Post-Game Analysis: Rice
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (3-0, 0-0) took care of business down in Houston as they downed Rice (1-2) by a final of 30-13 in a relatively rare comfortable road win.  NU used a combination of great defense (the 'Cats didn't allow a Rice TD until the closing minutes of the contest when the result was all but decided) and an efficient second half offensive performance (in which NU QB Dan Persa went 9-of-10 passing with 159 yards, 1 TD, and another TD rushing) to seal the win.

For the third consecutive game, NU took its opening offensive possession for a score, this time a 42 yard field goal from Stefan Demos, who went 3-of-3 on FGs as well as hitting all 3 of his extra point tries after experiencing some issues in the placekicking game during the first two weeks.  The NU offense had a relatively difficult time for the remainder of the half, though, adding just one more score, a field goal, in the first half on the back of a relatively "poor" half from Persa: 15-of-22 passing for 148 yards with no TDs.

Thankfully, the Wildcat defense showed up and took care of business, singlehandedly outscoring Rice thanks to an 11 yard interception return for TD by LB Quentin Davie late in the second quarter to give NU a 13-0 lead.  Rice did add a field goal on the last play of the half, but the Northwestern first team defense did not allow a touchdown (note that the 'Cats did not yield a TD at all last week against Illinois State).  The Owls had 377 yards of total offense on the day, but 97 of those came on their final TD-scoring drive while facing the Wildcat reserve defenders; removing those yards, the primary NU defenders gave up just 280 yards.

In the second half, the NU offense turned it on as Persa went on his aforementioned hot streak, with NU receivers also putting on a show themselves.  WR Jeremy Ebert had a nice 27 yard TD reception on the first play of the 'Cats first second half drive, which was set up by a 33 yard punt return by S/PR Hunter Bates, NU's longest return since Brendan Smith returned one 51 yards against Illinois in 2008.  Rice would answer with another FG to cut NU's lead to 20-6 midway through the third quarter, but the 'Cats answered once again with essentially a game-sealing TD drive that was a methodical 12-play, 74-yard drive capped by a nice 18 yard scamper from Persa.

The 'Cats weren't quite done yet offensively, as the very next possession featured an impressive 47-yard catch and run from SB Drake Dunsmore reminiscent of his long Outback Bowl run for a TD, except this time he didn't just break tackles, he jumped over a defender.  The Wildcats got all the way down to the Rice 1 yard line before RB Arby Fields fumbled into the end zone, which was recovered by the Owls, keeping NU's point total stuck at 27 for the time being.

The defense wouldn't relent, though, forcing and recovering a fumble near midfield on the very next drive.  On the day, the NU defense picked up four turnovers: two fumbles (forced by Vince Browne and Corbin Bryant), the previously mentioned Davie interception (his third over the last two games), and another interception by Hunter Bates.  The Wildcat defense also had 2 sacks on the night in addition to another 10 tackles for losses on the day.  And despite allowing some significant gains on the ground to Rice (4 different players had runs of 10 yards or longer, including a 31 yard run from RB Charles Ross), NU gave up just 86 net yards on the ground.

After getting the ball back, the offense wasted no time, getting inside the Rice 10 in just three plays, thanks to two long pass completions from Persa.  NU went conservative with goal to go, though, keeping it on the ground in the hands of Fields then Stephan Simmons, who couldn't quite punch it in.  But it allowed for an easy Demos field goal, with NU taking a formidable 30-6 lead with under 8 minutes to play in the game.

Rice was desperate to get on the scoreboard, but NU's D would make one final statement, with safety Hunter Bates, starting in place of Jared Carpenter, who was a late scratch with a lower back strain, grabbing the first interception of his career.  The 'Cats would put in the backups on offense and try to bleed some clock, but that takeaway all but put the game into "garbage time."

Finally, the NU defensive reserves entered the game and allowed Rice to put together a 97 yard drive capped off with the Owls' only TD of the night to essentially end the game with a final score of 30-13.  Despite giving up that touchdown, it was indeed nice to watch Northwestern reserves get playing time in a road game that the 'Cats had sealed up early in the fourth quarter.

Overall, it was indeed a solid performance by the Wildcats in all three phases of the game.  Even though the offense didn't get off to the best start, the defense was there to pick up the slack, while the special teams took care of business when it needed to, with the 'Cats scoring 12 points on FGs and XPs and Bates putting up a solid punt return.

