Game Preview


Texas A&M
Reliant Stadium
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Saturday, December 31, 2011.  11:00 am CST
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Texas A&M
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 3-5) fought hard to achieve bowl eligibility by winning four of their final games, including a victory over a top 10 team on the road, and have been rewarded with a somewhat surprising trip to Houston, Texas to play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (henceforth referenced as the Texas Bowl) and will face the deceptively tough Texas A&M Aggies (6-6, 4-5). I say deceptive because their .500 record hardly describes the level of play they have demonstrated throughout the year: they rank 7th nationally in total offense and 1st in both sacks and sacks allowed, and five of their six losses have come to teams in final regular season top 25 BCS rankings (incidentally, all of those losses came by one score or less with two in overtime). Their offense, led by WR-turned-QB Ryan Tannehill, is quite potent and also features a strong running game that has experienced some significant injuries but has hummed right along racking up 209.1 yards per game on the ground. Though they have a penchant for giving up (significant) leads in the second halves of games this year, which led to the dismissal of head coach Mike Sherman following the conclusion of their regular season, they have loads of talent on both sides of the ball and will be a heavy favorite in this matchup.

The 'Cats, on the other hand, jumped both Purdue and Penn State in the bowl pecking order likely due to the Boilermakers' visit to Houston earlier this season (to play Rice, a game that they lost) and the lingering scandal in State College (PSU actually ended up with a ranked-vs-ranked matchup on Jan. 2 in the TicketCity Bowl against the free-falling Houston Cougars who failed to win the C-USA title game and lost their BCS ticket in the process). Northwestern will be seeking to propel the monkey-turned-gorilla off of their collective back in the form of that elusive bowl victory; NU is riding an eight-game bowl losing streak after their one and only victory in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Once again, they will face an uphill battle here against the Aggies as they will be underdogs in a bowl game for the ninth consecutive time (and have been underdogs by 8.5 points per game in those contests). But, the Wildcats have a bevy of seniors, particularly on offense where QB Dan Persa will get his first start in a bowl game and will get one last chance to toss the ball to some of his fellow seniors.

But, while NU will face an uphill battle to win their first bowl game in almost 63 years (which would give the 'Cats a winning record for a fourth consecutive season, something NU hasn't achieved since 1928-1931), Coach Fitzgerald has shown that he can lead NU to play up to the level of its competition, covering the point spread in each of the three bowl games that he has coached (including two overtime games). The 'Cats certainly have an offense that can keep pace with the Aggies, who have not been all that impressive on defense at times (76th in scoring defense, yielding 28.7 points per game) but most notably have been bad after halftime, where they have been outscored by 45 points this season (3.75 points per game) despite holding a +176 point margin in the first halves of games.

This game appears to have the makings of a shootout with two high-powered offenses along with lackluster defenses on both sides to boot. Although both teams come in at 6-6, they were certainly capable of better this season with each leaving wins out on the field on multiple occasions (Football Outsiders' FEI ratings include a mean wins prediction; these teams combined for 14.6 mean wins including an extra 1.0 for NU's FCS opponent, meaning that they collectively left 2.6 wins on the field). And if NU plays the way it has in bowls under Fitz, expect an entertaining game. In the end, one of these teams will end its current bowl losing streak; Northwestern has lost eight straight and Texas A&M has lost five in a row (coincidentally dating back to its last bowl game in Houston, in the 2001 Galleryfurniture.com bowl played in the Astrodome). This should be a great way to kick off New Year's Weekend on Saturday morning all alone in the noon (ET) time slot on ESPN.

Opening Line

Texas A&M by 9.5.

Who Should Win

Texas A&M. Yes, their season is considered to be a failure after cracking the top 10 early in the year but watching leads evaporate left and right only to end up at .500 and see their head coach dismissed. But, they still possess loads of talent both on offense (11th nationally in scoring offense while showing balance: 21st in rushing and 18th in passing) and defense to boot (13th ranked rushing defense and their nation-leading 3.58 sacks per game). They are most certainly loaded on both lines, and teams boasting that have certainly given NU fits this season (PSU and MSU just to name a couple). This is a team that is literally just a handful of plays from a BCS game, plus NU will be facing them in their own back yard with College Station just around 100 miles from Reliant Stadium. Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings have tabbed A&M as 15.25 point favorites (without factoring in any kind of close-to-home-field advantage), and if the Aggies play to their potential the final margin could be worse.

Upset Factor

Northwestern has shown that it can move the ball and put up points on just about everyone this year, including some of the top defenses in the country, as demonstrated by the 'Cats' 25th ranking nationally in Football Outsiders' F/+ offense rating (NU is 22nd in the S&P+ offense rating, which is a play-by-play success rating, and 15th in FEI offense rating, which is a drive-based rating). Dan Persa will be concluding his collegiate career and leads the nation in completion rate (74.23%) and has a bevy of weapons around him, including QB/WR Kain Colter, Drake Dunsmore, and Jeremy Ebert. Although Texas A&M's defense can be tough at times, they have also given up a lot of points (28.7 points per game) and also rank 113th nationally in pass yards per game allowed (280.5). Look for the 'Cats to take advantage. If NU can come up with an advantage on turnovers (NU's turnover margin on the year is +0.17 per game, ranking 42nd, while Texas A&M's is -0.67 per game, putting them at 100th) and/or special teams, then they can make this come down to the very end where crazy things can and do happen (the Aggies are 1-5 this year in games decided by seven points or less, while NU is 20-10 in such games under Coach Fitz).

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Texas A&M Defense

If Northwestern wants to have a shot to win this game, the 'Cats must get plenty of production from the efficient offense that they've seen most of the year; fortunately, Dan Persa will be starting in his first (and only) bowl game for the Wildcats and will have a number of weapons available as NU goes up against the nation's 113th ranked pass defense. Look for Kain Colter to be mixed in both at WR and at QB as a change-of-pace, which worked quite well for most of the year, particularly when the 'Cats needed to milk leads late in the game. On the receiving front, expect to see plenty of seniors Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, who have combined for 17 TDs on the year and over 50% of the 'Cats' receiving yardage. Northwestern doesn't have a whole lot of threats in the running game outside of the aforementioned Colter (Schmidt picked up his play over the last portion of the season but ended up with just 465 net rushing yards on the year), but the Wildcats will likely have to move the ball through the air in this one anyways: Texas A&M is 13th nationally in rush defense and gives up just 3.6 yards per carry (after removing sacks).

All that is well and good, but the key battle of this game will occur in the trenches: Northwestern is a perfect 6-0 on the year when allowing two or fewer sacks but is 0-6 when giving up more than that, while Texas A&M comes in ranked first nationally in sacks with 43 on the season. The NU OL will have to have the game of its life to try and give Persa a chance to get the ball off no matter what NU OC Mick McCall does scheme-wise to try and get the ball out of the backfield quickly. The 'Cats' last game of the regular season exposed the main weakness of the offense, especially when behind and trying to catch up via the pass, and that is that they give up sacks (six of them vs. MSU) and cannot handle the blitz well (which the Spartans did often). Unfortunately, Texas A&M loves to blitz from everywhere (17 different players registered at least part of a sack this year), which explains a lot of their numbers: they get to the QB often, but if they don't it leaves the secondary exposed to give up lots of big plays.

As we've seen throughout the year, NU's offensive line has plenty of talent (LT Al Netter and LG Brian Mulroe were honorable mentions for the all-Big Ten team this year; RT Patrick Ward was a top-flight recruit) and experience (Netter and RG Ben Burkett will be starting their 52nd consecutive game together, which will set the NU record for games started/played), but they have fallen well short of expectations at times (demonstrated by the 102nd ranking in sacks allowed). This game will very much come down to them: they must make the right line calls to pick up blitzes, avoid individual breakdowns that lead to quick pressure on the QB, and play some flat out physical football. It doesn't matter who is behind center; allowing pressure on the passer will constrain NU's offense and will allow the Aggies to load the box and snuff out the 'Cats' chances of winning.

Somewhat thankfully, Persa will likely be the healthiest we've seen him since the infamous Achilles injury as he gets over a month to rest while also moving further along the recovery timeline for the injury sustained over one calendar year ago. This will likely allow him to be a bit more mobile in the pocket, which will certainly help against the inevitable pressure Texas A&M will be bringing. Also, the extra time before the game will allow OC McCall to find the right mix of play calls to counteract this aggressive defense which will likely include putting Colter behind center and running some gadget-type plays to directly attack that aggressive defensive play. Colter has shown a good ability to take the ball as if to pass and then find openings to run; if this occurs against a blitz he'll have some room to run. Even if the OL manages to hold back the rush, the 'Cats will need Persa to play well on the move and for Colter to come in and do his thing to be successful in this game. NU can get aggressive here against the aggressive Aggie defense, though, as A&M is 102nd nationally in turnovers gained with just 15 on the year; there will be plenty of chances to air it out.

It's difficult to single out specific players of which to be wary given that Texas A&M is aggressive in all areas of the field; the leading sack man is OLB Sean Porter (8.5 on the year), and he's closely followed by Damonte Moore (7.5) who plays the "Joker" position (or, a hybrid DE/OLB in the 3-4 scheme). But it's not just the guys up front; the DBs on the two-deep have accounted for nine sacks this season, but they are also pretty good in coverage; the two starting CBs have accounted for 23 passes defended on the year (including 3 INTs). This is a defense that has talent across the board and down the depth chart; 26 players have accumulated double-digit tackles on the year (NU had 20), and nine had over 40 stops (NU had seven). This may be the all-around most talented D NU has faced all year (which is saying a lot after facing five defenses ranked in the top 25 of the F/+ Defense ratings according to Football Outsiders; but due to some over-aggressive play at times (mostly due to giving up passes when pressure doesn't reach the QB) they are vulnerable, and the Wildcats must attack throughout the game to stay in this one.

Look for NU to put up plenty of yards and points, but the key will be staying close on the scoreboard to avoid letting A&M tee off on Persa. And, if NU can get a lead, look for a good mixed attack with Colter coming in to keep the Aggies honest and control the tempo of the game. If the 'Cats get behind, it will be entirely up to the OL to try and give Persa enough time to get the ball off. In the end, the game will likely be decided by this matchup.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Texas A&M Offense

Any NU fan knows that the Wildcats' defense just isn't very good even at full strength, and, unfortunately, they will be missing one of their best players in senior CB Jordan Mabin, whose career was unceremoniously ended early in the game against MSU when he experienced a shoulder injury and had to come out of the game (even after trying to stay in following the injury); he would later have surgery and be ruled out for the bowl game. This will put significant pressure on the remaining CBs, particularly since his replacement against the Spartans, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones, was tested and burned in that game. It will be intriguing to see who the two starting CBs are in the game given that Mabin was the only steady starter; Jeravin Matthews seems to be back in the other spot after early season troubles, while Demetrius Dugar was holding down a spot until he was injured a few games ago.

On the other side of the ball, A&M presents quite a challenge on offense given that they have one of the best offensive lines in the country (ranking first in fewest sacks allowed and paving the way for the nation's 21st ranked rushing offense) and a multi-talented QB (converted WR Ryan Tannehill, who has piled up some impressive numbers this year to complement their strong running game). Though their ground game has experienced some trouble due to injury, leading rusher Cyrus Gray will reportedly be back for the bowl game. Tannehill also adds another facet to the ground game with his speed; he's averaged 5.4 yards per carry even when counting sacks; and his running ability has certainly helped avoid those sacks on occasion and has boosted the aforementioned low sack numbers (opponents have just eight on the year).

Through the air, he has three primary: Ryan Swope, who leads the Aggies with 1,102 receiving yards, 11 TD receptions, and a 13.6 yards per catch average, Jeff Fuller, second on the team with 45 catches, 5 receiving TDs, and 709 yards, and Uzona Nwachukwu, who is third in those categories. Next on the list is RB Gray, and no other player has more than 14 receptions on the year. Though there isn't a whole lot of depth at receiver, unlike NU, they can certainly do plenty of damage, with those three WRs averaging 198.6 yards per game receiving.

It would be nice if the NU defense could put some pressure on Tannehill when dropping back to pass to at least help out the secondary that will still be trying to find its way, but that's tough to expect as NU ranks 101st nationally in sacks and is facing the top team in terms of sacks allowed. Instead, the 'Cats can play against him much like they have against other fleet-footed QBs (Michigan's Denard Robinson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, to name a couple) by containing him and eventually taking him down near the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field (after hopefully disrupting the potential passing play). NU did a pretty good job of containing mobile QBs at various points throughout the regular season, and they should be able to do the same here.

The key for the defense, though, is actually forcing A&M to throw the ball; Tannehill is solid, but has thrown 14 INTs this year and is completing 61.1% of his passes (over 10% less than NU has completed on the year). The best chance that the defense has is to get the Aggies to throw, and the best way to do that is to contain the ground game. While that is easier said than done, NU has held up reasonably well on the ground at times this season and should have their front seven back at full strength for this one after missing key cogs throughout the year (one example: DT Brian Arnfelt, a key part of the rotation who was out for the last few games of the season). It's pretty simple and has been repeated quite often, but the linemen must take up blocks and the LBs and safeties must play their assignments, hit the gaps, and make the tackle. Though Gray is a solid runner, he'll likely not be up to 100% and NU has been able to manage against RBs of similar talent level this year.

