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Mailbag: It’s Big Ten Championship week

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LET’S GOOOOO!

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, Inside NU readers. It’s Big Ten Championship week. It’s cold and snowy in Evanston, the quarter is beginning to wind down (meaning classwork is cranking up) and Northwestern is about to play in the biggest game of the Pat Fitzgerald era. Things. Are. Happening.

The Inside NU-mobile, AKA my 2007 Toyota Camry, is doing a rare double-dip this weekend, embarking on Assembly Hall in Bloomington Saturday before trekking back up to Indianapolis for the title game.

With that in mind, it felt like an appropriate time for a mailbag. No need for an expansive intro here — you had questions, here are answers.

The Indy questions

Erick Ratzer on Facebook: What are the keys to stopping a dominant OSU on Saturday in Indy?

I think everything starts and ends with limiting Dwayne Haskins, which is much easier said than done. I wrote a bit earlier this week about just how good Haskins has been this season, and he was surgical in his dissection of Michigan last week. Ohio State has elite athletes on the outsides, and Northwestern could get in trouble if those playmakers get the ball in space. The formula, then, is to play the way Northwestern’s defense has played most of the season: limiting big pass plays down the field and tackling well (NU is No. 19 nationally in passing marginal explosiveness), and holding the Buckeyes to red zone field goals (NU is top 20 nationally in success rate in the red zone defensively).

An aside: Dwayne Haskins grew up about 10 minutes from me in Maryland, and he was originally committed to Maryland. Imagine how different the Big Ten would be if Haskins were in College Park and not Columbus.

When Northwestern has the ball, it will be critical to establish Isaiah Bowser and the ground game. To pull the upset, NU has to hold the ball for a few long drives offensively, and Bowser is the prime way to do that. Logically, you’d think Clayton Thorson needs to have a big day for NU to win, but I don’t really think that’s true. If the game is high-scoring and up-and-down, that means Ohio State is dictating the pace and playing on its own terms. Northwestern needs the game played at its preferred tempo — lower scoring, more of a defensive game — to have a shot Saturday.

Alex Neumann on Facebook: if you had to put one Inside NU Co-Editor-in-Chief into the game which one would it be, at what position, and why?

Great question, Alex. The Inside NU to on-the-football-team transition is certainly unprecedented.

I have sources telling me Davis played quarterback in middle school, so that’s a possibility. Davis also just won the IM flag football championship, so he has the championship pedigree here.

But honestly, put me in at kicker. I mean, if Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh can’t go, and it’s still punter Jake Collins at kicker, that situation is shaky at best. It would take me a little while to get adjusted to kicking a football and not a soccer ball, but I hit a 40-yarder at Ryan Fieldhouse last week (yeah, yeah, there was no rush or anything).

Emma Hruby on Facebook: Thoughts about the idea that Pat Fitzgerald is the anonymous donor paid for all student tickets and transportation to Indy?

Wow, I can’t say I had thought about that one. That would be pretty freaking awesome if it were true. I feel like there’s no way the anonymous donor is a public figure, though, because that would be too easy an opportunity for good publicity (which I think is something famous people want/need?)

Here’s another conspiracy theory: the anonymous donor is the Big Ten, which doesn’t want an empty stadium on TV.

Charlie Gingold on Facebook: what do we do if we win?

You party like it’s 1995!

Realistically, if you’re a Northwestern student, you probably go back to Evanston and start grinding again for finals. But, outside that semi-disheartening reality, you can set your sights on Pasadena and start looking for flights. If this happens for Northwestern, Indianapolis might burn down, in large part because of how angry Ohio State fans will be.

I’ll be writing, I know that much.

The future questions

Tony Fernandez on Facebook: Will winning the Coach of the Year make Fitzgerald even more intransigent on making changes in the coaching staff or improvements in his own coaching decisions?

@NUwildcatsLA: Does this year’s incredible, unexpected, glorious success mean there’s virtually no chance of ever seeing Mick McCall leave this program unless he decides to go?

@MichaelDavidLC: IF nu wins the rose bowl. Does McCall hang it up like Peyton Manning?

Don’t mean to be to sound like a broken record here, but I have no idea. That question has been thrown around every offseason it seems like, and nobody really knows the answer. Fitz said he views the Coach of the Year award as a program award, so my inclination is that he feels like program is in a good spot. He knows there are things to improve, but I doubt he feels he needs to be many structural changes. If big changes weren’t made after more disappointing seasons, they won’t come after winning the division and going 8-1 in the Big Ten.

In fairness to Mick McCall, he’s called some really good games this year. I thought the play-calling against Wisconsin and Iowa down the stretch was good, and those were the two most important games of the season. If Thorson came into the season healthy and not on a pitch-count, we also might think of the beginning of this season a little differently. That doesn’t excuse previous offensive shortcomings, and the offense is still at bottom-third offense per S&P+. Nobody really knows what it would take for changes, but what ever that is, it hasn’t happened this season.

Also, a Mick McCall-Peyton Manning comparison. Haven’t heard that one before.

@cheech21097: Do you think Hunter Johnson will be an upgrade over Clayton Thorson next year?

It’s tough to say without having seen Hunter Johnson play in Northwestern’s offense or play extended snaps as a starter. Johnson probably has more raw talent and is a better pure thrower than Thorson, but will he be as durable? And, a large portion of Johnson’s success, like Thorson’s will be predicated on the play of wide receivers and offensive lineman. In a vacuum, though, it’s difficult to argue against the No. 2 pocket-passer in his recruiting class.

@JayMcNamara6: What are the odds NU repeats as BIG West champions next year?

Without getting too deep into it, let’s look at how teams in the West will look next season.

