The Zone Read: Win, look good winning

Today, The Zone Read argues the importance of blowout victories in the early season. But why?

The next person who tells me Northwestern is "assumed" to go 4-0…

There's no such thing. One of my great college football memories came when Appalachian State knocked off Michigan in the 2007 opener. Of course, anything can happen, especially when the opposing coach expects to throw 50 or 60 times—as is the case with Sonny Dykes.

One Cal fan attacked our message boards with enthusiasm last week, and was quickly shot down. Dykes has to deal with so many new personnel that his job seems impossible. The West Coast trip could always provide difficulties, but NU should win comfortably. It's hard to deny that.

I find myself arguing for style points. Last year, NU almost choked away the Syracuse game. There's something to be said for mental toughness. But when you're this good–as they are this year–the first few games provide an opportunity to make statements.

The entire nation is watching NU this year. I'd guess they'll land somewhere between 17th and 19th when the initial rankings are released. The Wildcats face Cal on ESPN2. And it's time to step on the opponent, and everyone on the non-conference schedule. Why?

They can figure out the offense.

One point of interest: the two-quarterback system. It changed in the Gator Bowl, and not in the sense that I expect this to be some ego-driven tense competition from here on out. I liked Mick McCall's move to alternate the quarterbacks during drives, keeping the Bulldogs defense especially off balance. That should continue next season, and I expect McCall–an outstanding assistant–to improve his game plans given the current personnel.

I just don't want there to be any lingering confusion. The Colter-Siemian pass distribution was an absolute disaster in the Penn State loss, which marked one of the team's first challenges last year. With people ironing out their roles, and solid execution from both quarterbacks in this case, I'd like NU's chances against Ohio State.

As well, I'd hope to see a diverse cast helping to spell Venric Mark next season. He was excellent, but sustained several minor injuries. You will either completely agree or completely disagree with this: He needs a smaller workload next season. That could involve some combination of Mike Trumpy, Malin Jones, Stephen Buckley and Treyvon Green. Trumpy delivered one of the most clutch individual performances last season when he iced Boston College. I'd hope for more of the same.

We could go on about the receiver situation. They're fine, and I think Siemian and Colter will only do better in giving them more opportunities.

They can show the requisite mental toughness.

This isn't to say that "mental toughness" was missing from last year's team. That can manifest itself in different ways. But a strong 4-0 start can eradicate lingering questions and missing confidence. There was something absent when the 5-0 team traveled to Happy Valley last season. The defensive back situation was up in the air, and Matt McGloin came up in the clutch-again and again.

They need the team to get into stride leading into the Ohio State game. Do I need to explain how good the Buckeyes are? Probably not, but they're a legit national title contender that can take advantage of any weakness. You'd risk a lot backing into that matchup.

This could be the year when NU makes another Big Ten Championship run. Optimism is at an all-time high. The first step is for the players to back it up in those opening games. They can do it, and they can make people believe in the on-field product even more.

They can work in new faces.

It was impressive to see some of the not-yet-utilized talent on this roster during spring practice. Eric Wilson looked the part of this freak athlete, leaving NFL scouts to covertly ask me who "number 35" was. Also, one of the toughest questions was this: "Who's the team's third running back." It never hurts to have depth, and when you establish overwhelming third-quarter leads, it's easier to find out what players are made of.

And really, some of these "new faces" will be thrust into the starting lineup. The team will send out three brand new starters on the offensive line, and are forced to work in some help at defensive tackle. Every lead can translate to experimentation. Fitzgerald always says that it's really impossible to judge anything until they see the field. That will be important this season.

So it goes beyond sentimental importance to knock off the opponents in convincing fashion. Any win is nice; blowouts this year might be even more meaningful.

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