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Weekend rewind, Week 2: Northwestern vs. Syracuse

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern’s 48-27 win over Syracuse, here’s the second edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

Interceptions

Interceptions win games, change seasons. They frustrate quarterbacks and create huge momentum shifts. In a micro sense, like all turnovers, they allow the opposing team to take over on offense – unless you’re Collin Ellis, in which case the offense doesn’t even need to take the field before scoring a touchdown. However you want to measure their value, interceptions are massively influential, and through two games Northwestern has made them arguably the most important part of their defensive formula.

Even if unwittingly – interceptions are just as much about a quarterback’s bad throw as it is a defender’s ability to locate and snag the ball out of the air – the Wildcats have tormented the quarterbacks they’ve faced this season, Cal’s Jared Goff and Syracuse’s Drew Allen, with seven interceptions, including Ellis’s two pick-sixes at Cal last week and four against the Orange Saturday. The Wildcats are picking the ball off at a prolific rate, relative to last season’s 13-int total. That number will decline as the season rolls along (3.5 picks-per-game isn’t sustainable), but for the moment, Northwestern has given every opposing quarterback a reason to think twice the next time he tries to thread a pass between defenders, or throw a jump ball to a tall receiver, or even safety loft a ball near the sidelines – the seemingly conservative circumstance leading to Traveon Henry’s acrobatic first-half interception, which was followed up after the game by maybe the best interception-related quote of all time.

“I was kind of like a squirrel trying to get a nut,” Henry said at the post-game press conference.

The pass defense will continue to take the brunt of outside criticism until Northwestern proves it can consistently knock off elite teams – because when people who don’t watch Northwestern want to poke holes in the Wildcats, they lazily assume, based on recent history, that the pass defense is unathletic and thin and just plain bad. The first two games of the season won’t help that perception: Northwestern gave up 455 yards through the air to Cal and 299 to Syracuse, and the widespread negligence of pace-adjusted statistics within the college football writing profession will continue to shove the Wildcats in a bad pass-defense light, so long as their “yards allowed per game” ranks near the middle or bottom of the Big Ten.

One thing nobody can discount: an opportunistic defense with great ball skills and awareness that makes game-changing, possession-turning plays. Snagging seven interceptions in two games is unassailably good.

- Chris Johnson

The pass rush

I already wrote about this after the game, but it's important to reiterate just how important the pass rush is to the entire team. Northwestern's defensive ends are among the best in the conference. Tyler Scott is an All-Big Ten caliber player, Dean Lowry is perhaps the most underrated player the Wildcats have, Deonte Gibson is a third down rush machine and Ifeadi Odenigbo has shown more and more glimpses of the four-star potential he had coming out of high school. NU's defensive tackles may struggle at times, but the ends have played very well, and the Wildcats have played with three, or all four of them at times. All in all, it's a very formidable pass rush, and other teams are taking notice.

“We’re kind of seeing a reoccurring theme here the last two weeks of a lot of three-step drop by our opponent,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s, I guess, a good sign that we’re seeing a lot of quick game, but we’ve got to kind of adjust our pass rush.”

The Wildcats have done just fine with their adjustments — the four-end "cheetah" package worked well on third downs, as has a three-man rush with Scott in the middle. The biggest key is the adjustments NU has forced its opponents to make.

Last year, most opponents chose to test the Wildcats with the deep ball, because that was clearly the weakness of the team. It looks like that's the weakness again this year, but NU forced Cal and Syracuse to throw far more quick passes than those teams would have liked. It's not that the Golden Bears and the Orange didn't want to throw the ball downfield — it's that they felt they couldn't do it against the NU pass rush. That's especially important as the Wildcats break in new cornerback Dwight White.

“Really, for both (Nick VanHoose and White) not a lot of work today,” Fitzgerald said. “Lot of quick game.”

The more quick game, the better for NU. Other teams will test the Wildcats more with the deep ball — don't expect Michigan and Ohio State to throw quick passes all game. However, as long as the NU pass rush stays strong, it can mask some of the weaknesses in coverage.

All along, the common theme was that NU was an improved secondary away from a special season. The pass defense is certainly the key, but the first two games have shown that the Wildcats can defend the deep ball even without a secondary that's miles better than last season. That's all thanks to the defensive ends.

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Illinois not terrible, apparently

Last season was an abject disaster for Illinois. Under Tim Beckman, a coach Illini fans greeted with generally underwhelmed tones after the frustrating Ron Zook era, the team won two games, was shredded at home by Louisiana Tech, lost every conference contest and finished the season on a nine-game losing streak. By the end of the year, once-hopefully optimistic fans were clamoring for Beckman’s dismissal posthaste. His first season could not have gone any worse, and with no major roster improvements to speak of heading into 2013, it was fair to wonder whether Illinois would flame out once more. The buzzards were circling. Beckman needed to win, and he needed to win right away.

After two games, it’s hard to quibble with the results. Not only has Illinois won, it has looked exceedingly good doing so. The Illini have combined to score 87 points in two games after averaging just 16.7 (last in the Big Ten) last season, and on Saturday thrashed Cincinnati at home, 45-17 – a score line few would have been shocked to see read the other way, the Bearcats laying another beating on Tim Beckman’s purportedly despondent group. Instead, the Illini offered more evidence to combat the notion of another envisioned laughingstock season. Illinois actually looks capable on both sides of the ball, like a team ready to rise out of the Big Ten cellar.

Beating Cincinnati at home is one thing. Next week’s game against Washington at Soldier Field will be a bigger challenge, but Illinois has given plenty of reason to believe it can not only hang around with the Huskies, but potentially notch the biggest win of Beckman’s short tenure.

When trying to assess various Big Ten teams’ schedules this offseason, I would casually gloss over games against the Illini, chalk it up as a guaranteed win, and move right along, rarely thinking twice about the possibility Illinois could be measurably better this season. I (and plenty of others) seem to have miscalculated. Illinois might not be a top-tier Big Ten contender, but it does look like a team that can win a few conference games, and for all the Wildcats fans expecting Northwestern to roll the Illini in the Nov. 30 season finale – something similar to last season’s 50-14 rout – it might be wise to rethink that assumption.

That Land of Lincoln Finale looks like it will be a real, competitive game now – not some one-sided, second-string dominated scrimmage. "That team from Champaign” is one to watch.

- Chris Johnson

The strangest road game ever

Every week during non-conference season, there's a "how the hell are they playing there" game. This week's game tops the list. Somehow, some way, Minnesota found itself in Las Cruces, N.M., to take on the New Mexico State Aggies. Originally, the Gophers were scheduled to play at North Carolina this week, but coach Jerry Kill apparently decided that game would be too hard, so he took his team to New Mexico instead.

New Mexico State is bad. The Aggies won one game last year — beating mighty Sacramento State — and probably won't win many more this year. They're an independent, without a conference. They're the kind of team that usually gets a paycheck to get beaten up by major-conference teams. Yet somehow, Minnesota ended up in Las Cruces.

I've yet to find a stranger Big Ten away game than this one. Michigan State played at Central Michigan last year, but that makes sense from an in-state perspective. Iowa played at FCS Northern Iowa in the early days of the Kirk Ferentz era, but that was back when the Hawkeyes were terrible, and again, it was an in-state thing. Minnesota-New Mexico State is like Ohio State randomly deciding to play at UMass. It makes absolutely no sense, other than the "revenge" factor: the Aggies actually beat the Gophers 28-21 in 2011.

So if nothing else goes right for Minnesota this year, at least they made the trek down to New Mexico to get their revenge. Next week, the Gophers play Western Illinois at home. Here's to watching Jerry Kill take his team to Macomb a couple years down the road to return the favor.

- Kevin Trahan

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State – A knee injury to quarterback Braxton Miller no doubt made Buckeyes fans shudder, but Ohio State, who trounced San Diego State 42-7 at home Saturday largely on the strength of a terrific relief effort from backup QB Kenny Guiton, offered no evidence that it’s still not the best team in this league.

2. Michigan – The last Big House-housed Michigan-Notre Dame game for the foreseeable future was an enjoyable one, and it included Michigan neutralizing the Irish’s imposing front and dropping 41 points on one of the nation’s better defenses.

3. Northwestern – Two weeks, two wins over AQ conference opponents: Northwestern is off to a great start, and has two games to prepare for a huge home showdown with top-ranked Ohio State on October 5.

4. Wisconsin – I’d like to move Wisconsin up on this list, because I think the Badgers are legitimately good, but beating UMass and Tennessee Tech to open the season – even with a combined score line of 93-0 – doesn’t really prove anything.

5. Nebraska – Like the Badgers' uninspiring first fortnight, beating up on Wyoming and Southern Miss doesn’t grant one much power-rankings clout, but Nebraska’s defense did play better than last week (when it gave up 602 yards to the Cowboys), so there’s potential for upward movement.

6. Penn State – Another impressive effort from true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg drove Penn State past Eastern Michigan (45-7) at home with minimal fuss. Next week’s game against undefeated UCF should be more compelling.

7. Michigan State – Until the Spartans prove they can score points on offense, entrenchment in the middle of these rankings should be the weekly expectation. But man, is that defense – which after two games has accounted for four touchdowns to the offense’s two – fun to watch.

8. Illinois – For deeper analysis on Illinois, scroll up. The Illini are trending upward, and a win over Washington next week would send them up a few more rungs on the Big Ten ladder.

9. Minnesota – What’s with all these games against desert-based football lightweights? First UNLV, then New Mexico State at home (then San Jose State week 4). Minnesota brings things back to the Midwest next week, when it hosts Western Illinois at home.

10. Indiana – The optimism of Indiana’s 73-point drubbing of Indiana State week 1 was quickly dashed by a humbling six-point home loss to Navy, who grounded out 444 rushing yards against the Hoosiers’ limp defense.

11. Iowa – After last week’s devastating loss to Northern Illinois, Iowa got on the winning track against Missouri State. Missouri State lost to Northwestern State at home in its season opener. That piece of information should tell you all you need to know about Iowa’s week 2 victory.

12. Purdue – The first two games of the Darell Hazell era have not gone as planned. Purdue had to scrap and claw past Indiana State (20-14), a team that allowed 73 points to Indiana just last week.