Post-Game Analysis: Texas A&M
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-7, 3-5) made their fourth consecutive bowl appearance, extending their program-record streak, but once again saw the infamous bowl win drought extended another season as they fell to the Texas A&M Aggies (7-6) by a final score of 33-22 despite putting together a furious 15-point fourth-quarter comeback attempt. On the positive side, NU QB Dan Persa had enough pass attempts to qualify him for the NCAA Division I completion percentage career lead, which he now possesses at 72.7% (460-of-633), as he completed 67.6% of his 37 passes on the day for 213 yards. Unfortunately, though, the A&M defense lived up to their billing and got plenty of pressure on Persa, sacking him seven times on the day. Northwestern finished the year losing each of the seven games in which they allowed more than two sacks while winning the other six in which they allowed two or fewer.

At times, it looked like the Aggies would use their size and speed advantages to bulldoze the 'Cats who seemed to fall asleep in the second quarter after taking an early 7-3 lead. But, in the fourth quarter with their backs against the wall and a hyper-animated Pat Fitzgerald essentially performing gymnastics on the sideline, Persa came back into the game after coming off with a slight limp earlier and helped the 'Cats get right back into the game; NU was down 30-7 to start the fourth but cut it to 30-22 and had all three timeouts with over five minutes in regulation, but they were unable to make that stop when they needed it the most, instead letting A&M slice down the field to within easy field goal range, which they hit to take an insurmountable lead with just a few ticks left on the clock.

Fitz and the team tried to embrace the "63 year old monkey" on their collective back, but were unable to shake it one more time as NU has now equaled Notre Dame's recent nine-game bowl losing streak, the longest in NCAA history. But, credit must be given to them for fighting until the very end and once again making this quite an entertaining battle despite being down big and being counted out before kickoff by most pundits. Also, while the Wildcats have lost nine straight bowls, they have been to nine bowls in the past 17 seasons after making just one bowl appearance ever prior to that. Now is a chance for Fitz to step back and evaluate the program as a whole and hopefully make the changes necessary to end the bowl drought and once again compete for a Big Ten title.

First Half Summary

NU won the toss but elected to defer its option to the second half, which was an interesting choice given that it lost two key seniors to injury since the start of its last game and many wondered if the 'Cats would be able to stop the A&M offensive machine at all. Despite the losses of DT Niko Mafuli and CB Jordan Mabin, though, the defense started off strong, forcing a punt on the first possession and holding the Aggies to a FG on the second drive that penetrated the red zone. This defensive performance included a sack by Bryce McNaul against an Aggie front that led the nation in fewest sacks allowed during the regular season. Unfortunately, the NU offense took some time to warm up with the Wildcats punting on their first two possessions after gaining a total of 51 yards.

The 'Cats got things going in their favor early in the second quarter, though, with a prototypical methodical 13-play 77-yard drive that ended with a perfectly timed Dan Persa option toss to the speedy Venric Mark, who zipped into the end zone to give the 'Cats a 7-3 lead. Unfortunately, the defense didn't continue their thus-far solid performance, instead giving up a 35 yard kickoff return and then neglecting to tackle, which was particularly evident on the 37 yard catch-and-run by Ryan Swope, that put them at the one yard line and allowed A&M to take a 10-7 lead; unfortunately, a lead that they would not give up.

On the following drive, NU got into Texas A&M territory before three consecutive negative plays (a loss on a screen followed by two sacks of Persa) forced a punt. A&M wasted little time, exploiting the inexperienced Northwestern secondary and finishing the drive with a 26 yard toss to NFL-level talent WR Jeff Fuller as QB Ryan Tannehill threw his only TD of the day. The 'Cats went three-and-out, and suddenly A&M was driving once again, this time to kick a FG as the first half expired to take a 20-7 lead; though the 'Cats would get the ball first in the second half, the Aggies had certainly seized all of the momentum as they got their large contingent of fans into the game.

Second Half Summary

The Wildcats' first possession stalled out near midfield, but the defense looked to be in good position to pin A&M deep thanks to a penalty on the punt that put the Aggies at their own seven yard line. But, they broke out quickly and with style, as Tannehill completed a 38 yard pass to the once-again open Fuller to put them near midfield after just one play. A&M would then continue to slice down the field and capped it off with a 19 yard rushing TD to take a 27-7 lead. But, things weren't even at their worst for NU.

