Lowes Line
2011 Posted


The Complete 2011 Lowes Line Predictions

The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2011 season it returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!

Boston College Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (0-0) at Boston College Eagles (0-0)

Date: Saturday, September 3, 2011, 11:00 CDT


Line: NU (+3); some outlets taking the game off the board.


Welcome back, 'Cat fans. We're at it again at the Lowes Line for 2011, a season that has a lot of High Hopes, to reach into the Barnett archives. After a 2010 season that had a great deal of promise, it ended again on a sour note, as the ‘Cats dropped their final three games after a 7-3 start and failed to win a bowl game.

In addition to this week's season opener in Chestnut Hill, the 2011 schedule has NU marching into West Point in its other non-conference road game, while hosting Eastern Illinois and Rice outside of conference play. On the B1G Ten slate, NU embarks on trips to Champaign, Iowa, Indiana, and Nebraska, while Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan State pay visits to Evanston.

Following the addition of Nebraska (the “other” NU) to the conference, bringing the number of teams in the Big Ten to twelve, the powers-that-be created two divisions, "Legends" and "Leaders." Northwestern is in the Legends division, along with Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The winners of each division will meet in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in December, the winner getting the Rose Bowl invite, assuming they are not in the BCS Championship Game.

The talk since last November has been all about quarterback Dan Persa, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon while throwing the winning TD pass against Iowa last season. His surgery, rehab, and comeback have been well-chronicled over the past ten months.

While only two letters long, "IF" is a pretty big word, and has a lot of meaning. Consider:

· If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same...

· If the queen had stones, she'd be king.

· If Woody had gone right to the police, this would have never happened.

You get the idea. So it goes with NU. If Dan Persa is healthy, this team should be no worse than 8-4. Persa is (was?) an incredibly versatile QB, as accurate as they come, and with the mobility before the injury to make plays on the ground. But will he be healthy enough to play, and if so, how much will his mobility be compromised?

Kain Colter, a true sophomore who got plenty of reps in the Ticket City Bowl, could very well be the main man if Persa is unable to go. Colter is no slouch, and fueling the speculation that Persa will start the season on the sidelines, has taken the bulk of the snaps with the first team this week. Colter is arguably already better than Persa as a running quarterback, but his skills throwing the ball need work. If Colter gets the call this week, he is likely going to have to throw the ball with some success in order for NU to pull out a victory.

Northwestern has been running back by committee for a couple years now, and that committee has been less than spectacular. Look for the committee scenario to continue in week one, as sophomores Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith have failed to win the starting job outright, and senior Jacob Schmidt is likely to get some time as well, and potentially be named the starter. The offensive line is an experienced bunch and should provide the backs an opportunity to put up some decent numbers. If we do see Colter throwing the ball, he won’t have a shortage of targets. Jeremy Ebert has garnered a fair amount of pre-season accolades, and along with Drake Dunsmore and Demetrius Fields, the air attack for NU should be solid regardless of who’s under center.

Defensively, all anyone remembers from last year are the meltdowns over the final three games of the season. They were ugly performances for sure, but the unit as a whole had been playing reasonably well up to that point. Certainly losing Persa had something to do with the unit being on the field more at the end of the year, but it sounded like an excuse. Going into this season, all eyes will be on DE Vincent Browne, who has the talent to play on Sundays. Browne had seven sacks last year, and is being touted as one of the best ends in the conference.

The linebacking corps seems to be a weak spot defensively, which is sad to say, given the pedigree of the head coach. We don’t have a main man in this unit, which may result in the team’s leading tackler again being in the secondary. This defensive backfield has some strong returning talent, with seniors Jeravin Matthews and Jordan Mabin at the corners.

Boston College doesn't really scare anyone with their offense, and NU’s defense should be able to contain them. BC running back Montel Harris was named Preseason ACC Player of the Year, but is out with a knee injury. His backup, Andre Williams, has also been bitten by the injury bug, nursing an ankle sprain, but will likely be ready to go.

The defense is where BC will look to make plays. Linebacker Luke Kuechly anchors the unit. He’s a tough, smash-mouth, prototypical linebacker, and will wreak havoc on NU if not kept in check. If Colter gets the nod for NU at QB and the gameplan calls for a conservative run-based approach, Kuechly could have a field day.

So what will happen? From the looks of things, if Persa starts or plays at all, it won’t be for an extended amount of time. He just doesn’t appear to be fully recovered. Colter will need to keep the BC defense thinking he will throw the ball, as they’ll be looking run first. Without some plays out of the passing game, it could be a long day. I think it happens, though. Colter is a solid athlete, and has the skills needed to make the plays to win while the defense does just enough.

This is a key game for NU. It’s by far the toughest season-opening opponent in the Fitz era, and getting off to a strong start will be important for this team, especially if Persa spends significant time wearing a headset instead of a helmet.

PICK: Wicked pissah for NU in Beantown.

Northwestern 24, Boston College 20. Take the ‘Cats and the points

Eastern Illinois Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Eastern Illinois (1-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (1-0)

Date: Saturday, September 10, 2011, 2:30 pm CDT


Line: No line but Sagarin Ratings have NU at 74.26 and EIU at 49.39 essentially making the spread 26 points. I'’ll go with that number.


Kain is Able. The Mark of Kain. These were some of the headlines used after the NU-BC game this week. Kain Colter started in place of Heisman hopeful Dan Persa as Persa recovers from his Achilles injury. NU’s collective fan base all held their breath hoping for a solid performance.

The game started on a sour note as the first play from scrimmage had a BC tailback rush through the left side for 69 yards. Jordan Maybin had a touchdown saving tackle inside the 10 and the defense held BC to a field goal. That stop was crucial as going down 7-0 early could have been devastating. After tying the game at 3, a Colter INT led to a BC score and the ‘Cats were down 10-3. Fortunately, as the headlines state, Colter was able to lead NU down the field prior to halftime scoring on a 3 yard keeper to tie the game.

The ‘Cats came out strong in the second half with a strong rushing game shades of Tyrell Sutton prior to all of his injuries (just watched the ’05 Wisconsin game and was just amazed at how Sutton carried the first tackler several yards after first contact). Trumpy was huge scoring on a 5 yard run. A stout D (when’s the last time that was said about a NU defense) in the 3rd quarter and another touchdown had the ‘Cats up 24-10.

BC wasn'’t done and scored with 6 minutes left but subsequent drives fizzled. A new rule that calls for a 10 second runoff for an offensive penalty brought the clock to 4 seconds left and Browne had the knockout blow as the ‘Cats held on 24-17.

Colter threw for 197 yards on a 17/24 day and rushed for an additional 71. Trumpy pleasantly surprised with 85 yards on the ground on only 15 carries. Colter played well enough to beat BC but has some growing pains as a starting quarterback. Fitz said it best (I'’m paraphrasing from memory) that Kain is sore today because of Kain. Christian Jones is an exciting freshman and will stretch the field while Ebert is the consummate crossing the middle man. The defense was a typical bend don’t break NU, but will need to play better to beat B1G opponents. The rushing defense was strong outside of the first play from scrimmage while the passing D gave up 375 yards and too many conversions on 3rd down. All in all a solid effort but more work has to be done.


The EIU Panthers are coming off a strong win against rival Illinois State 33-26. The game was highlighted by 2 safeties. How often does that happen? Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 304 yards including the winning touchdown with a couple minutes left. NU must stop Lorence Ricks on the outside and I see a steady dose of Jordan Maybin on him all day. EIU’s running game didn’t show much last week as their leading rusher had 52 yards rushing. The ‘Cats will be playing without Jack DiNardo this week and Persa is listed as “day-to-day” but likely will not play. Key to the game will be a strong pass rush as NU’s depth (did I just write NU’s depth) on the D-line will be pushing on the EIU offensive line all day. The ‘Cats need to attack early and often and put this game out of reach quickly. Let’s get some reps for the 1C QB and 2nd stringers. This may be the only game all year, some of these guys can get some reps.

PICK: On Evanston Week and Heroes Day, the ‘Cats take down the Panthers.

Northwestern 38, Boston College 10. Take the ‘Cats and give the points


Straight up 1-0

Against the Spread 1-0 (great call by Lowes Line last week as prediction was almost dead on accurate)

Army Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-0, 0-0) at Army Black Knights (0-2)

Date:  Saturday, September 17, 2011, 2:30 pm CDT

TV: CBS Sports Network

Line:  NU (-9.5)



“None shall pass!”

The Wildcats attempt to cross the Michie Stadium bridge guarded by the Black Knight(s), coming off a victory against I-AA Eastern Illinois.  While NU was never threatened by EIU, the easy 42-21 victory revealed how much work the ‘Cats need to do going into the Big Ten season.  The final non-conference warm-up before conference play is against the independent Army squad who has struggled this season.

“’Tis but a scratch!”

NU’s defense has been surprisingly stout in the first two games, the 21 points surrendered to EIU notwithstanding.  Against BC in the opener, NU bent but didn’t break, stopping BC on several drives or forcing a field goal attempt.  NU gets a decent push up front, resulting in some sacks and quarterback pressures, Bryce McNaul has been a tackling machine leading the linebacker corps, and Jordan Mabin leads a relatively experienced secondary.  Of some concern, however, are periodic lapses on defense that result in a big play against, such as the first play 69-yard run by BC, and a late 70+-yard play against EIU.  In order to take the next step, NU’s defense has to be focused on every play and avoid giving up big plays that dramatically flip field position and provide a scoring chance to opposing offenses.

“It’s just a flesh wound!”

There was much angst entering the season concerning “Heisman candidate” Dan Persa’s ruptured Achilles and the resulting rehab (while it’s nice to have an NU athlete mentioned in the context of the Heisman race, one Lowes Line commentator correctly pointed out that such hyperbole should only occur when said candidate has actually played a down or six).  Persa was unable to play in either of the ‘Cats opening games, but Kain Colter’s stellar play in Persa’s stead has mitigated a lot of the damage.  Colter makes plays with his legs and has shown a surprising poise and accuracy throwing the ball.  He has completed two-thirds of his passes.  He leads the Wildcats in rushing with 180 yards in two games, leading NU to a 14th overall rushing attack at 257 yards per game.  NU’s running back by committee system seems to be working sufficiently well, with Adonis Smith and Mike Trumpy sharing rushing duties.  Persa continues to be listed as questionable against Army, so at this point it’s anybody’s guess whether he will play Saturday.  If he does, it would not be surprising if Colter is inserted for various series or situations, given Persa’s likely rust.

“Alright, we’ll call it a draw….”

Army comes into this game 0-2, but with the nation’s 2nd-leading rushing attack, employing the old school triple option.  Army amasses an average of 353 yards per game on the ground, eating up the gridiron like so much Iraqi desert.  In contrast, Army certainly won’t be confused with any sort of Air Force, as its passing attack 118th in I-A.  And when it comes to hitting paydirt, however, Army does struggle.  The Black Knights average only 23 points per game, 88th in the country.

“What are you going to do, bleed on me?!”

On the defensive side of the ball, Army tends to be small up front, allowing a big offensive line (like NU’s) to push them around and tire them out.  Army has been unsuccessful in keeping opponents out of the end zone, surrendering 49 points against Northern Illinois and averaging 36 points per game against.  NU may not score early, but over the course of the game should be able to roll late over a tired Army defense.

“The Black Knight always triumphs!”

Pick:  Again, NU defense bends but doesn’t break (often) and keeps Army out of the end zone enough.  NU’s offense is able to push around Army’s undersized defense to roll up impressive offensive numbers. There is a risk that NU looks past an “easy” opponent to the Big Ten opener against Illinois next weekend, but I think Fitz’s intensity keeps them focused enough.  NU 30, Army 17.  The Cats may not leave the Black Knight(s) armless and legless, and they may struggle a little early, but over the course of the game NU will wear down the Black Knights and pull away.  Take the Cats and lay the points.

“Come back!  I’ll bite your legs off!”

Season to date:  Straight up, 2-0.  Against the spread, 1-1.

Illinois Preview and Prediction
By GallopingGrapes

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-1, 0-0) at No.24 Illinois Fighting Illini (4-0, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, October 1, 2011, 11:00 am CDT
Line: NU (+8)

Outlook: NU lost to Army two weeks ago, looked bad doing it, and Army followed up with a game in which it completed no passes for no yards. The BC win looks less impressive with every passing week. The back half of NU's schedule is a Halloween movie come early. If I think too much about it, I will send myself into a pessimistic funk that not even the purple-suited superstrength of Dan Persa would be able to lift. So, I have decided to avoid any meaningful analysis whatsoever this week. Unfortunately, my stupid stupid brain keeps drawing portentous parallels between the Wildcats' road trip to Urbana-Champaign and the doomed journey of the noble 600 in the Crimean valley of Balaclava. And so, with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson (and a tip of the cap to the classic Mark II lineup of Ian Paice/Ian Gillan/Ritchie Blackmore/Roger Glover/Jon Lord, not to mention the inspirational BYCTOM), I give you...


Half a yard, half a yard,
Half a yard onward,
All in the valley of Zook
Rode the one hundred and seven.
"Forward, the Deep Purple Brigade!
"Charge for the end zone!" he said:
Into the valley of Zook
Rode the one hundred and seven.


"Forward, the Deep Purple Brigade!"
Was there the Wildcat dismay'd?
Not so, Air Willie knew
Persa had return'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do, or do not, there is no try.
Into the valley of Zook
Rode the one hundred and seven.


Illini to right of them,
Illini to left of them,
Illini in front of them
Block'd and hel'd;
Blitz'd at with linebacker and end,
Boldly Trumpy rushed and well,
Into the jaws of the defense,
Into the mouth of Illiniwek,
Rode the one hundred and seven.


Slash'd did our Colter, like a hare,
Flash'd as Persa toss'd in air,
Finding receivers there.
Of collapsing at Army, a choke,
All the ‘Cats wonder'd:
Was it just mirror-smoke?
Right thro' the line they broke;
Orange-hatted Ilini
Reel'd as the Fitz thunder fist stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the one hundred and seven.


Illini to right of them,
Illini to left of them,
Illini behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Score'd on by Scheelhaase,
While DiNardo and Arnfelt fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Zook
Back from the mouth of Champaign,
All that was left of them,
Left of one hundred and seven.


When can their Purple glory fade?
O the wild game they played!
All the Big Ten wondered.
Honor the fist pumps they made,
Honor the Deep Purple Brigade,
Noble one hundred and seven!

Pick: Tennyson immortalized the heroic and noble charge, but the dragoons and lancers were cut down like wheat by Ivan. Similarly, Persa's return could be a great story in a decisive loss.

NU 20, Illini 31. Take the Illini and lay the points.

Season to date: 2-1 (1-2 ATS)

P.S. Yes, I actually checked the official NU roster, and the 'Cat's are exactly 493 players short of a full Light Brigade...

Michigan Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: University of Michigan Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1)

Date: Saturday, October 8, 2011, 6:00 pm CDT

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: NU (+7.5)

Last week:
NU lost to Illinois on a last minute drive by the Illini that was heartbreaking to NU fans but made for some really incredible entertainment. The game was marked by the return of Dan Persa at quarterback and after a fairly conservative start to the game, he quickly returned to form in the 2nd and 3rd quarters to lead the charge (don’t worry, I have neither the talent or inclination to rewrite classics for the Lowes Line). All looked well until Persa was pulled from the game in the first Wildcat series in the 4th quarter with NU up 28-23 due pain/tightness in his repaired Achilles tendon. Kain Colter took over as QB.

In a telling statistic, after Colter took over, NU’s play selection was 2 passes and 13 rushes. The Cats were able to score another touchdown after recovering an Illini fumble on the Illinois 36 to go up 35-31 with only 1:15 left to play. Unfortunately, NU immediately gave up a 28 yard pass play and a 22 yard run play in quick succession, followed by a pass interference call against NU to get the Illini to the 4. Three straight rushes by the QB and Illinois scored to go ahead 38-35 and leaving the Cats on 13 seconds after the kickoff. A valiant attempt at some sort of trick play ended with a fumble to end the game.

We did learn that Persa is a game changer for the Wildcats. With him in the game, the offense took on a life that we haven’t seen this year. The play calling was 65% running/35% passing with Persa playing with several attempts to through down the field (including four touchdown passes), but became one dimensional with Colter playing QB. The good news is that Persa is expected to play this week. In related bad news, however, Mike Trumpy, who had been their most efficient runner this year, will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Expect freshman Treyvon Green to fill in for Trumpy spelled by Jacob Schmidt and Adonis Smith. Green is likely to get the bulk of the carries after an admirable job filling in for Trumpy after the injury last week. It’s possible the Cat’s may have found a featured back after several years of running back by committee, although continue to expect Schmidt to get the call on obvious third down passing plays.

NU faces the Michigan Wolverines (Currently ranked #12) at home this week. Michigan is currently undefeated after beating Notre Dame in a close game and blowing out four other inferior opponents. Michigan is lead by junior QB Denard Robinson and new Head Coach Brady Hoke. Michigan is back to a running team first, pass second (2:1 run to pass ratio so far this year) and averages 7 yard/rushing attempt to date. That rushing attack is lead by Robinson with 625 yard gained, followed by a three headed running back tandem (Fitzgerald Toussaint [311 yards], Vincent Smith [208 yards], and Michael Shaw [119 yard]). Robinson is only averaging 158 yards of passing per game, but has two big play receivers in Jeremy Gallon and Junior Hemingway, plus four others that contribute.

Michigan’s defense appears to be much improved over last year, but the quality of opponent may be masking their true performance. In particular, the Wolverines have been adept at forcing turnovers with 6 interceptions and 11 fumbles recovered in their five games (compare to NU’s 1 interception and 4 fumble recoveries). In particular, the high number of fumbles recovered suggests the turnover ratio is not just a fluke caused by opponents playing from behind. Notre Dame had some success both running and passing, so a balanced attack by the opponent can be problematic for this team.

Outlook: The key to Michigan will be containing Robinson, who is prone to making mistakes when forced to throw the ball. In their closest game of the year, Notre Dame was successful at limiting the Wolverines’s rush to only 4.4 yards per carry and forced Robinson to throw. He obliged with 4 passing touchdowns, but 3 of his 6 interceptions in one game.

Expect NU, particularly considering their defensive philosophy, to focus on keeping Robinson from hurting them on the ground, even to the detriment of stopping the Michigan running backs, in hopes of forcing mistakes in the air. This approach may work if the Wolverines don’t get too far ahead and feel some pressure to score touchdowns. That means that NU must score often and test the Michigan secondary, while remaining effective running the ball. It would help if the Cat’s elected to pass a few more times on first down considering their 85% run rate on 1st down last week.

However, the game will come down to Persa staying healthy the entire time and the NU defense stepping up to turn some of Robinson’s passes into interceptions.

Pick: Although they’ve had some success against the rush in previous games (even with the Army game), I expect NU to have some trouble stopping both Robinson and the other backs from running…just too many options. When that happens, they won’t be able to help the secondary convert Robinson’s passes into interceptions and will give up too many long plays as has been the story all year.

That said, I do think NU will be able to put some significant points on the board with a balanced attack that includes some passing down the field. Ultimately though, I do see the Cats falling short in a high scoring game. I’m wrong if NU can win the turnover battle.

I’ll be at the game, so I’m hoping for more excitement.

NU 28, Michigan 35. Take the NU and the points as the Cats just cover.

