Beauty inside

Speak Your Truth: Inside NU Northwestern Wildcats Preview

To get a read on this less than pretty game, we reached out to our friends at Inside NU. Many thanks to their staff for taking the time to work with us this week. Here’s what they had to say about this weekend’s contest and what they’ve seen from Northwestern so far.

Northwestern comes into this game 1-4…and here in Wisconsin, we spend A LOT of time talking about the fired coaches. Is there a chance Fitz is in the hot seat or has he racked up enough credit?

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people who think Fitz should leave. For my part, I still think he is the best coach to get the most out of this program. Regardless of what its recent ups and downs might suggest, today’s Wildcat program is a step ahead of the program that preceded 1995 and Fitz’s tenure. I don’t think the school will be pulling the plug anytime soon. That being said, I also don’t think his seat is as cold as it once was, and there’s certainly growing pressure that he at least revamps his coaching staff in the near future.

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Overall, Northwestern has struggled this year, but all games have been pretty close, with the biggest margin just 10 points. Are things as bad as the record suggests?

The only thing standing between this Northwestern team and a 5-0 record right now — yes, 5-0, including Penn State — was itself. We know the offense is capable of making numbers given its 528-yard performance behind Ryan Hilinski in Week Zero, but that offense has been virtually non-existent since. They’ve amassed 13 total turnovers so far this season and had just 31 yards last weekend at Happy Valley. The defense, however, steadily improved, securing five turnovers against the Nittany Lions and keeping the game competitive. I don’t think this team is totally out of the running given the turmoil out West right now, but if Mike Bajakian’s offense doesn’t improve I’m afraid we won’t see our win count go over one This year.

Historically, Northwestern has had a great defense, but last year things really took a nosedive, and this year it looks like a bit of a struggle as well. What is the problem with this side of football?

Northwestern’s defensive struggles are heading into the start of this season, where they set the tone by allowing Nebraska to amass 465 yards in Dublin and forcing the offense to make two comebacks. However, younger players like LBs Xander Mueller and Greyson Metz have settled in, and Garnett Hollis Jr. and Cam Mitchell have also started to make impacts in the secondary. I mean, this team forced five turnovers against the No. 11 team in the country last week. Injuries to experienced safety Coco Azema and corner AJ Hampton Jr. caused turbulence in Weeks 2 and 3, but Northwestern’s defense is its strength at the moment.

Badgers fans are probably used to a North West team running the ball and controlling the clock, but this North West offense is very different from years past as they rank in the top 20 in seconds per game and throw it a lot more. What is it about?

I think the biggest indicator of why Northwestern’s offense this year is more passing-focused is behind the skill of its offensive line. Sure, Hilinski’s protection is bound to give way from time to time, but draft favorite Peter Skoronski leads a revamped unit that Wildcat’s coaching staff likely factor into their decision-making based on his strength. That, and many Northwestern rushers, primarily Evan Hull, are also ready-to-play dual threats in the air. How well it worked…that’s another story.

Northwestern vs. Penn State

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Who are the players to watch for NU?

Speaking of Evan Hull… he’s the definition of an all-around player. A class act off the field, the senior running back has only built on his 2021 1,000-yard season by racking up 415 rushing yards and 343 receiving yards so far this year. The transfer of Illinois graduate Donny Navarro and tight end Thomas Gordon also had new impacts in the receiving game when the offense works. Hollis Jr. is an emerging talent in the secondary, after a week of forcing two fumbles against the Nittany Lions – he worked well alongside Mitchell, who already had an interception and 22 tackles despite missing one game due to injury.

Overall, what are your expectations for this game, and give us a score prediction?

I think it’s going to be a defensive fight. Northwestern hasn’t lost to the Badgers at home since 2016, so I’ll do my due diligence and side with history: I pick the ‘Cats 14-10 at Ryan Field this weekend, but this could go either way. It just depends on which team’s attack decides to be the most competent at kick-off. It’s going to be sloppy, chaotic and probably ugly, but that’s the beauty of Big Ten football.