There are a bunch of seniors on this defense, and although they've had a disappointing season on this side of the ball (80th in total defense, 67th in scoring defense), they have the ability to rise up and play well. Brian Peters was named to the media's first all-Big Ten team, and he'll have to lead the way with fellow captain Mabin out. At LB, Bryce McNaul must step up and make tackles. On the line, DTs Niko Mafuli and Jack DiNardo will have to play the game of their careers, while it wouldn't hurt to have Vince Browne come in on passing downs and add to his sack totals. The Wildcats need their leaders to step up in this, their chance to break that infamous bowl losing streak.

Texas A&M should be able to move the ball easily both through the ground and the air, but if the NU D can indeed step up and get them out of their game plan a bit, it will open up a chance for the 'Cats to stop them. The Aggies seem bound to make mistakes, and the defense must take advantage by grabbing takeaways any time the ball hits the ground or an errant pass is thrown. If they can do this, they will certainly enhance NU's chances of victory.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Texas A&M gets the advantage here in the kicking game, though kicker Randy Bullock isn't perfect (he's missed four FGs & two XPs this season), he has hit 86.2% of FG tries with a long of 52. Northwestern, meanwhile, is just 6-of-10 on FGs this year from Jeff Budzien, though he has connected on all 48 XP tries. If this game follows NU's recent bowl game performances, it may very well come down to the kicking game, and it will be very interesting to see how Budzien performs in crunch time.

When punting, neither team has been all that impressive in terms of net yardage (NU ranks 92nd, A&M 80th). And while NU's punt return defense was ranked in the top five nationally, MSU's 57 yard punt return for TD last game dropped the 'Cats all the way to 87th after last game, though they have given up just six returns on the season. The Aggies will be looking to take advantage with the nation's 11th-best punt returning unit, with Dustin Harris averaging 20.1 yards per return (he's taken one to the house). A&M, meanwhile, has a definite weakness in their punt return defense, ranking 118th nationally while giving up 15.7 yards per return (on 10 returns); Venric Mark is always a threat for the 'Cats on returns and has NU ranked 14th in punt return average. Both teams clearly enjoy avoiding the threat of a return altogether, but if one team does manage to get into position for a return, they are both significant threats.

Both teams are also similar on kickoffs, with A&M's Harris averaging 22.9 yards per return (the team ranks 64th nationally) and NU's Mark averaging 23.5 (NU ranks 59th nationally); on the flip side, NU kickoff defense is ranked 20th and A&M is 36th. They both cover kicks rather well but have return men who are very dangerous, and with the number of kickoffs likely in this contest, there will be chances to make a difference through the return game.

Overall, these teams are quite similar across the coverage and return teams, but the difference is likely in kicking, where A&M gets a slight edge. But, Budzien may very well get his chance to make a difference here, and he only needs one chance to break through and put years of disappointing kicking out of NU fans' memories.

Miscellaneous Notes


Northwestern will be facing its third Big XII conference foe in its last four bowl games (occurring over the last four seasons, of course), though it's worth noting that two of those opponents (this year's, Texas A&M, and Missouri, who NU faced in the 2008 Alamo Bowl) are departing the Big XII for the SEC starting next season.

For the third straight year, Northwestern will be facing its bowl opponent for the first time ever (last year's TicketCity Bowl was NU's first matchup against Texas Tech, and the Outback Bowl following the 2009 season was the first meeting with Auburn).

NU does have a direct connection with A&M though they have never played them; current Northwestern DC Mike Hankwitz was also DC at A&M from 1997-2002, where he helped field three top-10 defensive units and a total of 5 in the top-20.

Big XII teams are 0-3 in the current incarnation of this bowl game (it was preceeded by the Houston Bowl in 2000-05 and the Bluebonnet Bowl that ran from 1959-87) and have lost by an average score of 36.7 - 12.3. Last year, Illinois (the Big Ten's only representation in the current incarnation) beat Baylor.

