1. How are Northwestern fans feeling after non-conference play? Is there a general consensus, or are people split?
People are pretty split. The first three games drove fans mad, because this is probably the most talented team that Northwestern has ever had on defense, and the offense just wasn't clicking. A lot of that is on the coaches, who changed to a scheme that didn't really fit the personnel. However, the Penn State game gave a lot of people hope The offense was at least competent, and other than some struggles by Trevor Siemian, everything was operating as it's supposed to. Plus, the defense showed the increased talent level, and it absolutely dominated Penn State. So I think there's cautious optimism surrounding the team, recognizing that there are still major offensive issues.
2. What's the strength of this Northwestern team? And the greatest weakness?
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Getting to know Northwestern
Before Wisconsin travels to Evanston to take on Northwestern on Saturday, here are a few things to know about the Wildcats.
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The strength is the defense, particularly the front seven. In the last three or four years, Northwestern has recruited a lot better, and that's starting to show on defense, where it's a lot harder to use schemes to cover up bad players than it is on offense. The front seven has a really good pass rush, with likely NFL guy Dean Lowry and former four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo - who had offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Stanford, etc. - anchoring that. NU also has six starting-caliber linebackers, and freshman Anthony Walker, who broke out onto the scene with a great performance last week, will be one to watch this week.
The weakness is the offense. Even with the schematic improvements, Siemian was off on some of his throws and the offensive line still needs some work. But it might be starting to come together.
3. What should Wisconsin fans expect from Northwestern's offense?
I really don't even know what to expect. You'll see a spread team that will get the ball to a lot of different players. Watch out for the superbacks (Northwestern's term for tight ends). Dan Vitale is a matchup nightmare up the seam because he's too fast for linebackers to cover and too big for safeties. For some reason NU really underutilized him in the first two games, but they're starting to realize how valuable he is. Freshman Garrett Dickerson, who also had Alabama, Ohio State, Stanford and Michigan offers, looks like the real deal, and Tony Jones and Kyle Prater have proven to be solid receivers this year.
The running game has struggled at times, though that's mostly due to the offensive line. Justin Jackson is only a true freshman, but he's already probably NU's best running back. He has great vision, physicality speed, and it's clear why he was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois last season. It's only a matter of time until he has a real breakout game, though he's certainly been impressive (given what he's had to work with) so far.
4. And what about the defense?
Definitely watch the front seven. NU blitzed a lot last week, and I could see that happening again. They have the personnel to do it. That's a really good group of linemen and linebackers that could potentially slow down Melvin Gordon and make Tanner McEvoy make plays. If that happens, I like NU's chances.
5. What kind of atmosphere should Wisconsin fans making the trip to Evanston expect? Is this Game Of The Year material, or not quite?
It will probably be a few thousand short of a sellout. It's probably not the game of the year, since the Nebraska game is Homecoming and there will be a lot of red there (for some reason, Wisconsin hasn't historically traveled all that well to Ryan Field). Plus, might rain, and God forbid some students have to sit in the RAIN to watch football ... that's just asking too much. But in all seriousness, I expect a pretty fun atmosphere and pretty fun crowd. But it won't be as electric as the Ohio State game last year or the Nebraska game later this year (assuming Northwestern doesn't start sucking again).
6. Do you have a prediction?
I think this will be pretty close. I think NU bottles up Gordon more than people are expecting, but McEvoy will also be a bit better than people expect. All in all, a missed field goal comes back to haunt NU and Wisconsin wins 23-21.