Know Your Foe: Northwestern

In a matchup of two teams trying to rebound from a tough loss to Ohio State, Wisconsin faces its toughest Big Ten home test of the season when it hosts No.19 Northwestern Saturday afternoon. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Purple Wildcats publisher Nick Medline.

1) Ohio State and Northwestern played an instant classic on Saturday. That having been said, how disappointed was the locker room considering Northwestern put two weeks into this game, blew another fourth-quarter lead and came up short?

Medline: I will never understand why offensive coordinator Mick McCall dialed up a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak. After an outstanding offensive performance in nearly every facet, the result hinged on one gimmicky attempt at catching Ohio State off guard.

There was some disappointment, of course. Northwestern now wears the reputation of a team that can't win big games, and justifiably so. But for the most part, Pat Fitzgerald remained optimistic: NU should have beaten the No. 4 team in the country. There's no time to dwell on it. This weekend's game could define NU's season.

2) The two quarterback system doesn't work at a lot of schools, but Northwestern makes it work with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Why does it work so well?

Medline: Northwestern runs two different high-caliber offenses. With Trevor Siemian – the ideal pocket passer – the Wildcats air it out to talented receivers. With Kain Colter, they run the zone-read attack and use their athleticism and versatility.

One thing I'll include in this discussion: It's only getting more effective. Siemian has been much improved as a passer, and despite some occasional poor throws (like last week's late-game interception), he looks capable of taking the reins himself.

3) Venric Mark only had 60 rushing yards on 17 carries, but what kind of spark did he bring to the offense after missing the last three games?

Medline: He's tough. We learned earlier this week that Mark's injury – to his right hamstring – was much more severe than people initially thought. He appeared close to full strength in this weekend's matchup, breaking off an impressive 41-yard reception. He'll be the focal point of this offense from this point forward, using his speed and elusive ability in the running game and on special teams.

4) Northwestern is last in the conference in pass defense. What has been the big problem for the Wildcats defending the pass?

Medline: The ‘Cats lost starting corner Daniel Jones to a season-ending injury, as the junior blew up his knee in the opener at California. That forced untested freshman Dwight White into the starter's role, where he's generally struggled. Early in the season, too, Nick VanHoose failed to show the same form that helped him become the team's best cornerback. In the first month, they fell victim to several big plays — even against cupcake opponents like Western Michigan and Maine. VanHoose and White played fairly well in the Ohio State game, but they're certainly a vulnerable unit — one that Joel Stave could find success against.

5) What did the Wildcats learn about trying to stop Carlos Hyde that they can try to use to stop Melvin Gordon and James White?

Medline: Well, they need some excellent play from their defensive tackles. Starter Sean McEvilly is out with a lower leg injury (that doesn't look so good), another setback for the unit still recovering from losing Brian Arnfelt to graduation. Also, the much-improved linebackers hope to stop runs before they reach the third level. It'll take some commitment and, of course, some fundamentally-sound tackling to slow Gordon and White. The Carlos Hyde domination functioned as a wake-up call, as it marked the first serious power running challenge they encountered. It also helped to flip the outcome.

6) After five games, what do you think you've learned about Northwestern? What are the big question marks you still have about them?

Medline: What I've learned
1) The defensive ends are outstanding. Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo have been more impactful than anyone could have expected.
2) Their receivers can make enough plays to win: Tony Jones and superback Dan Vitale have emerged as serious offensive weapons.
3) Their top players can compete with anyone: The talent continues to visibly increase on a year-to-year basis.

Questions
1) Can they win the big games? (Too obvious?)
2) Will the VanHoose/White corner tandem make enough improvements for NU to sustain Big Ten Championship hopes? Will freshman Matt Harris earn the starter's role in place of White?
3) Will they be able to keep up recent passing success? Last year, it faded at times, quickly.

7) After the physical fight they were in against the Buckeyes, how do you think they'll respond to another tough test this weekend in a place they traditionally don't play very well in?

Medline: They're extremely motivated. They refuse to give up. It's the staple of Pat Fitzgerald teams. They'll move to a silent cadence for the first time all season — certainly another wrinkle in preparing for a difficult opponent. Perhaps some fatigue could set in, but they have more than enough depth to overcome that form of adversity. It'll be crucial for NU to start strong and from that point forward, they'll gain confidence and compete with poise.

8) What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Northwestern trouble? Where do you think the Wildcats have the edge over the Badgers?

Medline: I'll try to make a long answer short: Both offenses will find success. For Wisconsin, a steady balance should challenge a solid but incomplete NU defense. The ‘Cats won't fully stop the Gordon/White tandem, and Jared Abbrederis can win his battle with either corner.

No one, though, has proven to stop the dynamic NU offense for four quarters. Mick McCall can expertly adjust the gameplan, drawing from a number of weapons. Again in short: This could somehow be quite the shootout.

9) What is the one thing Northwestern needs to do well in order to win Saturday?

Medline: Shore up its special teams. Sounds funny, right? Fitzgerald took fault for an early blocked punt touchdown by Ohio State. Kicker Jeff Budzien needs to regain his 2012 form after missing two field goals in the first month of the season. And if Venric Mark's healthy enough to return kicks, that could be a game-altering factor. I expect this game to be extremely close for four quarters, so the little things could lead to a major difference.

10) What's your prediction for the game?

Medline: 30-27 Northwestern. I think Venric will run for 100 yards. I think the Stave/Abbrederis combination could torch the NU secondary. I think that NU finally gets its long-awaited big victory.


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