BEARTERRITORY'S Q&A WITH NORTHWESTERN
BearTerritory: Trevor Siemian rather unexpectedly had to come in last year when Kain Colter went down in the first series, but from that point on, he had quite a season, throwing for 2,149 yards and 11 TDs. How has he improved since we last saw him?
Steven Goldstein: I wouldn't say Siemian had quite the season. Initially, he was an excellent complement to Colter, but on his own he struggled with setting a tempo and appeared to lack confidence against blitz-heavy defenses. Pat Fitzgerald admitted that Siemian played through injuries last fall, but the offense went stagnant when he began slinging passes around too quickly. Though he certainly showed some discouraging signs this offseason, Siemian looked good in practice when going through quick reads and short passing scrimmages. We're not watching for improvement as much as we are watching for how play-calling can be catered to him full time.
BT: How do the departure of Venric Mark and the injury to Christian Jones affect the Wildcats offense?
SG: The loss of Mark is obviously problematic. He was the team's home run threat in 2012, and forced defenses to respect him both on the edge and off the screen. However, running back is one of NU's deepest units. Trevyon Green torched Cal when Mark went down last August, and he's supplemented by a fast core of Stephen Buckley, Warren Long and four-star talent Justin Jackson. Jones' loss hits far harder. Northwestern only had two respectable receiving threats last year in Christian and Tony Jones. With the team's most consistent mid-field route runner down, unproven projects Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater will be asked to step up quickly. Jones was without a doubt the team's best possession option, and his absence hurts Tony Jones' vertical game too. Opposing safeties don't have much else to focus on now.
BT: Both head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin have given high praise to the Northwestern front seven. What makes the defensive line and linebacking corps so formidable?
SG: The defensive line is formidable in large part because of Dean Lowry, a phenomenal talent at end. Lowry is fast off the edge and has a penchant for forcing fumbles on sacks. NU lost its top defensive tackle for the year in Sean McEvilly, but when the team deploys its four-DE cheetah package, the speed is hard to contain. The linebackers are among the best in the Big Ten. Chi Chi Ariguzo made 10 tackles against the Golden Bears last year, and tallied four picks on the season. Of course, I don't need to remind your fans about Collin Ellis...
BT: Ellis had quite a day in Berkeley last season, picking off Jared Goff twice for touchdowns on tipped balls. He only had one more pick all season, but ranked third on the team in tackles (78) and was among Big 10 leaders in passes defended (9). How has he improved, and who else will Goff have to maneuver around in the secondary?
SG: Fitzgerald initially said that Ellis had emerged as the team's clear defensive leader, calling him the "ragin' Cajun with a wild look in his eyes." Ellis has improved a lot in coverage, and though initially he was an all-or-nothing linebacker, he's gotten much more disciplined and has cut down the over-pursuits. I like Ellis a lot this season, and though he's changed positions a few times, expect good things Saturday.
BT: After winning their first four games, the Wildcats dropped seven straight. What caused that tumble from the top 25, and how much did the season-ending win over Illinois help Northwestern go into the offseason?
SG: The collapse last season, which Nick Medline and I kindly refer to as the '13 Dumpster Fire, was due to unoriginal play-calling and a bevy of bad injuries. The team had a 3rd-and-1 look to stun No. 4 Ohio State back in October, and called two conservative gut runs that were stuffed at the line. After that, and once Mark was ruled out for the season, passing was short and predictable and runs were rarely called on third down. Goal line series often featured three inside handoffs. But the bad season was mainly due to injuries at almost every position. At one point in Nebraska, the Wildcats were down to their sixth-string running back. The defensive line struggled to stay healthy all fall, and Colter's frequent absences obviously didn't help in establishing an offensive identity.
BT: What do you see as the keys to the game for the Wildcats, and what’s your final score prediction?
SG: My keys to the game are 1) getting second-level pressure on Goff, who will burn Northwestern if his tendency to make mistakes isn't exploited, and 2) finding a consistent Wildcat running game without Mark. I think that Cal's offense will be tough to stop, but this NU secondary is the best it’s been in years, even with the loss of CB Daniel Jones. I think the game will be more of a low scoring affair, and I expect the Northwestern passing game to struggle mightily out of the gate. But at home, I can't pick against the Wildcats, especially against a team that went 1-11 last year. Gimme Northwestern 31, Cal 20.
Q&A With PurpleWildcats.com
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