by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Introduction: While Kevin Trahan and Chris Johnson, your trusty site founders and writers, are already in Jacksonville, most likely bodysurfing with Coach Fitzgerald in the Atlantic Ocean, I elected to drive, and thought I'd bring you with on this little adventure, as I embark on the long drive to Jacksonville. Each rest stop will bring a little snippet, which I hope you will enjoy.
WEST LAFAYETTE, IN. — While Northwestern's bowl games have become better known for their fourth quarters than their first quarters, it's the opening stages of games that have troubled the Wildcats so deeply in postseason play. Against Texas Tech, Northwestern fell behind 31-9. Against Texas A&M, Northwestern fell behind 30-7. Against Auburn, Northwestern trailed all game long, including several two-touchdown deficits. The Wildcats even trailed 35-21 midway through the fourth quarter. If this is to be the year, Northwestern will need to come out of the gate a little faster. The Wildcats have done a pretty good job of that all year long, holding opponents to just 44 points in the first quarter this year, or just 3.7 points per first quarter. Meanwhile, they've scored 194 first-half points this year, good for 16 points per first half. The Bulldogs have been good in the first quarter as well, though not overwhelming. If Northwestern can bring a lead, or even a close score, into the locker room, it might just bring a trophy back to Evanston.
GLENDALE, KY — I'll confess. I skipped a stop. I stopped at a small gas station in Uniontown, Indiana, but I knew I didn't want to write a post in the car, so I drove on, passed over the Kentucky state line and stopped here at a McDonald's in Glendale, Kentucky, to resume our series.
Northwestern fans can be forgiven for thinking the special teams gods are against them. Who can forget Northwestern's brutal 30-23 loss to Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl? Two special teams plays sealed the Wildcats' unfortunate fate. First, Jeremy Maclin tied the score just before the half with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Then, to begin the second half, Amado Villarreal missed an extra point. That would turn out to be pivotal when Missouri trailed by three late and was able to tie the game on a short field goal.
In the Outback Bowl, Stefan Demos not only averaged just 31.6 yards per punt, had an extra point blocked and missed a field goal in the second quarter, but he also missed a chance to break the Wildcats' bowl skid, when he missed what would have been a 44-yard game-winner as time expired.
With past tragedies in mind, Northwestern seems as well equipped as ever to finally seize the advantage in the special teams arena. Jeff Budzien was easily among the best kickers in the country, missing just one field goal all season long. He was perfect on extra points. Whatever the people over at Lou Groza headquarters might think, Budzien was as reliable as it gets.
It's Mississippi State which has had the special teams issues. Devon Bell only made 12-of-19 field goals during the year and missed an extra point. He was a paltry 6-of-10 from 30 to 39 yards out and 3-of-6 from 40 to 49 yards out. He has extremely limited range. And in terms of return threats, Northwestern's once stagnant return game has come to life. Venric Mark is far more likely than any Bulldog to take one to the house. This might finally be the year for the Wildcats to ride their special teams to a bowl victory.
MANCHESTER, TN — Well, after a very comfortable night at a roadside Motel 6, I am charged up and ready to go. Particularly after spending a couple of hours in the South. I got a near-full tank of gas for $28 and a room with two queen beds for $38. Yes, you have to love Southern living. Anyway, it has been an interesting trip through Northwestern history thus far. I passed by Butler University, not the Bulldogs any Wildcats fan wants to hear about right now, I know. I also passed through the gorgeous city of Nashville, where Northwestern has taken care of business against Vanderbilt in the past. Yes, the very same Commodores that are playing North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl this afternoon.
All of which brings me back to the early-season argument that Northwestern ought to get credit for beating three BCS teams in its non-conference schedule. A lot of people pooh-poohed that, noting that Boston College, Syracuse and Vanderbilt weren't exactly the cream of their conferences. Well, Syracuse looked dominant at Yankee Stadium the other night, crushing West Virginia and the Mountaineers' stellar quarterback Geno Smith. Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib has turned into a true National Football League prospect. And then Vanderbilt finished the season with an 8-4 record, its best record since 1982. Indeed, the Commodores ended the regular season with the 14th-best scoring defense in the nation. In some ways, Northwestern's non-conference resume might be more impressive than its conference resume.
MCDONOUGH, GA — The drive has begun to lag on between Atlanta and Macon and it's now a race against time to arrive in Jacksonville by 2013. Again, I skipped a spot for the sake of expediency. There was a brief pause at Rest Stop No. 35 along Interstate 75 South, but I spent most of that time peering at a nice little gathering of pine trees and walking along a path meant mainly for dog walkers — and me. Now, back to the writing:
I remember one of the first things Coach Pat Fitzgerald ever said to me was that "statistics are for losers." It was a rather memorable introduction to the Northwestern coach, who might as well have just called me a loser. If there's one statistic that Fitzgerald loves to dote on, however, it's turnover margin.
Certainly, turnovers have hurt Northwestern's cause in previous bowl games. Most notably, Mike Kafka tossed five interceptions in the Outback Bowl. And this Mississippi State team forces tons of turnovers, 30 of them in fact, good for second in the Southeastern Conference. That includes 16 interceptions, fourth-best in the conference, led by probable first-round pick Johnathan Banks and his 59 tackles, seven pass breakups and four interceptions.
The good news for Northwestern: If there's anything the Wildcats have done well this season, it's avoid turnovers. Venric Mark almost never lets the ball hit the ground, and neither quarterback in the Wildcats' ground-based system throws very many picks. When Trevor Siemian misses, he misses big — meaning he misses defensive back and wide receiver alike by maybe 10 yards. See, I just turned Siemian's off throws into a bright spot. I guess I will not need to make an optimistic spirit into one of my New Year's resolutions after all.