This season, Northwestern opened its season on the road in Nashville, against Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference. Starting on the road is tough for any team, and even the quietness of the student-less Ryan Field would be more welcoming for an opener.
Yet the Wildcats overcame a feisty Vanderbilt team to prevail, 23-21, in the opening game of the season for both teams. Five things that Northwestern fans should take from today’s game:
1. Dan Persa is ready to excel at quarterback: Losing Mike Kafka was a big concern for many Wildcat fans, as it should have been. Kafka was very good both through the air and on the ground last season for the ‘Cats, but he has since taken his talents (to quote the insufferable LeBron James) to the Philadelphia Eagles. In stepped Dan Persa, who played well when Kafka was injured in Northwestern’s upset win over Iowa last season. Tonight he was even better. Persa was 19-21 passing for 222 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions. He rushed for 82 yards on 17 carries. Quite simply, his amazing performance was the reason Northwestern won on Saturday night. The play calling was a bit conservative, but during the course of the game, Persa proved that he is ready to air it out. I would anticipate the play calling to become more aggressive in the near future as Persa and the coaching staff gain more confidence in the offensive unit.
2. The rush offense is of concern: Persa rushed for more than half of the team’s total output on the ground. Northwestern did not rely heavily on the ground game last season, and it has not done so since Tyrell Sutton finished his career in 2008 (the team was ranked 89th in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year in total rushing). Tonight Jacob Schmidt rushed for 44 yards on 13 carries, but the team only totaled 143 yards. Expect Stephen Simmons’s carries to increase, as he rushed for a solid 4.7 yards per carry today (only 3 attempts for 14 yards).
3. Defensive issues: The Northwestern defense gave up 432 total yards to the Vanderbilt offense, a bit embarrassing considering the Commodores’ offense was one of the worst in the FBS in 2009 (111th out of 120). In this game, Vanderbilt had great success running to the outside, and the Wildcats at times seemed unable to contain the likes of quarterback Larry Smith and running back Zac Stacy. Northwestern may have trouble with teams like Wisconsin, which will pound the ball on the ground mercilessly. Bringing more men into the box may be necessary against the run-based teams.
4. Tough competition: Northwestern wasn’t the only Big Ten team that won on opening day. Michigan looked revitalized against UConn with Denard Robinson at quarterback, who put up similar numbers to Persa through the air (on the ground, he was Persa on steroids today). Ohio State romped Marshall in typical Buckeye fashion, Iowa dismantled Eastern Illinois, Penn State destroyed Youngtown, Wisconsin handily beat UNLV, and Michigan State dominated in-state opponent, Western Michigan. It is great to get a win over an SEC team, but let’s not forget how difficult the Big Ten could be this year. Ohio State and Michigan may not be on the schedule, but Dan Persa & Co. have a tough slate when the Big Ten season begins.
5. It’s a good road win: Even though Vanderbilt doesn’t quite represent the best of the SEC, it’s still a tough road victory against a team from the best conference in the country. Obviously there are concerns with the running game and the defense, but it was a very good opening performance from the Wildcats. Fans should be excited about Dan Persa, who really looked like an experienced signal caller in his first game as a starter. Northwestern returns to the friendly confines of Ryan Field next week against Illinois State, and with the big road win, the prospect of the Wildcats undefeated heading into October’s Big Ten season seems far more likely.