Friday, December 30, 2011
Meineke Bowl: Northwestern vs. Texas A&M
By Adam Rittenberg
Both Northwestern and Texas A&M entered the season with strong senior classes and lofty expectations. Both repeatedly fell victim to blown leads. As a result, both squads finished 6-6 and will square off Saturday at Houston's Reliant Stadium.
Let's take a look at the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas:
WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. The senior wraps up a record-setting career, and he might be the healthiest he has been all season following more than a month off. Although Persa's injury situation prevented him from matching the Heisman Trophy hype he received in August, he still turned in a strong season, leading the nation in completion percentage (74.2) and leading the Big Ten in passing average (240.3 ypg). He needs 19 pass attempts to qualify for the NCAA's all-time completions percentage record. Persa actually could go 0-for-19 and still get the record, but he'll be aiming for much bigger numbers against a Texas A&M defense that has been dreadful against the pass (113th nationally). Given Northwestern's own woes on defense, the Wildcats need Persa to have a monster performance.
WHAT TO WATCH: The Wildcats' defense has repeatedly let down the team this season, and the unit will be shorthanded against A&M without top cover corner Jordan Mabin (shoulder). It will be interesting to see if bowl practice has helped the unit, particularly young players like redshirt freshman Daniel Jones, who will fill in for Mabin. After recording a Big Ten-low 16 sacks, Northwestern must find ways to generate pressure on Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will pick apart the Wildcats if given time. Persa and the offense should do their part in this game, but if the defense doesn't make strides, it might get ugly.
WHY TO WATCH: The main storyline hasn't changed for Northwestern, which is looking for its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Northwestern is making its fourth consecutive bowl appearance after losing each of the last three contests by seven points or fewer. Coach Pat Fitzgerald calls the bowl drought the program's only remaining negative and has had players actually wear a stuffed monkey on their backs this week to emphasize the urgency to win. A victory would help Northwestern salvage what has been a disappointing season, while a loss would raise questions about the program's direction as the Wildcats would have seen their wins total decrease for the fourth consecutive year.
PREDICTION: Texas A&M 42, Northwestern 31. Persa is primed for a huge game in his final performance as a Wildcat, but barring a surprise, he won't be playing defense, and that's a problem. I don't have much faith in the Wildcats' defense after the past year and a half, and Texas A&M has far too many weapons to exploit the weaknesses, particularly with Mabin sidelined. While A&M has had its share of distractions in recent weeks, the Aggies boast more talent and will prevail in a virtual home game.