Game Preview


NU vs. Missouri
The Alamodome
Monday, Dec. 29.  7:00 p.m. CST


Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) has known it will be going to a bowl game since their 7th win (over Minnesota) on November 1, but the opponent was up in the air until the official announcement over a month after that date on December 7.  Now the 'Cats know they're headed to San Antonio to play Missouri (9-4, 5-3) in the Valero Alamo Bowl on December 29, the second time that Northwestern has been to the Alamo Bowl (the first time was as Big Ten co-Champions following the 2000 season).  The bow provides some interesting story lines, with both teams garnering 9 wins and a national ranking (NU comes in at #22/20/23 and Missouri at #25/24/21 in the AP/Coaches'/BCS), and with the NFL's regular season concluding on December 28th, this game will be front and center on ESPN that evening.

As mentioned in my Big Ten bowl preview, this is one of only 5 non-BCS bowl games featuring 2 ranked opponents, and it is being billed as a high octane offensive matchup, which Missouri definitely brings to the table.  Senior QB Chase Daniel has 12,315 career passing yards along with 99 passing TDs and is looking to cap off the year by reaching a 10th win - just a season after leading the Tigers to 12 wins.  He'll have a very dangerous weapon in Jeremy Maclin, the talented sophomore receiver who already has close to 2,300 receiving yards and 21 receiving TDs on his career; he'll be returning punts and kicks as well as getting a few handoffs as well.  Without a doubt, the Missouri offense is its strength, and they rank in the top 10 in the following statistical categories: passing (4th), total offense (6th), scoring offense (6th).  The facts that the offense has gone 3-and-out just 8 times this year (just about 6% of their possessions) and have scored on 56% of their possessions go to show how powerful this unit is.

Their weakness, though, is on the other side of the ball, particularly against the pass.  Missouri allows over 27 points/game (75th nationally) and is among the worst in the nation against the pass.  While one may chalk up the passing yards yielded to teams trying to play catch-up, the fact is that the defense just hasn't been that good against the pass and the Tigers have had difficulty in their secondary all year long.  In terms of matching up, Northwestern couldn't really ask for something better on paper: the NU offense has needed a jump start for much of the year and has run into difficulties against stout Big Ten defenses.  This is the chance for senior QB CJ Bacher and his stable of receivers featuring Ward, Peterman, and Lane, to step up and get things going.  The fact is that the Wildcats will have to score early and often in this one to stay in the game, and fortunately it looks to be plausible.

That leads to what NU will be able to do rushing the ball - because NU must still have a balanced attack for its offense to work - and that will very much come down to the availability of senior RB Tyrell Sutton.  As stated by Fitz, Sutton has a soft cast on which will come off by Dec. 22 at which time he will undergo an evaluation as to his availability for the Dec. 29 bowl game.  Don't expect to hear a peep until that point.  Getting Sutton back would be a huge boost to the offense which has struggled to churn out rushing yards in his absense, having to go to sophomore 3rd string RB Simmons.  He is, of course, fighting valiantly to return to the playing field, so we will have to wait and see how things go with his recovery over the next couple of weeks.

Now to the NU defense: which happens to be the strength of the Wildcat squad this season.  No, they're not the best defense in the land and they give up a good amount of yards, but they are 23rd in the country in scoring defense and with the strength in the secondary and on the line in the form of a pass rush (i.e. Big Ten leading 33 sacks on the year), they have a chance to at least contain the Missouri attack.  They key will be creating pressure up front and forcing mistakes (i.e. turnovers) from Missouri; as any avid reader of my previews knows, NU succeeds when it generates turnovers.

Northwestern is 7-0 in 2008 when having a 0 or greater turnover margin; in its 3 losses, NU is -11 in turnover ratio with no takeaways (the 'Cats are 2-3 when having a negative turnover margin).  NU has won every game this year in which it has generated at least one takeaway.  On the other side, Mizzou is 3-0 when sporting a positive turnover margin, 4-1 when 0, and 2-3 when negative.  So, it's pretty obvious that if one team can gain the advantage in the turnover department, it will give them an opportunity to win this game.  The Wildcats need these turnovers to keep Missouri out of the end zone, hence why the DL must put pressure pu front every play to try and force mistakes.  It is interesting to note that Missouri hasn't had a positive turnover margin since the 5th week of their season against Nebraska; they are -6 in the final 8 games of the year (including -3 in the Big XII championship against Oklahoma).

While the Missouri Tigers are favored in this game, thanks to their high-octane offense, the Wildcats have a chance to stay in the game with their own offensive attack and containing Missouri on defense (and, maybe, generating some turnovers).  And to the victor goes a double-digit win season and some momentum heading into 2009 along with a likely top 20 ranking to close the 2008 season.  Of course, Northwestern is also looking for its first bowl win since 1949, a clear goal set by Fitz and the team before the start of the season and now the time is here to attempt to achieve that goal.

Missouri by 13.5

Who Should Win: Missouri.  The fact is that the Tigers' offense is prolific and is a challenge for even the top defenses in the nation, and the NU D will have its collective hands full against Daniel, Maclin, and company.  Although Mizzou's D has its holes (including a glaring one against the pass), they have been serviceable enough to propel them to 9 wins and a national ranking throughout the season.  Remember that this team was one of the nation's top teams just a season ago (with 12 wins) and has the talent to play with just about anyone.

Upset Factor: Missouri's pass defense is bad.  Their pass efficiency defense ranks 81st in the nation, and they have given up more yards per game than all but 3 teams in I-A/FBS.  If that isn't a golden opportunity for QB Bacher and the 'Cats, I don't know what is.  Oh, and then there's the fact that the Tigers are riding a 2 game losing streak (37-40 loss to 7-5 Kansas and the 21-62 drubbing at the hands of national title game participant Oklahoma, as well as the season opening 52-42 win over Illinois: a squad that NU held to 10 points.  This matchup will put strength (Mizzou's offense) against strength (NU D, particularly the pass rush and secondary) and will give the underachieving NU offense (still laden with experienced talent) a chance to break out against a porous defense.  But, to keep it close, the NU D will have to contain the Mizzou offense.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Missouri Defense: Without a doubt this is a favorable matchup for Northwestern, and now would be the right time for the NU offense to find its way in 2008.  CJ Bacher and the NU receiving corps have shown the ability to put up big numbers in the past, and they will have the opportunity to repeat those performances against one of the nation's worst defenses against the pass.  Missouri is near the bottom nationally in passing yards yielded per game, giving up over 285 per contest.  The pass efficiency defense is also poor, ranked 81st in the nation.  The Tigers have had many problems in the secondary and everyone knows that it's a hole that should be exploited - Oklahoma State, Texas, and Oklahoma have put up big numbers against their defense - enough so that the Mizzou offense just couldn't keep up.  While one shouldn't expect the NU offense to outpace the Tigers in an all-offensive battle, the Wildcats should be able to put points on the board with a strong passing game from CJ and his senior receivers.  The X-factor will be the aforementioned availability of Tyrell Sutton to boost NU's efforts on the ground; if he can go, NU will have enough weapons to really get things going.  Otherwise, it will take a near-perfect effort and some great blocking from the OL to keep the passing game churning.  In the final game of their NU careers, look for big games from Bacher, Ward, Peterman, Lane, and, hopefully, Sutton as they look to send off the 2008 season with a win.

Although the Mizzou defense has been porous this year, they are by no means slouches, and feature some talented players who can take care of business - you don't win 21 games over the past 2 seasons with no defensive effort.  LB Sean Witherspoon leads the way with 138 tackles, 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 forced fumbles, and 6 PBUs on the year - he's definitely someone to be avoided.  DE Sulak also provides a pass rushing threat, having racked up 8.5 sacks on the season, along with 13 total TFLs and an astounding 6 forced fumbles; Bacher must get solid blocking to avoid getting hit by that 6'5" senior.  Chavis, Hood, and Baston (the first 2 seniors) round out the DL who have 8 sacks to their credit.  The other LBs are Christopher, 2nd on the team in tackles wiht 97; he has 7.5 TFLs and 2 INTs on the year, and Lambert, a sophomore, to round out this multi-talented squad.  In the secondary, despite 3 seniors, things have been tough going; the loss of CB Castine Bridges (still the team's leader in PBUs with 7) hurt.  Safeties Garrett and Moore each have over 80 tackles on the year along with 5 PBUs each.  CBs Vaughns and Gettis anchor the corners.  It's interesting to note that between these 4 starting DBs, they have just 2 interceptions between them.  As noted earier, NU must avoid the turnovers, and that means CJ must continue the trend by keeping it out of the hands of this secondary, which is, at times, a problem with Bacher.  Hopefully Bacher can throw 1 or fewer interceptions and end his career having won every game in which he throws fewer than 2 picks (since he's currently undefeated in such situations).

Northwestern Offensive Stats:  Total offense (357.0 yards/game, 62nd), scoring offense (24.5 points/game, 72nd), rushing offense (147.6 yards/game, 58th), passing offense (209.4 yards/game, 63rd), sacks allowed (1.4/game, 31st).
Missouri Defensive Stats: Total defense (414.2 yards/game, 99th), scoring defense (27.5 points/game, 75th), rushing defense (128.9 yards/game, 39th), passing defense (285.3 yards/game, 117th), sacks (2.2/game, 46th).

Northwestern Defense/Missouri Offense: Uh oh.  The Missouri offense is, well, off the charts, ranking in the top 10 nationally in total offense, passing offense, and scoring offense.  As mentioned earlier, they score early and often and have 64 offensive TDs to their credit this year: 37 of those passes from Daniel.  The Tigers average 7.1 yards/play and convert a lot of 3rd downs (54%).  They do almost everything right to keep the offense moving down the field and finding paydirt.  Their achilles heel, as also mentioned earlier, is turnovers: they have 23 on the year, 15 of those Daniel INTs.  Throwing the ball that often comes at a price, and it is the chance of interceptions.  This has resulted in Missouri generating more turnovers than its opponents only 3 times this season - although the D generates turnovers, often it isn't enough to overcome their own mistakes.  The key is putting pressure on Daniel to force errant throws using NU's rather effective pass rush (13th nationally in sacks).  Easier said than done, though, as Mizzou themselves rank 14th in sacks allowed, which is a number boosted by Daniel's scrambling ability: he's second on the team in rushing with 252 yards this year.  Thankfully, the Northwestern defense has shown a pretty good ability at addressing the scrambling QB, most recently with their dominating performance over Illinois' Juice Williams (who himself burned Missouri on more than one occasion in their opening game of the season).  But there's more than just Chase to deal with, as Mizzou features one of the nation's best receivers, Maclin, who is a multi-faceted threat (receving, rushing, and returning) - it will be up to the NU secondary, primarily McManis, to cover him like a sheet (look for lots of double teams as well).  Out of the backfield is RB Washington, with 992 yards and 17 TDs on the year; although they pass over 57% of the time, they average a dangerous 5.3 yards/rush attempt by spreading out the defense.  Finally, NU has to account for other receiving threats TE Coffman and WR Saunders, both with over 800 receiving yards on the year (Mizzou has 3 players over 800 yards recieving; nobody on NU has over 700), along with Perry, Alexander, and Washington out of the backfield.  Given the high-powered attack of this offense, it's pretty easy to say that NU will have its hands full on December 29.

Look for the Wildcats to play nickel D with Phillips in a "roverback" S/LB role as NU looks to cover all of the receiving options that Mizzou has while trying to contain the run.  McManis and Smith or Phillips will likely team up to cover the very dangerous Maclin.  While McManis has covered some big time receivers before, this will likely be the biggest test of his career.  Up front, Wootton and Mims must get after Daniel while paying attention to the contain; Gill and Hahn must clog up the middle and add to the pressure.  It's a lot to ask, but this unit stepped up to the plate against Illinois, who themselves featured a potent offense, as NU held them to 10 points in the final game of the regular season.  Finally, Williams and Kwateng will have to reach deep to generate enough speed to cover a lot of field, which Missouri will undoubtedly make them do.  Look for Davie to come in from time to time to help out with an outside pass rush, which was effective against the Illini.  Again, it's all focused on generating pressure up front while hopefully forcing mistakes by Mizzou; NU must take advantage of any opportunity that they are given.  One of the strengths of the NU D has been pass efficiency defense, 28th in the nation, and havng allowed only 11 passing TDs on the year - it will be tough to shut Mizzou's offense down completely but the D must contain it to give the Wildcats a shot to win this one.

Northwestern Defensive Stats:  Total defense (343.0 yards/game, 53rd), scoring defense (19.3 points/game, 23rd), rushing defense (127.7 yards/game, 36th), passing defense (215.3 yards/game, 74th), sacks (2.8/game, 13th).
Missouri Offensive Stats: Total offense (497.5 yards/game, 6th), scoring offense (43.2 points/game, 6th), rushing offense (157.1 yards/game, 53rd), passing offense (340.4 yards/game, 4th), sacks allowed (1.2/game, 14th).

Special Teams: In an attempt to make the Missouri offense drive the entire field, it's up to the NU special teams to continue its good job of holding opponents deep in their own end to start drives; which is a difficult task given that speedy Maclin is back returning punts and kicks.  The Wildcats did a great job containing the dangerous Benn in their finale against Illinois, and the same game plan must be utilized and executed in order to keep Mizzou in their own end.  This is likely the most important part of the game because a shortened field puts the NU D at a big disadvantage against the Missouri offense.  On the other side of the ball, any substantial return that NU can get can be a big boost - as the 'Cats learned against Illinois, with NU breaking the game open with a score following Smith's 51 yard punt return.  Anything NU can generate in the return game will be beneficial for the 'Cats' cause.  Finally, the kicking game, where NU's Villarreal has done and admirable job and will conclude his NU career trying to set the record for FG % in a season (currently at 83%).  On the other hand, Missouri's Wolfert is a perfect 70/70 on XPs and has hit just under 3/4 of his FG tries; the thing is that Mizzou scores TDs so often (i.e. 73% red zone TD rate), they haven't had to rely on that to win games.  And in the punting game remember that Mizzou just doesn't punt - they have only punted 30 times on the season to NU's 60; the fact is that Missouri can move the ball down the field and score so often they just don't have to go to that aspect of their game often; when they do it's been effective, ranking 28th nationally in net punt yards.  Meanwhile, NU's Demos has shown a knack of sticking the ball inside the 20 which, again, must be continued to keep Missouri starting in their own end.

Northwestern Stats: XPs (29/32, 91%), FGs (19/23, 83%), punt return average (8.7 yards/return, 64th), kickoff return average (19.4 yards/return, 101st), net punting (35.1 yards/punt, 58th), kickoff return average defense (19.0 yards/return, 22nd).
Missouri Stats: XPs (70/70, 100%), FGs (17/23, 74%), punt return average (9.5 yards/return, 50th), kickoff return average (21.1 yards/return, 60th), net punting (26.8 yards/punt, 28th), kickoff return average defense (23.0 yards/return, 93rd).

- 3rd Down Conversions:  Northwestern has converted 46% of its 3rd down tries, which is pretty solid, but pales in comparison to Mizzou's 54% conversion rate.  The Wildcats, though, have a bigger advantage on defense, allowing only a 34% conversion rate while Missouri has allowed 45% of opponents' 3rd downs to be converted.  When NU's defense's 34% conversion rate matches up against the Tigers' 54% conversion rate, it will be interesting to see what happens.
- Scoring by Quarters:  Northwestern has only been outscored in the first quarter (52-64) while beating opponents in each of the remaining quarters by a combined 242-168 down the stretch.  Missouri, meanwhile, steps on the gas pedal early and often, scoring 120 or more in each quarter, including a 121-61 advantage in the first period.  NU has cracked 100 points in only one quarter, the second (admittedly Missouri has played one more game than NU this season).  The Tigers' biggest advantages have come in the first and third quarters.  Therefore, its is of vital importance for NU to keep the game close in the 1st quarter to stay in the ball game.
- Weather: Thankfully, NU doesn't have to worry about the weather inside the Alamo Dome.  San Antonio typically sports highs in the 60s and 70s during this time of the year, all the more reason for NU fans to go watch NU's 7th ever bowl game in person!
- Attendance: As mentioned in my previous commentary, the Outback Bowl skipped over NU in the selection process thanks to the "fan base" argument, but now is the 'Cats' chance to prove them wrong in the 65,000 seat Alamo Dome.  If NU fans continue to sell out bowl games it will clear out the fan base argument.  We'll see what the crowd looks like in person - Missouri will likely travel better - but those Northwestern alumni spread across the nation should travel fairly well to a reasonably priced yet attractive bowl destination.  Note that the attendance at NU's one prior trip to the Alamo Bowl was 60,028 (with Nebraska as the opponent); Missouri has never played at the Alamo Bowl.
- Ranked Opponents:  NU is 1-2 against ranked opponents (the lone win coming over now 7-5 Minnesota), while Mizzou is 1-3 (their lone win coming over now 5-7 Illinois). 
- NU 2-deep notes: No release yet, but expect the 2-deep to look much the same as it did for NU's final game against Illinois.  The biggest question will be Sutton's availability, which won't be determined until the days leading up to the bowl game.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee), RB Conteh (out for season, knee), DT Bryant (out for season, knee), RB Sutton (questionable, wrist), DE Browne (questionable, knee).

Missouri: CB Bridges (out, knee).

Northwestern suffered a number of season-ending injuries during the year, most notably to starters Vaughn, Arrington, and Bryant on defense.  Later in the year they lost QB CJ Bacher for 2 games (he would return for NU's final 2 games of the regular season), RB Sutton (for NU's final 4 games, of which the 'Cats won 3), and DE Browne (for the final 2 games).  Sutton (wrist) and Browne (knee) are aiming to be back for the bowl game, but the status of both players may be up in the air until the days leading up to the game (or even on gameday).  Sutton has further evaluations scheduled in December, and is currently practicing with a soft cast on his left (non-dominant) wrist.  Browne is up and running and participating in practice, although his status will not be fully known until closer to the game.  With primary backup Conteh out (knee surgery), getting Sutton on the field would be a huge boost for the Northwestern offense.  Meanwhile, getting Browne into the DL rotation would help rest Mims and Wootton, although those two seemed to do just fine without him (they combined for 3 sacks in NU's final regular season game against Illinois).  Now NU must work to avoid injury in the practices leading up to the bowl game.

Missouri has, for the most part, avoided the injury bug, although it hit probably their weakest unit: the secondary.  With a starting CB out, they've struggled against the pass (as documented above), but otherwise field a healthy unit.  As with NU, Mizzou must avoid injuries in the practices leading up to the Alamo Bowl.

Prediction: Northwestern 28 - Missouri 38

I believe that the NU defense is good enough to "hold" Missouri to 38 points (less than their season average), but the fact is that it will be difficult to stop without generating a few turnovers.  While I hope that the NU D goes out and proves me wrong, like they did against Illinois, it is difficult for me to predict them doing so given the prolific offense fielded by the Tigers.  On the other side of the ball, I believe CJ will have a solid day and the offense should move the football, but the question will be: is it enough?  The offense has shown flashes at times this year, but has still underachieved relative to the expectations with experienced senior talents like Sutton, Bacher, Peterman, and Lane - and it's hard to turn that all around in the span of one game.

The good thing is that Northwestern has a wealth of time to get healthy and prepare for this football game.  DC Hankwitz is a "master planner" when it comes to Xs and Os, and he'll undoubtedly have a plan in place to try and contain Missouri's offense - although it still requires effective execution on the field.  On offense, a lot will depend on the availability of Sutton, but even so the duty of keeping up with Missouri's output will likely be difficult, even with the porous Mizzou D.  If the 'Cats can up their offensive output (on par with their 48 point game against Purdue), they would be well served, and we'll see what happens.  I emplore NU to prove my prediction wrong and to send out the 23 seniors and the 2008 season with a victory.

Yes, Northwestern faces an uphill battle in acheiving its first bowl win since 1949, but I don't think Coach Fitz would have it any other way.  NU's goal is clear, just as it was set out before the season began, and that is to win a bowl game.  Northwestern now has the opportunity to do so and reach the pinnacle of 10 wins, something only one other team in school history has officially achieved (1995)*.  Now it's on to San Antonio to root on the Wildcats to, hopefully, a win.

Go 'Cats!!!

*Ed. note: The 10 wins by the 1995 team has come up a lot during the last few weeks, with even Coach Fitzgerald mentioning that the 2008 team has the chance to get to 10 wins for only the second time in school history.  However, NU refuses to recognize officially its first 10-win season, which was 1903. 

NU counts its game vs. Chicago Dental in 1903 as a loss; in fact, NU won that game, as reported by the Chicago Tribune in its detailed account of the game the following day. The score of that game in the NU records is incorrect, and NU does not wish to correct it.  So, officially, a win over Missouri would make the 2008 'Cats the second 10-win team in history, but in "real life" they would be the third NU team to hit that milestone.

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

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