Game Preview


NU at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt Stadium
Saturday, September 4.  6:30 pm CDT
TV: Comcast SportsNet; ESPN Game Plan
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Vandy
by Jonathan Hodges

The start to the 2010 college football season is finally upon us as the Wildcats head south to kick off the season against the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville.  This will also mark Northwestern's first ever game played in the state of Tennessee.  But, most importantly, this will be fans' first chance to get a glimpse of the 2010 Wildcats in action.

Generally, 'Cats fans know what to expect, but now we'll finally get to see NU on the field without holding anything back.  We'll get to see what the offense looks like with Persa at the helm and we'll find out who will be beside him in the backfield.  We'll get to see Hankwitz's defense on the field tackling a live opponent.  And we'll get a good idea of what to expect the rest of the way.

Vanderbilt also sees this as an opportunity for a win in an otherwise tough schedule, something that they have to deal with every year in the SEC.  The only sure win on their schedule is a visit from Eastern Michigan, and new head coach Robbie Caldwell is looking to build on a solid foundation laid by former head coach Bobby Johnson, who unexpectedly retired in July.  The won the Music City Bowl in 2008 (breaking Boston College's 8-game bowl winning streak), meaning that some members of this team have tasted bowl victory.

And, although it will be played in the evening, it is sure to be quite warm, testing the endurance of the 'Cats who successfully dealt with such conditions when they beat Duke in Durham back in 2008.  The warm weather will likely be a factor in some form, and the scales tend to tilt towards the home team in such situations, even though NU had rather warm conditions to deal with during their preseason camp.

Although it would be nice to get a good gauge on NU in an easy game, expect a good fight from Vanderbilt in spite of coming off of a 2-10 year in 2009.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 5.5

Who Should Win

Although the 'Cats have questions, they do have many pieces returning from a successful squad and have talent to plug in where they lost players to graduation.  Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has just a few bright spots from an otherwise dismal campaign last season, and they are breaking in a new head coach after their previous leader unexpectedly retired over the summer.  Also, as will be detailed later, the most dangerous part of Vanderbilt's team, their running backs, have been hit by injury during camp and even if all are available, they won't be 100%.  Northwestern should have the edge on both sides of the ball and should be able to control much of the game.

Upset Factor

Commodore head coach Caldwell has been in the program for years and has some talent with which to work, and this game is being played in their house.  The 'Cats have a tendency to play down to their competition and have particular troubles with road games.  Also, NU has never beaten an opponent who was in the SEC at the time (see Miscellaneous Notes for more details).  At the very least, Vandy will give NU a strong push.

What to Look For: Northwestern Offense against Vanderbilt Defense

This game will be about two things for Northwestern: first, breaking in QB Dan Persa as the starting quarter back and, second and more importantly, discovering who will get carries in the NU running game.  Although he's largely untested at QB, Persa looks to be in good condition to continue the success NU has had at that position through the last decade.  He definitely has the tools to succeed in OC Mick McCall's offense: a solid, accurate arm and speed on the ground.

The running game, though, will be very interesting.  Presumed starter RB Arby Fields was dinged up during camp (shoulder) and will likely go but will split time.  Jacob Schmidt is waiting to back him up (and will likely get carries even if Fields starts), while Stephan Simmons and Scott Concannon are also part of the RB foursome that sustained what was the NU running game in 2009.  It is also yet to be seen if true freshman Adonis Smith will get his redshirt burned or not; he did get a lot of carries in a reserve-heavy preseason scrimmage.  With Fields, Schmidt, and Simmons listed as co-starters for the opener, expect all three to get carries (along with a few for Concannon) in the hopes that someone will step up to the challenge.

Otherwise, look for the wide receivers to successfully "reload" with guys who may not be household names (now) but will be good if not great on the field.  Drake Dunsmore, Jeremy Ebert, and Sidney Stewart will likely be the top three, but a bunch more will get receptions.  Also, look out for the offensive line to be pretty solid this year, and hopefully we'll see far less rotating in and out as the coaching staff has been focused on finding a starting unit to leave on the field together.

On the other side of the line, Vanderbilt brings a defense that lost some players from the 2009 squad that was pretty bad to begin with, especially up front where they yielded almost 200 yards per game on the ground.  Their best player is junior MLB Chris Marve, who led the Commodores in tackles last season and looks to build upon that success this season.  The strength of their defense may very well be the secondary, where they return two solid defensive backs: S Sean Richardson and CB Casey Hayward.

