I promise I still have a Notre Dame and Toledo Q&A session pending, but I haven't received an e-mail response yet from either. In the meantime, the fine blog Lake the Posts agreed to talk about the pivotal Northwestern game before I get into our Big Ten opener with the Wildcats. Here is what LTP had to say:
Hammer & Rails: If you would, talk a little bit about Fitz's new contract. I think this gives him some serious Paterno potential in Evanston.
Lake the Posts: Agreed. The names JoePa and Fitz have been linked since last season when it became clear we were having a special season. The big question mark that preceeded this kind of talk was "if" Fitz can sustain a marginal level of success he'll be there for life. The potential is there for Fitz to be at NU for his entire career since he simply bleeds purple. Many media types were pointing to the Notre Dame job as a reason for renegotiating his contract, yet those who really know Fitz wonder if he could possibly ever take the money to coach there (Ed note: Isn't it the dream job of every football coach to coach there
H&R: Last year was set up as a 1-in-4 year run toward the top of the Big Ten, but it looks like there is more staying power to this run. What would be an acceptable 2009 for this team?
LTP: That indeed has been NU's challenge. A top tier finish followed by the drop-off (sans 1996). I truly believe the new "hump" will be 2010. Anything less than 7-5 is a major, major disappointment for NU. With four non-conference opponents all 100+ in ranking by the NY Times Quad Blog, we simply have to take care of business there. That would mean a 3-5 record in conference to get to 7 wins. This defense is way too good to not win 2 Big Ten games on their own. We thankfully lose Ohio State from the schedule and we suffer the bad timing award for losing Michigan from the schedule. I believe they'll win 8 games this year, but we lose a TON on defense in 2010 and that will be the true test of a sustainable program.
We have a legitimate chance to go to bowls 5 times this decade (2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009) and a chance to begin a Tiller-esque run at annual bowl certainty. (Ed Note: It is better than many people think to just make a bowl each year)You couldn't ask for a better schedule this year with a home slate that features Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin and a road slate that includes Purdue, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois.
H&R: How confident are you having Kafka under center after his performance at Minnesota last year?
LTP: Relatively confident. The big mystery to me after the Minnesota game was why we didn't let him throw more. He threw two separate passes in the Minnesota game that were two of the best I saw all year, yet he was kept completely under wraps from throwing in the Ohio State game and parts of the Michigan game. Obviously he is deceiving as a runner as he racked up a Big Ten QB rushing record with 217 yds against the Gophers, but I believe he is actually a far better decision-maker with the arm than CJ Bacher. Most forget that Kafka was the starter in Fitz's rookie year (2006) until he was injured a few games into the season. He's got quite a bit of game experience for what will be essentially a "first year" starter for a 5th year senior.
H&R: you recently wrote about the Purdue factor as the Boilers having a similar uphill recruiting battle as Northwestern. How do you see both programs becoming more consistent?
LTP: Great question. Consistency comes with off years being bowl games. I can't speak to what it is like as a Purdue fan, but I got the sense that Boiler Nation had a short memory about how average/below average Purdue was prior to Tiller arriving. If we could go to a bowl every single year, that would be a hell of an accomplishment. When your "down" years are 7-5 and your "up" years mean competing for a Big Ten title I think you've achieved consistency. Purdue has had far less "dropoff factor" than NU has so I would say until last season you were a model of what I think of in terms of consistency for a school not named Penn State or Ohio State (amazing how quickly one can fall out of the consistency conversation right, Michigan?).
H&R: Finally, how much of a must win is the Purdue game for you this year. For us, it is a game we absolutely need if we're going to bowl (and yes, it is homecoming.)
LTP: Ross-Ade is never a gimme regardless of the year for Northwestern. However, it is rare that we have a chance to be favored which I think we will be based in part to a down year by your standards, a first year head coach (albeit an inherent advantage based on being Bielema-ed ) and the best defense we've had clearly since 1995. I absolutely HATE what I call schedule surfing (hmmm...we should win THAT one, lose THAT one....) because I'm terrible at it. NU has a knack for losing to one opponent every year it shouldn't and beating one or two that we don't expect to beat (Ed note: as do we, see Michigan State 2000). If I must, the 4 non-conference games (Towson, Miami (OH), Syracuse and Eastern Michigan) are all must-wins. Indiana, Minnesota (both home) and Purdue are in the must-win category as well to get us to our baseline level of acceptability. That leaves five games - home Penn State, home Wisconsin, @Purdue, @Illinois and @Iowa from which one win makes a very good season, two wins makes a great season and three or more get us into dream scenario season.
Thanks for stopping by. Last year's Northwestern game was one of the ugliest of the Tiller Era, as seen here.