Northwestern finished the season 9-3 and posted impressive road victories at Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, but the ‘Cats continue to get no respect in Vegas. They are the biggest underdog of any bowl team, with many predicting a repeat of NU’s performance in the 2000 Alamo Bowl, in which they lost 17-66 to Nebraska. Unfortunately, there is some reason to think that the odds-makers are correct. Quite simply, the Missouri Tigers will be far and away the best offense Northwestern has played yet. The Tigers finished the season ranked sixth nationally in total yards. Eight times this season Missouri put up 40 or more points in a game. In their only game against a Big Ten team, the Tigers defeated Illinois 52-42.
The real strength of the Tigers’ offense is their playmakers. QB Chase Daniel, whose name was tossed around in pre-season Heisman discussion, finished the season with a 74 percent completion percentage, firing 37 TD tosses to 15 INT’s. On top of that, Daniel is from Texas so expect him to have a big game in front of a large contingent of family and friends.
Another Tigers weapon is All-American wideout Jeremy Maclin. The sophomore caught 95 passes on the year, totaling 1221 yards with 12 TD grabs. Many expect that Maclin will leave school for the NFL after just two seasons on campus. If he does so, many experts, including Scouts.com, project him to be a top 10 overall pick. NU corners Sherrick McManus and Jordan Mabin will certainly have their hands full with Maclin and number two wideout Tommy Saunders, who caught 66 passes for 800 yards on the season.
To shut down these prolific playmakers, the ‘Cats must continue to apply the pressure on the quarterback that allowed them to accumulate the most sacks of any team in the conference in ’08. I’m sorry, but if Daniel and Maclin have lots of time to execute, the NU corners are going to get torched. Defensive end Vince Browne, who is now listed as probable after his knee injury against Minnesota was assumed to be season-ending, needs to have a big game in order to prevent Missouri from concentrating solely on stopping Corey Wootton.
On the other side of the ball, the ‘Cats will have to strike and strike often through the air. Even if Tyrell Sutton is able to play, I wouldn’t expect too much from the Northwestern ground game. Likely starting running back Stephen Simmons played better each week but he never averaged more than 3.1 yards per carry.
Therefore, it will be up to quarterback CJ Bacher and the passing attack to provide most of the offense. They should have an opportunity to do so. The Tigers’ pass defense was dead last in the conference, allowing 285.3 passing yards per game. Now is the time for Bacher to show that he can be a legitimate, down the field threat. In Big Ten play, Bacher did not complete a pass for longer than 40 yards where the majority of the yards were not provided by yards ran for after the catch by wide receiver Eric Peterman. To leave the Lone Star State victorious, Bacher will have to change this and stretch the field a few times.
Prediction: On one hand, I want to pick the ‘Cats because the game should matter more to them. For Missouri, a win would not salvage this season in the eyes of their fans. They were expected to compete for the national title, not a victory in the Alamo Bowl. In contrast, a victory for the Wildcats transforms the 2008 team into one of the most succesful in school history. Nonetheless, there is a talent gap between Missouri and NU that even a difference in effort can not make up for. I simply can not see the Northwestern defense being able to slow down Daniel and Maclin. No quarterback the team has played so far is even close to as good as Daniel and the ‘Cats will not be able to suddenly adjust to playing a real gun-slinging quarterback. Missouri will win, 45-24.