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October 22, 2010

Let's talk Northwestern

This week with venerable veteran Lindsey Willhite of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

    * Where is this program going under Pat Fitzgerald, how good can it be, and will he still be Northwestern's coach in five years?
    "Presuming Northwestern can snag two more wins this season, the Wildcats will get to play in a bowl for the third consecutive bowl. That's never happened in Evanston. I think Fitz has convinced his players, his recruits, his coaches and himself that the Wildcats will contend for Big Ten titles on a regular basis. To date, unless you count the recent Purdue loss or the unexpected loss at Indiana two years ago, they've never done anything to make him doubt himself.
    "I truly believe Fitz can be the JoePa of Northwestern. He and his wife are NU people. His three sons are being raised in the NU community. Their in-laws are all nearby. I think Fitz never leaves Evanston unless he becomes convinced he can't win at the highest level. And, even then, he still might choose to stick with NU's mission as opposed to chasing another job. He doesn't strike me as an SEC or Pac-10 guy. Maybe he could go to a Big 12 school or, to go against my Pac-10 statement, Colorado?"

    * What happened against Purdue?
    "1) The Boilers switched their option blocking schemes and read NU's tackles instead of ends. The Wildcats eventually adjusted, but Purdue got two 50-yard-plus runs out of it.
    "2) They fumbled away a punt that led to the field goal. Well, they also fumbled another punt and a kick, but at least they recovered those.
    "3) Second-team all-Big Ten kicker Stefan Demos missed two fourth-quarter field goals. The first was blocked, then he hooked his game-tying try in the final minute. The Wildcats have struggled with field goals and extra points all year.
    "4) Northwestern's O-Line surrendered 5 more sacks and didn't establish a decent running game. The run game has been an issue since Tyrell Sutton graduated after the 2008 season."

    * How would you compare Dan Persa with Kafka, Bacher and some of the other good Northwestern quarterbacks over the years?
    "Maybe it's fair to describe Persa, who might stretch to 6-foot, as a pocket-sized version of Kafka. Pound for pound, he's the best athlete on the team and he uses his excellent speed on options as well as scrambles -- though Purdue did a decent job of spying him and keeping its linemen in lanes to limit Persa's scrambles. He makes excellent decisions with his throws, as is clear by his national-best completion percentage, but he's also hard on himself. He always puts the blame on himself whether it belongs there or not.
    "I wouldn't be surprised if Persa is good enough to earn second-team all-Big Ten honors next year, just as Kafka did in his senior year."

    * How good is Vince Browne and how effective do you expect him to be this weekend coming off the shoulder injury?
    "Browne isn't a Ryan Kerrigan or a J.J. Watt. He won't dominate a game, but he never gives up. He's a former linebacker who initially had the pass-rushing skills, but has learned to stand up to opposing teams' running games. NU believes he'll be good to go this week, so I assume he'll play only if healthy because they have three other reliable ends. Check to see if he remains on NU's kick coverage team. That could be a sign of how worried the Wildcats are about his health."

    * Is Northwestern's push to market and increase the fan base having any effect this season?
    "According to the team's notes, the Wildcats have enjoyed a 51.1 percent increase in attendance over the first three games a year ago. Some people believe a small part of the increase comes from Illinois fans who purchased season tickets in the end zone just so they could get tickets for the Wrigley Field game on Nov. 20. Overall, there seems to be more buzz. There are definitely more billboards and newspaper ads and radio spots for the 'Cats...but I think they missed out when they didn't make Fitz the face of the campaign. Like it or not, he is NU football to a lot of people these days."

    * What are your keys to this game (and a prediction if you will)?
    "It's all about the running games for the Wildcats. It's not fair to expect them to slow down MSU like Illinois did, but Baker and Bell can't be allowed to combine for more than 150 yards. Conversely, NU needs to run enough to keep the Spartans honest. Jacob Schmidt and Mike Trumpy are averaging 3.4 yards per carry. They need to bump that to 4.0 with some Persa jaunts mixed in.
    "Northwestern also can't afford any more special-teams mistakes. It's almost becoming a mental thing...and the Wildcats are going to need to take advantage of every trip inside MSU's 30."

    Thanks to Lindsey, who writes here about the Wildcats' big homecoming weekend and last year's MSU game. The Trib's Teddy Greenstein wonders why the Wildcats even bother trying to run. And here's a little ink-stained spat revolving around MSU's defense.

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Joe Rexrode
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