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Speak Your Truth: Northwestern Wildcats Preview with Inside NU

Let’s ask our friends (foes) about what they’ve seen from the Cats so far this season.

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

To get a read on this less than pretty game we reached out to our friends over at Inside NU. Big thanks to their staff for taking the time to work with us this week. Here is what they had to say about this weekend’s contest and what they have seen from Northwestern thus far.

Northwestern comes into this game 1-4… and here at Wisconsin, we are spending A LOT of time talking about fired coaches. Any chance Fitz is on the hot seat or has he built up enough credit?

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people who think Fitz should be gone. I, on the other hand, still think he’s the best coach to squeeze the most out of this program. Regardless of what its recent up-and-downness might suggest, the Wildcat program of today is leagues ahead of the program that preceded 1995 and Fitz’s tenure. I don’t think the school will be pulling the plug any time soon. That being said, I also don’t think his seat is as cold as it once was, and there is definitely mounting pressure for him to at least rearrange his coaching staff in the near future.

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Overall, it’s been a struggle for Northwestern this year but all of the games have been pretty close with the largest margin being just 10 points. Are things as bad as the record indicates?

The only thing standing between this Northwestern team and a 5-0 record right now — yes, 5-0 including Penn State — was itself. We know the offense is capable of putting up numbers given its 528-yard performance behind Ryan Hilinski in Week Zero, but that offense has been virtually nonexistent since. They’ve amassed 13 total turnovers so far this season and only collected 31 yards last weekend in Happy Valley. The defense, however, has steadily improved, earning five turnovers against the Nittany Lions and keeping the game competitive. I don’t think this team is totally out of the running given the West’s turbulence at the moment, but if Mike Bajakian’s offense doesn’t improve, I fear we might not see our win count surpass one this year.

Historically, Northwestern has had a great defense but last year things really took a nosedive, and this year it looks like a bit of a struggle as well. What is the issue on that side of the football?

Northwestern’s defensive struggles skew toward the earlier part of this season, where it set the tone by allowing Nebraska to amass 465 yards in Dublin and forced the offense to make two comebacks. However, younger players like LBs Xander Mueller and Greyson Metz have settled in, and Garnett Hollis Jr. and Cam Mitchell have begun to make impacts in the secondary as well. I mean, this side forced five turnovers against the No. 11 team in the country last week. Injuries to experienced safety Coco Azema and corner A.J. Hampton Jr. did cause some turbulence in Weeks Two and Three, but Northwestern’s defense is its strength at the moment.

Badgers fans are probably used to a Northwestern team that runs the ball and controls the clock, but this Northwestern offense is much different than years past as they rank top 20 in seconds per play and are throwing it much more. What is that about?

I think the biggest indicator as to why Northwestern’s offense this year is more pass-focused lies behind the skill of its offensive line. Sure, Hilinski’s protection is bound to cave once in a while, but draft-favorite Peter Skoronski is leading a revamped unit the Wildcat coaching staff is likely factoring into its decision-making based on its strength. That, and many of Northwestern’s rushers, mainly Evan Hull, are dual threats willing to make plays in the air as well. How well that’s been working…that’s a different story.

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Who are some players to watch for NU?

Speaking of Evan Hull…he’s the definition of an all-around player. A class act off the field, the senior running back has only built on his 1,000-yard 2021 season by accumulating 415 rushing yards and 343 receiving yards so far this year. Illinois grad-transfer Donny Navarro and tight end Thomas Gordon have made newfound impacts in the receiving game as well when the offense is functioning. Hollis Jr. is an emerging talent in the secondary, coming off a week where he forced two fumbles against the Nittany Lions — he’s been working well alongside Mitchell, who’s notched an interception and 22 tackles already despite missing a game due to injury.

Overall, what are your expectations for this game, and give us a score prediction?

I think this is going to be a defensive slugfest. Northwestern hasn’t lost to the Badgers at home since 2016, so I’m going to do my due diligence and side with history: I’m picking the ‘Cats 14-10 at Ryan Field this weekend, but it could go either way. It just depends on which team’s offense decides to be more competent come kickoff. It’s going to be sloppy, chaotic, and probably stomach-turningly ugly, but that’s the beauty of Big Ten football.