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Who has the Edge? Dissecting Northwestern vs. Boston College

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

With gameday just one day away, we’ve already given you a breakdown of what to watch out for from Vanderbilt 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…

Chris: Last week’s strong defensive performance overshadowed just how mediocre Northwestern was on the other side of the ball. While Venric Mark and Kain Colter submitted a productive rushing game, NU quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Colter combined for only 133 passing yards. The passing game was touted as NU’s offensive strong suit headed into this season. With a bevy of deep wideouts and a diverse quarterback tandem, most expected the Wildcats to air it out in large doses. Through two games NU has yet to break the 215-passing yard barrier. Against strong conference opponents – teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska – the Wildcats will need to score in bunches. That requires a fluid and proficient passing game, the likes of which we’re yet to see this season.

But for Mark’s sensational playmaking, NU may very well be 0-2 and limping into this week 3 matchup with Boston College. There will be a time this season when Mark can’t ignite NU’s offense the way he has to this point, and it could be this weekend. NU needs a prolific passing effort to jumpstart its aerial attack in advance of league play. The Eagles, with a weak and unproven secondary, offer little resistance for NU’s talented wideouts, players like Demetrius Fields, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones and so on. Receivers will find holes in coverage and exploit them for big gains. With mismatches downfield, Colter (or Siemian) must take advantage.

The passing game should receive added comfort in the Eagles’ weak pass rush, which through two games has generated only one sack. If Colter and Siemian have time in the pocket, they should have no trouble connecting with receivers downfield. NU should also try and work in Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy to lighten Mark’s heavy workload. It’s difficult to ask Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mick McCall to keep the ball out of Mark’s hands, but if he continues to run so recklessly, with such impunity, Mark will never make it through the season. He needs assistance in the running game. If NU can establish their ground attack with its ancillary backs (Trumpy, Green, even Tyris Jones) and exploit the Eagles’ weak secondary, this could be their best offensive performance yet.

Edge: Northwestern 

Kevin:

This one is a no-brainer. While the Northwestern offense struggled at times last week, it still scored 23 points against a formidable Vanderbilt defense. Don’t expect another slow start from the Wildcats, especially in the passing game, as Pat Fitzgerald seems to have lit a fire under the receivers, who have underperformed so far this year.

The Kain Colter-Trevor Siemian quarterback combination has worked out well this year, and while Siemian has led game-winning drives in both games so far, Colter is more versatile and has been underappreciated, especially for his role in the Syracuse game. Venric Mark has been, as Pat Fitzgerald said, playing at a “championship level.” NU has so many offensive weapons that it can make up for its mediocre offensive line. There are too many playmakers for the Eagles to stop.

Boston College’s defense isn’t nearly as good as Vanderbilt’s. The Eagles gave up 415 total yards and 41 points against a weak Miami offense, and while they held Maine to just three points, few BCS teams couldn’t. Expect the Wildcats to have few issues moving the ball.

Edge: Northwestern

When Boston College Has the Ball…

Chris: The defense deserves a robust round of applause for its strong showing against a potent Vanderbilt offense, just one week following its abominable 41-point meltdown at Syracuse. The line generated strong pressure off the edge, the linebackers – In particular Chi Chi Ariguzo, who supplied 10 tackles and three tackles for loss – made plays from sideline to sideline and the secondary, despite some early struggles, held up against Jordan Matthews and the rest of Vandy’s dynamic receiving corps. It was an impressive all-around performance, and coordinator Mike Hankwitz deserves a fair share of credit for turning this unit around in one week’s time.

Now the defense must sustain its progress against an offense that has combined for 75 points in two games. Sure, Boston College feasted on two weak defenses, Miami and FCS foe Maine, but there’s been a massive philosophical shift in their offensive brain’s trust, with new pass-happy coordinator Doug Martin taking the reins this season. Martin has installed a West-Coast passing attack, which has opened the game up for quarterback Chase Rettig. The BC signal caller is quietly emerging as one of the ACC’s premier signal callers, and has developed a strong connection with junior wideout Alex Amidon. Of Rettig’s 660 passing yards this season, Amidon is responsible for 248 of them. He finished with only 220 receiving yards last season. This prolific duo will get its reps against NU’s secondary; if the past two weeks are any indication, the Wildcats could be in danger of having to deal with another Syracuse-like air raid.

