When Northwestern stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field for their highly anticipated showdown with rival Illinois, it got ugly. Somehow, against all odds, the next week in Madison against Wisconsin got even uglier. Incomprehensibly ugly. While a 49-17 defeat may have been expected, you will be hard-pressed to find any serious fan who believed that would be the score at halftime. But those two games, which the Wildcats lost by a combined 118-50, are a month in the past.
Northwestern Offense vs. Texas Tech Defense
Some surprising news came out of Texas Tech’s camp in the week leading up to the game, as the team’s defensive coordinator James Willis left the program on Dec. 26 in order “to pursue other career opportunities,” according to the Red Raiders’ website. One wonders what those “opportunities” might possibly be, as the Red Raiders allowed over 30 points per game in 2010, Willis’ first year on the job. Texas Tech’s defense, with or without Willis, is just what Northwestern’s sputtering offense needs. In the two games since Dan Persa went down with a ruptured Achilles in the win over Iowa, the Wildcats have averaged 233.5 yards of total offense in consecutive blowout losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. In the first 10 games, they averaged 424.2 — almost 200 yards of offense down the drain. Persa’s ability to scramble out of constant pressure and make plays on the run hid the flaws of Northwestern’s pass protection that have become all too exposed since his injury.
Despite their struggles as a whole on defense, Texas Tech does have some talent. The focus of Northwestern’s offensive line will be slowing down senior linebacker Brian Duncan, who has wreaked havoc in the backfield this season with 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Linebacker Bront Bird leads the team in tackles and is a threat in pass coverage, with three interceptions on the season. AP All-Big 12 selection Colby Whitlock anchors the defensive line against returning Mike Trumpy and the rest of Northwestern’s many running backs. The good news is that redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins has had the luxury of an entire month to prepare as the starter for the game. Expect both Watkins and true freshman Kain Colter, who saw limited action in the “Wildcat” formation against both Illinois and Wisconsin, to look much sharper against the permeable Red Raider defense. Northwestern will be looking for a rejuvenated Jeremy Ebert, who had tremendous chemistry with Dan Persa. In the two games Evan Watkins started, Ebert has combined for only four catches for 31 yards and zero touchdowns. If these two finally get on the same page, Northwestern’s offense may see a resurrection against the weak Texas Tech secondary.
Texas Tech Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
Texas Tech football was in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons at this time last year, when the university suspended head coach Mike Leach before the team’s bowl game for his treatment of wide receiver Adam James after the player’s concussion two weeks earlier. Leach was then fired for insubordination. As months of litigation and name-calling from each side followed, it was clear that Leach had worn out his welcome in Lubbock. But from a purely football perspective, Texas Tech had lost the man that built one of the most powerful passing offenses in the country. However, even without their disgraced former coach, the high-octane aerial attack has picked up right where it left off. Quarterback Taylor Potts showed tremendous improvement in his second year as a starter. The 6′5″ senior significantly cut down on his mistakes, throwing 31 touchdowns to only nine interceptions (he threw 22 TDs and 13 picks as a junior). Seventeen of those touchdowns have been to senior wide receiver Lyle Leong, who the AP named second team All-Big 12. On the other half of the field is senior Detron Lewis, who hauled in 79 balls for 803 yards and six touchdowns. The Northwestern secondary, which was a leading concern for Wildcat fans heading into the season, has been all but forgotten in recent weeks with the deterioration of the team’s run defense. But that secondary will be thrust into the spotlight once again on Jan. 1 against a team that throws the ball almost 60 percent of the time. If the Wildcats are to have any chance of stopping that offense, they need to put pressure on Taylor Potts. Potts has been sacked 17 times this year. For a little perspective: in the 10 games Dan Persa played this season, he was sacked a grizzly 34 times.
A huge bright spot to take away from Northwestern’s season has been the emergence of speedster Venric Mark as a returner. The true freshman took a kickoff to the house in the Massacre in Madison and is the kind of X-factor that an underdog needs, especially when the offense has had difficulty putting points on the board. For Texas Tech, sophomore Eric Stephens was named to the AP All-Big 12 team for his abilities as a returner.
Northwestern has the chance to wipe away two weeks of agony and 62 years of frustration all in one day this coming Saturday. A win would erase the pitiful efforts against Illinois and Wisconsin and be a stepping-stone towards the 2011 season. It would also end the bowl victory drought that is becoming as infamous as the team’s streak for consecutive losses with each season that passes. Northwestern will salvage its respectability in the Cotton Bowl. Expect the offense to show some life. But the overpowering passing attack from the Red Raiders will doom the Wildcats in the end. Make that 63 years and counting. Texas Tech 41, Northwestern 27