If the Wildcats want to get the ground game going, this is definitely an opportunity, especially since it won't be that easy to move the ball down the field while exclusively relying upon the passing game; Vanderbilt's secondary is too good to completely cave in, although an injury to one presumed starter at CB has forced some less experienced players into service (both listed for that spot are sophomores).  Their opponents managed 4.4 yards per carry and 19 rushing touchdowns a year ago, and the defensive line doesn't look like it's improved after last year's poor showing.

Northwestern must get the running game in gear and, at least, maintain balance in the play calls.  If NU is forced to air it out in order to move the ball, things may get a little too interesting for NU fans.

What to Look For: Northwestern Defense against Vanderbilt Offense

The Wildcats' defense lost some major components from last season, most notably in the secondary, but, fortunately, has some experienced pieces to plug in.  NU looks very good up front and will sport a linebacker corps that may be among the best in the conference.

The 'Cats will be led up front by DT Corbin Bryant, who is looking forward to a strong senior campaign after suffering some injuries during his career.  He looks to anchor a rather solid and deep line that will feature some competition for playing time, especially at left DE where Kevin Watt and Quentin Williams may essentially turn out to be co-starters.

The LB unit will be led by two seniors, Quentin Davie and Nate Williams.  Look for Davie to be the "X-factor" in the defense this season as he has the ability to cause a ruckus in the backfield while also possessing enough speed to cover receivers in space.  Williams is a very solid tackler in the middle and will look to help contain opponents' running games.  Finally, look for either Bryce McNaul or Ben Johnson to hold down the other outside LB spot; both have significant playing time under their belt and their competition for the starting spot should help the defense as a whole.

The secondary will feature three new starters, although S Brian Peters played a good amount last season and will be a solid member of the secondary right off the bat.  Jordan Mabin will continue to start at one of the CB spots, and, although he's taken his lumps from time to time, he should be able to hold down one side of the field.  The biggest questions, though, are at the other two positions.

Jared Carpenter will look to take over at the other safety spot, and he played some last year and has reportedly had a good preseason camp.  The other cornerback spot has featured some competition but will likely be manned by senior Justan Vaughn who was the de facto starter in 2008 but suffered a season-ending injury that gave way to Mabin.  He has the talent and skills to be successful there, and hopefully he can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him seemingly throughout his NU career.

The NU D will not face a big challenge in week one, facing a unit that was among the bottom ten nationally in most offensive categories, including passing yards, total yards, and scoring.  The one bright spot, the running game that ranked a respectable 49th nationally, has been hurt by injuries during the preseason including their star sophomore RB Warren Norman, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week and is reportedly questionable for this week's game.  Backup Zac Stacy sprained his MCL during camp and has been giving it a go but won't be at 100%.

Those injuries may force the two larger backs, senior reserve Kennard Reeves and redshirt freshman Wesley Tate, into service against the 'Cats.  While the strong running game plays to NU's defensive strength to begin with, the depleted RB corps will only help the Wildcats' cause against Vanderbilt.

Vandy also has to replace four starters on the offensive line, with two expected starters being underclassmen (sophomores).  Last year's squad was relatively solid, but this unit will have a ton of question marks and will be a good chance for the NU line to pin their ears back and make some noise in the backfield.

In the passing game, the Commodores have some talent at the WR position, but nobody stands out as a top flight receiver who presents a huge threat.  They do have speed at the position, though, so the relatively green NU secondary must cover well since the deep threat is there.

Finally, we come to the Vanderbilt QB position, which just wasn't that good last year.  Junior QB Larry Smith returns, and for his career he has a 5:8 TD:INT ratio with just 1,293 yards passing in 125 career attempts.  He completed under 50% of his passes last season.

This will definitely be a chance for the NU defense to really get things going as they face an offense that wasn't that great to begin with but has now suffered injuries at their best position.  Hopefully the secondary can use this chance to get their collective feet under them while the front seven take care of business at (and, hopefully, behind) the line of scrimmage.

What to Look For: Special Teams

Look for many changes on NU special teams in 2010, and we'll get the first real taste of them here.  Brandon Williams will take over punting duties while true freshman Venric Mark will be returning at least punts.  If you want one thing to watch in this game, it's how Mark does.  He has been lighting up camp returning both punts and kicks so far and may be one of the best return men NU has seen in years without having even stepped onto a collegiate field.

The primary benefit in Williams seeing the field is to relieve Stefan Demos, who will focus on his placekicking duties in his senior season.  Demos has a strong leg and performed well in his one season as starter last year, minus two very forgettable games (against Illinois and in the Outback Bowl).  Look for his kicking to improve without the added burden of punting.  The NU punting game, which put up dismal numbers last year, should also get a boost.

On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt has a solid kicker (Ryan Fowler) and punter (Richard Kent).  They also posses dangerous return men in their two top running backs, but we'll likely see someone else fill those spots with the aforementioned injuries to those two.  The NU coverage teams, who have been relatively solid under Fitz but still give up significant returns from time to time, will still be challenged and can hopefully live up to it.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Northwestern vs. SEC

This game marks Northwestern's first regular season matchup against an opponent in the Southeastern Conference at the time of the game since 1966 (when NU traveled to play Florida in Gainesville).  The 'Cats have subsequently faced Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl and Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl.  Because of the latter bowl, this marks NU's second consecutive game against an SEC foe.  All-time, NU is 0-7-1 against SEC foes (teams who were in the SEC at the time of the game).  The 'Cats are 2-6-1 against teams from the current SEC (this includes games against Kentucky, who NU played before the SEC was formed, as well as Arkansas and South Carolina, who NU played before they joined the SEC, both in 1991.  This also excludes Tulane, who NU played in the '50s, since Tulane was in the SEC from 1932-1966).

Northwestern in the South

The Wildcats are 5-8 since 1995 in games played in "the South."  This will be Northwestern's first game played in Tennessee, though, as their previous meeting with Tennessee was in the Citrus Bowl (Orlando, FL) and both previous meetings with Vanderbilt were played in Evanston.

Season Openers

NU is 11-4 in season openers since 1995, including a current 5-game winning streak.  The 'Cats' last loss was a double overtime loss at TCU in 2004 where NU missed 5-of-6 field goals, including a potential game-winner in the first overtime period.  The 'Cats are 7-8 in their first true road game of the year since '95, coming in at 2-2 under Coach Fitz.

Injury Report:


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out), LB Tim Riley (shoulder, out), S David Arnold (foot, out), WR Tony Jones (shoulder, out), RB Arby Fields (shoulder, probable), SB Drake Dunsmore (probable).

Some NU backups suffered injuries during camp that will hurt the 'Cats' depth at least during the early part of the season (most concerning were Goodlow and Arnold, who saw playing time last year and were expected to contribute this season).  Fields and Dunsmore also got a little dinged up during camp but are listed on the depth chart as starters (or co-starter in the case of Fields) and are expected to go.


RB Warren Norman (knee, questionable), RB Zac Stacy (knee, probable), RB Wesley Tate (foot, questionable), RB Kennard Reeves (hamstring, questionable), C Joey Bailey (achilles, probable), CB Jamie Graham (groin, doubtful), S Sean Richardson (turf toe, probable), DT Adam Smotherman (knee, out), TE Austin Monahan (knee, out for season).

The Commodores were hit hard by injury during camp, particularly at the running back position.  Norman had arthroscopic knee surgery just over a week ago but remains listed as the starter.  The others have all practiced at least some since their respective injuries but are definitely not at 100%, despite all appearing on the depth chart.  It will be interesting to see who gets carries and how healthy they are.

Otherwise, the biggest loss is likely Graham, who would have started at CB, which has forced two underclassmen into service (currently listed as OR starters on the depth chart), which will open up a passing opportunity for NU, at least on one side of the field.


Northwestern 24, Vanderbilt 10

Although Northwestern's offense may not (yet) be running on all cylinders, expect the 'Cats to put up enough points to take care of the Commodores with relative ease.  That is because the NU defense should have no real problem handling a Vanderbilt offense that has significant injuries at its best position, running back.  The Wildcats won't run away with this one, mostly thanks to conservative offensive play calling.

Hopefully some real playing time for the new Wildcat starters will help them build a foundation for the rest of the season and will help (somewhat) calm fears of the fans.  A close game, though, may very well stir new fears for the Northwestern faithful as this is indeed a game which NU should be able to control.  At the very least it will be a great chance to get back to real football and to finally wash from our mouths any residual bad taste left from the Outback Bowl.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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