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Northwestern Football: Predictions for the Road Ahead, Election-Style

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

For all of those who were upset by Inside Northwestern's bowl projections, in which both Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan predicted that Northwestern was going to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, there is good news. The Wildcats will have a chance to improve their postseason lot radically over the next several weeks, as they play nearly every team slated ahead of them at the moment. They will have a chance to knock off Rose Bowl favorite Michigan at the Big House, as well as Nebraska and Iowa at Ryan Field. They'll get to take on Michigan State, which Northwestern might be jockeying for position with, as well.

As coach Pat Fitzgerald said, the Wildcats are in control of their own destiny, and so we take a look at the road ahead. I've assembled a team of experts, the guys who cover Northwestern football, who spend every day studying this team, to give us their best sense of what might transpire over the next several weeks. The snippets are mine, but the polls represent the opinions of many reporters. Our participants were:

Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum) of InsideNU, Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) of InsideNU, Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn) of InsideNU, Nick Medline (@nicholasmedline) of, Chris Emma (@CEmmaFox) of, Jamie Arkin (@Jamie_Arkin) of, Josh Walfish (@JoshWalfish) of The Daily Northwestern, Dan Ryan (@DanRyan_NU) and Teddy Greenstein (@teddygreenstein) of the Chicago Tribune.

You may have heard that there's a presidential election in our future, and since polling is all the rage these days, I figured I'd give this segment a slight bit of an electoral theme. Although this time, purple states take on a bit of a different meaning. So, here we go:

October 20, 2012 — Nebraska at Northwestern — Likely Northwestern - 67% Northwestern to 33% Nebraska

The Wildcats will be hard-pressed to beat the Cornhuskers. Nebraska fans are going to fill Ryan Field. The Cornhuskers will be hungry for revenge, with memories of 2011 fresh in their mind. And Northwestern has never been particularly adept at handling two-way quarterbacks. Taylor Martinez, in that case, poses a serious threat. Rex Burkhead is also a strong rusher, which could be trouble for a Northwestern defense that struggled to corral Donnell Kirkwood. Then again, the Cornhuskers' defense is extremely porous, so Northwestern should be able to put up plenty of points on Nebraska. I'll give the Wildcats a 50 percent shot in this one.

October 27, 2012 — Iowa at Northwestern — Heavy Northwestern - 80% Northwestern to 20% Iowa

The Hawkeyes do not present the same challenge that they did in previous years. Still, they possess a legitimate defense. They have a strong running back that the Wildcats will struggle to bring down. Indeed, Northwestern is going to have to rely on its much-improved bulky front four to bring Mark Weisman down before he builds up a head of steam. Otherwise, the Wildcats will need to swarm to the ball, since it might take more than one tackler to bring Weisman down. Iowa is tough to predict though. Losses to Central Michigan and Iowa State definitely indicate that Iowa is beatable, but the Hawkeyes are still competitive, as evidenced by their double-overtime win over Michigan State. I'll give Northwestern the nod in this one. Particularly if the Wildcats lose to the Cornhuskers, I see them coming back strong.

November 10, 2012 — Northwestern at Michigan - Heavy Michigan - 90% Michigan to 10% Northwestern

All of the rage in Evanston — and literally I mean all of the rage — centers on the fact that four opponents have bye weeks heading into their matchups with Northwestern, giving them extra time to rest up and scheme for the Wildcats. Northwestern is lucky though in that its bye week is strategically placed right before its hardest opponent of the season. The Wildcats will need all of the time they can get to prepare for the Wolverines. Denard Robinson will challenge Northwestern in every way as a physical two-way quarterback, who can challenge the Wildcats' secondary downfield, out-run defensive backs and stiffarm linebackers. He's rushed for the century mark in four of Michigan's last five games, including two 200-plus yard performances. I don't see Northwestern's defense, so susceptible to the quarterback draw last week, managing much better. In Michigan's last two victories, both routs, Robinson didn't have to throw the ball too much, which is probably Brady Hoke's preference, given Robinson's proclivity for picks, so Northwestern will have to force Robinson to air it out. The Wildcats' defensive ends will need to keep him in the pocket. If so, a ball-hawking secondary can take advantage of Robinson's errors. But to this point, Northwestern's defense has yet to consistently contain quarterbacks or pick off passes, so I see Robinson doing just fine. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint has yet to recapture his 2011 form after sustaining an injury earlier this season, but a healthy Toussaint could provide another challenge for Northwestern's defense. Finally, it takes a good memory to remember the last time Northwestern won in an environment like the Big House. Kinnick Stadium is tough but not quite the same. Given the Wildcats' recent difficulties maintaining momentum in Happy Valley, I could see Ann Arbor getting away from them as well.

November 17, 2012 - Northwestern at Michigan State - Likely Northwestern - 70% Northwestern to 30% Michigan State

After getting the Spartans at home in each of the last two seasons, the Wildcats will make the trek to Spartan Stadium to try to overcome their recent struggles against Michigan State. Northwestern was competitive with Michigan State in each of their last two meetings, but could never quite seal the deal against the Spartans. Fortunately for Northwestern, Michigan State has lost a lot of its stars on both sides of the ball. Indeed, this year's Spartans team looks far weaker than usual, particularly in last weekend's double-overtime loss to Iowa. Certainly, the guys who made green and white hell for the Wildcats are gone. Kirk Cousins, the quarterback who crushed Northwestern through the air, has moved on to the greener pastures of the National Football League. Cousins tossed 25 balls into the end zone last season and completed 63.7 percent of his passes. Andrew Maxwell, on the other hand, has a weak 54.3 percent completion rate and just six touchdown passes. Cousins had seven touchdowns in three starts against Northwestern alone. If you take Indiana and Central Michigan out of the equation, he's been extremely pedestrian. Their rushing attack, averaging less than four yards per carry, is a ghost of its former self. The problem for Northwestern is that Michigan State boasts the best scoring defense in the league, and most notably, the best rush defense in the league. If the Spartans can force the Wildcats to air it out, something they haven't done much of this season, this game could fall into Michigan State's hands.

November 24, 2012 - Illinois at Northwestern - Heavy Northwestern - 100% Northwestern to 0% Illinois

To all those of you wondering whether you need to stick around for Thanksgiving weekend, the answer is almost certainly no. This game shouldn't even be close. Illinois has scored just 20 times all season along. It's not that the Fighting Illini have had to settle for a lot of field goals like the Hawkeyes have. It's not a matter of finishing drives for Illinois; it's a matter of starting them. The Fighting Illini literally just can't score; they can't muster big drives. Illinois averages just 3.4 yards per carry. Its quarterbacks have already combined to throw 10 picks. On defense, the Fighting Illini are plenty susceptible, particularly on the ground where they are one of four Big Ten teams to surrender 1,000 rushing yards already this season. This edition of the Fighting Illini defense lacks the NFL-bound prospects of the Ron Zook era, back when Whitney Mercilus chased down quarterbacks, Martez Wilson stuffed the run and Tavon Wilson manned the backfield. Add on the fact that Illinois has been stomped on in consecutive weeks by Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan, and you can see that the Fighting Illini are already drifting toward Assembly Hall for Brandon Paul's senior season.