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: Kevin from Inside NU, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Northwestern.
1) As you've noted at Inside NU, Iowa and Northwestern are frighteningly similar teams -- what's it like to basically play your doppelganger?
KEVIN: It's really strange, especially since these teams have been very different in the past. They're still different schematically, but the fact that they're both pretty terrible at offense and pretty solid at defense at the same time is different than we've seen in the past. Unfortunately, it's probably going to lead to an extraordinarily boring game.
2) Northwestern had a good thing going at the start of their Big Ten campaign, stomping Penn State in Happy Valley and surprising Wisconsin in Evanston. What worked so well for the 'cats in those games? Conversely, what's gone so wrong for them in their last two games, losses to Minnesota and Nebraska?
KEVIN: In the first two games, it was really all the defense, plus the fact that Northwestern found a really good running back in Justin Jackson. Jackson has kept up his production, but the rest of the offense hasn't done anything to help him out. Against Minnesota, the plan seemed to be to put together really long drives to march down the field, which was a really bad idea (it sounds like this has been an issue with Iowa too).
The problem is, the defense didn't make any game-changing plays against Minnesota like it did against Penn State and Wisconsin. The offense actually played pretty well in the first half against Nebraska and the defense was just fine, but the offense was absolutely terrible in the second half of that game and the defense struggled as it stayed on the field even more.
Perhaps a simpler explanation is that Northwestern and Minnesota are very similar teams but NU lost a toss-up, and that the Wildcats are just a lot worse than Nebraska.
3) In the past, Northwestern has trotted out hyper-accurate, ruthlessly efficient quarterbacks like they were rolling off an assembly line. Trevor Siemian, er, doesn't look much like that -- what's the deal? Is there any chance of Northwestern using a dual-quarterback system?
KEVIN: There are a few issues facing Siemian. The first is that he's been injured, and against Nebraska, Pat Fitzgerald said he wasn't even close to 100 percent. He seems to be doing better now, so maybe he'll look a little better, but I'm not confidence much will change.
Siemian's yards per completion rate is absolutely terrible (9.9 YPC), and that's both because he checks it down too often and because the play-calling has been particularly conservative (especially on second down). He also doesn't have many receivers who can make people miss, though if he threw the ball to Tony Jones, Dan Vitale and Miles Shuler more, I have a feeling we'd see some better plays.
4) Northwestern and Iowa both rank in the bottom fifteen teams in the nation in punting -- what happened to #PuntingIsWinning? Are we at risk of being excommunicated from the Big Ten?
KEVIN: I honestly don't know how Ferentz is coping with this. But at least he's learned that going for it on fourth down exists, right?
5) Northwestern has a very good scoring defense (20.4 ppg), but the component parts of that defense are solid rather than great (64th in rush defense, 158.29 ypg; 52nd in pass defense, 216.6 ypg). What's the secret to Northwestern's stingy defense?
KEVIN:The key is really having better players. Fitz hates recruiting ratings, but (this is gonna shock you) his defense has gotten better as it's gotten more talent. Sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo, the best pass-rusher on the team, is a former four-star recruit who had offers from Ohio State, Stanford, Alabama and pretty much everyone else. Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike, who has been very good in filling in for Ibraheim Campbell this year, was a four-star. Redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Walker is from Miami and chose Northwestern over the U, and true freshman DE Xavier Washington was lightly recruited because of his size, but he was the best player on a state championship team in Texas. Also, he did this to Christian Hackenberg.
The overall numbers were better before the Nebraska game, but the impressive scoring defense comes for the same reason Iowa is always good at scoring defense: NU plays bend-don't-break. And when you have better athletes in that scheme, you'll be better than you were in the past.
6) What are the expectations for Northwestern the rest of the way? The back half of the schedule seems friendlier than than the first half (minus that game at Notre Dame).
KEVIN: I don't think anyone really knows. Beating Purdue and Illinois is definitely an expectation, but the other two games are really toss-ups. I think some fans are scared that Michigan will all of the sudden play up to its talent level, which could certainly happen. If Northwestern wins out in the Big Ten (and loses to Notre Dame) to finish 7-5 (6-2), I think fans will be happy, considering the bad start. If it's 6-6 (5-3), then some people might be moderately happy, but most will be disappointed. If it's another missed bowl game, then the mob wanting some changes on the coaching staff will be even louder than before.
7) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
KEVIN: This is a really hard one to predict, since the teams are so similar. If Iowa hits a couple big plays, I think they'll win. But I think Northwestern gets some turnovers and successfully attacks the Iowa linebackers to move the ball a bit and wins, 24-21.
Thanks for being a good sport, Alex, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. You can check out the IN crew at Inside NU. You can also follow Kevin on Twitter at @k_trahan and Inside NU at @insidenu. The Iowa-Northwestern game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, November 1, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from BTN.