The Wildcats (4-5) have several reasons to avoid a letdown against Rice following last week's stunning victory at then-No.9 Nebraska. First, the Wildcats can record their third straight victory of the season. Secondly, the Wildcats will move to 5-5 to stay in line for a bowl bid. Third, the Wildcats want to continue the momentum built from the last few years.
Obviously, sophomore quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter will have to play a big part if the Wildcats want to beat the struggling 2-7 Owls. Colter took over the quarterback duties in the second half last week against Nebraska, when starter Dan Persa left the game with a left shoulder injury. Colter led the Wildcats to 21 second-half points, scoring two rushing touchdowns and tossing an 81-yard scoring strike to Jeremy Ebert. Colter showed the poise of a veteran in directing a game-winning, 66-yard drive that chewed up 7:20 of possession time. During the drive, the Wildcats rushed the ball 13 straight times, including Colter extending the drive with a four-yard gain on fourth down. Colter finished with 115 yards passing and 57 yards each rushing and receiving.
But Colter, who was named co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week with Wisconsin's Montee Ball, has higher personal goals, expressing a desire to finish a game with 100 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving.
"That's still a goal that my family and I have been talking about," Colter said. "I don't know if it's ever been done. I don't go into games focusing on that. But hopefully, I can get it one day."
Colter, even if Persa plays against Rice, is expected to take some snaps at wide receiver. Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian might take some snaps if Persa is limited against Rice. Colter admitted his first season playing college football has been a blast.
"It's more fun for me," Colter said of playing several positions. "It's like going back to your younger days and playing wherever you could."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Persa plans to play against Rice despite getting his shoulder slammed to the turf at Nebraska. Persa has shown the ability to play with pain, bouncing back from a turf toe injury two weeks ago. "He's a tough guy," Fitzgerald said of Persa.
Fitzgerald said the Persa-Colter combination isn't an issue and calls the two "a pretty special dynamic duo" that makes the Wildcats offense unique. Persa is completing 74.5 percent of his passes for 221.7 yards per game, both topping the Big Ten Conference.
The Wildcats hope to continue their solid play on defense. Last week Northwestern limited the Cornhuskers to 149 yards rushing, more than 100 yards below their average.
"They finally figured out what kind of preparation it takes to be successful," Fitzgerald said. "Now two weeks in a row we haven't been perfect but we've been pretty consistent. It all goes back to our preparation. Especially defensively, some of our young guys are starting to mature a little bit."
--A win over Rice would leave the Wildcats one win shy of becoming bowl-eligible for the school-record fifth straight season.
--QB Dan Persa, who did not play in the second half last week at Nebraska because of a left shoulder injury, is expected to play against Rice, according to head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
--QB/WR Kain Colter was named co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. Colter shared the honor with Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball.
SERIES HISTORY: Rice leads Northwestern 4-2 (last meeting, 2010, 30-13 NU).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Wildcats have relied on a number of players this year to make for a diversified offense. Seven players currently have at least 10 receptions this year, while three players have taken snaps at quarterback during key moments of games. But the offensive line has been an overlooked positive amid the chaos, with the five starters on the line combining for 150 career starts among them, including Ben Burkett and Al Netter with 48 straight starts.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Some subtle changes on the defensive side led to an improved showing the last few weeks, and leading to consecutive victories. Junior David Nwabuisi was moved to outside linebacker and starting sophomore Damian Proby to middle linebacker. Proby had 14 tackles at Indiana two weeks ago, while Nwabuisi was named the defensive player of the week for his performance at Nebraska. "We missed about the same number of tackles that we've had on average, but we had better swarm and better pursuit and better passion to the football," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"That's encouraging. Our guys grew up a little bit. It's about time. We're starting to see some positives, some flickers, some semblance of a Big Ten defense. That's encouraging."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Hopefully, they'll be humble in the way we had success. I told them no girl wanted to talk to them on campus three weeks ago. Now every girl wants to talk to them. So congratulations." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on guarding against overconfidence following the Nebraska victory.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Rice at Northwestern, Nov. 12 -- Rice owns a slight 4-2 advantage in the series, but the Wildcats posted a 30-13 victory at Rice last year. The Wildcats (4-5) need to win two of their next three games to become bowl-eligible for a school-record fifth straight season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Letting Kain Colter touch the ball several times. The Wildcats don't have an offensive weapon of Colter's caliber, thus the freshman should get many chances via passing, running and receiving to add to his numbers. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is coming on strong in the last few games. Quarterback Dan Persa can attack Rice's defense a variety of ways, but forcing the Owls to not key on Colter opens up the attack.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Dan Persa -- He is expected to play despite injuring his left shoulder last week and missing the second half. Persa is putting up big numbers in limited play due to an assortment of injuries, leading the Big Ten Conference with a 74.5 passing completion rate and 221.7 yards per game average.
WR Kain Colter -- An electrifying player who already has legendary status due to his ability to throw, pass and run with the football, plus leading the Wildcats to a victory at then-No. 9 Nebraska.
LB Collin Ellis -- He missed the first three games of the season due to an injured hand, but the freshman has started the last six conference games. Ellis has 21 tackles and gotten better with every passing week.
LB Damien Proby -- Has been playing strong football since moving to the middle linebacker spot. In the last two weeks, Proby had a career-high 14 tackles at Indiana while totaling nine tackles at Nebraska.
--TE Jack Konopka suffered a bone bruise on his leg in the Nebraska game. He is expected to suit up for the Rice contest.
--CB Jeraven Matthews got hurt on a crack-back block in the fourth quarter last week, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said Matthews should play against Rice.
--DE Vince Browne was shaken up in the Nebraska game, but the injury is not serious.
--QB Dan Persa did not play in the second half last week due to a left shoulder injury, but Fitzgerald said his starting quarterback will take snaps against Rice.
--S Brian Peters played with a cast on his left hand in the second half last week.