With this week's game between Ball State and Northwestern quickly approaching, I exchange emails with Zach Pereles of Inside NU to find out a bit more about the Wildcats.
Sam: Northwestern's defense has been extremely impressive so far. Why have they been able to keep good teams in Stanford and Duke to just 16 combined points? Who has stood out in particular?
Zach: Northwestern's defense has been very good overall this season, but two areas have been truly outstanding: red zone defense and third-down defense. In six trips to Northwestern's red zone, opponents have scored just four times (66.7%), which is tied for 14th in the nation. What's more impressive, however, it that the Wildcats have allowed just one touchdown thus far, tied for fourth in FBS (three teams are yet to allow a touchdown) and first in opponent points per game. Basically, opponents rarely put together drives against Northwestern's defense, and even when they do, they rarely cash in for six. Why is it so hard to put together drives against this defense? Northwestern leads the nation in opponent third-down conversion rate. In 43 third-down situations, the Wildcats have allowed just six first downs, a 13.95 conversion rate. That's absurdly good.
As far as individuals go, Anthony Walker leads the charge defensively at middle linebacker. He's won several weekly awards this season, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice already. He's a physical, sideline-to-sideline linebacker who can deliver a hit against the run and cover the pass well too. Up front, Northwestern has two stud ends in Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Both are strong, smart players who can disrupt a game plan. In the secondary, cornerbacks Nick VanHoose, Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II have been very solid as has safety Godwin Igwebuike, who forced and recovered a big fumble against Duke.
Sam: The Wildcats are an outside College Football Playoff contender after their strong showings over the first three weeks. What do they need to do to actually reach college football's "final four?"
Zach: The biggest improvement Northwestern needs is from their redshirt freshman quarterback, Clayton Thorson. He has a big-time arm and speed to run the option offense effectively, but he has been erratic and, at times, a poor decision maker. He must be better if the Wildcats want to make major noise on the national scene. Additionally, the Wildcats would benefit from the return of a healthy Cam Dickerson-- a senior wide receiver with big play ability-- on the outside. And of course, they need their defense to continue to perform exceptionally.
Sam: Riley Neal had success versus a pretty good defense in Texas A&M back in week two. Do you see any way the Cards can actually move the ball at Ryan Field?
Zach: The most important thing for the Cardinals offense if they want to have success Saturday will be how their offensive line performs and how Neal plays on third down. When Northwestern's defensive line gets a push, Anthony Walker is much more effective than he is when the offensive line wins the battle. Additionally, Ball State's receivers will have to find a way to get open down the field. Northwestern has been very good in forcing long down-and-distance situations and then allowing underneath passes and quickly tackling receivers before they can get to the sticks. Neal will have to be sharp on third down, but a big part of that will depend on how successful the Cardinals are on first and second down.
Sam: Northwestern's offense has struggled versus the two FBS opponents they have played so far this season. Why have they struggled, and who needs to step up if Northwestern is to win comfortably on Saturday?
Zach: Against Stanford, Thorson actually played well, especially for his first start, and Northwestern probably should have scored more than they did-- they were forced to settle for a field goal when they had first-and-goal at the four on one drive. Against Duke, Thorson struggled mightily, missing short passes, being generally inaccurate and making two very poor decisions. He also couldn't find much room to run, which is a big part of his game. Star running back Justin Jackson has been solid this year, but Northwestern needs improvements from its wide receivers. They rotate a lot of them in, but aside from senior Christian Jones, no one has really separated themselves from the bunch, and Jones is really more of a possession guy. Northwestern needs a playmaker to step up out wide.
Sam: Prediction time: Who are you picking and why?
Zach: I think Ball State will give Northwestern a tough game, much tougher than most people are expecting. At some point, though, Northwestern's dominant defense will force some turnovers and Justin Jackson will start to carve up the defense. I'm not sure if Thorson will impress, but he probably won't have to. Northwestern pulls away in the second half to win somewhat comfortably. Northwestern, 23-7.
Thanks again to Zach from Inside NU fr taking the time to answer our Northwestern questions. For all your Northwestern needs, you can check out Inside NU by clicking here.