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Who Has the Edge? Dissecting Northwestern vs. Syracuse

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan) and Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

With gameday just one day away, we've already given you a breakdown of what to watch out for from Syracuse and posted predictions from NU's media members and bloggers. Now, we go inside the matchup to give you our prediction of who comes out on top, examining which team has the edge in different phases of the game.

When Northwestern has the ball...

Kevin: Offense won't be a problem for Northwestern this season, especially not in this game. This NU offense may be the most versatile of the Pat Fitzgerald era. It has a do-everything quarterback in Kain Colter, who can run, but also has the best receiver corp in the Big Ten to throw to. Colter could also end up as a receiver in this game at times, with capable backup Trevor Siemian at quarterback. The Wildcats have speedster Venric Mark at running back, which helps them incorporate the option into their arsenal. Mark has the ability to be dangerous when he gets outside, but he also likes to run between the tackles. To mix things up, NU has more powerful runners Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green to back him up. There are so many different looks available for this offense that it will be very tough to defend.

It will be especially tough for Syracuse to defend this team, especially in the passing game. Like the Wildcats, the Orange have a big question mark in the secondary, with just one proven safety, senior Shamarko Thomas. With so much youth going up against the NU receivers, Syracuse could struggle to contain the passing game, which opens things up for the run, as well. The key for the Orange will be to create pressure up front against NU's questionable offensive line and not give Colter time to throw. However, Colter is good at avoiding pressure, and with so many weapons available, the NU offense will win the matchup.

Edge: Northwestern

Chris: Much has been made this offseason of Northwestern’s receiving corps, with. Some observers believing it’s the best in the Big Ten. Whatever your opinion on the matter, NU intends to use those receivers this season, and you’ll be sure to see that strategy take form this weekend. Kain Colter’s throwing strength and accuracy will be put to the test against Syracuse’s suspect secondary, which ranked sixth in the Big East against the pass last season. The Orange return senior safety and future NFL draft pick Shamarko Thomas, but question marks remain at both corner positions and the other safety spot, where Jeremi Wilkes takes over for the departed Philip Thomas (6 interceptions last season). Coordinator Mick McCall will find ways to exploit that inexperience with various passing plays. The key for NU is protecting Colter and winning the line of scrimmage. If Colter is provided with ample time to drop back, read the coverage and find open receivers, the Orange simply won’t get enough stops to hang around in this game.

Any significant protection breakdown could destroy NU’s flow on offense. McCall’s up-tempo system functions best when spreading out receivers, hitting short, middle and intermediate routes and mixing in some run plays in unexpected situations. That gameplan can work against Syracuse, who boasts strength up front with tackles Deon Goggins and Jay Bromley but lacks the sort of talent and depth to adequately handle NU’s bevy of pass-catching targets. Colter will find holes in this defense and exploit them for at least 250 passing yards and two touchdowns. NU simply has too many threats with different skill sets and strengths, each serving his own unique purpose within this high-powered offense. The Orange may contain NU in the early going as they ride an early-game excitement high to stifle the Wildcats’ offense, but they can’t hold back the floodgates for four quarters. NU will find success through the air and it won’t sweat doing so.

Edge: Northwestern

When Syracuse has the ball...

Kevin: Everything I said in the last segment can basically be flipped on its head in this one. Syracuse's offense isn't as versatile as Northwestern's, but the Orange have a solid passing game — well, it has the potential to be solid — that could give NU's secondary fits. Quarterback Ryan Nassib returns for his senior year, and while he's been inconsistent, he also has shown flashes where he has the capability of tearing apart opposing secondaries. Of course, there was also the terrible stretch where the Orange lost five straight games to end the season last year, so the game's result could spend on which Ryan Nassib shows up. Nassib won't have Antwon Bailey to help him out at running back anymore, but Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales provide quality targets at receiver, and Ashton Broyld has the ability to hurt NU at a number of positions.

Two things have to improve on defense this year for NU to see any improvement in record — the pass rush and the secondary. The secondary was the obvious weakness on the defense last year, and with just one returning starter, NU has a lot of inexperience back there. the unit seems confident that the communication is better and it has looked improved in camp, with sophomore Ibraheim Campbell taking on a bigger role at safety and talented redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose solidifying his role at corner. But is VanHoose ready for the big time? Can corner Demetrius Dugar and safety Davion Fleming be consistent in their first years as starters? Will the big passing plays stop? These questions hold the key to NU's season, and we'll learn a lot more on Saturday, though it will likely be a progression. In order to help the secondary, the defensive line must improve its pass rush from last year. The D-Line is flying under-the-radar and the pass rush has looked better in camp, but it's tough to tell how that will transition to gameday. However, NU catches a break with top Syracuse offense tackle being out for the game. The pass rush and secondary will be better than last year, but Syracuse gets the edge here just because of experience and the number of weapons in the passing game.

