Northwestern Football Preview: Wildcats Vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles

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Northwestern Football Preview: Wildcats Vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Overview

The Northwestern Wildcats (1-0, 0-0) are back in action for the second game of the 2009 season as they face the Eastern Michigan Eagles (0-1) at Ryan Field on Saturday.  The 'Cats are coming off of an easy home win over FCS Towson, while EMU suffered a 27-14 defeat at the hands of Army in head coach Ron English's debut in Ypsilanti. 

The 'Cats will be looking to build on their six-game regular season nonconference win streak against the second of five 2009 opponents with a new head coach.  The Eagles will be looking to right the ship after a tough start to this season; EMU showed that their offense can put up points in a 108-point two game stretch to close last season. 

Senior QB Andy Schmitt returns as the leader on offense and will be looking to build upon his 5,626 career passing yards (along with 32 touchdowns).

The Wildcats will get another chance at a warm-up game after a comfortable week one win over an FCS foe; week two brings an upgrade in competition, but should still be a relatively easy opponent for Northwestern.

Look for more vanilla schemes on both offense and defense, although NU may open up the playbook a little more than they did in week one since they'll be facing FBS (I-A) competition and won't be able to purely outman the competition (NU played 71 men in week one). 

The 'Cats will likely keep the starters in for a little longer than they did against Towson, but at least some backups will get more valuable playing time.

Eastern Michigan, meanwhile, is looking for a program-boosting win under their new leader, coach English.  They would love nothing more than to gain that boost on the field of a Big Ten team, and will be looking to QB Schmitt, RB Dwayne Priest, and WR Jacory Stone to continue their successful offensive performances to stay in the game. 

Although English was a defensive coordinator the past few seasons, the team he took over just isn't very good on that side of the ball; against Army, EMU gave up 308 yards on the ground (and just eight through the air) against Army's triple-option run-based attack. 

And in the two final games of last season when EMU scored 108 points, they also gave up 107 and lost one of those two games.
Northwestern will once again have a chance to break in its offensive skill positions just a week after putting 47 points on the scoreboard and spreading the ball around (four different players scored TDs in week one). 

Don't expect a full complement of plays, and NU will once again utilize its stable of running backs to move the ball on the ground early and often.  And after his 15-of-20 passing day to start off the year, QB Mike Kafka will look to continue proving that he can be an effective QB in the passing game. 

On the flipside, the NU D will look to contain a potentially dangerous offense by generating good pressure up front and settling into a defensive groove that they seemed to lose after accumulating a 30-0 lead against Towson.

Overall it is a good opportunity for NU and its fans to gain confidence in this squad, assuming that they live up to expectations by winning handily.  Don't think that this will be as easy as the Towson win a week ago, and don't think that Eastern Michigan will roll over for NU (see the past two games against these teams).

But Pat Fitzgerald will have Northwestern prepared and it will be interesting to see how the 'Cats have progressed from week one to week two, which many coaches see as the most important step in the football season.

Line: Northwestern by 18.


Who Should Win

Northwestern will see a slight increase in its level of competition in week two, but not by much.  The 'Cats are looking at another easy victory, but many on the team must remember what happened the last time NU was favored by this much (16.5 against Duke in 2007): a huge upset loss at home. 

Expect NU to come out focused, like they did against Towson, open up the playbook a little more than last week (but not too much more), and run up a comfortable win against an EMU team that couldn't stop Army's run game last week. 

This game should be another warm-up for the 'Cats, who will be facing a BCS-conference opponent on the road next week, and will give NU a chance get their backups important playing time.


Upset Factor

Any Wildcats fan knows that NU can't take anyone for granted, and Eastern Michigan has shown that they can be dangerous, particularly on offense.  The Eagles scored 108 points in their final two games of the 2008 season, and return some of their top offensive producers, including QB Andy Schmitt (who threw for over 2,600 yards and 15 TDs last season). 

Northwestern is 2-0 against EMU (they met in Evanston in 2006 and in Detroit's Ford Field in 2007), but those wins were by a combined 20 points and neither win was secured until the final minutes of the game.  The offensive firepower is there to make this game interesting if NU doesn't stay focused on the task at hand.

What to Look For

Northwestern Offense / Eastern Michigan Defense

The Wildcats will likely stick to a very similar game plan as last week, running early and often while spreading the ball around as much as possible.  Stephen Simmons, Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt, and Scott Concannon will likely all see reps at RB as Northwestern tries to keep its ground game going (NU had 5 rushing TDs against Towson). 

Kafka will look to continue his efficient passing performance and will likely be held back from many designed running plays until absolutely necessary; QB Dan Persa will likely also see some significant playing time as he'll likely stabilize his 2009 passing numbers (his two collegiate passes resulted in a TD and an interception).

Don't expect anything too fancy out of the Wildcats unless the EMU defense sees a large improvement over week one, where they failed to stop Army's one-dimensional ground attack (and that's after having an entire offseason to prepare). 