Player of the Game

Northwestern LB Quentin Davie (10 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 1 pass break-up, 1 INT returned 11 yards for a TD)  Davie is a legitimate NFL draft prospect and showed it Saturday night, as he led the Wildcats in tackles while conjuring up the play of the game, his interception return for TD in the second quarter to widen NU's lead.  He was also in on a sack and grabbed another tackle for loss as he wreaked havoc all over the field, while also garnering Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (24-of-32 passing for 307 yards, 1 TD, 7 carries for 48 yards and 1 TD rushing)  Persa had a "pedestrian" 75% completion rate and the aforementioned "poor" first half, but he still hasn't thrown an interception on the year while tossing 6 TD passes and adding another 2 on the ground.  Also, after removing two sacks (which are not reflected in the rushing stats above), he averaged 6.9 yards per carry on the ground on just 7 carries, which is a number in line with what the coaching staff wants to see from him to avoid overusing him.

Wide Receivers: Dunsmore and Demetrius Fields tied for the lead with 6 receptions each.  Ebert continued hauling in the catches and yards, with 4 for 82 yards and a TD.  Sidney Stewart tacked on another 3 receptions, while venric Mark hauled in 2.  Overall this unit provides plenty of options to Persa and they always find ways to make plays, like Dunsmore's amazing run after the catch against Rice.

DE Vince Browne (7 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble)  Browne continues to come into his own as he disrupts opposing offenses and takes care of business in all areas, not just pass rushing.  By stepping up his game in 2010, he is helping to create quite a formidable DL for NU, along with Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant in the middle, while the other end hasn't been a slouch, either (Kevin Watt recorded 0.5 sacks while Quentin Williams recovered a fumble against Rice).

K Stefan Demos (3-of-3 FGs, 42 yard long, 3-of-3 XPs, 7 kickoffs for 66.7 yard average)  Yes, Demos has had his off days (Illinois game and the Outback Bowl last season) and hasn't been great so far this year, but he was very solid against Rice, contributing 12 of NU's points on the evening while continuing to boom kickoffs to around the goal line (Rice's average starting field position after kickoffs was at a very respectable 21.4 yard line).  Look for him to continue this solid play as the season progresses.

What to Work on

Running Game: Once again, despite facing an inferior opponent, the 'Cats were unable to get the ground game going, and it wasn't for lack of trying.  NU running backs had 33 carries on the night, led by Arby Fields with 17.  But the NU RBs managed just 108 yards (3.3 yards per carry).  While that is an improvement on earlier games this season, it still isn't Big Ten caliber, while Fields contributed NU's only turnover of the game: a fumble on the Rice 1 yard line, negating a golden scoring opportunity.  The Wildcats both want and need to establish a respectable ground game and NU fans are impatiently awaiting this to happen.

Red Zone Offense: Northwestern has scored TDs on just 8-of-13 trips inside the red zone this year.  The 'Cats have settled for a FG on 3 of those non-TD trips and lost a fumble and missed a FG on the other two.  Yes, that includes a significant amount of "garbage time" against both Illinois State and Rice, but NU must be able to punch it in for 7 points in order to be successful in 2010, particularly when Big Ten play rolls around in less than 2 weeks.

Random Observations

Long Snapping: John Henry Pace came into the year as the reliable senior long-snapper for the 'Cats, but Coach Fitz wanted to get redshirt freshman Pat Hickey's feet wet with some snapping experience in 2010.  So, Hickey was to take over snapping for field goals/extra points while Pace would continue to handle punt snaps.  But after some issues emerged in placekicking during the first 2 games (2 missed FGs, 1 missed XP, 1 blocked FG, and 1 mishandled snap on an XP try where no kick was attempted), Fitz went back to Pace full time and the results showed on Saturday with every FG and XP attempt converted for a total of 12 points with no visible issues.

Points off Turnovers: Not only did the Wildcats win the turnover battle 4-1, but they won thanks to points off of those turnovers: 13-0.  In addition, NU took the ball back following their only turnover of the game.  On the season, the 'Cats have 41 points off of turnovers to just 7 for opponents (only Vanderbilt has scored on a drive following an NU turnover).

Top 10 Nationally: The 'Cats rank in the top 10 nationally in the following statistical categories after week three: scoring defense (8th at 12.33 points per game), turnover margin (3rd at +2.00 per game), passing efficiency (4th at 186.4), interceptions thrown (tied for 1st with 12 others at 0), and interceptions (8th with 6).

Final Thought

It was great for 'Cats fans, especially those who made the trip to Houston, to enjoy a relatively comfortable non-conference road win.  The victory has helped set the stage for a very strong start to the year with the defense looking stronger each week and the offense taking care of business thanks to an extremely efficient QB.  Now time to head back to Evanston in order to cap off non-conference play against a dangerous Central Michigan team that will be a challenge despite losing their head coach and many talented players off of a post-bowl top 25 team from last season.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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