Storyline Week Is Here

It has already started. Before I hit “publish” on this very post the storylines of the Northwestern visit to Penn State are already playing out.  As a writer, I’ve got to believe weeks like this are the ones you crave as the amount of material you need to create is minimal.  It writes itself.  Let’s dive in to the key storylines of the week, but first check out Teddy Greenstein’s article today which encapsulates much of what I’m about to write – you can get to it here.

  • Persa’s Health – Today at noon we expect to get the official word on what happened to Dan Persa.  We’re all holding our breath in hopes that a)he is healthy and b) can play this week.  We all know that if there is any way for him to play he will. Because….
  • Persa’s Penn State Storyline – Saturday will be the only chance Dan Persa has to show his home state team what they missed in person. The Bethlehem, PA native’s mom and sister are both Nittany Lion alums.  The “Persa was too small” to get serious looks from JoePa will setup a nice storyline as well.
  • Deja Vu All Over Again – Dan Persa got thrown in to the fire last Halloween when Mike Kafka went down in the 2nd quarter.  Persa had the ‘Cats entering the 4th tied when the house fell in and Penn State ripped off 21 unanswered points.  I’m hoping Evan Watkins is not going to get his chance replacing Dan Persa against the same team making a circular storyline. Nothing against Evan – I just want Dan healthy. 
  • #400 – Obviously the biggest storyline in the national media will be Joe Paterno’s attempt to win number 400.  This is the primary reason this game is getting the ABC time slot so the national media and national audience can turn the game in to a 3-hour tribute to JoePa.  Let’s hope the refs miss the memo.
  • JoePa-Fitz Comparisons – It happens all the time. “Fitz has a chance to be the next JoePa” is a phrase often thrown in reference to the fact that it is set up for Pat Fitzgerald to be a rare lifer as a head coach at Northwestern.  He has no interest in going anywhere nor do the fans hope he ever leaves.  In an era where Joe Paternos are dinosaurs, Fitz has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation type of icon associated with one school.  Obviously based on JoePa’s accomplishments Fitz would tell you he doesn’t belong in the same sentence – yet.
  • The Rudy Factor – Penn State QB Matt McGloin replaced starter Rob Bolden who sat because of a concussion and led Penn State to a primetime 41-31 win with 250 yards and some beautiful passing against the worst D in the Big Ten.  McGloin took on Kirk Herbstreit in his on-field postgame interview as Herby apparently picked Michigan in part because of the fact this untested former walk-on was stepping in at QB.  Let’s hope we don’t have a mirror trend of untested Evan Watkins stepping in to replace Dan Persa because of the same concussion issue.

Those are the no-brainer storylines.  Here are a few we’ll be tracking on LTP all week:

  • The big game jinx – NU has not performed all that well on ABC late afternoon games in general.  It’s unfair to say we haven’t performed well in big games – see Iowa, Wisconsin past two seasons – but when the lights get brighter we definitely haven’t played our best.  This game is huge for NU and the foregone conclusion by the national media that this JoePa infomercial will be all Penn State is just the type of underdog status we relish. 
  • Champions Are Crowned In November – Northwestern enters November arguably as the nation’s softest 6-2 team.  A couple plays away from 8-0 and a few away from 3-5 which has become the norm in the past couple of seasons.  Northwestern has been downright dominant in November going 9-4 in Fitz’s tenure and an amazing 6-1 in the past two seasons in November with the lone loss being a home game against #12 Ohio State.  We can’t even say the “task has never been tougher” as last year was a pretty stiff challenge with undefeated #4 Iowa on the road, #17 Wisconsin at home and the Illini. 
  • Program Turning Month – We can all agree any combination ranging from 4-0 and a possible Big Ten Co-Championship to 0-4 is completely conceivable.  I’m fairly certain we’d all take the certainty (if somehow we could) of a 2-2 November right now and call that a solid season.  The next 4 games will go a long way to cementing (or not) the consistency of the program as we’re building on a critical 2-years of 8+ wins and big time bowl games. 
  • Road Warriors – The much documented road success of NU (6 game win streak) will again be put to the test and under the scope as we continue to put up eye-popping road wins since the start of 2008
  • Milestone Madness – NU always seems to find themselves in the cross-hairs of milestone wins.  How have we fared and when have we played the spoiler?  I’m bummed about #400 as it will get so much attention on our game and I had hoped for Penn State to be eyeing Ohio State who is right behind us. 
  • The Vanderlinden Connection – It’s an old one by now, but former ‘Cats DC Ron Vanderlinden must be mentioned as he was Fitz’s coach and led the nation’s premiere “D” in Evanston.  Vanderlinden appears to be a lifer now at Penn State and it offers a lay-up storyline.


Some other thoughts from the weekend:

  • If we can somehow win on Saturday and Illinois wins as well, let’s hope the network and NU revisit the ESPNU distribution for the Wrigley game.  That game is going to be better than the best bowl atmosphere we could imagine.  It may deserve to get the ABC slot.  I’m getting pretty psyched for that game.
  • RichRod is gone.  Barring a miracle I see Michigan sputtering to the end of the season and RichRod getting the final nail in the coffin when Ohio State beats him by double digits.  And then as if there wasn’t enough spice in the ‘Cats life moving forward – here comes Jim Harbaugh who will be lured away by Stanford. 
  • Iowa plays angry.  Corbin Bryant made some noise last week saying how angry the “D” was and was going to take it out on Indiana.  While holding them to 17 points is solid, giving up 300 in the air isn’t exactly shutdown “D”.  Holding them to 65 yards rushing is fantastic, but if you want to see what playing angry looks like, good God, replay that Iowa game.  Thankfully they have Indiana the week before us (this week) so barring the upset of the season, they should be slightly less angry coming to Ryan Field.
  • Illinois’ “D” is scary good.  Illini DC Vic Koenning should be up for coach of the year even though he isn’t a head coach.  The Illini continue to just lockdown team after team and now their offense is gaining steam.  An amazing turnaround in Champaign and the only saving grace I have is that we’ll be playing them the week after the best defense in the conference – Iowa.
  • NO ONE Gives the Cats Love – Every Big Ten team of note that was playing would at some point have their upcoming schedule shown.  Every time Northwestern was on the schedule not one announcer referenced our game as a danger game (including Iowa).  When talking about the conference in general and showing the standings NU wasn’t mentioned once.  Got ’em right where we want them right?

Cross your fingers  – I likely won’t be right on the announcement so feel free to post.

  • Regarding playing a milestone spoiler, the only one that I can think of off the top of my head was beating Notre Dame in 1995 to prevent Lou Holtz from getting #200.

    As for the national spotlight, remember that we’ll be on ESPN2 in most of the country. Nebraska vs. Iowa State, Washington vs. Oregon, and North Carolina vs. Florida State are also ABC regional games at 2:30 this Saturday.

  • Drew

    Is RichRod definitely gone? I agree that Michigan isn’t going to get any more big wins, and has the potential to lose to Purdue and not even become bowl eligible. However, can’t Rodriguez just throw Greg Robinson under the bus and survive for another season? I know ultimately the wins/losses are on the head coach, but it would be hard to argue that Rodriguez’s offense has been anything less than spectacular this year. I would also wonder if they would want to go to a pro-style coach and potentially lose Robinson in a similar situation as Mallet when RR came in.

    I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if RR was fired, but I also wouldn’t count out the possibility of him coming back with a new defensive coordinator. Don’t get me wrong though, I’d love to see Michigan go to Harbaugh and waste another 4 years “rebuilding”, but I think they may let Rodriguez have another go with Shoelace next year (which scares me).

    As for the Penn State game, obviously we all really really want Persa to play, but if theres any risk of concussion I’d rather just take our lumps with Watkins and hope we can shut down McGloin.

    Also, does anyone find it weird that we always have our QBs get hurt around this time of year and the backups (save Kafka’s running against Minnesota) are pretty unspectacular…only to be incredibly spectacular when they get to start the next year? (Bacher/Kafka-2008, Kafka/Persa-2009) Is this a product of conservative play calling with the backups or just not enough reps in practice?

  • Lake The Posts

    @drew – definitely not reps in practice. It’s simple game experience. There is nothing that can replicate real game experience and there is a natural learning curve, confidence building build that occurs. NU’ s learning curve is very steep meaning our QBs learn quickly. Persa made a big leap from Penn State to Iowa last year and I’m convinced that experience catapulted his strong start this year. Same as Kafka (remember he went Indiana fumble, Ohio State learn on the fly against the best the Big Ten had to offer and THEN went nuts on Minnesota).

  • @LTP – Kafka faced Minnesota prior to the Ohio State game that year.

    @NUHighlights – Dammit, with those games at the same time as NU-PSU, almost zero chance the NU game will be on in Boston. The UNC-FSU game will certainly be shown as Boston has now become ACC country thanks to Boston College. Looks like for me.

