September 22, 2010

Q & A with Northwestern

ChippewaCountry was recently able to catch up with Louie Vaccher of for a "six-pack" question and answer segment. Look below as Vaccher answers numerous questions about the Northwestern program and their contest against the Central Michigan Chippewas this Saturday.

1) Northwestern is 3-0 with wins over Vanderbilt, Illinois St. and Rice. What has been your impression of the team over the first three weeks?

WildcatReport: The Wildcats are starting to put it all together in all three phases, and that's just the way coach Pat Fitzgerald would have wanted it with the start of the Big Ten season just a week away.

Against Vanderbilt, Northwestern was dominant in the first half but then let the game get way too close for comfort in the fourth quarter. Illinois State was a blowout and coach Pat Fitzgerald pulled quarterback Dan Persa and most of the starters early in the third quarter. Against Rice, the defense played a great all-around game until the second unit gave up a bunch of yards and a TD in garbage time.

Offensively, Persa has been brilliant and the passing game is clicking -- the running game, however, may be the weakest aspect of the team. Defensively, the Wildcats have been better than expected and already have nine turnovers to their credit. And special teams, after some problems with placekicking, look to better than they have in years in terms of punting and kick coverage.

2) QB Dan Persa has been about perfect this season. How has he developed into one of the best QB's in the early college football season, what are his strengths and weaknesses, and how would you compare him to Kafka?

WildcatReport: Northwestern fans were optimistic about Persa, but there's no way anyone expected him to be the No. 2 quarterback in the country in terms of passing efficiency. His strengths are his decision making, his accuracy and his running ability. He has thus far been almost perfect in the passing game, completing 81.6 percent of his throws, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. He can throw very well on the run and has also been Northwestern's biggest threat running the ball this season, ranking second on the team with 129 rushing yards. At 6-foot and 210 pounds, Persa is a lot shorter and stockier than Kafka, but their games are actually pretty similar.

It's hard to find fault in a QB with a quarterback rating near 200 (192.6), but he does have a tendency to hold onto the ball too long at times. But that seems like nitpicking a guy that has thrown 14 incompletions through three games.

3) Northwestern has always been a team that is in the bottom half of the Big Ten in recruiting rankings, yet always finish in the upper half in the win column. Why do you think that is and what is their key to success on the recruiting trail?

WildcatReport: I would point to two factors.

First, Northwestern is a "development program." Their strength always has been turning what recruiting experts call average prospects into productive Big Ten football players through coaching and player development. The Wildcats like to redshirt true freshmen, playing only a few per year, and I would wager than they lose fewer players to attrition (grades, leaving the team, etc.) than any other Big Ten program. The players know their system and their assignments, and they just execute their game plan better than most teams. Northwestern doesn't beat itself very often.

The other thing NU does well is target their recruits. Fitzgerald likes to say that he looks for kids that are the "right fit." That means that they have to have the grades to get admitted, certainly, but it also means that the player is hard working, smart and disciplined. The Wildcats have played their systems for quite a while now -- they brought the spread to the Big Ten 10 years ago -- and they know exactly the type of players that fit into them.

4) Northwestern has started off very strong on defense and forced a ton of turnovers. How would you assess the play of the defense thus far and what positions are strengths?

WildcatReport: The Wildcats defense has been stronger than many expected. They have been solid in all three games and lately have been making big plays with turnovers (six interceptions, three fumbles and a TD last week).

At the beginning of the season I would have said that the strength of the defense, and the team, was the linebacker corps. But I think the front four has been the best unit through the first three games. Tackles Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant are a handful in the middle, and Vince Browne is an elite-level end, registering three sacks in the last two games. The only real question mark this season was in the secondary, where Northwestern lost three starters from last season. Thus far, however, they've been sound -- although they have yet to be really tested.

5) What do you feel will be the keys for victory against Central Michigan?

WildcatReport: Northwestern's running game is its Achilles heel, and I don't expect things to magically improve against a team that's allowing less than 80 rushing yards per game. Offensively, the Wildcats will do what they do best -- take what the defense gives them and try to dink-and-dunk the Chippewas to death with the short passing game. The key will be Persa. If the Wildcats protect him and he is as good as he has been in the first three games, they should be able to score enough points to win.

Defensively, Northwestern will drop that safety close to the line to limit Paris Cotton and then try to make quarterback Ryan Radcliff beat them. The key will be putting pressure on Radcliff, who will likely be the biggest test yet for NU's secondary.

And it goes without saying that Northwestern will have to take care of the football and limit turnovers.

6) Although CMU has won three of the last four MAC Championships, they are still in the MAC and the Big Ten is notorious for sub-standardizing the conference. What is the Northwestern view on the CMU program and do you think the Wildcats could overlook CMU with Big Ten play looming?

WildcatReport: I don't think there's much of a chance that Northwestern will overlook Central Michigan. The Wildcats have lost to plenty of MAC teams in the past, and just last season they were pushed to the limit by two MAC teams (Eastern Michigan and Miami) that went on to win a combined one game. Northwestern knows fully well how dangerous Central Michigan is. If they get beat, it won't be because of overconfidence.

Stick to ChippewaCountry for the latest in CMU athletics and recruiting.

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