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Know Your Enemy - Northwestern Wildcats

The team went 1-11 last year but now sits at 5-5.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Each week I like to try to get a look behind enemy lines and see what Purdue’s opponent can tell us and what they think about the upcoming matchup. This week David Gold, co-Editor in Chief of Inside NU, was kind enough to answer my questions.

Northwestern obviously had quite a down year last year, followed by a tumultuous offseason which saw the firing of Northwestern legend Pat Fitzgerald, how have they turned it around this year despite those problems?

I wish I could point to an individual reason why Northwestern is playing better, but the ‘Cats are simply playing complementary football. While the ‘Cats were -18 in the turnover margin last season, they are +5 this season. NU only has one game with multiple turnovers this season, compared to what felt like every game last year. On the defensive side, David Braun has completely turned the unit around in a year. The Wildcats are allowing 150 yards on the ground each week, while they gave up nearly 200 yards each game last year. This team went from looking stale to being fun to watch, and David Braun is a major reason that NU is one win away from going bowling.

Which unit on each side of the ball would you say is the strength? Alternatively, which unit on each side of the ball is the weakness?

Northwestern’s strengths on both side of the ball come from the air attack. After years of having a weak receiving corps, NU has three viable targets in Cam Johnson, Bryce Kirtz and A.J. Henning. With Ben Bryant under center, the Wildcats can connect on any pass concept. On the defensive side, the secondary has exceeded expectations this year. Devin Turner has turned into an All-Big Ten caliber player in his sophomore season, and Coco Azema looks rejuvenated after tearing his ACL last season.

On the other hand, the trenches are where NU struggles the most. Northwestern’s offensive line has been shaky at best this year, giving up four sacks a game. When the offensive line can hold its own, the ‘Cats’ offense has the talent to explode, but they has constantly shot themselves in the foot due to poor line play. On the defensive side, the Wildcats struggle to get pressure from their front four, so Card should have plenty of time to throw. Aidan Hubbard and Michael Kilbane have started to flourish in the past weeks, but the pressure is still inconsistent.

Sitting at 5-5 and with a shot to reach bowl eligibility, will David Braun be a shoe-in for the full-time head coaching position?

Northwestern announced on Wednesday night that David Braun is its next head football coach, and it was the easiest decision NU ever had to make. Braun has been a revelation for ‘Cats fans this season. He is the first coach in 120 years to win five games in his inaugural season at the helm. After NU traveled to Camp Randall and stomped Wisconsin, it was obvious that there was only one candidate for the job. He took a team that looked dead to rights and turned it around into a bowl-eligible team. I cannot say enough good things about Coach Braun.

Has there been a surprise player on offense or defense that Purdue fans need to pay attention to on Saturday?

I think Purdue fans need to watch the name Joseph Himon II. The ‘Cats’ running back is a true speedster and is a big play waiting to happen. If he turns the corner, there is no chance that a defender will catch him. He’s also a threat out of the backfield in the passing game. Compared to Cam Porter’s power style of running, Himon is a perfect compliment. Don’t be surprised if he breaks a long one on Saturday.

Let’s pretend you wake up Sunday having not watched the game and you see that Northwestern lost, what’s your initial thought as to how that happened?

For the ‘Cats to lose, it means the offensive line couldn’t hold up. NU will have its hands full stopping Scourton and Jenkins on Saturday, and its tackles have struggled this season. Caleb Tiernan has improved but tends to give up multiple pressures a game. If Saturday does not go the Wildcats’ way, it will be because the offensive line kept pushing them backward.

Predictions for this one?

Northwestern has alternated wins and losses each week so far this season, so I am really tempted to take the Boilermakers, but I think the ‘Cats are just the better team. With Ben Bryant back under center, I think NU airs it out and hand Coach Braun his first win as permanent head coach 31-17.