Game Preview


Boston College
Alumni Stadium
Saturday, September 3, 2011.  11:00 am CDT
ESPN 1000 radio

Game Preview: Boston College
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, 'Cats fans, the 2011 season is finally upon us after an offseason spent either ruminating on the college football scandal of the day or analyzing Dan Persa's gait; now everyone can shift their focus from those sideshows to actual games on the gridiron. Like in 2010, Northwestern starts things off with a challenging trip to a BCS conference opponent; this year's opponent will be the Boston College Eagles.

Before jumping headlong into this season, let's spend a moment to reflect back upon these teams' last meeting: 1993 in Evanston. NU was heading into its second season under Coach Gary Barnett, who was facing quite the uphill battle to bring his vision to life; the Wildcats went 3-8 in his first year and lost to BC 49-0 (in Northwestern's only previous trip to Chestnut Hill), and this Eagles squad was ranked (and would go on to beat vaunted Notre Dame later in the season and rack up nine wins that season under head coach Tom Coughlin, who has been in the NFL since the end of that season). That Barnett-led team showed the first flash of what would become a reawakening of the Wildcat program as the 'Cats pulled out a last-second 22-21 upset victory over BC; although NU would have to wait two more years to break through, that game showed many that Northwestern had the potential to do something great even considering recent history.

Fast forward to this coming Saturday when NU will take the field for the first time this season and a blank slate in front of them. Unlike 18 seasons ago, these 'Cats know that they are capable of great things, having been to a program-record three consecutive bowl games, and they have the senior leadership and talent across the board to back up those expectations. Northwestern will also be trying to beat a fellow academically-minded BCS conference school that it hopes to emulate: at least the fact that BC has been to 12 consecutive bowl games, including an eight game bowl winning streak from 2000-2007. The game will be a challenge, with the obvious uncertainty around Persa's health, but those odds essentially evened out as BC lost its all-conference RB Montel Harris to an arthroscopic knee procedure that will in all likelihood keep him out for the opener.

That puts a lot more weight on both teams' defenses; unfortunately for NU, though, BC sports a very good defense. The Eagles finished last season ranked first nationally in rush defense, allowing just 82.8 yards per game on the ground, and they return LB Luke Kuechly, coincidentally the nation's leading tackler in 2010 (a hair over 14 per game). On the other hand, somewhat fortunately for the NU defense, they will be going against an anemic offense (ranked 109th nationally in both total and scoring offense last year) that is without it's biggest threat (Harris), and his backup (Andre Williams) is also dinged up.

All of the injuries make this a potentially much more even (and low-scoring) contest, but the beauty of college football is nobody knows exactly what will happen after kickoff on September 3 because nobody has seen this year's teams in live action yet. This should be an entertaining game as we all figure out exactly what this team is made of as the 'Cats fight for an important win the very first week of the season. Also, due to the handful of even moderate profile contests this opening weekend, this game will get a fair amount of attention, thereby increasing the visibility and, therefore, value of a win here.

Opening Line

Boston College by 3.

Who Should Win

Toss-up. BC gets a three point edge thanks to home-field advantage, but this one could easily go either way (especially due to those aforementioned injuries). And, nobody quite knows what to expect out of either team, hence the toss-up designation. Either team could just as easily win (NU has experience and a number of non-Persa weapons; BC has a stout defense and the home field) as lose (NU has the Persa question, BC has lots of injuries). Pay close attention as both teams will likely still be figuring things out in terms of who gets playing time and what plays are effective or not, and there will be quite a bit to break down after this one.

Upset Factor

See above.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Boston College Defense

What the Northwestern offense looks like largely depends on the availability and, therefore, health of QB Dan Persa, which Fitz is keeping under wraps until game time on Saturday (Fitz's exact quote: "We’ll make the decision internally prior to game day, and everyone else will find out right before game time"). It's been made clear that sophomore Kain Colter is the backup and he will get at least some time under center, and in the TicketCity Bowl he proved that he can run. The question is how much of the offense will he run, and, will he take the majority (if not all) of the snaps? The only thing that seems certain is that Persa won't be the dual threat QB we saw last year, so we'll have to break things down into two possible scenarios.

1. Persa gets the start

IF Persa is indeed medically cleared and gets the start on Saturday (and, therefore, a good number of snaps), he'll most certainly have limited mobility and be primarily a pocket passer. His success here will largely depend on his offensive line, which in the recent past has done him no favors (last year, they ranked near the bottom nationally in sacks allowed, with an average of over three per game). BC certainly has a strong defense, and on face value, their 19th ranked pass efficiency defense looks strong, but that number had a lot to do with their defensive backfield (they pulled in 20 interceptions) while their defensive front wasn't all that productive (ranking 90th nationally in sacks). The Eagles actually have to replace three DL starters, which makes this task even more daunting, although the sole returning starter DE Max Holloway did lead last year's team in sacks with four.

In any case this strategy is pretty obvious, especially if you scroll down to the injury report and see the attrition in BC's secondary (they've lost multiple starters in the unit either to injury or off-the-field issues): throw early and often, and Persa offers the accuracy to do that job well, even with his still-recovering leg. And the Wildcats certainly have a bevy of wide receivers to take advantage of this, so many that I can't name them all here (you can start with Drake Dunsmore, Jeremy Ebert, Charles Brown, and continue from there). But, expect NU to rotate these receivers in and out and also expect them to run all over the field in an effort to tire the already thin BC DBs. Again, if NU can hold back the pass rush at least a reasonable amount, expect plenty of "dink and dunk" passes followed by some home run balls.

On the other side of the ball, expect BC to fairly easily prevent NU from generating a 100 yard rusher in this one (if they do allow someone to run wild in this scenario, it will be a huge problem for them). And against the passing game, expect them to throw everything they have behind the pass rush, which will leave openings down the field if NU can pick up the blitzes (expect NU RB Jacob Schmidt to see the field a good amount in this role). Even so, LB Luke Kuechly is pretty much the consensus top linebacker in the nation heading into the season and he will do everything he can to stop the NU offense, no matter what strategy they employ. And given Persa's lack of mobility and NU's likely one-dimensional offense, don't expect the 'Cats to race up and down the field.

In order to mix things up to some degree, expect that Colter will take snaps even with Persa starting, likely in shorter yardage scenarios in order to provide a legitimate rushing threat. More on the game plan with Colter will be discussed in the next scenario, but expect that he will take a decent percentage of snaps (probably around one fourth).

2. Persa held out

Northwestern fans are obviously very concerned about this scenario, but I am mostly ambivalent as Colter showed he was a legitimate running threat in NU's bowl game (running for 105 yards and a pair of scores with virtually no other legitimate offensive threats). Caveat: that was against a middle-tier run defense, and now he'll be facing what was the nation's best last year. Given that, his success will be largely dependent on his arm, which he has reportedly developed significantly this offseason (note that he had surgery on his labrum before entering NU, which had a significant impact on his throwing ability at the time). Also note that he has now had sufficient time to learn the playbook; last season Fitz and the coaching staff were trying him out at wide receiver until Persa's injury.

The Wildcats will most definitely want to utilize Colter's speed, so expect to see plenty of designed QB runs and options called. But, as mentioned above, Colter's recovery coupled with almost a full calendar year of practicing as a primary QB will likely give him much more confidence throwing the football (and will also give the coaching staff confidence in calling passing plays). This will be the first real taste of Colter's passing skills, as he attempted just nine passes in his true freshman campaign (in just three games played).

Just as with scenario one, a lot falls on the offensive line, but in this case it falls on them in the form of run blocking instead of pass protection. And, as mentioned earlier, BC fields an impressive defense against the run, so they certainly have a good deal of work in front of them. The best thing that can happen here is Colter hitting some passes early (especially longer ones) to force the Eagles' D to be honest throughout the game instead of cheating a safety into the box. Thankfully, he has plenty of good receiving options who will again be matched against a thin secondary; if he can get them the football, good things will happen for the 'Cats.

As of this moment (note that my opinion very well may have changed by the time this is published) I believe that Persa will trot out with the starters and put in some playing time, but I expect that Colter will be the QB that takes the majority of snaps. The fact is that BC has a stout defense that knows how to affect the QB, and Persa would be a sitting duck for too long if he were in there a majority of the time. I also believe Fitz wants him to be able to prove himself on the field of play, and we all know Persa would like to be out there more than anything else.

If he is indeed held out, which at this point would be because he doesn't have enough mobility to avoid the pass rush thereby putting himself at risk of injury upon a hit, don't expect to see him until game four at Illinois when Big Ten play begins, since the defenses until then (Eastern Illinois and Army) are more manageable.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Boston College Offense

Every member of the Wildcat community was sincerely disappointed with NU's defensive effort over the final three games of the 2010 season, and I will refrain from rehashing the sickening numbers once again. But, I will highlight a couple of relative bright spots from those games: 20% of opponents' scores were off of NU turnovers (something hopefully minimized in this game), and NU had two turnovers they themselves returned for touchdowns, both by returning seniors in the secondary. The 'Cats are capable of making plays, and Boston College is certainly capable of mistakes (last year they threw interceptions on 5.4% of pass attempts and their starter going into this season completed just 51.3% of his passes in 2010).

The NU defense must first correct its largest issue of late 2010: run defense. The 'Cats were gauged in those final three contests, allowing an average of 6.7 yards per carry on the ground (over the first 10 games of 2010, NU allowed 4.4 yards per carry). With the ability to run at will, opponents could easily carve up the secondary that was understandably focused on stopping someone coming out of the backfield, which caused the entire defense to crumble. Instead, Northwestern must stand up the run game as much as possible to prevent a repeat scenario.

And, the fact is that BC is a run-first team: they ran the ball over 59% of the time last year and that is where their biggest offensive playmakers lie. Fortunately for NU, their best runner, Harris, is out, leaving Andre Williams as their main option, and even he may be limited with an ongoing ankle injury sustained during camp. Williams, if he is 100%, is still a threat as he shredded Syracuse to the tune of 185 yards and had two 100+ yard games in limited action last year. But, if he is not that same runner, NU will be extremely fortunate as their other RBs are young and unproven (backup Tahj Kimble is a redshirt freshman).

The key to the NU defense is the play of the interior line forcing the line of scrimmage backwards and the linebackers properly filling the resulting holes. NU got burned with a lack of pressure up front and improper pursuit by the second level late last year, and this is the chance for seniors Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul to make a comeback statement at LB. Hopefully, overall health and fresh legs will help as they did not have those aspects going for them in the offseason. And, DC Mike Hankwitz has most certainly been focused on this first chance to prove that those final three games were an aberration.

Given that, BC, led by QB Chase Rettig, will most certainly throw the football in order to test the NU secondary, and it's up to those defensive backs to take advantage of those mistakes when they come. Rettig will in all likelihood improve on his freshman campaign with more accuracy and poise, but he is still young and bound to make mistakes. The Wildcats must take advantage of those errors, something that they weren't necessarily able to do through all of last season. While they would certainly benefit from a pass rush courtesy of Vince Browne and Tyler Scott, it will be up to seniors Brian Peters, Jeravin Matthews, and Jordan Mabin to make plays against BC's passing game which certainly looked anemic last year (ranking 111th nationally in pass efficiency).

While this game will be a test for the Northwestern defense, they are more than capable of making the statement that they are back by stopping the injury-inflicted running backs while forcing mistakes, and thereby turnovers, in the passing game.

What to Look for: Special Teams

In a game that should prove to be rather close, special teams will make a huge impact, and this may very well be a close game in that department as well. Northwestern comes in having decided that Jeff Budzien will be the placekicker with Steve Flaherty handling kickoffs, although they still remain close in Fitz's eyes (thereby keeping competition open in case something happens). NU also has a new long snapper, Pat Hickey, who had some issues in limited time last season but has had a year to work out the kinks. Brandon Williams is back at punter after a strong redshirt freshman campaign. And, as mentioned in the HTP previews, the NU return game is as dangerous as it's ever been under Fitz, with Venric Mark and Ibraheim Campbell providing some potent weapons for the 'Cats. Unfortunately, these weapons may very well be neutralized as BC had top 30 coverage units on both punts and kickoffs a season ago.

On the other side, Boston College returns all of their specialists from a year ago, including impressive sophomore kicker Nate Freese who hit 88% of his FGs last year and ranked eighth nationally in field goals per game (with 1.7). Freese didn't quite have a lot of range, though, going just 1-of-3 beyond 40 yards last year, so it will be interesting to see if such a scenario comes up in this game. Punter/kickoff specialist Ryan Quigley is back (he was middle-of-the-pack nationally in average punting). In the return game, it will all be up to WR Bobby Swigert as BC looks to improve on a struggling return game that ranked 104th on punts and a horrible 118th on kickoffs; the Wildcats certainly have an advantage here after fielding top 25 coverage teams in both categories.

