Game Preview


NU at Rice
Rice Stadium
Saturday, September 18, 6:00 pm CDT
TV: none
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Rice
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern (2-0, 0-0) looks to continue its winning ways in 2010 as the 'Cats head down to balmy Houston to face the Rice Owls (1-1) in another "battle of the brains" (Northwestern ranks 12th in this year's US News and World Report National University rankings, while Rice is tied for 17th, along with previous NU opponent Vanderbilt).  Both teams are coming off of a win last week, although NU's 37-3 win over FCS member Illinois State was a bit easier than Rice's 32-31 comeback win over Sun Belt member North Texas.

The Wildcats will look to continue building momentum by taking advantage of a weaker opponent (on paper, at least) as NU heads ever closer to that tougher Big Ten slate.  Rice, meanwhile, is looking wherever they can for a win after a disastrous 2-10 campaign last season, although it is important to note that this team is just one year removed from a 10 win campaign in 2008 that included a bowl victory.

NU's offense has been highly efficient thanks to the nation's number one quarterback in passing efficiency, Dan Persa, who is currently hitting on 86.4% of his passes (also best in the nation) with a 5-0 TD-INT ratio on the year.  While the running game has lagged a bit, the 'Cats did get the ball moving on the ground a decent amount last week while starting RB Arby Fields had what Coach Fitz described as the best game of his career.

Rice, meanwhile saw their starting QB, Taylor McHargue, go down with a shoulder injury last week while backup and starter for much of 2009, Nick Fanuzzi, came in to lead a come-from-behind win on the road at North Texas.  Fanuzzi was good enough, going 12-for-23 passing for 189 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT, but, most importantly, led them to that all-important victory.

On the other side of the ball, the 'Cats looked much stouter against Illinois State last week, while Rice continued to get gashed for yards and points, ranking 92nd in the nation in total defense and 101st nationally in scoring defense (for the record, NU ranks 63rd and 17th nationally, respectively, in those same categories).  This game will definitely be a test for both defenses, especially with the heat and humidity that should wear down both defenses (current forecast is calling for a temperature of 88° at kickoff with a heat index of 96°).

Northwestern needs another comfortable win here to prove to both themselves and the public that they are a solid team in 2010.  Rice, meanwhile, wants to revert back to its 2008 form and show that it is capable of double-digit wins in 2010.  Look for a hard fought contest by both sides with plenty of substitutions due to the weather and game that will be a real test for both sides.

Opening Line:

Northwestern by 7.

Who Should Win

Northwestern.  The Wildcats have been very efficient on offense so far this season and there is little doubt that they should be able to move the ball and put up points on Rice (who have yielded an average of 32.5 points per game this season after ranking dead last nationally in 2009 by giving up 43.1 points per game).  And the NU defense looked relatively stout last week and should be able to contain the Owl offensive attack at least enough to comfortably win the game.  NU's talent and depth should be able to help the Wildcats handle a warm atmosphere away from home.

Upset Factor

It's not like the 'Cats have no problems in road games, especially in warm climates.  The 'Cats have lost their last four contests in the state of Texas dating back to NU's 23-14 win over Rice back in 1998.  And although NU has done enough to reach 2-0 this season, they have shown some weaknesses, particularly on defense where the 'Cats have given up 9 plays of 20 yards or longer so far this season.  Rice has an offense that can put points on the board as they are averaging 24.5 points per game this season and did put up 17 on a formidable Texas team.  Plus, the 'Cats are known to play to their opponent's level, which always leaves the possibility of being upset.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense against Rice Defense

As mentioned earlier, Northwestern's offense has done pretty well for itself so far in 2010, mostly thanks to the very efficient performances of QB Dan Persa, who has only thrown six incompletions on the year (in 44 pass attempts) and no interceptions.  The running game has been lackluster, although NU did move the ball a bit against Illinois State last week.  Look for the Wildcats to go to the air again in order to move the ball quick and far through their no huddle spread attack.

NU should be able to accomplish this goal with relative ease against an Owl defense that ranks 92nd nationally in yards given up, and that is with North Texas as one of their two opponents.  Rice plays a 4-2-5 base defense with an extra safety.  Those five defensive backs have already accounted for 59 of the team's tackles this season, which comes out to about 40%.  Free safety Travis Bradshaw is a solid player and currently leads the team in tackles and has also added a pass break-up, a forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 0.5 TFLs early in the 2010 season.

Senior middle linebacker Justin Hill is also someone that NU should look out for, as he has 12 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, a forced fumble, and a pass break-up so far this year and is an athletic presence in the middle of the field.  The Rice defensive line is also respectable, although was hurt with the loss of senior Scott Solomon, who has played DT in the past (where he was named second team all conference in 2009) but was planning on switching to DE this season before being ruled out for the year.

The Owls have used that extra member of the secondary to somewhat slow opposing passing games, allowing a completion rate of just 55.4%, although the run defense has suffered to some degree, allowing 4.2 yards per carry and has only accumulated one sack on the year.  And the defense as a whole, while taking away the ball four times on the year so far, has generally caved when opposing offenses take relative often trips to the red zone, allowing 6 TDs and 2 FGs in 9 opponents' trips there.

Although there are some strong individuals on Rice's defense, Northwestern should have little trouble picking apart the unit in the passing game and should be able to move the ball well enough on the ground as well.  Look for the 'Cats to determine the pace of this game with their offense and for Persa to have yet another good day.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense against Rice Offense

Northwestern's defense had trouble in week one at Vanderbilt but pretty much contained everything thrown at them last Saturday against Illinois State, including grabbing three interceptions (two from LB Quentin Davie and another from DT Corbin Bryant).  They will likely need to continue grabbing those interceptions as they have been dinged by big plays this year (the aforementioned nine in two games) while the Owls have done a decent job of racking up their own big plays (nine of their own of 20 yards or longer).

The talk will likely center on RB Sam McGuffie who transferred from Michigan and leads the team in carries with 28 on the year.  But the biggest factor may be the starter, Tyler Smith, who is averaging a solid 5.7 yards per carry in 2010.  And Charles Ross is definitely their short yardage back, piling up 2 TDs on just six carries this year; Ross led Rice in rushing last season as a freshman.  They have four experienced offensive linemen to run behind and therefore pose a good enough running threat to keep Northwestern's attention up front.

QB Nick Fanuzzi, a transfer from Alabama, looked decent as Rice's starter last year, but lost his job to McHargue in the offeseason only to regain it last week due to injury.  Miami (FL) transfer Taylor Cook is also pushing for playing time and will likely see some action.  Both have potential and the Rice passing game has shown signs of life early on in this season, including hitting a relatively impressive five converting passes on third-and-long last week against North Texas.  Rice has also spread the ball around on offense, going to 11 different receivers so far in 2010, including a long 51 yard pass play to McGuffie out of the backfield.

The Wildcat defense will have to continue getting good pressure from the front four, which they did very well last week, led by DE Vince Browne.  NU has also blitzed a variety of players and needs to get results when they choose to send a fifth man (or more).  The 'Cats need this in order to help out a secondary that is still developing after losing so many key components from a season ago.

Also look for LB Quentin Davie and S Brian Peters to continue their defensive prowess; Davie had two interceptions last week and Peters is tied for the team lead in tackles, including a wrestling-esque tackle on kickoff coverage last week.  Northwestern will likely rotate a lot of guys in and out in order to deal with the weather, so expect to see a lot of backups get playing time particularly at DL and LB.

This will likely prove to be a good test for the NU D as they work to limit "explosion plays" and contain an offense that has some talent.  DC Mike Hankwitz is also continuing to install plays as the season progresses so look for some improvement as the defense gets a better grasp on their expanding arsenal of defensive sets.

What to Look for: Special Teams

The biggest change for the 'Cats looks to be at long snapper, where senior John Henry Pace is currently listed as the only starter after splitting time with redshirt freshman Pat Hickey during the first two weeks of the season in an attempt to get Hickey some valuable playing time.  Hickey was handling "shorter" long snaps for placekicking and things didn't necessarily work out the best as NU has had its share of problems on special teams this season (two missed field goals, one of them blocked, one missed extra point, and one extra point that wasn't attempted).

Those snapping/holding/blocking problems have definitely affected K Stefan Demos' placekicking, as he is 2-of-4 on field goals and 5-of-6 on extra points after a rather solid 2009 campaign (and that's without removing two specifically bad games: the Illinois game and the Outback Bowl).  But, it is important to note that Demos is doing extremely well on kickoffs this season, averaging a solid 63.7 yards per kickoff with one touchback.

Also, the NU punt game is doing extremely well, with Brandon Williams averaging a whopping 42.1 yards per punt, with 4-of-9 punts this year landing inside the 20.  This has definitely been a boon to the defense who has generally had a good defensive starting position.

Finally, the NU return game hasn't been great this season, but look for that to shift as true freshman Venric Mark will likely be out on the field for most kickoffs (as the lead back) and punt returns as well (he almost broke one against Illinois State).  In fact, Mark leads NU in punt return yards (with 7) after just one return opportunity, which came last game.

But don't write off Rice's special teams, which are all around solid.  They are averaging a respectable 20.8 yards per kick return, although their return man was injured last game.  And their coverage team has been good, allowing just 16.1 yards per kick return (and that includes the Texas game, remember).  And their punt return game is especially dangerous, averaging 14.8 yards per return, which doesn't seem like much until one compares it to NU's 2.8 yards per punt return average this season.

Also, if NU's 42.1 yards per punt average is good, Rice punter Kyle Martens is averaging 47.0 yards per punt with 4 of them already going for 50+ yards along with 5 stuck inside the 20.  Add to that their kicker, Chris Boswell, who has hit on 5-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-2 at 50 yards, and you have an overall talented special teams unit.

With the solid unit on the other side of the field, Northwestern will have to work that much harder in order to get the edge in this important facet of the game.  Although they haven't proven it yet this year, expect Stephen Simmons or Venric Mark to notch a nice return, and this would be a great game to do that in order to take some pressure off of the offense (Persa, in particular).

Miscellaneous Notes:

Northwestern vs. "The Birds"

The Wildcats are 12-8 against teams named after birds since 2000 (this includes the Kansas Jayhawks and Iowa Hawkeyes, which are conceivably named after birds), and 12-3 since 2003.

Houston Connection

As mentioned in the Northwestern press release for this game, five current NU players graduated from high school in the Houston area, including Justan Vaughn, Demetrius Dugar, David Nwabuisi, Will Hampton, and Venric Mark.  All five appear on the two-deep and are likely to play in the game, with a chance to delight their hometown crowd.  Over the past decade, the 'Cats have had anywhere between four and nine players on the roster from the Houston area.

Rushing Spread?

Not only do the 'Cats spread it around passing (12 different Wildcats have at least one reception this year), but they do it rushing as well: 8 different 'Cats have at least one carry this season and 7 have 10 or more net yards rushing.  Note that no player has over 100 net yards rushing (Persa would if his sack numbers are removed from the rushing stats), but the 'Cats aren't that bad running the ball, coming in at 71st nationally with 153.0 rushing yards per game.

Third Down Conversions

Last year, Northwestern ranked 17th nationally in third down conversion percentage at 45.7%, but this season hasn't been as kind to NU on third downs, with the 'Cats converting just 37.0% of their chances.  They should fare better against Rice, though, who are allowing a 41.9% rate this year.  Meanwhile, the Wildcat D has been taking care of business for the most part in 2010, allowing a 32.1% third down conversion rate.

Injury Report:


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), LB Tim Riley (shoulder, out), S David Arnold (foot, out), WR Tony Jones (shoulder, out), DT Niko Mafuli (leg, out).

Northwestern LB Bryce McNaul looks to return to action as a starting outside linebacker after missing the first two games with a shoulder injury, which definitely boosts NU's depth at the position.  Arnold and Mafuli are both still out with their respective injuries and would be useful to have available, although reports are that they are coming along and it won't be too long before the 'Cats get some additional defensive depth.  Also, backup senior offensive guard Keegan Grant will also be available after missing the first two weeks with an illness.  Thankfully the Wildcats have been lucky on the injury front so far and will definitely need the depth on what looks to be a balmy evening in Houston this coming Saturday.


QB Taylor McHargue (shoulder, out), KR/RB Shane Turner (wrist, out for season), CB Jarrett Ben (shoulder, out), DT Scott Solomon (foot, out for season).

Rice lost their starting QB McHargue with a separated shoulder against North Texas, although the offense was sputtering up to the point in which he left and seemingly came to life when backup (and starter for much of last year) Nick Fanuzzi stepped in.  Losing dynamic kick returner Shane Turner was a significant loss after week one, and quite possibly the biggest loss was just prior to the season when defensive tackle Scott Solomon was declared out for the year (he was considered by many as the best player on the entire team heading into the season).


Northwestern 35, Rice 20

Expect the Northwestern offense to find the end zone early and often, and while Rice will put up some points, the Wildcat defense will come up with enough stops and/or turnovers to prevent them from keeping up.  Dan Persa should have another efficient game while the NU running game will do enough to keep the Owls honest.

The 'Cats could definitely use a win by this sort of comfortable margin in order to continue building momentum heading into sight of much tougher opponents.  NU has the talent and depth to take care of business and I expect Fitz to have them in shape to do so against a team that is still in rebuilding mode after a very disappointing season.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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