What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Zach from Inside NU, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Northwestern.
1) Northwestern has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, even after last week's annihilation in Ann Arbor. Was last week's game just a horrible combination of negative events that snowballed into total disaster for the Wildcats? Or did Michigan's beatdown expose clear weak points in the Northwestern armor?
Last week it was a combination of both. Once Jehu Chesson took the opening kick back for six, it seemed like the whole day could get away quickly. And it did. The game did, however, show some weaknesses that we all knew the Wildcats had but had been hidden by a dominant defense. The offensive gameplan has been, and still is, very vanilla. Clayton Thorson doesn't get to take many shots downfield and if the run game isn't working, Mick McCall continues to show the inability to get creative with his play calls. Additionally, the wide receivers showed that they struggle to win 1-on-1 battles and the linebackers struggle when the defensive line isn't getting pressure. These issues were mostly masked during the 5-0 start because of the good play up front and in the running game.
2) Northwestern has one of the worst passing offenses in the Big Ten this year, which is an unfamiliar sight for someone like me who remembers highly accurate Wildcat passers zipping short passes around the field and methodically (and maddeningly) marching down the field. What are Clayton Thorson's biggest flaws and how correctable are they?
Thorson's flaws are things that will be corrected with time. Let's remember, he's just six games into his college career, and he's won five of them. Nonetheless, Thorson struggles with accuracy on both short and medium throws and sometimes fails to read the defense well, but he has been much better in recent weeks. The interception last week wasn't on him, and he hadn't turned the ball over in the previous game and a half before that. The biggest flaw, though, is his reads on the speed option. He pitches the ball every time without fail, and he pitches it way too early. He's not even a semblance of a threat to take it himself on these plays.
3) Justin Jackson has been an incredible workhorse for the Wildcat offense so far this year -- will he be asked to shoulder the load alone against Iowa or will Northwestern look to give him some help? How effective do you expect Jackson to be against the Iowa run defense?
Jackson found it tough sledding last week against Michigan, and I expect him to have some trouble again this week, but he certainly won't be as bottled up as he was against the Wolverine defense. He's not fast, but he has excellent footwork, vision and patience. If his offensive line play is improved and the game is close, he'll see 25+ carries, with Warren Long and Solomon Vault seeing between five and ten touches each.
4) On paper, it seems like this game matches strengths (Northwestern's run offense vs. Iowa's run defense) versus strengths (Iowa's pass offense vs. Northwestern's pass defense), to some extent. Will this game be decided by which team is able to be more effective with its relative weaknesses? And if so, which team is that likely to favor?
I think that's fair to expect. Northwestern absolutely has to be able to run the ball in this one. As always, it comes down to Northwestern being able to move the ball on the ground and stop their opponent's ground game, allowing the secondary to be aggressive. Again, I have a hard time seeing Justin Jackson contained as well as he was against Michigan, but I could also see C.J. Beathard have moderate success against a Northwestern secondary now missing perhaps its best cornerback, Matthew Harris, to injury. I'd say its a draw when it comes to attacking the opponent's weaknesses.
5) Northwestern had a fairly middle-of-the-pack defense in the Big Ten a season ago, but this year their defense has been one of the best in the conference and absolutely stifled several opponents. What's been the biggest difference on that side of the ball between last year and this year?
The linebacking corps, with the exception of the Michigan game, has been outstanding. Led by Anthony Walker, who has already won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week multiple times this year, this group has tackled surely and has been good against both the run and the pass. But honestly, impressive play up front makes the linebackers so good. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are both guys who could play at the next level, and they have played very well this year. And, like you mentioned above, the pass defense has been outstanding and given up virtually no big plays.
6) In a game like this, where both teams could certainly struggle to move the ball and score points on offense, will special teams be the deciding factor? If so, can Northwestern leverage certain advantages there?
Special teams will very likely play a factor, and up until last week, that would have been something Northwestern would have been comfortable with. But after giving up a game-opening return TD last week, there are questions about the coverage unit. Northwestern has gotten two huge plays out of their returners this year (a kick return TD from Solomon Vault and a 55-yard punt return from Miles Shuler). Throwing last week's game out, Northwestern has a slight advantage here I think. Jack Mitchell is inconsistent at kicker, but he's very good when clutch time comes around.
7) Will the winner of this game will be playing in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis a few months from now? Why or why not?
Yes. If you look at Iowa's schedule, it looks like smooth sailing if they get past Northwestern. Yes, that's a big "if," but the Wildcats are the best team the Hawkeyes face the rest of the way. And even if there is a slip-up along the way, Iowa already has a game in hand over Wisconsin. Northwestern, meanwhile, already has a Big Ten loss, but they also have a relatively manageable road if they get past Iowa. I think 10-2 wins this division, and if Iowa gets past Northwestern, they're easily 10-2 at the least. If Northwestern wins, I think they go 10-2 and win the division.
8) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
Iowa will win this game, 13-10. Last week proved that the Wildcats can't win when they can't run the ball, and if there's one thing the Hawkeyes do well, it's stop the run. It won't be a pretty game, but the trip back to Iowa City will be a good one.
Thanks for being a good sport, Zach, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow. You can check out the IN crew at Inside NU. You can also follow Zach on Twitter at @zach_pereles and IN at @insidenu. The Iowa-Northwestern game is in Evanston, IL on Saturday, October 17, and is scheduled to start at approximately 11:00 am CT, with TV coverage from ABC or ESPN2 (check coverage map here).