Coming off a big win over Nebraska, Northwestern will return to Ryan Field to face Rice Saturday in the first of three straight home games. While not the biggest of names, Rice does feature an explosive offense that should keep the threat of an upset alive. If they want to defeat the ‘Cats, these are the five players that will have to step up for the Owls.
1. Nick Fanuzzi - QB
While Taylor McHargue started the season at QB, senior Nick Fanuzzi recently took over and had his best performance in last week’s game against University of Texas at El Paso. He posted a remarkable stat line, completing 30 of 43 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns, and his performance earned him a spot on the Manning Stars of the Week list honoring the top quarterbacks in the nation. Sure, UTEP’s defense isn’t top notch, but neither is Northwestern’s–the ‘Cats will have to limit Fanuzzi's production in order to keep their momentum going.
2. Vance McDonald – WR
No matter who the quarterback has been this year, junior receiver Vance McDonald has made himself the favorite target. He had the best day of his career last Saturday, catching eight passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. If Northwestern uses its zone scheme, McDonald’s 6’5” frame shouldn’t pose much of a problem, but going up against the 5’11” Jordan Mabin in a man-to-man would give McDonald an edge over the Northwestern defense. Either way, the Wildcats’ secondary has been a weakness for the team, ranking last in the Big Ten in passing defense, and will need to find a way to stop McDonald to prevent this game from being a shootout.
3 and 4. Tyler Smith and Turner Petersen – RBs
Tyler Smith and Turner Petersen are both backs and complement each other well. Smith, a redshirt senior, has averaged 6.3 yards per carry this season. With a long run of 97 yards, he clearly has the speed to go the distance on any play–Northwestern will have to monitor him to make sure he does not break out for a big gain. In contrast, redshirt sophomore Petersen is more of a goal line back and has performed well, rushing for five touchdowns on the year, the most of any of the Rice backs. Although junior linebacker David Nwabuisi leads the Northwestern defense, the unit as a whole must improve in the red zone–it has allowed teams to score 85 percent of the time inside the 20-yard line. For Northwestern to keep this game from being close, the defense must step up in these situations and stop Petersen from finding the end zone.
5. Scott Solomon – DE
The redshirt senior is back after sitting out last year with an injury sustained during fall camp and is touted as the leader of Rice’s defensive front. He currently leads the team with 5.5 sacks, pushing him into second place on Rice’s all-time sack list with 21 total. Lining up on the left side of the line, Solomon will be matched up against junior Patrick Ward, right tackle for the Wildcats. Overall, Northwestern’s pass protection has been below average, allowing nearly 3 sacks per game, so look for Ward to get some help from senior right guard Ben Burkett or chip blocks from running backs Jacob Schmidt and Treyvon Green to ensure that quarterback Dan Persa does not head to the sidelines with yet another injury. The good news is that Solomon does not receive much help from the rest of the Rice defense, as the Owls’ secondary has been even worse than the Wildcats’, ranking 116 out of the 120 FBS schools in pass defense. Given Northwestern’s prolific passing attack, Solomon will need a great game to slow down the combo of Colter and Persa.
While Rice might look like an easy victory on paper, the ‘Cats must take the Owls seriously to keep their bowl chances alive. Rice has shown the ability to pull off an upset with their defeat of Purdue early in the season, while Northwestern has demonstrated a disappointing tendency to lose games it should win. However, with back-to-back wins, the Wildcats have some positive momentum and should win Saturday’s game if they play to their potential. If they can hold these five key players in check, Fitz’s boys will have their first three game winning streak of the season.