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Outback Bowl Preview: Northwestern Q&A with InsideNU

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On Northwestern's defense, its freshman quarterback, and why this is the biggest game in a couple years for the Wildcats.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

We open bowl week with a more in-depth look at Northwestern thanks to SB Nation's Inside NU, where Zach Pereles was good enough to trade questions and answers with us:

The surface level story on Northwestern this year is, "good defense, bad offense."  How much truth is in that?  Do you feel like Northwestern's offense isn't getting enough credit?

That's pretty much it, except it could really be "really, really good defense, really, really bad offense." Northwestern's offense has shown signs of life-- see the second half against Nebraska and the first half against Illinois-- but in general, has been very bad and at times unwatchable. It has been timely, though.

What was the biggest difference from your perspective in the two big losses to Michigan and Iowa as opposed to the ten wins?

The Wildcats were completely unable to stop or establish the run in their two losses. Against Michigan, NU ran 25 times for 38 yards, and against Iowa, it was 26 times for 51 yards. On the opposite side, Michigan ran for 201 yards and Iowa had 294. Northwestern needs to be able to run the ball so it stays ahead of the sticks and avoid depending on Clayton Thorson to make plays, and it needs to be able to stop the run and force teams to throw against a very good secondary.

In our initial preview we found Northwestern's defense hadn't necessarily made a name for themselves with huge plays (sacks/turnovers/TFLs), but was incredibly consistent at just getting teams off the field in the ten wins.  Are there more exotic things Northwestern has done defensively that we missed or we might look for in the Outback Bowl?

Northwestern doesn't get a ton of big plays defensively, but the big plays it does get often come at critical junctures of the game. Against Wisconsin, it was a last-second sack near its own endzone to prevent the Badgers from scoring. Earlier in the year, it was a pick-six from Nick VanHoose (who will miss the bowl game with an injury) against Nebraska. There have been several other big plays at key moments. The team has two terrific defensive ends-- Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson-- as well as an All-American linebacker in Anthony Walker. The secondary is just about as solid as they come. Overall, Northwestern's defense is very good and makes enough big plays to help the team win.

How have you seen freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson progress over the course of the year?  With Justin Jackson getting nearly 25 carries per game and 72 in the last two games, how important is Thorson to what Northwestern wants to do offensively?

The biggest area Thorson has shown progress in is his decision-making. He has thrown seven interceptions this year, but just two in his past five games. In general, he has looked more comfortable in the pocket as well. Overall, though, his role in this offense is very limited: don't turn the ball over, make the simple play and use your legs when needed. When the rushing attack struggles, he struggles; he's much better when he doesn't have to do much.

We know Northwestern is looking for just its third bowl win in program history in its first appearance since 2012.  How important is this game for Northwestern, and what is the expectation for the program going forward under Pat Fitzgerald?

It has seemed like ever since the back-to-back losses, every game has been "the most important game of the year." Get back on track versus Nebraska, prove it's still legitimate versus Penn State, survive a trap game versus Purdue, prove it can beat the upper-middle tier of the Big Ten versus Wisconsin and finally take back the Land of Lincoln Hat versus Illinois. But this undoubtedly is the biggest game for Northwestern since College Gameday came to Evanston in Week 6 of 2013, not only because of the stage, but also to prove Northwestern belongs. The Wildcats have been completely outclassed by two of the three Top-25 opponents it has faced. A win here would make this team legitimate and among the nation's top teams. As far as expectations going forward, fans want to see Pat Fitzgerald build off this season's success by winning on the recruiting trail and on the field, challenging for the Big Ten West crown, especially considering the amount of young talent on the team.

Northwestern wins if ____________.

It establishes the run. That's the recipe for success. Northwestern is a ground-and-pound, smashmouth team on offense, not necessarily by design but because of its personnel. And Pat Fitzgerald likes that. If Northwestern can run the ball well, especially on first and second down, that not only keeps responsibility off Clayton Thorson's shoulders, but also keeps a high-powered Tennessee offense off the field.

Give us your prediction for the Outback Bowl.

It's been a magical season for Northwestern, but this is where offensive ineptitude catches up with the Wildcats. Tennessee 24, Northwestern 13