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The Only Questions: Q&A with Northwestern

Time to dive right into this weekends game against the Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The Spartans are going to be in East Lansing again this Saturday, this time facing The Northwestern Wildcats. Michigan State has some things to figure out and certain adjustments will be made. We may even see someone different under center to start the game. After last week’s tough loss to The Cougars of Brigham Young, Sparty has had time to regroup and turn their attention to another good football team in the Wildcats.

The Wildcats come in to East Lansing coming off a tough road win against The Iowa Hawkeyes. After a few surprising losses this season, beating Iowa was a huge boost in the teams confidence and mindset going forward. After all the Big Ten conference plays a very physical brand of football, so beating any Big Ten opponent on the road in this conference is huge.

This week we want to welcome Zach Pereles from Inside NU, the site that covers everything Northwestern, all the time. So everyone lets invite Zach into our home called The Only Colors so that he can answer a few of our questions.

Last season was very successful for the Northwestern Wildcats, they finished with a record of 10-3, and a conference record of 6-2. The losses coming from Michigan and Iowa. Much like Northwestern's opponent this weekend, Michigan State, the start to this season has came as a surprise. Both teams came off great 2015 seasons and were looking to make the 2016 season more of the same. What do you think is the biggest contributing factor for the Wildcats rather surprising start to the season?

Northwestern's biggest drop off from last year was the defense, which couldn't get off the field on third and fourth down at anywhere near the rate it was able to last year, and the offensive line, which was downright awful until the most recent game, against Iowa. Defensively, some regression was to be expected, as the Wildcats lost their top two defensive linemen (Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson) as well as All-Big Ten cornerback Nick VanHoose. But the offensive line has plenty of experience; it's just been bad. When the Wildcats can't establish the run early, they will struggle offensively.

While both of these teams are currently 2-3 on the year, the Spartans have managed to lose three straight games. How do you think an up and down season can effect a players mindset? And how do you think coaches keep their players even keeled?

The Wildcats and their staff — namely offensive coordinator Mick McCall — have taken a lot of heat this season. But Pat Fitzgerald has been here for a long time, and it seems every time things are going completely wrong, something good unexpectedly happens (case in point: NU, then 3-6, beats Notre Dame in 2014). The same thing happened versus Iowa this year. I think it does affect players somewhat, but Fitzgerald does a really good job of keeping his guys focused and prepared by blocking out outside noise.

Being that the Spartans are on a losing streak and the Wildcats are coming off of a nice win on the road against Iowa, what are your thoughts coming in to East Lansing Saturday? How do you think this Northwestern team matches up with these Spartans?

I think this is a really good matchup for Northwestern. The Spartans haven't been able to stop the run, and when the Wildcats can run the ball, they can put up some big numbers. Additionally, the Spartans have struggled to run the ball, and when NU can stop the run, good things happen in the pass rush game. It really starts and ends for the Wildcats in the trenches. If they can't open up holes for star running back Justin Jackson to run through, they'll rarely win with the passing attack alone. And if they can't stop the run, things can get ugly for a very young secondary.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that this years Michigan State defense is not usually thought of as formidable, no one really strikes fear into another team's heart, besides Malik McDowell and even he has struggled to make an impact. Especially the Spartans secondary. This defense is currently ranked 57th against the pass. They have given up 1,097 yards on the year and are allowing 7.26 yards per passing attempt while letting up 12.61 yards per passing completion. They are also giving up an average of 219.4 yards a game. The Wildcats have been pretty good through the air this year, Clayton Thorson and Austin Carr have hooked up for 6 touchdowns. Thats 6 out of the total 8 touchdowns Thorson has thrown on the year. How do you see these two guys performing Saturday? Are they going to be hooking up for a few more touchdowns?

It seems like every touchdown Thorson throws is to Carr (six of Thorson's eight have been to A.C.). Carr is a masterful route runner, he's quick and fast, and he catches everything. He's Thorson's safety blanket and his big play threat. I'd expect another six to eight catches and a score from Carr, but it's really up to Thorson to get other guys — wide receivers Flynn Nagel, Andrew Scanlan, Bennett Skowronek, Solomon Vault, superback Garrett Dickerson and even running back Justin Jackson — involved for NU to be successful in the pass game.

Lastly, what do you feel is the game plan for the Wildcats this weekend? If you were lucky enough to be the person to draw it up what would you say gives Northwestern the best possible chance to win?

The best way for NU to win this game is to find success in the run game early, which will allow Mick McCall to open up the playbook, and that's when Clayton Thorson is at his best. If they can pound the ball between the tackles, that'll allow Thorson to use his mobility to get out of the pocket and make plays. The Wildcats have to establish some ground presence early to put up points and stay balanced. If they can do that, this can be a pretty good offense. But if the run struggles and Thorson has to throw the ball 35+ times, that spells trouble.

Thanks Again to Zach Pereles and everyone over at Inside NU.