  • Well, it sounds like the game is supposed to be on ESPN2 outside of the market everywhere, but we’ll find out when ESPN releases the map this week.

  • Smolmania

    Unfortunately i will be in Florida next weekend. Anyone know of a sports bar in Boca Raton that will have multiple televisions so that i can watch the game? I don’t see anything on LTP’s bar network listing. . .

  • Henry in CT

    I’m not sure that we all agree that anything from 0-4 to 4-0 is possible. I see them as a solid underdog in all four remaining games with only the game coming up at PSU as a possible chance for a win but with all the issues surrounding this game it probably wont happen. And PSU is not as bad as others here apparently think. In fact they aren’t bad at all. Their only losses are to Alabama, Iowa and last but not least Illinois which may be as good as anyone in the Big 10. Illinois has lost to Missouri, OSU and MSU teams which have a combined total of just three losses. Meanwhile NU hasn’t beat a team with a winning record and in fact the opposition they have beat so far has an average of only 2.5 wins. NU’s 6-2 is the result of very fortuitous scheduling so it is very misleading at best. They barely beat Minnesota which got killed 52-10 by OSU and they lost to Purdue which was annihilated 49-0 by OSU and 44-10 by Illinois. And NU’s wins and losses have been about as ugly as games possibly can be. It seems unlikely that all this bad play and mistakes are not going to be fixed overnight.

    The fact that NU pulled out some unexpected wins in November last year doesn’t mean anything because they are not playing on the level of last year and Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin are definitely better than last year. PSU has slipped a bit but not enough and they are at home with additional motivation. An NU win is not out of the question but not if they play the way they have been playing all year.

    There is also the Persa factor which is all important. It is hard to imagine that NU has any chance further without him but if he is all right and plays at PSU there is that additional home state angle that could be worth something. Let’s hope so.

  • wildcat6


    I would agree with your analysis of the ‘Cats schedule and the quality of their wins. You’ve looked at the quality of PSU’s losses, but then what about their wins? Michigan, Minnesota, Temple, Kent State and Youngstown State. Not all that different from NU. PSU actually trailed Temple for much of that game. Nothing against Temple, which may be the best team in the MAC.

    I’d say we’ll find out a lot more about each of these teams in November, because they’re in about the same place – decent record, but no real quality wins of note.

  • Henry in CT


    PSU’s wins have been against teams with an average of four wins and Temple is probably the best team they have played but who knows about Michigan which has been ranked as high as #19? PSU used to play a strong out of conference schedule but now they seem to play just one decent non-Big 10 team and three they expect to trounce but that said their schedule so far has been definitely stronger than the absurdly weak NU schedule and PSU has played a lot better than NU IMO. Their last four games in addition to NU include OSU, Indiana and MSU so I think 8-4 is possibility for them. Their shot at 8-4 is certainly a lot better than ours is.

  • kinsella316

    Per NU_Sports twitter – Persa going through post concussion tests but Fitz fully expects him to start on Saturday at Penn State.

  • d

    Looks like Persa is listed as the starter.

    I’m really excited for this game – the DC club has chartered a bus for 40 of us to Happy Valley. It will be my first game in one of the B10 superstadiums. We will do our best to rep the small block of purple in the white out.

  • I wish I could go. It’ll be the only game the rest of the way I won’t be attending.

    While we wait for the final word on Persa Thursday, we can enjoy the QB controversy at Penn State.

  • David in Dallas

    Speaking of the QB controversy at PSU, I was reading this before checking in over here:

  • @Henry in CT (Re: Strength of Schedule)

    I agree that NU hasn’t looked overly impressive in terms of who it has beat so far this year, but the ‘Cats were in it until the very end in both of their losses and lost those mostly thanks to some undisciplined play/unforced errors. Penn State, meanwhile, was pretty much demolished in their 3 losses (combined score of 81-19) – and those 3 teams arguably had the best defenses PSU has seen all season. Also, as others have mentioned, the teams that PSU has beaten are of approximately the same caliber of those that NU has beaten (note that Michigan’s defense is horrid and is now leading the highly anticipated slide to bowl purgatory/elimination).

    I believe NU’s defense is better than the 5 teams that PSU has beaten, which will go a long way against a still inexperienced QB (whichever one ends up starting) especially if the ‘Cats can contain the running attack the way they did to MSU.

    In any case, while this game is certainly win-able for NU, it’s not a gimme and any Big Ten road game is tough, but particularly in Happy Valley. This should be an entertaining game.

    @Drew/LTP (Re: NU QBs)

    I believe practice reps with the first team goes a LONG way in college football. There aren’t that many reps to be had in practice, and getting the timing down and getting in sync with the receivers is a key component in NU’s current offense that necessitates practice reps. Yes, game time goes a long way, but getting thrown into the action without much practice time with the guys on the field is very tough. Even getting a week or more worth of practice is a big plus in such a system. I believe this has a lot to do with the progress one has seen from the last 2 NU QBs after taking over.

  • Not to go totally off-topic today, but I have a pair of tickets to the NU-PSU game this Saturday that I cannot use. They are excellent seats. I’m willing to sell them for what I paid. If there is interest, please contact me at numbspiritleader [at] gmail [dot] com. I’ll pay for shipping. Thanks and GO CATS!

  • Hey @NUHighlights

    If you are willing to trudge all the way to GameOn! at Fenway, the Boston NU Alum Club is there every week (only have to deal with tOSU people on the other side of the bar)
    Join us!

    – Dammit, with those games at the same time as NU-PSU, almost zero chance the NU game will be on in Boston. The UNC-FSU game will certainly be shown as Boston has now become ACC country thanks to Boston College. Looks like for me.

  • Adam

    @Henry and other self-loathing NU fans out there-

    Why do our own fans come here to have a contest about how pessimistic they are? I’m not arguing in favor of unabashed homer-ism. But I just don’t see the point of posts showing how conceivable it is for us to lose out. If you’re tempering someone’s over-the-top homer-ism, declaring that we’ll certainly run the table, than I’m all in favor of it; we can be constrained and have good rational discussion. But it seems like a lot of our own fans have some serious issues with having a little faith in their own team. Seriously Henry, Iowa is better than last year? Last year they were 8-0 at this point and thinking national title. I’m all in favor of realism, but you have to apply that same logic to other teams. These are college teams: they all make mistakes and have off games and they’re all fallible (not just NU). Thanks to JHodges and Wilcat6 for calling out a little more balanced analysis. I think a little pessimism is healthy, but have a reason for it. While we make a lot of mistakes, other teams do to. We’re not the only team capable of beating ourselves or of having a breakout game.

  • NUCat93

    @Adam : Plus 1 for you on the pessimism from some. Well said.

  • By the way, LTP, I don’t see the Wrigley game being moved from ESPNU. The Iowa vs. Ohio State game seems like a safe bet for the ABC slot, which is the only other 2:30 option.

  • CSCat

    @Smolmania: I recommend Duffy’s Sports Grille – not far from the Town Center Mall in Boca. Address is 21212 St. Andrews Blvd. Plenty of tv’s and great food.

  • bjm989

    Adam – thank you…the pessimism truly surprises me sometimes…I just wonder, do these guys look at everything else in life through that same lens? I hope not. If our coaches and players thought this way, we’d have no chance with this mentality. I’d like to see all of our fans thinking the same way as our coaches and players as we enter these games.

  • Lake The Posts

    Love the debate on pessimism/optimism. Indeed – not sure how anyone – based on ’08, ’09 can take a shot at the conceivable range of 4-0 to 0-4. We’ve got a shot in every single game as we have had all year. Penalties, takeaways will be key as they always are. The atmosphere at Wrigley will be a HUGE advantage to NU as I’m certain it will be 75% purple. This Saturday is huge. Can you imagine what it will be like entering a sold out Ryan Field at 7-2 and ranked against a top 15 Iowa? So much to be excited about…

  • zeek

    And LTP, that’d mean we got a nice win on regional ABC with the followup game put on ESPN. I assume if we win this weekend, next week is going to be ESPN instead of ESPN2.

  • Henry in CT

    I think I’m being realistic or maybe this comes from following NU football for over 40 years (I left in 1970). The NU fan base continues to hope and so do I when there is some basis but I have to chalk up this year as a big disappointment so far. These have been ugly mistake-filled games whether they have won or lost and I can assure you that outside of the NU fan base there is almost no love or respect for NU. If they are ever going to change this now is the time against PSU this weekend. A win would give them the momentum to get at least one more win out of the remaining three and a good bowl. But I don’t think it will happen because I honestly don’t think there has been progress under Fitzgerald because he hasn’t recruited even as well as Walker and certainly not as well as Barnett although the 2011 class is an indication that they are at last going in the right direction. It is not a top 25 class but it is apparently in the top three or so in the conference which is something that hasn’t been done for a long time at NU.

