HB: Congrats on Trevor Siemian winning the starting job for the Denver Broncos over "Butt Fumble". He had an OK game three years ago against WMU, with Kain Colter doing most of the work. Can Clayton Thorson top that performance this year? What should we expect out of him?
ZP: Thorson should be much, much improved from last year. It would be hard to be worse. He got his first full offseason as a starter, and all indications show that he's a better decision maker, has a more accurate arm and in general is more ready to lead this team. Still, this was a run-first team last year and it will remain that way this year. Thorson goes 16 for 25 for about 200 yards, but he also adds about 40 or 50 yards on the ground. He'll score once or twice but also turn it over at least once as well—better than last year, but not a gigantic leap forward.
HB: The Wildcats pounded the ground to the tune of 332 yards in these two teams' last meeting. How important will getting close to that (say, 250 yards) be in getting the "W" here?
ZP: Justin Jackson, Warren Long and perhaps even John Moten comprise what is one of the nation's top backfields. We know how good and explosive WMU's offense can be, but instead of fighting fire with fire (explosive plays of their own), the Wildcats will look to control the clock and keep the Bronco offense off the field as much as possible. If the Wildcats can approach 300 yards on the ground—150 for Jackson and 50-75 or so from both Long and Thorson—that will go a long, long way in helping the Wildcats start 1-0. In the three games the Wildcats lost last year, the running game never really got going.
HB: Can anyone cover Corey Davis? Or is it going to be double-teams all day and hope the secondary and tertiary options don't win the game on their own?
ZP: Northwestern had trouble with a big MAC receiver last year in Ball State's Jordan Williams, and from everything I've seen and heard, Davis is much better than Williams. So that in and of itself is worrying for the Northwestern defense. I would expect senior Matt Harris to shadow Davis a lot. He has great speed, athleticism and technique, but at 5-foot-11 isn't the biggest of guys. Over the top, expect help from Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, both athletic, rangy safeties. The NU defense didn't surrender many big plays last year, and it'll emphasize not allowing any to Davis to start this year. Davis will get his catches, but there will have to be someone else to beat the Wildcats over the top.
HB: Northwestern usually starts out hot in non-conference play, then fades once they hit the Big Ten. Will this year be different, or is bowl eligibility in question with the new 9-game conference slate?
ZP: This is an extremely difficult conference schedule, including a stretch that includes Iowa, Michigan St. and Ohio St. all on the road and all in October. This year's team should be better than last year's 10-win squad, so bowl eligibility should be a baseline for success, but it also faces a very challenging schedule, so 10 wins would be an overwhelmingly good year.
HB: How worried are you overall about this game? Three years ago, the Wildcats exploded in the 2nd quarter to rout an eventual 1-11 WMU squad that gave up yards in bunches on the ground. Now, the Broncos are a G5 contender and have a much improved (and balanced) offense. Can Fitzgerald counter each move by Fleck?
ZP: Fitzgerald is 9-1 in season openers in his career, which makes me a little less worried than I would be normally. Still, WMU has Power 5-caliber weapons all over the offense, and the Northwestern offense didn't show much explosiveness against anyone last year. The way Northwestern loses this game is if it struggles to run the ball and struggles in the trenches, the two places where the hosts should have a major advantage. I'm not overly worried, but I certainly think that this is a game Northwestern can lose if it doesn't execute the simple things as well as it did in 2015.
HB: Who wins, by how much, and why?
ZP: I have Northwestern, 26-20. Fitzgerald is great in openers, the defense is still very good even if it isn't at the elite level of 2015, and the offense should be much improved. Eventually, the Wildcats will begin to dominate the trenches and milk the clock with Jackson and Long. It'll be tight, but this is the type of game Northwestern won all year last year, just this time with a little more offense.
A huge thanks to the guys at InsideNU and Zach for answering our questions. Feel free to head over to their site and check them out. They’re pretty cool, and they’ll have my answers to their questions up as well.