Welcome back to another edition of Conversations With the Enemy, wherein we shock and awe opposing bloggers with mildly antagonistic questions about opposing games. This week's victim: Lake the Posts, the fantastic Northwestern blog/blogger.
My answers to his questions about Michigan State will be up at LTP later today. Below, I'm in bold:
Halfway through the regular season, NU is 5-1, but 3 of those wins have been by 5 points or less. Briefly, what have been the single-most encouraging and discouraging things you've seen from the Wildcats so far this season?
Single most encouraging is a no-brainer--Dan Persa. The guy is unlike any QB we've seen at NU as his mistakes are so rare, they are glaring when we don't complete a pass. He's got to be the most underrated QB in America as he is fast as any QB we've ever had and is our best rushing threat, and somehow manages to never get hit. Our receiving corps is extremely deep and while most are under the radar (it's just a matter of time before Jeremy Ebert starts getting the notice) and young, our passing game will only increase next year when we return virtually everyone. We've got some instant impact freshmen, but Fitz is being very selective in their use. Tony Jones -- a Grand Blanc, MI star we edged out Sparty for -- is clearly going to be a star at NU. Venric Mark is the fastest player I've seen in an NU uniform, yet we don't get him touches.
Discouraging? Unfortunately, for a 5-1 team there are almost too many places to start. But I'll do my best. The O-line has been the most disappointing. Some experts picked it as potentially the best in the Big Ten, yet we've been below average to put it kindly. We're giving up way too many sacks, making dumb penalty after dumb penalty, and not exactly creating big holes, albeit our RBs are extremely weak and aren't exactly north-south runners who have a nose for holes. The RB woes continue which is really troubling. We're rotating backs at an alarming rate and it is clear we do not have a legit Big Ten back among the bunch at this point. After a slew of 1000-yard rushers it's a head-scratcher that we haven't solved the problems at this spot. It's one of the few spots that we've always been good at and now, even a normally average back would be having a huge impact on our team. The play-calling is discouraging as well. It's as if Fitz/McCall are on a mission to live a lie that we have to run the ball to be successful. We're almost overcompensating for our ineffectiveness here by inexplicably running more. Stefan Demos has been just plain bad this season as he's missed 3 PATs and 5 FGs. The confidence is shaken and it's a major issue - a handicap in a close game at this point.
Against Purdue, Northwestern threw for 305 yards and no interceptions, but somehow only managed to put 17 points on the board. Does NU have a problem scoring in the red zone, or was some other factor at play?
I'll take "both for 200". See above for playcalling. Any type of momentum we'd generate in the passing game would stall as we'd revert to the run game. We tend to have issues in red zone conversion as the field gets shorter and our spread gets limited, relying on the run game becomes a big issue. We seem to play in to it, but give Purdue credit as they dropped 7 all game and used what Fitz called "the fence" by having their DEs get around our line, and have their two lineman waiting at the line when Persa would get flushed from the pocket limiting his escapability. Demos missed another 2 FGs as well which were ultimately drive and game killers.
More, after the jump.
Dan Persa is currently fourth in the country in pass efficiency, and he's completing an astounding 78% of his passes. What has been the key to Persa's success this season? Are we going to see the usual death-by-1000-cuts short passing attack, or has NU thrown downfield more often this season?
The guy is a winner. He credits his accuracy to former QB Brett Basanez, who has coached him mentally on knowing how to miss -- limiting mistakes by throwing passes in areas that if they're missed, to avoid doing any damage. He has been incredible though, when you consider it is far less dink and dunk and more medium range than the NU you're used to in the past. You've got to credit his receiving corps as well, as we routinely rotate 8-10 receivers in the game and they are all capable. Jeremy Ebert has been spectacular, though -- see Minnesota 4th quarter TD for a sense of how key he has been. The only knock on Persa is that he sometimes waits a tad too long to get rid of the rock, but we're usually OK with it because he makes amazing things happen when he scrambles.
NU has allowed nearly 3 sacks per game, which seems quite high for a pass-heavy spread offense where the quarterback shouldn't be holding onto the ball for long. Have there been problems on the offensive line?
Big time. The Purdue game illustrates our challenges. Purdue's D-line ate us up with 5 sacks, several hurries and caused a slew of problems. We had several huge holding calls including one that negated a 22 yard run that would've put us 1st and goal on the 4 with a minute to go -- and it was one of those that wasn't even a factor in the play.
MSU's general offensive game plan this season has been to establish the running game, and then use its success to set up play action. Last week, Illinois curtailed MSU's offense during the first half by getting penetration into the backfield and stopping the running game. Is NU's defensive line stout enough to do the same?
I don't think so. Our DL has been OK, but based on the competition it has been tough to say. We've been better against the run than I would've thought going in to the season, but Rob Henry's zone read (he is just a terrible passer and they simply stopped even trying compounding how bad we were knowing they'd run every down) fake handoffs threw us for a loop. When you consider that Sparty is the best play action team in the conference it scares me how many big plays your run game will set up for Cunningham and Dell. However, I thought the same last year against Iowa and Wisconsin and our DL stepped up big time in those games, so you never know.
Last year, MSU generally had its way with Northwestern's secondary. This year, NU is 71st nationally in pass yardage allowed, but 24th in pass efficiency defense -- a rather large discrepancy. Can you describe how NU has fared against the pass this season?
It's been no secret that our secondary was the giant question mark on defense and see above as I fear this game could expose us. We've had a few horrific coverage lapses against Minnesota, but they've played surprisingly well so far. Purdue was awful in the air so again I take it with a grain of salt -- we're the epitome of the bend-don't-break defense in general though. We simply don't match-up well with you on D, and like Purdue showed it only takes 2 or 3 big plays (we gave up 2 big plays all day and they cost us the game ultimately) to make a game. I fear your success in the run will set up those 2 or 3 big pass plays that will be the difference.
Is there anyone on either side of the ball who MSU fans may not be aware of, but should pay attention to?
Like I said above WR Tony Jones is a guy to watch and Drake Dunsmore -- our "superback," a hybrid TE/FB who plays like a WR -- is simply fantastic at creating YAC. On defense, LB Quentin Davie has a great nose for the ball and has created several picks, but I'd be watching for DE Vince Browne who was out the entire second half of the Purdue game. His status is uncertain. Jeremy Ebert, whom I assume you know of, is Persa's favorite receiver and continues to set personal bests each week. We simply need to convert yardage in to points on the board though to have a chance.
Finally, how do you see this game shaking out? Prediction?
The general mood at Northwestern is one that despite wanting this to be a battle of the undefeated, we almost feel more comfortable without the hype. Every time we get ranked, we seem to fall flat (see Purdue). Our fan base has matured to the point where we are bitching up a storm at 5-1 as opposed to being happy about it. We've yet to play anywhere near a complete game and there has been little to suggest that will change. The hallmarks of Fitz and NU teams is scrappy, mistake-free, takeaway heavy teams. However, that couldn't be farther from the truth this year as we're penalty-riddled, mistake-prone and Sparty seems to have stolen our traits. I'm really concerned about the weather as a rainy day equals a blowout by Michigan State. You'll see there is a new energy at Ryan Field as attendance is WAY up (hey, it is all relative) as NU has embarked on the largest marketing campaign in school history. I expect the atmosphere to be electric and I've been saying the key metrics for success are 55/5/2. We need to look in the mirror, know who we are and PASS. I believe we need 55 pass attempts, 5 penalties or less and a turnover margin of +2 to pull off the upset.
This is a potential signature win for NU and could instantly catapult the ‘Cats right back in to the thick of the Big Ten, gulp, race and throw the conference up for grabs. Michigan State has had Fitz's number (he's 1-3) and most of us have felt from the get-go that MSU was the most underrated team in the Big Ten. We somehow always play to the level of the opponent which is good news for Saturday. I just don't feel "it" though, and see Sparty winning this one rather easily. Michigan State 34, NU 20.
Thanks to LTP.