Overall, these units should be closely matched, although BC has proven FG accuracy and NU has significant return weapons. It will be interesting to see who can sway the third phase to their advantage.

Miscellaneous Notes:

NU's Opener Streak

The 'Cats have won their last six season openers (including all five under Fitz), and haven't lost a season opener in regulation since the 2002 debacle at Air Force. NU is 12-4 in the first game of the season since 1995.

NU vs. Boston College

The Wildcats and Eagles have met on three previous occasions, and NU holds a 2-1 edge, with both wins coming in Evanston. The intro to this preview includes details on the 1992-1993 series; the previous meeting was in 1961, a 45-0 win under Ara Parseghian.

Returning Offense

Northwestern returns 82.6% of its rushing yardage, 100% of its passing yardage, and 83.0% of its receiving yardage from last season. Boston College also returns a good amount of offensive produces with 92.4% of its rushing yards, 100% of its passing yards, and 86.9% of its receiving yards. The question will be which team can overcome injuries to their best offensive player in the first game of this new season.


BC and NU are in very similar circumstances: smaller private institutions on the periphery of large pro-centric cities that are in BCS conferences. Both have stadiums with capacities fewer than 50,000. But BC has fared a little better on the attendance front over the past five seasons (although one must take into account NU's 50% attendance jump from 2009 to 2010). The five year averages: BC 39,191 (88.1% of their 44,500 capacity), and NU 28,363 (60.2% of their 47,130 capacity). It will be interesting to see how these numbers trend relative to each other over time, especially as the Wildcats begin to attain a similar sustained level of success that Boston College has experienced.

Injury Report


S David Arnold (ankle, probable), LB Collin Ellis (thumb, out), DL Brian Arnfelt (leg, out), QB Dan Persa (Achilles, questionable).

Everyone is of course waiting to see the status of NU's highest profile injury: Persa's Achilles, and, as Fitz stated in his Monday press conference, nobody outside of himself and his staff will know that until the Northwestern offense trots out on the field Saturday some time after noon (Eastern Time). Outside of that, the most significant dings coming out of summer are on the defensive side; redshirt freshman Collin Ellis was a presumed starter at LB but a thumb injury will keep him out for a few weeks (fortunately NU has some depth there), and Brian Arnfelt is not listed on the two-deep (giving some underclassmen a shot on the rotation). Arnold is still listed as the starter and looks like he'll play, although expect redshirt freshman speedster Ibraheim Campbell to get some time no matter what.

Overall, NU is in a decent position health-wise (a position that is mostly dependent upon Persa: if he plays, NU will be in good shape).

Boston College

S Dominick LeGrande (transfer, off of team), S Spenser Rositano (concussion, out), DT Kaleb Ramsey (shoulder, questionable), S Okechukwu Okoroha (disciplinary, dismissed from team), RB Andre Williams (ankle, questionable), CB Donnie Fletcher (back, questionable), WR Shakim Phillips (transfer, off of team), OL Nathan Richman (back, doubtful), RB Montel Harris (knee, out).

By far the biggest injury for the Eagles is Harris coupled with the dinged up Williams that will make their running game (by far, their biggest offensive threat) much less dangerous. Also worthy of attention is the large attrition of defensive backs which will leave them potentially vulnerable to the pass: a recipe for success if Persa is able to do his thing from the pocked with adequate pass protection.

If the Eagles were at full health, the 'Cats would certainly be touchdown underdogs, but this is football and you have to deal with injuries, and in this case they happen to be tilting things in the 'Cats' favor.


Northwestern 24, Boston College 20

In my preseason prediction I had the Wildcats pulling off a road win here, and I'll stick with that even with the doubts swirling around Persa's chances of playing on Saturday. BC has experienced a number of significant injuries as well (most notably to their RBs and DBs) and I believe that Fitz and the coaching staff really have this senior-laden Wildcat squad focused on the task, and it is one that they can handle. Look for the defense to regain their footing (with some credit given to BC's offensive issues) and the offense to fall mostly into the hands of Colter who will show that he has grown in the offseason, particularly in the passing game. This will be a close game, and Northwestern's experience and playmakers will pay off as they use a handful of big plays to pull off a big road win to kick off the 2011 season.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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