Northwestern makes its third straight bowl appearance under Pat Fitzgerald this season and will head to Texas for the second time in three years. The Wildcats finished a respectable 7-5 this season, and could have finished even better if not for quarterback Dan Persa's injury on November 13 against Iowa.
Persa was voted first team All-Big Ten by the coaches and second team by the media, reflecting his strong leadership abilities and incredible passing efficiency. However, without Persa, the Wildcats have been a different team. The offense has been out of sync, and the defense, too has been underwhelming. The Wildcats will try to get back in sync on New Year's Day, and achieve their second bowl win in school history, its first since 1949.
10. Northwestern will have a decent fan showing
This is not football related, but sadly is a large part of bowl placement. Northwestern routinely has a tough time selling out 47,000-seat Ryan Field, and thus, its typically perceived as a team that won't sell tickets for bowl games. That's part of the reason it was passed over by the Outback, Gator, Insight, and Texas Bowls for teams that have identical or worse records.
However, Northwestern alumni are transplanted all across the United States and this game gives fans in Texas a rare chance to watch their team. Northwestern won't outnumber Texas Tech fans, and probably won't come close. But with a decent fan showing, the Wildcats may be able to break the stereotype that their fans don't travel to bowl games.
9. Pat Fitzgerald will take risks
Pat Fitzgerald call's 'em like he sees 'em. If his team gets beat he'll let you know it and if they lose, give credit where credit is due. In last year's Outback Bowl, Northwestern came back from a large deficit and sent the game to overtime. Instead of going for a second overtime, Fitzgerald called a fumblerooskie-type play, but the Wildcats came up two yards short of the endzone. Fitzgerald took all credit for the bad call, but said he would try it again any day.
Without Persa, Fitzgerald knows there is little chance of a win unless Northwestern can catch Texas Tech off guard. Expect the Wildcats to call a few trick plays to try to swing the momentum in their direction.
8. Evan Watkins will show promise
The NU offense faces an uphill battle in this game, and quarterback Evan Watkins is no exception. He has thrown only one touchdown, compared to four interceptions this season on possesses only a 95.2 passer rating, compared to Persa's 159.0.
However, Northwestern has done an impressive job of developing quarterbacks in the latter part of this decade, including CJ Bacher, Mike Kafka, and Persa. Kafka was drafted into the NFL last season and Persa has a chance to go pro after the 2011 season.
Watkins may not lead Northwestern to a win, or even put up great numbers, but expect him to show bright spots and prove that the future of the program is headed in a positive direction after Persa departs.
7. Jeremy Ebert will break 1,000 yards receiving for the season
Similar to its success at quarterback, Northwestern has also produced some very productive receivers in the program's recent awakening. Junior Jeremy Ebert has been the Wildcats' top receiving target this season, compiling 919 yards and eight touchdowns on 59 receptions.
Ebert's role in the passing game will be substantial because of Persa's absence and he will need to provide Watkins with help throughout the game.
Luckily for Northwestern and Ebert, Texas Tech's pass defense is average at best. Ebert only needs 81 more yards to break 1,000 yards receiving, and has accumulated at least that many yards on seven different occasions this season. Against this Tech defense, he should be able to collect at least 81 yards, if not much more.
6. The Northwestern running game will struggle
This isn't a situation where the Texas Tech run defense is that great, because the Red Raiders are far from it. Northwestern has struggled to run the ball this season behind a mediocre offensive line. Top rusher Mike Trumpy is decent, but nothing special, and much of the Wildcats' rushing offense relied on the mobility of Persa, the team's second-leading rusher, outside of the pocket.
The NU run game needs to start the game in at least decent shape, or else the offense risks becoming one-dimensional. That worked when Kafka and Persa were under center, but Watkins will struggle if Tech can drop eight players every play. Watkins has proven to be mobile at times, too, but doesn't provide the same threat in the run game that Persa did on every play.
5. Kicking won't be Northwestern's achilles heal this year
The kicking game has been one of the reasons for many of Northwestern's losses over the past few years, including last year's Outback Bowl. This year, however, the Wildcats will finally overcome the kicking curse.
That isn't to say that Northwestern will win, but rather that the kicking game won't be the reason for a loss.
Kicker Stefan Demos has been decent this year, connecting on 15 of 22 field goals and 31 of 34 PATs, and he will be perfect in this game, helping "redeem" himself for some big missed kicks earlier in his career.
4. The defense will show up--sort of
Predictably, the Northwestern offense has sputtered since Persa's injury in the closing seconds against Iowa. However, the defense's struggles during the last two games were a bit less unpredictable.
In NU's final two games against Illinois and Wisconsin, the defense was absolutely abysmal. The Wildcats gave up 330 rushing yards to Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure at Wrigley Field and 70 points to Wisconsin a week later in Madison.
The defense needs to step up to give Northwestern a chance against Texas Tech. Watkins may be able to "not lose" the game, but he can't be counted on to win it. The defense must give a complete performance in order to come out of Dallas with a win.
Expect the Northwestern defense to come more prepared than it did against Illinois and Wisconsin, but still show some of the rust that it did in the latter half of November.
3. Northwestern will prove itself as a contender for the "Legends" Division Championship in 2011
Northwestern probably won't win this game because of Persa's absence. However, the Wildcats have plenty of potential heading into next season, particularly on offense.
The offensive line--the offense's weakest link--returns four of five starters next season and the outstanding quarterback-receiver combination of Persa and Ebert will be one of the best such combinations in the Big Ten next season.
The defense needs work, especially against strong divisional foes such as Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. However, with its offensive firepower, Northwestern could challenge for the Legends Division title in 2011. NU has always been known for its sold team discipline, but now has talent to go along with it. Expect it to display some of that talent in the TicketCity Bowl, even in a loss.
2. The bowl win drought will continue
Northwestern is infamous for its postseason droughts, particularly never making the NCAA basketball tournament and not winning a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
With Persa out, don't expect the Wildcats to win on this New Year's Day. However, the program has been headed in a positive direction under Fitzgerald and should be able to come away with a win within the few years.
Fans in Evanston have waited 61 years, so a few more can't hurt.
1. Texas Tech 30, Northwestern 23
Northwestern will jump out to an early lead thanks to Ebert and Demos, but will head into halftime trailing 17-13. The defense will step up in the second half, particularly in the red zone, holding a good Texas Tech passing offense to less 13 points.
Ebert will add another touchdown and Demos will tack on his third field goal of the day. Northwestern will get the ball back with two minutes to go, but Watkins--after a solid game--will watch his final pass fall incomplete at midfield, sealing the win for the Red Raiders
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