1, Many left Northwestern for dead after its 1-3 start, but the Cats have won three of four and pushed Ohio State to the max on the road last week. What do you attribute the turnaround to?
Adam Hoge: The biggest thing is that they started winning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The defensive line had some turnover from last season and injuries to deal with, but it was baffling to see how poorly the offensive line was playing early in the season -- even getting pushed around by Illinois State. We knew there was talent at the skill positions, but the offense was completely out of sync with the line struggling. The turnaround started in Iowa City and the offense has looked completely different the last four weeks.
2, How has sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson improved from the player we saw last year?
Hoge: He's experienced now. As a freshman, things came at Thorson fast and he was struggling to trust his wide receivers. It wasn't a particularly reliable group. This year Thorson is much more polished and he's playing at a really high level. I don't know how many people know who Clayton Thorson is nationally, but they will soon -- he's probably the best N.F.L. quarterback prospect in the Big Ten right now.
Last year in Madison, Thorson couldn't really put the offense on his shoulders when the Badgers shutdown Northwestern's running game. Things are different now and Wisconsin is going to have a bigger challenge this year shutting down both Justin Jackson and Thorson.
3, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said Northwestern’s offense schemes very well to make Austin Carr an option on nearly early play. What are some of the things the Cats are doing to take advantage of Carr’s abilities?
Hoge: I think people look at Austin Carr's size and think they can cover him one-on-one or by zoning him. That's been proven to be a mistake. He runs routes so well that he finds the open windows in some coverage and the chemistry with Thorson is so good that they consistently beat one-on-one coverage with 10-15 yard out-routes on the sideline. Most importantly, Carr just catches everything. I couldn’t believe Iowa didn’t have Desmond King shadow Carr the whole game. If I was Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, I would use two-man concepts with Sojourn Shelton and a safety over the top.
4, Northwestern has done a good job bottling up the run and forcing turnovers the past two games against Wisconsin. How are the Wildcats in those two department this season?
Hoge: The defense isn’t as dominant as it was last year, but they are still holding opponents to just 3.89 yards per carry so they’ve been pretty good overall. As for the turnovers, they’ve only forced 11 this year, but they do have seven interceptions. With the way the two Wisconsin quarterbacks have looked, the ‘Cats will probably go into this one thinking they can grab a couple interceptions.
5, After giving up 71 points in shootouts over Iowa and Michigan State, Northwestern’s defense gave up a combined 38 points against Indiana and Ohio State. What changed defensively?
Hoge: Pat Fitzgerald was very unhappy with his secondary after the win at Michigan State. The communication and execution was very poor. It has improved the last two weeks, which has helped Northwestern limit big plays. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Joe Gaziano have also stepped up their game on the defensive line the last month or so and that is really helping the defense.
6, Northwestern is ninth in the country in kickoff returns (27.2 yards per return). What makes the unit so successful and how have teams tried to neutralize them?
Hoge: This one is pretty simple — they have a good kick returner in Solomon Vault who has the ability to change a game at any time by taking one to the house. The best way to neutralize him is by kicking the ball out of the back of the end zone, which UW has in P.J. Rosowski.
7, Who is the x-factor on Saturday for Northwestern?
Hoge: I’m going to go with middle linebacker Anthony Walker. He was banged up earlier in the year, but is healthier now. I think Northwestern matches up well defensively, but Corey Clement and Troy Fumagalli are the two guys I’d be worried about and Walker has the ability to stuff the run and cover tight ends. He needs to have a big game.
8, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Northwestern trouble? Where do you think the Wildcats have the edge over the Badgers?
Hoge: As well as Northwestern is playing offensively, I’m worried about how the offensive line is going to hold up against this talented Wisconsin front seven. The ‘Cats offense goes as its offensive line goes and I think the Badgers have an edge there. Thorson is going to have to make some plays on the fly in this one.
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin’s quarterbacks will have to play a lot better than they did last week against Nebraska. I think the ‘Cats will be able to generate some pressure and we’ll just have to see how disciplined the secondary is on the back end.
9, What is the one thing Northwestern needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
Hoge: Block. When the offensive line plays well, this team can go on the road and hang with Ohio State. When it doesn’t play well, this team loses at home to Illinois State.