We are quite familiar with how the Wildcats play Nebraska, but what about this year's version of Pat Fitzgerald's gang should we wonder about? Also, if you're heading to the game, where should you hang and eat/drink?
For these questions, of course we reached out to our BRAND NEW SBNation Northwestern community Inside NU. They seem to have a grasp of what's been going on between the Cats and Big Red, and contributor Daniel Rapaport took the time to answer the mindless drivel I threw against a wall.
1. So, 3-3 on the season, but you have 2 Big Ten wins this year so far, which is a lot more than last year! How has the season been so far for Chicago's Big Ten Team?
Up and down, as is usually the case with Northwestern sports. The first two games of the year were a disaster, nothing less. Losing to Northern Illinois at home was one of the lower points in recent memory for a prideful (at least during the Pat Fitzgerald era) program. But the team regrouped and responded in a big way, smacking Penn St. in the mouth 29-6 in front of 102,000 at their homecoming, then the big W against Wisconsin in a classic Big Ten ugly football game. Last week, the 'Cats had a chance to build on that momentum and put themselves in a great spot to win the Big Ten West...but they didn't. NU (the real NU ;) needs to win this game to get their season trending in the right direction once again.
2. Trevor Siemian has been alright for NW, but hasn't really just torn it up so far. What's the story with him this season, is he more comfortable in the offense knowing that Kain Colter isn't about ready to replace him in the middle of a drive?
This is definitely Trevor Siemian's team, and he knows the offense inside and out. However, he's been less than stellar, and it's due to a combination of reasons- his ankle is hurting, his receivers drop the football, and he's more hesitant to throw the ball downfield than he was two years ago as a sophomore, which is curious. He'll show flashes of brilliance, then return to turning to-and often missing- easy throws in the flat that don't really help NU win games. His tendency to look underneath when there seems to be an open receiver downfield has prompted some to start calling him "Check down Trevor." But his arm talent is still there, and if you leave a receiver open downfield, he's still more than capable of making the throw.
3. Veneric Mark left the program, but Justin Jackson and Treyvon Green have done well to replace him in the rushing attack. Since Green slashed Nebraska for 150 last year, is he the same man as the '13 version?
No. Justin Jackson is the workhorse for the NU running game and the offense in general. Green is averaging 3.4 yards on 44 carries and has yet to reach the endzone. In stark contrast, Jackson is averaging 4.5 yards on a team-high 112 carries and has two touchdowns. While those aren't Ameer Abudllah-like numbers, Jackson's youth- he's a true freshman- and potential has 'Cats fans excited. If there's going to be a running back to torch Nebraska again this year, all signs point to it being #28, Justin Jackson.
4. Kyle Prater and Dan Vitale have had good season's so far, but were quiet as all get out last year vs. Nebraska. What makes you think they will step up and have better games?
Prater is as enigmatic as football players get. He was a top-10 recruit (at any position) coming out of high school and has an ideal build for a WR at 6-foot-5 and 225, but he has exactly one career touchdown to his name and he's a redshirt senior. But recently, he's shown signs of what made so many scouts vie for his signature (he spent two seasons at Southern Cal before transferring to Northwestern) both in games and in practice. With football players who haven't lived up to their potential, it's easy for them to get down on themselves and a not confident football player usually isn't a good football player. Catching balls will bring back confidence, and Prater's done that recently, so don't be surprised if he causes matchup problems for Nebraska.
Vitale is a different story completely; he's remarkably consistent, having caught at least one ball in a school-record 18 consecutive games. Nebraska keyed on him last year, as he's clearly NU's favorite option in the flat and in check-down situations, and he's not an elite athlete speed-wise, so if you put a spy on him you're probably going to have success. His numbers will be a by-product of how much Nebraska decides to play- if they want to give Northwestern the underneath pass, Vitale will catch the football. If they play aggressive and tight on the outside, Northwestern will-hopefully-look downfield more often.
5. This is a pretty damn good Defense, giving up only 17 points a game. Last year, 3 interceptions by the NW D kept them in the game and almost won it for them. Do you think they have to play at a similar level to keep the Wildcats in this one as well?
One-hundred percent. This defense is legit, and they've proved they can contain some of the Big Ten's best offenses. Northwestern held David Cobb to 3.2 yards/carry and 97 yards after he rushed for a combined 390 yards the two games prior. Abdullah is one of the best in the country, and if NU lets Nebraska's offensively line get their teeth in the game and open up holes for him, it could be a long day for Northwestern. Northwestern's offense simply isn't built for shootouts, and they don't pile on points seemingly ever, so it's going to have to be a defensive battle for the 'Cats to have any chance.
6. Is there some heat on Pat Fitzgerald after last season and the 0-2 start to this one? Or are we looking for something that isn't there?
Quite frankly, no. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly the face of Northwestern football, and he's an absolute legend here on campus (we don't get All-Americans too often, so we tend to celebrate them when we do.) While Fitz' X's and O's skills are the subject of some controversy, and we've been somewhat critical of his adjustments or lackthereof on our site, he's done a good job of elevating this program to respectability and increasing visibility of Northwestern football and the University as a whole. The team has made 5 bowl games in Fitz' 8 seasons and made a total of six in the 100+ years of the program before that.
Oh, and he has a contract that will pay him $2.2 million through 2020. Yes, you read that right. Twenty twenty.
7. Do you expect Ryan Field to be as Red this year as it was 2 seasons ago?
Gosh, I hope not. Northwestern's fans are as fickle as they get in the Big Ten, but this is a big one. It's homecoming, it's under the lights, and it has real implications for the Big Ten West race. Wisconsin travels well, and it seemed like there was sliiiightly more purple than red that Saturday, so there's reason to believe Northwestern will actually have a home field advantage.
8. Speaking of traveling to Evanston, lets hear your opinions of where folks should go for the goods in food, beverage, and hospitality around campus.
So much pressure! You've got a ton of options when it comes to food- DMK Burger and Fish on Noyes street is a great spot for a burger, and it's across the street from Rollin' To Go, a sandwich joint that's a personal favorite. For a beer or four, I'd head to Bat 17 on the corner of Benson and Church. I'm a student here and I'm from California, so my experience level with hotels etc. around the area is low. I know there's two Hiltons that are walking distance from campus and a place called the Margarita Inn that's in town. Hope that helps.
9. Who should we keep an eye on Saturday night that we haven't talked about yet in the above questions?
Miles Shuler. He's a transfer from Rutgers who was a four-star recruit out of high school but didn't see much action before transferring to Northwestern. He's a speedy slot receiver who has looked better and has been featured in the offense more and more every week.
10. Prediction time. Tell us who you think will win the game of the NU's, along with a score and how the game will trudge along.
This is a tough one. Every Northwestern game feels like literally a 50/50 proposition- they love to play up to, and down to their competition. The last two weeks are, unfortunately, typical of Northwestern football. One win and everyone in Evanston is thinking Big Ten Championship game, then a disappointing loss to a less-than-stellar Minnesota team and all the sudden we stink again.
But I have to go with the 'Cats here. Northwestern will come out with a commitment to stop the run at all costs and will load the box early and often, forcing Tommy Armstrong to beat him. Northwestern's secondary has a penchant for intercepting the ball, and that will happen on Saturday. Justin Jackson will be effective and score twice, and that'll be crucial in a game that will be ugly. The real NU rides home field advantage and takes a huge step toward winning the Big Ten West with a 24-21 win over Nebraska.