Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas Preview
Dec. 29, 2011
Northwestern will appear in its fourth straight bowl game for the first time in program history when the Wildcats battle Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Dec. 31 at noon ET on ESPN. Northwestern is making its 10th bowl appearance in its history and has been to postseason play in four of the six seasons under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. It marks the program’s second straight bowl game in Texas, appearing in the 2010 TicketCity Bowl in Dallas. The Big Ten was victorious in its first appearance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas last season, with Illinois defeating Baylor in what was then called the Texas Bowl.
Northwestern finished the regular season with a 6-6 record that included a 3-5 mark in Big Ten play. The Wildcats won four of their final five games this fall to earn their fourth straight bowl bid.
Texas A&M will make it three straight postseasons after a 6-6 campaign, which included a 4-5 mark in Big 12 play. Bowling for the 33rd time in school history, the Aggies competed in the AT&T Cotton Bowl a year ago and the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl following the 2009 campaign. TAMU is searching for its first bowl victory since its last visit to Houston when the Aggies defeated TCU 28-9 in the 2001 Galleryfurniture.com Bowl.
Although this is the first meeting between Northwestern and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have met a number of Big 12 schools over the years, owning a 21-12 record overall. The Aggies, who will be coached by defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter after 4-year head coach Mike Sherman was let go following the regular-season finale, will be competing in their last contest as members of the Big 12. Texas A&M will move to the SEC next season.
Northwestern’s offense enters the postseason ranked first in the conference in passing (256.6), second in total yards (432.8), fifth in scoring (29.5) and sixth in rushing (176.2). All season long the headlines have centered around the Wildcats’ passing attack, featuring a mark of consistency under center, a dual-threat option, a standout senior receiver, and the Big Ten’s top tight end. Quarterback Dan Persa owns a 74.2 completion percentage this season, which currently tops his conference record of 73.5 set a year ago. He also boasts the league’s second-best passer rating at 160.3, having thrown for 2,163 yards and 17 touchdowns with just seven picks in nine games this year. Persa averages 240.3 passing yards per game, including 85.4 to wideout Jeremy Ebert, who turned in only the fourth 1,000-yard receiving season in NU history (1,025) to move into third all-time with 2,365 career yards. Multi-dimensional sophomore Kain Colter is one of only two players since 1996 to compile at least 500 yards passing, 500 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in a season (Colter stands at 454 receiving yards on the year). Drake Dunsmore earned the Big Ten’s Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award after averaging a career-best 42.4 receiving yards per game in 2011—tops among all Big Ten tight ends—and hauling in 43 catches for 509 yards. On the ground, senior Jacob Schmidt started 11 of 12 games and led NU’s running backs with 465 yards and six touchdowns.
Northwestern will look to use its passing attack to strike against an Aggies’ defense that struggled defending the pass in 2011. Texas A&M’s defense ranked second in the Big 12 against the rush (106.0), fourth in total yards (386.5), sixth in points allowed (28.7) and 10th against the pass (280.5). That average can be a little skewed as it is always pass-first in the Big 12, proof by five teams throwing for up to 1,400 more yards than Big Ten-leader Michigan State at 3,217. At the same time though, the Aggies ranked 10th in the Big 12 with a minus-8 turnover margin, earning only seven picks and eight fumbles on the season. NU’s faced-paced offense should pose problems for the Aggies’ defensive unit, which is led by junior linebacker Jonathan Stewart and his 89 tackles, tied for 11th-most in the Big 12. Linebackers Sean Porter (8.5) and Damontre Moore (7.5) have led TAMU to a conference-high 43 sacks this season. Porter (16.0) and Moore (15.5) also rank second and third in the Big 12, respectively, in tackles for loss, while Moore has forced three fumbles on the season.
Texas A&M’s offense rates fourth in total yards (497.0), rushing (209.1), and scoring (39.6), and fifth in passing (287.9). The Aggies’ total offense average is also seventh-best in the country, thanks in large part to the contributions of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The senior signal caller is 10th nationally with 309.2 yards of total offense, while averaging 284.6 yards through the air. On the year, Tannehill has thrown for 3,415 yards and 28 touchdowns, but a conference-high14 picks as well. Ryan Swope (6.75) and Jeff Fuller (5.25) rate among the Big 12’s top-10 receivers in catches per game, ranking fifth and seventh, respectively. The Aggies also boast a pair among the conference’s top rushers. Christine Michael is third in the conference with 99.9 rushing yards per game, followed by teammate Cyrus Gray in fifth at 95.0.
On defense, Northwestern is 10th in scoring (27.2) and rushing (185.4) and 11th in passing (222.2) and total yards allowed (407.6). As is the case with Northwestern’s offense against the Aggies’ defense, the Wildcat D will be forced to keep up with a fast-paced TAMU attack. Northwestern has forced 19 turnovers this season, 11 of which were interceptions, but the Wildcats were not known much for their pass rush. They ranked last in the conference with 16 sacks this year and now face a Texas A&M offensive line that allowed a conference-best eight QB tackles behind the line. Individually, safety Ibraheim Campbell paces the team with 89 tackles with 51 of the solo variety. His partner in the secondary, Brian Peters, is close behind with 85, while LB David Nwabuisi boasts 79 stops and a team-high 8.0 TFLs this season. Peters ranks third all-time in school history with 11 interceptions and leads all conference defenders with four picks this season.
Among the special teams stars, Texas A&M senior Randy Bullock is a consensus All-America placekicker after finishing the regular season as the NCAA leader in field goals with 2.08 per game. He has connected on a school record 25-of-29 three-point tries. Bullock's 127 points this season rank No. 2 nationally among placekickers, and he is one point shy of breaking A&M's 84-year old season scoring record of 128 set by Joel Hunt in 1927. NU punter Brandon Williams is seventh in the league with 40.5 yards per punt, while Venric Mark is eighth in kick returns with 23.5 yards per return. TAMU junior Dustin Harris is sixth in the Big 12 with 22.9 yards per return.