Published December 31, 2011
| Sports Network
Texas A&M is playing in a bowl game for the 33rd time in its history, and that includes each of the last three seasons. The team is searching for its first bowl victory since its last visit to Houston, which resulted in a 28-9 win over TCU in the 2001 Galleryfurniture.com Bowl. It figures to be somewhat of a home atmosphere for the Aggies, whose fans quickly scooped up tickets for the game, which is being played about 90 miles away from campus.
Interim head coach Tim DeRuyter, who stepped in after Mike Sherman was fired earlier this month, recently accepted the head coaching job at Fresno State to replace Pat Hill. Former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin will take over at A&M once the season ends. But for now, DeRuyter's focus is solely on the Wildcats and leaving Texas A&M with a bowl victory.
"Our guys have had a disappointing season by Aggie standards, but we get a chance to finish our year here in Texas where our guys get a chance to wake up Christmas morning, open their presents, and then two days later join us here for the bowl," DeRuyter said.
The Aggies will be looking to erase the memory of a tough end to the season, which featured four losses in their final five games, several of which came in heartbreaking fashion. In the regular-season finale, they lost to Texas on a last-second field goal.
"I don't know if I would call it heartbreaking, but we've obviously had some gut-wrenching losses, particularly that last one," DeRuyter said. "When you lose two games in overtime, another one on a last-second field goal, nobody feels good about it. We've been in those games and, I guess similar to (Northwestern coach Pat) Fitzgerald's teams, have not been consistent enough to make those one or two key plays to make a difference in the ballgame."
Meanwhile, Northwestern is headed to the postseason for the 10th time in its history, with nine of those appearances coming in the last 17 years. The Wildcats are playing in their fourth consecutive bowl game under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is not taking this opportunity lightly.
"Four years ago, we were 6-6 and we sat at home," Fitzgerald said at the bowl press conference. "That was devastating to our football players, and so to have this kind of opportunity, to have this great matchup for us from the standpoint of opportunity, is going to be a great challenge."
Although the Wildcats had an up and down season, one of their highlights was an early-November win over then ninth-ranked Nebraska in Lincoln. After losing five in a row early in the year, the Wildcats turned their season around with a four-game win streak before their bubble was burst by Michigan State in the regular-season finale. Although Northwestern went just 3-5 in the Big Ten, the team went toe to toe with just about everybody on the schedule and figure to have plenty of confidence entering this matchup.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two schools on the gridiron, although Northwestern is facing a representative from the Big 12 in a bowl game for the third time in the last four years.
Stopping Texas A&M's offense will be no easy task. The Aggies finished the regular season ranked seventh nationally in total offense (497 ypg) and 11th in scoring (39.6 ppg), as they can move the ball with equal effectiveness on the ground and through the air. Still, there are some injury concerns going into this game. The team already lost half of its talented backfield tandem when Christine Michael suffered a season-ending knee injury back in the first week of November. Cyrus Gray took over full-time duty in the backfield and ran for 218 yards and two touchdowns the following week at 11th-ranked Kansas State, then had 94 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries against Kansas the next week before suffering a shoulder injury. That injury kept Gray out of the finale against Texas, and his status is questionable for this game.
If Gray, who ran for 1,045 yards and 12 scores on the year, cannot suit up, it would obviously put some extra pressure on the right arm of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has proven a capable option. Tannehill averaged 284.6 passing yards per tilt and completed 61.1 percent of his attempts, and he has been sacked less often than any other signal-caller in the nation. He has 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the year, with most of his targets finding Ryan Swope, who ranks in the top-5 in the Big 12 with 81 catches, 1,102 yards and 11 receiving TDs. The Aggies scored on an impressive 95 percent of their red-zone trips this year (55-of-58), although an even run-pass balanced certainly helped put points on the board. Michael and Gray combined for 20 rushing TDs. Although they would certainly prefer six points instead of three whenever possible, the Aggies can turn to another weapon, All-American kicker Randy Bullock.
Defensively, A&M has been rather inconsistent. The team is ranked 65th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense (386.5 ypg allowed) and 76th in scoring defense (28.7 ppg allowed). Opponents have often struggled to find running lanes against the Aggies, who boast the nation's 13th-ranked run defense (106 ypg). However, they also rank 113th in pass defense (280.5 ypg). That ranking is a bit misleading, as the Aggies have a strong front-seven that can apply pressure on the quarterback. A&M leads the nation in sacks (3.6 per game) and is fifth in tackles for loss (7.7 per game). But when opposing quarterbacks are given enough time to operate in the pocket, they have been able to pick apart the secondary and find open receivers. The key for the Aggies in this matchup is generating a steady pass rush without having to bring the blitz. That job will fall primarily on linebacker Sean Porter (8.5 sacks, 16.0 TFL) and joker Damontre Moore (7.5 sacks, 15.5 TFL).
If the Aggies can't get into the backfield and disrupt the timing of Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, it could be a long day because the Wildcats do have some weapons on offense. Persa, a senior, leads the Big Ten in passing yards per tilt (240.3) and ranks second in pass efficiency rating (160.3). He threw 17 touchdowns in nine games, and his 74.2-percent completion rate is tops in the nation. Persa is on pace to become the NCAA's all-time leader in career completion percentage with another solid showing here. He'll look to senior wideout Jeremy Ebert, who became the first Wildcat since 1998 to top 1,000 yards receiving in addition to his 11 touchdown grabs, which tied for second in the Big Ten. Ebert is one of only two players in the league with three receptions of 60 yards or more this season. Another option in the passing game is senior Drake Dunsmore, a first-team all-conference selection and this year's winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as Big Ten Tight End of the Year.
Dunsmore is averaging a career-best and league-high 42.4 receiving yards per game and is right behind Ebert with 43 catches for 509 yards. Four of his six touchdown catches this year came in a record-setting performance at Indiana on Oct. 29. Dunsmore became the school's career leader for receiving yards by a tight end in that game, and he enters this matchup 1,554 yards. Of course, Dunsmore also helps out quite a bit in the running game, as do senior tackle Al Netter and junior guard Brian Mulroe. Those two anchor the left side of an offensive line that paved the way for NU to rank fifth in the conference with 176.2 yards rushing per tilt. Sophomore Kain Colter leads the way in the rushing department and is a jack of all trades, as he accounted for 16 total touchdowns as a quarterback, receiver and runner.
The Northwestern defense is led by senior safety Brian Peters, a first-team All-Big Ten choice who tied for the league lead in interceptions, with four. Peters ranks third all-time at NU with 11 career picks. He is also heavily involved in run support and is tied for 15th in the Big Ten with 7.1 tackles per game. Peters finished second on the team in tackles behind redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, who tallied 89 stops and a pair of interceptions. Campbell emerged in spring drills, rose to the top of the depth chart by the season opener, and never looked back. While the Wildcats have a couple of solid playmakers up the middle of the defense, they were somewhat susceptible against the run, giving up an average of 4.6 yards per tote. They were also hurt by some big plays in the passing game, as opponents averaged a healthy 14.1 yards per catch. Opposing teams also scored points on 84 percent of their trips to the red zone against NU.