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MnB B1G Preview: Q&A with MNWildcat

We caught up with Cory (a.k.a. MNWildcat, Northwestern alum and writer for Off Tackle Empire) and he was kind enough to answer some questions on Northwestern football.

Quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
For Michigan fans unfamiliar with what's going on, can you briefly sum up Kain Colter's effort to unionize athletes? Does Pat Fitzgerald oppose him? If so, why? Where do you personally stand on this issue?

MNWildcat: Oofda. Where to start? Kain Colter, former Northwestern quarterback, worked with union organizers to form the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). The CAPA did not lay out paying players as one of its current issues. It is primarily concerned with better medical coverage for players beyond their time at the university, minimizing brain trauma, and working with the NCAA to give athletes a voice in how they are regulated.

After a surprising ruling by the National Labor Relations Board region in Chicago, the CAPA was given the go-ahead to help Northwestern players, should a majority of them vote "yes," form a union. Naturally, people then embarked on a cool and rational discussion of a union and its role in the workplace. No one flagrantly ignored the actual facts and screamed "THIS IS PAY FOR PLAY!" and we all got along just fine. Kain Colter and head coach Pat Fitzgerald met at the 50-yard line of Ryan Field, hugged, and then University President Morty Schapiro shat a flipping rainbow.

You want to know what actually happened? People went mental. Pat Fitzgerald and the university, along with the awful entity that is the NCAA, came out against the union, naturally, as it would be detrimental to their interests. Fitz's position, though, was interesting. Obviously opposed to the union, telling players they had "nothing to gain from forming a union," Fitz has nonetheless been outspoken in calling for NCAA reform and players rights. He has a Leadership Council of several of the team leaders (which Colter described as "51% Fitz"), is generally well-liked, and honors his scholarships. Yet the popular view has been to cast him as diametrically-opposed to anything player-reform. Same goes for several former athletes.

Other dirty laundry was aired, as players reported hearing from alumni-athletes that job opportunities and internships might dry up if they voted "yes." Questions came about as to how forthright Colter and the CAPA had been as well, allegedly telling players to "just sign" the union petition. Colter's testimony before the NLRB made Northwestern and Fitzgerald look like autocrats, when in reality they aren't, and in fact they treat players very well relative to most any other NCAA team.

The vote was taken on Friday, April 25th, and likely will not be released for a long time. It is expected that the union failed. Assuredly, now, the narrative for 2014 will be: Is the union vote a distraction? I don't have an answer. But it's probably just journalists hunting for a way to pit players against coach.

Sorry, that was long-winded. Personally, I just want it to be over. I believe players have a right to form a union, the NCAA is a collection of pretty awful human beings, and that Northwestern is a pretty damn good place to be a football player. There is no proof that Fitzgerald has been duplicitous with his statements to the team, and I'm really sick of lazy journalism pitting Fitz/NCAA/NU vs. Colter/CAPA/players at every turn. It's not true, and I accept the results of the vote and any subsequent vote at any other school.

Okay, let's talk football. How did you guys go from Gator Bowl champs to being a dark horse contender for the Legends Division champs to facing Ohio State in prime time to... 5-7? In only so many words, what essentially went wrong?

MNWildcat: Inconsistency, injuries, and bad luck. That's the succinct form.

Our offense in 2013 was predicated on the dual-QB system. Colter couldn't stay healthy, Venric Mark couldn't stay healthy, and Trevor Siemian was in over his head trying to lead a rushing attack. As a result, the offense struggled. The defense was pretty damn good in most games not against human bowling balls that are Carlos Hyde or the entirety of the Wisconsin lineup. At one point in the Nebraska game, I believe we were down to our 7th-string running back: Mark, Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley...some more I'm not remembering. They all got hurt at some point. It sucked. Injuries produced inconsistency in the offense, which in turn led to lots of ugly, low-scoring games. You guys might remember one of those...

Oh, and bad luck. The Hail Mary. Drew Dileo's slide. (Your offensive line wasn't set, by the way, but I sense I shouldn't engage in that debate over here.) Whatever. 2013's over, my liver is mostly gone, we move on!

What are the big issues Pat Fitzgerald has to deal with going forward? How much confidence is there in him by the fans?

MNWildcat: Pat Fitzgerald needs to call a better game. The fanbase has been growing pretty irritated with his conservative play-calling the moment he gets a lead (see: when we were up 21-7 vs. Nebraska) in the second half. It seemed like he (and the team) were afraid to lose last year. But that's me playing psychologist.

