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Know thy Opponent Takeover 2008: Lake the Posts

Back in May I answered some questions for the wonderful Northwestern blog, Lake the Posts. This week he returns the favor by stopping by to help me out with an early look at the Wildcats before my own preview goes up tomorrow. Because of how down the Big Ten seems to be this year, everyone should pay attention to Evanston. Northwestern seems to be getting "The Look" it gets every few years. Depending on our start, this could be a critical game for us as it starts the second half of the season.

Off the Tracks: You've been crying out to the world that Northwestern is dangerous this year, but I am apparently the only one that is listening. What do the Wildcats have to do to get people to take them seriously after 1995, 1996, 2000, and 2005?

Lake the Posts: I'll throw 2003 into the above mix considering you can relate well to the Motor City Bowl, but I guess the answer is media perception. The NY Times actually ranked us 60th, Phil Steele 53rd, Rivals 57th but of course there were the Athlons of the world that had us in the 80s. Amazingly only the Times even referenced the "bad" of yesteryear, but they did it in a way that loudly proclaimed we're no longer the "whipping boy". They used 2 stats to back it up which are NU fans' watercooler crutch - #1 - over the past 5 years we have the same conference record as Penn State (19-21) and only four teams have a better record against us since 1995 (yes, Purdue is one of them at 8-4 along with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State). Bottom-line, if we beat teams year after year, they'll have to respect us. Right? (Ed. Note: No arguing here. Purdue is one of the few teams that doesn’t seem to succumb to the Northwestern surge. 1995 and 1996 are excluded because we were handicapped with Jim Colletto, who couldn’t find a W if you put him on the 50-yard line at Wisconsin.)

OTT: All the pieces appear to be in place except the offensive line. How much will this play a role in the coming season?

LTP: Huge. We've got three new pieces on the line including a guy who is moving from guard to center (Ben Burkett), a redshirt freshman (Al Netter) and a guy who is moving from d-line to o-line. These aren't minor tweaks, these are pretty big question marks. All eyes will be on the line in September where we'll have to grow up in a hurry. Thankfully with all seniors at every skill position we can utilize some experience there to overcome the early rough patches on the line.

OTT: How does Northwestern manage to have so many surprise seasons with the disadvantages it has compared to its Big Ten counterparts?

LTP: We've got a good knack for being realistic in recruiting. The academic requirements vet out a lot of players from the start, and we play the "come here and make a difference" card. There is a noticeable uptick in the level of talent we're getting, yet our recruiting rankings haven't made any Tim Brewster-esque jumps yet. I always use the other schools our recruits are considering as the litmus test and our 2009 class is off to a great start. We have 3 players we are in the mix for that are on the big boy list (Ohio State, Notre Dame) and are likely to get one of them. If you've ever been within 15 feet of Fitz, you'll get it. His energy and positive attitude are nearly overwhelming.

OTT: You've been a big advocate of Curtis Painter. What else about Purdue has you scared coming into this game?

LTP: History. I thought last year we had you and then, boooom. 4th quarter meltdown. In years you seem beatable, we lose, yet in years when you're better, we play better. I still contend the Kyle Orton game was the single biggest one game difference I've seen in an opponent as you went from national championship pole position and Heisman to Orton getting pulled. (Ed. note: Orton was hurt in that game, and the wind was a great equalizer) Now it is Greg Orton who scares me. The guy is a Cat killer. Isn't this his 8th year of eligibility? I'm a big fan of his. I'm not sold on the running game (Ed. note: we have to commit to it, first), but I think Painter's experience will win you 1 or 2 fence games. The NU-Purdue game will be huge for us.

OTT: Defensively Northwestern has a number of upperclassmen playing. How will this payoff for what should be a pretty good offensive team?

LTP: Forget about the class of players, our "D" has undeniably stunk for nearly a decade. Thankfully we fired DC, Greg Colby and stole Mike Hankwitz, who was let go at Wisconsin. Word is we've put in a much more aggressive pass rush compared to our painful passive approach last year. There are high expectations for instant improvement. If our "D" is marginally good, as in top 60, where we haven't been this decade, sans once, we could be very good. John Gill is a legit pro on the DL, we've got major question marks on DE and at LB with some real good talent in the secondary.

OTT: Do you think Northwestern has a realistic shot of surprising everyone and getting a piece of the Big Ten this year, especially with Ohio State and Illinois coming to Evanston and everyone else so up in the air?

LTP: No chance against Ohio State realistically. I think Illinois is slightly overrated as I think Juice's weaknesses will come to light in the absence of Mendenhall, but their secondary scares me. I'm happy we're under the radar - I get pissed at the lack of respect, but I'd rather prove it on the field. I've been screaming 8-4, but time will tell.

OTT: Finally, what do you think is the biggest obstacle that Northwestern faces when it comes to competing regularly in the Big Ten, especially in basketball? Why has there been virtually no success for decades in basketball while football has it somewhat figured out?

LTP: Cripes, this is a whole different post! I contend it is easier in hoops, but now that we have a Princeton offense it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy relative to the recruiting. Somehow, some way, we landed our best recruiting class in school history off a 1-17 season.

When I see E'Twaun (sp?) Moore light us up and then say he was pissed at us for not recruiting him even though he wanted to come to Northwestern I get frustrated. I was in school during the Big Dog era and Welsh-Ryan was electric and we were competitive. Duke does it. Wake does it. Stanford does it. There is no excuse for it. Fans are actually talking hoops based on the recruits and that NEVER happens, but I'll believe it when I see it. No one, and I mean no one can convince me that football is easier than hoops. With our new AD in place and a culture of winning with the non-revenue sports, I'm very happy about the direction (including the INEXCUSABLE women's hoops program - we finally fired our terrible coach and got a quasi-legend in GW's McKeown).

Thanks John. Look for my Northwestern preview to be fine-tuned and posted sometime tomorrow afternoon. I started a new job this week, so posting times will be later in the day until further notice.