The Syracuse Orange spring game is tomorrow but it's never too soon to start worry about the next official game after that...the one that counts against the Northwestern Wildcats on September 1st.
The Cats are coming off their fourth-consecutive bowl season and looking for a little payback for that time we beat them in 2009. I threw some questions over to Wildcat blog Lake The Posts to see what we can find out about their spring practice, which players we need to keep an eye on over the summer and how much it matters to them to beat SU.
Check out their answers below (and feel free to peep my return volley here).
2011 was a very streaky season for you guys. A five-game losing streak was followed by a four-game winning streak, including a win over Nebraska. You end up 6-6 and head to the Texas Bowl where you lose to Texas A&M. Looking back, where did the season measure on expectations?
In two words - "major disappointment". 2011 was set-up to be the most anticipated season since 2001, the last time we returned such a wealth of talent and senior leadership at so many skill positions. The pervasive thought among fans was that the recent slide from 9 wins to 8 wins to 7 wins would be course-corrected thanks to Dan Persa and so many weapons. Instead, it turned it to a slightly better campaign than the 2001 disaster which was on the heels of a Big Ten co-Championship. Dan Persa was injured, the O-line struggled and our secondary got annihilated by opponents. Considering the collar on the program is trying to end the bowl winless streak which is now on the verge of setting an infamy record (we've lost 9 straight and our last "w" in a bowl game was 1949). It's a sore topic among coaches, players and fans.
Northwestern was the first team that Doug Marrone ever beat as head coach at Syracuse. Good omen for us heading into this game?
Not sure it is relevant from NU's side other than the fact that we didn't forget, nor did our coaches. The low point for last year's team came in a loss at West Point which really shook the confidence of the fan base. We're hoping the third time in four years is the charm to end the Empire State stranglehold. The focus on Syracuse and the opener has been pretty visible from Fitz & Co. as they've spent time working with pumping in crowd noise to simulate the Dome. With Penn State, Syracuse and BC all on the 2012 slate (two of three on the road) it is a good showcase year potentially to the Northeast region of the country. But only if we win.
The Wildcats have gone to four consecutive bowl games but have hovered close to .500 in the last two. Does Pat Fitzgerald feel pressure to do better or is he basically untouchable barring some kind of epic collapse?
It's interesting. Fitz and the staff definitely felt the heat last season as fans were perplexed and vocally questioning many elements of the decisions and problems - most notably the defense and some basic communication issues. Outside of the inner core fan base, Fitz resonates well and is a brilliant brand ambassador, but fans are definitely urging progress. Four straight years of total win decline and the continued 0-fer in the bowl games shows that expectations have been raised big time in Evanston. This year, from your knowledgeable fan perspective isn't one that you'd expect on paper to be one where we get back to that nadir of 9 wins (2008), but fans are clinging to the fact we didn't see 2008 coming either. It's the double-edged sword of raising the program profile to slightly above average. Fans have tasted and now expect a bowl game every year, but that is no longer good enough for anyone. A bowl win at minimum is the new barometer of "success". Fitz is signed through 2020 and to directly answer your question, he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Any highlights from the Northwestern spring game worth mentioning? I read it was a little different this year as a controlled scrimmage.
The last couple of years it has been a controlled scrimmage with a whacky point system rewarding points for defense and points for offense. Two things stood out to me in the Spring Game. First, we are as deep as we've ever been at WR. It's downright scary. Granted, the top WR in the 2010 recruiting class, Kyle Prater, has transferred from USC to NU and is awaiting an NCAA waiver. If he gets it, which many believe he will, we'll be 6-7 deep. The other unit that jumped out was our young, but explosive DL which boasts a rising star DE in Tyler Scott and a pair of redshirt freshman - Deonte Gibson and Chance Carter - who will make some noise. The talent uptick in the past two recruiting classes is evident and Fitz, who seems partial to more veteran players, will clearly be mixing it up this year with a healthy mix of youth.
