As we continue our meander through Notre Dame’s 2014 opponents, we arrive on the much-anticipated game with Northwestern. No, this won’t be a candidate to host College GameDay, but for ND grads and the city of Chicago, this will be a game that’ll likely determine bragging rights on the North Side.
(At the very least, it’ll make for a fun tailgater and a lot of charter buses heading back for a nightcap.)
Last year was the first slip up for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The former All-American linebacker who essentially put the Wildcats back on the map as a player, Fitzgerald took over the program after the sudden death of Randy Walker. Learning on the job, Fitzgerald built on Walker’s momentum and brought the program to a consistency it had never before seen.
Wildcats fans are hoping to return to that more-than-average place, maybe even getting back to the 10-win plateau that saw the 2012 season capped off with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
Getting us up to speed on all things Northwestern is Jay Sharman, the editor of Lake the Posts, a long-running Northwestern football blog. Jay was nice enough to answer questions not just about the Wildcats on the field, but the relationship between two schools and football programs off of it.
Can you help us figure out what went wrong for the Wildcats in 2013? After a 10-win 2012 and a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, Northwestern lost seven straight, finishing the year 5-7. Was it a matter of injuries or bad breaks? Regression to the mean?
This is the stuff that makes off-seasons so damn long. It’s not like I brood over this question regularly (ahem, ahem...every day), but since you asked anything that comes after this sentence is an excuse. At least that’s the take those of us that believe NU has arrived to the place where any year that isn’t a bowl game is a disaster. Are we more the 10-win 2012 program or the middle of the pack B1G team that our B1G record under Fitz would suggest? Great question.
It’s hard to believe that at one point we were 4-0, #16 in the country and on the game-winning drive against Ohio State (after leading most of the game) in primetime when Kain Colter fumbled a 4th down snap (he still got the first down, but the refs didn’t see it that way). The emotions surrounding that biggest game in Evanston since 2000 took the air out of the balloon and the season. Honestly, it was a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor coaching in clutch time all rolled up in to one tidy ball of a hot mess.
Keep in mind NU lost on a Hail Mary to Nebraska (no one deeper than the deepest?), in OT at Iowa after being in the red zone in the final minute with the score tied and then the world’s zaniest FG by Michigan to send us to an OT loss. We’d like to think at least two of those three were once in a generation kinda plays (and over the past 20 years we’ve had our fair share).
Injuries were a big part, but so was the lack of depth. NU’s offensive line was pretty miserable, but we also lost All-American heart-and-soul PR/RB Venric Mark, along with a host of linemen and somehow inherited Iowa’s AIHRBG (angy Iowa-hating RB God) as one after the next we started to learn what “sixth” on depth chart meant. Throw in some really conservative defense in key stretches with the lead and you have the recipe for the most disappointing season since 2001.
Did the frustration from last season carry over to spring?
Let’s hope not! The injuries sure did. NU’s spring roster resembled the cliched M*A*S*H unit and we struggled at time to even go full 11-on-11 due to injuries. Fitz has been overly cautious in the off-season and is working like crazy to limit injuries and ensure we’re at full throttle for 2014. The attitude was a good one - one with a chip on the shoulder, which all got overshadowed by what i’m guessing is...
It’s hard to talk football when the Wildcats football team took official steps towards unionization. This could probably be an entire discussion, but help me out here: Does a group of student-athletes at one of the finest academic institutions in American not understand the value of a full scholarship? Is this still moving forward?
...there it is - you’re next question. This is months and months of posts, vicious alumni debates and a topic that nearly had fans going at one another this off-season. NU fans (as well as ND fans) are no stranger to the front page and business section of the NYTimes and WSJ, but we’re not used to getting football headlines there. In March.
It’s impossible for me to be objective on this question as I’ve stated my opinion numerous times that unionizing football at NU isn’t the solution. However, it is really hard to argue that Kain Colter and CAPA didn’t win this battle. From a strategic standpoint, they had a Rose Bowl-level win. By forcing the NCAA and other private school institutions to address the issues that most all of us would agree on (medical coverage post college for injuries suffered while playing, concussion protocols, etc...) and not even touching the compensation argument, they were able to create seismic change in the legislative waters and had school ADs and presidents scurrying to really genuinely address some key issues. That being said, the way Kain went about it was less than something Jim Phillips, Fitz and many of the teammates feel good about.
What’s the reaction been like among alums, Northwestern supporters and former players?
