up QB Kain Colter (more on him below) who is a triple threat (QB, RB, WR) and the most versatile and impressive athlete of the Pat Fitzgerald era. Colter spells Persa within series of downs to add a zone read option to supplement our running game. He is really impressive and our leading rusher. Keep in mind our #1 RB, Mike Trumpy went out for the season in the Big Ten opener and our #2, Adonis Smith, hasn’t played due to injury in three weeks. We especially use Colter inside the ten when we need a rushing option for a TD. It’s no secret that we run the zone read option pitch nearly every time for a TD in these situations. We also have a handful of receivers who are just money. Jeremy Ebert is preseason 1st team All Big Ten and is near the top in receptions and yardage. Our TE, Drake Dunsmore had four TDs last WEEK and he is a WR for all intents and purposes. We get in to rhythm and it is just fun to watch. Our OL is average at best so aggressive blitzing teams have been able to stop drives with the less than mobile PErsa, who is still pretty mobile. Early in the year I was complainer #1 as we seemed destined to prove to I’m not sure who that “damn it, we’re a running team!” Thankfully we’ve gotten back to our routes, but I still don’t think we pass nearly enough considering Persa set the completion percentage record ALL TIME in Big Ten play last year and oh, he’s just IMPROVED on that percentage a year later.
BRN - Star watch! All of the preseason discussion centered on Persa, for good reason. But, help Husker fans know what other players to watch for on the Northwestern, squad? It could be on offense or - gasp -on defense.
LTP - I’ll be diplomatic and keep it on offense. I will say our “D” is thin and extremely banged-up. The guy to watch is Kain Colter. His stat lines make you do double takes. He will go from QB to WR interchangeably on the very same set of downs. He’s really starting to improve his passing, which is his knock, but his bread and butter is running out of the QB formation (hmmm, sound familiar Huskers fans?). Colter is developing in to a fantastic WR and he’s our go-to running solution. Oh yeah, he went 2-2-3 vs Indiana with 2 TD passes. It’s exhausting just watching the guy go from position to position. He is a gamechanger. Venric Mark is the fastest guy I’ve seen on NU in 20 years of following the team with 4.3/40 speed. He’s our dangerous KOR and PR man. Our Ameer Abdullah if you will. Jeremy Ebert is our money WR, but don’t be fooled, we’re extremely deep at the WR slot with a ton of great young receivers.
BRN - The Chicago Tribune has caught on to the topic you and debated at length months ago. Can we agree to let the "We are the real NU" thing go? Or do you still have a bone to pick on that one?
LTP - I’m so fatigued on this topic. I’m sure there is a line in there when/if you beat us about UNL giving us the “L” or something. But, let’s agree to move on. We’re NU and if you want to rationalize why you’re NU, it still doesn’t pass the common sense test for us.
BRN- How would you describe the mood of the fan base right now? There have been rough spots this year, but are they still excited and determined? Are many people making a trip to Lincoln?
LTP - The mood? Borderline despondent. When the expectation is to compete for the division crown and that’s out the window before Halloween it is pretty depressing. The fact we’re in desperation mode to try and salvage our fourth straight bowl appearance just seems so wrong. With Persa at the helm and our senior-laden OL, and a defense that seemed to be improving with young talent…well, there is no way to sugarcoat it, the mood is not good. Despite the fact we’re averaging just under 40k per home game (47,130 seat stadium), we’ve been traveling remarkably well the past two seasons – by our standards – not Nebraska’s standards. The NU allotment for the game in Lincoln is soldout. We’ve now soldout every road trip allotment except for Indiana. We had 25% of the fans at Army in purple (10K). Our fans are clinging to the silly notion that we ALWAYS win a game we’re not supposed to win and we lose one we shouldn’t. Well, we haven’t stolen that game. There is a definite do-or-die mentality emanating from the team. The program is at a bit of a crossroads in terms of forward vs backward momentum. The players have been pretty direct about their knowledge of the sea of red they’re walking in to. Nebraska fans may not want to hear this, but year after year of playing at the Big House, the Shoe, Penn State, and my personal favorite, Camp Randall – I don’t think we’ll be intimidated by the atmosphere. Fitz’s Big Ten record is surprisingly better on the road than at home.
BRN - Futurecast for me - do you think this Wildcat squad can become bowl eligible? Some very winnable games (Rice, Minnesota) are still on the table. It will take at least one upset to get there - of either Nebraska this week in Lincoln or at home to end the year against Michigan State. Is this team capable of that?
LTP - Absolutely they are capable. Do I think they will? No. There is this “I can’t put my finger on it” X factor above the obvious poor defense that is missing from our normal Wildcat teams. We usually have that Cardiac ‘Cat confidence where we come from behind and win in the last minute. The past year and a half it has been about jumping out on teams and blowing leads. There are a lot of good individual parts, but we’re missing the team element. The fan base has gone from excited to pissed to disengaged to desperate. We’ve been recalculating our GPSs of season expectations. We’ve beaten many ranked teams so it’s not out of the realm. Just ask Iowa how good we are at ruining their seasons. However, I personally don’t have a lot of confidence about knocking off Nebraska unless we can be +3 on turnover margin. I think we’ll beat Minnesota and Rice and it will come down to us having to beat a ranked Michigan State team at Ryan Field on senior day. I like our chances in that one much more than Saturday.