The key to stopping Rettig is applying pressure, the same way Brian Arnfelt and Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams were able to flush Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers out of the pocket last week. If Rettig has time to survey the field, set his feet and fire away from a clean pocket, the Eagles will move the ball crisply and efficiently. Rettig is simply too good, and Amidon too quick to believe anything short of last week’s strong defensive outing will suffice against this BC offense. The secondary clearly improved after week 1, but this week’s test is perhaps equally challenging. A healthy Nick VanHoose should help, but its foolish to think Rettig and co. aren’t capable of hanging 30 on NU’s typically porous pass defense. Stopping this passing attack, along with dynamic running backs Tahj Kimble and Rolandan Finch, will require a strong collaborative effort, from the line to the linebackers to the secondary. BC has the offensive firepower to match NU score for score.

Edge: Boston College

Kevin:

Was last week an anomaly for Northwestern’s defense, or was that the norm? The answer to that question will be the biggest factor in whether NU can make a run in the Big Ten this year, and we should get a good sense of the answer this Saturday.

Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig had big games against Miami and Maine, but again, that’s Miami and Maine. He’s a solid quarterback, but this will be the best defense he’s faced to date, and if NU can get pressure like it did against Vanderbilt, the Eagles will have a tough time finding offensive production.

The Northwestern defense proved that it can defend the pass, using a pass rush to make up for the weakness in the secondary. If the secondary keys in on top receiver Alex Amidon like it did against Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews (minus the first drive), the Wildcats will be able to stifle the Eagles’ passing attack. Neither running back — Andre Williams nor Rolandan Finch — has been impressive so far, and if Boston College fails to establish the run, NU can focus on the passing attack even more.

Edge: Northwestern

Special Teams

It was inevitable NU wouldn’t get quite as much in the return game last week as it did in week 1, when Mark compiled 134 return yards on two punts (including an 82-yd touchdown). The Commodores weren’t going to allow such gamebreaking special teams play under their watches; Mark had zero punt returns last week and – thanks to NU’s stingy defense – just one kick return for 21 yards. Chances are Mark will bust out another big play at some point this season, but it would behoove punters facing the Wildcats from here on out to stand up, take notice and simply aim for the sidelines. As defensive strategies go, that’s almost guaranteed to work. Mark may or may not get his chance this week, but his transcendent week 1 performance has outshined NU’s impressive kicking and punting efforts. Brandon Williams has averaged 38.1 net yards over 11 punts, while Jeff Budzien has posted a perfect 3-for-3 mark on field goals. For a team that struggled in both areas last season, the early signs of progress are encouraging.

Like NU, the Eagles have yet to miss a field goal this season, as junior Nate Freese has made all five of his attempts. At punter, Gerald Lovano has booted 10 times at a 37.4-net yards clip. Wideout Spiffy Evans has assumed kick return duties after sharing the job with Kimble last season. An explosive open-field runner, Evans has averaged 31.3 yards per punt this season – an impressive mark, to be sure, albeit not in the same stratosphere as Mark’s 67-yard average.

While neither unit has struggled in any particularly noticeable way, NU gets the nod for the threat Mark poses every time he runs back a kick or punt.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: After the Vanderbilt game, most people would be ready to call the defense the most improved unit for Northwestern. But that title belongs to the NU special teams, a unit that has been impressive, much less the liability it was in 2011. Brandon Williams has been much more consistent as a punter, while Jeff Budzien was three-for-three on field goals last week, which is half of his total from all of last season. Then there’s Venric Mark, who has done an outstanding job as a returner.

Boston College kicker Nate Freese is perfect this year on PATs and field goals, with seven and five, respectively. The junior is looking to build on a mediocre-to-below average season in 2011, just like Budzien, so NU and BC are in the same boat in that area. However, the Eagles don’t have a returner with the game-changing abilities Mark has — though his name, Spiffy Evans, may be the best on the field — giving NU an edge.

Edge: Northwestern

Prediction

Chris: Northwestern 34, Boston College 29 – A pass-oriented offense plus a talented quarterback does not bode well for NU’s secondary, which, such as it is, improved last week but has not convinced me it’s any better than last year’s ineffective defensive backfield. The Eagles will hang around with the Wildcats into the fourth quarter in another nail-biting performance for the Cardiac Cats, before Siemian leads a game-winning drive to seal the win. NU will have no trouble scoring on BC’s defense. Stopping the Eagles is where they will struggle. Rettig will go off for 300 passing yards and two touchdowns to Amidon, while Kimble and Finch will wreak havoc in the short passing game. Mark will come back to earth, but NU’s passing game will finally play to its considerable hype level. The two-quarterback system, awkward as it may seem, will work to perfection for another week.

Kevin: Northwestern 34, Boston College 17 — A lot of Northwestern media members seem to see this as an inevitable letdown game for the Wildcats. I don’t see it. Yes, the Eagles have a decent offense, but they’ve also put their points up against Miami and Maine. The defense was atrocious against Miami, and while it was solid against Maine, that’s not much of an accomplishment. The NU defense will play well again and Kain Colter will have a big game en route to an easy win.