Like the British before them, the Commodores of Vanderbilt University have sailed their fleet into Lake Michigan to make war against an adversary. Their anchors plunged-in offshore near Evanston, and the black-and-gold forces have marched along Central Street to Ryan Field to settle the matter with the purple uniforms face-to-face.
Vanderbilt will find the stage eerily similar to the one they occupy in Nashville, where they've been conditioned to running their paces in front of half-empty stadiums,or if you prefer it, half-full, as they are wont to say over at the optimistic "Sippin' on Purple" blog.
Ryan Field is a gamier venue at night—draws a better football crowd—but Northwestern is 0-for-4 under the stars since Pat Fitzgerald's coached them.
Northwestern arrived back from Syracuse, New York last weekend as victors over the Orangemen, 42-41. They were also primed for a week's worth of practice correcting the same defensive breakdowns they've suffered from the last two full seasons.
The Wildcats defensive backs, coached by Jerry Brown and Mike Hankwitz, could not make plays in coverage downfield, and the defensive line had scant success pressuring the Orangemen's quarterback, Ryan Nassib, who was protected behind a weak Syracuse offensive line—much weaker, at least, than the group Vanderbilt has brought to Evanston.
Nassib threw for what some might regard as a rather robust 470 yards, completing 44-of-65 throws for four touchdowns against only one interception. Nassib's touchdown's came consecutively as the Wildcats did once more what they accomplished better than any team in the Big Ten last season: surrendered second half points.
"We go three and out, we come back, we give up a quick score, we kind of had a little perfect storm going on the road," said Pat Fitzgerald at the Monday press conference.
It was more like a slow moving hurricane that devastated the land than a "little perfect storm," as Northwestern was battered with 28 consecutive points by perhaps the worst team in the Big East. A 22-point lead had become a 6-point deficit in less than a quarter.
Coach Fitzgerald felt like talking to Wildcats' in-house writer Skip Myslenski about Northwestern's coverage game, and Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
"I guarantee you," Fitzgerald told Skip. "That Rodgers'll come after our corners on Saturday. We saw double-digit double moves. Bring it. That's all I'm going to say. Bring it. These guys are going to keep getting better. We believe in them. They're just going to keep working to get better, and that's all you can do. I expect Vanderbilt to do it. Bring it. That's all I'm going to say."
He's probably said enough. Vanderbilt is a smart and well coached football team under James Franklin, a sort of rising star in the college football world. There's little doubt those assistant spies aren't reading the local papers and publications, and watching the press conferences and videos for any unintentional giveaways.
Maybe Vanderbilt will prod Northwestern underneath all day, irritating them, and then break a simple go-route late in the game. They've one of the top receivers in the SEC in Jordan Matthews, and three well regarded performers in Chris Boyd, Jonathan Krause and Wesley Tate. I saw Aaron Rodgers when he was with Cal almost beat USC in the Coliseum that way. Jordan is Aaron's younger brother.
Northwestern might worry about getting pounded some, instead of the deep routes, as Zac Stacy can churn over the field with his feet for the Commodores. Stacy set a Vandy record with 1,193 yards last year. He picked up 5.9-yards-per-carry and scored 14 touchdowns.
With four of their five offensive linemen back, the Commodores are going to lay a bit of old-fashioned timber to Northwestern's unproven defensive line, and test their linebackers, who at least have the attribute of experience on their side.
But Jordan Rodgers is not Aaron, and he's been prone to dopey interceptions and long ruts. In seven starts last year he threw 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was benched in their Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati. If Northwestern's corners and safeties can shake off a blundering debut, they may find a ball available to snatch away.
Ibraheim Campbell, the Wildcats' safety, talked about the Syracuse game from the defensive backfield's perspective during the press conference.
"It was just a great learning experience," he said. "We were in a lot of tough situations last game, a lot of first experiences for a lot of young guys."
Northwestern's offensive line will be under siege, too. Rob Lohr, for one, a defensive tackle and professional prospect, is used by Vanderbilt as a sort of multi-purpose, high explosive torpedo. Vanderbilt's defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, has said they like to line Lohr up at both tackle and end, putting him in front of the other team's weakest lineman; wherever they may find him.
Northwestern has reorganized or replaced the entire right side of their offensive line, and no one has stood out over there. The right side, then, will get the test. The left side is strong, including the center, but the Commodores rotate five tackles and three ends, according to Shoop. Walker May, Vanderbilt's other end, is a potential All-SEC player.
The Commodores were fourth in the conference in run defense last season, and gave up a little more than 192 yards per contest in the passing game.
Northwestern has several great athletes on their offensive, and will probably find some space to move the football. The controversy last week with quarterback Kain Colter was not a controversy at all. Colter said he was too hurt to throw, and back-up Trevor Siemian came in and led the game winning drive, which is what a back-up is supposed to do. The pair are completely different players, and the plan at Northwestern was to use both all along.
But tough defensive teams are known for knocking out running quarterbacks. If Colter stays intact all game, he will be a problem for Vanderbilt, and could make the difference in the end. If Siemian comes in, he will have to complete a lot of passes against a good Vanderbilt secondary.
The Commodores are replacing a three-time All-SEC middle linebacker, and two now professional defensive backs in corner Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson. A senior, Eric Samuels, has replaced Richardson. Their No. 1 corner, Trey Wilson, got a lot of work last season as teams threw away from Hayward. Wilson picked off three passes and returned two for touchdowns.
Northwestern does not have a sparkling group of wide receivers, but they have a lot of guys who can catch the ball and run. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones led the team last week from the slots. Outside they throw to Rashard Lewis and Tony Jones. They have a rangy guy they like named Kyle Prater, who transferred from USC and stands on the field at 6'5".
The Wildcats also have a punt returner in Venric Mark who they describe as "electrifying." And it is true that his 82-yard punt return for a touchdown and 21-yard touchdown catch were two of last week's most integral plays. Mark could make another mark if he squirts between the gaps in the crashing armadas again this week.
Vanderbilt did not see a lot of passes thrown against them by South Carolina after using Connor Shaw's shoulder as a ground breaking apparatus last week. But South Carolina was able to beat them with a grinding ground game. So the air raid attack may work for Northwestern, if Colter and Seimian can find time to throw and put the ball on the money.
The Commodores have rollicked through the big surf since Franklin arrived last year, trading cannonballs and fusillades with the finest fleets in the land. But they lost all of those engagements against Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee last year by less than a touchdown, and one in overtime. Until they start winning those games, Vanderbilt has to be regarded as beatable in a close contest.
On Saturday, the Commodores likely will punish Northwestern upfront on both sides of the football, and run the ground game to control the clock. Rodgers should have time to throw behind his offensive line, and there's no reason to think his receivers won't be able to patter into space against the Wildcats.
Northwestern will scores some, but it's just going to be too much, in the end, for the 'Cats to handle. Vanderbilt will win the game, but the score is hidden from me like a mystery of the sea.
Mark Schipper is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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