Season to date: 3-1 (1-3 ATS)

Iowa Preview and Prediction
By MO'Cats

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) at Iowa Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-1)

Date: Saturday, 15 Oct 2011, 6 pm CDT

TV: B1G Network

Line: Iowa gives 6 to the ‘Cats

Recap: As anyone who knows this writer, I am genetically programmed to despise Michigan. I really don’t even like the colors, let alone the helmets. To sit and watch that game last week was heartbreaking. To hear the announcers gushing over Robinson almost made me vomit. The kid can run, but he is not even close to a NFL prospect. Kordell Stewart was a better prospect than Robinson, but I digress. The Wildcats played the first half like a team on a mission. Persa was clicking and three long scoring drives had them on top early. The defense was reading Robinson like a book as he threw three interceptions each one uglier than the one prior. Up 21-14, the last of Robinson interceptions was returned to the NU 48 and Persa was going for the kill. 3 straight completions and then a Persa run had the ball on the Meat Chicken 3 yard line. Pass across the middle as time dwindled down, Lawrence is open, dropped and NU settles for a field goal and a 10 point lead. Would a 14 point lead at half made a difference, we will never know.

I can’t even talk about the second half. 2 turnovers and a couple of offensive breakdowns and NU was held scoreless. Robinson went off, 28 unanswered points later, its 42-24. Back to the drawing board for Fitz and the coaching staff. What was so frustrating for me was 1. The Defense’s complete inability to stop 3rd and long. NU’s opponents have converted third down an amazing 55% of the time and more shockingly 70% of the time in B1G play. This has to change. 2. Persa brings his arm and looks good throwing, but at least two times in the second half, I felt that he could have scrambled for a first down, but instead forced a pass. One for an incompletion and if memory serves, one for an interception. Clearly, Dan Persa of last year takes off and runs. The Achilles is coming along but is not quite right as of yet (sorry Phillie Fans but Ryan Howard is not playing until at least June next year IMHO). As Fitz has said all week, this team is close. Can NU go bowling once again? It has to change this week

Outlook: The Iowa Hawkeyes are 3-2, losing to Iowa State in a shoot out while roaring back against a Pitt team to score a victory. Two other cupcakes and the Hawkeyes were at 3-1 going into B1G Play. The trip to Happy Valley was not pleasant and the Hawkeyes couldn’t put it together losing 13-3. This is not your Iowa team from the past. Passing is the norm for this team, and not bruising running back play. James Vandenberg (no not James Vanderbeek from Dawson’s Creek and Varsity Blues) leads the Hawkeyes on offense. He is completing 60% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions and an overall QB rating of 142. Big playmakers Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis lead the team from the receiver position, while Marcus Coker is their leading back. Vandenberg can and will throw the ball deep on NU’s corners. The secondary has to make a few stops

PICK: I don’t know what it is about Iowa, the pink locker rooms, their ability to escape NCAA scrutiny when 13 players have to go the hospital for rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown) from a “voluntary” workout, who knows, but I know if you polled 100 ‘Cat fans and asked who they would rather beat Iowa or Illinois, I bet most of them would say Iowa. Sure the Land of Lincoln and Sweet Sioux trophies are nice, but beating Iowa is special. I cannot stand Ferentz and his mind games. Iowa is the one team that as a NU fan, I want to demolish every year. NU has won 3 straight, and arguably this season is on the brink if NU loses.

GUT CHECK TIME: NU 38, Iowa 35 –reminiscent of last year’s victory, Persa throws a touchdown late to snatch victory from the dejected Hawkeyes

Season: Straight up 4-1

Against the Spread 1-4

Penn State Preview and Prediction
By Jersey Cat

Matchup: # 21 Penn State Nittany Lions (6-1, 3-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (2-4, 0-3)

Date: Saturday, 22 Oct, 6:00 pm CDT

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: NU (+4)


A wise coach nicknamed The Tuna once said, "You are what you are." How true. Face it, 'Cats fans, this team is what it is, much as we hate to admit it...an underperforming team with a slightly above-average offense, but with a secondary that to date might not be able to handle scout team duties for New Trier. Arguably the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten this year. But hey, look on the bright side: NU didn't squander a double-digit lead in the second half against the Hawkeyes!

Last Saturday night in Iowa City was an absolute disaster. NU was able to move the ball effectively on the Hawkeyes, but made some critical mistakes on both sides of the ball. Dominating time of possession, converting third downs at a 72% clip, passing for over 300 yards and rushing for over 150…sure sounds like a recipe to continue the recent success against Iowa, right? Not quite. An ill-advised throw from Dan Persa was intercepted and returned 98 yards for a touchdown, putting the ‘Cats down 10-0 early. While NU tied the game at 17 in the third qtr, the defense folded like a cheap suit and really exposed the weakness of this squad, as the Hawkeyes put up 17 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to essentially seal the deal.

The secondary looked like they couldn’t discern arse from elbow. Coach Fitz, implying the defensive schemes are possibly too complicated, said, “I think we’re turning algebra into calculus right now.” Coach, please. This group is more suited to multiplication tables and long division. Stats themselves might not tell the whole story, but the context does...Defensively NU is allowing 9.9 yards per pass attempt. Is that good, bad, or indifferent? Hint: NU is dead last out of 120 teams in Div 1-A in this stat. It's bad, and underscores what we already know. As Big Ten Network commentator and former NU defensive back Chris Martin, whom we'll call Captain Obvious, stated, "There has been an epidemic of balls going over (the defensive backs’) heads.” I guess if you want to simplify, you pretty much have it right there.

NU comes into this week riding a four game losing streak, putting them at two games under .500 for the first time in five years. The Nittany Lions come in at 6-1, their only loss at the hands of the # 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. Should we be scared of this squad, JoePa's 46th from State College? Hard to say. The defense is formidable, a strong unit that is 6th in the country in points allowed per game with 11.6. But look at the other side of the ball. In three conference wins, the Nittany Lions have put up an average of only 16 points, against the likes of Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue. Hardly a Big Ten Murderer’s Row, but they’ve done what they’re supposed to do: beat the teams they should beat. Doing it pretty is an afterthought. What you get is a team ranked # 21 that is very beatable.

Penn State will be without their top receiver, Derek Moye, who is out with an injury. No matter. The 'Cats seem to find a way to make someone else step up. Penn State QB Matt McGloin, who torched the ‘Cats last year in State College with a ferocious comeback, leads the Nittany Lion offense, although JoePa continues to employ a two QB attack. While the focus for NU certainly needs to be improved play in the secondary, the ‘Cats defensive gameplan must account for Penn State running back Silas Redd, a sophomore who has the ability to break the big one, having rushed for an average of 134 ypg in the three conference wins for Penn State.

Saturday is the second night game of the season for NU in Evanston. Recent history is not on our side, as the ‘Cats are 0-3 in home night games in the Fitz era. On the plus side, by halftime, it will be well past JoePa’s bedtime, and he is likely to take off the coke bottles and high waters in the Ryan Field locker room for a second half lay-me-down. Keep an eye out on Saturday night for what might be a retro uniform look for the 'Cats, according to web-based rumors. Regardless of whatever adidas has in mind as far as outward appearance for NU, this Lowes Liner is requesting that inside the jersey is a cover corner.

