I don't know about the rest of you, but while preseason workouts at Fort Drum are cool and position battles are interesting, it's the actual game that I am getting my juices flowing for. Therefore, it's time for the kind-of-early-but way-too-early preview of the opening game of the season: Northwestern Wildcats versus our Syracuse Orange. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 12:00pm on September 1, a perfect way to start the fall. Let's get to it, shall we?
Northwestern Overview: The Wildcats are coming off a 6-6 season that saw them go bowling...as lose again as they fell in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to Texas A&M 33-22. Under Pat Fitzgerald, who is entering his 8th year of leading the Wildcats, Northwestern is looking to attend their fifth straight bowl and win a postseason game for the first time since 1948. The Wildcats return 12 starters from last season but only 10 of those players are offense/defense. One of the biggest losses in Dan Persa, last year's starting quarterback.
Ironically, the Wildcats do return their leading rusher Kain Colter, who was the backup to Persa when he went down with injuries much of the season. Phil Steele's football preview mag likes the Wildcats as a dark horse B1G team due to an easier schedule with no Ohio State or Wisconsin. Steele goes on to say the Wildcats could "easily start 5-0...." so there's that. This is a very young team along the lines of Louisville last season where lots of freshman/sophomores will be asked to mature very quickly.
How the Orange Should Attack the Wildcats:
Northwestern's offense gets a lot of the attention, but offseason work has to be done on the defense. The Wildcats finished with only 17 sacks, worst in conference and 95th in the nation. The front seven woes continued last season, but a large part of that was due to the loss of tackle Brain Arnfelt with a broken foot and end Tyler Scott. This season, the front seven gains experience but the secondary is taken a large step backwards. Saftey Ibrahiem Campbell is the only returning starter and a lot of responsibility is going to be thrust on redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, the expected No. 1 cornerback.
All of that leads to a perfect litmus for Ryan Nassib and Neal Hackett's passing offense. The offensive line will have their hands full with an defensive line that when together and healthy could be one of the best for Northwestern, but they need time together before a grade is given. The running game won't dominate this game, but PTG and Jerome Smith can be successful if they run smart. However, I will be very disappointed if Nassib doesn't challenge the Northwestern secondary early. We've heard that Sales may have the dropsies again and that Alec Lemon's health is still ongoing, but that doesn't mean a guy looking to establish himself like Jarrod West can't have a big opening to 2012.
How the Orange can defend the Wildcats:
Sean mentioned this earlier, but the Orange will need their front seven to be solidified once the season starts. But that is actually not the strength of Northwestern. Their wide receivers are all young, fast and will work out of the spread formation this season. Quarterback Kain Colter was a scramble happy quarterback last season but worked on his progressions this offseason according to Lindy's preseason mag. Wide outs Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones return while newbie Tony Jones will major wheels into the third slot. All three are over 6' and the spread formation will open up the middle for Kain to run. The Wildcats don't have much of a rushing attack besides Colter, making the offense pretty one dimensional. Mike Trumpy is the expected starting running back, though he missed nine games with a torn ACL last season.
On paper, this matchup shouldn't scare Syracuse too much. The secondary is returning defensive leader #SHAMARKO Thomas while Ri'Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn did get lots of experience last season. The X-factor will be the linebackers. Not only will they have to contain Colter if he gets loose, but they will have to man the middle of the field when Northwestern spreads out the secondary. A few big hits and broken up passes can go a long way to ensuring the passing game slows down a bit.
X Factor: Punting Game
The Wildcats return the second best punt return man in the NCAA with Venric Mark. He also does kick offs and we all remember the issues Syracuse had getting the ball down the field on kicks last year. Hopefully the special teams has improved or Northwestern could have a huge field position advantage.
This game looks to be the tougher of the two B1G games, but Syracuse gets a huge advantage with the Carrier Dome. If the crowd is loud enough to disrupt Colter's signal calling in the spread, the Wildcat offense will be much more conservative. Furthermore, I like the mismatch between Nassib and the Northwestern secondary. This is a tailor made opener for 'Cuse, who will be challenged all game but possess the key matchup advantages to walk away victorious. Final score: 27-18 Syracuse.