Northwestern (3-2, 1-1) concludes its regular season nonconference slate with a bout against Miami (Ohio) (0-5) at Ryan Field, which also marks the end of the first half of the 2009 season.
NU is looking to gain momentum after an exciting win at Purdue, while Miami is seeking its first win of the 2009 season. This also marks the fifth (and final) time that NU has met a team with a first-year head coach this season.
After struggling over a period of just about three games (from the second half of the Eastern Michigan game through the first half of the Purdue game), the defense came alive by holding the Boilermakers scoreless over the final 40 minutes of last week's game and forcing a half-dozen turnovers. S Brad Phillips led the way with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, CB Sherrick McManis chipped in with his second interception in as many days, and LB David Arnold added a sack and a forced fumble which earned him a spot in this week's starting lineup.
The offense did its part as well, with QB Mike Kafka protecting the ball well (no turnovers) and leading the Wildcats on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, which is something NU was unable to do in each of the previous two games. Kafka added to his 200+ yard passing day with 59 rushing yards and a touchdown (the go-ahead score), showing off his dual-threat skills.
And special teams were indeed special for NU, with P/K Stefan Demos going 4-of-4 for field goals and landing Big Ten special teams player of the week honors (which he shared with Penn State's punter). Also, NU coverage teams forced and recovered two of the five fumbles Purdue had on the day (and almost had another that was overturned on replay).
Miami, meanwhile, has faced a rather tough schedule, including two teams currently ranked in the top 10 nationally (Boise State and Cincinnati). Throw in a neutral site game against SEC member Kentucky and two road MAC games, and that's why the RedHawks currently have the nation's 15th toughest schedule according to the Sagarin Ratings.
That difficult slate is a big reason why Miami is dead last nationally in scoring offense, scoring just 11.6 points per game, and next to last nationally in scoring defense, allowing 40.8 points per game. In fact, Miami didn't score until the third quarter of their third game of the year, at which point they had been outscored 118-0.
But, they have improved, on a relative basis, racking up 58 points since then (averaging out to a respectable 23.2 points per game), thanks to the emergence of redshirt freshman QB Zac Dysert, who took over full time QB duty just two games ago.
So far, he has racked up 833 yards of total offense and has thrown three touchdown passes. He leads the team in both passing and rushing and is a legitimate dual threat from the quarterback position, which has been a spark to Miami's sagging offense.
Unfortunately, the defense just hasn't kept up for the RedHawks, allowing the aforementioned 40.8 points per contest.
Yet another factor in their poor start has been a turnover margin ranked next to last nationally, -2.8 per game. They're tied for 115th with just four takeaways on the year while they're dead last (120th) with 18 given up, which was a major reason behind the switch to the freshman quarterback (although he has six interceptions of his own).
Although the Wildcats will be heavily favored in this matchup, Northwestern fans know all too well that Miami is not a team to be overlooked as the 'Cats sport a 2-6 all-time record against them, including the 1995 loss that prevented a perfect regular season (that team was, of course, coached by Randy Walker).
And this year's squad has shown improvement every week and were in the game (down by 10) as late as the fourth quarter last week against 10th ranked Cincinnati.
As long as Northwestern plays like it did to close out the game against Purdue, the Wildcats should be able to take care of business and build momentum heading into a tough second half of the 2009 season. They'll need every win they can get to reach bowl eligibility with six Big Ten foes left on the calendar.
Opening Line: Northwestern by 20.5.
Who Should Win:
Northwestern. As listed in the stats above, Miami hasn't done much right this year and are at or near the very bottom of FBS/I-A stats on both sides of the ball. On top of that they haven't taken care of the football at all while being virtually unable to force any turnovers of their own.
If NU can muster up any sort of effort on defense similar to the final 40 minutes of last week's game, the offense could stick to its run early and often game plan that the Wildcats used through the first two weeks of the season and earn a home victory.
If the Miami offense continues its ascent at the hands of Dysert, the NU defense reverts to what NU fans saw from the second half of the EMU game through the first half of the Purdue game, and Miami finds a way to finally win the turnover battle, things could get interesting. Remember that the RedHawks kept last week's game against top 10 Cincinnati close through three quarters, too. The Wildcats must avoid complacency against a team starved for its first win under a new head coach (as NU learned against Syracuse earlier in the year and almost found out against Eastern Michigan).
What to Look for:
Northwestern Offense / Miami OH Defense:
Realistically, NU shouldn't need to do too much against a team that is 95th nationally in rushing defense and is allowing a healthy 4.7 yards per carry. The 'Cats showed that they can keep things relatively simple and stick to the running game during the first two weeks of the year, where over two thirds of plays were runs.
True freshman Arby Fields is listed as the starting running back and is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. He leads NU with four touchdowns and will look for a breakout game.
Meanwhile, Stephen Simmons is on the road to recovery and could be used as well. Look for NU to spread the ball around to multiple backs as they try to churn out a win on the ground.
If absolutely necessary, the 'Cats can always go to the air behind the quarterback with the nation's third best completion percentage (70.1 percent), Mike Kafka. Miami's pass efficiency defense is ranked 104th nationally, as they have given up 13 touchdown passes this season (and have just three interceptions).
Sophomore linebacker Jerrell Wedge leads the RedHawks in tackles with 48 and TFLs with 5.5, and also has two pass break-ups and a forced fumble. There is talent on the linebacking corps with a unit that faced injuries and unmet expectations last season, but not much else on a unit that is trying to find its groove.
The Wildcat OL has had trouble both opening holes for the running game (3.75 yards per carry, even with sacks removed) and protecting Kafka (12 sacks yielded). This will be a good opportunity to gel as a unit and prove themselves against an opponent who hasn't been able to get to the opposing QB (just four sacks in five games this year), and hasn't been able to stop the run, either.
