My cousin went to Northwestern University (apparently acronymed solely as NW). I saw him last weekend and said "We got the big game coming up." He had no idea NW (remember, if anybody tells you it's NU, they probably went to Duke or something) was playing Cal this weekend. He's also the President of NW and the biggest NW fan ever to walk the face of the planet. I love him so much.
But we didn't get him to answer questions, we got two other NW University (this is also a preferred nomenclature according to my sources) sites to answer our questions. We had 10 great questions, 10 amazing questions, 10 questions that make you question whether any other questions should ever question. Let's learn more about our NorthDub U (if I hear *another* person refer to Northwestern this way, I'd just flip!) rivals.
First up, we have Sippin' On, no wait, it's Inside NU now. Not sure what happened to Sippin' On Purple. It appears to be the exact same site with just a different name. SBN think Sippin' On Purple didn't have the juice (I THOUGHT OF THIS MYSELF) to make it SEO-wise or something? Are they going to change our name next to a name as inspired as Inside NU? Get ready for Reading About Cal Sports! Or Understanding Berkeley, But When People Are Sweating! The sky is what many call the limit. Many thanks to Josh Rosenblat for taking time away from his busy mixing wool and linen schedule to answer these questions.
The other site is Lake The Posts, which is a series of words that I totally understand in context and in no way struggle to understand. Having said that, I can barely spell, so who am I to complain? Or mock. Or mockplain. Bottom line, Jay Sharman from Lake The Posts was nice enough to answer some questions for us. Thank you so much to Jay and all those great guys and girls and people for whom gender is a spectrum over at Lake The Posts.
But enough of me thinking I'm significantly wittier than I really am. Without further ado, let me continue to write things before we get to the questions. In specific, I just wanted to say that I'm excited to be starting the season. Hopes are not high this year, but I have a good feeling about this game tomorrow.
1. Northwestern has had various suspensions and injuries to seemingly important players. How much will this impact the Wildcats vs. Cal?
Josh Rosenblat: Obviously, losing guys such as Venric Mark and Christian Jones, two of Northwestern's best offensive players, never helps. The biggest loss, which was just announced Monday when Northwestern's depth chart was released, may be the injury to defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, who will be out for the season. Against Cal, though, McEvilly's absence shouldn't be huge because his greatest asset was as a run-stuffer and Cal doesn't do too much of that. Offensively, Northwestern should be able to test out some of its new weapons against an inexperienced Cal defense. Overall, the losses shouldn't be too big of an issue against he Golden Bears.
Jay Sharman: A lot. The big news of fall camp was RB/All-American PR Venric Mark transferring to West Texas A&M for personal reasons (he's from Houston) after a weird, twisting story. He was suspended for two games (undisclosed), and came out publicly saying all the right things (owned it, said he loved NU, was going to be model player, etc...) then 24 hours he announced he was transferring. Venric told reporters this weekend that despite the rumors, he was not suspended for a failed drug test and that he was leaving to be close to his ailing grandmother and an issue had come up with his mother. ‘Cats fans are trying to react as if this isn't a big deal because we are relatively loaded at RB, but the guy was a game-changer on special teams. It is a very big deal.
Perhaps an even bigger deal is the loss of our leading WR, Christian Jones, who blew out his knee in fall camp. Jones was coming on as a monster and is a game changer, deep threat and most reliable receiver. Again, we're deep at WR, but this one hurts a ton. We aren't a program that can afford to lose two All Big Ten level offensive weapons and not feel a hit.
As you well know, injuries are a part of the game. However, NU went from one of the least injured teams (per missed starts) in 2012, to one of the worst victims of the injury buy in 2013. Fitz is Fort Knox on injury info so the fear among NU fans is we are more dinged up then he is letting on. We'll know when you know - at kickoff.
See, I didn't even finish typing this sentence and NU's weekly press conference just happened - our starting stud DT is now out for the year (Sean McEvilly) with yet another foot injury. Three starters gone in the past two weeks. I'm afraid to finish this next sentence...
2. What in the name of God happened to Northwestern after the Cal game? Was beating the Bears the ultimate pyrrhic victory or something?
Josh Rosenblat: First off, I love the use of the word "pyrrhic." Solid vernacular there. As far as your question goes, the very next week Northwestern really put a beating on Syracuse, so the immediate aftermath was all positive. If anything, I think the Cal game helped Northwestern in the long run. Due to Mark's injury, it gave running back Treyvon Green a chance to showcase his skills to the tune of 129 yards and two touchdowns. Collin Ellis took hold of the starting outside linebacker job with his two interception returns for touchdowns and both figure to be major, major contributors for Northwestern this season. So the victory against Cal wasn't entirely "pyrrhic." Northwestern's struggles last season generated from a few things: heightened expectations, injuries and bad luck. Not to say Northwestern wasn't ever any good, but I think expectations surrounding the program leading up to the high-profile Ohio State game didn't help. Obviously injuries to the team's two best offensive players (Mark and quarterback Kain Colter) didn't help. And, as only Northwestern could do, the team lost two games that involved absolute miracle plays against Nebraska and Michigan. It was the perfect storm, really.
