Touching Base with ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg
Well, after a four day layoff, most of you will be checking the LTP ESPN Bowl Mania group standings that number more than 200 strong. The Poinsettia Bowl gets us back in to tracking our picks as BYU (LTP’s pick) faces San Diego State. I figured this was reason enough to check in with the man with his finger on the pulse of all things B1G and a regular in Evanston, ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg. AR recently interviewed Fitz for ESPN.com which you can see here and is somewhat of an essential set-up to today’s interview.
Also, we’d be remiss without at least mentioning the fact our 2013 conference road opening opponent, Wisconsin, named Gary Andersen, as their head coach. Andersen was most recently at Utah State and nearly knocked the Badgers off in Camp Randall in September. You can learn more about here on ESPN.com. Now, on to our interview
LTP: Your interview with Fitz was great. He was candid and even said things worth discussing, like the fact the media blows the impact of a bowl win or loss out of proportion. What’s your take on Fitz right now heading in to the bowl game? Looser than past, same or just better at trying to manage the media?
AR: I think he knows he has a good team that ended the season better than Mississippi State did. He also knows the bowl history with Northwestern, but he doesn’t have to play it up any more with the players like he did last year. The bowl monkey thing was good for laughs, but gimmicks like that often don’t work. Northwestern seems to be all business this season — a quietly confident group that knows it finally has a somewhat even matchup in the postseason. While I know why Fitz tries to minimize what a bowl win could mean, he hasn’t experienced one at NU, either, so he doesn’t really know the value. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who finally notched his first bowl win at the school in the 2012 Outback, has told me repeatedly how much that win resonated throughout the offseason and really helped the program in multiple ways.
LTP: That’s interesting on the Dantonio front. I’ve repeatedly heard Fitz talk about Dan Mullen and Mississippi State and the “wrinkles” that are tough to plan for, but you’ve come to expect. Do you get a sense that we’ll be going primarily with the Kain & Venric show or a dash of Trevor along with wrinkles on our own?
AR: With added prep time, you have to put some wrinkles into the game plan, and both teams will for this one. Kain clearly is the leader of the offense, and when he and Venric have the option going, Northwestern is virtually impossible to stop. But Trevor shouldn’t be the forgotten man, either. Although he needs to improve his accuracy and should as he gets older, he has made more big-time, NFL-type throws early in his career than I saw from previous Northwestern quarterbacks, including Persa. Siemian should have a role in this game, but it shouldn’t strictly be in low-percentage, obvious passing situations.
LTP: I’ve harped on the Michigan State finish in a good way. I believe that Fitz/McCall’s approach to the final ‘Cats possession was a potential seminal moment for the coaching staff in ditching the conservative, “play not to lose” mentality that hurt us in the Penn State and Nebraska games. Do you get a sense from the team how that game may or may not have changed things?
AR: While it’s only one game and Northwestern didn’t face a similar situation the next week against Illinois, I think it could suggest the late-game mentality has changed. We’ll only know the next time the Wildcats face that type of situation. The fact Northwestern had success against a very good MSU defense with Siemian suggests the coaches will go back to that approach if necessary against Mississippi State.
LTP: Bowl buzz. Is it just me or does it seem to be down in general for both NU and the B1G in general. For that matter, the Notre Dame national title hype is thankfully a lot less than I would’ve expected. What’s your take on this?
AR: It’s definitely down for the Big Ten, but what did you expect after a season like this? What’s there to get excited about if you’re a Big Ten fan? A 5-loss Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl? While Barry Alvarez makes that game a lot more interesting, it still doesn’t move the needle nationally that much. Nebraska fell apart in its last game and meets a Georgia team that might be even more glum after coming so close in the SEC championship. You have a Purdue team led by an interim coach and a Minnesota team that can’t score points. Sorry to sound like Scooge, here, but those are the facts. An 0-7 performance is quite possible, and a winning mark for the league would qualify as a huge shocker. Northwestern is actually one of the best stories in the Big Ten. Although the Wildcats would be getting more attention if they were in a bigger bowl game, the bottom line for NU is getting a win and eliminating that final negative, as Fitz would say.
LTP: You run in pretty connected media circles. What’s your take on the recent B1G additions and the impact it will have on NU?
AR: It’s hard to get too excited about Maryland and Rutgers from an on-field perspective. I get that. But for people like you and I who understand the expansion process a little deeper and what the Big Ten needs to do to remain relevant, it makes a lot of sense. Jim Delany isn’t just spouting lip service when he talks about demographics and the need to expand outside of the Big Ten footprint to areas with more people, more recruits, big TV markets. Maryland and Rutgers certainly fit this criteria. Still, as I wrote last month, the Big Ten is really betting on itself here. The league needs its existing product to resonate in these new markets. Should be interesting.
These additions are good for Northwestern because Northwestern, like some Big Ten schools, has so many alumni in New York/New Jersey and Washington D.C./Northern Virginia. Those folks now have more access to Northwestern games. It’s also very good for recruiting as both areas produce quite a few FBS players.
LTP: Adam, thanks for the check-in and we look forward to connecting after we seal this season by getting that long-awaited bowl win!
More Bowl Prep Angles
Yesterday, we talked about Teddy Greenstein’s coverage of Fitz and his bowl game approach this season and how it differs from when he first started bowling five seasons ago. Neil Hayes of the Sun-Times has a nice piece with a similar theme, this time with a bit more player perspective on the contrast between the more fun bowl prep and the all-business in season approach. Take a peak here.