It has been a busy week here with the start of two basketball seasons, a volleyball season winding down, and the continuation of football season. That makes our blogger Q&A a little later than usual, but it is still here. This week we have Tristan Jung of InsideNU stopping by to talk about the Northwestern Wildcats
T-Mill: Three straight overtime wins is insane! How much of this streak has been luck and how much has been clutch play?
The first game was lucky. Noah Fant dropped an easy first-down completion and Iowa just lost the game. I think, as we saw last week, Iowa is probably better than Northwestern, and the Wildcats got lucky. The Michigan State win was deserved. Northwestern played better than Michigan State for most of the night, and the overtime showed how efficient the offense was. The Nebraska win was very, very lucky, as Northwestern got a red zone interception to save the day. By this point, Northwestern scoring a touchdown in overtime was a given, and then Nebraska imploded on its offensive drive.
All in all, I think Northwestern is definitely playing better in the clutch. The offense hasn't been stopped in overtime, so that's definitely been clutch. The defensive stops have mostly been pure luck, however. Something had to give eventually.
T-Mill: Northwestern looks like it is rounding into form after a slow start to the year. What is the biggest change since the Duke loss?
The offensive line is playing at a very high level. In the beginning of the season, it looked like Clayton Thorson had about 0.5 seconds to make decisions. Justin Jackson had almost no running room and was slightly hurt. Now, the offensive line has really come together and given Northwestern's offense time to do things. Thorson hasn't necessarily made good decisions with that extra time (see his interceptions from the last two weeks), but at least he has something to work with. Blake Hance, Brad North, and Tommy Doles suddenly look like different players, and the team has benefitted as a whole.
Defensively, we're really seeing much of the same things. The secondary has struggled and can be beaten downfield, but the pass rush has been good enough to mask its problems. To sum it up, the line play has been on point.
T-Mill: Justin Jackson is really gone after this year, right? We don't have to face him anymore, do we?
Sadly, yes. Jackson is everything you could ask for and more from a college running back. Even when he doesn't make big plays running the ball, he'll always contribute a key block or catch a pass and turn it into 20 yards on third down in overtime. It's unreal. You'll also likely see a light dose of Jeremy Larkin, Jackson's eventual successor, in this game, and he's also quite impressive and Jackson-esque in his cuts. You won't be facing Jackson anymore, but Larkin has shown flashes of being really good this season, and next year he could be a nightmare for defenses.
T-Mill: Night games in Evanston are not common (you don't have permanent lights yet, right?) What kind of atmosphere should we expect?
As you know, permanent lighting is overrated, right? Gosh, the last night game in Evanston I went to was Northwestern's embarrassing loss to Nebraska. That game was in early October, and I remember the stands being packed. The Ball State game from the year before was also crowded. However, this is a November game. It's going to be freezing on Saturday night. As I write this, it is 22 degrees Fahrenheit outside and feels like 9 degrees. While it may be slightly warmer on Saturday, it's not going to matter with the wind chill. Students have a really tough time showing up in 75 degree weather, and they will almost certainly not show up in droves during crunch time for classes in air that is 10 degrees below freezing pre-wind chill. No, it doesn't matter that the team is 6-3 and putting together a historic run. No, it doesn't matter that this game could be the difference between a great bowl game and a mediocre one. Putting this game at night was a crazy decision and totally not conducive to attendance. Hopefully, we get an atmosphere, let alone a decent one.
T-Mill: The passing game looks to be in line for a good day against a questionable Purdue pass defense. Who should we be afraid of?
Northwestern has had different receivers emerge at times this year. In the beginning of the year, it looked like Bennett Skowronek would be the danger man, but he's faded a bit. Now, Macan Wilson looks to be Thorson's primary target after a huge day in Lincoln. Wilson, a senior, is essentially Austin Carr Lite, and he does all the good fundamental things you'd expect from a white Northwestern slot receiver. As for the tight end/superback spot, Garrett Dickerson and Cam Green have been alternative great days, and it should be a matter of who shows the most in practice the week before. They're both quite talented. And as always, you have to watch out for Justin Jackson, in any part of the field. Thorson's mobility when the pocket collapses has also been getting better as the season progresses.
T-Mill: How do you see the game playing out?
I really think Purdue is going to keep this one close for a while. Northwestern has been getting away with sloppy turnovers and poor tackling throughout this three-game winning streak. The Wildcats really only outplayed Michigan State, and while that's a good team to outplay, they still haven't exactly been consistent in regulation. I think Purdue can take advantage of Northwestern's secondary. If the Boilermakers can gain some momentum off a turnover or two, they could be in business. I can see Northwestern taking a slim early lead and then having another slow third quarter in the cold, allowing Purdue to take the lead or come within a score. Then, it'll come down to the fourth quarter and possibly overtime, where Northwestern has excelled this season. Will the Wildcats' luck run out eventually? Yes. Will it be against Purdue? Probably not. I don't think this one will go to overtime, but I think Northwestern eases its way to a fourth quarter win by 10 points or so.