Northwestern Defense / Miami OH Offense:
The NU defense finally found a groove last week, forcing a slew of turnovers against Purdue, and will be looking to continue that trend against a squad that is averaging 3.6 giveaways a game. Dysert has looked promising, but is still a freshman who has already thrown six interceptions in just over two games of play.
The Miami offensive line is quite possibly the worst unit NU has faced all season, as they've given up 21 sacks in just five games this year. The 'Cats must watch out for the running game, though, as the RedHawks are averaging a decent 4.2 yards per carry with sacks removed from the numbers. Senior RB Andre Bratton is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and junior Thomas Merriweather has two of Miami's three rushing TDs on the year.
Thankfully, the Wildcats finally found a way to stop the run against Purdue, holding the previously potent Boilermaker running game to well under 100 yards, something that the D hopes to continue on Saturday. The defensive line stepped up for NU last week, accounting for 12 total tackles, and will have to continue clogging the middle to continue its success against the run.
This may very well be the week that Corey Wootton gets his first sack as I would expect the defensive line to gather multiple sacks against a porous offensive line. This is NU's best chance to keep the RedHawks' offense at bay, by getting into the face of a redshirt freshman QB and taking him down.
The 'Cats also need to watch out for the Miami receiving corps, as they have talent and have looked pretty solid even while gelling with a new QB with just a couple of games under his belt. Armand Robinson leads the team with 33 receptions, while Eugene Harris leads the team with two TD grabs. The RedHawks have six guys with double digit catches and five guys with over 10 yards per reception.
NU P/K Stefan Demos earned co-Big Ten special teams player of the week for his performance against Purdue and is now 8-of-8 on field goals this year and 16-of-17 on extra points. He's hit 7-of-18 punts inside the opponents' 20 yard lines, and is averaging 61.1 yards per kickoff (inside the opponents' 10 yard line). He'll need to continue this effort to help put Miami deep in their own territory to start drives.
The NU coverage teams did a great job against a Purdue team with dangerous returners. Purdue averaged just 16.4 yards per kickoff return and 1.0 yards per punt return, with one fumble on each type of return that NU recovered. This was great to see after NU had trouble on kick return coverage over the last few weeks.
Miami's kicker, Trevor Cook, has proven to be less than reliable as he's 2-of-3 on FGs and just 4-of-6 on XPs. The kicker handling kickoffs, Seth Philip, has done a bit better, averaging 63.2 yards per kickoff with four touchbacks, but Miami is dead last nationally in kickoff return defense, allowing 32.3 yards per kickoff return and one touchdown on the year.
And on punt returns, Miami is 99th allowing 13.6 yards per return. If NU wants to get its return game going, this looks like the perfect opportunity.
Adding to all of that, the RedHawks are also dead last nationally in kickoff returns, averaging a measly 14.2 yards per kickoff return. Although, their punt returning is in the middle of the pack nationally at 10.3 yards per return, which makes NU's 4.1 yards per punt return look very small.
The Wildcats' special teams shined last week, and against a squad that's sitting near the bottom of the rankings for most special teams statistical categories, NU has a chance to continue that trend.
Depth Chart Changes: After an underwhelming performance, LB Ben Johnson has been replaced as the starter with David Arnold (both are sophomores). Arnold was injured to start the year but impressed against Purdue with four tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble. He was originally a defensive back (safety) but has been transitioned to the weak side linebacker position this year in order to get more speed at that position (Johnson was also a relatively smaller and quicker linebacker).
Third Down Conversions: Yes, I love to break down this statistic. NU is now eighth nationally, converting over 54 percent of their third downs, while allowing opponents to convert 39 percent of theirs (a less impressive 69th nationally). Miami, meanwhile, is converting just 41 percent of their third downs while allowing opponents to convert 48 percent of theirs (112th nationally). The 'Cats are, therefore, looking forward to some long sustained drives.
Forced Fumbles: NU safety Brad Phillips is tied at the top nationally having forced three fumbles on the season.
True Freshmen: The 'Cats have now played three true freshmen on the year, with LB Roderick Goodlow seeing the field on special teams (he's also listed as the backup strong side linebacker). RB Arby Fields and OL Patrick Ward have appeared in all of NU's games so far this year.
Scoring by Quarters: In quarters one, three, and four, NU has been outscored 100-88 so far this year. But in the second quarter, the 'Cats are outscoring opponents by a 40 point collective margin, 71-31.
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), OT Mike Boyle (back, questionable), RB Stephen Simmons (ankle, questionable), RB Scott Concannon (head, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, questionable), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder, questionable).
The 'Cats look to get Simmons back (although he's not listed on the depth chart) along with backup Concannon to bolster the RB corps, which looks to be used quite frequently this coming game. McNaul's injury gave true freshman Goodlow a chance to get playing time, but he will potentially be available as well. Thankfully, NU's overall health has vastly improved since the Syracuse game.
Miami OH: DL DJ Svabik (ribs, questionable), WR Chris Givens (shoulder, out for season).
Miami is relatively healthy even after being beaten up on the scoreboard over the first five weeks of the year.
Prediction: Northwestern 31 - Miami OH 14
Expect the Wildcats to run early and often since Miami really hasn't stopped anyone on the ground, while the defense will use upfront pressure to harass a freshman quarterback and force turnovers. The RedHawks will be able to score, but the 'Cats will likely have built up a comfortable margin so as not to worry.
Against a team that is near or at the bottom nationally in so many statistical categories, NU will have a chance to blow this game open, but expect Fitz to play this one close to the chest, much like NU did in the first two games of this season.
This will be a great chance for Northwestern to build momentum heading into a vital stretch of the season as they seek bowl eligibility.