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5 Questions with Inside NU: Is Northwestern a legitimate championship contender?

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Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Happy Thanksgiving!

After a week off, the Michigan State Spartans return to Spartan Stadium to take on the Northwestern Wildcats at 3:30 p.m. EST on Saturday.

To help us learn more about the undefeated Wildcats (5-0), I spoke with Lia Assimakopoulos, editor-in-chief at Inside NU — SB Nation’s website for all things Northwestern athletics.

Is Northwestern a real contender? How has Peyton Ramsey looked with his new team? What makes the Wildcats’ defense so tough? We spoke to Lia about all of this and more. See her responses below:

1. I don’t believe many analysts or fans predicted a 5-0 start for Northwestern. What have the Wildcats done to turn things around from last season’s 3-9 campaign, and going into the season did you see this kind of start as a possibility?

Lia: While Northwestern fans expected improvement from its 3-9 campaign in 2019, very few anticipated the Wildcats would start 5-0 and be in the discussion for the College Football Playoff. It’s been interesting to watch because besides Peyton Ramsey at quarterback, the personnel of the team is pretty similar all around, but having Ramsey in the game really brings out the positives from a lot of other players who were unable to shine last year. Ultimately, the reason Northwestern is so strong is because its offense is night and day from last season. Northwestern was quite literally one of the worst offensive teams in FBS last year, and now they find themselves more in the middle of the pack, which is just enough for them to pull out these big wins. That’s because Northwestern’s defense is one of the best in the nation, currently ranking third in SP+. The defense time and time again has completely stifled any and all of Northwestern’s opponents and had the offense’s back even when it struggles again this year. Even in Northwestern’s terrible season last year, the defense was still a standout, but often overshadowed by the offense’s woes. Now, they just managed to get even better and are finally getting recognized for it.

When watching this team, it just feels like everything is clicking, and they are playing with a new level of confidence than ever before. There was always a possibility Northwestern would come out strong this season, but I think the Wildcats have exceeded everyone’s expectations.

2. What are your thoughts on quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who transferred from fellow Big Ten school Indiana, and has led the Wildcats to this undefeated start thus far?

Lia: Ramsey has proven to be exactly what Northwestern needs in a quarterback. This team has never been known for having an explosive offense that puts up 50 points per game but rather wins its matchups on defense. The Wildcats just needed an offense that is reliable enough to get the job done and put up some points on the board, something they could not manage to do last season. Ramsey and the offense have been far from perfect, but he has turned the unit around with his experience, calmness and poise when he plays. He is a game-controlling quarterback and the leader that Northwestern needed to rally around and find some consistency on that end of the field. Additionally, he has meshed especially well with the receivers and tight ends, and because the team sees him as such a trustworthy leader, he has been able to find some consistency for the first time in a while on Northwestern’s offense.

3. What has made Northwestern’s defense so stout, and are there any potential weaknesses there that Michigan State’s offense can try to attack?

Lia: Northwestern’s defense has been strong for years but really seems to be emerging into the spotlight this season. Each level has finally found consistency and gotten its job done. The linebackers are always Northwestern’s strength with veterans Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin terrorizing offenses for four years now. The secondary has been a pleasant surprise and went from respectable to one of the best in the nation led by cornerback Greg Newsome and safety Brandon Joseph, who leads the nation in interceptions per game (1.0). The defensive line had a bit of a rocky start as it coped with injuries, but in the past two matchups, it finally began to get the pressure on the quarterback it needed.

In terms of weaknesses, there aren’t too many, but tackling has proven a challenge for this defense over the past few years. Against Purdue, the team greatly struggled to contain Zander Horvath, especially in the second half, as well as Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey against Nebraska, who ran all over them. Even when teams manage to make progress though, Northwestern’s red zone defense has been able to contain them. Also, Northwestern has really excelled in the turnover battle, including its five-takeaway game against Wisconsin, so the Spartans will need to control the ball and maintain possession if they want to take down this defense.

4. How was Pat Fitzgerald able to build and turnaround this Northwestern program during his tenure? How beloved is he by the fans?

Lia: Fitz has proven to be the perfect guy for the job, and in my personal opinion, is possibly the only person who could have turned Northwestern into the program it’s become. He won the hearts over of fans back in the ‘90s when he was a star linebacker for the Wildcats in their Rose Bowl appearance, and since he took over as coach over a decade ago, he has only strengthened that relationship. He teaches discipline and has a strong bond with his players who really buy into his teaching philosophy. That relationship and his values translate on the field in the team’s consistency and discipline when it plays.

5. Do you believe this Northwestern team is for real and could challenge Ohio State in a potential Big Ten Championship game, and then work its way into the College Football Playoff discussion, or do you have a feeling that this isn’t sustainable for the Wildcats and it may be too good to be true, so to speak?

Lia: I definitely think it’s a possibility that Northwestern could challenge Ohio State and potentially even make the College Football Playoff, but I also find it challenging to see that as a reality at this point. The Wildcats should have no problem winning their last three games against Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, but Ohio State is a different monster. However, watching Indiana almost take them down last weekend left Northwestern with hope that there are some weaknesses there to capitalize on. It won’t be an easy road to the CFP, but if Northwestern can get the job done these next three weeks, it will be one win away from making the playoff for the first time in history, and the team certainly won’t go down without a fight.

6. Score prediction for this weekend’s game between Northwestern and Michigan State?

Lia: Given Michigan State’s challenges so far and Northwestern’s early success, I think NU should take care of business in East Lansing and advance to 6-0. I’ll say, Northwestern 30, Michigan State 14.

A big thank you to Lia, who does great work over at Inside NU. You can follow her on Twitter, and to keep up with the Wildcats, follow Inside NU as well.

For my responses to Lia’s questions, be sure to head over to Inside NU.