Jay Sharman: Nah, rumor has it we sold our soul to the devil to finally win a bowl game (Gator Bowl, 2012 season). Everything teed up just like we thought it would for the Ohio State showdown. ESPN Gameday, a top 20 ranking (#16) and a game we felt we could and very well might win. For about 55 minutes we did. That fumbled fourth and one by Colter on our potential game-winning drive is the single biggest deflating moment of the season. We never recovered. We came to find out many of our star players were injured, but the team just lost its leadership and direction as we got crushed by Wisconsin the following week.
In epically painful fashion, we lost to Nebraska on a Hail Mary, Michigan on a fluke (and illegal) FG with no time on the clock that sent them to an OT win and we lost to Iowa despite having it first and goal from the 15, tied, with a minute to go (another OT loss). Yes, we actually were winning two games with no time left on the clock in regulation and the ball in the air. Try to top that. I dare you.
2013 was an unmitigated disaster - plain and simple. 2014 is a huge year for this program. Is 2013 an outlier? Or was it 2012? This season should tell us a lot more about the trajectory of the program.
3. Although he annihilated our "defense," Dan Vitale didn't continue his reign of terror during the rest of the season. What happened? Do you expect him to have a more prominent role in the offense this year?
Josh Rosenblat: Last season was supposed to be Dan Vitale's breakout year. And you're right, it started to look that way. But over the course of the season, Vitale kind of got pushed to the fringes of the offense. This season, especially with the loss of Christian Jones who was Northwestern's best target over the middle, Vitale will have to play a bigger role in the passing game. He's fast enough to be a matchup problem for a lot of linebackers and can do some damage after the catch. For Northwestern to be a successful offensive team, Vitale, now a junior, will have to figure into the equation.
Jay Sharman: I do. He's put on weight, speed and tremendous strength. NU is returning to its more traditional spread (more on that next) and we've got some big time speed with young guns (WR Miles Shuler, RB/WR Solomon Vault and RB Justin Jackson) that will all be put in motion. Vitale is the safety valve, and also creates tremendous match-up issues. Overplay him and our receivers get open. Play him straight up, and well, do so at your own peril. I'm expecting a monster year from Dan.
4. Do you feel comfortable with the transition back to a one-QB system? Do you have confidence that Trevor Siemian can shoulder the load by himself?
Josh Rosenblat: Yes and yes. I think the simple thing that a lot of people are missing is that it's not like Northwestern recruited Trevor Siemian to play quarterback in a two-quarterback system. That wasn't a planned situation and circumstances dictated that using two quarterbacks was the best plan for Northwestern over the past couple seasons. Obviously, he took a lot of heat last season for his struggles but the entire team struggled as well. It also turns out he played last season with a heel injury. Everyone, from the players and the coaches, is really behind Siemian this off season. He's also got a ton of arm talent. Just re-watch his touchdown pass to Tony Jones from last year's win over Cal.
Jay Sharman: I'm thrilled by it. The painfully predictable Kain = run, Trevor=pass of 2013 was tough. When it worked in 2012 we thought "brilliant". When it floundered (in part due to Trevor being injured with a heel injury from the Wisconsin game on) it seemed to get more predictable. Siemian - when healthy - has shown he can do major damage (see: 2012, Cal, Syracuse 2013, Illinois 2013). He's got a great arm and can thread the needle on deep balls. Clearly he's not the true dual threat we've come to expect at NU, but the guy can throw and he's calm under pressure. It should be fun to watch. Trevor need to rid that really, really bad one play per game he's prone to (see: Minnesota, Ohio State). The key for Trevor is the ‘Cats WR being able to get off blocks. Word got out and opposing D's really jammed our guys at the line which then put pressure on our O-line, which was really bad in 2013. Lot of fingers crossed on our experienced O-line stepping up. They'll need to with so much passing expected.
5. After polar opposite years in 2012 and 2013, what are your expectations for the Wildcats this season?
Josh Rosenblat: This edition of the Northwestern Wildcats is arguably a more talented group than 2012. The defense has a ton of really athletic playmakers and the offense won't be as dynamic but it could be better in a more conventional sense. Overall, I could see Northwestern winning anywhere between six and nine games during the regular season.
Jay Sharman: Conventional wisdom among ‘Cats fans is that any season with high expectations (read: 2001,2010,2011, 2013) results in a flat tire. Conversely, when expectations are "meh" (read: 2008, 2012) NU surprises. We seem to relish the underdog role and we've got that back in 2014. It's tough to say, but fans fear another mediocre season yet a return to a bowl season. The current LTP poll has "7-5" as the leader on fans projections for the season. In part, a tough schedule and in part due to so many question marks about the teams' health.
One thing you should note is that this is the best projected defense of the Fitz era - by a fairly large margin. It's rare for us to use "lockdown" and "secondary" in the same sentence, but it is clearly the best unit on the team. The back seven are tremendous with the only question marks on "D" being the interior line (again, in part due to health concerns around Sean McEvilly). This "D" should win us several games. It's rare we have uncertainty on the offense, but the O-line is a huge question mark, despite its experience. We have tons of weapons on offense, but really need to see things mesh before making bold statements. NU returned 19 starters combined (before Christian got hurt). This is a very experienced team. I voted 8-4.
