Football Roundtable: Writers talk Wildcats, Big Ten as season’s end approaches


Daily file photo by Jeremy Yu

Justin Jackson prepares for impact. The senior leads the team with 798 rushing yards on the season.

Tim Balk, Max Gelman, and Cole Paxton


Northwestern has made it through three quarters of its season, and what a season it has been. After stumbling out of the gate — losing in a stunning rout at Duke and dropping conference games to Wisconsin and Penn State — the team has hit its stride, rolling up four straight wins. The last three have come in overtime fashion, with a triple-OT win over vaunted Michigan State sandwiched between victories over Iowa and Nebraska. With three games remaining, three Daily football writers discuss the No. 25 Wildcats and the rest of the Big Ten.

1. The toughest portion of NU’s schedule lays behind it as the team faces Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois to close the season. None of those squads have been spectacular this fall — they’ve combined for just three Big Ten wins. But which of them is most likely to knock off the Cats?

Cole Paxton: A week ago I would’ve said Purdue, but then the Boilermakers lost starting quarterback David Blough to a dislocated ankle. Backup Elijah Sindelar has some experience, but he’s not a Big Ten-caliber starter. So I’ll say Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have been disappointing in P.J. Fleck’s first season, but have a history of playing NU competitive. Think last year’s 29-12 Minnesota beatdown — the two teams were roughly equals, but the Cats flopped completely. It’s still unlikely the Golden Gophers beat NU, but if Clayton Thorson struggles like he did in the third quarter against Nebraska, it’s possible.

Max Gelman: I’m also going to go with Minnesota. Even though the Golden Gophers haven’t been spectacular in P.J. Fleck’s first season, they still have the makings of a trap opponent. Minnesota is a team that nearly knocked off Michigan State in a similar fashion to the Cats, falling by three at home. Additionally, despite their 1-5 conference record, the Golden Gophers have posted the fifth-best defense overall in the Big Ten, better than ranked teams Penn State and Iowa. Though a Minnesota victory is still a long shot, it’s shorter than a Purdue or Illinois win.

Tim Balk: Guys, Purdue is not half-bad! Yes, they will enter Saturday banged up and with Blough done for the season. No matter, Purdue still represents the greatest challenge left on the slate for NU. The Boilermakers’ defense is vastly improved from the outfit the Cats shredded in West Lafayette a year ago, and it has held opponents to under 20 points in four of the past five games. Saturday’s game should develop into another mucked-up grind. Even with NU seemingly hitting its stride and a riled up nighttime crowd expected at Ryan Field, things could get dicey if the Cats offense plays as sloppy as it did in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers. As for Illinois and Minnesota, they’re both more than half-bad. NU will have a wide margin for error in each contest.

2. The Big Ten has gotten wacky lately, as both Penn State and Ohio State fell this weekend. Which team is the best in the conference right now?

Gelman: If I had to take any Big Ten team on a neutral field right now, it would probably be Wisconsin. The Badgers are the only undefeated team in the conference while everyone else has at least two losses, and even though they play in the inferior West division, they can still match up well with anyone. Wisconsin has two contests left against ranked opponents Iowa and Michigan, but both will be played at Camp Randall and should be no problem for the Badgers, who might just be the Big Ten’s last shot at a playoff game.

Balk: Wisconsin’s a fair pick, but the Badgers still haven’t played a team better than the Cats (pour one out for the Big Ten West), and their creaky offense doesn’t inspire incredible confidence. So I’ll still go with Penn State. The Nittany Lions ran into a buzzsaw the past couple of weeks at Ohio State and at Michigan State. But that’s an absolutely brutal back-to-back, and Penn State might have escaped it undefeated if not for a bonkers comeback from the Buckeyes and wild weather in East Lansing. The Nittany Lions are the conference’s most complete team and have the league’s best quarterback-running back combo. For my money, Trace McSorley is the scariest quarterback in the conference. Penn State is the scariest team.

Paxton: I also think Penn State is the best team in the conference. Yes, they’ve lost consecutive games, but they played well in both and still have the best players. They outplayed Ohio State until late in the game and suffered the wacky loss at Michigan State last week, and Saquon Barkley is the best playmaker in the conference. If winning games is the most important thing, Wisconsin is the clear choice, but the Badgers are untested. Take Penn State and any other Big Ten team on a neutral field today, and I like the Nittany Lions.

3. What will NU’s final record be? And will it constitute a successful season?

Balk: The Cats will win out. Purdue, healthy, might represent a 50-50 game on a neutral field. But NU has its mojo going, and it should pull out a win under the lights at Ryan Field. Minnesota, meanwhile, is taking on water. The Golden Gophers have lost five of their last six games and can’t score. Illinois is Illinois. It’s a bummer the Cats played a mediocre game at Wisconsin in October, because that game was winnable and NU would be right in the thick of things for an appearance in the Big Ten title game if it had. That said, 9-3 would be a solid showing from what has to be one of the most talented and fun teams in program history.

Gelman: Given the unpredictability of Wildcats football, I’m hesitant to predict NU winning its last three games. But the remaining schedule is just so awful I can’t imagine the Cats losing to anyone. Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois have combined for *three* Big Ten wins in 18 games. Even in the lackluster Big Ten West, that’s really bad. A 9-3 record would be somewhat of a success for NU, given the relatively high expectations entering the season, but only a bowl victory would truly be a triumph in Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s eyes, I’d imagine.

Paxton: The Wildcats will be 10-3, and that will make the season a qualified success. NU should roll through Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, and the muddle in the middle of the Big Ten means the Cats will end up in a mediocre bowl against an unimpressive opponent. Ten wins is a big deal for a program that doesn’t reach that mark often, and more credit to Fitzgerald. But there was enough talent on this roster to mount a charge in the Big Ten West, and three ugly losses early in the season deflated the season somewhat.

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Twitter: @TimBalk

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Twitter: @MaxGelman

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Twitter: @ckpaxton