I have been very appreciative of our non-conference opponent blogs for their questions recently. Last season Purdue was fine in conference, but a 1-3 out of conference season doomed us. A similar record this year would also doom us. Let's face it, anything less than a 3-1 out of conference record would be a disappointment.
That would take us into the conference season in an excellent position to grab at least three more wins and secure a bowl bid. Many projections see this happening, especially with the excitement that Robert Marve is generating after being named the starting quarterback. The first conference game is a major swing game against Northwestern. It may not decide who gets into a bowl, but it could be big in terms of bowl positioning. Win it, and Purdue should be at least 4-1 before likely being favored in a homecoming game against Minnesota.
As an introduction to the Wildcats I have contacted a pair of fine bloggers who preach from the Purple Pulpit. Sippin' On Purple is the voice for Northwestern on SBNation. It is also the home of the Name of the Week feature, where they are convinced Purdue's Andrew Brewer is an evil clone bent on World Domination. In response I ask the following: If we were to develop cloning, don't you think we would unleash an army of Chris Kramers to take over the world?
Take that as a notice, Big Ten conference. Step aside now or we will clone Chris Kramer and sic him on you until our demands are met. This includes football.
You have one day.
Clones and world domination aside, we are also joined the excellent Northwestern blog Lake the Posts, who is always among the leaders of Purple in the nation.
Hammer & Rails: I view Northwestern as a major swing game for us. With no Penn State or Iowa on the schedule, a win could put us in line for a solid Big Ten season. What are your thoughts from a Northwestern perspective?
Rodger Sherman (Sippin on Purple): Somebody at Purdue is going to kill me, but I feel like both fanbases understandably come into a Purdue-Northwestern game feeling the same way: with a "we should win this" mentality. For Purdue fans, it's understandable because we're Northwestern, and we're famous for losing. (Just looked up the historical stats, you guys are 49-27 against us all time. I can see how that seems like an automatic win.) For Northwestern fans, it's understandable because we've beaten you two years running. (Sorry.) And what's more, both teams really need that win to be considered viable in the Big Ten. We have a really weak out of conference schedule and Minnesota week five - this could be a game of two undefeated teams fighting to see who gets to be considered legit.
Lake the Posts: Right back at ya. I think 'Cats fans usually look at the Purdue game as one that is a coin-flip and could be part of the path to the upper tier season. Most of us realize how lucky we were last year and as evidenced by your upset of Ohio State, Purdue is definitely a program on the rise. The dip from the end of the Tiller era until now is clearly not going to last long.
H&R: Northwestern has been the beneficiary of a horribly played game in 2008 and a bizarre rash of turnovers in 2009 when facing Purdue. How much confidence does this give them?
LTP: You're being kind. The 2008 blowout win by NU was one of the few times I've ever seen a team give up on the field. It was clear there were issues going on in the game and we pounced on the opportunity. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like the end of the '09 first half. That was insane. The second half continued to be a takeaway day of epic proportions, and there was certainly some luck involved, but give credit to NU for making the takeaways happen.
Those are the games you look back on (see question #1) and realize how razor thin the line between a successful season and unsuccessful season can be. I voted Sherrick McManis' 2nd quarter INT at Purdue as the unsung play of the season. From that play on, we turned the season around and went on to earn a New Year's Day bowl game. As for confidence, I think the program is finally at a point where fans and more importantly the players truly believe they are going to win every game they play. We realize we may be underdogs - in fact we still relish it - but there is no more "fear factor". I think we respect every one and in fact possibly too much. I still believe one of the next steps for our program is to put the foot on the throat of teams we're better than. We consistently play to the level of the opponent which isn't always a good thing. As for Purdue, I know most NU fans respect the program and believe that as early as this year you could really bounce back to the good Tiller era teams.
RS: I'll be a junior next year, which means I've seen NU go 2-0 against Purdue in football and 2-1 in basketball. This makes me very confused, but also confident. Although both of those games probably seemed out of the ordinary for Purdue fans, they were each pretty indicative of the team that NU was that year: we had a great roster in 2008, and in 2009, repetitively fell behind in games only to will our way back through various crazy turnover-based scenarios. (If you thought you had it bad, thank us for letting Indiana go ahead 28-3 before scoring 26 unanswered, including a punt block for a safety.) I don't think either Purdue victory gives the team much confidence - just the fact that the past two years have set a standard that they should be above .500 in the Big Ten, and a win against Purdue is damn near necessary to do that, much as it will be for you.
H&R: The Big Ten announced this as a night game in Evantston. Does this help Northwestern, or do you see an invasion of gold and black, especially if we start 4-0?