There's a lunatic fringe of the fan base that wants him gone, but by-and-large, 'Cats fans are happy with Fitz and realize that he's an awesome recruiter, ambassador, and marketing tool for Northwestern football.

What's your biggest reason for optimism going into the season?

MNWildcat: The returning offense. We're not going back to basketball-on-grass (what up 54-51), but rumblings from Ryan Field have been that offensive coordinator Mick McCall is going to simplify the offense, get back to the spread, dink-and-dunk passes, and slashing runners that will open up the field. We lost almost no one on offense (listen for Dan Vitale's name), replaced Rashad Lawrence with Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler at wide receiver, and gave Siemian the QB1 job alone. Assuming Siemian returns to 2012 form (think C.J. Bacher or Mike Kafka in their primes), the 'Cats are gonna score.

Venric Mark received a medical hardship waiver, so he's back for one more year. I say that I'm okay with Colter's departure because the offense is going to become vastly simplified. Siemian/Colter in 2012 was awesome, because both were constantly out on the field making plays. When one of them gets hurt, though (read: 2013), and we're still trying to run the same playbook, it's not good. Instead, in 2014, look for Northwestern's zone option, denoted x, to have the options: (1) Venric Mark used Slash! (2) Trevor Siemian throws slant (3) Trevor Siemian throws bomb (n) Trevor Siemian runs for his life. As x approaches n, the value of f(x) for said play approaches 0.

What's your biggest reason for pessimism?

MNWildcat: The front four and special teams. Northwestern gave up rushing yards hand-over-fist to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, and lost defensive end Tyler Scott to graduation. There are some talented youngsters (listen for Ifeadi Odenigbo), but there's not a lot of certainty after defensive end Dean Lowry and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly on the line. Collin Ellis (he of the two pick-sixes at Cal) and Chi Chi Ariguzo (he of the awesome name) anchor the linebacking corps, and safety Ibraheim Campell and cornerback Nick Van Hoose headline a fully-returning secondary.

Special teams got "blowed up," as the kids are saying. I think. Kicker Jeff Budzien, his winning smile, and winning leg are gone to the NFL, and now-graduated punter Brandon Williams was benched late in the season for the equally-inefficient Chris Gradone. Redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander will likely take over the kicking duties, but he'll be raw, and Gradone has a lot to improve.

Realistically, how far away is Northwestern from getting to the Big Ten championship game? Which was the fluke, 2012 or 2013?

MNWildcat: Man, in the West? Anything can happen. I'm still counting on "PeLLLLini" to be a thing, and while Iowa could be in the mix, beyond obvious front-runner Wisconsin, it's generally wide open.

As for which year was the fluke? Depends on who you ask. Critics of Fitz will point to 9-4 in '08, 8-5 in '09, 7-6 in '10, 6-7 in '11, and 5-7 in '13 as obvious decline. Proponents of Fitz will note Dan Persa's injury in 2010, accept 2011 for what it was, and point to 2012 as an example of what Fitz can do with a full roster and offensive vision, much like 2008 and most of 2009. I think that's going to be Northwestern's issue permanently. We're getting better at recruiting, but margins are still so paper-thin that Northwestern can swing from 11-1 to 5-7 overnight. Fitz's average is going to stay around 7 wins per season, as it almost is exactly right now (he's 55-46), and it's just catching lightning in a bottle after that.

How do you expect the Wildcats to do this season? Any big upsets we should be on the lookout for?

MNWildcat: 7-5. I think 2-2 in the non-con (both Cal and @ND will be tough) is a real possibility if we can't stop #BEARRAID, and in-conference, well, your guess is as good as mine for the West. Iowa's got a damn easy schedule, but if we get back to the spread, I think we beat them at Kinnick.

Nebraska? Flip a f**king coin. I give up with that series. Wisconsin I've chalked up as a loss, because we just can't stop that rushing attack, but that's about the only definite I feel comfortable with (besides beating Western Illinois and finally shutting up Illinois journalists about NIU). The 'Cats could find themselves needing a sweep of Purdue and Illinois to go bowling, but I think a win at Ross-Ade on November 22 seals it.

Wins: Cal, NIU, WIU, @Minn, Mich (sorry guys), @Purdue, Illinois
Losses: @PSU, Wisc, Neb (HC), @Iowa, @ND

Special Thanks to MNWildcat for taking the time to answer our questions! You can check out his blog here, and also check out Northwestern football on SB Nation at Sippin' on Purple.