Senior DL Brandon Downs led the Eagles' D in week one with 10 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss and two sacks.  Another lineman, junior Brad Ohrman, had 11 TFLs last season and is looking to build upon that success this year.  So, yes, there are bits of talent there, but overall, the defense isn't anything to write home about.

Northwestern Defense / Eastern Michigan Offense

The Northwestern defense, at least the starters, didn't do anything too fancy in the Towson game, instead just plain stopping them until the 'Cats got a bit complacent after building a 30-0 lead.  Wootton played early but was then held out of the game; he didn't have any tackles, but then again he wasn't called upon to do anything too special besides get into the backfield and occupy blockers (which he did). 

The most impressive defensive plays came from the reserves: Justan Vaughn and Quentin Williams had interceptions, while the backup linemen racked up two sacks (on the same drive).  Look for more of the same on Saturday as NU will likely rotate in the backups early and often (especially up front) as the Wildcats look to contain EMU without too much difficulty.

Unfortunately for NU, though, they'll face an offense with a lot more potential and many more polished players than they saw in week one.  Senior QB Schmitt is a solid player who has put up impressive numbers in his career at EMU, and he has playmakers around him who have shown that they can score.  Army did find a way to keep them in check last week, though, so their problem is more with consistency than anything else. 

The Wildcats must generate more pressure up front or else risk being picked apart by a much more experienced quarterback, while the secondary must do a better job of adjusting to the offensive scheme (something they didn't do well on Towson's 78-yard first scoring drive).

Special Teams

Northwestern did fairly well on kickoff coverage, NU hit all of their kicks, but once again there was something left to be desired on punt and kick returns.  Look for Fitz to try out different kick returners and different punt return blocking schemes to try and get something going in those areas. 

Demos' leg hasn't really been tested in placekicking duties, but he did a solid job in week one, racking up eight points (one field goal and five extra points).  Fitz has shown that his teams are consistent in this phase of the game, something that has helped propel NU's record the past couple of years.

Miscellaneous Notes

- NUMB: The marching band will take the field for the first time in the 2009 season after this week's band camp, and should give a boost to the crowd that was at best complacent in last week's win.

- Pass Defense: In a bit of an anomaly, EMU is ranked first nationally in pass defense and fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense, mostly thanks for the fact that Army only threw the ball five times in last week's game (and completed just two passes for eight yards).  But, they gave up 308 yards on the ground and 27 points, as they couldn't stop what they knew was coming from the Army triple-option offense.

- Depth Chart Notes: No major changes from week one on the two-deep, except for the return of DT Jack DiNardo, who was out with an injury in week one (he was held out and didn't dress).  This should provide some additional depth for the DL rotation.

- Attendance: Ryan Field attendance was as low as anticipated in week one, and hopefully 'Cats fans can put a few more people in the seats after the Labor Day weekend.  The number should be between 20,000 and 25,000 and won't see a huge boost until the Big Ten season begins on September 26th (when students will also be back on campus).

- Penalties: NU didn't show its usually disciplined self against Towson, racking up six penalties for 45 yards (not including a couple more that were declined), and expect Fitz to harp on this prior to the EMU game.  NU didn't do itself many favors on offense, with a few holding calls and a couple false start penalties.

Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan had nine penalties for 60 yards in a relatively undisciplined opening week.

 

Injury Report

Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), LB David Arnold (leg, questionable), CB Mike Bolden (leg, questionable), DT Adam Hahn (foot, questionable), RB Jeravin Matthews (ankle, probable).

Eastern Michigan: None to report.

The Wildcats suffered one major injury during week one: an ankle injury to Matthews.  Fortunately, the 'Cats have a lot of depth at running back and the top two backs listed on the depth chart (Stephen Simmons and Arby Fields) appear to be ready to go, along with some others who saw action against Towson (Jacob Schmdit and Scott Concannon). 

On defense, NU has lost a few backups (Arnold, Bolden, and Hahn), but fortunately DT Jack DiNardo reappears on the two-deep against EMU.  Northwestern's full injury report is typically released on Thursdays.


Prediction: Northwestern 38 - Eastern Michigan 10

 

I was a bit surprised to see the 'Cats score as much as they did last week, although that was mostly due to NU vastly out-manning their opponent (NU played 71 in the game, while Towson only dressed 57). 

Expect a less lopsided game against Eastern Michigan as Fitz will likely revert to his running game on offense and using lots of backups once Northwestern has a decent lead (which they should).  EMU will be able to score on NU, but hopefully that won't come until after the backups are inserted and the Wildcats have control of the game. 

This is another chance to get the offense in sync after a respectable showing against the Tigers where NU didn't need to open up the playbook too much.  This will be the last cupcake game for NU before an interesting trip to Syracuse and an always-challenging bout with Minnesota to start Big Ten play.

Go 'Cats!!!

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