LTP: I think it is a huge boost for NU fans. Fitz and the team actually like to play 11 am games since they practice every day in the morning and I know he doesn't like to wait all day on Saturday. As for atmosphere, this will be the best we have to offer from a home field advantage as the night game factor gives this game a great buzz which fans are talking about already.
I've been lobbying NU to add night games as the 'Cats have the most unique fan base in the Big Ten as it is overwhelmingly families. Many fans can't attend games though once their kids are playing sports and the like so this game offers a no excuse policy to the generally laissez faire Wildcat fan base. It's no secret our attendance - despite the program's now consistency - is awful. So, an invasion of black and gold wouldn't be a surprise, however nothing quite like Ohio State coming to town! If Purdue was 4-0 and NU was undefeated as well, it would definitely raise the stakes and the interest and hopefully atmosphere. Night games in Evanston are so much more fun.
RS: We don't have many night games, because the Big Ten normally squeezes us into the 11 AM start time slot, for reasons that I fully understand but make me want to show up at the Big Ten Network studios with a militia of fellow NU students who have been robbed of the ability to tailgate effectively for football games without waking up at 7 AM, which is impossible for even the most devoted of college students to do on a Saturday. Night games tend to do wonders for attendance, and I'm sure that will be true both of NU fans and Purdue roadtrippers. I'd be mad if it wasn't a sellout. Regardless, our home field advantage is always negligible at best in terms of actual home fan support vs. opposing fan support. Wisconsin bought up a third of the stadium for our season-ending afternoon game last year, and we won. yet it doesn't seem to hurt us in terms of winning percentage. For example, Wisconsin bought up a third of the stadium for our season-ending afternoon game last year, and we won. So regardless of who is more enticed to show up to the game, I think the night game benefits NU.
H&R: What are your thoughts on the game against Illinois at Wrigley? Could this be a regular feature?
RS: Awesome. Awesome awesome awesome. Excited. Probably not, but the NU athletics department is hoping that even just a one-off sparks interest in the program that simply isn't there among your average Chicagoland resident.
LTP: At first I was very much against this concept since the attendance problem is at Ryan Field. Playing a gimmick game at Wrigley will indeed raise a lot of awareness (it already has as the media in Chicago has covered it rather extensively), however translating the attendees in to season ticket holders is the key and the verdict won't be out for awhile. I can tell you it is a hot ticket and it will be packed with purple based on my email inbox requests from people feeling guilty about buying season tickets from out of town (the only way to ensure a ticket is with the purchase of 2010 season tickets) which is a challenge for a fan base that is so scattered across the country.
H&R: You're in the same boat as us at the quarterback position. Tell us about Dan Persa and how he'll run the offense.
LTP: Most NU fans are rather confident with the fact we're starting Persa and a slew of new starters at WR. This is the same exact boat we were in last year as fans fret about Mike Kafka and a bunch of no-name replacement WRs who had some limited time.
Well, Kafka had a prolific passing year and is now a Philadelphia Eagle and Zeke Markshausen nearly set the single-season reception record and he had 1 catch in his career. Persa had significant minutes as he played more than half of the Penn State (loss) and Iowa (win) games and I can tell you we all love his moxie.
Just like Kafka, fans are questioning his ability to throw downfield (Kafka showed us that was a joke of a concern) but he is a much better runner. My biggest concern with Persa is his ability to play like he does without getting injured. I love the kid who is seemingly Doug Flutie-esque in both size and chip on the shoulder (he was spurned by many of the elite programs despite an incredible PA high school career b/c of his size). I'm actually really excited to see him in action. His back-up, RS Freshman Evan Watkins is a 6-5 beast who just looks like a pro back there and will likely get some minutes this year as well. We're mostly concerned about the RB slot enigma and the secondary. Our LB unit is as solid as its ever been and the OL returns every starter.
RS: When he played last year, Dan Persa seemed skittish and more willing to scramble than to throw, and when I saw him play in spring scrimmages, he seemed the same way: not that confident in his arm, very confident to run whenever he could. That being said, last year, I said the exact same thing about Mike Kafka, and he turned out to be a spectacular quarterback: a year of preparing to be a starter in the Big Ten saw him turn into a hyper-accurate QB very skilled at running our spread offense predicated on little dink-and-dunk four yard passes - and then killing teams with the deep ball when they least expect it.
Thanks a lot, gentlemen. This game is usually one of the more entertaining games on the Big Ten schedule even though it receives very little hype. That should be the case once again this year.