Kain Colter: fresh from the lab. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
After a week off we are back with another Q&A with the enemy. This time, Rodger Sherman of our Northwestern themed SBN sister site Sippin' on Purple was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions and tolerate my lame attempts at humor.
If you aren't already a fan of Sippin' on Purple, you should jump on board the bandwagon. It is a great site for all things Northwestern. On with the show...
Last year some writers, including myself, were looking at Northwestern as a possible dark horse contender for the Big Ten title, but the wheels came off the 2011 season quickly after a loss to Army turned into a five game losing streak. Was there some fatal flaw coming into the season that most of us overlooked, or was it just the unfortunate circumstance of having to deal with the nagging injury to Dan Persa?
Part of it was Persa: you mention the Army game, which he didn't play in, which NU would've had a much better chance of winning. But the real flaw was Northwestern's giggle-inducingly poor defense. NU put up POINTS in most every game last year. But after that Army game, NU gave up 34 or more points in four straight games. NU led some of those games -- including double-digit leads against ranked Illinois and Michigan teams -- before massive defensive collapses led to L's. When Persa finally got around to playing, he was actually pretty damn good, though not as good as he was in 2010.
Speaking of Persa, I am torn when I think about Northwestern's quarterback situation next year. On the one hand, Persa was a great player who brought the best out of the NU offense and was oftentimes the linchpin of success. On the other, Northwestern has been producing hyper-accurate, effective spread quarterbacks at such an alarming rate that it almost seems like they are grown in a lab on campus rather than recruited. Who takes over under center? The gloriously WASPy named Kain Colter? The young Trevor Siemian? Does the offense even miss a beat?
It's Colter's job. I think he'll be pretty effective -- the guy completed two thirds of his passes last year and threw six TD's to one pick. The spread doesn't ask guys to make really difficult throws often. It asks them to be disturbingly efficient at throwing easy throws. The difference between Colter and Persa is I'm not sure Colter can make those rare very difficult throws with the same effectiveness as Persa. As for the lab, it's in a basement at the engineering school, and the really scary part is all the hundreds and hundreds of deformed freak failed QB experiments lying around, whispering "KILL ME" as you walk by. Gotta be an NCAA violation. (P.S. Colter is either not a WASP or really, really, REALLY tan.)
Speaking of Colter, after holding down the starting job in Persa's absence, Colter got shoved into duty all over the field on offense because of a combination of his eclectic skill set and a need for capable skill position players. Michigan is currently enamored with its backup quarterback's chances to compete for time elsewhere, so talk to us about how Colter ended up playing so many different parts for the NU offense, and what his role will be in the future outside of the quarterback position.
Kain's a crazy athlete. If he's not playing QB, you're silly not to play him at wide out or running back. Some of the catches he made last season were spectacular. But at the end of the day, he's a quarterback: he chose NU over Stanford because Stanford wanted to move him to other positions, and we're going to play him there next season. But with Persa manning the fort last year, it was nice - and effective - to utilize Colter in other roles and make other teams prepare for that. I wouldn't be surprised if he's used in a trick play or two -- Northwestern has a hobby of converting QB's to wide-out -- Andrew Brewer, Jeremy Ebert in years past -- and now we have former savior of Northwestern football and slayer of small cats (Ed note: that screen grab is fantastic) Evan Watkins switched out to tight end, so who knows what weird stuff will happen.
The running back position seems like kind of a mess. On top of the injury to Jacob Schmidt last year and the move to get Colter more carries in a wildcat-ish (Hah!) role, nobody seemed to stick out among the fray. Is Northwestern going to have a feature back this fall, or will it just be a whole bunch of guys splitting the workload?
The RB is Mike Trumpy, who tore his ACL last season. But, yeah, running back ain't exactly NU's strong suit and hasn't been since Tyrell Sutton graduated. We've had two guys transfer out and the guys who have played themselves haven't been too great. Hopefully, Trumpy can be as good as he was before the injury.
Talk to me about the Northwestern defense, specifically, what is holding the team back from putting together a strong defense that is necessary to make the next move up the conference ladder. From an outsider's perspective it would seem that Pat Fitzgerald should have a leg up on developing a solid defense, but recent struggles don't support that. The defense was bad down the stretch in numerous games last year and was ranked in the bottom three in the conference in everything. Does it get better this year?
Northwestern just hasn't had the players to compete on defense in recent years. Simple as that. And no, it probably won't get better this year.
Northwestern isn't a recruiting powerhouse, but the Wildcats do an impressive job of picking up highly regarded kids that are passionate about both football and academics. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff got two four-star defensive linemen last year, and already have a four-star quarterback in the fold for 2013. Long term do you think Northwestern is trending upward in recruiting, and will sustained success on the field help make Northwestern the Stanford of the East? Furthermore, can Northwestern win big and often with two- and three-star recruits?
Northwestern is trending upwards in recruiting, and the weird thing is that it's actually seen the on-field product get slightly worse year after year. NU's Big Ten Championships of the the 90's and early 2000's weren't spurred by spectacular recruiting classes, just teams that turned out to be amazing, an incredible shot of luck, but not a consistent method for victory. Now NU is bringing in lots of talent that turned down other Big Ten teams, and if they play like they should according to the ratings, they should play well enough to attract better recruits, and hopefully that keeps spiralling upwards.
Pat Fitzgerald has been a hot name in coaching for a few years now. While I don't see him going anywhere of his own accord, what kind of a leash do NU fans give him? Is Northwestern just happy to sneak into bowl games and pull a random nine-win season, or is there a longing for something more that could eventually develop into a hotseat if the Wildcats continue to stagnate in the 7-8 win region.
Northwestern's almost creepy love affair with Pat Fitzgerald is strong, mutual, and isn't going to end anytime soon. If NU won three games this year, I think most Cats fans would be a little bit mad, but would probably agree the program is healthiest with Fitz rather than doing whatever it is you Michiganders do when things go wrong (Ed note: PANIC). That said, we're definitely happy with continuing to make bowls - I think this and Fitz is what we have going for us in terms of recruiting.
Northwestern is the smallest school in the Big Ten, the only private institution, is situated in a major city full of Big Ten expatriates and pro sports fanatics, and is the only school with higher academic standards for its athletes (somewhere a Michigan fan just spit out his coffee and started writing me an angry email). Given all of this, what does success for Northwestern football look like? Unlike Indiana and Minnesota, the Wildcats have been competitive in the Big Ten over the last couple decades, but ultimately unable to sustain that success. Does Northwestern have dreams of conference domination? Are these dreams tenable?
Success looks, well, kind of like this. The Wildcat fan wet dream features this going on for a while, and NU recruiting well enough due to that success to put together a squad capable of winning a conference championship. I don't think NU will ever do that year after year after year, nor do I think we'll ever be competing for a Natty, but you take what you can get.