It is always good to talk to other blogs and get an idea on the state of their programs. In advance of Saturday’s game I spoke with Lia Assimakopoulos of InsideNU to find out more about the Wildcats.
T-Mill: Northwestern appears to be night and day better this year, is it Peyton Ramsey who has actually given you a functional offense?
Lia: Ramsey is certainly a large part of Northwestern’s offensive success this year. Last year’s offense was abysmal and quite literally one of the worst in college football, so there was a lot of room for improvement heading into 2020. With Ramsey under center, Northwestern’s offense has shown promise and resilience and overcome many setbacks but has still shown shades of its 2019 self with self-inflicted wounds. Ramsey turned the ball over twice in the second quarter against Nebraska, which ultimately allowed the Cornhuskers to take the lead at halftime. While he hasn’t been perfect by any means, Ramsey has proven to be a game-controller and remained poised even through his struggles, which is a significant difference from what we saw in Northwestern’s signal callers last season.
However, Ramsey is certainly not the only reason for Northwestern’s success. Mike Bajakian has proven to be a reliable and effective play caller for the offense so far. The run game has exceeded all expectations and been a dominant force through the first three weeks with younger players like Drake Anderson and Evan Hull stepping up in Isaiah Bowser’s absence last week. The offensive line has been consistently strong and often goes unrecognized despite its steady play. And, the pass catchers have taken major strides this season with new faces like John Raine stepping into much larger difference-making roles. Yes, Ramsey has contributed to the offense’s growth significantly, but the entire unit has improved so far this season and exhibited a team-oriented approach to winning.
T-Mill: The defense has also been a highlight, especially given what Maryland has done the last two weeks. What is different about them or were they just overshadowed by a lousy offense in 2019?
Lia: Northwestern’s defense under DC Mike Hankwitz has been consistently strong for years, even when the offense falters. It was absolutely overshadowed by the offense’s poor performance in 2019, but NU fans were certainly aware of its efforts, as it was often the defense that kept matchups close when the offense was stagnant. Again this year, NU’s defense has been lockdown and their weaker areas from last season have only improved. The linebacker unit is by far the strongest unit with three senior starters in Paddy Fisher, Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher who have combined for 84 tackles and two interceptions in the first three weeks. In addition, the secondary which struggled to come up with takeaways in 2019 has been another bright spot with six interceptions as a unit so far and three from redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph.
While Northwestern’s defense has been consistently strong, its bend-don’t-break mentality has been at the forefront of its play this year. Even when their opponents take an early lead, NU has managed to shut them down and has not allowed an opponent to score in the second half all season. And in three total touchdown drives they sacrificed this year, the average length of those drives has been just 18 yards. All in all, Northwestern’s defense remains its strongest unit but will have a major challenge with Purdue’s explosive pass offense this weekend.
T-Mill: Do you think Purdue has a small advantage with last week’s unexpected bye week?
Lia: Having an extra week of rest is definitely an advantage for Purdue, especially since Northwestern is coming off back-to-back, hard-fought wins over Iowa and Nebraska. Neither win was easy for Northwestern, and it’s already known that Purdue will be the hardest matchup of the year so far for the Wildcats, so any extra time to prepare is always an advantage. Additionally, the week off gave some of Purdue’s injured players more time to recover, including Rondale Moore, which could pose additional threats to Northwestern this weekend.
Ultimately, the week off didn’t seem to be as much of an advantage for Nebraska as expected, so it may not help Purdue as much either, but Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has made note of the week off and said it is definitely a possible advantage.
T-Mill: How well has Northwestern handled COVID and avoided a Wisconsin situation?
Lia: So far, Northwestern has handled COVID just fine (knock on wood) and has been able to play its season as expected with no interruptions. The program reported a positive test during the summer, but it was ultimately a false positive, so they have been able to avoid the virus’ impact for the most part.
Northwestern’s success and its ability to avoid a Wisconsin situation is largely due to the COVID situation on Northwestern’s campus outside the program. The university only welcomed back juniors and seniors with very few people living in dorms and requirements for students to be tested every week, which has ultimately kept their positive test rate around 1%. Because Wisconsin as a school and as a state has struggled so much, it was almost inevitable for the football program to face a similar challenge. Pat Fitzgerald has continually emphasized the importance of making smart social choices for his players and limiting their social circles, so as long as Northwestern can keep its numbers down and the team continues to prioritize safety, they should be able to continue their season safely.
T-Mill: Who do you see as most problematic for Northwestern to stop?
Lia: Without a doubt, Purdue’s wide receivers will be the biggest challenge for the Wildcats. The combination of David Bell and Rondale Moore (should he play) is dangerous to any defense, especially Northwestern’s young secondary. While the defensive backs have performed well thus far, they have not faced a challenge like this duo yet. In Monday’s press conference, Pat Fitzgerald called Bell the best wide receiver in the country and said Moore is extremely talented and that “they don’t give out the term All-American by accident.”
If Northwestern can limit the passing offense, they should have a real shot at taking down Purdue, but if the Boilermaker receivers continue down the same path they demonstrated in their first two games, it will be a long evening for the NU secondary.
T-Mill: How do you see Saturday playing out?
Lia: I’ve been going back and forth on my prediction for this matchup for a while now, but I believe the ‘Cats are the real deal and have the necessary momentum and talent to take down Purdue. I think this one will go down to the wire, but I’m going to take Northwestern with a narrow 28-27 victory.