Two schools better known for as the academic anchors of their football powerhouse conferences will meet on Saturday night when Northwestern hosts Vanderbilt under the lights in Evanston. The game is the return bout from the Wildcats' 23-21 win over Vandy back in 2010. This year, however, they'll have to face a Commodore team that has a restocked roster and a coach with no experience inseminating turkeys.
Northwestern will be a very different team as well. Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert, the duo that lit up the Vandy defense back in 2010, are gone. Playmakers like Kain Colter and Venric Mark will look to take their place as Commodore killers. However, an untested Wildcat defense gave up 41 points to a middling Syracuse team in NU's season opener last week. That brings up an important question: can Vanderbilt's veteran-heavy offense capitalize?
To answer some of our questions, we turned to our friends over at the excellent Northwestern blog Lake the Posts for guidance. Here's what LtP manager Jay had to say about his Wildcats heading into Saturday's showdown. Don't forget to check back at Lake the Posts later in the week to hear what we had to say about Vandy to complete the home-and-home Q&A session.
1. First things first: 41 points to Syracuse? That can't make you feel good about Pat Fitzgerald's defense this season. What adjustments do you think the Wildcats need to make in order to limit a Vandy team that should be more explosive than the Orange?
There is nothing about 41 points that sits well with NU fans, other than the fact we got 1 more point than they did. The defense was simply bad last year, however, it was a different kind of bad this week. Last year it was way out of position, poor communication, completely wide open guys kind of bad. This week, our one CB got picked on all game long, but was in position to make plays, yet simply didn't turn his head which brought 3 PI calls. I believe we had five in total on pass plays. One guy, Quin Evans, simply fell down on a floater of a ball for a gimme 50-yard TD.
The bigger concern than even the secondary, though, was a lack of a pass rush. Our DL was not good, although they played pretty well in the first half. We looked like two different teams on D - a first half team that actually bailed out the offense twice - holding SU to FGs on favorable field position - and then the complete collapse in the second half. We simply have to bring more pressure - both from a playcalling and execution standpoint.
Give Ryan Nassib some credit. The guy is a 5th year senior, who will become SU's alltime leading passer and has a good chance to be 1st Team All Big East. Our secondary had only one guy who had started (S Ibraheim Campbell) so we'll be relying on the biggest cliché in football - that improvement from week one to week two.
2. Kain Colter left that Syracuse game with a rib injury, but has vowed to play on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Do you think he plays? Is a 75% Colter better than backup Trevor Siemian at 100%?
Not only will he play, he'll be starting. No doubt about it. I'm also willing to bet that Siemian plays as well. They are two different looks at QB. We've got a great thing going with 2 excellent QBs. Colter is amazing as a true dual threat and will make Vandy miss with his elusiveness. He's a threat for a 30-yard run at any given moment and can stretch "D"'s horizontally. We are simply ridiculously loaded at WR and Kain showed he can make that downfield pass (14/21, 2 TD, plus 1 rushing TD, O INT), but there is little dispute that Trevor is a better deep ball threat. Trevor has been thrown in to several clutch situations in 2011, and I think we intentionally use both - likely 2/3 Colter, 1/3 Siemian.
NU fans have fret all off-season that it will be hard to fake out "D"s knowing that Siemian in tends to tip off pass first and vice versa with Colter. I have faith in both of them. Colter is just a winner. You may have seen he's getting a lot of props from the Chicago media for taking himself out on the final drive - his decision - b/c he said Trevor gave them a better chance to win with his ribs hurting.
2a. Tell us about Trevor Siemian. Do you have confidence that he can handle a Vanderbilt secondary that has been the team's strength in recent years? What can we expect out of him?
Yes, I have a ton of confidence. Did you see that game-winning TD pass? The guy is a brilliant passer. I don't care how good a secondary is, we have too many receivers and can create match-ups with your LB in our 5 receiver sets that give us too many 6-2+ targets with good hands. I'm more concerned about our ability to actually establish a run threat against you. We didn't exactly light it up on the ground and Venric Mark, who was the MVP of the game, struggled for much of the game to create positive yardage between the tackles. Our back-ups were mostly ineffective on the ground. Fans thought that RB Mike Trumpy would be our pound it out guy for 3-4 yards between the tackles, but he had negative yardage in limited touches on Saturday. Make no mistake about it, we will live and die by the passing game this year. But we need a semblance of balance to keep "D's honest.
3. Northwestern hung 42 points on Syracuse on the Carrier Dome...but 14 of those points came directly from special teams or defensive plays. Vanderbilt has the offense to drag this game into a high scoring affair. Did last week's result give you confidence that this team can win in a shootout?
