Saturday, September 25, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
radio internet coverage.
Game Preview: Central Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern (3-0, 0-0) is looking to cap off its non-conference slate unscathed
for just the second time since 1963, while the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-1)
are looking to upend a Big Ten opponent for the second straight season after
knocking off Michigan State last year. This game looks to be a good warm-up for
the Wildcats heading into Big Ten play as CMU boasts a top ten scoring defense
nationally while also scoring 30 or more points per game this year (which are,
coincidentally, both statistics that also apply to NU).
This looks to be,
as Coach Fitz noted earlier this week, Northwestern's toughest non-conference
test (although the win at Vanderbilt was a Cardiac 'Cat type victory). CMU has
proven that it can play Big Ten teams tough and has enough talent among the
starters to force Northwestern to break a sweat.
Central Michigan has
some experienced players up front on defense and they'll be looking to bring
down NU QB Dan Persa's top-flight pass efficiency number. Meanwhile, on
offense, sophomore QB Ryan Radcliff is looking to pick up where his predecessor,
Dan LeFevour, left off by racking up 795 passing yards so far this young
season. The 'Cats must also be wary of 5'9" RB Paris Cotton, who is averaging
6.2 yards per carry in 2010 and has already amassed 5 rushing TDs with a long
run of 61 yards (the last time NU had a run that long was
Northwestern, on the other hand, will be looking for that elusive
non-conference sweep as the NU defense is coming into form and the offense
continues to rattle off the yards and points. The defensive front has come
alive over the past two games, racking up a total of 5 sacks and 8 QB hurries.
Also note that the 'Cats have a +6 turnover margin over that span while taking
the ball away 8 times.
Finally, the Wildcat offense looks to continue its
success so far, mostly thanks to Persa who has thrown for 769 yards and run for
another 129 (without removing sack numbers) while accounting for 8 total TDs
(passing and rushing). It will be interesting to see if NU decides to force
balance by running the ball, despite its lack of success so far, or if the 'Cats
are able to continue moving the ball effectively with an efficient spread
passing attack coupled with Persa runs.
This game looks to be a
legitimate test for NU before heading into conference play, which will be tough
in spite of the fact that the 'Cats face (arguably) two of its easier Big Ten
tests first. If Northwestern takes care of business with relative ease (i.e. if
the game doesn't come down to the last play), then the 'Cats may start to turn
heads, especially with an ESPN or ESPN2 appearance coming up next weekend at
Who Should Win
Northwestern. While Central Michigan
has had a run of success that has included a post-bowl top 25 finish last season
and three MAC Championships over the past four seasons, they lost Dan LeFevour,
arguably the school's best QB ever, to graduation as well their head coach,
Butch Jones, to Cincinnati, as he continues to follow in his predecessor's
(Brian Kelly) footsteps. There are also many question marks on defense and in
their 13-10 OT loss at Temple earlier this season, it was clear that they have
taken a step backward from last year.
Chippewas have more than taken care of business outside of that overtime loss to
Temple, walloping both Hampton (FCS) and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of
85-14. Although those are admittedly bad teams, those margins are nothing to
laugh at and CMU is expected to be a contender for a MAC title game berth once
again. The team is also salivating at potentially knocking off a Big Ten foe,
something that MAC schools are known to do from time to time (like CMU did at
MSU last season).
What to Look for: Northwestern Offense
against Central Michigan Defense
The biggest question, as mentioned in
the opening portion of this preview, is if the Wildcats will continue using the
passing game mixed with QB runs as their primary method of moving the ball, or
if Fitz will insist on establishing a strong running game, something that NU
hasn't done very well this season (or last, for that matter).
little question that Dan Persa will take care of business when given the
opportunity, especially with his #2 nationally ranked passing efficiency of
192.6. He gets the most done with the ball (an impressive 10.1 yards per pass
attempt) while also protecting it (no interceptions in 76 pass attempts). On
the ground, Persa is averaging 6.2 yards per carry (after removing sacks) with 2
TDs on the year.
One also can't forget the receivers, who have been quite
impressive thus far, and NU has quite a few talented ones. 13 different
Wildcats have caught the ball this year, and it's worth noting that the longest
reception of the year (50 yards) went to true freshman Rashad Lawrence, who has
only caught one ball in his career so far and is currently the backup "Z"
receiver. Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore are Persa's favorite targets, with 12
and 13 receptions on the year, respectively. These are also the big
yards-after-catch producers, with Dunsmore rumbling down the field for a big
gain against Rice, while Ebert quietly leads the Big Ten in receiving yards,
with 248, and is second in the conference in yards per reception, with
On the other side of the ball, the Chippewa defense is led on the
field by senior LB Nick Bellore, who has 18 tackles on the year. He is flanked
on the weak side by fellow senior LB Matt Berning who leads CMU in tackles this
year with 22, with 4 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage. Their front
four also feature some experience, with 2 juniors and a senior, and have the
potential to make some noise in the backfield.
The members of the
secondary aren't pushovers, either, as CMU starts 4 upperclassmen in that unit.
The Chippewas rank 14th nationally in pass efficiency defense and have given up
just 1 passing TD on the year so far. Senior free safety Bobby Seay Jr. has
CMU's only interception on the season to go along with his 16 tackles. Junior
strong safety Jahleel Addae has added 3 pass-break ups on the year as
Honestly, Central Michigan's defense hasn't been tested this year,
and Northwestern will provide a solid test for them. The 'Cats likely won't be
able to move the ball as easily as they would like, but NU should still be able
to move the ball and score enough to take care of business.
to Look for: Northwestern Defense against Central Michigan
The NU defense has begun to really come into form, with the
first/second team defense not yielding a touchdown since the Vanderbilt game in
week one. Since then, they have given up just 3 FGs and has racked up that
aforementioned +6 turnover margin. In fact, the 'Cats rank 3rd nationally in
turnover margin per game at +2.00.
Credit senior LB Quentin Davie for
leading the charge as he has 3 INTs over the past two games, while DE Vince
Browne has really come into his own as a pass rusher, amassing 3 sacks and 4 QB
hurries so far this year. But Browne has also developed the rest of his game,
coming up with 8 tackles and 2 TFLs outside of his sacks while also forcing a
The NU secondary still hasn't quieted critics who questioned the
relatively young starters heading into the season, as they have contributed only
2 of NU's 6 interceptions and 2 of 7 pass break-ups. S Brian Peters and CB
Justan Vaughn are tied for second on NU with 18 tackles each, but the 'Cats rank
81st nationally in pass yardage given up at 234 yards per game.
get a challenge from the CMU offense, who has the 25th ranked pass offense
nationally as they're putting up 266.7 yards per game. And, as mentioned
earlier, they also have a running game that must be respected, with RB Cotton
averaging over 114 yards per game this young season.
The offensive line
won't be a pushover, as they start two seniors with the middle three starters
all over 300 lbs. They haven't done a great job of protecting QB Ryan Radcliff,
though, yielding 2.33 sacks per game so far this year, which ranks just 76th
nationally. Radcliff will be the focus of the offense as he will pass early and
often (he's averaged 30.7 pass attempts per game this year; compare that to
Persa's 25.3 per game), and he has the potential to be very good, although he
has admittedly big shoes to fill. Radcliff has completed a respectable 65.2%
of his passes, which is solid even if it pales in comparison to Persa's 81.6%
Overall, the Wildcat D will have to respect both the run
and the pass which will leave them vulnerable to plays at times. It will be
interesting to see if the pass rush can disrupt the offense as well as they have
the past two weeks and if NU can force some turnovers, many of which so far this
year have come off of a good pass rush.
What to Look for:
Northwestern seems to have corrected most of its special
team woes (on the placekicking unit) by putting senior longsnapper John Henry
Pace back in (he has handled punt snaps all year so far). That yielded a 3-of-3
FG and 3-of-3 XP performance at Rice after 4 FGs/XPs were missed/blocked/not
attempted during the first two weeks of the year. This must continue for the
'Cats to succeed in the close games that will inevitably come.
have also continued to find success in the punting game, averaging 40.2 net
yards per punt, good for an impressive 26th nationally. In fact, NU is actually
better than its opponent in this category, as CMU averages just 37.1 net yards
per punt. And the 'Cats' punt return game made an impact last week as Hunter
Bates had a nice 33 yard return that set up an immediate TD toss from Persa to
extend NU's lead.
For CMU, redshirt freshman David Harman has been solid
on FGs/XPs, going 7-of-7 combined since taking over for Paul Mudgett, who has
missed 4 FGs on the year, including 3 in the opener against Hampton. The area
of special teams NU should be wary of, though, is kickoff returns, as CMU ranks
17th nationally with a 27.1 yard per return average on kickoffs. That includes
an 81 yard return by WR Cody Wilson, who returns kicks along with fellow WR Kito
Poblah and SS Jahleel Addae.
Northwestern must be conscious of its
special teams performance as it takes just one play to tilt the scales in one
direction. NU can just ask its fellow conference members how important special
teams are, as multiple Big Ten teams have given up big plays on special teams
that have nearly or actually cost them wins.
The Wildcats have put together
back-to-back double-digit wins for the first time since the 2000 season. The
last time that NU has put together three straight double-digit wins: 1996.
We'll see if NU can replicate this feat that has most recently occurred in 2 Big
Ten Co-Championship seasons for the
The fall quarter is now in session at
Northwestern, so the students will be at the game in full force on Saturday.
Also, Saturday is Take a Kid to the Game day (where 2 kids get free admission to
the game with a parent's paid ticket) as well as Evanston Day, where Evanston
residents get half price tickets to the game. Also, there is a Pep Rally for NU
in downtown Evanston Thursday night at 6PM. Hopefully this all combines to give
attendance a nice non-conference boost; reports are that 28,000+ are expected.
The last time that a non-conference game attendance eclipsed 28,000 was 2005
against Northern Illinois, where it exceeded
The Wildcats have won the turnover
battle each game in 2010 and are, of course, 3-0. NU went 6-0 in 2009 when
winning the turnover battle.
LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for
season), S David Arnold (out, foot), WR Tony Jones (shoulder, out), OL Evan
Luxenburg (knee, out), DT Niko Mafuli (knee, out), S Jared Carpenter (back,
probable), CB Demetrius Dugar (probable).
Outside of those who were rule
out for the Rice game (Goodlow, Arnold, Jones, Luxenburg, and Mafuli), NU
experienced only a few minor dings over the last week, including Carpenter, a
late scratch from the Rice game, and Dugar, who got dinged during the contest.
Both are listed on the Northwestern 2-deep for Central Michigan and are expected
to play. LB Bryce McNaul made a full return as he started last week, and
reserve LB Tim Riley even saw action, so the 'Cats fortunately found some depth
at LB after a rough start to the year. NU is still in rather good shape on the
LB Nick Bellore (ankle,
Bellore likely shouldn't even be listed here, given that he
has played in all three games and is the team's third-leading tackler, but CMU
has found itself relatively unscathed in 2010 and is in great shape in terms of
injuries so far.
Central Michigan 20
While I believe NU will come out of this game
with the win, it will likely be a relatively close game, as CMU has both the
offense and defense to stick with the 'Cats most of the way. The NU defense
won't look quite as good as it has the past two weeks against a balanced
Chippewa offense, but it will get the big plays that it needs to seal off a
victory for the 'Cats.
I do believe that the 'Cats have the potential to
win this one going away, but it's difficult to make such a prediction given NU's
typical non-conference woes. I do see a victory, though, and that should give
NU nice momentum heading into Big Ten play.
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