Game Preview


Texas Tech
Cotton Bowl Stadium
Saturday, January 1, 2011.  11:00 am CST
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Texas Tech (TicketCity Bowl)
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern (7-5, 3-5) is headed for a third consecutive bowl game for the first time in program history, while the Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-5, 3-5) will appear in their 11th consecutive bowl game, having compiled a winning record in 16 consecutive seasons.  The Wildcats will be seeking their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl, while Texas Tech will be looking to win its 7th in its last 9 tries.

Both teams come in with identical overall and conference records, but while NU comes in on a bit of a downslide, having lost its final two games by a combined score of 50-118 with all-Big Ten QB Dan Persa sidelined with an Achilles' tendon injury, which will of course keep him out of this game as well.  TTU, meanwhile, has been relatively consistent all year long, never winning or losing more than two consecutive games.  Like Northwestern's win over Iowa, Tech had a home victory over a ranked Missouri team (who will coincidentally face the Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl).

If one analyzes the units on these teams on paper, they are relatively similar: solid offenses (with Persa on the field for NU, at least) and porous defenses.  NU ranks 49th nationally in total offense; TTU ranks 16th in that category.  Meanwhile, the 'Cats rank 92nd in total defense while the Red Raiders rank 116th.  Almost needless to say, the potential for a high scoring affair is there, especially if the Wildcats can find a way to get their offense moving without Persa at the helm.  And, unlike their losses to Illinois and Wisconsin to end the regular season, NU will not be facing a formidable defense, so the opportunity to move the ball is definitely there.

And despite Northwestern throwing two freshman quarterbacks in the mix for this game (redshirt freshman Evan Watkins and true freshman Kain Colter), the 'Cats have proven over the past two bowl appearances that they can put together game plans to make them competitive.  Both the 2008 Alamo Bowl against Missouri and the 2010 Outback Bowl against Auburn saw NU as significant underdogs, and NU took both games to overtime and had legitimate shots to win both of them.  The Wildcats will once again be big underdogs and will have to put together another great gameplan in order to stay in this one.

It will also be interesting to see which injured Wildcats are able to return for this game: LB Bryce McNaul got dinged up at Wisconsin, RB Mike Trumpy was out for that game after an injury against Illinois, and RB Jacob Schmidt has been sidelined since the Michigan State game.  The defense can use any help it can get, while the offense can surely use the top two active NU ballcarriers in 2010 (since the aforementioned Persa is out and RB Arby Fields decided to transfer after the close of the regular season).  They will definitely have a chance to recover, and hopefully they will be able to contribute to the 'Cats' cause.

While many have seemingly dismissed this game, especially with NU missing Persa, if the Northwestern offense can get in gear after about a month of practices with their new quarterbacks, this should prove to be quite entertaining, particularly since both defenses are vulnerable.  The 'Cats definitely have something to play for here, while the Red Raiders may have some distractions with rumors swirling about their head coach, Tommy Tuberville, interviewing for high profile openings elsewhere.  It's definitely a game worth turning on the TV for relatively early on New Year's Day to watch, with Northwestern playing in the first game of the new year for the second consecutive bowl season (it will also be the first bowl game televised on ESPNU).

Opening Line

Texas Tech by 9.5.

Who Should Win

Texas Tech is a strong favorite due to their high octane pass-based offense and Northwestern's own defensive troubles as of late.  Add to that the lack of Dan Persa, and the Red Raiders are favored by a big margin.  If Texas Tech is allowed to run their offense without disruption, this may prove to be the case because it's clear that the Northwestern offense just doesn't have the same spark without Persa.

Upset Factor

If the 'Cats can work some bowl practice magic like they have seemingly done over the past two seasons, they could really make a game of this since TTU's defense is pretty bad.  In fact, their pass defense has yielded the most yards of any FBS team this year (almost 307 per game).  There will definitely be an opportunity for Watkins here to show off his arm, and if the 'Cats can get the ball to some healthy RBs, they could make this interesting.  And if the NU defense can rediscover its ability to tackle and/or force turnovers, the Wildcats can make this a game.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Texas Tech Defense

Expect Watkins to look much better passing the football in this game, mostly due to a month of valuable practice time with the first team, but also partially due to Texas Tech's porous pass defense, who rank last nationally (120th) in pass yardage allowed and 89th nationally in pass efficiency defense.  Opponents have racked up impressive numbers through the air throughout the season and have averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and 12.1 yards per completion against TTU.

Opponents all season long have realized this weakness, passing the ball over 54% of the time, but even so haven't been that bad running the ball, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and racking up close to 160 yards per game on the ground.  Northwestern would benefit from some strong performances on the ground from Trumpy (if he is available), Schmidt, or Smith - who may have his best opportunity yet to carry the rock a significant number of times.

