Game Preview


Syracuse at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Aug. 30  Time: 11:00 am CST
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Syracuse
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern and Syracuse kick off both of their 2008 campaigns in Evanston this coming Saturday in what is an anticipated start to this college football season.  Northwestern is coming off of a disappointing 6-6 campaign that saw the 'Cats miss a bowl despite obtaining eligibility, yet NU returns a bevy of starters on both sides of the ball and will be looking to make a splash this season.  Syracuse, meanwhile, is coming off of a horrid 2-10 year (although they did claim one of the biggest upsets in history with a win over Louisville) featuring a bad offense (they scored more than 20 points only one time in 2007) and a horrid defense.  To say their coach Greg Robinson is on the hot seat this year is an understatement.

Being the first game of the year for both teams coupled with the fact that Syracuse will be breaking in many new players and NU will be breaking in two new coordinators and 3 new members of the OL, things may look a bit sloppy at times.  Don't be surprised to see some pentalties (false starts, holding) called on the NU OL as the entire middle-left side (Netter, Kennedy, Burkett) will be starting their first collegiate games on the OL (and 2 of those will be appearing in their first collegiate games period).  Given that, the opposing team will have to take advanage of every mistake - penalty, turnover, etc. - in order to get an edge in the game.  The game will go a long way for both sqauds to determine where they are at in live action.  For NU, the real questions surround the entire defense and the OL - who both need games against a real opponent to establish their current standing.  Until 11AM on Saturday, though, many questions remain.

Finally, a note regarding attendance.  Don't expect attendance to be great, but hopefully the better-known opponent (including some local alumni) and some recent efforts by the NU athletic department in the marketing arena will help prop it above the 20,000 level (NU had 2 games last year below that level, which were the lowest in at least 25 years, if not more).  Kudos to NU athletics marketing for trying some innovative ideas, such as cheap tickets for local NU alumni to sit in the student section - which will be mostly unoccupied due to the fact that classes do not begin until late September.  It will be a great day for football and a great start to the 2008 year, so hopefully fans will show up.

Line: Northwestern by 11.

Who Should Win: Northwestern should undoubtedly win this game, which even most Syracuse fans would agree with.  The 'Cats come in with established skill players on offense, an experienced defense, and new coordinators who should be able to put the pieces together, along with HC Fitz who has 2 years of tough experience under his belt.  Meanwhile, SU will be looking to establish an identity on offense (after losing 2 key WRs but gaining some talented RBs) and put a semblance of a defense on the field to contain the Wildcat attack.  The fact, though, is that NU looks to be the better team on the field even with some question marks on the OL and a defense that has yet to show its improvement on the field.

Upset Factor: Will the "Curse of Ara" continue?  NU has lost at least one nonconference game since 1963, and Syracuse is a dangerous team in that they have many unknowns.  If NU's defense does not show improvement then it will provide a perfect opportunity for Syracuse's talented QB Andrew Robinson and fellow members of the backfield Carter, Brinkley (both returning from injury) and some talented undercalssmen to take advantage.  Meanwhile, if the NU OL doesn't solidify early, it can spell trouble with DT Arthur Jones and LB Flaherty causing problems in the middle.  It would take a virtual perfect storm for SU to pull off a win, but if they get these factors rolling in their favor and keep the game close, anything can happen.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Syracuse Defense: The NU offensive line will see its first real test.  The announced starters are, from left to right, Netter, Kennedy, Burkett, Belding, and Mattes.  Taylor saw practice time at virtually every position and will be there to back up.  Also, Grant has seen some game time on the line and will be a backup.  Don't be surprised to see either of those or some other backups get PT in order for the coaches to settle on their final starting 5.  Their performance will dictate how successful the offense is becuase the fact remains that if they aren't good, the NU offense won't be able to do what it wants.  In terms of skill players, look for the usual suspects to come out and play: CJ, Lane, Peterman, Sutton, and Conteh.  Hopefully NU won't have to utilize its star players (Sutton in particular) that much in order to give itself the win, but also don't expect Fitz to hold them back to "save" them for a future game - it's all about the here and now.  Hopefully NU's temp-controlling no huddle unveiled by McCall will help the offense (and OL) by keeping the SU defense on its toes and limiting its ability to substitute.  Also, CJ's passing should hopefully be improved (i.e. limiting interceptions), benefitted by a year of experience, mentoring by McCall, and some improved footwork and decision-making.  Meanwhile, Syracuse has some talent in the middle in Jones and Flaherty so don't expect NU to have a cakewalk - especially with the previously mentioned OL questions.  NU should be able to overwhelm the defense as a whole, though, as they are still a work in progress.  Given all of that, 'Cats fans will have to wait until Saturday to see how it all fits together into perforance on the field.

Northwestern Defense/Syracuse Offense: The new-look "attacking" NU defense at the hands of experienced DC Hankwitz will be unveiled, although its "star" DT Gill will be absent due to suspention.  They will be going against a Syracuse offense that has questions but also some talent that may be able to make an immediate impact.  Their QB Robinson and the aforementioned RBs will likely be the focus of attention, so the NU DL will have to step up and show vastly improved play in order to contain them and prove themselves.  Look for the LB trio of Davie, Arrington, and Kwateng to step up and quiet any questions (if any remain after a solid summer for all 3).  And in the secondary, don't be surprised to see a lot of rotation with some competition still sizzling at both CB and S, although McManis and Smith should be able to anchor at least two of those slots and show off their talent and experience.  There may be some hiccups along the way for the 'Cats D as it adjusts to the new strategy, but look for immediate improvement.

Special Teams: The first thing to notice is true freshman WR Ebert starting alongside Simmons as kick returner.  He has apparently had an excellent camp and will be looking to contribute on special teams (but is also listed as a backup WR, likely due to some injuries - not to diminish his accomplishments thus far).  Overall, though, both Villarreal and Demos should be back at full health after some injuries in the offseason.  Hopefully NU will see Demos boot kickoffs into/beyond the end zone after relying on pooch kicks from others following his injury last year.  Also, his punting ability should be highlighted (although hopefully not much if the NU offense is clicking).  Finally, Villarreal needs to establish consistency in FGs and XPs after a disappointing showing in the Kenosha scrimmage and some misses in the second half of last year.  In terms of coverage units, expect more success which has been obviously emphasized by Fitz - and don't be surprised to see regular starters out there contributing to the cause.

- NU made it out of camp without any significant injuries for the first time in years.  Dunsmore is out for the year, but there are others at the SB position to pick up the slack (Rooks, Woodsum).  The others on the injury list are expected back shortly.
- The game will be telecast on ESPN2, which will be an excellent opportunity for NU to showcase themselves on the first football Saturday of the season.
- NU ranked in the top 10 in terms of least penalized teams the past 2 seasons, and look for the disciplined trend to continue under Fitz.  The new OL is the biggest question as they try to avoid false starts and holding calls.
- This is the first meeting between Syracuse and NU since 1984 (also in Evanston).  Some of the upcoming film about Syracuse star Ernie Davis titled "The Express" was shot in Ryan Field during the summer of 2007.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: Out: SB Dunsmore (out for season), WR Frymire, LB Jeske, DL Mafuli, LB McNaul, WR Yarbrough, DL Gill (suspended for one game).

Syracuse: no significant injuries listed

Prediction: Northwestern 28 - Syracuse 13

Expect the game to be close during at least the first quarter, but for NU to take control after that once the offense establishes itself and the defense holds back the Syracuse tide.  I anticipate that Syracuse will score some points, but shouldn't be able to score too many as they try to get their own offense rolling at the hands of a new set of unproven WRs, despite having some key returning players at RB.  Meanwhile, the NU offense should be able to muster enough out of the OL to move the ball and put points on the board.  If the Wildcats can really excel at OL, though, expect that NU score to rise as the other pieces are in place.  Hopefully it will be an excellent start to the 2008 season for Northwestern.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary