Eli and I talk about:
- Last year’s horrible season and what Pat Fitzgerald will do to avoid a bad season this year
- Their new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian - will we still engage in rock fight games with them?
- The quarterbacks - Peyton Ramsey, the status of Hunter Johnson
- The rest of the offense
- The defense - two starters opted out of the season
- His perspective on Nebraska and this damned virus-plagued season
- Our debate team that’s won the Big Ten every year since we joined
I Have A Book Out!
My book about my recovery from a widowmaker heart attack is out! Been Dead, Never Been To Europe - is available on Amazon!
Jon Johnston was an active, healthy adult when he dropped dead suddenly of a widowmaker heart attack. He was not expected to live, after being dead for more than 20 minutes, but if he did survive, his brain would forever be damaged due to oxygen deprivation.Alternating between humor, sadness, and anger at his body’s betrayal, Jon takes us with him as he puts his life back together. At the beginning, he sees the trauma as a minor inconvenience and expects a speedy recovery. As he realizes the damage to his heart is permanent, he is hit with another setback when he is diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, leaving him with memory loss, debilitating headaches, and a loss of identity. Tasks that had been trivial had become onerous endeavors, and his life became an unexpected challenge.
Been Dead, Never Been to Europe offers a real-life view of what it takes to rebuild after a devastating event, to accept an unexpected present and future, and to discover a new identity. Been Dead, Never Been to Europe will appeal to readers who seek memoirs of resilience, and to those whose own lives have been affected by unexpected trauma.
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About the Transcript
Keep in mind that the following is a transcript. I use a service that automates the first draft. As much as “artificial intelligence” is included in the description of every bit of technology these days, it’s clear that computers understanding human speech is more artificial than intelligent. The transcript has been edited to take out human speech bites, you know, um, okay, uh, but it’s not been edited to be an “article”.
Jon Johnston: Welcome to Jon’s PostLife Crisis. I am your host, Jon Johnston founder and manager of CornNation.com, your Nebraska Cornhuskers, site of great anticipation for the 2020 football season. This episode, we’re talking with Eli Karp. Editor in chief of InsideNu, the SB Nation Northwestern site. I don’t know how they got NU in their title. Perhaps we’ll get to that.
Last season, the other NU finished with an overall record of 3-9, last in the Big Ten West with a conference record of 1-8.
The year before that they were 8-1 in conference and won the Big Ten West. And overall they were 9-5. Eli, what happened last season and what is Pat Fitzgerald going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Eli Karp: Yeah, I think it really comes down to one position. There was a lot of hype going into last year after the departure of a very steady Clayton Thorson, who was at the helm for four years. And you had Hunter Johnson, a five star Clemson transfer who had sat out a year in 2018. Many people figured that he would step right in and potentially take the offense to even a different level from Thorson. But that just didn’t happen. It just was not working out whether it was preparation in the off season or just having trouble adjusting to the scheme that was being run last year. From the beginning, it was a disaster and he couldn’t beat out TJ Green at the time, a fifth year senior who had been a kind of a career backup for a while. And Fitz was very tight lipped as he is very apt to be about the quarterback competition going into that Stanford opener last year. And it just it never the quarterback position could never figure it out. Johnson struggled. T.J. Green on the first. He actually provided a real spark in that Stanford game, then had a season ending foot injury in the beginning of the second half. And Johnson was benched midway through the season for Aidan Smith, as Johnson was also dealing with some off the field issues as his mom was battling cancer. So he was going back and forth to where he lived in Indiana during the season. And Aidan Smith just he struggled as well. So there is between a lot of inexperience at the quarterback position. And, you know, this last year was the final year for offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who had been with Pat Fitzgerald since 2008, I believe, and it if not 2006.
Eli Karp: But I think a lot of fans would tell you that is scheme just got really stale, very predictable and kind of aggravating to watch. So I think that was the that was the main problem last year. You look at the defense, they were they were 26th in total defense. They did have trouble forcing turnovers, but they’re really getting the help from the offense. So you look at what they’re doing to fix this year, they kind of got a godsend in grad transfer. Peyton Ramsey from Indiana, who is a capable starter, as I’m sure you’re aware, from last year. He played a very good game in Nebraska last year. And again, Clayton Thorson never really blew the doors off of any opponent, at least in McCall’s offense. Peyton Ramsey does not need to be Justin Fields. He does not need to be Tanner Morgan. All he needs to be is a very competent Peyton Ramsey that in a new system with a new offensive coordinator, that does seem to be geared more towards the run, but a little maybe less predictable than that of Mick McCall in the quasi spread. I think there’s a lot of hope that Northwestern can kind of get back from what I think a lot of people, at least around the program saw as an aberration. I mean, you go 3-9 last year, but I think Northwestern won 36 games over the prior four years. And I mean a lot of people what I can tell you optimistically that last year was a fluke.
Jon Johnston: Ok, well, let’s let’s go back to the offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian.
Jon Johnston: Our description normally with Northwest when the games come up, is that you guys usually drag us into what we call a rock fight. So how is Mike Bajakian going to be different than your previous offensive coordinator? Are we still going to see rock fighting with a Northwesterners offense or what’s going to happen?
Eli Karp: So I think as long as Pat Fitzgerald is coach, there’s going to be a rock fight atmosphere to it. That’s just the kind of mentality of the coach that he is in the way he wants to play football. But I do think there is this sense that especially with both wins and losses over the last number of years, I’d say, especially since 2015 when Northwestern has been a good team. But the defense has definitely been better than the offense consistently it was. Why did it have to be this hard? Even when they win? Like it didn’t have to be this hard. And I think if you look at that offense and it was run twice up the middle on first down and then call a swing pass to the outside on third down or to the far side of the field. And it was just so predictable. You run a speed option on fourth and goal against Michigan State last year that gets absolutely blown up. They just they had absolutely no ability to go for explosive plays last year. And what I found interesting at least, is comparing 2018, which is very successful season win loss record, winning the Big Ten West, winning a bowl game compared to 2019 is the offense is really weren’t that different in that in 2018, they had so many three and outs but when they didn’t go three and out they were always going the length of the field and putting together scoring drives, just enough scoring drives to where they would be able to outscore the opponent.
Eli Karp: So I think this year. It’s a lot of a wait and see thing. I think there is an emphasis, as one of our staffers did, a film review of some of the games Mike Bajakian called when he was at Tennessee, when he was working as the offensive coordinator there in Tennessee. It seems like he likes to use a lot of window dressing for same formations, same looking play that end up, that ends up a different route, and I think he tries to. I don’t think he’s going to, again, blow you off the page, knock the doors off of you with the creativity at the beginning, I think what our what our staffer found was there’s there’s a lot of it’s very methodical throughout the game. You might show you a look earlier on that might be pretty benign, maybe first quarter, second quarter, third quarter shows you a similar look. And you’re like, oh, I know what’s coming. And no, it turns out to be a 30 yard pass play that works out because he caught you off your toes. But I think Fitzgerald alluded to it. I think it was either last week or this week earlier in media availability. It’s going to be a learning process with how Mike Bajakian calls a game and how Fitz calls the game, because, again, Fitz said work with Mick McCall for 12 years and he knew all his tendencies for good and for bad. This is going to be a little bit of a learning curve. But I think the hope from Northwestern fans is things just become a little bit less painful watching an offense.
Jon Johnston: The slow learning curve part, I mean, Northwestern has had over the past few years, at least a slow start. Are you worried about that with we have no nonconference games and we have only eight conference games, at least for the regular season.
Eli Karp: Yeah, yeah, it’s funny you mention that, because that’s always, always a topic of discussion in a normal season and for some reason it just has gone away in this crazy 2020 season, non pre-season, whatever we want to call this. I think it is a little bit of a concern just because. Well, yes, it is a concern. It has to be a concern based on what we’ve seen the last few years. I think a lot of it is also, Northwestern has struggled in early season noncon games and then they’ve found a way to kind of kick it into gear in these rock fights in the Big Ten. They don’t have to worry about dealing as funny as it sounds with an Akron or, , we don’t know what’s going to happen with UNLV last year. And, you know, they don’t really have to worry about that. I think I think to a lot of Northwestern fans, there is this weird sigh of relief that we only have to play Big Ten games, as weird as that sounds. But that does exist. But I just think this this year is so weird in that even if Northwestern hasn’t started great the last few years, everyone is dealing with something very different this offseason and everyone’s going to be a little bit less ready than normal. But I think where Northwestern maybe has a bit of an advantage is they have a lot of returning production, both on offense and defense, even with those opt outs that were announced last week. So there’s a lot of confidence that between that experience and the fact that installing a new offense is tough during a pandemic when you can’t be there. But they had a lot of time to study film when nothing was going on. If there is a time to really hunker down and learn whatever you’re going to try to do without actually taking on the field just yet and a lot of time to look at what Mike Bajakian wanted to do and really get comfortable with it.
Jon Johnston: Ok, you mentioned you mentioned quarterbacks earlier. Let’s let’s start on the offense, you guys got Peyton Ramsey transferred from Indiana, so he’s a grad transfer. You still have Hunter Johnson, the five star from Clemson, right? What’s going to happen, you think, with the quarterback position?
Eli Karp: So, I mean, depth chart came out on Monday. Ramsey is undisputed QB one, which was for Northwestern fans. This is now nice to see. For the first time in three years, there is no OR at starting quarterback for at least week one because there was a battle last year. And then when Clayton Thorson was coming back from his torn ACL in 2018,, it was unsure whether he or TJ Green would be the starter at the beginning of the season. Basically what we heard all offseason, as much as they didn’t want to commit to Ramsey because competitive advantage, no one wants to announce a starter when they don’t have to. He was the guy was just kind of assume he was a more media availabilities. They spoke highly of him. He just there’s a level of skill and experience that he has that none of the other quarterbacks do. I think one of the nice surprises on the Northwestern roster is Andrew Marty, who I don’t know, the fourth stringer last year has now worked himself in the conversation for QB two with Hunter Johnson.
Eli Karp: Andrew Marty had a great start against Illinois in that game last year when he and the offense, they really throw the ball that much. But they ran over Illinois for over three hundred yards at a time where Illinois maybe people thought that would be the time when they beat Northwestern for the first time in five tries for the land of Lincoln Trophy. So I think you look at the quarterback, Peyton Ramsey, again, he does not need to be a Ferrari. He can be normal. And that will be good for the way Northwestern plays. Just the confidence that I think a lot of fans have with a known commodity after last year, where quite literally everything was unknown and people would just beg for Clayton Thorson to come back. I think you’re going to see a quarterback that if you’re if you’re comparing him to Clayton Thorson, the stats are a little better than that. And he’s also playing in what should be a more friendly offense.
Jon Johnston: Plus, he’s familiar with his opponents to a certain extent. So how is Hunter Johnson is still there? Is there been any word? I mean, a five star quarterback is not they don’t grow on trees. So what’s going on with that guy?
Eli Karp: They don’t grow on trees. After last year when everything just went south. And he really just, I think has fallen off the map in terms of the way people cover the program. And when fans think of the program. Right now, it’s just kind of there. He’s still listed at quarterback two. Again, in this crazy season, you don’t know who you’re going to need and when you’re going to need them, so especially at a position like quarterback, and it seems like every time last year that they would announce that Johnson was starting, it’s like, OK, well, maybe maybe this will be the game in which he looks good and he looks like he’ll have acclimated and it just never happened. So again, there are questions for next year, I would say, as as weird as I was to write him off all the way until next year. But I don’t know exactly what the deal is with Northwestern going to be extending eligibility to everyone for next year. Ramsey might stay, I couldn’t couldn’t tell you about that. But for Hunter Johnson, I think you’re looking right now at something more towards next year and competing with Andrew Marty for for a starting job and it would be a quite a comeback story of sorts after a really tough first year.
Jon Johnston: So running backs. Your offense last year, we discussed that it was a mess, but who’s going to be at the running back position Nebraska needs to worry about?
Eli Karp: Sure. So I think Isaiah Bowser had a breakout campaign midway through freshman year for like almost 900 yards in eight games. And he was presumed running back one coming in the last year and then got injured at Stanford as well and just never really regained full health. Last year was nicked up here and there could never get going. And I think there’s a lot of excitement that he’s back this year. He is a big bruising back, I think, like 6’1”, 225. I don’t know why to think that, but I’m pretty sure it’s right. And he will. He is a bowling ball. He is an old school downhill running back. And I think Mike Bajakian likes a power game. The sense I get is he is the clear cut starter on the depth chart. But I do think we will see some Drake Anderson, some Evan Hull. They provide a bit of a change of pace. Drake Anderson has the wiggle and some you know, he was enlisted as a Doke Walker Award watch list candidate. I don’t think the production has warranted that the last couple of years. But he does provide that change of pace. I think the coaching staff is just looking for that consistency from him. And Evan Hull had a breakout game last couple of games at the end of last year, and now everyone’s going to get a shot to play this year. So I think that Bowser is RB one and I think people are looking for him to get back to his freshman form because they would really take that. And yeah, the emphasis is going to be on the running game.
Jon Johnston: I think, OK, the emphasis is going to be running, I think I read a preview article by you or by your site which basically said, who are the receivers? We don’t really know. So who are the receivers? Do you know any more now that we’re on the cusp of starting the season?
