Post-Game Analysis: Rice
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (5-5, 2-4) continued their progress in all phases of the game as they rolled up a 21-0 halftime lead behind some great passing and shut out the Rice Owls (3-7) for the first 55 minutes and eventually won by a final score of 28-6. It certainly wasn't a very exciting game, outside of some great catches and runs from the WR corps, Jeremy Ebert in particular, but was exactly what the Wildcats needed as they got back to a .500 record and are within one win of bowl eligibility for the fifth consecutive season. And for all of the pregame expectations of a shootout, the NU defense came out and played its best game of the year, holding the Owls to just six points on the day, and those came with under five minutes in the game with Rice needing a trick throwback play to get into scoring position. Though the NU offense didn't go wild, they did put up a solid 533 yards of offense thanks to QB Dan Persa tying personal bests in passing yards (372) and TDs (4).

The 'Cats have certainly improved as this season has progressed, and this game may have been more telling than last week's huge win in Lincoln: NU soundly beat an opponent it should have while getting great performances on both sides of the football. This has put them into position to play for a postseason spot with two home games left, with the next being a very win-able contest. The 'Cats must continue this trend of improvement if they want to do something that Fitz has only done twice and his predecessor, Randy Walker, never did: win four consecutive games (Fitz has won five consecutive games twice, though both of those streaks included a win over an FCS team).

First Half Summary

It was an early start and it showed, with the first three offensive possessions ending in punts, but facing a third down on its own 10 yard line, Northwestern struck first and struck quickly as Dan Persa found his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, streaking across the field and Ebert showed off his speed as he ran past the trailing defender to hit paydirt for the second-longest pass TD in NU history. The NU offense would be forced to move the ball through the air thanks to Rice moving defenders up to stuff the run, but did pay for that as the receivers continued to make plays: Demetrius Fields hurdled multiple defenders to rack up a 50 yard gain to set up NU's second TD, another Persa-to-Ebert connection to put NU up 14-0. Then, the 'Cats got pressure on Rice QB Nick Fanuzzi and forced an INT (caught by Tyler Scott) that allowed NU to get on the board one more time before the half, with the aforementioned Fields showing some nice moves to get into the end zone. Rice then had their best opportunity to get on the board struck down by a cruel twist of fate as the 60-yard field goal attempt hit off the bottom of the crossbar and bounce back into the field of play, keeping NU's shutout alive.

Second Half Summary

The second half was mostly about NU trying to preserve its shutout with the offense trying out some different things, including passing on a potential 40 yard FG try as they went for it from the Rice 23 on 4th-and-nine but came up four yards short. The 'Cats would add one more TD, this time a short toss from Persa to Colter, to go up 28-0 early in the fourth quarter, and by that point NU was content to ride out the win while trying to preserve the zero on the opponent's scoreboard line. Unfortunately, that would not happen as the 'Cats inserted RB Alex Daniel (a touted recruit who was booted from the NU roster a couple of years ago before working his way back onto the field) fumbled to set up Rice's only scoring drive on the day. After picking up a first down, Rice called a throwback play in which WR Jordan Taylor found an open man downfield for a big 43 yard gain to set up the Owls inside the 10 yard line; they would score on a run the very next play (but would miss the extra point, possibly haunted by that doink at the end of the first half). NU would go on to run out the clock, and that was all she wrote.

Player of the Game

Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert (7 receptions for 208 yards, 2 TDs) Ebert had an 80+ yard TD catch-and-run in as many weeks and found the end zone twice to move within striking distance of the NU single-season TD record (he has 10, while Dwayne Bates holds the record with 12). He also had a couple of pretty impressive catches against solid coverage to move the ball when NU was pinned deep. Overall, he continues to impress and should certainly draw some attention from the next level as he has continued to put up big numbers.

What Happened

"expect NU to come out and play loose while racking up both yards and points against an overmatched defense"

Though Rice committed to stop the run, that left them more than vulnerable to the pass as the 'Cats racked up 533 yards of total offense and averaged an impressive 11.7 yards per pass attempt as Persa had a career day (that looked rather pedestrian at the time). And despite loading up to stop the run, NU still outrushed Rice 136-119.

"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."

NU did get a very solid performance from the defense, who shut out Rice for the vast majority of the game, forcing eight punts and grabbing a turnover (in addition to a long missed FG). Though the 'Cats weren't as dominant up front (no sacks, and NU allowed 4.0 yards per carry), they allowed Rice to complete only 53.8% of their passes while also performing very well on third downs, allowing a 30.8% conversion rate. This performance did indeed help reduce fans' anxiety levels as the 'Cats essentially walked away with the win to get within one of postseason eligibility.

"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."

Done and done.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (25-of-32 passing for 372 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs; 2 carries for 7 yards after removing sacks) A lot of the highlights came from the play of his receivers (Ebert in particular) and unfortunately that overshadowed a solid game in which he was very accurate with the football. Fitz was disappointed in the play of the WRs on Persa's two INTs as he put the ball in the air along the sideline and the receiver didn't make a play on the ball both times (two other times Ebert made plays on "50-50 balls" and came down with two great receptions). With Rice loading up to stop the run, Persa's performance was just what the 'Cats needed.

NU Defense (6 points allowed, 254 yards allowed) The NU defense, as a whole, had its best performance of the season. There were no "explosion plays" until the trickeration on Rice's final drive and overall the 'Cats played fundamentally sound defense. They made stops when it mattered (the aforementioned 30.8% conversion rate allowed on third downs) and forced punts on the Owls' first five possessions (NU would punt just twice on the day). The key has been the entire defense playing together as a unit and not experiencing breakdowns seemingly every other play.

What to Work on

Special Teams: Returns After staring off the season rather well, Venric Mark has seemingly faded away as he had no punt returns against Rice and just one kickoff return (20 yards). It may be a function of the blocking in front of him, but he has had a good number of drops and that has put him behind the curve to start. With great coverage teams when NU kicks off, the 'Cats could really gain a "hidden yardage" advantage with some electrifying returns from Mark, which we know he's capable of doing.

Finish The 'Cats have that key sixth win within sight and the ability to get to seven, which would be a very strong finish to the year and would put them in a position to get that ever-elusive bowl win. The 'Cats have shown the ability to close out games the past three weeks, and now they must extrapolate that ability to finish to the season as a whole by continuing to play soundly on both sides of the ball.

Random Observations

Leading the Way

Northwestern currently has an active 173 minute and 19 second streak without trailing in the football game (during the first quarter at Indiana) after going the distance without trailing for two consecutive weeks. On the year, NU has been tied or in the lead during 71.2% of game clock (despite winning just 50% of its games thus far).


Pat Fitzgerald has two winning streaks of four games or longer (five each to start the 2008 and 2010 seasons) and could get his third with a win this coming week. His predecessor, Randy Walker, never strung together four straight wins, and Gary Barnett only had two (though those were nine and seven games).

Strong Offense

NU continue to impress on offense, as the 'Cats are now first in the Big Ten in passing offense (261.0 yards per game), second in total offense, and fourth in scoring offense. Persa is completing 75.1% of his passes and is on pace to beat the Big Ten record he set last year, while Jeremy Ebert has somewhat quietly tied for the Big Ten lead in passing TDs (10) and is averaging 92.4 yards per game.

Final Thought

The 'Cats showed a lot with their performance against Rice as they refused to succumb to a letdown while continue to show great improvement on defense. They are now poised to salvage what looked like a lost season by attaining bowl eligibility with one game to play: something that looked almost impossible during their five game losing streak. Now Northwestern must finish by defeating a down but not out Minnesota team that has shown improvement itself, and the NU seniors know a lot is riding on this game.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary