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Who Has The Edge? Dissecting Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt

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: Watching Vanderbilt take on No. 9 South Carolina last week, I learned more than a few things about the upstart Commodores. For one, they have a deep and talented secondary, highlighted by safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall along with cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy’s defensive backs weren’t tested downfield as much as they were over the middle and on short passes, but they supplied physical coverage and provided support against the run at the line of scrimmage. More importantly, the defensive line is rangy and dynamic, quick to penetrate the line of scrimmage and invade the pocket. While the linebacking corps is thin, the other two levels of defense can atone for its weaknesses. The combination of strong defensive line play and a talented secondary could alter Northwestern’s offensive game plan. Quarterback Kain Colter, though extremely impressive against Syracuse last week, will not be afforded the same freedoms in the pocket, nor will he find receivers virtually unmarked downfield. Vandy’s secondary will make Colter work into his second (and possible third) reads, attempt difficult throws and improvise on the run.

To counter Vandy’s strengths in the secondary and the line, the Wildcats should employ a short passing game, so as to offset the Commodores’ pressure and attack their weakness at linebacker. Players like Tony Jones and Mike Jensen – players able to make plays in tight spaces and run after the catch – will be paramount in this game as Colter looks to find seams in this defense. The Wildcats failed to establish a power run game with Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy last week, instead using Venric Mark on stretch plays and outside handoffs, but if the pass game fails to materialize against Vandy’s secondary, picking up yards between the tackles on first and second downs could prove instrumental in sustaining drives and keeping Colter out of unfavorable down and distance situations. The Wildcats receiver depth faces its first real challenge of the season, but there are enough talented pass-catching threats to exploit this defense. The passing game may sputter early on while adjusting to Vandy’s physical coverage, but expect another big day from Colter and the Wildcats’ receivers.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: A lot was made of Vanderbilt's defense holding South Carolina to 17 points, but in reality, that offense isn't nearly as good as the one the Commodores will see at Northwestern. Vanderbilt did a good job containing South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore to just 110 yards, which is better than most of Lattimore's opponents will do this year. However, Connor Shaw is just an average quarterback, so his lack of success last Thursday isn't all that surprising. That said, this is a good Vanderbilt defense, much better than the one NU saw against Syracuse.

The Commodores have a talented secondary, as outlined by Chris, which will put more pressure on Kain Colter as a passer than he received at Syracuse. South Carolina had four receivers catch a total of seven passes against Vanderbilt, while NU had eight players with receptions and Demetrius Fields had eight receptions, alone. Don't expect either extreme this week, but the Wildcats have more playmakers than the Gamecocks in the receiving game, which gives Vanderbilt a lot more to focus on.

Ultimately, this matchup will come down to which team can make more plays. Colter and Trevor Siemian certainly showed their playmaking abilities last Saturday, especially in crunch time, and Colter has the versatility and elusiveness to make things happen out of seemingly broken plays. The offense won't be able to do whatever it wants, like it did for about three quarters against Syracuse, but it will still be productive against the Vanderbilt defense.

Edge: Northwestern

When Vanderbilt Has the Ball...

Chris: It would be foolish to assume that Vandy’s offense, which generated only 13 points against South Carolina last week, will see its point total held under 15 for a second straight week. That was South Carolina’s defense, home to future first-round pick defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadaveon Clowney; they’re going to make most teams they come up against look pretty bad. This is NU, fresh off yielding 41 points to Syracuse, a middling Big East opponent. Vandy is without question a better offensive team than the Orange, and it will punish NU’s defense much in the same way Syracuse did last week. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers made huge strides over the offseason and looked sharp against the Gamecocks last week. His No. 1 target, Jordan Matthews, is one of the SEC’s best receivers, a 6-3, 205 pound dynamo with superb speed, athleticism and jump-ball ability. Whether the Wildcats use Nick VanHoose, Demetrius Dugar or Quinn Evans lockdown Matthews, rest assured, the game-breaking wideout will get his touches. Rodgers, for all his deficiencies in the short passing game, is a strong deep thrower and he’s developed a nice rapport with Matthews. Last week, Matthews went off for 147 yards and a touchdown. Vanderbilt’s run game is equally, if not slightly less, potent. Senior tailback Zac Stacy was limited against the Gamecock’s fearsome front last week, but he should bounce back against NU’s weaker defensive line.

Last week provided little reason to believe NU’s secondary will be any better than last year’s group, which ranked last in the Big Ten against the pass. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib found open receivers running freely into NU’s defensive backfield, finding holes in coverages and picking up huge chunks of yardage after the catch. Now the Wildcats face not only a better quarterback, but a better set of skill players and a potent run game. The confluence of factors – NU’s lack of depth and inexperience in the secondary, the Commodores’ offensive firepower – bodes poorly for the Wildcats’ chances of reversing course in their pass defense efforts. Then there’s the Wildcat, which QB/WR Josh Grady runs with poise and aplomb. NU already had enough on its hands trying to figure out ways to limit Vandy’s basic offensive package. Throw in this schematic wrinkle, and it appears the Wildcats’ defense is in for another long day.

