November 20, 2009

Behind enemy lines: Northwestern

With a win against Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon, Northwestern would tie the Badgers in the Big Ten standings. After having a bit of a slow start in 2009, that would be a strong finish for Pat Fitzgerald and his Wildcats entering the bowl selection process.

Looking to learn more about Northwestern, went straight to the source, publisher Louie Vaccher, who provided some insights from behind enemy lines.

Read Vaccher's thoughts about the Wildcats here…

1.) First of all, it seems as though every time the Badgers head down to Evanston, the game turns into a shootout. What is it about this game that dictates that trend in you opinion?

Vaccher: Well, Northwestern has had a lot of shootouts over the years because, for the most part, the Wildcats have had a prolific offense and a horrific defense. That has changed over the last couple of years, as Northwestern's defense has improved, but Wisconsin hasn't been on the schedule.

Northwester has also been successful in setting the tempo and getting Wisconsin to play its game in the recent past. A shootout favors a team like Northwestern-which used to score and give up a lot of points-and not a ball-control team like the Badgers.

2.) Also, there are some pretty big bowl implications with this game. Should NU win, they would tie UW in the final standings. Should UW win, there is an outside chance it could share the conference crown. Where does Northwestern realistically see itself in the bowl pecking order entering this game?

Vaccher: Even if Northwestern ties Wisconsin in the standings, the Badgers would still probably get selected before Northwestern does by a bowl game. That's just the way it goes for a team that can't fill its own stadium on game day. The same thing happened to the Wildcats last year, as Iowa was selected for the Outback Bowl even though NU had the same record and beat the Hawkeyes head-to-head.

Right now, it looks like the Champs Sports, Alamo or Insight Bowl will be Northwestern's most likely destination. The Wildcats were just in the Alamo last year, so my guess is that they will be Champs Sports-bound this season.

The Wisconsin defense has yet to give up a 100-yard rusher in conference play. Is Northwestern cognizant of that and who presents the best chance to end that streak for the Wildcats?

Vaccher: Northwestern isn't much of a threat to produce a 100-yard rusher on Saturday-the Wildcats haven't produced one all season. The Wildcats have used a tailback-by-committee approach this season, so the yards get spread around to quite a few different guys. Northwestern's running game hasn't been close to what it has been in the past, either, as the Wildcats rank eighth in the Big Ten with just 124.2 yards per game on the ground.

I would say that Mike Kafka would be Northwestern's best chance at running for 100 yards, but his hamstring is still bothering him and he's not running as well as he was earlier in the season.

Speaking of Mike Kafka, he is one of the more dangerous duel-threat quarterbacks in the league. What have teams done to successfully slow him down in the past?

Vaccher: Well, the hamstring has rendered him less dangerous than he usually is running the football. Kafka strained his hamstring against Penn State on Oct. 31. He's played the last two weeks and runs the ball on occasion, but he lacks the speed and aggressiveness that we're used to.

For that reason, you can expect to see backup Dan Persa[/db[ out there, as well. He has been playing a series or so every week, and he typically runs draws and read-option plays as the "Wildcat formation" quarterback.

As it stands, Northwestern is a 7-4-football team. There have been close wins (EMU and Indiana), close losses (Syracuse) and upsets (Iowa). What is the general feeling around this team? Has it been disappointed with its play, satisfied, etc?

Vaccher: This season was largely seen as a disappointment until recently. The Wildcats got their signature win of the season when they knocked off previously undefeated Iowa on Nov. 7 in Iowa City. They also beat an improving Illinois team on the road last week and played Penn State tough at home on Halloween before running out of gas in the fourth quarter.

Now I think there is a "what might have been" feeling surrounding this team. Northwestern has endured a ton of injuries this season-20 different players have started on defense, including nine in the secondary-and fans are wondering how good the Wildcats could have been if they had stayed healthy and been in rhythm for most of the season.

6.) Could you talk about what makes [db]Corey Wootton tick, and what makes him as effective as he is?

Vaccher: Wootton is a warrior. He had major reconstructive knee surgery in January and has played most of this season at much less than 100 percent. He's beginning to feel better now-he estimates that he's playing somewhere around 90 percent-and it shows, as all three of his sacks have come over the last four weeks.

7.) Finally, how do you see this game going down?

Vaccher: I think this will be a tight game, as usual for a Wildcat-Badger clash. Both teams are riding winning streaks coming into Saturday's game, and both feel confident. I think Northwestern will at least slow down John Clay and the running game and force Scott Tolzien to beat them through the air.

Kafka will have to once again carry the offense because the ground game won't produce very much against Wisconsin's defense. Most tight games come down to things like turnovers, and whoever wins the turnover battle on Saturday will likely win the game.

I'm going to take the home team to win a close one, 23-20.

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