The “Big Ten Tour” heads to Evanston. Home to a potentially scary Northwestern team looking to make some noise in the conference this season.
The purpose of BTT is to interview writers who are closely connected with their respective programs from around the conference. It’s always good to know your opponent and what people who cover them have to say.
Rodger Sherman, blogger for SB Nation’s Sippin’ on Purple, took some time to answer some questions about the Wildcats and what to expect from them this season.
JH: I think expectations for Northwestern around the conference remain the same: They are the darkhorse contenders to make a serious run at the conference title this year. What are the expectations around Evanston coming into the season?
Sherman: Higher than anytime in the history of the program with the exception of after the ’95, 96, and 2000 title teams. Let’s put it this way: Northwestern has won ten games three times. THREE. Northwestern has won bowl games twice. Not since nineteen-forty-friggin-nine before last year. It would be one thing if last year had been this awesome team that Northwestern built up to for years and years and finally peaked: last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the graduation of our star QB and his two favorite targets. Instead, our defense was the best it’s been in a while thanks to a damn fine linebacking corps and an all-B1G defensive end in Tyler Scott. The offense kept up the pace, and Northwestern was a few plays short of undefeated. And virtually nobody leaves — when was the last time you heard of a 10-win team where nobody got drafted? I think we know that a Big Ten championship isn’t the expectation — there’s four other teams in this division alone capable of doing it, not to mention that team you guys don’t like — but we know it’s possible.
JH: Talk a little bit about Venric Mark and Kain Colter. Just how much of a dynamic duo are these two and are All-Big Ten team honors, perhaps even higher, a realistic expectation for the two?
Sherman: They play off each other so damn well. Kain’s a very accurate short passer and speedy as hell. Venric accelerates better than anybody in the conference, and Big Ten defenders used to grabbing onto hulking backs struggle finding the lil bugger. One dude would be hard to stop, but Northwestern’s option attack makes you try to stop both, and also, Kain might pass. Dynamic’s a good word. I think Venric is a legit candidate to be the best running back in the conference after Le’Veon and Montee went on their merry ways, either him or Ameer Abdullah. Kain probably won’t get the all-B1G treatment, since he’s probably not even the best passer on Northwestern, but that doesn’t take away from his athletic credentials.
JH: The team and university seem to absolutely adore Pat Fitzgerald. Taking away the fact that he is a former player, what is it about his coaching abilities that is so easy to like?
Sherman: It’s not just that we love him, it’s that he loves Northwestern back. Ever since getting shut down by every school as a player, he’s felt he owed some debt to the one school that took him in, and that he believes in everything he tries to accomplish with the school. He’s intense enough to make your internal organs explode by thinking about you, but he also laughs and pokes fun at media and players. Everybody with a soul would like to play for him, and because he’s passionate about Northwestern, you’re passionate about Northwestern. Probably his best asset as a coach is realizing that getting quality guys and playing to their skillsets is more likely to succeed at Northwestern than putting any coach’s ideals on a pedestal, as such the team identity changes drastically every few years, and that’s not a bad thing.
JH: Northwestern suffered a heartbreaking loss to Michigan last season. Considering the Wolverines are coming to town this season, is that game marked in red and is revenge in the hearts of the players who suffered through the loss?
Sherman: OH, REALLY, WE SUFFERED A HEARTBREAKING LOSS AT MICHIGAN LAST YEAR?!?!?! THANKS FOR INFORMING ME. Yeah, it’s marked in red. Oh, by the way, we ran out of sharpies, so we kidnapped Roy Roundtree and tied him to a wall, and we’re using his blood as a writing implement. We’ll let him go if you just agree he never caught that one Hail Mary deflected by our backup cornerback, okay? Oh, also, we led every game with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter and ended up losing three, so, y’all ain’t the only game we had to circle.
JH: Talk a little bit about the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Who are expected to step up and have big years for the Wildcats?
Sherman: On offense, it’s tough to say anybody needs to “step up.” Everybody’s back from a team that damn near won every game. On defense, it’s easy: the secondary. We have one good cornerback, Nick VanHoose — injured for the Michigan game last year — and one good safety, Ibraheim Campbell. But the fear is, well, whoever else is playing. Opponents might pick on that side, and it’s tough to say NU will be ready.
JH: Are there any incoming freshman you can see stepping up and making an immediate impact?
Sherman: We don’t really do that. Perhaps Godwin Igwebuike steps up and earns a backup safety role, but it doesn’t really seem like there will be any incoming freshmen.
JH: What are some major concerns you have with this team that you would like to see answered throughout the season?
Sherman: We already mentioned the secondary, but also, offensive line. Northwestern lost three starters, but everybody’s said that we now have the deepest OL corps in school history, but now they have to go out and show it.