NittanyLionsDen.com: There is no doubt that Dan Persa is one of the biggest names to play for Northwestern football in a while. However, he was not available for the first three games as he recovered from surgery. How did the team play in his absence? How have they played since his return? Does he look like he has recovered fully?
LakeThePosts.com: The team played better than expected in his absence. Kain Colter stepped in and showed a lot of potential. He made some nice throws and made a lot of plays. Pat Fitzgerald has continued to try to find ways to get Colter on the field with Persa back in there. You will see Colter line up some at quarterback to run the option, some at wide receiver and maybe even at running back. He is versatile and maybe the best athlete on offense.
But he is a sophomore, and it was clear in the loss to Army that he was not quite ready to take complete control of the offense. He could not solve that defense and the conservative gameplan to bring him along slowly really hampered what the team could do.
So it has been really really good to have Dan Persa back. It is clear he just has a much deeper command of the offense and can make plays and throws that no other quarterback on the roster is ready to or can make right now. Persa has great escape ability and always keeps his eyes downfield. He seems just about at 100 percent. One area that he is a little different in is that he is not as willing to take off and run as much as he did last year. Don't know if he does not trust his leg or if he is working on keeping plays alive with the pass.
Now has Persa's return translated into wins? No. It should have -- Illinois should have been a win and Iowa was there for the taking -- but it has not. Northwestern is 0-3 since Persa returned. But I do not think that is because of any uncertainty on offense. Persa has played as well as we could expect.
NLD: One of the strengths of this NU team is their depth at running back. The Wildcats have five guys with over thirty carries, each of which are averaging over four yards a touch. Furthermore, the team as a whole is averaging more than 180 yards a game on the ground. Was the strong running game expected before the season? What separate skills does each back bring? How much has the running game helped out Persa and the passing game?
LTP: The running game has been a big question mark for Northwestern and a major point of contention for Wildcats fans. Pat Fitzgerald firmly believes in an even split of run to pass plays. Unfortunately, NU does not have a "bell-cow" back that can carry the load all game. It is a running back by committee approach for the moment and there are a lot of guys who can carry the ball.
Mike Trumpy and Kain Colter (Image courtesy of ESPN.com) did help Northwestern ease into the season. Colter is a gifted runner at the quarterback spot and you will see him run a lot of option plays when he is in the game now that Persa is back. Trumpy was a pretty solid back who could run between the tackles and get to the hole. Unfortunately he tore his ACL at Illinois and is out for the year.
The two main backs you will see Saturday is Adonis Smith and Treyvon Green. A lot of people believe these two guys (Smith is a sophomore and Green a true freshman) with Trumpy will make a pretty solid running group in the future. Right now though, they are very inconsistent. Smith has some nice speed and Green is still learning but has shown promise.
Typically when you face Northwestern you worry more about the pass than the run. Hopefully these guys will continue to improve and keep Penn State honest.
NLD: Northwestern has lost a couple heartbreaks, including losses after being tied heading into the 4th quarter against Iowa and having the lead with 0:13 left against Illinois. How have the close losses affected the team? Does it feel like they are about to make a breakthrough?
LTP: Are you ready for a heartbreaking stat? Northwestern has tied or held the lead in the second half of 32 of its last 35 games. The Wildcats never seem out of just about any game. But the feeling of dread that has come in close games for fans I imagine has to be with the team too. We felt it even with the Illinois game earlier this year after collapses against Michigan State and Penn State last year.
The coaches stress finishing to the players and getting the job done. But there has not been a lot of doing that on the field of late.
Is a breakthrough close? I honestly do not know. Northwestern has a horrible habit of making you believe just enough and then ripping it away. I personally feel that the team has shown a lot of signs of improvement and could easily be 4-2 as much as it is 2-4. But it is not translating onto the field and a lot of players are vastly underperforming.
It seems key mistakes put NU in a hole and send them into a downward spiral they cannot get out of. It is tough to describe. But I guess that is the cost of playing in so many close games. Eventually it all evens out and you win as many of them as you lose.
NLD: It seems like the defense has been the biggest problem with this Northwestern team, having given up 30 ppg and 83 in the past two games. What must they do better during the second half of the season? Which position has to step up the most if the Wildcats want to make a bowl game?
LTP: Northwestern has to get on the same page in the secondary. The defense against the pass has been utterly atrocious and a complete disappointment. Aside from Jordan Mabin, nobody is really playing well in this unit. I have been saying Northwestern would rather face a 3rd and 3 than a 3rd and 33. The scary part is, that might be completely true the way the defense has played. A.J. Jenkins of Illinois had a career day, Keenan Davis of Iowa had a career day and Denard Robinson had a career day against this secondary.
I would say the problem is tied into a bunch of different things. The defensive line is not getting great pressure on the quarterback and so the quarterback has a ton of time to throw. But more importantly the secondary has not been on the same page. Pat Fitzgerald admitted that there is a communication mix-up between the cornerbacks and the safeties. One group is playing zone while the other is playing man. You can see how this can turn into a disaster.
The key to turning this season around for Northwestern is to improve on the pass defense. The Wildcats have been competitive in all four of their losses this year. Backbreaking plays in the pass game allowed Iowa to pull away and secure a 10-point victory, allowed Illinois to make that last-minute comeback and allowed Michigan to pour on the points. If NU is going to get to 6-6, the secondary has to turn things around.
NLD: Okay, time to look to Saturday. What are Northwestern’s keys if they want to win this weekend in Evanston? What are the Wildcat fans expecting out of both the offense and the defense? Finally, who wins and by how much?
LTP: Northwestern's key is getting some sustained pressure on the McGloin/Bolden duo and making them throw the ball. Yes, this has been the strategy the last three weeks and it failed. But just like in those three games, you can argue Penn State is much stronger in the backfield with Silas Redd than with McGloin/Bolden throwing the ball. I would prefer to see the quarterbacks have to win this game than Redd just gut the interior line. I would think that is how the coaching staff is going to feel too.
Even against this Penn State defense, I feel the offense will get its points. But offensively, the Wildcats have to protect Dan Persa better. He was running for his life a lot against Iowa and it led to some critical mistakes -- a 98-yard pick-6 and a fumble in Northwestern territory. Even with all that Persa picked apart the Iowa defense. If Persa remains patient, I am sure he will find the same holes in Penn State's defense. He just needs the time.
Northwestern fans are desperate for a win. This was supposed to be a big season for the team to build on reach the bowl-game-every-year plateau. A loss gives the Cats an extremely small margin of error. I honestly don't know what to think. Part of me believes McGloin and Bolden will struggle but then I remember what McGloin did to the Wildcats in last year's game. So, I think I have to go with Penn State by a field goal in a relatively low-scoring game. Let's say 24-21 Penn State.
Also Available: NLD's answers to Lake the Posts