As mentioned earlier, both teams are riding bowl losing streaks (A&M: 5, NU: 8), and both teams are sitting at 6-6: one team will go home with a streak-breaking win and a winning record on the season, while the loser will end with a losing record and an extended bowl losing streak. This will be A&M's third appearance in a Houston bowl game (their first bowl game in this venue), and were 1-1 in their previous games.

Northwestern is certainly coming is as the hotter team, winning four of its last five games. A&M has done exactly the opposite, losing four of its last five (two were lost in OT) as they quickly fell out of the rankings after sporting a lofty position in the polls early in the season.

Scoring By Halves: Something has to give

Both teams are decidedly first-half teams and second-half disappointments: First half scoring margins are +176 (A&M) and +61 (NU). Second half and OT combined margins are -45 (A&M) and -34 (NU). With both teams having a record of giving up significant second half leads this season, expect everyone to stick around and see what happens in the second half of this game.

Third Down Conversions

Northwestern's third down conversion rate has skyrocketed with Persa back at the helm, with the 'Cats reaching 10th nationally (49.1%) and they should have a good chance at putting together longer drives while facing an A&M team that is allowing a 41.0% rate (76th). Unfortunately, NU's defense just can't get off the field, ranking 114th (50.0%) while Texas A&M's offense is 25th nationally (45.8%).

Offensive Advanced Statistics

Here are some more stat rankings to show how good these two teams are on offense, from Football Outsiders: S&P+ offense (play-based success): NU 22nd, A&M 19th; FEI offense (drive-based success): NU 15th, A&M 17th; F/+ offense (combined S&P+ & FEI): NU 25th, A&M 19th; S&P+ rushing offense: NU 37th, A&M 15th; S&P+ passing offense: NU 22nd, A&M 35th. Both teams are rather balanced on offense and have been effective against rather good competition. With both defenses containing significant flaws, expect a lot of points in this game.

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), CB Jordan Mabin (out, shoulder), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), DT Brian Arnfelt (questionable, foot).

The loss of Mabin early in the Michigan State game certainly hurt and that figurative pain will continue here against an offensive juggernaut. Hopefully, Demetrius Dugar (a Houston native) will be ready for action as true freshman Daniel Jones looked to be well behind the curve against MSU, and Texas A&M will present numerous weapons that NU will have to cover. One hopes that Arnfelt will be ready to help reinforce the middle against a team that boasts a very strong OL, while the return of David Arnold would also provide some depth in the depleted secondary. Other than that, hopefully the Wildcats can avoid any significant complications during the next few weeks of practices leading up to the bowl.

Texas A&M

RB Cyrus Gray (probable, shoulder), SS Steven Campbell (questionable, foot), RB Christine Michael (out for season, knee), DE Jonathan Mathis (out for season, leg).

The Aggies experienced quite a few injuries during the course of the year, and that certainly played a large role in their disappointing season, but most of the key players will have returned by the bowl game. The most significant return will be Gray, the team's leading rusher (1,045 yards), which is significant as the team's second-leading rusher (Michael, with 899 yards) appears to be out for the game. Texas A&M relies on a balanced offensive attack (they run on 48% of downs) so having a healthy productive RB is key. Most importantly for them, though, is that they should have their defense intact, and that is what will likely win them this game as their offense should not have much problem moving the ball against NU's defense.


Northwestern 35, Texas A&M 38

There will almost certainly be a lot of points scored in this game: both defenses have their weaknesses, and both offenses have played very well this year, even against stout opponents. Although A&M has a decided advantage in terms of talent, look for Northwestern to pull out all the stops to try and end its infamous bowl losing streak and send off Dan Persa and his fellow seniors with a win. And, given NU's bowl history under Fitz, this should be an exciting game that will go down to the wire.

This game will eventually come down to either special teams play or the defense that can make a momentum-shifting play near the end of the game, and, unfortunately, I don't see the 'Cats being able to do that, particularly with Mabin sidelined with injury. It will be interesting to see motivation levels, though: the Aggies' head coach was fired just after their regular season concluded and DC Tim DeRuyter will be running the show for the first time in his career. A&M will be close to home and will certainly have more fans in the building, but can they produce enough internal motivation to play a full 60 minutes, particularly after so many collapses during the regular season? Northwestern, meanwhile, has plenty of motivation to get that elusive bowl win and there are plenty of seniors on the squad who understand the gravity of the situation.

Those motivations will help even the match a bit, but the Aggies likely have just a bit more talent that will help them squeak this one out. In any case, expect a close and exciting game that will once again help NU live up to its Cardiac 'Cats nickname.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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