So what do we make of this contest? A Penn State defense that will be the toughest test to date for Persa & Co. An NU defense that could make McGloin look like Montana. A loss for NU almost ensures there will be no bowl game. You can say Bethlehem, Pennsylvania native Persa won’t be motivated to beat the home team that didn’t recruit him, but I don’t believe it. NU moves the ball effectively, and the defense finally holds it together against a questionable Penn State offense.

PICK: Northwestern 20, Penn State 17. Take the ‘Cats and the points.

Season to date – Straight up: 4-2; Against the Spread: 1-5.

Indiana Preview and Prediction
By Galloping Grapes

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-5, 0-4) at Indiana Hoosiers (1-7, 0-4)
Date: Saturday, 29 Oct, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: NU (-9)


Indiana stinks on ice.

PICK: Northwestern 35, Indiana 28. The 'Cats win a pillow fight, but fail to cover.
Season to date – Straight up: 4-3; Against the Spread: 1-6.

Nebraska Preview and Prediction
By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (3-5, 1-4) at #10 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1)
Date: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 2:30 pm CDT 

Big Ten Network

NU (+18)


"Can we play Indiana every week?" That was the cry that went out midway through
the 'Cats' victory last week versus the hapless Hoosiers. The Hoosiers were just
the medicine the 'Cats needed to break their 5 game losing streak. How bad is
Indiana? The 'Cats scored on 9 of their first 10 drives, with the only non
score coming when they rec'd the ball with less than a minute to go before
halftime and took a knee. NU's offense was clicking on all cylinders as Drake
Dunsmore was more involved in the offensive scheme than in previous weeks. His
4 TD catches in a single game is a new NU tight end record. Also NU was able to
run the ball somewhat effectively and had some 10-15 gains on the ground by
someone other that Colter scrambling from a broken play.

As good as the NU offense looked, the NU defense was still very mediocre. They
gave up way too many big plays to a poor Indiana team. As several recent
articles have pointed out, NU's defense is very soft and does not reflect the
toughness and tenacity of their head coach, a 2 time Linebacker of the year.
This off-season will be interesting as there is no question Fitzgerald must
address the continuing decline of the defense over the past 2 seasons.

All in all, it was nice to be back on the winning side after 5 weeks of near

This week, for the first time, the Wildcats head to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln
to play the Cornhuskers. The Huskers are coming off a commanding victory over
Michigan State where they completely shutdown the MSU offense. Their
performance earned the defense their famous "black shirt" practice jerseys, an
acknowledgement to the famous dominating Nebraska defenses of the 80s.

If you just compare offensive and defensive stats, this game should be a blow
out for the 'Huskers. The odds makers in Vegas agree, as Neb. is an 18 point
favorite. But, this is the ultimate trap game for Nebraska. They just came off
a big emotional victory, they have Penn State, Michigan, and Iowa coming up the
next 3 weeks. Why would they worry about a 3-5 NU squad that ranks near the
bottom of the country in defense? The Nebraska coaches will be preaching to not
look ahead but it is impossible not to do. Heck, the Lowes Line is even looking
ahead to NU's last 3 games in case this one goes awry. NU always steals one
game a year from a team that is better, on paper, than they are. The last few
years it has been from Iowa. This year, many people predicted the big upset
would be of Penn. State. Too many miscues cost the 'Cats against the Nittany
Lions. No pundits will be picking the 'Cats to win this week. No one except
the Lowes Line.

There is not a whole lot of logic to back-up this week's pick. Actually there
is just a lot of Hope. This is the week the ball bounces NU's way. This is the
week they catch a few breaks. This is the week Nebraska looks ahead and lets
the 'Cats make it a game. To win, NU has to win the turnover battle by at least
+1. If they lose the turnover battle, please disregard the previous 4 lines and
all lines to follow. NU's defense is simply not strong enough to go back and
forth with Nebraska. NU must run the football to win. Yes, passing is where
they usually make their yardage and those dinks to Ebert seem to work all day,
but if the defense does not have to respect the run, eventually they will crush
Persa. The runs don't even have to be successful, but NU can not abandon the
run. With a little luck, NU can have a few decent runs and it will keep Persa
from going back to Evanston in a cast. The final touch is that NU is going to
have to have something special happen in the kicking game. Ventric Mark is
going to need to break one open to shorten the field and provide a spark to the
'Cats. On defense, NU will have to load up against the run and hope that the
inaccuracy of Nebraska's QB will allow them to survive in single coverage.

There was a time when Nebraska would crush NU with its suffocating D and simply
running the ball down NU's throat, but not this week. This week the 'Cats claw
and fight and scrape out a Victory in Lincoln.

PICK: Northwestern 31, Nebraska 30. Take the 'Cats and shove the points up
Nebraska's corn hole

Season to date - Straight up: 5-3; Against the Spread: 1-7.

Rice Preview and Prediction

By Charlie Simon

Matchup: Rice Owls (3-6) at Northwestern Wildcats (4-5, 2-4)

Date: Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 11:00 am CST

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: NU -16



The Lowes Line went out on a limb last week and picked the 'Cats to upset then #10 Nebraska, at Lincoln.  To many it was a stretch but the Lowes Line had faith that: one, the 'Cats HAD TO put it together sometime this year; two, Nebraska would be flat after their dominant victory over MSU; and three, that if I am going to go all the way to Lincoln I want to believe that we are going to win.

As I am sure you all know by now the 'Cats did upset the Corn Huskers, 28-25.  It was an excellent game.  NU played an attacking style defense from the start.  They put the cornerbacks in single coverage and stacked the box against the run.  It worked.  Nebraska was held to 122 yards rushing.  Nebraska did have some success throwing the ball but they never went deep on the 'Cats and were not comfortable enough in their own passing game to keep on passing.  The best play all day by the defense was when midway through the first half Nebraska had the ball, first and goal at the five.  Everyone knew what was coming, the only question being how many runs would it take Nebraska to get into the end zone.  But as Neb. RB Rex Burkhead plowed into the line the ball was ripped out and flew 10 feet up in the air.  It looked like it was shot out of a cannon.  NU recovered the fumble and held on to its 7-0 lead.  This was a huge win, both mentally and physically for the 'Cats.

In the first half on offense, the 'Cats looked the same as they have all season.  Flashes of greatness as they drive down the field, passing on every down and flashes of mediocrity as they fumble, throw a pick, or get sacked enough to nullify all the work they have done.  Then before half, Persa was sacked hard, and re-injured his left (non-throwing) shoulder.  He would not return in the second half.

