It’s back by popular demand—the ask an opposing beat writer series. For information this week on the Northwestern Wildcats, we have Aric DiLalla, the managing editor for Wildcat Digest, the Northwestern 247 Sports affiliate. If the name looks familiar, it’s because he is also a former N&O intern. With no further ado...
1. For those of us outside of Evanston, I think the Wildcats' 16-6 win over Stanford was one of the most surprising results from week one. Were people who cover the program regularly surprised, or did they see this coming?
Well, if anyone knew that win was coming, they certainly didn't mention it to anyone. Many of the predictions had Stanford winning by double digits, and that's where I fell on the issue. I think we all knew the defense would improve, but I don't think there was a sense the unit would completely dominate Stanford's line. The real issue, though, was the inexperience of the offense. I thought Clayton Thorson would experience some growing pains during his first start that would really limit Northwestern's ability to move the ball. Instead, outside of a few poor decisions, Thorson made timely throws and used his legs to score the game's only touchdown. Even more promising for Northwestern: there seemed to be lots of areas that could be cleaned up. I don't think this was a Northwestern's peak performance by any means.
2. Obviously the defense hasn't allowed a touchdown yet in its first two games -- which area of this unit is strongest?
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I think the biggest reason for the success is the talent that head coach Pat Fitzgerald has been recruiting over the past few seasons is finally on the field. In particular, the 2014 recruiting class was chock full of talent and a lot of them are now seeing real playing time. There are a couple players who really stand out on defense -- DE Dean Lowry and LB Anthony Walker Jr. -- but the secondary seems like the true strength. It's hard to count how many close games Northwestern squandered over the past few years because of mistakes on the back end, but that seems to be over. Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris are sure bets at cornerback, and Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike have both shown good burst into the box to bottle up runners. Most vitally, there's a level of experience in the secondary that's been lacking over the past few years -- VanHoose, Harris and Henry have all started for at least the last two years.
3. Like Duke, Northwestern is breaking in a new starting quarterback. What have you seen out of redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson?
There are flashes. Against Stanford, he made a great over-the-shoulder throw to wide receiver Miles Shuler for a 25-yard completion on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter. He threw his first career touchdown pass during the Eastern Ill. game, and has scrambled for two touchdowns this season. That said, he's also made a few ill-advised throws that could've turned the game against Stanford. I'm still not quite sure what we should expect out of him this year, but I guess the safest bet would be to assume there will be a few flashes of brilliance and a few boneheaded moments. I do think Fitzgerald's decision to tab him the starter as a redshirt freshman shows a great deal of faith and will allow him to flourish over the next few years.
4. Any areas of concern for the Wildcats?
As good as the defense has been, the offensive efficiency is far from perfect. Part of that falls on Thorson, but the offensive line also needs to get better if Northwestern wants to beat Duke and, later, challenge for the Big Ten West. The group has been sort of a revolving door due to injuries, but that can't be an excuse, as the rest of Northwestern's team has stayed relatively healthy. In Monday's press conference, Fitzgerald pointed out the line has often been clearing space for one yard carries, and the running backs have gotten three to four yards. He said he'd like to see what could happen if they block for three or four yards at a time.
5. Give me two names to watch for, one on offense (other than Thorson) and the other on defense
On offense, sophomore running back Justin Jackson is the clear choice. Last year, as a true freshman, he ran for 1187 yards, which was second best in the Big Ten and ahead of Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot. He's picked up right where he left off and has 212 yards through his first two games. Jackson has averaged 4.2 yards per carry so far and is averaging 25 carries a game, so Duke's defense should expect him to carry the load for Northwestern's offense.
Defensively, Anthony Walker Jr. is a stud at middle linebacker. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder leads the team in tackles with 8.5 per game and also has fives TFL and a sack to his name. If you move away from the numbers and use the eye test, Walker seems to be everywhere. On one snap he's blowing up a play in the backfield, and on the next he's nearly intercepting a pass. There's a lot of talk around the program about just how special Jackson and Walker could be if they stay healthy. These aren't just good players for this team -- these guys are potential all-time greats.
Thanks to Aric for his time.