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Northern Illinois Huskies at Northwestern Wildcats Preview: A Q&A With Inside NU

As diametrically opposed as their hometowns of Dekalb and Evanston are, it's appropriate there will be a fight between cats and dogs this Saturday.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago's B1G team faces Chicagolands big MAC team.  To get some insight into our foes from the Lake shore, I asked Danny Rapaport of Inside NU, SB Nation's Northwestern blog, a few questions concerning NU and the upcoming contest.

Hustle Belt: From a Northwestern fan's view, is there any kind of rivalry with NIU?  Not so much on the field since they have limited meetings, but for some sort of state bragging rights.

Inside NU: Quite frankly, no. If there was an intra-Illinois rivalry involving Northwestern, it'd be with the University of Illinois, but even that is a stretch. Maybe that's one of the bigger problems with Northwestern sports; we don't seem to have the rabid fan base the other B1G teams do. That being said, Northwestern wants badly to win this game, as losing to a non-major school from the same state will hurt recruiting. NIU has been remarkably successful as of late, and I'm sure the ‘Cats have noticed, so they'll be eager to show that they're the better team and superior program.

Hustle Belt: What was the biggest reason for NU dropping from 10 wins in 2012 to only five wins in 2013?

Inside NU: I could write about this for days. There's just so much that went wrong last season. Star running back Venric Mark, one of the very best players in the country in 2012, never could get healthy. The defense was unimaginative and repetitive, with teams finding more and more holes in the seemingly unchanged scheme week after week. There was also terrible luck; it's not unrealistic that had a few bounces gone the ‘Cats way, they would have won seven or maybe even eight games.

But if I had to pick one reason, it would be Northwestern's inability to finish football games. After the 4-0 start, the ‘Cats lost seven straight and were outscored 68-34 in the fourth quarter of those games. That's simply unacceptable, and falls on the coaching staff. Which segways nicely to the next question.

Hustle Belt: Pat Fitzgerald has been a very popular head coach since he took over.  But coming off a disappointing season last year and then an opening season loss this year, are fans starting to waver on their faith in him?

Inside NU: You're preaching to the choir here, but I'm afraid the casual fan's blind faith in Pat Fitzgerald hasn't wavered. Fitz is a good communicator; when he speaks, you listen, and he's a young guy, so he seems to "get it." He was also an all-american linebacker here, and we don't get those too often, so when there's a Wildcat who's that good he's going to be revered. Forever. He's got an extension that will pay him $2.2 million a year through what seems like 2055 (in actuality, it's 2021) and unless there's a theoretical shift in the Northwestern's athletic outlook, you have to think Fitz' job is safe. After all, this is the university that gave Bill Carmody two contract extensions and allowed him to head the basketball program for 13 years without a single NCAA tournament appearance. Go ‘Cats!

I, for one, have lost a bit of faith in Pat Fitzgerald. Yes, he's a good motivator and is considered a good recruiter. But when you watch Northwestern play, the guy's X's and O's deficiencies are shockingly clear. Take the ‘Cal game for example; somehow, the coaching staff never considered that the Bears might use two quarterbacks and did not make a meaningful adjustment until halftime, when the game was 24-7. You just cannot wait that long to make an adjustment, it's that simple. And when you lose so many games the way Northwestern did last year (they handed the game to Nebraska on a silver platter), that's got to fall on the coaching staff.

Hustle Belt: NIU has a very good and experienced offensive line.  They also love to run the ball.  On the other hand, Northwestern held Cal to 2.5 yards per carry last week.  How do you see the NIU run game vs the NU run defense matchup coming out?

Inside NU: Really looking forward to watching this battle, it should be a dandy. Northwestern's D-line is undersized by B1G standards, but NIU isn't a big ten team and doesn't possess the kind of elite size that teams like Ohio State do. And NU's strength defensively is the experienced linebacking core that looked good against the run against Cal. I'm expecting NIU, if they trust McIntosh, to take some shots downfield against the NU secondary, which at best struggled on Saturday, at worst was downright awful. If NIU can establish a running game to stretch out a secondary that already isn't great, it could be a very long day for the ‘Cats' D.

Hustle Belt: Losing Venric Mark (decided to transfer in August) seems like a big blow.  How will the NU offense change with him out?

Inside NU: Not all that much, really. With Siemian at the helm, the offense is more pro-style than the spread attack last year. Mark is a very versatile player, and that spread offense really took advantage of his diverse skills set. But more of the RB touches are coming on conventional, between-the-tackles type looks, so the difference between Mark and his backups isn't as apparent. NU is also pretty deep at the running back position, with Treyvon Green, Warren Long, and two talented freshman in Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault vying for carries.

Hustle Belt: What is one thing Northwestern must execute very well to win? Conversely, what is the thing they absolutely can't do poorly or they'll lose?

Inside NU: Northwestern isn't going to blow NIU out, so they've got to capitalize when they get into the redzone. Too many drives stalled deep in Cal's territory last week, and NU's kicking game isn't good. When they have the opportunity, they'll need to put 6 on the board to have a good chance to beat NIU.

Conversely, the receivers have to play better on Friday if Northwestern has a chance. If they drop as many balls as they did against Cal, they will lose this game. NU's offense isn't explosive enough to make up for drive-killing drops, as we saw last Saturday. Siemian will need to be more accurate, as his wildness contributed to the dropped passes, but the receivers will need to be better. Simple as that.

- Danny Rapaport (@Daniel_Rapaport)

Thanks again to Inside NU and Danny Rapaport.