Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, November 12, 2011.  11:00 am CST
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Rice
by Jonathan Hodges

After last week's huge win at then-BCS No. 10 Nebraska, the Northwestern Wildcats (4-5, 2-4) head home to play their final regular season non-conference game against the Rice Owls (3-6) with the 'Cats working to extend their winning streak to three games and get within one win of bowl eligibility: something that seemed very unlikely just over one week ago. Though the Owls have had a disappointing season and have certainly taken their lumps on defense (483.9 yards per game allowed along with 37.6 points per game), they have an offense that can put up points in bunches (like in their 41-37 win over UTEP last week) and have shown that they can play with Big Ten teams in their earlier home defeat of Purdue back in September.

Unfortunately, this is a road game, and the road has not been kind to Rice as they have gone 0-5 in those games this year (they are 3-1 at home) and have lost by an average of 23.4 points per game. And this Saturday's game in Evanston (forecast high in the low-to-mid 50's) will certainly be a bit different than the weather they're used to in Houston. Northwestern, meanwhile, has hit its stride on offense, ranking in the top two in the conference (Big Ten games only) in scoring offense, total offense, passing offense, passing efficiency, first downs, and third down conversions, all while employing the services of QB/WR Kain Colter in a variety of ways (on the year, he has 516 net rushing yards, 646 passing yards, 336 receiving yards, and 14 total TDs). The 'Cats should certainly be able to move the ball well against the Owls and that alone should set up NU pretty well for a win (reference NU's win at Indiana).

Fortunately for Northwestern, they should be able to counter some of that Rice offense with some newfound defensive cohesion: the 25 points allowed to the previously formidable Nebraska offense is the fewest NU's D has allowed since week three at Army, and their ability to dictate terms to the Huskers put the 'Cats in a position to win (Nebraska averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and were forced to go to the air to have a chance in the game). Nobody expects Northwestern to come out and stonewall a competent offensive team like Rice, but the 'Cats will have a chance to continue their momentum.

Of course the Wildcats must first focus hard and avoid a major letdown and they can do that by coming out and executing the game plan and getting good, physical play from both lines (a replay of last week's performance would be great). Do this, and NU can get one step closer to bowl eligibility for the fifth straight season, and that with two home games remaining, including one more in which the 'Cats should be favored.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 15.

Who Should Win

Northwestern. The Wildcats are coming off of their best complete performance of the season in which they contained the vaunted Nebraska running game and continued to perform well on offense despite significant attrition on both sides of the ball via injury. Now, the 'Cats get to come back home for their final three games and will get a chance to cut loose a bit against a Rice team that is bad on defense (116th nationally in scoring defense, 115th in total defense), is banged up on offense (Michigan transfer RB Sam McGuffie has been out the past two games, as has favorite target TE Luke Willson), and has managed only two wins on the year (both at home). On the road this season, the Owls have lost by the aforementioned average of 23.4 points per game.

Upset Factor

One of Rice's two wins was against Purdue (the same Purdue team that beat Illinois and was very competitive at Penn State, and we know how the 'Cats fared against those teams). Plus, Northwestern is now ripe for a letdown game after last week's huge road upset win at Nebraska, and they'll be facing what may be the smallest home crowd in two seasons with the 11:00 AM local start time and a non-conference opponent from a non-BCS automatic qualifying conference that will not draw much of a crowd on its own. Also, the 'Cats are a bit dinged up at this point as they may have escaped Lincoln with a win, but they didn't get out unscathed. And, add to that the fact that Northwestern plays to its opponent's level more than any other team in the country (shown statistically by Football Outsiders recently), and the opportunity for the Owls is certainly there.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Rice Defense

Once again, 'Cats fans will be waiting in anticipation to see if Dan Persa will be able to play after his shoulder injury last week at Nebraska; Persa said on Monday that he will indeed play, but Fitz listed him as day-to-day. But, last week in the second half against the aforementioned Huskers, NU proved that it can move the ball on anyone thanks to a great performance from QB/WR Kain Colter, who tallied over 50 yards rushing and receiving as well as over 100 yards passing and accounted for all three of those second-half TDs. The NU offensive line had one of its best performances in years (at his Monday press conference, Fitz said they graded out at 89%) as Northwestern marched down the field on an 8:48 fourth quarter drive to kill the clock and score the game-icing TD (a Colter run) with every play being a run. This certainly bodes well against a Rice team that is allowing 5.5 yards per carry (after accounting for sacks) and ranks 98th nationally in rushing yards per game allowed (194.4). A heavy dose of the Colter-based option run attack with some throws to keep them honest should do the trick here.

But, NU would be wise to use its plethora of weapons in the passing game as well given that the Owls rank 113th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 116th in pass defense, giving up 289.4 yards per game while the 'Cats rank first in the conference (Big Ten games only) in passing yards per game. If Dan Persa can't go, NU still has a couple of solid options in the passing game with Colter and Trevor Siemian, who have combined to throw for 883 yards this season with 8 combined TDs to just 2 INTs; in fact, Colter has shown quite a progression in his throwing abilities as he's now gone 68 consecutive pass attempts without an interception (in the first half of week one at Boston College). His abilities were highlighted in the Nebraska game by the perfectly thrown ball to Jeremy Ebert that was promptly taken 81 yards to the end zone to extend the Wildcats' lead as Ebert outran some talented Nebraska defenders. Seven NU receivers, including Colter, have caught more than 10 balls and have more than 100 receiving yards on the year.

On defense, Rice has been burned quite a bit but don't count them out as they have a formidable senior DE Scott Solomon who leads the Owls with 5.5 sacks on the year, plus 4 other TFLs and 4 QB hurries; he'll likely be matched up against NU LT Al Netter. Sophomore LB Cameron Nwosu is also a physical player, leading Rice in tackles (88, 16 above the next highest tally) and also has a sack, 4 other TFLs, 3 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles to his credit. The NU offensive line will have to have another solid performance in order to avoid negative plays (they allowed just two against the Huskers).

The overall key for Northwestern here, no matter who is behind center, will be to dictate the progression of the game with physical line play and the ability to put together sustained drives, both of which they did against a much better Nebraska defense last week. And with Colter looking like a comfortable leader of this team, one would certainly expect NU to come out and play loose while racking up both yards and points against an overmatched defense.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Rice Offense

Last week, the Northwestern defense put together their most impressive effort of the season as they completely contained the vaunted Nebraska ground game (122 net yards, 3.1 yards per carry, no runs for 20 or more yards) and led NU to victory. Now, we'll see if that was just a flash in the pan or a sustainable trend. Thankfully, some of the injuries to key NU defenders (Jeravin Matthews and Vince Browne) that saw them miss game action weren't serious and Fitz fully expects them both to play on Saturday. Also, hopefully NU will get back the services of Demetrius Dugar and David Arnold at some point to further bolster the secondary. Even without them last week, the defense flew to the football and made plays, including 8 TFLs and 2 forced fumbles. Fitz seems to have found the right formula by rotating linebackers in and out of the game and finding combinations that were effective while keeping everyone's legs fresh. Another big factor in the game was the coming-of-age of redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell who led NU and had a career high in tackles with 13 that included one TFL and a fumble recovery. Once again, this was a full team effort (27 players recorded tackles), and that most certainly was a big reason behind the defensive renaissance.

Rice is no slouch on offense, though, as they are led by QB Nick Fanuzzi, who started last year's game against NU and last week led the Owls to a victory with 405 passing yard and 3 TDs with no turnovers. But the Owls aren't all about passing, as they rank a respectable 49th nationally in rushing and actually choose to run the ball 53.7% of the time (after removing sacks). They have two reliable RBs: senior Tyler Smith who averages 6.3 yards per carry, and the versatile sophomore Turner Petersen who is more of a "wildcat" back as he averages 5.2 yards per carry, leads the team with 5 rushing TDs, has 112 receiving yards, but has also completed 6-of-8 passes for 70 yards. Sitting at six losses right now, Rice still has a chance to go bowling, and needless to say they'll be pulling out all of the stops to try and keep their dim hopes alive while also playing loose against their second Big Ten opponent this year after defeating the first.

The secondary will also have to tighten up against a team that will likely be more of a threat through the air; NU was fortunate to be holding such a large lead last week as they yielded a good amount of passing yards (289) and let a typically not-so-accurate QB complete 75.7% of his pass attempts while not taking the ball away via interception. Also, Northwestern won its first game of the year in which it did not yield more sacks than its opponent, something that will have to change if NU wants to avoid a shootout in this matchup. Fortunately, Fanuzzi is not a significant running threat (he has just 34 net rushing yards on the year) and NU will not have to worry about boxing him in like they did Nebraska's Taylor Martinez; instead, on passing plays it will be time to get back to the true pass rush.

It will be up to the Northwestern defense to repeat the physical performance of a week ago in order to avoid a letdown game here. If they can stop the run like they did last week they'll likely force a number of errors and/or incompletions (Rice has completed just 57.5% of thier passes on the year) and that will give the offense a chance to take a big enough lead to reduce the fans' anxiety level. Doing so would certainly cement a somewhat surprising defensive turnaround and would help the 'Cats inch that much closer to a postseason game.

What to Look for: Special Teams

In the kicking game, Northwestern's Jeff Budzien experienced another setback last week as he missed a FG early in the fourth quarter (with the wind) that would have extended NU's lead to seven; that dropped his season success rate to just 5-of-9. Rice, meanwhile, has a more reliable kicker who has hit on 14-of-16 FG tries this season: Chris Boswell, who accounted for the majority of his team's points in last year's matchup (two FGs and 1 XP; Rice scored a total of 13 points in the game). Both kickers have hit all of their extra point attempts this season.

Both teams are performing well in the punt game, but for different reasons. Northwestern continues to play very well in coverage, allowing just 5 returns on the year for 3 yards, ranking them 4th nationally in punt return yard defense. Rice, meanwhile, ranks 12th in net punting thanks to Kyle Martens who averages an impressive 44.2 yards per boot. Though NU overcame relatively poor starting field position last week, one hopes that the speedy Venric Mark will be able to capitalize against his hometown team with something in the return game; he's averaged 12.8 yards per return, while Rice ranks a pedestrian 57th yielding 7.0 yards per return. For the Owls, Mario Hull has been a consistent returner, with 13 for an average of 10.5 per (none longer than 28), but the NU coverage team should be able to handle this.

On kickoffs, the 'Cats should have an advantage, with Mark netting a nice return in Lincoln and once again getting an opportunity against Rice's 85th ranked coverage squad (23.0 yards per return allowed; Mark has averaged 22.7 per return this year). On the flip side, Rice's return team has been unimpressive (82nd nationally) while NU's coverage team continues to play well (23rd, at 19.2 yards per return allowed). This should continue to give the 'Cats an edge.

Overall, NU should hope that this game is not decided by special teams (disadvantage in placekicking), though they could certainly help their cause in the return game given some nice coverage teams and the constant return threat of Venric Mark.

Miscellaneous Notes

Non-conference Home Games

As head coach of the Wildcats, Fitz is 12-2 in non-conference home games and has won nine straight (dating back to the last loss, in 2007). Overall, his record against non-BCS automatic qualifying conference teams is 14-3 (with 2 of those losses coming in his first season at the helm).

Senior Class & More

Looking at the five-year span of games for this year's redshirtted seniors, they are currently tied with the 2009 and 2010 seniors as the winningest classes in Northwestern history (34 wins) and can take the lead with a victory here. Also, Coach Fitz would improve on his 11-7 record in the month of November and the 'Cats would notch their third straight win in the series against Rice (after dropping the first four).

Career Stats

Northwestern has a handful of players that continue to move up the all-time statistics lists: Jeremy Ebert is third in career receiving TDs (18), 4 away from second place while Drake Dunsmore is tied for fourth (14). Ebert is also fourth in career receiving yards (2,056) just 12 away from third place. On the other side of the ball, Brian Peters is tied for fourth with 10 career INTs, one away from third, and not far behind is Jordan Mabin with 7 (tied for 11th, one away from ninth). And we all know Fitz continue to progress towards the all-time win mark of 49; he currently stands at 38 wins (38-34 overall record).

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), CB Demetrius Dugar (questionable, concussion), S David Arnold (questionable, hand), TE Jack Konopka (questionable, bone bruise), QB Dan Persa (questionable, shoulder), CB Jeravin Matthews (probable, stinger), DE Vince Browne (questionable, unknown).

Northwestern didn't get out of Lincoln unscathed as a handful of players had to come out of the game. Fortunately, most will likely be back: Persa and Konopka are listed as day-to-day and Dan says that he will likely play, Matthews is reportedly fine after being victim to a crackback block that saw him get helped off the field, and Browne is also fine after missing some chunks of the game. Both Arnold and Dugar may continue to be out, and while their help would be useful against a team that likes to spread the ball around, the NU defense certainly looked good without them against a much more formidable Nebraska team last Saturday.


S Travis Bradshaw (out for season, neck), S Gabe Baker (out, ankle), CB Phillip Gaines (out, foot), RB Charles Ross (out, hamstring), LB Trey Briggs (out, knee), RB Sam McGuffie (doubtful, ankle), C Eric Ball (doubtful, shoulder), TE Luke Willson (questionable, ankle).

The Owls have had their share of injury setbacks as well, particularly in the secondary which certainly shows on the stat sheet. On the offensive side of the ball, though, they will potentially get back both McGuffie and Willson, two of their top offensive weapons.


Northwestern 34, Rice 17

This game will likely be competitive early before the Wildcats pull away thanks to a balanced offense while the NU defense forces enough mistakes and contains the ground game enough to allow a respectable win. Although the potential is there for a lot of points, I expect both defenses to come out ready to play while the NU offense will refrain from digging too far into its bag of tricks with two Big Ten games remaining on the slate. Also, NU's physical play should allow the 'Cats to avoid a letdown here against a team that has been beat up in virtually every road game this year.

If this game ends up as a boring NU victory, then it will be a success as that means the 'Cats have avoided a letdown and will be able to save the horses for the next two games: critical Big Ten home matchups that will decide their bowl fate.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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