The Sports Network
By John Agovino, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: In the inaugural TicketCity Bowl, the Texas Tech Red Raiders will clash with the Northwestern Wildcats for the first-time ever on the gridiron at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
The Wildcats stormed out of the gates this season, winning their first five games, but it was not easy, as three of those victories came by a total of eight points. However, Northwestern could not continue its impressive effort, especially as Big Ten Conference play began. The Wildcats lost five of their last seven games, and the two victories were decisions over Indiana and Iowa by a total of seven points. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team backed its way into this bowl appearance, as the Wildcats lost their last two games during the regular season against Illinois and Wisconsin by a combined score of 118-50. Still, Fitzgerald is happy to be in another New Year's Day bowl.
"We're extremely proud of our football program, which is making a third consecutive bowl trip," said Northwestern Head Coach Fitzgerald. "We're proud to represent the Big Ten for a second straight year on New Year's Day, and do it against Texas Tech, a tremendous opponent from the Big 12 Conference. I'm thrilled for our 12 seniors, who have the opportunity to help us win a bowl game and become the winningest senior class in our program's modern era."
Back in 1949 Northwestern won the Rose Bowl against California by a 20-14 margin. However, since then the Wildcats have made just seven bowl appearances, and have lost them all. This will be the third straight bowl game for the Wildcats, but coach Fitzgerald is hoping for a better outcome than the previous two seasons. In 2008 the Wildcats lost to Missouri, 30-23, in overtime of the Alamo Bowl. That was followed the next year by another overtime setback, as Northwestern was defeated by Auburn, 38-35, in the Outback Bowl.
When compared to their opponent, the Red Raiders have a bit more of a history in terms of playing in bowl games. In fact, this will be the 11th straight bowl game for the Red Raiders, who are just 11-21-1 all-time in bowls. However, the team has performed better in these matchups over the past few seasons, and have won six of its last eight bowl contests. One of those victories came last season, as Texas Tech defeated Michigan State, 41-31, in the Alamo Bowl.
The Red Raiders opened the year with back-to-back victories over SMU and New Mexico, but the team's quick start to the year was dashed by losses in three of its next four matchups. The lone win during that span was a slim, 45-38 victory over Baylor. After a 34-17 setback to Oklahoma State at home, the Red Raiders rebounded with a slim, 27-24 decision on the road against Colorado. However, that was followed by a loss to Texas A&M, which dropped the team to 4-4 on the year. Coach Tommy Tuberville's squad continue to fight hard down the stretch and the team's hard work paid off, as Texas Tech finished with three wins in its last four matchups to end the year with a 7-5 record.
"I am so proud of this team and group of seniors for getting us to the postseason," said head coach Tuberville. "When you come to play football at Texas Tech, you expect to go to a bowl game and we are thrilled to accept the invitation from Tom Starr and the TicketCity Bowl selection committee. Northwestern is a well coached football team and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Fitzgerald. We are honored to be part of this game and to be able to play in front of our great fans in the Dallas/Fort Worth area."
The Wildcats were nothing special offensively, and never really overwhelmed their opponent this season. Still, Northwestern does possess some solid performers on offense, beginning with wideout Jeremy Ebert, who led the team in receptions (59), yards (919) and touchdowns (8). Those numbers landed Ebert on the All-Big Ten First Team. Ebert is still trying to find his rhythm with Evan Watkins however, who is the starting quarterback for this bowl game since Dan Persa is out for the remainder of the year.
The loss of Persa, who was also an All-Big Ten First Team selection after completing 73.5 percent of his throws, is a crushing blow for this offense, but coach Fitzgerald has prepared Watkins for this matchup coming up.
"Get prepared to win. Really. Mentally, he's obviously further along than he's been," said coach Fitzgerald. "Physically, he's further along because he has more reps. And now he's just got to get the poise, and have some fun, and get ready to win a football game."
Without a reliable passing attack, the ground game will need to pick up the slack, but for Northwestern, the rushing attack also had plenty to do with Persa, who finished with 519 yards and nine touchdowns. Mike Trumpy is the top back on the roster, but he finished with just 530 yards and will be a game- time decision for the Wildcats. If Trumpy is out, it will be interesting to see how the offense for Northwestern will work.
The defense was bailed out a few times this season by Persa and the offense, but clearly there are too many players banged up on that side of the football, so this unit will need to put forth its best performance of the season if Northwestern has a chance to snap its bowl losing skid.
Throughout the season this defense has struggled against the run, as well as the pass. Against the ground attack, the Wildcats have been gashed for 185.2 ypg and have also surrendered 22 touchdowns via the run.
Stopping the pass has not been any easier for Northwestern, as the team has been torched for 21 touchdowns through the air. Softening the blow for this defense a bit has been its ability to force mistakes, as Northwestern has collected 14 interceptions.
If the Wildcats are going to have any chance against Texas Tech's passing attack, then the team will need to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback, but with just 17 sacks on the season, that won't be easy.
Looking to abuse Northwestern through the air will be QB Taylor Potts, as he leads the Red Raiders' offense, which is producing 32.1 ppg. Potts completed over 65 percent of his throws this season, and finished the regular season with 3,357 yards and 31 touchdowns. There were 16 different players that caught at least one pass this season, but the two best options for Potts have been Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong. Lewis, who finished the season with a team- best 79 receptions, went for 803 yards with six touchdowns. Leong was even better, earning All-Big 12 Second Team honors after collecting 64 balls, for 808 yards and a whopping 17 touchdowns.
Usually overlooked at Texas Tech is the ground game, and rightfully so, because the Red Raiders light up the sky with a dangerous passing attack. However, when needed these Red Raiders have found success on the ground, proven by the team's 137.8 ypg. Baron Batch led the way for Texas Tech out of the backfield, rumbling for 805 yards, while also finding the end zone five times. Eric Stephens also scored five rushing touchdowns for Texas Tech and posted 542 rushing yards on the year.
While the offense was lighting up the scoreboard almost every weekend, the defense for coach Tuberville was allowing the opposition to remain close in each game. Texas Tech surrendered over 30.0 ppg this year, and things could be worse in this bowl game now that defensive coordinator James Willis has surprisingly left the program. However, coach Tuberville believes the rest of the defensive staff can have this unit prepared for action come Saturday.
"I wish James the best of luck but it is important for this football team to keep pressing forward. We have a great defensive staff here that will carry the load along with my assistance as we prepare for Northwestern."
For this unit to be successful, it must find a way to stop the pass, and that is easier said than done. It is definitely helpful that Texas Tech will not see Persa, but even with an inexperienced signal caller under center for Northwestern the Red Raiders could be in trouble. Throughout the season this has been a problem area, with TTU allowing 306.1 ypg, while surrendering 27 touchdowns through the air.
On top of that, the defense for Texas Tech has also been inconsistent against the run, as opponents have gashed this unit for 157.0 ypg. However, once again without Persa and possible Trumpy the Wildcats are not playing with their best options, something that could help Tuberville's defense remain competitive.
Northwestern closed out the year with two ugly losses and there is no coincidence that both losses occurred once Persa was done for the year. Persa is just too valuable for the Wildcats and without him, they may not be able to end the year on a high note.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texas Tech 35, Northwestern 24