Wisconsin will have Alex Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor back, and its defensive line and secondary will almost all return. Iowa should bring back Nate Stanley and good number of its playmakers on both sides of the ball (though the D-line takes a hit). Nebraska will be loads better in Year 2 under Scott Frost, and Minnesota should improve too as P.J. Fleck keeps on rowing. Jeff Brohm is apparently staying at Purdue too.

My early predictions for West champion would be:

  • Wisconsin — 35 percent
  • Nebraska — 20 percent
  • Iowa — 15 percent
  • Northwestern — 15 percent
  • Purdue — 10 percent
  • Minnesota — 5 percent
  • Illinois — Blutarsky.

Blackie Lawless on Facebook?: Whats the biggest concern looking ahead to next season/ weakest group in recruitment?

Two questions here, two answers.

The biggest concern, assuming all non-seniors return (which I think is a pretty safe bet), is likely the offensive line. Blake Hance, Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler all graduate, and Doles has been NU’s best offensive lineman this season. All three of those players have had their struggles at times, but replacing three of five starters isn’t easy. Chemistry and familiarity matters on the O-line, so inexperience could be problematic. The other area Northwestern will have to figure out will be the interior defensive line, where Jordan Thompson, Fred Wyatt and Ben Oxley will all leave. Thompson does so much for this defense that goes unnoticed, and will be immensely difficult to replace, but I think the offensive line is still more of a question mark because of the strength of NU’s defensive ends.

As far as recruiting, Pat Fitzgerald has most positions covered, but he doesn’t have a running back in the 2019 class. That may not be a huge deal next season because Isaiah Bowser, John Moten and Drake Anderson will all return.

Terry Parker on Facebook: How much of a bump do you think recruiting will get by playing for a B10 championship?

I’d imagine playing in the Big Ten Championship will provide some kind of bump in the 2020 recruiting class. It’s going to take more than one division championship to really put a dent in recruiting bases of schools like Wisconsin and Notre Dame — which is what it would take to make NU a perennial championship contender — but there’s no doubt this trip to Indy will give Fitz something tangible to sell to recruits. Ryan Fieldhouse will help too.

@DHoldsman: Could either NU coach succeed at the next level?

Fitz has more of a track record, so I think he’s probably closer to being able to make a pro leap than Collins. As a leader and a motivator, Fitz could probably command an NFL locker room, and he certainly knows defense well. He’d definitely need a good offensive mind and play-caller as his offensive coordinator.

I can better picture Chris Collins as a pro-coach, though. Obviously, Doug coached in the NBA, so Chris has been around pro basketball for a long time. He would need to prove his chops as an offensive strategist before getting to the Association, however, and that’s probably a while away.

The self-loathing existential Northwestern questions

@garrett_matsuda: are we better this year or is everyone else in the Big10 West worse?

Short answer: everyone else in the West was worse.

Not to take credit from Northwestern for actually winning the games, but consider this: Northwestern is No. 78 in the country in S&P+ (S&P+ is a metric that rates teams based on success rates and efficiency). Admittedly, the metric typically underrates Northwestern, which has in recent years won a lot of games with timely play and good defense. But, this season’s S&P+ ranking is Northwestern’s worst since the team went 6-7 back in 2011. So, relative to other Northwestern teams, this team is not better, according to the numbers.

Northwestern caught a bunch of breaks along the way in 2018, maybe most importantly an injury to Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, which kept him out of the NU-Wisconsin game; S&P+ has the Badgers as the highest-rated team in the division. Iowa lost several close games, and Purdue was inconsistent.

From week-to-week, Northwestern probably wasn’t the most talented team, though it was likely the most consistent. So, the answer to the question depends on how you define better. Does “better” mean more talented? More consistent?

Regardless, what’s clear is that Northwestern was the most opportunistic team in the division, and it saved its successful plays for the right times. Which leads us into...

@dbr0675own1: How does one reconcile enjoying the season outcome with statistically the worst P5 offense in the country? Thorson’s recovery and Larkin — important qualifiers but notwithstanding — it’s unlikely this success can sustain with bad offense right?

Well, that’s what you’d think. By S&P+, you would expect regression to the mean at some point, and that regression has happened before — Northwestern went 5-7 in both 2013 and 2014.

Northwestern’s win expectancy this season — the expected number of wins based on its efficiency and win probabilities in each game — was 6. NU has the biggest disparity between actual wins and expected wins in the country (in a negative direction) besides Army, so the stats tells us that Northwestern is worse than its record by a sizable margin. In recent seasons, Northwestern has been able to outperform its win expectancy enough that it’s probably not just luck; there’s just something about its style that causes the numbers to underrate it.

Northwestern probably has to make some kind of major changes to significantly improve its offense, which has never ranked higher than No. 63 in the past four years (it has ranked lower than No. 100 twice). If Northwestern ever wants to be in the playoff picture, or truly be a force in the conference consistently, I don’t think relying on being opportunistic will cut it. It will sometimes, but not most of the time.

The apparel questions, of which there are somehow multiple

Joel Sternstein on Facebook: How come Jim Phillips never wears a blazer when he’s on the field? Even when its friggin’ cold outside? Not that I mind, just curious.

I forget where I read this (it’s really driving me crazy now that I can’t find it), but I believe that Phillips has been quoted saying that the players wear their uniforms, so Phillips wears his, which I guess is the shirt and tie with no blazer, even in sub-freezing conditions.

Andrew Schulman on Facebook: The game on Saturday is indoors — will Fitz be wearing shorts??

Pants -500. Hammer it.

The lone-wolf basketball question

@angrysteveworld: Will Dererk Pardon hit a 2nd three-pointer before his career ends?

Yes.

Seriously, more clothing questions than basketball questions?