Kain Colter. Is he a quarterback? Is he a running back? Is he a receiver? What's the deal? We're trying to scout here...
Man, is he likable. If you want to see an infectious player who just connects with fans, it is Kain Colter. The guy was the Cyrus McCormick of offensive weapons last year - meaning a series of interchangeable positions. Despite a heroic effort in wins at Nebraska (he replaced Dan Persa late in the first half and carried us to victory) and a complete game win at Boston College, fans will tell you his down-field passing needs to improve. He's inconsistent in hitting the 10-yard out, a staple of our spread offense, but the guy just has that intangible factor. He made some incredible receptions last year and also turned heads and ankles with his running ability in space. However, he's been deemed the starter for 2012 right now, but it's clear that back-up Trevor Siemian and/or Zack Oliver will also get reps on a weekly basis. We're headed for a QB platoon situation but aside from the occasional wrinkle play, I thin, Kain's days at WR are done.
Give me a couple names on offense and defense that we need to keep an eye on as we prep for the game.
I mentioned Kyle Prater above, but the WR unit is just killer. Guys like Cameron Dickerson, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones are gamebreakers while guys like Mike Jensen, Demetrius Fields and Pierre Ary-Youngblood offer stability as possession receivers. We're ridiculously loaded at WR and I'm hoping our play-calling philosophy reflects this. RB is a major issue as Mike Trumpy is recovering from a knee injury, we lost one RB to transfer (Adonis Smith) and Treyvon Green showed promise as a freshman but is not quite the bellcow. There are high hopes for incoming frosh Malin Jones, but relying on a freshman to be is never a place you want to be.
On defense Tyler Scott a junior DE was a beast until he got injured last year, but seems to be better than ever. The secondary is still a major question mark but Ibraheim Cambpell will anchor the unit at safety after attaining Sporting News Freshman All-American status last season. Our LB unit looks much quicker and agile, but is still a work in progress and as mentioned guys like Deonte Gibson, Chance Carter and Will Hampton seem to have our DL as one of the emerging units on this team.
Your September includes games against Syracuse, Vandy, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana. By the time October begins, Northwestern should be...?
4-1. Should being the operative word as you know what Syracuse presents, we've got the rest at home. Vanderbilt scares the snot out of me quite frankly as I felt they were an 8-win team last year that simply couldn't close out a game. They've been stockpiling big name talent that has raised my eyebrow for sure. The truism among NU fans is that "we always lose one OOC game we shouldn't" and after holding court in 2010, we reverted to form by losing at Army in 2011 - a loss that still stings. I wouldn't be surprised if we went 3-2 with that schedule, but that would bode major trouble based on the rest of the schedule which is a gauntlet. Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois at home the rest of the way with road tilts at Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota. If we don't get to 4 wins by the end of game five, that bowl streak would be in significant jeopardy.
Early on in the conference realignment kerfuffle, Syracuse was often mentioned as a possible Big Ten jumper. Would that have appealed to you guys? If the conference ever does expand to 12 teams, who would you like to see join (don't say Rutgers)?
Admittedly I'm an "east coast" guy so the Syracuse "add" would've made sense. You know the drill better than we do as it relates to the 'Cuse counting as the NYC market, but candidly we at Northwestern would be a tad skittish about it. We probably compete most directly for communication students, but being the only private school in the B1G and a tiny one at that, well, it has been a nice differentiator. Regardless of what you might say, B1G schools can agree on one thing - the rising tide raises all ships factor. I think being a part of the B1G offers NU a significant advantage over Syracuse, that is until it comes to hoops season and your now ACC allegiance. Our AD, Jim Phillips has been intentional in scheduling "like-minded" academic schools for football, so there's that. However, 'Cuse rolls off the schedule and has been, gulp, replaced by the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame and Cal moving forward. Our 2013 and 2014 schedules will be rated top three most difficult in the country.
However, who knows what Syracuse will be this season or next. We could be grateful we're off the OOC schedule!