  • Regarding optimism/pessimism, I choose to look at it optimistically – we’re 6-2 in a year that many thought would be pretty much a rebuilding year post Kafka and Co. Yeah the team could be 8-0 if they played cleaner and played the full 60:00 (vice 58:00 or so minutes). But it could be worse.

    Having been around during the Dark Times, there is no comparison – Northwestern football has taken several quantum leaps forward. The next four games will likely be a crap-shoot. I believe that the Wildcats could go 4-0 to finish out the season – it might not be probable, but it is more likely than the Cats collapsing and going 0-4. Besides, how many teams do we know who wish they were as successful as NU? There’s Notre Dame, Indiana, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Rice, and…

    Go Cats!

  • NU_Roger

    “I can assure you that outside of the NU fan base there is almost no love or respect for NU. If they are ever going to change this now is the time against PSU this weekend.”

    One game against a mediocre PSU team will change the perception of NU? Well, I suppose that anything can happen. Personally, I will attest to at least 6 Auburn fans whom I spoke with after the game that said they really respect our team’s character and style of play. None spoke of loving us though. :)

    Let’s spoil Joe Pa’s 400th!

  • bjm989

    Henry – do you realize that if people like you (sorry, I can only judge your posts, so I could be wrong about you) led our program 1995 never would have happened and we wouldn’t have enjoyed any of the success since? I find it interesting that some of the older fans are so cynical. The dark ages are over, but we can’t seem to rid the mentality that often fills your posts. If we had to start fresh and pick our fans, do you think you’d be picked? I’m all for well reasoned constructive criticism, but I am trading you from my NU ‘Cats Fan fantasy team. LTP, you’re still starting – thanks for your amazing support of our program.

  • Adam

    @Henry- I didn’t mean to single you out, lots of people made similar posts and expressed similar sentiments. I just wanted to infuse a little life into the optimists that read this blog after what I thought were some overly pessimistic posts the last few days from a number of commentators. I’ve followed LTP for a while and it’s clear from your comments that you’re a devoted, loyal fan.

    @bjm989- I’m sure as a regular LTP reader you know we’re in no position to have a fan draft. We’re still picking fans and we’ll take every one we can get!

    I really appreciate that NU fans make an honest effort to be objective, instead of only trying to look through our purple tinted glasses. I just don’t want us to be too cool for school wearing dark, dark shades either.

  • Richard

    –If Michigan doesn’t become bowl elgible (which means the Wolverines losing to Purdue) RichRod is definitely gone.

    –Hopefully everyone here has access to ESPN2 now. Is everyone aware that, due to the BigTen’s reverse mirror agreement, our 3:30 game is always available anywhere in the country on an ESPN network?

    –I think the problem is that people like Henry got their hopes unrealistically high and now they’re unrealistically pessimistic. I find both extremes annoying. Before the season started, I thought the ‘Cats would finish somewhere from 6-6 to 8-4. Now I think they’ll finish at 6-6 or 7-5. Nothing to get too excited or depressed about. The team is what it is. That doesn’t mean fans should talking about Arkansas St. like they’re going to challenge for a BCS bowl. Unrealistic negativity is more irritating than unrealistic positivity.

  • wcgrad

    -w/r/t optimism
    I can’t help but feel somewhat optimistic about the home stretch of the season. I don’t have stats to back it up, but it seems that Fitz’s teams consistently improve throughout the season. Do the numbers verify this? Anecdotally, this was the case last season with a really solid November. Since the bye, the team has looked much improved in its biggest problem areas of Defense and running the ball – at least with the eye test – against two of the three best teams played to this point. That said, the penalties still make me want to go Oedipus Rex on my eyes.

    Should we be worried about our offensive execution? It’s been very sporadic since half-time of the MSU game. We are committing too many drive killing penalties or negative plays to dink and dunk our way down the field. We need to get big plays to find the endzone consistently. Also, I was watching the ’09 highlights the other night, seemed that we ran the WR lateral/pass almost every week, but I can’t remember having seen it in the last 2 games. We could use some misdirection to slow down the pass rush and spring a big play.

    Penn State
    As far as Penn State, there are a million ways which we can blow this weekend’s game, but I don’t think we are overmatched in any phase, and I think our offense, on the occasions they execute, might be more dangerous than Penn State’s. I expect another thriller – something like 27-24 NU.

  • bjm989

    Henry – please accept my apologies for singling you out – it wasn’t necessary to make my point. My point was that building this program takes the right kind of support on all levels.