Everything seemed tense and meaningful this week — like desperation set in. Jack Konopka, Greg Kuhar and Ifeadi Odenigbo/Mick McCall engaged in some extracurricular discussions, only natural given the gravity of this week. If the Wildcats lose, they will be that much closer to missing bowl eligibility, so you could argue that this all made sense.
As Pat Fitzgerald maintains his optimistic tone, the players' anxieties are collectively mounting. One major victory, and they'll remind us of their once-lofty potential. Another loss would force them to stare, frankly, at the prospects of a winless Big Ten slate. That would raise several questions regarding the state of this program.
For now, Fitzgerald's team will need to show its trademark mental toughness and compete at Lincoln. Nebraska figures to be motivated after an inexcusable loss to Minnesota, one in which the Golden Gophers ran for 271 yards and exposed the entire Huskers' defense.
With Taylor Martinez out, the Wildcats can't blame injuries if they lose. The front seven–solid in recent weeks–needs to slow down talented fill-in Tommy Armstrong. More importantly, Fitzgerald and McCall are tasked with improving the offense, which has underachieved in recent weeks. One word to define this game for Northwestern: pressure. It's on.
On Matt Harris
I posed this question to a football-loving friend recently: "How do you overstate the value of Matt Harris?" Neither of us formed a cohesive answer. It begins with the much-needed future hopes; Harris has an even higher ceiling than Nick VanHoose. He walked onto the practice field this offseason prepared to fight for a role. Harris absorbed the playbook quickly, settling into Mike Hankwitz's defensive schemes. He also flashed bursts of athleticism, but the poise truly stood out.
Given the circumstances, I thought Harris was superb in his first career start. This wasn't any cupcake opponent. Iowa and sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock are capable of moving the ball, and when the run fizzled, he began to challenge the young cornerback. Only thing is: Harris doesn't play like a freshman. He tackled well, recovered from minor errors and delivered a high-caliber performance that gave us a glimpse of the future secondary.
"Kid can play," VanHoose said of Harris this week. Sylvan Lane added in his practice notes that Harris was one of the team's best players. He doesn't take a snap off. Gushing aside, again, it's difficult to overstate the value of having a stud freshman corner. I'd argue, too, that Harris has serious All-Big Ten potential.
On the injuries
They're impossible to avoid: NU's disastrous string of injuries will impact the game plan this weekend. In one surprise, Mike Trumpy–who did not practice this week–is out for Saturday's game. Warren Long and Venric Mark join him, of course, forcing Fitzgerald to play only two running backs once again. Despite some creative play calling, including sweeps to Dan Vitale, Northwestern faces another deficit on the ground.
One source close to the program told PurpleWildcats.com the following: "If he doesn't play again this year, he'll be back." Also important to note is that NU's 2014 recruiting efforts have quieted down, and you could very, very easily speculate that this is related to uncertainty surrounding scholarship numbers. This should be the continuing story throughout the coming weeks.
Dean Lowry is also out after suffering a lower body injury early in last week's game. This will translate to enhanced roles for Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — two players who are certainly capable of filling the void. Still, following his outstanding September, Lowry needs to wait until 2014 before posting that elusive complete season. We'll monitor his status closely in the upcoming weeks.
On the depth chart
NU continues to experiment with new personnel — an impressive look for a team that prides itself on loyalty. The decision to start Matt Harris marked one positive step, and several other intriguing moves followed. They've been flexible in approaching the running back situation, as Malin Jones moved to superback and Stephen Buckley quickly adopted a feature back role. With two active running backs yet again, Buckley and Treyvon Green might both need career efforts to lead a winning effort at Nebraska.
It appears as though Matt Frazier earned the right guard position, permanently. This was the plan before Frazier injured himself during bowl practice. Then, Ian Park moved to right guard, doing enough to earn his spot with the "ones." The Wildcats reverted to their old plan, with Park facing scrutiny after multiple questionable outings. The redshirt freshman–in a situation similar to Dwight White–will certainly contribute to this team's future regardless of this decision.
One thing we can admire from NU: They strike the perfect balance of developing the right talent while avoiding quick hooks. They respect their players, making transitions whenever truly necessary. It doesn't seem desperate, either. They've stockpiled enough talent to experiment with various rotations. These changes needed to be made.
Three Stars from Practice
Kain Colter— Lane and I agreed that Colter was excellent in both open practices. I've admired his poise during the recent slide; he could easily be pouting in his senior season. Instead, the senior is wearing his fiercely competitive nature with pride — leading to an excellent return against Iowa. He's key to this weekend's game.
Sean McEvilly — His injury certainly hurt the team in October. Now, he's looking near peak form. McEvilly gained push up front on Tuesday against a shaky offensive line — demonstrating the speed that put him atop the depth chart. Expect him to receive a full starter's workload in Lincoln.
Pierre Youngblood-Ary — Perhaps one day, Youngblood-Ary can establish himself for Northwestern. I'm not sure what the redshirt sophomore did to bury himself on the depth chart. But regardless, he's an excellent practice player week in and week out. An impressive physical wideout, he ran solid routes and should work his way into future game plans.