There were many amazing plays in the second half and I want to focus on a few that weren't as well known but in my opinion were just as important.  NU rec'd the 2nd half opening kickoff.  Ventric Mark dropped the kickoff on the goal line, picked it up, and then ran 40 yards before he was tackled.  This was huge.  Starting on the 40, WITH THEIR SOPHMORE BACK-UP QB meant the 'Cats could do anything  they wanted without having to worry about a fumble or sack resulting in a quick 6 for Nebraska.  The 'Cats quickly moved down the field and scored to make it 14-3.

NU's defense continued to play outstanding, stopping Neb. on 4th and 2. 

Another amazing play was a catch by Ebert on 4th down at the Neb. 21.  Colter threw the ball too far toward the sidelines.  It looked like Ebert would run out of bounds before he caught the ball, let alone make it up field for the first down.  But he reached out, caught the ball, got 2 feet down inbounds 1 yard before the marker then amazingly tip toed to  get both feet in again past the marker.  A great individual play.  On the next  play  NU 3rd string QB Trevor Siemian tried to squeeze a ball to Colter in double coverage.  It was picked off in the end zone and returned to the 50. (Side note - the difference between a good QB and a great QB is not the ability to make amazing throws.  It is the ability to know when to NOT throw the ball.)

As the 3rd quarter wore on NU started running the ball more and had some modest success. 

The biggest play of the day came on a 2nd and 7 from the NU 19.  Colter faked the handoff and threw a strike over the middle to a streaking Ebert.  It hit Ebert PERFECTLY in stride and Ebert sprinted away to a 81 yard touchdown.  As soon as he caught it I was screaming GO GO GO with my arms in the Touchdown Jesus position.  After Ebert's score it was eerily quiet in Memorial Stadium.  The Nebraska faithful started to realize they might be in trouble.  The quote of the day was then uttered by NationalChampionsSomeday: "There are 85,000 people in here and I can't hear a single one."  It was too early to be talking smack but he was right. 

Nebraska then scored a TD and a 2 point conversion to make it 21-18 with 8:55 left to play.  I was nervous and excited.  My son asked why I was shaking.  "Just excited", I replied.  NU ran for 14 yards, then for 11 yards.  Another run for 14, followed by runs for 4 and 5 yards.  NU was just pushing Nebraska down the field.  It was unbelievable.  4th and 1 at the Neb 18. 5:05 on the clock.  NU goes for it and makes a 1st down with Colter keeping on the option.  6 plays and three and a half minutes later NU scored to put them up by 10 with 1:34 to play.  NU had just completed a 66 yard, 13 play touchdown drive where they never passed the ball.  Against the vaunted Nebraska Blackshirt defense.  In Lincoln.  Amazing.

It was over.  Nebraska is not built for the hurry-up offense.  They scored again but it was too late and the 'Cats held on, 28-25. 

It was awesome.  I turned to a current NU student behind me and in unison we said "can you believe this?"  Just a great, great win.  I have heard this was the first win by a Big Ten team in Lincoln in 30 years.  This should help Fitz on the recruiting trail as the whole game NU looked like it had the better athletes on the field. 

So comparing the actual to the prediction:

"This is the ultimate trap game for Nebraska." - Check.

"This is the week they catch a few breaks."  - The breaks were that Nebraska did not go for it on 4th and short, at midfield, THREE times in the first half.

"To win, NU has to win the turnover battle by at least +1." - Nope - NU actually had 3 turnovers to Nebraska's 2.

"NU must run the football to win."  - Check.

"Yes, passing is where they usually make their yardage and those dinks to Ebert seem to work all day, but if the defense does not have to respect the run, eventually they will crush Persa."  - See end of the first half.

"The final touch is that NU is going to have to have something special happen in the kicking game.  Ventric Mark is going to need to break one open to shorten the field and provide a spark" - Check.

"On defense, NU will have to load up against the run and hope that the inaccuracy of Nebraska's QB will allow them to survive in single coverage." - Double check.

"There was a time when Nebraska would crush NU with its suffocating D and simply running the ball down NU's throat, but not this week.  This week the 'Cats claw and fight and scrape out a Victory in Lincoln." - Done!

Also Nebraska fans are as nice as advertised.  Many came up to us before the game and thanked us for coming, and not in a condescending way.  Afterwards there was no hostility.  Fans came up to us afterwards and said just what Pelini said that NU simply beat Neb.

This week NU continues its march through the Grains as NU faces Rice.  Rice is not good at 3-6  including 2-4 in conference USA, but this game will not be determined by Rice, but by which NU team shows up.  Now Northwestern won't be as fired up as they were for Nebraska, but if they are as flat or as cocky as Nebraska was last week they will lose. 

NU must continue to run the ball, and limit their turnovers.  If they do that they will be successful.  On Defense, NU must continue to attack and make tackles.  Rice will score but their Achilles heel is their defense which has been giving up almost 38 points per game.  NU wins and keeps their bowl hopes alive.  Enjoy the game on the Big Ten Network.


PICK: Northwestern 38, Rice 30 (The 'Cats defense cannot stop the sound of Snap, Crackle, and Pop enough to cover 16 points)

Season to date  – Straight up: 6-3; Against the Spread: 2-7.

Minny Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik

Match-up: University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-8, 1-5) at Northwestern Wildcats (5-5, 2-4)

Date: Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 11:00 am CST

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: NU -15.5


The 'Cats followed up their stunning upset in Lincoln with a strong home performance against the Owls of Rice.  The 'Cats rode a surprisingly stifling defense and limited the Owls to a mere 6 points.  Granted, Rice is not an offensive juggernaut, but typically NU tends to play down to the level of its opponents, turning mediocre teams into powerhouses for a week, but this time NU managed to get its opponent down and keep them there.  Persa again led the way, setting a career high with 372 yards, the majority of which went to Jeremy Ebert (208 yards, including a spectacular 90-yard TD in the 1st quarter).  Persa seemed unfazed by the prior week’s injury to his non-throwing shoulder.  The 'Cats’ struggles to run the ball continued, with newly minted “Slash” player Kain Colter leading the team with a mere 39 yards on the ground.  NU built up a 21-0 halftime lead, and coasted to a 28-6 victory.  All points came courtesy of Persa’s arm, but he also threw 2 picks.  Despite the two interceptions, Persa continues to lead the country in completion percentage.

The defense held the Owls to 254 total yards.  That included a paltry 92 passing yards, which for the NU secondary is an outstanding result.  It’s hard to say exactly what this means for NU’s defense, though, because Rice is 78th overall in passing and 88th in points scored.  Likely NU’s defense wasn’t truly pushed, and so it is hard to gush about the result.

NU’s next opponent is the enigmatic Gilded Hamsters of Minnesota.  The Gophers have been relatively terrible in 2011.  They started out strong against USC, dropping a close one 19-17.  Thereafter, it was downhill, including a loss to I-AA North Dakota State.  At home.  They also lost 58-0 against Michigan, and limp into Ryan Field off a 42-13 walloping by the Badgers (Paul Bunyan’s Axe will remain in Madison another year), again at home.  However, in the middle, the Gophers played Michigan State very tough, losing by 7 in East Lansing, and they stunned Iowa 22-21.  The Gophers are terrible on both sides of the ball, ranking 112th in points for and 104th in points against.  They are also a terrible passing team (160 ypg, ranking 108th).

All things point to an easy game for NU.  There’s one issue looming for NU, which is next week’s match against #15 Michigan State.  NU is now in Nebraska’s shoes facing a perceived lesser opponent the week before a really strong opponent.  In other words, Minnesota is a trap.  NU has to focus on the Gophers and leave the Spartans to worry about on Sunday.  In a way, Coach Fitz’s ability to keep the boys focused on Mr. Gopher is the key to this game.  If he can work his C-4 plastique magic on the 'Cats, they will go out and dominate.  If he fails to get their attention, it could be a long morning and afternoon in Evanston.

Here’s hoping Fitz focuses the 'Cats on Saturday.  And if the Gophers score, be prepared to yell, “What the f*#@ is ‘sky-u-mah’?!

PICK:  Northwestern 42, Gophers 20 (Take the 'Cats…lay the points)

Season to date  – Straight up: 7-3; Against the Spread: 2-8.

MSU Preview and Prediction
By Eric Cockerill

Match-up: Michigan State University Spartans (9-2, 6-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 3-4)

Date: Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 11:00 am CST

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: NU +6



The Wildcats became bowl eligible for the fifth straight year with a win against Minnesota last week.  The game was relatively unexciting by Cardiac Cats standards, with the game seemingly in NU control for the majority of the time.  Northwestern didn’t appear to have its best game offensively, but was able to hold the Gophers to a relatively low offensive output.  Unfortunately, this year bowl eligible doesn’t guarantee a spot considering the relatively positive records for many other Big Ten teams (9 of 12 teams have at least 6 wins).  To ensure itself a bowl bid, the Cats will have to beat MSU this weekend or hope that a combination of unlikely losses and other occurrences (OSU declining a bowl bid, for example) propel them into a bottom rung bowl.  That loss to Army is looking particularly painful from the rearview mirror now.

Saturday is Senior Day for the Cats.  Depending on a potential bowl bid, this may be the last time we have the opportunity to see the likes of Dave Arnold, Drake Dunsmore, Jeremy Ebert, Dan Persa, Brian Peters, Jacob Schmidt, among others, in the NU purple.  That’s a pretty serious list of players that have been contributing for several years, but with the exception of Persa, I think most have a solid replacement(s) in the wings.  The jury is still out on whether Colter, who is an electrifying player, can develop the passing game to keep opposing defenses honest.

MSU enters the game having already solidified a spot on the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game regardless of outcome, due to being on the positive side of a tiebreaker with University of Michigan.  MSU will also be NU’s fifth ranked opponent of the year (Illinois [ranked at the time], Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, and MSU).  It goes without saying that a win over a second ranked opponent to get to 7 wins would look very good to the bowl committees.

The Spartans have ridden a very good defense and a balanced attack on offense to their 9-2 record.  On defense, they have held opponents to just over 100 yards per game.  However, their statistical performance can be misleading as it is the result of holding far inferior opponents to very little offense (like Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic, Indiana, Central Michigan) while giving up decent numbers to relatively better opponents (like Notre Dame, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota).  It appears that NU should be able to move the ball and score on MSU, just as it does on any opponent.

Offensively, the Spartans are balanced, but not particularly effective running the ball.  Primarily, they are successful by playing conservatively, picking their spots to take chances through the air, and not turning over the ball while letting their defense apply the pressure.  QB Kirk Cousins can definitely make defenses pay through the air and has cut down on the interceptions that have hurt him in previous years.  Northwestern will have to continue its improved pass defense overall to keep MSU in the conservative mindset.

Overall, this game may just come down to factors other than Xs and Os.  Consider this…MSU is guaranteed a Big Ten Championship Game spot, a good bowl, and at least two more games after this one on bigger stages.  The best outcome is the same for them…the worst could be an injury to a major contributor, or revealing more of their game plan to future opponents.  Northwestern, on the other hand, is playing at home and may need a win to even play another game.  This game means literally nothing to the Spartans, but just might make or break the Cats' entire season.  Who do you think will be more motivated?

I think these two teams are more evenly matched than one might think looking at the records as long as NU continues its improved defensive performance and avoids a lopsided turnover margin in this game.  Look for a back-and-forth game entering the fourth quarter, when a conservative plan by MSU offers NU the opportunity for the win.

PICK:  Northwestern 31, Spartans 27 (Take the Cats and the points)

Season to date  – Straight up: 8-3; Against the Spread: 2-9.

Texas Bowl Edition
Texas A&M Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Before we get into the analysis on the bowl game, I wanted to make a request.  It’s been almost 13 years since we lost Marcus Lowes, our friend and brother, and the one for whom this football commentary is named.  Shortly after Marcus’s passing, a memorial charitable trust was set up in his name.  Its intent is to provide a scholarship to a worthy Northwestern student who embodied what Marcus was all about.  For a few years, this mission was successful, and the Trust awarded the scholarship to worthy recipients.  Eventually the Trust became essentially dormant.  Recently however, the trustees made the decision to move forward again. 

The Marcus J. Lowes Memorial Scholarship Fund at Northwestern University has been established, and will provide a scholarship to a deserving graduate student at Medill, and likely one with a focus on sports journalism, akin to Marcus’s interests.  This scholarship will be from a permanently endowed fund at NU.  Here’s where you can help.  Through existing donations and pledges, we are at about 80% of the money needed to perpetually fund this scholarship, which we plan to initially award in 2013.   On behalf of the trustees, I’m asking that you make a donation, large or small, to help continue to honor the memory of someone we all hold dear.  Donations can be made via PayPal to:  LowesScholarship@gmail.com.  Please consider making a tax-deductible donation that will allow us to permanently honor the memory of Marcus and make an appreciable, positive impact on a Northwestern student.

In an effort to achieve the goal, Brian Ullery, who serves as President of the Trust, has issued a challenge.  He has pledged to put up $100 for every $1,000 collectively raised.  So if Dr. Brian has ever trounced you in beer pong, edged you by a nose in a pitcher race, or simply given you just a little too much of an earful over the years about how southwest Ohio is as close to heaven on earth as there is, now's your chance to get him back.  Remember, this is a guy who as an NU freshman openly rooted for Ohio State in a game at Welsh-Ryan.  Stick it to him with a donation and help us reach the goal.  And in all seriousness, thanks to Brian for making this generous offer.