I have little worry about scoring points. Yes, we scored 14 via a punt return and one on a fumble return for a TD, however scoring points has never been really too much of an issue for NU football this decade. I expect us to average at least 30 ppg this season, continuing the trend of increased ppg each of the last 4 years (29 ppg last year). I do expect each week to be a high scoring affair. Confidence is knowing that 40 pts will be enough. That I don't have. This team, albeit with only one game, but based on last year as well, is trending towards 2005, when 50 was no gimme (literally - see Wisconsin game that year). Our inability to put teams away when we have them down is a program issue. We have no step-on-the-jugular gene, and from what I've seen Vandy has the very same issue. We gave up a 22 point lead on Saturday and did the same thing last year blowing a 2 TD+ lead to Illinois (lost in last second), and 10+ point leads to Michigan and Penn State. We almost seem to relish playing from behind. The Cardiac ‘Cats thing is very real, but also getting very old.
4. The last time these two teams met, Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert combined to efficiently pick apart the Vandy pass defense. Who should Commodore fans be wary of in 2012? Who is the offensive player most likely to make us regret a missed extra point on Saturday?
Well, we talked about Kain Colter and Siemian, but like I said, it is the sheer volume of receivers that should give Vandy fans concern . We had 9 different receivers make catches on Saturday. Think about that. We've got a 5-star, USC transfer (Kyle Prater 6-5, 225) who is a back-up. We've got weapons, tons of weapons and we can do things with the spread set - especially when we go empty backfield that will create favorable match-ups. We see you've seen the light and adopted our ways with the hurry-up, no huddle. Welcome aboard. We play against it every day in practice.
RB Venric Mark (281 all purpose yards - 82 rushing as RB, TD rec, 138 yards on PR (school record and #1 in nation at 69 ypp average) is one that makes us sweat on every down. He runs a legit 4/4, but he's tiny and with so many touches, he's one play away from being injured. We don't excel at RB and the OL was/has been a huge concern (another 5 sacks on Saturday). Lots of issues, but I have a hunch Venric Mark won't touch the ball from Vandy's perspective on special teams. Be very afraid. He's Jeremy Maclin-like.
4a. On the other side of the ball, who is the defensive player that you'd pick as the most likely to be a standout against Vanderbilt?
Ibraheim Campbell. The sophomore S is a veteran (freshman All-America in '11) and no doubt will be scheming to help out on what will surely be quite a few Rodgers passes on Saturday. However, the most anticipation is for a guy who doesn't start. True freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 4-star who chose NU over the likes of Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and others is getting his redshirt burned (due to injury) and will be seeing time at DE. We've got another DE back-up that's a true frosh, Dean Lowery, who has impressed as well. I'm psyched to see what he Odenigibo can do as he is reportedly THAT explosive. We need to get to Rodgers and disrupt. If he gets good pass protection, we're in trouble.
Our LBs are very solid even though they had just an OK game on Saturday.
5. Finally, where can a Vandy fan who is in town for the game find a good spot to tailgate? What about going out after the game? And, since this is a night game, what is the one late-night food spot in Evanston that Vandy fans shouldn't miss?
Tailgating is pretty unique in Evanston as we lack for lots of adjacent land. The immediate east/west lots are THE lots for tailgating, but you need to be a booster, longtime season ticket holder or have a bad fan/good friend to get a spot there. The golf course just east of the stadium is the next spot and then the students/young alums party about 1 mile east of the stadium on north campus near the frat houses/parking lot to the gym (called SPAC) and near Lakeside Field. In the past they've brought jumbotrons in to watch other games - never been but hear it can be festive.
NU is a very family first crowd. Tons of little kids. It is the soccer mom and dad crowd which is why we are likely dead last in crowd noise. Fans spend time chasing their 2-year olds as they do watching the action. Night games are very cool in Evanston and a ton of fun - more adult crowd than the 11 am games (yech).
We do stink (0-4) under the lights under Fitz, so you got that going for you! As far as Evanston, the stadium is really situated in no man's land. True downtown Evanston is a good 1-2 miles south of the stadium. You can park downtown and take shuttles up north (it's all on NUSports.com home page). This is the ideal place to go - Nevin's Pub is a local favorite place and there are also some chain bar/restaurants. This part of Evanston near south campus is very cool and more of the quintessential college fare you'd expect. However, you really want to go to Chicago if you're looking for postgame watering holes. Not a better bar city in America!
Mustard's Last Stand is a dive hot dog shop in the east parking lot that is a staple for fans.
6. Alright, one last final question. For real this time. How do you see this one turning out?
I'll admit, I'm ticked off that a team that has had what, one winning season in three decades is favored over us in our home opener. We've spent the past 20 years building the program - 3 Big Ten titles, 9 bowl games, including 4 in a row (albeit all 9 are losses!). Now, you have one 6-6 season, a bowl game and you're getting the love over us. Pisses me off. That being said, we've earned the criticism we deserve on defense and you seem to have a pretty decent one. As we said, points will be scored and I fear that our "D" simply won't step up as much as our "O" does. We lose on the last possession, likely FG variety.