Edge: Vanderbilt

Kevin: Just like we shouldn't overhype Vanderbilt's defense after the South Carolina game, it would also be a mistake to undersell the Commodores' offense. Vanderbilt only scored 13 points, but that came against one of the best defensive fronts in the country. Running back Zac Stacy managed just 48 yards, but he should have more success against the NU defensive front, even though run defense is NU's forte this year — Pat Fitzgerald said Stacy is "like Venric (Mark), but bigger."

But the difference in this matchup will be in the deep ball. Vanderbilt led the SEC last year with 18 plays over 40 yards and had another against South Carolina — a 78-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Jordan Matthews. Northwestern last year... well, here's a good breakdown from Sippin on Purple. In short, NU was terrible at defending the deep ball last year and can't afford lapses in coverage against Vanderbilt, which has an outstanding deep threat in Matthews. Those lapses didn't look like they'd been corrected much against Syracuse.

The big question will be who guards Matthews. You would think it would be Nick VanHoose, who was impressive against the Orange in his college football debut, but Fitzgerald hasn't always moved his defenders just to key in on a certain player. Regardless, the Commodores will no doubt try to pick on cornerback Demetrius Dugar and safety Jared Carpenter. If they are successful, it will be yet another long night for the NU secondary.

Edge: Vanderbilt

Special Teams 

Chris: Of all the glaring weaknesses exposed last week against Syracuse, the kicking game was not one of them. Pat Fitzgerald thought otherwise, saying at a press conference earlier this week, “I thought we stunk in the kicking game.” Fair enough. The Wildcats attempted zero field goals, made all six extra point attempts, landed three of five punts inside the opponent’s 20-yd line, allowed zero punt return yards and an average of 20.4 yards on kick returns. It’s hard to fret over that performance, but perhaps Fitzgerald saw something on tape I can’t identify from my distant press box vantage point. Whatever the case, the all around special teams performance was undeniably positive, thanks to Venric Mark’s 134 yards on punt returns, including an 82-yd momentum-turning touchdown at the end of the first quarter. It’s unlikely Mark will run back another punt for a touchdown this week, but he can still provide a spark with his returns by giving the offense favorable field position. But if Vandy watched even a small portion of last week’s game – which is probably a safe assumption – they might think twice before kicking/punting the ball in Mark’s direction Saturday night.

The Commodores boast a talented kick/punt returner of their own in Andre Hal – who ran a kick back 96 yards for a touchdown against Georgia last season – plus a senior punter whose 39.2-net punt yard average ranked third in the SEC. But inconsistency in the kicking game limits the overall productivity of this special teams unit. The Wildcats have yet to miss a field goal this season (They haven’t attempted one, either), while Vandy went 2 for 3 against South Carolina last week. Taken as a whole, Vandy may have a slight edge, but Mark’s dazzling performance last week deserves a nod of appreciation. What he did against the Orange was downright electrifying.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: Every once in awhile, Pat Fitzgerald has a revelation that nobody else sees. Last year after the Michigan State loss, Fitzgerald applauded punter Brandon Williams for his consistency all year long; the same Brandon Williams that had punts of 65 and 11 yards against Illinois. Last week, of all the issues that he could have talked about, he chose this: "I thought our kicking game stunk." Granted, he did talk about the issues in the secondary, but he was much harsher on the kicking game. But why? Kicker Jeff Budzien didn't attempt a field goal, but he was 6-for-6 on extra points and kick coverage was excellent.

However, if there's a criticism to NU's kicking game, it's that the Wildcats don't have a kicker who they can trust from very deep. Vanderbilt's Carey Spear went 2-for-3 against South Carolina, with a 44-yarder. So in the kicking game, the Commodores at least have more potential.

But the difference-maker will be Northwestern's Venric Mark, who returned a punt for a touchdown and nearly had another, totaling 134 yards (an NU record) on just two returns. He has the ability to spark the NU offense like he did last week, and if he runs another one back, he will change the outcome of the game.

Edge: Northwestern

What will happen

Chris: Vanderbilt 35, Northwestern 27 – The emotional high of last week’s close victory will reach a startling halt Saturday night. Vanderbilt went toe-to-toe with a top-ten team last Thursday, and it wasn’t a fluke. Coach James Franklin will use that close loss to motivate heading into week 2 and the Commodores will respond with an inspired performance. Jordan Rodgers will torch NU’s secondary for 250 + yards and three touchdowns and Zac Stacy will break the century mark on the ground. The Wildcats will hang around thanks to Colter’s dual-threat talents, but the offense will fall just short. Unlike last week, when NU engineered a last-minute comeback, there will be no fourth-quarter magic against the Commodores. Their veteran secondary won’t allow it. Colter’s valiant efforts will go to waste and Vandy will exact some revenge after falling at home to the Wildcats two years ago.

Kevin: Vanderbilt 31, Northwestern 28 — I think Vanderbilt is a bit overrated and about the same caliber team as Northwestern — maybe even a little worse. However, the Commodores’ forte is their deep passing game, which is NU’s weakness. The Wildcats will have an easier time scoring on the Vanderbilt defense than South Carolina did, but the Commodores will have a couple big passing plays that help them pull ahead in the fourth quarter. NU’s last-minute comeback won’t be successful this time.