What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of a blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: MNWildcat from Off-Tackle Empire, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Big Ten.
MNW: Oh jeez, it's you people. Before I get into answering any of these questions, I want your readership to know there will be plenty of seats available. Just show up, clean up after your tailgates (the City of Evanston and its wonderful residents keep blaming them on us because they're assholes), and remember the record--set by Nebraska in 2012--is "silent count at home." We'll see what you can do. (If you're there and would like to buy me a beer, too, drop me a line.)
1) One year after Pat Fitzgerald took the purple to, er, Indianapolis, the Wildcats sit at 1-5 at the midway point of their season. I don't think this is what anyone expected, least of all Northwestern fans. What are some of the things that have gone wrong for the Wildcats this year?
MNW: The biggest issue would be that we (and I include me in that!) vastly, vastly overestimated how efficiently the 'Cats would adjust to the loss of Clayton Thorson as the signal-caller. It's reverberated up and down the offense: 5* Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson has not looked ready to take the field, and QB 1B (this is an honest-to-God thing Pat Fitzgerald does that, when I eventually learn my wife has found a stronger, smarter husband, will compound the grief by calling me "Husband 1B") TJ Green might still be convalescing in a Stanford hospital after suffering a pretty gruesome leg injury in the opener.
Johnson has since been benched in favor of jumpy, can't-zip-a-pass-to-the-opposite-boundary Aidan Smith, for the crime (we think) of not mastering OC Mick McCall's Cheesecake Factory-sized playbook (the 2015 Mike Trumpy speed option-at-Kinnick was a seasonal along with the Pumpkin Mocha Fudge Dream Delight, thank you).
So yeah, I'd say quarterback play, zooming out to broader offensive issues.
2) The Northwestern offense appears to be a bit, uh, offensively challenged this season. Would this be a good time to bring up the Mick McCall-shaped elephant in the room? Feel free to vent about McCall and the Wildcat offense here if you like. We're all friends in hating our offense here.
MNW: Really blew my load on Question 1. Sorry about that.
In keeping with something we'll talk about (if GIA hasn't made enough fun of it already [Ed. Note: We haven't! -- Ross]), Pat Fitzgerald's rapid descent into bizarre boomer-twilighting madness, this offense is an unmitigated disaster. Battering ram Isaiah Bowser picked up a leg knock and hasn't been back to his rumbling Iowa performance from last year--though Yes You're That Old Son-of-Damien Anderson, Drake Anderson, has covered for him adequately--and the losses of WRs Flynn Nagel to graduation and Ben Skowronek to injury have meant that our Storm Trooper-esque passing game (HIT A FUCKING TARGET) has over-relied on Riley Lees and...yeah.
What this gets back to, though, is that for neither Johnson nor Smith being a particularly world-beating (or, hell, Nebraska-beating) QB, the tandem of Fitzgerald and McCall have performed with the sense of urgency of a pair of Irishmen on the 1920s-era Chicago Sanitation payroll. Jim Phillips must be their second cousin or owe Paddy's ward-captain granddad a favor. To the best of our knowledge, the playbook has not simplified, the QBs are not responding, and former players are going so far as to "like" (I'm told that's passive-aggression on Twitter) other tweets demanding the firing of McCall.
Things are fine! We've got like 10 more questions to get through and seven of your smuggest commenters have already skipped to the comments to haughtily use some by-now-hackneyed diminutive reference to Northwestern, so we can move on.
3) There was a lot of excitement about Northwestern getting 5-star Clemson QB Hunter Johnson to transfer to Evanston last year. His time as a starter this year has not gone well -- what happened? He also hasn't played the last two games, so is this fully Aidan Smith's job now? What should Iowa fans know about him?
MNW: Re: Johnson. The biggest complaint is that he hasn't "learned" Mick McCall's playbook -- apparently checking out of RUTM (run up the middle) into a 3-yard out to the sticks, or out of a 3-yard out to the sticks into a RUTM, or failing to identify which receiver got three inches of separation instead of two. Johnson picked up an injury against wisconsin and we haven't seen him in action since, though he's been dressed and looked ready on the sideline. In the early games he struggled with swing passes to RBs, though he has the ability to buy time with his legs and throw a passable deep ball. He's easily the better arm of the two. Of course, slow-developing pass plays are not Northwestern's forte: this is as long as you'll get to let one develop. (Ed. Note: You sonfoabitch. -- Ross)
Re: Smith. Picture any third-string quarterback ever. Arm that, when called upon to make those deep throws, you cringe a little and say "Ooh, but I think he's a nice kid," and shows a scrappy willingness to try and make things happen with his legs. This will work twice when a blitzing linebacker leaves a lane open and he scrambles for 10-12 yards to pick up a first down, and then it will not work again. Then stare into his soulless, ginger eyes. (Ed. Note: Click that link at your peril -- Ross)
In the entitled world of recent Northwestern football fandom where I pretend I didn't want now-genius DC Mike Hankwitz fired in 2010 and we all act stunned at this heel turn by Pat Fitzgerald, conspiracy theories are beginning to fly. These run the gamut: Hunter is transferring/redshirting/dying and that's why they're sitting him, to Hunter is playing against Iowa and Fitz has been hiding him and the playbook for the run of the Big Ten schedule from here on out (Iowa, @IU, Pur, UMass, Minn, @Ill).
If you asked me, I think we'll see the 2-QB system return against Iowa. Smith will get the start because Fitz is loyal to scrappy no-stars kids from the Midwest who give it all FOR THE TEAAAAM HORP HORP HORP, but Johnson will enter the game on the third or fourth drive to a standing ovation from the 15,000 Northwestern fans in attendance, who Fitzgerald will then criticize for dogging Smith, who's "done it the right way" and "put his body on the line" and "never stares at his phone, because he only uses carrier pigeons like a REAL MAN."
Northwestern will go three-and-out on that drive anyway.
4) In happier news, the defense looks like it's been pretty solid -- what's been working on that side of the ball?
MNW: I thought we'd never get here.
So 1-5 Northwestern has the 14th-rated defense by FEI standards, to give your readers some context for how baffling this is (and how awful this offense -- rated 121st -- is). And they do it not by forcing turnovers (2 INT, 6 FR) or racking up negative plays (32 TFL) or even getting off the field on third down (38.3%, 70th in the country), but by reversing the ol' trick that every hot kid ever pulled on the nerds: inviting them into our boudoir (in this case, our side of the field), waiting until they take their pants off, and then
TURNING ON THE LIGHTS AND LAUGHING AT THEM holding them to a field goal or a punt from the Northwestern 38 yard line. (Ed. Note: Oh man, Iowa's offense and Northwestern's defense are gonna get along like peanut butter and jelly. -- Ross)
I'm fine. I swear. It's cool. It's fine.
On the whole, the 'Cats limit explosive plays, force opponents to chew yardage up in the passing game or--more relevant to Iowa and wisconsin--on the ground, and wait for other teams to make a mistake. Throw the ball away from CB Greg Newsome II (7 PD), and you'll likely be fine (though I'm not seeing Brandon Smith on your depth chart, which could be a problem). Safeties JR Pace and Travis Whillock have been better since some angle/tackling issues early, with Pace playing deep in one-high looks and Whillock (along with Finn MacCool enthusiast-and-LB Paddy Fisher) crashing in to stop whatever plodding running backs y'all run outside zone with these days.
5) Should we just cancel the game and let Joe Gaziano and A.J. Epenesa have a pass rush competition to decide who the gets the W for this game?
MNW: That would be a much better idea, and I don't think we Northwestern fans can understate just how good Gaziano is or how vital his play is to the success of this defense. He's the runaway team leader in sacks (4.5) and TFLs (7.5), has forced 3 fumbles and grabbed a couple of his own, and is getting double-team and chipped looks from opposing offensive lines. Another in the line of Dean Lowry and Corey Wootton (not sorry) high-motor defensive ends that DC Mike Hankwitz has produced.
I love AJ Epenesa's game, and I am terrified to see what he does to LT Rashawn Slater, who has been injured this season but is probably our best offensive lineman (worth noting Ohio State and Chase Young only had one sack, mostly because they didn't need to). I assume we'll double Epenesa with superback Charlie Mangieri, since our superbacks can't catch a pass worth a damn this year anyways. At least 2 sacks for the Samoan Knuckle (we have to talk about that name, you guys, because I'm pretty sure I've paid extra for that and I'm not comfortable with what ensued), and the Iowa defense racks up TFLs as Northwestern pointless runs the mesh out of shotgun over and over and over to no fucking effect.
6) Let's talk special teams. How are the kicking and the punting holding up this year?
MNW: Let's start with the positive: Sixth-year (!!!) walk-on (!!!) former quarterback (!!!) and pitcher for the baseball team (!!!) Daniel Kubiuk is a damn good story and also a bingo for Big Ten punters, I think. Grandpa's put his time in, and what he lacks in leg (38 ypp, only 3 of his 40 have been 50+), he makes up for in the ability to pin teams deep (11/40 inside the 20) when, y'know, the offense actually gets to midfield and this becomes a relevant option. He's struggled a bit lately, though, so you never know when you'll see backup and TCU transfer Andrew David in this white-knuckle thrill-ride that will be Iowa-Northwestern. (Also, is this where I shout out Michael Sleep-Dalton? Kid's got a cannon. Which of your Regents is he related to?)
Placekicking, uh...it's been improved but is not going to win games. Charlie Kuhbander has actually hit both his attempts from 40+, but he pushed one wide at Nebraska that should've won Northwestern that game. In a game where I don't expect NU to get close enough to the end zone for this to matter, though, a couple kicks from 35 yards might get the 'Cats on the scoreboard.
Kickoffs are a disaster. Trey Finison was not supposed to be in this role (I don't think), but his leg isn't getting near enough to the end zone (4/17 TBs) to have real impact. I know running kicks back is gauche these days, but perhaps Iowa puts a speedster back there and gives it a try.
Holding has been fine -- good work, Kubiuk.
7) The over-under total for this game is 37.5, which is one of the lowest totals of the year in college football. How low would it have to get for you to take the over?
MNW: If they ran it back next week and played it on aggregate.
And I still might take the under.
I'll talk about it below, but the only way I can conceive of this getting to 38 points is if the wheels completely fall off for Northwestern and the Hawks run away with this (probably aided by a D/ST touchdown) by the score of something like 35-3. It's that bad here right now. And lest you all feel special, this isn't even Northwestern's lowest total of the year. You sharps are going to have to throw a lot more money at the under to get this line to approach the 35 line that oddsmakers set for Northwestern and Michigan State (though it's easily Iowa's lowest since the 42-point line for last year's shootout in Minneapolis).
At 37.5, though, this spread will be one of the 64 lowest totals since 2003, which we should all be proud of, and tied for third-lowest this year (to be joined, it looks like, by Cal-Utah this year, which has a 37.5 total but a Utah -21.5 line!). The NU-MSU shitshow, at 35, was the lowest of the season (hit the over with a 31-10 whupping by Sparty); after that, San Diego State hosted FCS Weber State with a 36.5 line and undered that shit to the tune of 6-0.
I'll wait for your collective erection to subside, Hawkeye Nation, before I continue.
8) OK, prediction time -- who ya got in this rock fight?
MNW: There's no amount of booze in the world that could make me pick Northwestern here. I think Nate Stanley and Johnson/Smith show their entire asses to the grumbling crowd of 45,000, Iowa breaks through on one or two drives, and a few field goals are kicked (suck on that, Medill -- that's passive fucking voice right there).
I'll say Iowa, 16-3, and a nice unironic chorus of the Johnson County Spelling Bee breaks out late as y'all congratulate yourselves on having sat through this shitshow because your alumni in Chicago had nothing better to do on what looks like a Saturday afternoon where you probably want to stay indoors. Come to think of it, you've earned it. Spell away, you crazy dreamers!
Thanks for being a good sport, MNW, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped on Saturday. You can check out MNW and the rest of the OTE crew at Off-Tackle Empire. You can also follow OTE on Twitter at @offtacklempire. The Iowa-Northwestern game is in Evanston, IL on Saturday, October 26, and is scheduled to start at approximately 11:00 am CT, with TV coverage from ESPN2.