On to the game...

Matchup:  Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas - Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) vs. Texas A&M Aggies (6-6, 4-5 Big 12)

Date: Saturday, 31 Dec, 12:00 pm est, Reliant Stadium, Houston


Line: NU (+10)


In August, before the season opener at Boston College, this Lowes Liner opined that anything less than an 8-4 regular season would be a disappointment.  I stand by that comment four months later.  This team absolutely underachieved and didn't finish games that were winnable.  Failure to show up at Army, an inability to shut the door on Illinois, and repeated second half disappearing acts on both sides of the ball against Michigan and Penn State turned the season from one where fans believed there was a shot at the inaugural Legends division championship to one where mere bowl eligibility became the goal.  On the plus side, the 'Cats didn't throw in the towel in the second half of the season.  They closed by winning four of their last five, including a signature win at Nebraska.

So the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas is the postseason destination for this year.  Regardless of where you stand on the idea of whether 6-6 teams, much less a pair of them, should meet up in the postseason, this has the potential to be an exciting contest.   The Texas A&M Aggies are the opposition, and they are far from a pushover.  This is the third bowl game against a Big 12 opponent in four years for NU, all of them having been played in Texas.  Some folks believe the Northwestern bowl drought has to stop at all costs.  Is it better to play in Detroit against a MAC team with a greater likelihood of coming out on top, or in a more competitive bowl, against a clearly tougher opponent, with a smaller likelihood of snapping the NU bowl hex?  You have to say the latter, even though it makes the prospect of ending a 63-year drought since the last (and only) Northwestern bowl win a tad more challenging. 

So how did NU leapfrog Penn State, Purdue, and Illinois in the pecking order to avoid a trip to the Little Caesar's Bowl in Detroit?  Certainly the scandal at Penn State played some part, but as we've seen by the mere presence of Virginia Tech in a BCS bowl, these games are about selling tickets, filling hotels rooms, and spending coin at bowl locations.   Aside from the influential efforts of AD Mark Phillips, NU can also partially thank their own fans for the solid display in showing up in Houston against Rice in 2010. 

Stats may be for losers, as Coach Fitz often states, but you can't ignore the obvious.  2011 is the third regular season campaign in a row where the number of wins was less than the year prior.  Is this program headed in the right direction?  I grant you, the world of NU football fandom has come a long way when people are upset after a 6-6 season.  It's actually good to see.  Marshmallow fights in the stands are a distant memory.  But expectations change when you've experienced success.  The truth is, this team had high expectations and downright failed to achieve them.  The offense was solid for most of the year.  We never truly knew the progress of Dan Persa's recovery from Achilles surgery, and when he did come back, even a casual observer would admit that he wasn't 100%.  We fans were sold a bill of goods when seeing the laughable Heisman campaign, thinking Persa would be back at close to full strength right out of the gate, even though he didn't see the field through the entire first quarter of the regular season.  This gave us an opportunity to really see what Kain Colter could do, and by and large, he was impressive, ultimately ended up as not only a solid backup to Persa, but also NU's leading rusher for the season. 

ESPN.com's Big Ten correspondent, Adam Rittenberg, graded NU's defense with a very Peppermint Patty-esque D-minus.  Very hard to argue.  Anyone watching the Wildcat secondary spent a fair amount of time blurting out either, "Good Grief!" or "You blockhead!" and were soon heading for either the psychiatric help of Lucy Van Pelt or the security blanket of her brother Linus.  No matter the lead, it didn't feel like it was safe.  The last minute of the Illinois game was an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Even against Indiana, a truly horrific team, NU put up 59 points and you were still looking over your shoulder as you headed to the fridge for what you hoped was the celebratory Old Style.  Nowhere did this defense frustrate you more than on third down, where opposing offenses converted more than 50% of the time.

Texas A&M is SEC-bound following the contest against NU.  In a Zook-ian move reminiscent of the Illini, the Aggies fired head coach Mike Sherman following a disappointing end to their season.  A&M lost four of their last five games, although two of those losses were in overtime, and three of them were to ranked teams.  They have since hired Kevin Sumlin, who coached the University of Houston to a 12-1 record in Conference USA.  Sumlin will not coach the Aggies in the Texas Bowl against the Wildcats.  In addition to an interim coach, the Aggies will be playing this game with a heavy heart, as offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio was killed in a car crash on December 22nd. 

This matchup could be as exciting as they come this bowl season, especially if you like seeing a lot of points being scored.  A&M put up nearly 40 points a game this year, and a lot of it through the air.  As mentioned previously, the Wildcat secondary didn’t scare many this year.  Couple that with the fact that NU lost senior cornerback Jordan Mabin in the regular season finale against Michigan State to a shoulder injury, and you can almost see the drool from the mouth of Aggie QB Ryan Tannehill.  Much maligned Northwestern secondary coach Jerry Brown hopefully used the time in December wisely, because Texas A&M will be coming after his squad early and often.  The Aggies are aggressive, but not perfect.  Tannehill has put up some solid numbers this year, including 28 TDs, and he’s very efficient, but has shown a tendency to throw an occasional pick in a big spot. 

When NU has the ball, it should be no holds barred.  Coach Fitz has shown us in the last few bowl games that he’s willing to open up the playbook and release the hounds.  This is the last game for Dan Persa, who has a chance to become the all-time NCAA leader in pass completion percentage.  After having to sit out last year’s bowl game with the ruptured Achilles, Persa will certainly be ready to play in his first and only bowl game as a starter.  As good as A&M is on offense, they are as bad defending the pass.  Persa’s targets include the usual suspects of Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, who should be able to make plays against the Aggie secondary.  Persa should be as healthy as we’ve seen him this season, and he’ll have to be.  The Aggie defense gives up a lot of yardage, but they have shown an ability to get to the QB, leading the nation in sacks. 

This game will feel like a home game for A&M, as plenty of folks will make the short trip from College Station to Houston for the matchup.   Texas governor and GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry, an Aggie alum, is scheduled to be in attendance.  When asked about the phases of the game where he felt the Aggies would dominate, he replied, “Offense, defense, and…what’s the other one there?  Let’s see.”   An aide for Governor Perry offered “Special teams.”  

The ‘Cats have been close the last few years to finally getting the second bowl win in school history, and the first since the 1949 Rose Bowl.  The well-known streak has NU sitting at 0-8 in bowl games since the 1995 season.  Is this the year they get over the hump and attain one of the last remaining goals for the program?  Doesn’t seem likely with this defense.

PICK:  A&M = Agony & Misery.  Sixty-three years and counting...NU bowl woes continue.  Texas A&M 41, Northwestern 35.  Take the 'Cats and the points.

Season to date:  8-4 straight up, 2-10 against the spread.