We believe the non-conference schedule is highly underrated (Cal, Northern Illinois, @Notre Dame and the obligatory FCS - Western Illinois). Throw in a home schedule of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and mercifully Illinois and road games at Iowa, Minnesota, house of horrors (for us) Penn State and mercifully Purdue and you call it. I was optimistic and chose 8-4. I'd be thrilled with that. I'd put the over/under at 7.
6. What is the player on offense for NW that Cal fans should know about?
Josh Rosenblat: First off, Northwestern goes by "NU" not "NW." But to address the question, I think it's got to be Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers. He's a wide receiver with elite speed. He's got solid hands and will be used in a lot of different ways. He may not rack up the stats that Mark did, but he has that same explosive threat that defenses need to be aware of whenever he's on the field.
Jay Sharman: There are a few. Since you know so many returning players, I'll go with the unknown ones. Miles Shuler (KOR, PR, WR) is the "X factor" for NU fans. He transferred from Rutgers and brings sub 4.4/40 speed. He's yet to play a game, but has been highly regarded in camp. The RB will be by committee, but of the good variety. Fans are super excited to see true freshman and Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year Justin Jackson play at RB as well as another true frosh that Fitz has said will get touches from day one at RB - Solomon Vault (another track champion and 4.4/40 guy). They are two of five guys that will play at RB consistently which has pluses and minuses.
7. What is the player on defense for NW that Cal fans should know about?
Josh Rosenblat: Dean Lowry. He's a six-foot-six defensive end that played in the shadow of Tyler Scott last season. He has no major weaknesses in his game and could wreak havoc this season.
Jay Sharman: LB Chi Chi Ariguzo. To put this in terms for Cal fans, he's like Colin Ellis (he of the two pick 6 fame) was to you - he always seems to find himself in the right spot at the right time. He's made numerous media (ESPN for one) All Big Ten first team lists and is the heart and soul of our "D". Safeties Ibraheim Campbell (All Big Ten first team) and Traveon Henry are fantastic and both likely future Sunday players, but if you had to pick one - Chi Chi is it.
8. What does Cal need to do to beat NW?
Josh Rosenblat: This is a tough one because Cal is a really good matchup for Northwestern. Northwestern really struggled against downhill running teams last season and Cal is certainly not one of them. I know this sounds straight out of a Hotels.com Captain Obvious commercial, but if Cal can keep Northwestern from scoring touchdowns and force Northwestern to attempt field goals, that could be a big issue. Walk-on Jack Mitchell is an outfielder on the baseball team but is also listed as the starting kicker on Northwestern's depth chart this week. He's really, really struggled in practice during training camp and Northwestern may be really hesitant to use him. I think another big thing for Cal would be to force Northwestern to become a one-dimensional team on offense. While I do think Siemian is solid, I'm not sure he can consistently win games single-handedly throwing the ball 40-plus times. Stop the run and Cal has a chance.
Jay Sharman: Run the ball effectively. I've been very impressed by Jared Goff and his ability as a freshman to digest and execute the Bear Raid. However, I feel pretty good about our passing attack. When you throw 70 times per game, we're going to jump on a few opportunities and get some takeaways, especially with our back seven. As for the run, well, I can tell you every B1G West team is going to try and smashmouth us. If you can get a ground game going against us and force our LBs and secondary to stay more glued in the box then you can really create some havoc. If you don't, I feel as though we'll get those 2-3 momentum changing takeaways.
9. What does NW need to do to beat Cal?
Josh Rosenblat: Offensively, Northwestern has to stay balanced. There's no question about it. The team is deep at the running back position and will need to utilize the run to keep Cal's offense off the field. Defensively, the front four must get pressure on Jared Goff. They did a pretty good job of that last season and Goff turned the ball over a bunch, which was ultimately the difference in the game.
Jay Sharman: Stretch the field, test the secondary, keep things up-tempo in the passing game and eliminate that 1-2 terrible passes per game that Trevor made last year. Our strength should be our passing game and we've got enough talent at RB to keep Cal honest. The most important thing we need to do is convert red zone opportunities in to TDs. We were worst in the B1G last year in that category and we lost arguably the nation's best placekicker.
Also, should NU have a late lead, we need to play to win and not to lose. Something Fitz & Co. have failed to do in recent years. The get the lead and go in to the offensive shell hasn't been a good strategy for us.
10. Who do you want to punch in the face?
Josh Rosenblat: I don't necessarily want to bunch anyone in the face, but I think there will be two people on the sidelines who may. I really think a Pat Fitzgerald-Sonny Dykes throwdown would not go well for the Cal head coach. Sonny doesn't really seem like a big fighter, even after calling out Northwestern for allegedly faking injuries in the game last season. I've got Fitz in a 3rd-round knockout.
Jay Sharman: Nebraska & Michigan. Between last second Hail Marys and crazy finishes they've punched me in the gut the collective last four games we've played against them.