Oct. 25, 2013
Northwestern's latest Big Ten test comes in the form of a trip to play in front of more than 70,000 fans at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. Skip Myslenski's preview serves up the last necessary tidbits to get you set for Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff (BTN, WGN720).
BASIC-LY: The 'Cats have dropped three straight and that has produced the inevitable. It has produced analyses as deep as any doctoral dissertation. But that is not Pat Fitzgerald's way, which he proved often this week.
Here, for one example, is what he said when asked about the Minnesota blitzes that helped disrupt his team's offense last Saturday. "When you don't protect the right way at running back, it kinda gets you in trouble. When a guy gets beat one-on-one, it gets you in trouble. When you don't get the ball out of your hand, it gets you in trouble. So. I think we're trying to fix those three things. It's not rocket science. It's football."
Then, for another example, he offered this when asked if the quick passing game might be a way to jump start that offense. "You'd like to think so. Then we drop some. We did the same thing at Wisconsin. We went to some of the quick-game stuff and we drop a few. If we complete them it's here we go, first down, let's get it going, now we can play with some tempo and away we go. Spread offense, it's not rocket science here, man. It's first downs. Get first downs, keep possession and move the ball. When you don't do that, it's ugly. For a couple weeks now, we've been pretty ugly."
That quick game depends, of course, on the quarterback quickly getting the ball to his receiver. But four times last Saturday the Gophs batted down a Trevor Siemian
pass at the line of scrimmage and, one other time, a defensive lineman dropped into coverage and picked the pass. "A couple things," said Fitzgerald when asked what must be done to prevent an encore on Saturday at Iowa. "We've got to do a better job up front getting the guys' hands down.
"Iowa's going to do a good job of that too. You watch them. We've been going against each other now a long time. They do a great job in the quick game of recognizing the three-step drop and mirroring the quarterback's eyes and getting their hands up. Up front, their defensive line is outstanding. Their front seven is as salty as there is in the conference. So we're going to need a great job up front by the O line and then find a window to throw the football (through) if we do throw the quick game."
CLASS CALLED: Scheduling quirks this week prevented Siemian himself from discussing both his and the offense's recent struggles. But others did address those issues. "It's tough," said Kain Colter, who is not listed on this week's injury report and is expected to play against the Hawkeyes. "The quarterback position, I think it's the hardest position in sports and anybody can have a rough game. Even the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world can have a bad game. I've had bad games and I know how it feels.
"But at that position you have a short memory and you just flush it. That's something, we'll learn from it. We watched the film and it isn't all on Trevor. It's on the whole offense, guys getting open and giving him protection and things like that. Obviously, it's tough. But he's a strong dude. He comes to the sideline after throwing a pick and he's, `I'm going to get it back. I'm going to get it back.' We love that about him. He's always ready to get back in the fight."
"I remember growing up as a kid watching Michael Jordan play and when he missed shots, he just kept shooting. He didn't stop shooting," added Fitzgerald. "So I expect Trevor to keep playing, to keep gripping it and ripping it. That's his strength. When things don't go your way you don't sit there and panic, you don't pout about it. You just keeping doing what you do."
"Trevor's a guy, he doesn't get too high or too low," concluded wide out Rashad Lawrence, a Siemian teammate since they were high school freshmen together down in Florida. "He's not really affected by the elements. That's something I noticed at a very young age. But sometimes he can get to a point where he's trying to be too perfect, as we all can. We've just got to go out there and play. We've just got to go out there and execute."
THIS IS NOT A RECORDING: Iowa is on a two-game losing streak of its own and so, this week, the same question was thrown at Fitzgerald and Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz. "I don't believe in must-wins. I think every game is the same," was Fitzgerald's response.
Said Ferentz: "Basically, it's all week-to-week."
The Hawkeyes fell to Ohio State last Saturday and to Michigan State two weeks earlier. But in both cases they led at halftime, which led Ferentz to echo another Fitzgerald theme. "At times our execution was really good," he said here. "I thought our effort was good. I thought our preparation was good. The point is that we have to carry that forward. It can't be a once-in-a-while thing if you're in conference play."
The Hawkeyes' leading rusher is Buffalo Grove's Mark Weisman, who played at Stevenson high. The 6-foot, 236-pound junior is averaging five yards per-carry and 96.6 yards per-game. "We knew who Mark was," Fitzgerald said of him. "But obviously he's more of an I-back, fullback guy. From a spread offense standpoint, a little bit of a different guy than we're looking for."
The Hawkeye defense has surrendered just one first-quarter touchdown this season, and is limiting opponents to a mere 19.3 points and 319.3 yards per-game. It also did not allow a rushing touchdown until Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde ran for two last Saturday. Its key, said Fitzgerald, is "Probably the best linebacking corps in the league as a three-man group. There's great linebackers in this league. But these three understand the defense inside and out."
The most acclaimed of that group is four-year starter James Morris, who had 13 tackles against the Buckeyes and has 56 on the season. But its leading tackler is senior Anthony Hitchens, who has 70.
On offense, the Hawkeyes unveiled a three tight end formation against the Buckeyes and completed their first eight passes to one of them. "They had great success with it," said Fitzgerald. "As you look at what they were able to do, there were a couple issues coverage-wise that gave them big plays." No wonder, then, that Ferentz said this week, "We'll certainly keep it in our repertoire."
Their quarterback is sophomore Jake Rudock, who's in his first season as starter. He's 124-of-208 (59.6 percent) for 1,447 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven picks. He has also rushed 34 times for 147 yards and five more touchdowns.
The Hawkeyes possess one more threat in Kevonte Martin-Manly, their punt returner who's averaging a national-best 25.8 yards.
'Cats placekicker Jeff Budzien has hit 127 consecutive PATs. Hawkeye placekicker Mike Meyer has hit 105.
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, on Colter's expected return: "It would be a great shot in the arm if Kain comes back and plays. He's one of the more dynamic players in this conference and not to have that kind of weapon in our offense, you see the result the last two weeks. It's been pretty darn close to puke. We've got to get that guy back and going. It'll be great to have him back because he's a special player."
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