Edge: Syracuse

Chris: The burning question for NU fans heading into this weekend is whether the secondary – after losing two talented stalwarts in safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin – can improve last season’s woeful performance. An optimal situation for the young group would be playing against an inferior opponent with a weak passing game, as a way to ease itself into the upcoming season. That won’t be the case against this Syracuse team, which boasts one of the best passing attacks in the Big East. Quarterback Ryan Nassib enters his third year as the full-time starter with designs on cementing his status as the league’s best passing quarterback. And with two explosive receivers in Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon, Nassib has the best set of pass-catchers of his starting tenure. NU cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Demetrius Dugar – two first-year starters – face a stern test in containing Nassib and the Orange’s batch of pass-catching threats. (*One thing to keep an eye on in the lead-up to Saturday’s game is the distinct possibility that Lemon and redshirt senior tight end David Stevens may be ruled out with injuries) Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell is the secondary’s lone returning starter, and he’s talked about massive improvements all offseason. This will be the pass defense’s first showcase event, a chance to strike back against the perception that the defensive backfield will ultimately deter any sustainable success this season.

There is little doubt Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will devise a pass-heavy game plan – not only because it fits Nassib’s skill set but to challenge NU’s greatest perceived weakness. Even if Lemon and Stevens are ruled out, the Orange have more than enough firepower to make headway through the air against NU’s inexperienced pass defense. The Wildcats can disrupt that gameplan by applying pressure, collapsing the pocket and forcing Nassib to make uncomfortable and ill-timed throws. Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Deonte Gibson have to find ways to attack Nassib, if only to alter his timing and reduce his comfort level when taking five and seven-step drops. Finding success in the passing game will be paramount for the Orange, but they also tout a stable of talented backs that can break big plays any time they touch the ball. Juniors Prince Tyson-Gulley and Jerome Smith must be contained, particularly if – as expected – Syracuse’s potent pass game flourishes. For all the talk about defensive improvement this offseason, particularly along the defensive line, NU may not have the depth or talent to contain this offense.

Edge: Syracuse

Special Teams

Kevin: The nicest thing to say about Northwestern's special teams last year is they were consistently inconsistent. To sum it up in the punting game, Brandon Williams had a 65-yard punt and a 27-yard punt in the same game, so it's tough to know what to expect from him. Pat Fitzgerald seemed to have issues trusting his kicking game, as kicker Jeff Budzien was just 6-of-10 (yes, 10) last year. Budzien has to be more consistent to give the Wildcats the opportunity to get points when they're stopped deep in opposing territory.

Syracuse's kicking game decent last year, as Ross Krautman was 15-of-19 last year on field goals. That's definitely a step up from NU's kicking game and could make the difference in what figures to be a close game. NU has a weapon on kickoff returns in Venric Mark, who averaged 22.9 yards-per-return last year, but Syracuse's Jeremiah Kobena is just as good, averaging 22.8 yards-per-return. Ultimately, this matchup comes down to the kicking game, where the Orange have a clear edge.

Edge: Syracuse

Chris: To adequately assess special teams performance, you need a large sample size of evidence providing discernible trends in productivity. NU used kicker Jeff Budzien only 10 times on field goald last season. He made six of those and his 60 percent conversion rate ranked last in the Big Ten. But 10 field goals is not nearly enough repetitions to predict how Budzien will perform this season. The most we can say about Budzien is that he’s inconsistent. Predicting his performance this season (or in this game) is an exercise in futility. NU’s punting game ranked ninth among Big Ten teams last season with an average net gain of 35.1 yards. Yet the Carrier Dome seems an ideal setting for punters, what with no hint of wind or rain or snow interfering in any way. In the return game, Venric Mark, who looks poised to inherit a larger offensive workload this season, is one of the league’s most explosive kick/punt returners. There’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to provide NU with frequent jolts of special teams greatness.

Whereas NU’s kicking game struggled in limited action, Syracuse’s ranked first in the Big East with a 15-19 make rate (0.789) last season. That success didn’t extend to the punting game, where the Orange finished sixth in their league. Sophomore kick returner Jeremiah Kobena and junior punt returner Steven Rene are explosive athlete with big-play ability. NU’s slight advantage in the return game is offset by the Orange’s superior kicking game.

Edge: Syracuse

What will happen

Kevin: Northwestern 35, Syracuse 31 — Syracuse has the edge in two of the three categories and the Orange will start off the game rolling as Kain Colter and the Northwestern offense struggle to settle in. However, the Wildcats' offensive firepower starts to show as NU takes advantage of an inexperienced Syracuse secondary to pull away to a big lead of their own. The Orange will mount a late-game comeback, but the NU defense gets a late stop — I know, bold prediction, right? — to preserve the close win.

Chris: Northwestern 29, Syracuse 27 – Season-opening games are often the hardest to predict, simply because both sides are normally breaking in new players, testing the waters with innovative schemes and nervously gauging the past offseason’s progress in a competitive setting. In my mind, this matchup is pretty clear-cut: whichever team can outscore the opposition will come away with the victory. In a literal sense, that’s how every game is decided. But this contest figures to be a scoring fest, a chess match of offensive acumen where defensive stops figure to be few and far between. The reason I didn’t predict a higher score is because I envision at least a few turnovers as these teams work off the kinks from a long offseason. NU will jump out to an early lead and ride that momentum to an unexpectedly stout defensive effort. By halftime, the Orange will have adjusted and Nassib will mount a comeback, only to fall short late in the fourth quarter when an Ibraheim Campbell interception ends Syracuse’s potential game-winning drive.