Eli Karp: Sure. So we do have more of an idea. Just going to pull up the depth chart here. We do have more an idea of who is going to be on the outside for Northwestern. Two of the of the players aren’t too surprising in Riley Lees and Ramaud Chiokhiao-Bowman. Those two are seniors. So it’s Lees’s, Chiokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan, all three are seniors. And Riley Lees led the team last year in receiving had a really solid year amidst a really poor offense. I think people would hope you become a Flynn Nagel type in his senior year. He’s got more of a slot receiver, only 6’0”, 200 pounds. But he’s certainly a he was a safety blanket last year for first struggling quarterbacks. Ramaud Chiokhiao-Bowman. He’s been up and down. He’s got size. He’s 6’2”. He’s one of the bigger receivers in the Northwestern Room. And Northwestern receivers are not that big in general. So he’s got a lot of athleticism, but he hasn’t been able to put together the consistency in the production through the first three years. And then Kyric McGowan is a really, really interesting player because he is dynamic, has got some really long touchdown passes, and last year in the passing game was just really sputtering.
Eli Karp: Coaches had to figure out a way to get him the ball. So they convert them into a running back at times. And he he scored on a 77 yard run against Purdue. He is freakishly athletic, very fast, dynamic playmaker. Every coach, whether it is McCall previously or now, Bajakian acknowledges, he has to be a focal part of the offense. Now, I think this year will be very interesting for Northwestern fans into evaluating position coach Dennis Springer. Northwestern receivers has struggled to get separation in the last few years. And I think there is you know, fans want to pin it on two things scheme where it was very predictable as to what Northwestern, what routes they would be running and also their coaching like is there just a reason they can’t get separation? It would be really frustrating. And that’s what led to, again, those lack of explosive plays last year. How much was that an aberration? So, again, you look at this year, is a scheme going to help frame up. And if they still can’t get separation, is that a coaching issue at the position level? Because I really do believe there is a lot of athleticism and talent in this room.
Eli Karp: And so when you look at the second team, Malik Washington, 5’9”, not a big guy, but a sophomore. Coaches have raved about in the great event last year and a little bit didn’t really see much playing time. Mike Bajakian went out of his way last week to say he’s been playing like a veteran and he’s only a sophomore. And even though he’s not listed as a starter, I would expect to see a lot of Malik Washington especially out of the slot. And then you look at Wayne Dennis, redshirt freshman, have not heard much of him before, but he’s 6’3” and 200 pounds, a larger body. Jenson Hooper Pryce, who was one of the two heralded wide receiving recruits coming in last year, didn’t really see much time. But he is 6’5”, out of Houston, really, really athletic. Again, big body. There are high hopes for him. So, again, you’re seeing this kind of coming of age on the second team depth chart of these young guys who are ready to take over.
Jon Johnston: Ok, so basically you’ve said something that I found interesting, which is people are putting demands on the coaches, which, from the rest of us we can to look at Northwestern, we go, do they even care about football? Which leads me to this question before we get to the defense, what has been Northwesterners attitude toward playing during this pandemic? And when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean the football team, but as a university overall and then maybe the football team.
Eli Karp: Sure. So I guess I should clarify something. I’m maybe I’m putting a little more pressure and speaking for fans on wanting to see the receiver, wanting to see more separation, I think. And what’s a common complaint among fans? But they’re not going to act on it. It’s more just like, oh, why can’t the receiver get separation? As for the way Northwestern is treated it’s interesting because a Northwestern president, Morton Shapiro, is the chair of the Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors Council. And obviously he led a lot of discussions. He doesn’t have two votes. He has one vote. But he voted. He said he voted no originally. And as with what was the eight other presidents, I was nine or hold on. It was eleven. 11-3, I think so. With ten other presidents. He voted he voted no originally and then he voted yes on the restart. So clearly, he and he has said that there were times that he wasn’t convinced until the very end, the very end that this was going to be doable and that he wanted to go forward with it. I mean, you think about it from a perspective here. I’m a junior. I live off campus. So I was kind of going to come back anyway, as I am at least. But freshmen and sophomores are not allowed on campus right now. And even for us juniors and seniors, hardly anything is on campus.