On the next possession, the offense continued to be suffocated with pressure as A&M generated consecutive sacks to force a punt, then the Aggies once again drove down the field and got just close enough to allow A&M's Randy Bullock to hit a 47 yard FG to take a 23 point lead. Then came the low point of the day: three false starts in four plays on the experienced Northwestern offensive line (in addition to the eight sacks they gave up on the day, it just seemed like adding another insult to the group); note that the three penalties were one three different players. This, of course, put NU into a big hole and eventually led to a punt.

After the teams traded punts after each going three-and-out, the 'Cats were on defense again and were in the fourth quarter down by 23. Then, NU senior S Brian Peters started the turnaround with an interception, the game's only turnover. This was the recipe that NU needed to get the turnaround started, as they took over at the A&M 40 yard line and let Kain Colter work his magic on the ground as the 'Cats made their way down the field, eventually hitting paydirt on a Colter sneak inside the one yard line. The Wildcats then went for two, with a reverse pitch to WR Jeremy Ebert (who played QB in high school) who then found Demetrius Fields in the end zone for the conversion (this after his first option was covered and he had to zip a pass in there to the next guy he could find open). Suddenly, it was 30-15 and NU had new life.

Whether it was the NU defense finally stepping up or A&M's offense going into a shell, the 'Cats came up with a huge stop by forcing a three-and-out, and suddenly NU had the ball and a chance to get within one possession and make this a game. Though it took some time to get there, the Wildcats did indeed make it a game by converting a fourth-and-one from their own 29 and marching down the field in 10 plays, capping it off by an improvised scrambling play by Colter who found converted LB to FB Tim Riley at the edge of the end zone, with Riley keeping his feet in bounds and making the grab to get NU within one score (incidentally, this was Riley's first career reception). Fitz opted to kick the extra point to hold off the need for another two point conversion until later, and the 'Cats were suddenly down just 8, 30-22, with over five minutes left while holding all of their timeouts. All they needed was a stop.

Unfortunately, Texas A&M decided to start making plays on third down; facing four third downs during this game-deciding drive, the Aggies converted the first three of them by gaining 63 yards on three nice passes from Tannehill against the typically-porous NU secondary. This brought A&M down to within easy field goal range as they drained the clock and hit the FG to retake a multiple-score game, ending NU's furious comeback attempt with 30 ticks left on the clock. Persa would lead NU down the field and take a shot at the end zone while time expired, but the point was that Northwestern would once again go home from a bowl without a trophy as the infamous 63 year drought will now extend to at least 64 years.

Player of the Game

Texas A&M PK Randy Bullock (4-of-4 on FGs with 47 yard long, 3-of-3 on XPs, 15 points) Northwestern's defense didn't play well, but did manage to keep the Aggies out of the end zone for much of the day. Unfortunately, A&M's Bullock, who won the award for the nation's best placekicker this season, lived up to that billing as he nailed every attempt and put 15 points on the board (their final margin of victory was 11). While some of the other A&M players will get some credit (Tannehill and WR Jeff Fuller), Bullock killed the 'Cats by nailing each of his kicks and eventually put the game out of reach with his final FG of the day.

What Happened

"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"

Unfortunately, this is a battle that the Wildcats decidedly lost, yielding eight sacks which ended multiple drives and kept NU off of the scoreboard for approximately two full quarters during the middle of the contest. Though NU found ways to counteract this and put up 15 points in the fourth quarter to get back into the game, the inability to score earlier essentially did in the Wildcats.

"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."

More of the same here: the biggest problem with NU's offense was the pressure yielded by the line. Though A&M did throw up many confusing defensive fronts, it was almost always an individual breakdown that led to the negative play, not more rushers than blockers.

"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... This will put significant pressure on the remaining CBs"

A&M certainly exploited the secondary when they needed to, gaining 329 of their 409 total yards through the air, including a good portion of those on two critical drives: their first TD, and the game-securing drive late in the fourth quarter. WR Fuller certainly had the ability to outplay any NU defensive back, and Tannehill threw his way in big situations and that also helped lead the Aggies to victory.

"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"

This happened to some extent, with the game's only turnover coming on a Brian Peters INT in the fourth quarter that started NU's comeback try, but in the end the secondary just wasn't in position often enough and the NU DL just couldn't apply enough pressure on Tannehill to force more mistakes that could have changed the outcome of this contest.

"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... 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."

The momentum-shifting play NU needed was one more stop on defense, and they couldn't do that and instead allowed A&M to kick the game-clenching FG; they were certainly hurt by injuries to both Mabin in the defensive backfield and Mafuli up front. A&M did have more talent that helped them come out of this one with a win (see the Tannehill to Fuller connection and the play of A&M's defensive front), but the 'Cats did indeed make this one somewhat exciting near the end despite looking left for dead early in the fourth quarter.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

S Brian Peters (7 tackles, 5 solo, 1 INT) Peters was the one who helped turn the tide for the 'Cats, with his interception spurring NU's 15-point fourth quarter comeback try, and his overall play on the day at least giving Northwestern a shot. Though NU's two cornerbacks were arguably outmatched, he played well in coverage and also came in on a blitz or two to apply pressure up front and help the 'Cats hold A&M out of the end zone for a good amount of the day. He was a solid defender for NU through his four years and ended his career with a good effort.

QBs Dan Persa (25-of-37 for 213 yards passing) & Kain Colter (16 carries for 75 yards, 1 TD rushing; 2-of-3 for 13 yards, 1 TD passing; 3 receptions for 12 yards) Don't blame the quarterbacks for much of NU's offensive woes, as they spent much of the day running for their lives (not included in the aforementioned stats: 8 sacks), with the OL seemingly unable to handle the various looks of the Texas A&M defensive front. But, when they weren't being immediately chased down, they played well, particularly so during NU's comeback try.

What to Work on

I don't need to add too much here to last week's article I wrote about three potential staff changes that Fitz should consider this offseason. The three biggest issues in this game were: offensive line (a slew of penalties and sacks), the secondary (allowed 329 passing yards), and overall consistency (NU essentially went to sleep during much of the second and third quarters) - which a sports psychologist would certainly help even out.

Special Teams: Once again in a bowl game NU was bit by poor special teams play, particularly on the coverage teams, which allowed big returns at the worst possible times. Also, Venric Mark was given precious little room to gain ground except for one return late in the game, and instead was swallowed up inside the 20 for much of the game. All of this hidden yardage gave A&M an even further advantage which eventually helped tip the scales in their favor. And though NU didn't have any blatant errors in the kicking game (and Brandon Williams had a solid game with a 42.1 yard punting average, a long of 51, and three inside the 20), A&M's reliable kicker made the difference in the end with his 15 points as he was perfect for the day.

Continue going to bowls: Though NU's bowl win drought continues, they continue to go, and as long as they keep going to bowls they will eventually find a way to win. The 'Cats have faced tough opponents and been overmatched at times, but with a larger sample size things will even out and they'll have their shot at a win that will be that much more satisfying.

Random Observations

Similar Stats

Both teams ended going 27-of-40 passing; both teams finished with 67 penalty yards; and both teams failed to top 100 yards on the ground (A&M finished with 80 net yards, NU with 52 net, but note that the 'Cats would have outrushed the Aggies 117 to 87 if sack yardage wasn't included). Both teams had two fumbles (but neither lost any). Also, both teams scored on all of their trips to the red zone (4 for A&M, 3 for NU).


Attendance was 68,395 and was certainly bolstered due to the proximity of the Texas A&M campus, but it is still a respectable number that is the largest number so far this bowl season (though that will certainly be surpassed by some of the January 2 bowl games, particularly the Rose Bowl). Even so, NU had one of the better showings in terms of ticket sales compared to some of the other Big Ten teams in lower tier bowl games, with the 'Cats near the 10,000 mark in terms of sales. This, along with the entertaining contest, should again bolster NU's effort in future bowls.

Full Season Analysis & More

Look out for more analysis of the 2011 Northwestern season and some pre-previews of the 2012 season over the next few weeks at HailToPurple.

Final Thought

Another year and another bowl loss is certainly tough to swallow, but the fact is that NU has been underdogs in each of its last nine bowl games and have been an average 8.5 point underdog in those games. Despite that, NU continues to go out and give it their all and have played in very competitive contests that have been quite entertaining (if not heart attack-inducing, for NU fans at least). Fitz and NU have shown that they can get to bowl games year after year, and if they continue doing this they will eventually get a favorable matchup and will be able to pull off a win that will mean that much more.

There are a lot of issues and needs to address this offseason for Fitz and the Wildcats, but right now it's time to recover from the 6-7 season and enjoy the New Year celebration while also appreciating the seniors that set the bar to a new level in terms of five-year performance. The comeback attempt in this game showed that despite deficiencies in some critical areas, NU will continue to fight and reflect the attitude of their purple-blooded leader, which is something we all enjoy witnessing.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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