It’s been ugly. Go ahead and scan the comments section on LTP in February, March and April. NU fans can’t go anywhere in the country without this topic immediately coming up in conversation. Former players are divided strongly on the issue, alumni are more anti-union in general and students,well, it’s tough to gauge exactly. Every one is fatigued by the issue but many felt hurt by the way things went down. NU prides itself on family atmosphere and transparency and this process didn’t exactly play out that way. Fitz and Phillips publicly lauded Kain for taking a leadership position and supported him and then he promptly bad-mouthed the school saying they made it nearly impossible for him to pursue a medical degree. This topic is one that I have personally received numerous emails from former players-turned-doctors who are incensed at that notion. Bottom-line it’s been a rough, rough off-season and the boom coming over is all of that media coverage and distraction for the current team this fall. It’s naive to think it won’t be a factor.
Back to the football field, from a distance it looks like part of the problems last year were at quarterback. With Cain Kolter gone (though hardly out of the spotlight), is the quarterback job Trevor Siemian’s? Is one-time Notre Dame target and former blue-chipper Matt Alviti challenging for playing time?
There is no doubt this is Trevor Siemian’s job. Siemian is a very good passer and while no Kain Colter or Dan Persa, he is more mobile than one may think. Make no mistake about it, Siemian will be throwing downfield a lot for many reasons. We’ve got a bevy of veteran receivers and well, he can throw. Siemian suffered a foot injury that none of us knew he had which hampered him severely through the meat of the schedule. Throw in the constant platoon system (Kain thrived in this) and you had a guy searching for his rhythm last year. I expect a huge year out of Siemian in 2014.
The fan base has been lauding Matt Alviti as the next Dan Persa since the day he committed (and yes, thanks for throwing in the fact we beat out ND for his services). After redshirting last season there was a lot of fan speculation that we’d retain the two QB system and platoon Alviti similarly to Colter. Not happening. NU is returning to its more traditional spread offense and while he will likely see some action, I expect it to be limited. By most reports he had a very up and down spring and junior Zack Oliver is very much in the hunt for the back-up role.
Former five-star recruit Kyle Prater is now playing for the Wildcats. Are there other receiving weapons that can help this offense make big plays in the passing game?
Kyle played last season and has been disappointing on the field in general. It’s not everyday NU gets a five-star USC transfer, let alone a guy who just looks like a Sunday player on the field as he towers over most. Prater is likely fourth or fifth on this year’s WR threat list. Christian Jones led the way in 2013 with 54 catches and 668 rec yards and made many dazzling catches along the way. Tony “no relation” Jones was the second most productive ‘Cat receiver with 55 rec and 634 yards yet his junior year seemed to be a bit understated. Expect Cameron Dickerson to make a big jump in 2014 (11 rec, 125 yards) and we’re banking that Phil Steele knows what he’s doing by slating Kyle Prater on the All Big Ten second team. There is a slew of younger talent on the team pushing these veterans and our Superback (think hybrid TE) Dan Vitale is one of the best in the B1G and always a threat as the release valve. He’s a fan favorite and a bulldozer (34 rec, 382 yards) and first team All YAC. The wildcard on this team is transfer Miles Shuler who is Venric Mark-like in speed. He transferred from Rutgers last year.
NU has weapons at receiver and most fans are hoping we continue where we left off with the aerial antics from the season finale against Illinois (yes, we know it was Illinois).
The running game looks like it should rebound as well. What do you expect out of Venric Mark and the uber-experienced offensive line?
I read that NU’s offensive line is 19th in FBS in returning total career starts. To me, the O-line and our D-line are the season make-or-breaks. Venric is our energizer. He’s been dinged up quite a bit, but man is he explosive. People forget he earned first team All-American honors in 2012 as a punt returner, not at RB, where he put up 1,300+ yards. As you’ll see, he is simply incredible. He’s tiny, but turns sliver creases in to gaping holes and BOOM he’s gone. NU is solid at RB with the likes of Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley, both of whom impressed last year before injuries saddled them. Fans are super excited about incoming freshman and Illinois Player of the Year, Justin Jackson, who will likely redshirt unless we get the injury bug again.
For a team that did a decent job getting after the quarterback, a 101st-ranked pass defense doesn’t make a lot of sense. What improvements have been made in the secondary? There seems to be talent back there, led by Ibraheim Campbell.
The secondary is our best unit, hands-down. It may very well be the best secondary since the 1995 Rose Bowl team. Ibraheim Campbell will be playing safety at the next level and he’s just a lock down kind of player. Traveon Henry, like Campbell has been playing since his freshman year and creates a helluva force in the middle of the secondary. At CB we’ve got lots of depth and very good competition. Matt Harris filled in at CB last year admirably (yes, more season-ending injuries) for Daniel Jones while the key guy to watch might be the other CB Nick VanHoose who had a sophomore slump in my opinion. Fitz and fans are pretty huge on incoming freshman Parrker Westphal, a four-star CB and a head-to-head recruiting “W” over Michigan. Westphal is the first ‘Cat to enroll early as a freshman in Fitz’s tenure which shows you how unique he is. I expect him to compete from day one.
As good as the secondary is, that many questions surround the D-line, particularly the interior. With the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraksa’s Ameer Abudallah all in our division you can bet the gameplan is going to be to test the interior of our line early and often.
Let’s talk Pat Fitzgerald. Last season was one of the first blemishes on his resume. How do you view Fitzgerald? As one of the best young coaches in the game? Or as a guy that’s done a very good job winning cupcake non-conference games and getting to eight victories?
Fitz is viewed as the ultimate brand ambassador for NU. He does everything the right way, the players relate to him and he’s no-nonsense in terms of running a program. He’s become an excellent recruiter, but the knock on his coaching is late game philosophy and decision making. The rap is we go in to ultra-conservative mode with a lead (lost all three 4th quarter leads in 2012 when we only lost 3 games) and 2013 compounded that (see: Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan).
After years of winning an uncanny amount of close games, we can’t seem to win the marquee games when we have the lead. It’s fair to knock his sub .500 B1G record, but it may not be fair to call the non-conference wins cupcakes. NU plays as many power conference teams as anyone, and while it may not be Alabama, Florida State and Oregon, just check out the schedule. Vanderbilt from the SEC, Syracuse was a regular, BC. Candidly the teams we’ve scheduled have dipped since we scheduled them (read: Cal), but future schedules have Stanford annually, Duke and other like-minded academic schools including this two-game series. Considering NU is going to a 9-game conference schedule, I believe most NU fans would happily trade schedules with Notre Dame.
More than a few ND fans think the latter, pointing out that he’s never lost less than three conference games, and routinely collects wins against programs like Maine, South Dakota and Western Illinois. Do you think that’s fair criticism, or Irish fans annoyed at the stability in Evanston?
I think it is fair - to a point. NU hasn’t competed for the B1G championship with the exception of 2012 when we laid three eggs in the 4th quarter. Consider the fact that NU lost late leads to Nebraska and Michigan two years in a row, Ohio State, Penn State and you know why we’ll be nervous as hell if we have the lead against you. When you consider that we were beating both Nebraska and Michigan last year with 0:00 on the board - and lost both games, you start to get a sense of the inability to close the “name games” frustration. It’s become an epidemic.
Lastly, can we get a state of the union on Northwestern football? You mentioned that the Wildcats’ upset of the Irish almost 20-years ago kicked off this modern era, but where do things stand today?
Things are remarkably better, but those of us that know the pre-1995 reputation are a sensitive bunch. The first five years of the Fitz regime, we were better than Stanford and they blew past us as a program. We felt we were pretty much the equivalent of Sparty until last year. Going to bowl games and winning them is now the minimum expectation for a good season.
Fitz is in year eight and the bar continues to rise. Should he not get to seven games this season the noise will get very loud from disgruntled fans. Again, it is perhaps misguided based on all of the challenges and obstacles that make NU unique, but there is no excuse for this team to not take that next step and go 6-2 or 7-1 in the West Division very soon. i think most fans are hoping the uber-loyal coach would finally make a change with Mick McCall and should the offense struggle again this year I think he’ll have to. Things were good up until early October 2013 and now many fans are asking whether 2012 was a blip or the aberration.
The program is still the only Big Ten school that doesn’t average 40k a game. But some have called the program healthier than Notre Dame’s. Are things still on an upward trajectory?
From a marketing standpoint it’s arrow way up. Indeed, NU is averaging just under 40 k per game, but that will change this year with a home slate that is pretty darn juicy. NU’s private school status, 8K students, dispersed alumni base and ridiculous competition with the Chicago marketplace all make this a challenge for the tradition-deprived school. However, NU began investing in marketing big time about four years ago and have set back to back season ticket sales records.
The fans get frustrated by Sea of Red invasions (sound familiar?) but we’re 11th out of 12 (soon to be 11th out of 14) in terms of actual Chicago alumni base in the B1G. It’s hard to get mad that opposing fans get tickets the second they go on sale as we’d all do it if we lived in the marketplace. I think BC is one of the best analogous situations and I’d love to have their 40K-size stadium. Even if it meant leaving money on the table. NU regularly has 30K+ of the fans and Ryan Field is next up in terms of a major overhaul after NU completes its downright ridiculous $225 million lakeside practice facility which is set to break ground imminently (or so we’re told).
Should NU go 8-4-ish this year and win a bowl game, the momentum will be pretty good moving forward. Fitz’s most recent recruiting classes are at the Top 20 level in terms of quality and you can see the talent uptick. We still simply lack the depth of the big dogs and must rely on staying healthy to compete.