by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The string of FBS opponents comes to a close today when Northwestern meets South Dakota, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Coyotes, as you may already know, are 1-1 on the season, with a road loss to FCS power Montana and a win over Colgate. USD enters this game off a bye week, having faced a Big Ten opponent in each of the past two seasons. In 2010, the Coyotes upset Minnesota on the road; last season, the eventual Big Ten Rose Bowl representative Wisconsin Badgers throttled the Coyotes in Madison. This is something of a transition year for USD, who entered this season with a new coach, new league and a renewed yearly rivalry with South Dakota State. While USD won't be afraid of FBS competition, the conditions -- roster depth, experience, overall talent level -- are hardly ripe for an upset. If NU stumbles it has no one to blame but itself. These Coyotes, while brimming with pluck, spunk, and enthusiasm, pose no threat to the Wildcats' athletic and schematic advantages.
The game itself may lack for pure entertainment, but there are several story lines worth keeping an eye on. For one, Traveon Henry, who in his NU debut last week laid the lumber on Boston College return man Spiffy Evans, will get time at safety. Henry joins super back Dan Vitale, and defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Dean Lowry in the line of true freshman to see game action this season. Given the inconsistent play at safety to this point, it stands to reason Henry could make an impact later on this season. And if you haven't read Teddy Greenstein's brilliant piece on Henry, it merits, at the very least, your fleeting glance. Speaking of true freshmen, this seems as good an opportunity as any to showcase Odenigbo in a larger sample size. If NU builds a comfortable lead, we should see Pat Fitzgerald plumb the depths of his roster. Some of the younger receivers -- Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Cameron Dickerson, to name a couple -- could get more touches and earn playing time in league competition. We're yet to see the highly-touted receiving core fully unleashed. Against this defense, offensive coordinator Mick McCall can unfurl an diversely-constructed aerial attack, with an emphasis on spreading the wealth amongst NU's various targets.
It's hard to complain with how NU has navigated its non conference schedule to this point. Three weeks, three wins, and a top-25 ranking looming provided it takes care of business (and does so comfortably) against USD. A strong performance, on both sides of the ball, would sustain NU's positive momentum going into the conference season. This, more than anything else -- despite Fitzgerald's poker-faced lip-service to the contrary -- is a tune-up, a means of breaking stride, of turning on the jets, before the Wildcats put their undefeated (if, as expected, it holds) mark to the test in conference play.
We hope this post finds you in good temperament as you proceed through whatever gameday routine accompanies these precious fall Saturdays. Hopefully our preview material has you ready for the upcoming matchup, but in case you missed anything, below we’ve compiled a last-minute study guide for any opponent queries that may yet stand unresolved. It never hurts to get some last-minute cramming in before watching your beloved Wildcats in game action. That said, read up, and enjoy the game!
Whatever your opinion on statistics -- Fitzgerald delivered his thoughts with clarity last week: "Stats are for losers" -- they help writers like yours truly glean insight on teams we may not get to watch on TV every week. Unless you happen to own the MVC football network (if such a network exists), then this numerical breakdown is probably worthless. Alas.
For all you national newspaper connoisseurs, this introduction may not be necessary. Periodical knowledge aside, here goes: The Argus Leader is South Dakota's No. 1 newspaper in circulation. Mick Garry, one of the Leader's esteemed columnist, is making the trip to Evanston today. He knows the Coyotes better than you, me or any Northwestern media member could ever hope to. He answered some questions for us.
From all the information we've compiled, materials we've read, and perspective we've garnered from our weekly preparation, here's our humble attempt at breaking down USD. Strengths, weakness, players to watch -- you know, the basics.
News flash: Northwestern has more talent and depth than South Dakota on offense, defense and special teams. Which, though completely self-explanatory, by definition confers the Wildcats with a distinct "edge" in all three phases. Beyond physical and pure personnel advantages, though, find out how the Wildcats will approach USD from a schematic standpoint.