Who Has The Edge?

Kickoff in Chestnut Hill is almost here. The Wildcats are set to begin the season against the Boston College Golden Eagles. PW writer Kevin Trahan breaks down the two teams and finds who has the edge in this game.

With football season finally here, Northwestern opens up the year against Boston College in arguably the marquee non-conference game of the Big Ten's opening weekend.

This should be one of Northwestern's top teams of the Pat Fitzgerald era, and certainly the most experienced, but with star quarterback Dan Persa listed as questionable, there are certainly a number of questions that are yet to be answered.

Can the offense step up without Persa? Can the defense rebound to the way it played before Persa's injury? Can the running backs step up?

We'll know a lot more about this Wildcats team after Saturday, but here's our best stab at a prediction, looking at who has the edge on each side of the ball and more.

When Northwestern has the ball

With Persa's status still unknown, it's hard to predict how the Northwestern offense will run. If Persa were healthy, the Wildcats would have the advantage, but knowing that he might not play and that he almost certainly won't be 100-percent, the offense could struggle.

Backup quarterback Kain Colter made significant strides in the offseason after an inconsistent—and putting it bluntly, pretty bad—string of starts to end the season after Persa's injury.

However, it's tough to expect Colter to come in and replicate Persa's success right away, and while he won't be as bad as last year, he probably won't be ready for the big-time either.

But no matter who the quarterback is, the running backs will need to step up. Sophomore Mike Trumpy recently regained the starting spot after a seemingly disappointing fall camp.

He'll need to be productive to take the pressure off either a young Colter or a half-injured Persa.

Despite the questions in the backfield, the offensive line should be the best in the Fitzgerald era and the wide receiver corps could be one of the best in the Big Ten. That should help provide some consistency among all the questions.

The NU offense will have its hands full, though, with one of the best defenses in the ACC.

Boston College lived off of its defense last season and that should continue into this year.

That consistency gives the Golden Eagles an edge on the NU offense, which still may be finding its identity, especially if Persa can't go.

Edge: Boston College

When Boston College has the ball

The Boston College offense was abysmal last season. The Golden Eagles were No. 90 in rush offense, No. 97 in passing offense and No. 109 in total offense last season.

In addition, star running back Montel Harris—one of the few bright spots on offense last season—will miss the opener due to injury.

However, the Northwestern defense must improve after a terrible performance to end last season.

In the last three games of 2010, the defense gave up 330 rushing yards to Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, gave up 70 points to Wisconsin, and couldn't stop Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

The unit depleted after Persa's injury, and while it showed that it had the potential to perform well—particularly against No. 13 Iowa— it was very inconsistent.

With a year more experience, the defense should improve and the secondary may rank among the Big Ten leaders. But the unit will have to prove that it can play despite Persa not being on the field and despite Colter's rookie mistakes that could put the defense in a bad situation.

Still, with so much experience, it's tough to see the Northwestern defense giving up too much to a struggling Boston College offense.

Edge: Northwestern

Special Teams

Northwestern will split its kicking duties this season, with sophomore Jeff Budzien handling placekicking duties and Steve Flaherty taking kickoffs.

It's an interesting move by Fitzgerald, who seems confident in both players, but Budzien's experience will be an issue early on, as he hasn't kicked a field goal in a game since high school.

Boston College kicker Nate Freese was impressive last season, making 22 of 25 field goals, and in a game that figures to be very close, consistency at kicker could be a deciding factor.

Northwestern also has potential game-changers on special teams in kick returners Venric Mark and Ibraheim Campbell.

However, Northwestern has had a number of big games come down to field goals in recent years, and the Wildcat kickers have been subpar. Boston College's consistency and experience at that position gives it the edge.

Edge: Boston College


Pat Fitzgerald has a reputation around college football as one of the best coaches in the business, and no matter the outcome of this game, he'll still have that reputation. He has a fiery personality and knows how to get the best out of his players.

Fitzgerald and his assistants have done a solid job of building up two-and-three-star talent, and have now put together their most experienced and talented senior class yet. And for that reason, many media members consider the Wildcats a dark horse to win the Legends Division.

Boston College coach Frank Spaziani is in his second year as the Golden Eagles' coach and has put together one of the nation's top defenses after being promoted from defensive coordinator.

While BC is likely a program on the rise, Spaziani has a long way to go before he makes a name for himself in the head coaching ranks and he must find more offensive consistency despite his defensive background.

Edge: Northwestern


Obviously, opening the season on the road is a disadvantage in itself, and to do so against a BCS conference team and without your star quarterback is even more difficult.

The crowd won't be nearly as intimidating as the Wildcats' road trips to Iowa, Nebraska and other Big Ten schools this year—in fact, there will likely be a number of East Coast Northwestern alumni in the crowd.

However, going halfway across the country is never easy.

More importantly, the Wildcats must be able to stay confident if Persa can't play. Both the offense and the defense stopped performing last year after his injury, and it he can't go this Saturday, there could be some confidence issues on the Northwestern sideline.

And if history is any teacher, the Wildcats have another disadvantage, as they have routinely struggled early in the season.

On paper, Northwestern has a better team—with, or without Persa—but the intangible aspects of the game made lead Boston College to a win.

Edge: Boston College


For starters, I don't believe Persa will start or play. For the Northwestern coaches to act like nothing is wrong all offseason and then downgrade him to questionable right before the game, there has to be a great deal of doubt. And even if he can go, he won't be as mobile as he needs to be.

If Persa were healthy, I'd pick Northwestern, but his importance to this team ability-wise and just in his presence is immeasurable, and for that reason the Wildcats face an uphill battle.

This will be a defensive struggle all the way through, and while Colter will have his moments, he won't be able to orchestrate a win in the game's final minutes.

Score: Boston College 20, Northwestern 16

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