Game Preview


Central Michigan
Ryan Field
Saturday, September 25, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN 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 2008).

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 Minnesota.

Opening Line:

Northwestern by 9.

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.

Upset Factor

The 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).

There is 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 20.7.

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 well.

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.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense against Central Michigan Offense

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 fumble.

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.

They will 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% completion rate.

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: Special Teams

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.

The 'Cats 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.

Miscellaneous Notes

Comfortable 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 'Cats.


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 35,000.


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.

Injury Report


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 injury front.

Central Michigan

LB Nick Bellore (ankle, probable).

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.


Northwestern 27, 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.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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