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Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa
Northwestern University Wildcats (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten, 5th Leaders) vs Texas A&M University Aggies (6-6, 4-5 Big 12)
Reliant Stadium, retractable roof, natural grass, capacity: 71,500
Payout: $1.7-million per team
Texas A&M is favored by 10
Sagarin Ratings Texas A&M 87.70—Northwestern 72.46
No-one who watched Northwestern's 1995 run to the Rose Bowl will ever forget it. If they were young and loved college football, the memories are like a fine story with the beautiful settings of fall in the middle-west, right up until the unhappy ending in Pasadena. The Wildcats lost that Rose Bowl to Southern Cal, 41-32, and all seven of the bowl games they've played in since. The Cats haven't won a post-season football game since the 1949 Rose Bowl with Cal.
Their head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was the middle-linebacker and beating heart of both the '95 and '96 teams. Why the Wildcat's defenses have been so bad and beatable with Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz drawing up the schemes is not known. The Cats will have to be better than their 11th ranked pass and ninth ranked rush defense suggests they are to beat Texas A&M in Houston.
The Aggies have run offense splendidly all season. Their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, will play football professionally. Tannehill tends to throw toward Ryan Swope, who set Aggie single season school records with 81 catches for 1,102 yards and 11 touchdowns. His second favorite target is Jeff Fuller, a powerful wideout with the type of big frame quarterback's relish throwing at. Northwestern's poor pass defense will struggle to hold both down.
The Wildcats caught a break when Christine Michael, a thundering runner and the Aggies' second leading rusher, tore his ACL in November. That leaves only Cyrus Gray, the Aggies' leading rusher, with 1,045 yards and 12 touchdowns, left to play.
Northwestern was further boosted when the Mandarins seated at College Station fired head coach Mike Sherman by cell-phone as he sat in a recruits' driveway shortly after the regular season ended. That move left Tim DeRuyter, the Aggies' defensive coordinator, as the interim head coach. In the between times DeRuyter was hired by Fresno State University to coach their football team in 2012. Recruiting has already begun. The bowl preparation for the Aggies is being carried out on unstable tectonics.
Furthermore, A&M was the eighth ranked team in America entering the season. But the team couldn't protect commanding second half leads all autumn, and lost five of six games decided by a touchdown or less. The back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and Arkansas in September and the first week of October were excruciating. The Aggies then lost three in a row the end of October and November, and dropped another devastating, last second game to their most hated rival, Texas, in front of 83,000 fans at Kyle Field.
Texas A&M is a singularly mysterious entity heading into this game.
Northwestern, in vivid contrast, is an established team with stable coaching led by a senior class that's taken the school to bowl games the last three seasons. But that group has never tasted victory in the post-season. Their senior quarterback, Dan Persa, one of the best players to wear Wildcat purple in school history, is focused on ending his career a winner. As a team leader and player who returned from a savage tear of his achilles tendon at the end of his junior season, his focus augurs well for the team in their preparation for the game.
Asked by Wildcat beat reporter Skip Myslenski if he was reflecting on his years in Evanston, Persa responded: "A little bit, but not really. I think we'll file that away until the end of the season before we do that. I mean, the last game will pretty much set the mark for us in terms of if we're successful or not. It's been a long year, a lot of ups and downs. But I won't reflect on that until we're done."
The Wildcats won four of their last five games, scoring 32 points a contest. Senior wide-out Jeremy Ebert, 71 catches for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns, is all heart and a superb competitor. Senior superback Drake Dunsmore is another battler determined to win a bowl game as a Wildcat. Sophomore Cane Colter, Persa's back-up, leads Northwestern in rushing with 589 yards and 8 touchdowns. Colter has showcased himself as an excellent athlete and forced coaches to keep him as a key contributor in Northwestern's offense.
The Pick: A tight-knit, focused Northwestern team ends A&M's miserable season by a field goal.