After moving up three spots in the national rankings the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats will play a rematch of a shootout from a year ago against the Syracuse Orange at Ryan Field.
Last year these teams faced off to begin the 2013 campaign. Syracuse scored 28 unanswered points to take a 41-35 lead in the contest but a nine-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian to Demetrius Fields with 44 seconds remaining proved to be the difference for Northwestern in the 42-41 win. With the win the Wildcats tied the all-time series with the Orange at five wins apiece.
The same Syracuse team that battled Northwestern a year ago has gotten quite a facelift in the last year. The Orange lost head coach Doug Marrone, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and starting quarterback Ryan Nassib from that squad and are also now members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Scott Shafer took over the head coaching duties and Drew Allen was under center to begin this season, which got off to a rocky start as the Orange lost a tight, 23-17, contest to Penn State in East Rutherford.
The Wildcats already have experience in facing a team with a largely new look on the sidelines after facing Sonny Dykes in his first game coaching California last Saturday. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is acutely aware of the challenges such a matchup can create.
"Like we had last week, a new staff, new coordinators and one game of empirical data. (Its) not enough to have you hang your hat on (or) have a good idea of what you're going to see," Fitzgerald said.
Unlike the Orange, the Wildcats are largely still intact from last season's squad, the same one that collected 10 wins, including a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Fitzgerald has certainly done quite a job in turning the Wildcats around as they opened the season in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2001. Northwestern backed up the honor by posting a 44-30 win on the road over the feisty Golden Bears in the opener.
Designed by Marrone and Hackett and led by Nassib, the Orange offense was an impressive one last season, ranking 17th nationally in yards per game (476). The first time out under Shafer, Allen didn't look nearly the same. The Orange managed to pick up just 260 yards of total offense in the loss to Penn State. Syracuse also only picked up 11 first downs, averaging just 3.5 yards per play.
Allen has some huge shoes to fill, taking over for Nassib, who smashed a number of Syracuse passing records. Allen didn't exactly get off to the best of starts. The former Oklahoma signal caller did connect on his first four passes but in total, completed just 16-of-37 pass attempts for 189 yards with two interceptions.
"I went out there and ultimately we wanted to win, I wanted to win. I don't want to win for myself; I want to win for (Coach Shafer), and all those guys in the blue and orange," Allen said of his mind set going into his first start. "We came up short. Luckily its game one and we have 11 more to go guaranteed and we are going to learn from today."
Partial blame could be put on the receiving corps which was also largely made of newcomers with Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales gone from last year's unit. Ashton Broyld was the most consistent as he had four receptions for 46 yards, while Jeremiah Kobena made an impression with his only reception of the game which went for 55 yards.
Where the Orange are supposed to have strength is in the running game. However, with just 71 yards rushing it is difficult to say that the Orange were strong in that phase. Returning starter Jerome Smith rushed for 73 yards and two scores but Prince-Tyson Gulley, considered a change of pace from Smith's straight-ahead style, struggled with just 24 yards on 12 carries.
Even though the offense didn't provide much in terms of production, Shafer did get a solid effort out of his defense. The Orange allowed 353 yards of total offense. Syracuse made up for its lousy rushing numbers by dominating the line of scrimmage on defense and holding Penn State to just 1.5 yards per carry. In fact the Nittany Lions had just 57 yards on the ground. Syracuse had seven tackles for loss as a team and also kept Penn State honest in the passing game with a pair of interceptions.
Cameron Lynch made plays all over the field with a team-high 10 tackles, one for loss and a pass breakup. Defensive leader Marquis Spruill had six tackles and a sack, while Jeremi Wilkes and Robert Welsh matched Spruill's tackle total, while colleting interceptions. Brandon Reddish had five tackles and forced and recovered a fumble
Even though Northwestern topped California, the Wildcats took what could be some significant losses. Starting quarterback Kain Colter was taken out of the game after just two plays with a concussion. Meanwhile 1,300-yard rusher Venric Mark didn't see a ton of time due to an injury to his leg. Both are vital components of the Wildcats' offense but are still listed as day to day.
The good news, if there is any, is that the replacements for each played extremely well. Trevor Siemian completed 10 of his first 11 pass attempts and finished the game with 276 yards and a touchdown, though he did have two interceptions.
Treyvon Green was used more in the running game than Mark, and had 129 yards on 16 carries, scoring two touchdowns. That type of production may be difficult to replicate but if Mark continues to be hobbled, it will be vital that Green get the job done.
The fleet of receivers for the Wildcats produced at a high level. Dan Vitale was one of three players with five receptions, while totaling a team-high 101 yards. Christian Jones (94 yards) and Tony Jones (70 yards, TD) pitched in as well.
The defense also took a hit from an injury standpoint, when cornerback Daniel Jones hurt his left knee with just 20 seconds left in the game. Jones is set to have surgery and will be out for the rest of the year.
Without Jones the Wildcats will need to continue to play well in pass coverage, an area they struggled with against California's pass-heavy offense. Northwestern allowed 455 of the 548 yards it surrendered through the air in the contest, though the team did force three interceptions. Collin Ellis was the most disruptive defender as he broke up three passes and intercepted two, both of which he returned for scores. Chi Chi Ariguzo had a team-high 10 tackles and Tyler Scott had one of five sacks.