This week’s blogger interview features Zach Pereles, one of the authors of SB Nation’s InsideNU. Zach already has gone through a transitive Purdue loss this year with a loss at home to Illinois State, so he is a tad wary of Purdue in advance this weekend:
T-Mill: Northwestern is a hard team to figure this year. They lost to Illinois State but nearly upset Ohio State in the 'shoe. What gives?
Zach: The biggest thing to point to would be the offensive line play. The guys up front formed one of the worst units in the nation, giving up 15 sacks and having little success running the ball through the first month. Then they turned it around in October, giving up just six sacks against superior competition. Unfortunately, last weekend, the offensive line was dominated again (although against a much better opponent: Wisconsin). Something about teams that wear red and come to Ryan Field... Additionally, the run defense has improved, though it's been torched the last two weeks, too.
T-Mill: Is Justin Jackson the best back Northwestern has ever had?
Zach: I think a lot of Wildcat fans will go with Darnell Autry, who was once a Heisman finalist in that amazing 1995 season, and perhaps all-time leading rusher Damien Anderson. But given the lack of help in front of him, I would say Jackson has to be right up there. All the advanced stats speak to how poorly his line has played and yet he continues to churn out yards, provide a threat in the passing game and pick up blitzers very well. He's closing in on Anderson's record, and once he breaks that (he absolutely should if he's healthy), then we can definitely say he's the best.
T-Mill: Where on earth did Austin Carr come from and how does he get it done as basically Northwestern's lone receiver?
Zach: That's the question everyone's been asking this year, ourselves included. Carr came to NU as a walk-on running back, converted to wide receiver, earned a scholarship at the beginning of last season and now is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. He was good last year; he's been otherworldly this year. Carr runs awesome routes, is quick in short areas and has fantastic hands. He's not really fast in a straight line, but as soon as he gets a defender leaning one way or the other, he gets open. But by far the most impressive thing has been his chemistry with QB Clayton Thorson. They have incredible trust in one another, especially on third downs. It's really impressive to watch.
T-Mill: Northwestern's pass defense is the worst in the Big Ten and Purdue has the best passing offense in the conference. Is this a concern?
Zach: It absolutely is. Three of Northwestern's top four corners coming into this season have all missed significant time, and even the guys behind them have been hurt too. Keith Watkins was lost for the season in camp and Matthew Harris retired after a concussion in Week 2. Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo have also missed some games, leaving Northwestern with Montre Hartage (originally the No. 3 corner) and Marcus McShepard (who was actually a wide receiver to start the season) as the only options. The corners play way off the line of scrimmage in order to prevent big plays, but stuff underneath is pretty much a guarantee. Tackling has been shoddy of late, too, so if they don't wrap up after the short gain, it can be trouble.
T-Mill: How much does Purdue need to establish a ground game, given that it has struggled to get anything going of late?
Zach: I really think Purdue's advantage comes through the air, but getting it going on the ground will prevent NU from completely dropping back and playing coverage. The Wildcats have been up-and-down up front, with a major down coming against Wisconsin. Balance is always key, and for Purdue to have a shot, it'll need to run the ball at least somewhat decently early before going pass-heavy.
T-Mill: How confident are you of a Northwestern win on Saturday?
Zach: If I could give you a percentage, I'd say 80, meaning I think Northwestern wins this game eight out of 10 times. The Wildcats should win in both of the trenches, and if Justin Jackson gets going, it'll be a long day for the hosts. But in the two scenarios in which I see Northwestern losing, I see a flat start from the Wildcats and a young, injury-riddled secondary getting beat all day long. Still, I'll take 80 percent over 20 percent any day. NU, 35-21.