Game preview: 'Cats look to overcome secondary troubles against Vandy

    Ryan Field at night

    The 'Cats will host Vanderbilt under the lights at Ryan Field, currently the only scheduled primetime game for Northwestern this season. Photo by Natalie Krebs / North by Northwestern.

    Have you fully recovered from the season opener yet against Syracuse yet?

    Ready or not, the Wildcats will be back in action this Saturday, opening their home schedule against the Vanderbilt Commodores, a perennial SEC doormat that has made drastic improvements over the past few years.

    Like Northwestern, Vanderbilt is better known for dominating the U.S News and World Report rankings than the AP Top 25. Because of its relatively small size (just under 7,000 undergraduates), academic standards and affiliation with the best conference in college football, the Commodores have historically floundered in football, not unlike the Wildcats.

    And just like Northwestern, Vandy is no longer relegated to serving as a practice squad for the more athletically elite programs they compete with. Last Saturday, the Commodores gave No. 9 South Carolina all they could handle, eventually falling 17-13, due in part to a highly questionable non-call on what appeared to be a pass interference penalty committed by the Gamecocks.

    Even though they did not earn the win, Vanderbilt made a statement: If the nation is expecting the same old Commodores, be prepared for a surprise.

    Scouting the opponent

    In 2011, Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin - previously an assistant at Maryland - led his team to a 6-7 record in his first season in Nashville. This included a 3-0 start, conference wins against Ole Miss and Kentucky, and a trip to the Commodores’ second bowl game in 29 years, a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

    Vandy's 2-6 record in the SEC is deceiving at first glance. Other than a 21-3 loss to No. 12 South Carolina and a 34-0 loss to eventual BCS champion No. 2 Alabama, their remaining conference losses each came by less than a touchdown.

    Senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers, brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, leads the Commodore offense behind center and is looking to build off of a satisfactory first season as a starter. Like his brother, Rodgers can move the ball with both his arm and his legs. Last season, he passed for 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns and also rushed for 420 yards and four touchdowns.

    However, Rogers struggles with passing accuracy, as he only completed 50 percent of his throws and threw 10 interceptions last season.

    Against South Carolina last weekend, Rogers completed 13 passes on 23 attempts for 214 yards, but rushed for a net total of -8 yards on 13 attempts due to five Gamecock sacks.

    With a receiver like 6-foot-3 Jordan Matthews, Rogers has some margin for error. Matthews caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown last weekend and averaged 19 yards per reception in 2011.

    The backfield tandem of senior Zac Stacy and junior Wesley Tate struggled last week, only rushing for a combined 75 yards against South Carolina.

    On the other side of the ball, senior defensive tackles Rob Lohr (6-foot-4, 290 lbs.) and Colt Nichter (6-foot-1, 288 lbs.) anchor the defense, which tied for 43rd out of 120 teams in terms of sacks in 2011.

    What to watch for

    A tale of two quarterbacks

    When head coach Pat Fitzgerald replaced starting quarterback Kain Colter with backup Trevor Siemian for what ended up being Northwestern’s game winning drive against Syracuse, ESPN2 reported that it was for “football reasons,” not an injury. But in the days following the game, both Fitzgerald and Colter said the quarterback pulled himself out because of a nagging shoulder injury he suffered in the third quarter.

    Both coach and quarterback say Colter is ready to start on Saturday, but given last year’s PersaStrong escapade, it’s hard to say whether or not Colter is really healthy enough to go. There is no doubt we would have seen a little bit of Siemian anyway and that will see him more throughout the season. But don't be surprised to see an even split of time between the two.

    Deep pain

    No, I’m not necessarily talking about the feeling in your heart after the game is over. But if the Northwestern secondary can’t keep Matthews and the rest of the Vandy receiving corps from getting deep open looks early and often, it is going to be incredibly difficult for the Wildcats to win their home opener. The secondary looked lost against Syracuse and unless the Northwestern offense and special teams repeat what happened in the Carrier Dome, there is no conceivable way for the Wildcats to win if the secondary doesn't improve.

    Mark these words

    Northwestern running back and kick returner Venric Mark rushed for 82 total yards on 14 attempts against Syracuse, averaging just under six yards per carry. The rest of the team rushed for a net total of 42 yards - and forty of those yards were by Colter.

    On special teams, Mark returned two punts for 134 yards and three kickoffs for 49 yards. His punt return yardage total set a new school record.

    If Mark can repeat or even improve on this performance, it can help offset the lack of clear stability at quarterback.


    Northwestern has much more offensive firepower on paper than the Commodores, so I am predicting yet another close Cardiac ‘Cats shootout victory under the Ryan Field lights. Prime your inhalers and perfect your deep breathing. Vandy is coming to play and they aren't going down easy.

    Northwestern 38, Vanderbilt 35

    (Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT on Saturday, Sept. 8 at Ryan Field. Follow us on Twitter @NBNSports1 for live updates throughout the game.)


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