Game Preview


Michie Stadium
Saturday, September 17, 2011.  2:30 pm CDT
TV: CBS Sports Network
ESPN 1000 Radio

Game Preview: Army
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-0, 0-0) head to West Point, NY to play their second non-conference road game of the season as they face the Army Black Knights (0-2) for the first time since 1988, which was NU's only loss to Army (NU holds a 3-1 series lead with all three wins coming in Evanston). The Black Knights got blown out at Northern Illinois in week one (20 of their points were scored in garbage time after NIU accumulated a 49-6 lead), and they lost a close game to San Diego State a week ago in New York 23-20 despite fumbling eight times (they would lose three of those fumbles). NU, meanwhile, cruised to victory against FCS opponent Eastern Illinois in week two after pulling off a close win at Boston College to open the year. In this game, Army will be looking to pull off an upset win against a BCS conference opponent while the 'Cats are looking to close out September with a win and shift their focus to their first Big Ten contest against Illinois that follows a bye week.

But, Northwestern must maintain their focus both leading up to and during this game as Army's option offense has the potential to take advantage of any undisciplined play by the NU defensive front. And, as demonstrated at the end of last season, the 'Cats are certainly capable of such play on D. While NU's run defense has certainly improved this year (allowing 4.2 yards per carry that would actually be just 1.7 if one removed extremely two broken play runs), they still have a penchant for giving up the long play (reference the aforementioned runs of 69 and 76 yards). Their saving grace, though, may be on the other side of the ball as nobody has really been able to stop the NU ground attack this season and as long as it's working, don't expect the 'Cats to go away from Kain Colter plus the stable of running backs, and Army's defense has been relatively porous this year (ranking below 100th nationally in both rush defense and pass efficiency defense).

Overall, this should be an opportunity for NU to add to its win total and heal up some of those injuries before heading into the key stretch of the season on October 1 at Illinois, but the 'Cats must maintain focus on the task at hand, particularly against a tricky opponent on the road. If the Wildcats do come out with a victory here, they will already be half way to bowl eligibility and will have a week to prepare for the start of the conference slate, at which point the return of Dan Persa seems to be imminent.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 9.

Who Should Win

Northwestern. Although Army is not an FCS team, they certainly have a talent level below that of virtually all BCS conference teams due to their service academy status, and they've had a relatively bleak recent history. Last year's 7-6 record was their first above .500 since 1996, and during that intervening period they won just 23% of their games, and that includes a 4-28 record against BCS conference teams during that span. The 'Cats, meanwhile, have shown a reinvigorated ground game that should be able to once again pound out a win without putting too much pressure on QB Kain Colter's arm.

Upset Factor

The Option. Army runs a pretty unique attack on offense that emphasizes the ground game and misdirection; they have ranked in the top 10 nationally in two of the past three years in rushing yards per game (and was in the top 20 the other season). This year, they're up to their old tricks, averaging 353 yards per game on the ground and leading the nation in carries (coincidentally, Northwestern is number two in rushing attempts). NU hasn't faced a pure option team like this as of late, but in the early 2000's, the Wildcats had tremendous trouble with this type of offense (see the 2000 Alamo Bowl and the 2002 loss at Air Force). If NU doesn't play disciplined team defense and/or gets behind early, this game could very well slip away.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Army Defense

As mentioned earlier, Northwestern's ground game has been effective (to the tune of 4.5 yards per carry and 273.5 yards per game rushing) and they have shown no indication of going away from it as long as it's working. Colter will lead the way and he's averaging 90 yards per game and has already piled up four TDs on the ground this year, and he'll be flanked by, at a minimum, senior Jacob Schmidt and true freshman Treyvon Green (both of whom have averaged 4.9 yards per carry this year and have 1 rushing TD each). The two RBs that lead "the committee" in rushing yards this year, Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith, have injuries that may affect their playing time in this game (Trumpy was held out of the EIU game with a concussion, and Smith had to come out of said game with an injured ankle and is listed as day to day). No matter, though, as NU will still have multiple options at RB, with Schmidt being a consistent, proven commodity and Green having nice speed and lots of potential.

On defense, Army will rely almost completely on their scheme (the double eagle flex) as they very much lack size on the defensive front: their three full-time down linemen average 235 lbs. while Northwestern's starting offensive line averages 301 lbs. For the second consecutive week, look for Northwestern to focus on using lots of physical play up front as they run the ball early and often against a significantly smaller team. The key to the Black Knights' defense will be senior LB Steven Erzinger who finished second on the team in tackles a year ago and has the speed to cover much of the field. And while the line may be significantly smaller than the 'Cats', they will use five or six man front along with various line stunts to try and create confusion up front in order to free a defender and hopefully keep the ground game from going anywhere.

With Army likely loading the box to try and slow down the NU running attack, Colter may very well be forced to use his arm. So far in 2011, he has performed admirably through the air, completing 73% of his passes for 301 yards. What makes him that much more dangerous, though, is the fact that after having established a strong ground game, things should open up down the field more readily, particularly if the 'Cats' coaching staff begins to call play action passes out of the pistol set (something that isn't really deceiving enough in the full shotgun). And, if he goes to the air, he'll have a bevy of options going up against a relatively young secondary (featuring two freshmen along with a sophomore and a junior; CB Lamar Johnson-Harris is filling in for an injured man and will be making just his third start).

And, finally, there is the Dan Persa wild card: he's still technically listed as the co-starter, and Fitz again said he is day-to-day (and in all likelihood will be listed as questionable leading up to the game). Many would like to see him get some snaps in before Big Ten play, and this is his last opportunity to do so, but most fans realize that NU's conservative staff will likely hold him out to take advantage of the bye week to give him maximum recovery time. BUT, if Persa does see the field for some limited action, he will have the chance to get that passing game going, and one would imagine that the likes of Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert are salivating at that opportunity.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Army Offense

While Army plays a rather unique defense, it's the triple option offense for which they're known. After Navy had so much success running said offense through the previous decade, the Black Knights brought in Rich Ellerson as head coach and he implemented this strong ground attack, now led by the seemingly appropriately-named QB Trent Steelman. But, their best player may very well be fullback Jared Hassin, who topped 1,000 yards in 2010 and averaged a nice 5.3 yards per carry. Through the first two games of this season, Army's opponents have been selling out to stop the FB dive play and have thus limited his production to just 75 yards total, averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and forcing Steelman to take on almost the full load. Besides getting dinged up at the end of last week, Steelman has essenitally been up to the challenge, averaging over five yards per carry and hitting paydirt four times this year. Although the scheme is almost entirely different, he has looked very similar to Colter so far this year.

Outside of Steelman and Hassin, their biggest running threat is Malcom Brown, who also came out at the end of the SDSU game; Brown is explosive, having averaged 8.9 yards per carry so far this season. There will definitely be other ball carriers in this offense that has run the ball 85.9% of the time this season, but the ones listed above are the biggest threats. But, the most dangerous part of the offense may very well be the passing game, which is extremely effective once eight or nine defenders are getting sucked into the line of scrimmage on every down.

This fact is easily demonstrated in the 14.0 yards per reception statistic from 2010 (16.6 in 2011) because when the Black Knights do pass, it's almost always a deep ball off of a running play fake. Last season they averaged 10.6 pass attempts per game, so one must certainly expect Army to take their shots throughout the game, and that will require disciplined play from the entire Northwestern defense. And, as a whole, the triple option attack forces the D to play focused and disciplined football every down of the game, otherwise they will be gashed for a huge gain on the ground or leave a receiver wide open. Unfortunately for the 'Cats, they have already given up three huge plays on defense in 2011 that have actually accounted for 27.3% of tot total yards NU has yielded on the season.

It will be up to a relatively young defensive line to get NU off to a good start with pressure up front; they performed admirably against Boston College and will have to play well to stymie Army's attack on Saturday. With experienced players Jack DiNardo and Brian Arnfelt sidelined, much will fall upon the large shoulders of Niko Mafuli along with a trio of younger guys as well as the more experienced Kevin Watt, who will likely see a chunk of playing time at DT (his normal position is at DE). While a lot depends on the play of the guys up front, the success in stopping the run really depends on the LB corps, who appears to have come together through the first two games of the year with Bryce McNaul emerging as the leader of this unit, David Nwabuisi taking care of business in the middle, and Ben Johnson making some plays after taking over starting duties on the strong side after an injury. They'll almost certainly be rotated in and out with the backups as DC Mike Hankwitz tries to keep the defense fresh as they chase down Army's ballcarriers.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, Army's offense requires disciplined play across the board, and it will be up to the defensive backs to stay on their toes and defend anyone coming on the flank or coming out of the backfield on passing routes. Jordan Mabin is likely up to the task, but this may very well be a test of Jeravin Matthews, who was tagged in week one and made a reasonable recovery last week, albeit against weaker competition. The safeties Brian Peters and Ibraheim Campbell must also stay vigilant, as they were burned by a long pass play last week due to broken coverage.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Like last week, 'Cats fans certainly hope that special teams do not become a determining factor in this game, as that would mean that the outcome is a little too close for comfort. But, one hopes that they would improve on last week's performance that included a missed field goal (albeit long and into the wind), a shanked punt and a punt for a touchback (the shank was likely affected by a defender left basically free to charge punter Brandon Williams), and a kickoff out of bounds. Fitz liked how they responded after the fact, but the true test will be how they respond in their next game action, which will come here against Army. One hopes that return man Venric Mark will get more chances to show his stuff a week after he had returns of 49 and 63 yards; but, he'll face a stiff test as the Black Knights rank third nationally in kick return defense.

Army placekicker Alex Carlton is an experienced weapon who has two years of experience under his belt and has hit 71.7% of his 46 career field goal attempts, but has already missed two extra points this year and has not attempted any field goals. Punter Kolin Walk has done well thus far in 2011, hitting three of four punts inside opponents' 20 yard line and averaging over 40 yards per punt. Finally, NU must stay vigilant to prevent explosion plays on the return as punt returner Josh Jackson's two returns in 2011 have gone for 10+ yards.

Overall, one hopes that special teams are not a huge factor in this game, but if they are the 'Cats certainly hope that their specialists return to the form seen in week one against BC while Venric Mark continues his speedy ways in the return game to give NU a shot in the arm.

Miscellaneous Notes

Fitz Climbs NU All-Time Win List

Coach Fitz is now tied for third on the Northwestern head coach all-time win list with 36; he needs just one more to tie Coach Walker for second with 37 and is well on his way to the all-time mark of 49, which he may very well hit before the end of 2012.


Fitz was somewhat displeased with NU's discipline in week two, particularly on offense and in the red zone where the 'Cats had 3 such penalties that against a more formidable opponent would have caused significantly more trouble. But, overall, NU is playing relatively disciplined football, tied for 23rd nationally in fewest penalties per game through two weeks (Army is tied for 31st).


Army had 26,778 in attendance for their home opener last week (capacity is 38,000, last year's average was 31,667) and one should expect to see a number above their average and possibly close to a sellout with a large Northwestern crowd in attendance: many NU alums along the East Coast will be traveling to the game (myself included), and there will also be the highly touted Lake The Posts Sailgate (4 boats of 150 'Cats fans each sailing up the Hudson River from New York City).

Third Down Conversions

Both teams play different versions of ball control offense and will be heavily reliant upon converting third downs while trying to prevent their opponent from doing the same while on defense. On the year, NU has converted 50% of its 28 third downs (20th nationally), while Army has converted 46.7% of their 30 chances. On the other side of the ball, though, neither team has faired particularly well with NU allowing a 44.4% conversion rate (91st nationally) while Army ranks second to last nationally (119th) with a 61.9% rate allowed. If neither defense can hold the other team back, this could really turn out to be a day featuring long, plodding drives and the game decided on who is actually able to get a stop on a key third down.

Injury Report


DT Brian Arnfelt (out, foot), DT Jack DiNardo (out, leg), S Jared Carpenter (out, wrist), LB Collin Ellis (out, hand), LB Roderick Goodlow (out, leg), WR Tony Jones (out, leg), RB Mike Trumpy (doubtful, head), QB Dan Persa (questionable, leg), RB Adonis Smith (questionable, ankle).

Northwestern suffered a slight setback with Smith going down with an ankle injury against EIU, but he is reportedly day-to-day and is listed on this week's two-deep as the co-backup with Trumpy. Speaking of Trumpy, he may be able to return after sitting last week with a concussion he received in the season opener, which would add some nice depth to the RB corps. Both DiNardo and Arnfelt are likely out again, which will certainly hurt NU's defensive front against the running attack of Army, so it will be up to some younger players (Will Hampton, Chance Carter, and Sean McEvilly) to make some stops in addition to the large and experienced Niko Mafuli.


DE Jarrett Mackey (out for season, knee), C Momo Kime (out, ankle), DT/LS Paker Whitten (doubtful, lower body), DE Clayton Keller (doubtful, undisclosed), DE Colin Linkul (doubtful, undisclosed), CB Antuan Aaron (out for year, neck/back), DL Chris Swain (out for year, off team), DL Quentin Kantaris (out for year, transfer), QB Trent Steelman (pectoral, probable).

Army is already undersized on the defensive line and has experienced some significant dings, particularly their nose guard Mackey who may not be able to go against NU. Also, their do-everything QB Steelman couldn't finish the game last week against SDSU with a reported pectoral injury, but he is still listed as the starting QB in this week's two-deep. But, the lack of key players on the DL will likely be the biggest issue for the Black Knights who are already outmanned up front on defense.


Northwestern 31, Army 23

Persa will still be held out, but the 'Cats will continue to roll on the ground led Colter, who will also take care of some business through the air to keep the Army defense honest. Once again, the Wildcats' offensive line will be able to physically dominate the line of scrimmage and open holes for multiple NU running backs as Northwestern uses tempo and the running game to control the football game. Army will stay in the game with its option attack and occasional long pass, but NU will use its size to eventually come out ahead. While Northwestern's margin of victory should be larger given the disparity in talent level, but those tricky schemes employed by Army will cause NU trouble for some of the day, but not enough to cause an upset.

One final note: I, along with the rest of the Northwestern community out there, certainly have the utmost respect for America's service men and women, including those at the United States Military Academy, and I am confident that we'll see the NU fans and team give them the utmost respect on Saturday afternoon. This preview concentrated almost exclusively on the football aspect, which will be the focus of our endeavors this weekend, but one cannot ignore the sacrifice that these young men and women have given to their country.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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