The Northwestern Wildcats (2-0, 0-0) take to the road for the first time in 2009 to face the Syracuse Orange (0-2, 0-0) after surviving a scare from Eastern Michigan last Saturday at Ryan Field.
Syracuse, meanwhile, will face its third consecutive Big Ten team to start the year after falling to Minnesota in overtime in this year's opener then losing at Penn State, as expected, 28-7.
The Orange also make Northwestern's third consecutive opponent with a new head coach in 2009; Syracuse hired alumnus Doug Marrone (who was most recently an assistant with the NFL's New Orleans Saints) to head the program after a failed experiment with Greg Robinson.
The 'Cats have surely had a lot to think about after squandering a 21-3 halftime lead against EMU only to see the game tied at 24 with less than three minutes left in last week's game. Thankfully, QB Mike Kafka engineered a drive that put kicker Stefan Demos in position to nail the game-winning field goal with six ticks left on the clock. NU faces a more talented opponent in their own stadium this week, though, and the 'Cats will be in a tough spot facing a Syracuse team hungry to rebound and give its coach his first win.
The Orange are led by QB Greg Paulus, who transferred into the program after playing four years of basketball at Duke and then won the starting quarterback job. Although he hadn't played football competitively for four years, he's been helped along with star WR Mike Williams who has next-level talent, and the running back duo of Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey who have combined for 185 yards through two weeks despite facing a tough PSU team last week. And don't forget their defense that features nose tackle Arthur Jones, another sure-fire NFL draft pick following this, his senior year.
Although Syracuse has been down the previous few years (10-37 record over the previous four seasons), they are looking to rebound under Marrone and have been respectable in their first two contests of 2009. Even when thrown to the wolves in a tough trip to Happy Valley, they lost to PSU by a final score of 28-7 in a game where the Nittany Lions were favored by more than four touchdowns. And coming back home after that, Syracuse will definitely be looking for a program-building win against Northwestern.
This looks to be a hard-fought game, much closer than Northwestern's 30-10 win over Syracuse last year in Evanston, and Northwestern must play much better than it did last week (particularly in the second half) to come away with a road win. The Orange will be hungry for a W and will likely give NU as much as it can handle in this close matchup.
Line: Northwestern by 4.
Who Should Win
Despite its showing in week two, Northwestern is rightly the favored team as they have a better all-around team even without some of the next-level playmakers that Syracuse possesses. If the defense can step up like they did last season and have in spots this year, and the offense can open up the playbook and move the ball efficiently, the Wildcats should be in decent shape. The 'Cats must also avoid costly mistakes like the ones that sparked EMU's comeback last Saturday (an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a misplayed punt return, and an interception) and must capitalize on their opponent's mistakes (like the interception return for a TD versus EMU).
There's a huge upset factor in this game, since after two respectable games to start the 2009 season, Syracuse believes that they can win. It's in their house (the Carrier Dome which, in fact, does not have air conditioning), and the players are undoubtedly emotionally ready to give their new head coach his first win. There are some big playmakers (WR Williams, in particular) and big names (like QB Paulus) who will be trying to establish themselves as on-the-field leaders, and this is a prime opportunity to do so. If NU is complacent or mistake-prone, this game can easily swing in Syracuse's favor.
What to Look for
Northwestern Offense / Syracuse Defense
Look for a lot more from the Northwestern offense as they'll finally be forced to open up that playbook beyond page one (which they probably should have done in the second half of the Eastern Michigan game); NU will not be running the ball two thirds of the time all year like in the first two games. And expect more designed quarterback runs to take advantage of both Kafka's and backup QB Dan Persa's strengths as dual-threat QBs, something Kafka has done very sparingly thus far.
Expect to see more passing and expect it to look a lot more like last year, utilizing McCall's signature "higher percentage pass" style of offense: getting playmakers the ball in space and waiting for a big play to break out. Note that Kafka has been hurling the ball downfield from time to time, although he's been unable to hook up with his receivers. In fact, only Persa has had such a huge play, in week one against Towson where he hooked up with Andrew Brewer for a 72 yard TD. Look for more success, though, with NU running more passing plays.
Syracuse, meanwhile, did a fairly good job containing a potent PSU offense last week, holding them to just four touchdowns (one of which basically came right off of a turnover that was returned to the doorstep of the end zone), and will be looking to do the same against NU this week. The aforementioned nose tackle Jones is a solid player with next-level talent, and has a formidable 32.5 tackle for loss career total; he will be looking to clog the middle and shut down NU's run game.
The next level of defense features junior LB Derell Smith, who has already racked up 16 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and 1 fumble recovery in this young season. Free safety Mike Holmes is another playmaker, he's second on the team in tackles with 15 on the year and also has one TFL, an interception and a fumble recovery. And dangerous CB Kevyn Scott (sophomore) is an up-and-comer who has 11 tackles (10 solo) and the team's other 2009 interception.
The Syracuse defense will see different plays out of NU, but they've shown they can play some pretty solid defense this year and will make Northwestern work to move the ball. The Wildcats must limit mistakes (particularly turnovers) and juggle different types of plays (RB runs, short passes, long passes, QB runs) to keep them honest.
Northwestern Defense / Syracuse Offense
The Northwestern defense, reeling from its second-half performance against Eastern Michigan, must face its first bona fide offensive weapon in Syracuse WR Mike Williams, who was out for all of last season due to eligibility issues. Williams has 148 yards and one TD in 2009 and 1,446 yards and 15 TDs for his career. The issue here is that NU was without its top CB, Sherrick McManis, last week who is recovering from a hamstring injury sustained during preseason camp. The 'Cats were burned for a TD on an inexperienced secondary against EMU that was further hurt by the loss of CB Justan Vaughn late in the game.
Then there's QB Paulus, who may not be the most threatening quarterback, but has enough athleticism to make things interesting. He has two TD passes on the year so far and has completed almost 65 percent of his passes, although he has a paltry 5.3 yards per attempt average. If there is a time for NU to get its pass rush back in gear, it is against Syracuse; a formidable pass rush will likely quash any plans Paulus has to play hero. Syracuse has a solid OL but has yielded five sacks in just two games so far this year.
Then there's the Orange's running game with the duo of Carter and Bailey. Carter has received the majority of carries (38 this year) and NU fans may remember him as the one who had the best play of the day for Syracuse last year in Evanston (a 32 yard run) on the way to racking up a 7.5 yards per carry average against the 'Cats. If Syracuse watched NU game film from last week they must be licking their chops as they'll be more than ready to run it early and often if NU continues its woeful run defense.
The Wildcats' front seven must perform better in getting off of blocks and then making tackles. There were more than a handful of missed tackles against the Eagles last week, and NU fans saw the 'Cats tackle better in 2008, so NU must get back to form. The DL must get more pressure up front, both in the run game and against the quarterback.
The secondary has done fairly well in 2009, including its four interceptions, but will have a bigger challenge facing Williams and Syracuse's other receivers on Saturday night. It'll be a tougher task but the 'Cats can contain them if they put together a complete game.
Special teams essentially saved NU in its last game (thanks to a solid kickoff return setting up the drive that ended in NU's game-winning 49 yard field goal), and they will likely play an important role against Syracuse. Demos has proved to be an effective placekicker (going 3-for-3 on field goals, including the aforementioned 49-yarder, along with an 8-for-8 extra point performance) which he picked up in addition to his punting and kickoff jobs. The 'Cats' coverage teams are also solid, allowing just 2.0 yards per punt return and 19.7 yards per kick return.
The portion that is lacking is the return game, particularly punts where NU is averaging just 5.0 yards per return and is also where the 'Cats experienced a major gaffe versus EMU. Simmons has been solid when handling kick returns (he's averaging 23.8 yards per return), and Northwestern has been close to breaking a couple for even longer gains. The concern, again, is on punt returns, an area that has been weak for NU since Coach Fitz took over (outside of Smith's 50+ yard return against Illinois last year). The Orange have yielded 12.0 yards per punt return on the season, so there is a chance for NU to make something happen.
This game could very well come down to a field goal at the end (again), and NU is fortunate to have Demos kicking for them after he established himself by easily nailing the long game-winner a week ago. Syracuse has a respectable kicking game (2-of-3 field goals, with the only miss coming from beyond 50 yards, and 3-of-3 extra points) and the dome could make this interesting if the teams can't find the end zone.
One dangerous aspect of the Orange's special teams to watch out for is kickoff returns, where they are averaging 29.8 yards per return, good for 14th nationally this year. The 'Cats must remain disciplined in their kick coverage as they gave up a couple longer returns through their first two weeks of 2009.
Third Down Conversions: What a disparity here: NU is converting 64 percent of its third downs while allowing opponents to convert just 30 percent of theirs. Meanwhile, Syracuse is converting a measly 24 percent while allowing opponents to convert 45 percent. If these trends hold, the 'Cats have a chance to go on some time-consuming drives while forcing punts from their opponent.
Passing Offense: NU is averaging 9.2 yards per pass attempt, while Syracuse is managing just 5.4 yards per attempt, showing that even with a constrained playbook, the 'Cats are making things happen through the air. Hopefully Kafka can improve his accuracy on longer throws; if so, NU can add to that number.
Sacks: The 'Cats' OL is once again doing an admirable job in pass blocking, having only allowed one sack this year (0.5 per game). Meanwhile, the Orange have allowed five (2.5 per game). NU fans know that the Wildcats must improve, though, as Kafka's interception came when his arm was hit while delivering the ball.
Television: This will be the only NU game in 2009 not on traditional television; it will be broadcast on the internet at SUAthletics.com and will require a subscription to their All-Access video site (much like the Duke game in 2008). The remainder of Northwestern's games are either conference games or home nonconference games that will be picked up by the Big Ten Network, ESPN, or ABC.
Nonconference Winning Streak: The Wildcats are seeking their eighth consecutive regular-season nonconference win, dating back to 2007. If the 'Cats can win the final two regular season non-Big Ten games in 2009, they will have the longest such streak in school history.
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), DT Adam Hahn (foot, out), LB David Arnold (out, leg), WR Sidney Stewart (out, illness), CB Sherrick McManis (questionable, hamstring), RB Jeravin Matthews (questionable, ankle).
Syracuse: S Dorian Graham (shoulder, out for season), TE Nick Provo (shoulder, questionable), LB Ryan Gillum (shoulder, questionable).
The injury bug has begun to hit the Wildcats, although Fitzgerald has been rather conservative through the first two games, holding out anyone who is remotely questionable from the game. NU will need McManis' help versus Syracuse's potentially dangerous receivers, and Matthews could provide a boost to the offense if he is available. Hahn would be a welcomed addition to the DL rotation, but he doesn't appear to be ready following offseason surgery. Northwestern's full injury report is released on Thursday.
Syracuse has a few bumps and bruises, but no huge injuries to speak of so far.
Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Syracuse 21
This looks to be a tough game for the Wildcats, despite the Orange's failures over the past four years; NU must head into a tough place to play (the Carrier Dome) and face a team charged up to get that first win to turn around its program. Expect Syracuse to score multiple touchdowns as they have the offensive firepower to do so and NU will still be reeling to some extent after that miserable second half showing against Eastern Michigan.
Thankfully, though, Northwestern will open up the offensive playbook a bit more which should bring more life to that portion of the game. And Syracuse's Paulus is essentially a freshman and has made his share of mistakes (3 interceptions), which should continue, especially if the NU defensive line has any success getting to him.
This will be a close game likely decided by a low margin, and just a week after facing a similar situation the Wildcats should be ready for such a task.