Eli Karp: It’s right now a lakefront park and a testing clinic for as far as we’re concerned, I think maybe five percent of classes of that have an in-person component. Everything else is generally remote. So when you look at it from that standpoint, it’s easy to criticize is like, well, you want to play football, but you can’t even have half of your student body on campus. And there are very few classes you can go to. And I think that’s valid. But I also do understand that this isn’t simply a Northwestern decision and there’s a lot of other things involved in it. And you look at, again, the players wanted to play, Pat Fitzgerald wants to play. Jim Phillips, the athletic director, is a very highly regarded name out there in both the Big Ten and in college athletics. He was part of the television subcommittee and Northwestern and several members on all of the subcommittees that were created after the postponement announcement in August. So was Northwestern jumping? Northwestern was not a Nebraska, not an Ohio state early on, but they were never there were reports like, oh, well, you know, they need X number of votes and Northwestern is not going to vote yes. No, I don’t think that was ever the case with Northwestern. You had way too much work going on by Northwestern employees, and there was no reason that Northwestern was going to say no if others were going to say yes.
Jon Johnston: Well, there’s the nerd moniker. I mean, come on, man,
Eli Karp: There is the nerd moniker. But, you know, it I think that’s easy to rely on. I think that was an easy copout for people trying to write articles in ways of, oh, I who will opt out? Is it Michigan? It’s immunologist president or Northwestern? And someone called Morgan Shapiro a doctor. He’s an economist. So I think people were just eager to assign titles to Northwestern for reasons they might not play.
Jon Johnston: Well, you had Rutgers, too, but we won’t go there we’ll leave Rutgers alone.
Eli Karp: They don’t exist.
Jon Johnston: Ok, two to the defense. You have a veteran defense mostly, but you’ve lost two defensive starters recently because they opted out of the season. You have Paddy Fisher still playing, right? He is your star linebacker. Yup. Tell me about the defense. Are they going to be good? They were very good last year.
Eli Karp: Defense should be good. And I think last year, again, was fine. 26th in total defense, I believe, and could not force a turnover and after the offense just could not do anything last year fits it kind of after post game pressors would keep talking about the defense not being able to force turnovers and everyone knew that blame was a little bit misplaced, but it was true that they really couldn’t make any impact plays. So you look at it and that’s very different from 2018 when that’s all they did was make impact plays and figure out ways to win games when it seems like they should. So when you look at starting D line again, there’s more youth than there was because Joe Gaziano is gone. That’s a loss. But Ernest Brown is a really athletic guy who people have a lot of hope for and was injured a lot of last season. There are high expectations for him. And in the middle, there is a lot of continuity from last year. You have you have Trevor Kent. And Jason Gold, who was kind of thrust into roles last year after injuries. But again, a lot of these guys have gotten playing time last year because of injury and just because Northwestern threw in some guys last year when the games weren’t all competitive to get them some time.
Eli Karp: Along the d-line you add Adetomiwa Adebawore who is now going to fill in for Samdup Miller on the edge. These are guys who have talent and Northwestern churns out D line talent. Even when people left years before Marty Long, the defensive line coach, just manages to figure it out. No, they haven’t generated a ton of quarterback pressure the last couple of years. But I think Adebawore and Brown are uniquely suited to pressure the quarterback more. I think they’re just more athletic and more explosive players, but they’re always solid against the run. And I don’t expect that to change. So I think the loss of Miller is, while it hurts, to me, I think they’re going to be OK. Linebackers. It’s a core that’s been together for at least three years. They’re all seniors with a little bit of a down year. Last year, some missed tackles. Paddy Fisher didn’t have a great year. His draft stock needs to go up.
Eli Karp: That’s a no excuse kind of unit in that they’ve got to be good this year. They really should be good this year. And Fitz knows that. And I think there is a sense after after last year about that they’re going to have a really, really solid year. That is undoubtedly the strongest unit on the team. No one will question that. In the secondary originally, come last Thursday, everyone was like, you have J.R. Pace and Travis Whillock,two senior safeties, we’re going to start Greg Newsome, a locked down corner. And then the other corner is a bit of a question mark. Fast forward to Wednesday, just over a week. There is no more Travis Whillock. He has opted out of the season. There are rumors Greg Newsome has an injury. You are left with J.R. Pace. OK, that’s good. But I think there’s a little less confidence just because of simply the inexperience. And that is something that the last couple of years, Northwestern has struggled with,is inexperience in the secondary, even though there are bend don’t break kind of team, they’ve always played that way. And I don’t expect that to change. The past defense wasn’t terrible last year, but it was a liability at times. And so especially Cameron Ruiz last year, I think many expect would have earned the second starting spot and definitely could.
Eli Karp: He struggled a little bit. Last year was an improvement from 2018. But there’s going to need to be another step in twenty twenty if he’s going to be a consistent starting corner. Rod Heard is a redshirt freshman. I think there’s a little bit of buzz about him, but again, unproven and where is he going to fit in? And and I think at the safety position, a lot of people figured junior Bryce Jackson would slot in for Whillock. That’s not the case, at least not yet. He’s listed as the second team and redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph has earned the starting spot on the depth chart. So I think, again, Northwestern has been operating at least with the Whillock opt out since before camp. So that’s been a couple of months. Clearly, they’ve really liked what they’ve seen out of Joseph and Jackson has been fine. I just think there’s a lot of youth in the secondary and we don’t know much yet at the moment. It’slike the Big Ten West but of quarterbacks after Iowa in that it’s just it could be really competitive and it can be really exciting. And you just don’t know exactly who is establishing himself over one another.
Jon Johnston: Ok, so to sum up, so far, we have an offense that has potential. And we have a defense that should be good, which means you’re not going to blow people out, which means you’re going to rely on close games, which leads us to special teams.
Jon Johnston: How are your special teams? Do you have a kicker who can make a 45 yard field goal?
Eli Karp: Well,the special teams haven’t really changed. I think for Northwestern, the most important special teamer is always the punter. And it seems like Northwestern has really been a grad transfer powerhouse the last three years with Jake Collins. 2018. It was Daniel Kubiak last year and Andrew Daniel could be like a six year senior. Andrew David transferred from TCU. They were fine. And then this year they landed Derek Adams, I forget which from which MAC school he was from maybe Kent State, but I could be wrong, but was a very good MAC punter. And I think, again, with with an offense like we’ll see how good how good it is. They need a solid punter and I think they’ve got one. When it comes to the place kicking game, Charlie Kuhbander is the kicker. Once again, this is fourth year in the job. And he’s a senior and he’s been fine. I think there’s the consistency has always been there. He doesn’t have the biggest leg. He missed a 37 yarder at Stanford last year and what ended up being a really critical mess.
Jon Johnston: He did the same against Nebraska and what could have been, a game tying or go ahead field goal last year from about the same distance, mid thirties. He missed one against Purdue late in the game that would have basically iced it. And then Purdue came down and won on a game winning field goal with five seconds left. That’s three games right there that came down to, that really could have been different for more consistent, reliable kicking game. And Pat Fitzgerald, never really has a ton of confidence in his game because he’s apt to go for things on fourth down in the middle of nowhere. Kuhbander was a highly rated kicker out of high school. I just don’t think there’s been a ton of consistency. He’s also been battling injuries throughout his career. I don’t look at it as any different from a couple of years before. I don’t think fans are enamored with it.
Jon Johnston: One of the other things I like to do is get an outsider’s perspective on Nebraska, have you have you looked at Nebraska this season at all?
Eli Karp: I mean, I’ve I’ve followed basically everyone in the Big Ten. I’ve kind of looked at their schedule a bit. As for the roster, I, I kind of know what’s there, but go ahead.
Jon Johnston: So what do you think? Put it this way. We did the SB Nation Big Ten questionnaire. Right. I filled mine out and pointed out that I am not a rational person, but I notice that most of the guys who filled out their their questionnaires predicted winning seasons and not everybody is going to have a winning season. So when you look at Nebraska, where do you think they’re going to be in the Big Ten West? And how good do you think that Scott Frost’s team will be this season?
Eli Karp: Sure. So I think as I think for Northwestern fans, they look at, you know, everything that’s happened with Nebraska this offseason and they’re just so confused because Northwestern fans have a different mindset and they’re like, as a lot of people nationally don’t understand exactly the Nebraska mindset. But I think, Nebraska, Northwestern, I’ve gone back and forth the last few years. Rarely is there a boring game. And I would expect the same this year. I’m excited to see what we get from Nebraska just because of all the offseason talk. But on the field, Adrian Martinez is back after he battled some injuries last year. Remember, in the northwestern game Noah Vedral came in and led them on a game winning drive because, of course, 2020 Northwestern. But Martinez didn’t have a great season last year. And I think a lot of people, correct me if I’m wrong, would attribute that to a shaky offensive line. And I don’t know, has that changed this year? I mean, JD Spielman transferred right to Texas Tech. TCU, but you’ve got Wandale Robinson. And he was a game breaker last year and I expect he’ll be the same this year. So, you know, I don’t know exactly how will the offense be better.
Eli Karp: I don’t think people really looked at the offense as the Achilles heel, but I don’t think it was consistent enough. On defense. Hasn’t been a great defense the last couple of years. The Davis brothers are now gone from the defensive line. So can it get better than that from last year or the year before that? I’m kind of on paper when I look at Nebraska’s defense, when I’ve taken a look, I just I don’t see reasons for improvement there, whereas I think on offense things things could be a little more exciting. I know the kicking game for Northwestern. I’ve talked about it last year for Nebraska. That was an absolute carousel. I remember going into last year’s game in early October, Nebraska, Northwestern. I listed one of the reasons Northwestern might win as the kicking game. And it’s so nearly did. I forget how many kickers the Huskers cycled through. I expect this is what, now, year three of the Scott Frost era, that he has things a little bit more down, especially offensively, which is his is skill set. But you tell me about that offensive line. So I think that’s a real, real important piece.
Jon Johnston: Cameron Jurgens started out the season last year as our starting center, and he had never played center before ever, and he missed part of camp the beginning of last season because he had a foot injury.
Jon Johnston: So when he went into his first game, he looked like a guy that never played center. Snaps were all over the place, but he got better as the season went on. And people that I talked to that are much better evaluators of talent than I am say that he is going to be an all big 10 center at some point. So I’ll go with their opinion because I’m always looking for other people’s opinions on things. But I think the depth is much better. They have... if guys aren’t working out as starters they have other guys they can put in those positions and see how they do. But I do think the offensive line is probably where Frost expects it to be. And if there’s one thing I think Scott Frost did when he came into the Big Ten is he completely underestimated the line play that he would need to have to be successful in the conference. So down at UCF, I mean, they don’t have a 400 pound starting left tackle anywhere. Most people don’t. Minnesota does. I don’t know why. It’s like unfair. Maybe he should have a stripe on his helmet or something, but I think he completely underestimated that. So they’ve taken steps to correct that. Defensive line. Like you said, the Davis twins are gone. Actually, all three of our starters on defense went in the NFL, which kind of made you go, why were we so bad at the run defense when all three guys went to the NFL? Well, because our linebackers weren’t very good. I think our defense is kind of like, are they going to improve? The secondary should be very good. But that doesn’t stop people from running the ball four or five yards a carry. I don’t know. You know, it’s like everybody else. I don’t know.
Eli Karp: It’s because I feel like what we’ve seen, at least through other conferences in the first few weeks is defense is optional. So, what’s that going to mean? You know, every time a SEC defense gives up 49 points, it’s oh, look how good the offense is, you know, as opposed to, oh, they’re struggling on defense. So what’s the Big Ten going to look like and how people do react to that?
Jon Johnston: Well, you know, I’m OK with scoring 40 points a game. It’s fun. I think people will put it this way. What would you rather have? 45-42 or sixteen punts and 10-7.
Eli Karp: You’re talking to a Northwestern writer here. Pat Fitzgerald is the head coach.
Jon Johnston: You’re just in it for the wins.
True. It’s got to be fun and interesting. OK, fine. If we win I’m OK with 10-7. Prediction for Northwestern season. What do you have?
Eli Karp: Yes, you mentioned early, the Big Ten team sites kind of predictions that we filled out before the most people seem to be optimistic and have winning seasons, but not everyone can have a winning season. I mean, I think from what I spelled out, again, there’s there’s a lot of hope with some young talent, but there was a lot of, again, veteran experience returning for Northwestern.
Eli Karp: And I go back to the defense, the defense, the offense only needs to be just, you know, not even average. Northwestern has won nine or 10 games when they’ve had an offense rated in the 90s nationally. And I think it should even be better than that. I’m going to go 5-3, and that’s probably the upper limit of what I think. Some real optimistic fans say 6-2 , because why not? I think 5-3 between 4-4 and 5-3. The Big Ten West is so unpredictable. But you look at what Northwestern was able to they were able to compete in being some really close games last year when they were not a good team. And when they’ve been solid, they’ve had plenty of big chance of success. And you have crossover games with Maryland and Michigan State. Penn State is off the schedule now. It doesn’t get much better than that unless you wanted to take Rutgers. So those should really those can be two wins. Northwestern typically beats Illinois. I don’t see why that changes this year. And then they should be able to find two other wins, at least in the Big Ten West. If not, they drop one of those and they beat one of Iowa, Wisconsin or Minnesota. You just don’t know. So I think five games is doable for Northwestern 5-3 and whoever they draw on Champions Week.
Jon Johnston: Good, good shot. OK, everyone makes fun of Northwestern. Like, for example, when you play in Evanston, Nebraska fans take over the stadium. There will be no fans, probably, this season. So comment on the no fans. Does it give you a home field advantage to actually have a season where there’s no fans?