Of course, Northwestern shouldn't take anything for granted, as the Red Raiders have the athletes to cause the 'Cats' offense problems.  They have 14 interceptions on the year (tied with NU), led by linebacker Bront Bird (who also leads TTU in tackles with 101 on the year) and DB DJ Johnson who both have 3.  Up front LB Brian Duncan leads them with 7 sacks and 12 TFLs on the year as he finds his way into the backfield relatively often as they send different players along with their 3-man defensive front.

Another key for the Wildcats is to take care of the football, something they haven't done over the past two games, having turned it over 10 times, with 5 of those turnovers coming in the first quarters of those games, giving the 'Cats almost no chance particularly with NU fielding a freshman QB in his first two collegiate starts.  Hopefully he and the rest of the offensive ballcarriers have learned their lesson and will maintain possession of the football and give the offense a fighting chance.

The NU offensive line will also have to do a better job protecting those young QBs while still opening up holes for the RBs, something they haven't done on a consistent basis all year long (ranking 115th nationally in sacks allowed and opening few holes for a running game averaging just 3.5 yards per carry).  And without Persa there extending plays with his escapability, things have been that much tougher as of late.  They'll have to hold back the Texas Tech pass rush, who is somewhat respectable averaging 2 sacks per game, which puts them in the top half nationally.  Watkins has a nice arm, but the OL will need to hold up longer than they did against both Illinois and Wisconsin in order for him to show off that arm.

All in all, this game will largely come down to what Northwestern is able to muster on offense with those aforementioned freshman QBs against one of the most porous defenses the 'Cats have faced all year.  If they benefit from those bowl practices and can get some momentum in the game, look out, because this could turn into a barn-burner.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Texas Tech Offense

While the 'Cats didn't fare very well on defense over the final two weeks of the regular season, they were admittedly on the field a heck of a lot (thanks to those 10 offensive turnovers and no Persa to extend drives), and they faced some tough running-based offenses.  In this game, they'll face a pass-first offense, something they're arguably built to defend with smaller but fast linebackers and a pass rusher up front in Vince Browne.  They won't have to worry about a whole lot of play action passing because TTU throws the ball over 60% of the time, and when they do run they are typically running from the spread, which means fewer blockers to impeded NU's defenders (something the 'Cats had major trouble with in those final two regular season games).

While NU has allowed over 230 yards per game through the air, they are near the middle of the pack nationally in pass efficiency defense, having been helped by those 14 INTs on the year.  Although CB Jordan Mabin hasn't intercepted a pass this season (although he has dropped a couple of likely INTs), he does lead the Big Ten in passes defended with 13.  Northwestern will need to get the most out of him and his secondary teammate S Brian Peters in order to have a shot here because the Red Raiders will pass early and often.

Texas Tech is led by senior QB Taylor Potts, who has an impressive 31 TDs to just 9 INTs on the year, and as he's thrown the ball 495 times on the year he sports an INT percentage of just 1.8%.  Potts is backed up by fellow senior Steven Sheffield, who has 3 TDs and an INT this season but has some prior starting experience under his belt and provides another throwing option for the Red Raiders.

In terms of receivers, TTU has a bunch of them: 10 different receivers with 10 or more receptions on the year (although 2 are likely out with injuries), and 9 who have at least 1 TD on the season.  The most dangerous is definitely Lyle Leong who leads the team in receiving yards (808) and receiving TDs (17); he was a high school teammate of Potts and the chemistry is obviously still present: that senior duo is likely looking to go out on top, so NU would be wise to keep an eye on him at all times.

They don't run it much, but RBs Baron Batch and Eric Stephens are competent, averaging 4.7 and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively, and each have 5 TDs rushing on the year.  TTU uses the passing game to set up running lanes and likes to capitalize when the opportunity is there.  Northwestern would benefit if the DL is able to get off of blocks and make tackles near the line of scrimmage instead of keeping multiple linebackers in close, which opens up even more in the passing game down the field.

The key in this game for the NU defense will be repeating what they did against the last true spread offense they faced, Indiana, where they kept the play in front of them all day long until the game was in hand, and held a potentially explosive offense to just 17 points despite not really shutting down the Hoosier offense.  Expect to see much of the same in terms of scheme from the NU defense and if they can execute as they did there while correcting the tackling problems they had late in the year, the 'Cats can put themselves in a position to play "bend but don't break" D and keep NU in the game.

What to Look for: Special Teams

In the placekicking game, Texas Tech hasn't had to kick it much, as they are just 9-of-14 on FGs for the season (64.3%), with 3 of those misses coming on blocks.  They are just 4-of-9 outside of 40 yards.  Matt Williams is the primary kicker while Donnie Carona attempts some of the longer FG tries (he has hit just 1 on the year).  On the other hand, they are a perfect 50-of-50 on XPs.  Stefan Demos has definitely had his issues this year, but comes in having hit three straight and has hit 15 on the year, with a 68.2% make rate (actually greater than NU's opponent).  So, if the NU defense can contain the TTU offense and this comes down to FGs, Demos may finally have the chance to redeem himself after a couple of huge misses in the Outback Bowl last season.

Northwestern has seen vast improvement in its return game, particularly after inserting true freshman Venric Mark as the primary punt and kick returner midseason.  Last game, he set the single-game Northwestern record for kick returns, including returning one 94 yards for a TD (he averaged 30.3 yards per kick return on the day).  He boosted NU to 41st nationally in kick return average on the year, and they will be facing an average squad (41st nationally in kick return defense) that has yielded 2 kickoff returns for TD this year.

On the flipside, Northwestern ranks 23rd in kick return defense after a lackluster performance against Wisconsin (they allow an average of 20.0 yards per return and allowed 31.7 against the Badgers), but have generally been solid in that phase of the game.  TTU comes in at 45th nationally.

Both teams are solid in the punting game: NU ranking 28th in net punting and the Red Raiders ranking 16th.  Northwestern ranks 4th nationally in punt return defense while Texas Tech ranks 26th; neither have allowed a punt return for TD this season.  Don't expect either team to really give the other a chance for a return in this one, and that's if either team puts themselves in a spot to punt the ball.  NU does rank 43rd in punt returns, though (thanks to Mark who has averaged 12.9 yards per punt return on the year), while Texas Tech doesn't pose much of a threat in that department, ranking 89th nationally.

The Wildcats should definitely try to tilt the field in their favor with special teams play given the difficulties they will likely face with the regular units.  NU definitely has made big plays in special teams while TTU has been burned in multiple ways, so the door is definitely open for the 'Cats.

Miscellaneous Notes

First Time Opponents

This marks the first meeting on the gridiron between Northwestern and Texas Tech.  Since 1995, the 'Cats are 10-5 when facing a team for the first time (6-4 vs. FBS opponents).

Bowl Bits

Northwestern has played 4 bowl games in Texas, the most NU has played in any state (tied for second are Florida and California with 2 each).  Also, the 'Cats are one of 7 Big Ten underdogs in bowl games (only Ohio State, vs. Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, is favored amongst Big Ten teams).

Third Down Conversions

NU's offensive third down conversion rate has fallen precipitously after losing Persa; after ranking near the top nationally they now stand at 18th nationally, converting 47.7% of their third downs.  TTU ranks 40th nationally in third down conversions, converting 43.6% of their opportunities.

On defense, the teams come in virtually identical, with Texas Tech coming in at 26th (allowing a 35.6% rate), and NU coming in at 27th (allowing a 36.1% rate).  Continuing drives by converting third downs will be key by these offenses that rely more on long sustained drives than explosion plays.  And stopping opponents on that key down has been just about the only bright spot for both defenses.


Both teams have taken advantage when winning the turnover battle: NU is 4-1 on the year when winning the turnover battle while TTU is 3-1.  On the flipside, the 'Cats are 3-4 when tying or losing the turnover battle while the Red Raiders are 4-4 in such games.  The 'Cats last win when also winning the turnover battle was at Indiana on October 30, while Texas Tech's last turnover battle win against an FBS team was against Texas on September 18 (a game they lost).  Both teams will be looking to win the battle here which will go a long way towards deciding the victor.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), QB Dan Persa (Achilles tendon, out for season), RB Scott Concannon (hip, out for season), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, questionable), RB Mike Trumpy (wrist, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (knee, questionable).

NU lost Trumpy in the Wrigley game and he is questionable to return for this bowl game from his non-surgical wrist fracture.  McNaul was injured against Wisconsin, and getting him back for the bowl would be a slight boost for a defense that was torched over the final two weeks of the regular season.  'Cats fans will have to wait until closer to the game to see if either or both of them are available with over three full weeks left until gameday, so hopefully that will be enough time for them to heal and help NU in its quest for its first bowl win in 62 years.

Texas Tech

DE Scott Smith (out for season, suspension), DE Aundrey Barr (out for season, knee), WR Jacoby Franks (out for season, foot), WR Alex Torres (out for season, knee), DB Will Ford (hamstring, questionable).

Texas Tech lost a couple of defensive end reserves during the season, and have also lost a couple of backup wide receivers (who are rather heavily utilized in their pass-happy offense), which have put additional pressure on the available players at those positions.  Overall, though, they have made it to a bowl game without losing key players, unlike the Wildcats.


Northwestern 30, Texas Tech 35

I believe the Wildcat offense will come out and play well in this game with that much-needed month of practice under their collective belt; unfortunately, I think that the Texas Tech passing game is just too much for NU's defense to handle.  While the 'Cats have fared reasonably well against spread offenses this year, they haven't exactly shut anyone down and the Potts-Leong combination will likely give NU fits.

I do think that this will be a much closer game than many expect and I believe that it will be relatively high scoring given that both defenses are rather porous.  It will be entertaining and I think that it will come down to the very end, much like NU's last two bowl appearances.  If the 'Cats can somehow turn things around on both sides of the football, they can definitely end that bowl drought, it is just difficult predicting NU to do so.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary