Checking in on the Wildcats with SB Nation's Northwestern blog.
After a bye week, MSU again looks to reach bowl eligibility when Northwestern comes to East Lansing for the final home game of the 2012 season. Rodger Sherman from Sippin' On Purple was kind enough to answer some questions about the Wildcats. Here is our preseason Q&A.
1. What has been surprising about the Wildcats this season, compared to preseason expectations?
I think what's been surprising is Northwestern's ability to win games with a relatively young team. We start eight seniors, and none of them are really the stars on either side of the ball. As a result, I expected NU to win six, maybe seven games with an unproven roster. Instead we jumped out to 7-2. We could still go 7-6, I guess, but considering Illinois on the schedule, that's a pretty worst-case scenario.
I'm also surprised about the whole two quarterback scenario Northwestern has been running.Coming into the year, I thought we'd see all Kain Colter everything. Instead, NU has insisted on playing Trevor Siemian for drives at random intervals throughout the season, the idea being that Colter's a better runner and Siemian a better thrower. I think Siemian's play and the highly predictable playcalling that's come with it has probably won NU a game over the course of a season and lost them one. Oh, and we thought Venric Mark would be bad at running back.
2. We know about Colter and Mark, but who are some other playmakers on both sides of the ball we might be hearing about Saturday?
On offense, it's tough to say: Northwestern really tries to spread the ball between its receivers, and as a result receivers Tony Jones, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence, and Demetrius Fields have relatively identical statlines on the year. Conclusion: Colter and Mark are enough in the playmaking department. Worry about them. On defense, freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose has probably been the MVP. Unfortunately, his status for Saturday is still up in the air. When he's played, his side of the field has been hard to throw to. When he hasn't, we have games like Michigan where the opposition picks on his backup, senior Demetrius Dugar, to the tune of reception after reception mixed in with pass interference calls. And then completed hail marys, but that's a different story. David Nwabuisi has been solid at the middle linebacker spot as well.
3. Northwestern has held a double-digit lead in all three losses. Why can't they close?
Because this world we live in is an orderless, zero-sum hellscape of chaos and pain, and any belief you have that a benevolent higher power exists is a blatant falsehood. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to awful people. (I'm talking about Michigan beating Northwestern here.) To be honest, I don't believe in the notion that Northwestern "can't close". If that was true, we'd be 0-7 instead of 7-3, right? Sure, we've blown double digit leads in three games - four, if you count Syracuse, where Northwestern blew a 20-point lead gained on two freak turnovers and a punt return for a touchdown, only to score on the final drive for the win - but I don't think there's a systematic fault in Northwestern that accounts for Roy Roundtree catching a deflected Hail Mary last week, or Jeff Budzien's 53-yard field goal missing right by three feet.
I think football is an interesting game that happens to last 60 minutes. Sometimes, the team that's playing well right at the end there catches a break. For several years, Northwestern had a habit of winning an unbelievably high percentage of close games - one of my co-writers did the math, it was somewhere around 70 percent - and attributed it mainly to luck, not Pat Fitzgerald's amazing ability to motivate players with five minutes left on the clock. Well, that luck is coming home to roost right now, and it's doing it with a vengeance. (I was not yet in school when Michigan State came back from 35 down to beat Northwestern, so it's not worth bringing it up.)
4. What are three keys to victory for the Wildcats on Saturday?
First, the Venric Mark-Kain Colter option. I'm being a little disingenuous: this is always our key to victory. Only Penn State was able to stop it, but its given NU a chance to win every other time.
Second, the play of our linebackers against Le'Veon Bell. Nwabuisi, Chi Chi Ariguzo, and Damien Proby sometimes show the ability to stop running backs when they hit them, but sometimes don't. We are more successful when they do.
Third, special teams play and turnovers. Northwestern's got an advantage in the turnover margin thanks to our quarterbacks almost never making throws they can't make and our running backs holding on to the ball for the most part, and on special teams, Mark will also murder you. NU's been able to eke a major advantage out of these departments in almost every game we've won.
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
Northwestern, 35, MSU, 27. Why? Because I predicted Michigan 38, Northwestern 31 and have spent the last week realizing I'm a friggin soothsayer and that my talents should be used for good and not evil. Sorry I have to do this to you.
Thanks again to Rodger for answering our questions. Make sure you check out Sippin On Purple for all things Northwestern.