Eli Karp: I mean, I’d say yes and no. From what we’ve heard, there will be roughly a 1000 player parent and families in attendance. Just for reference. Not not calling that a crowd or anything. I mean, you’ve heard the NFL Northwestern alumni in the NFL saying how they’re prepared because Ryan Field was often dead and not filled. I don’t think it changes a ton of things this year because Northwestern has had plenty of success on the road when they’re playing in front of 90,000 screaming fans. So I think maybe it’ll be less a difference for Northwestern and more a difference for other teams. And that may be, you know, as the season as a whole as opposed to just Ryan Field. And so I think kind of that almost maybe normality to it for the for the Wildcats might give them a slight leg up. But the players have kind of created this moniker. It’s BYOJ. Bring your own juice this year. I think that’ll be used a lot going forward, but I don’t think it changes a ton. Is It going to be weird. Yes. It’s always a Northwestern joke to talk about an empty Ryan field or one overrun by visiting fans, but they don’t have to worry about that next year. You’re right. But does it really change things and give them maybe maybe a little bit more comfort? I don’t think so.
Jon Johnston: Ok, I have to ask this, and I’m glad that you are an actual Northwestern student so you can explain it from that perspective. NU, the moniker NU, it’s ours. Why don’t you guys just stop using it, surrender it? It’s it’s been Nebraska’s for my entire life, and I am very much older than you are. Give it up, buddy. Your reaction to that?
Eli Karp: I’ll make both the Northwestern Point and Nebraska point here, I, before coming to Northwestern, never understood the NU because I was like NW, that makes sense, right? But but everything here, it makes now that you’re here, everything is NU. It just makes more sense. Do I love it? No. But it makes more sense to me than it used to. It’s certainly better than N’Wern which we’ve seen a lot or N’Western, I think those fans hate. But I mean, one, Northwestern was a founding member of the Big Ten and two, isn’t it, And correct me if I’m wrong, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, UNL. That’s as much as I know, which would lead me to believe that there is one NU. How did it become NU? It’s like the people call it Nebraska University?
Jon Johnston: No, but there is a I believe there’s the song Dear Old Nebraska, you. So, it’s again, one of those traditions that goes back to 1635 when we invaded England and drove out the Anglo Saxons or whoever the hell was there in 1635, I don’t know. It clearly predates whatever North-Western has ever done. And you should give it up. Although it is, you know, every year, it is the battle for NU. I will point out one more thing before we go. And my kids love it when I say one more thing. Did you know that Nebraska’s debate and speech team has won the Big Ten title every year that we’ve been in the Big Ten?
Eli Karp: You know, I did not, but a journal journalism professor of mine. A couple of years ago, a professor of mine is originally from Nebraska and he is a huge both in Nebraska and a Northwestern fan, especially because the two weren’t in the Big Ten for the longest time together. But it’s funny. He’s always he always talks about who is the real NU. And that’s that’s something he would know about the speech and debate team. He knows everything. Nebraska.
Jon Johnston: So you’re not going to give us any credit for being nerdy ourselves.
Eli Karp: We’ll give you a point, maybe add one to whatever spread comes out to be before week three.
Jon Johnston: Ok, is there anything else you want to tell us about Northwestern football team? Or since you’re majoring in journalism at some school, what do they call that?
Eli Karp: Medill.
Jon Johnston: Medill, where everybody comes from and then it’s bias all over the media for northwestern and against Nebraska. We all know that happens. Is there anything you want to add to the conversation here that I haven’t mentioned?
Eli Karp: I think we we covered a lot of it from especially from a northwestern point of view as opposed to, oh, look, they went 3-9 last year, which is really easy for a lot of fans to say. I think for a lot of very casual fans, they’re like three and not four casual Northwestern fans. They say 3-9. We stunk and haven’t paid attention to 36 wins over the prior four years. I’m working on a story, that big story to drop tomorrow about Pat Fitzgerald approaching 100 wins. He is at 99 wins right now and he’s built these really expectations among more modern fans have changed because Fitzgerald has created those expectations for himself, whereas, you know, those didn’t exist before. You had two seasons, including a Rose Bowl appearance and a Citrus Bowl appearance. That was the best two year stretch Northwestern had ever had, and that was twenty five years ago. Now, this is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Big Ten championship team that went to the Rose Bowl. So that is, again, something there. It’s kind of a confluence of seasons. Fitzgerald earned his 100th win, 25th anniversary of the Rose Bowl. And I think that’s. But we cover the rest of it.
Jon Johnston: Well, then we’re going to end there. This has been Jon’s PostLife crisis. Thank you for listening and we thank you Eli Karp of InsideNU, weird name that shouldn’t exist, for joining us. Go Big Red. Thank you, Eli, and good luck with your season, but not entirely.
Eli Karp: Thanks so much for having me on.