Northwestern won its third straight game Saturday, the latest win coming against – of all teams – the Rice Owls. The game against Rice comes at a seemingly odd time, as the ‘Cats have been in the midst of their Big Ten slate, with Rice serving as a nonconference interruption on the schedule. Nevertheless, Northwestern was able to get a much-needed win and is now .500 for the first time since Oct. 8. Here’s a look at the best and worst of Northwestern-Rice:
Jeremy Ebert’s All-Big Ten chances: With his amazing performance against Rice – seven catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns – Ebert has now all but solidified his place as an All-Big Ten selection this season. Against Rice, Ebert made several spectacular catches, including one 90-yard touchdown catch and run. He now has 58 receptions for 924 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He is only five receptions and 29 yards shy of this year becoming his indisputable best statistical season (10 touchdowns is already his best single season output). Ebert will likely join Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt on the All-Big Ten team.
The Persa-Ebert 90-yard strike: I mentioned it earlier, but the Dan Persa 90-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to Jeremy Ebert was totally sweet. Persa found Ebert over the middle for a first down in space, and Ebert raced past the defenders for Northwestern’s opening score of the game. The catch and run set the tone for the rest of the game, in which Persa and Ebert would rack up stats like it was a videogame.
Persa’s stellar play: Dan Persa’s senior season has been greatly limited by injury. He missed the first three games due to his Achilles recovery, and he has been pulled from several other games this season after sustaining minor injuries. On Saturday, he managed to stay healthy for the game and was able to toss for touchdowns. He also threw for a career-high 372 yards and completed 25 passes on 32 attempts. He threw two interceptions, but overall Persa was playing quite well. So far this season, however, he has been unable to remain under center for a full game against a big-time opponent. We’ll see if the Nov. 26 contest against Michigan State will be his first.
NU’s suddenly solid pass defense: Northwestern held Rice starting quarterback Nick Fanuzzi to only 92 yards passing on 13 completions. Considering the Wildcats’ difficulties in stopping the pass earlier this season, this statistic comes as a surprise. Sure, Fanuzzi is not exactly Andrew Luck, but even below-average quarterbacks have had success against the ‘Cats this year (think Matt McGloin of Penn State on Oct. 22). Northwestern’s pass defense has clearly improved the past few weeks, but the true test of its progress will come on Nov. 26 against Michigan State and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
This is a Big Ten atmosphere?: It was Family Weekend for Northwestern students, but families that came in expecting a Big Ten atmosphere were likely disappointed. There were plenty of empty seats when the game kicked off at 11 a.m. CDT. Perhaps it was the fact that the game started so early (Northwestern’s three previous home games this season started at 2:30, 6 and 6 respectively), or just the fact that Rice is not a big-time opponent. Either way, the decision to make Rice the Family Weekend game is slightly baffling. Last year, visiting families witnessed Northwestern knock off Big Ten foe and No. 13 ranked Iowa, and next year the ‘Cats will host Nebraska. Although the stadium filled up a bit against Rice, there were still a number of full empty sections throughout the game, especially in the East stands.
Dan Persa’s interceptions: Dan Persa’s two picks against Rice stained an otherwise excellent performance from the senior quarterback. Amazingly, Persa’s completion percentage this season has been even better than last year – 75.1 percent compared with 73.5 percent – but he has thrown more interceptions this season than last year. Persa has attempted 197 passes this year and has thrown six interceptions, while he threw four interceptions on 302 attempts last season. It’s a minor gripe, as Persa has played quite well when healthy this year. But it is still worth noting that his interception rate has increased this season.