When NU has the ball...
Northwestern showed its offensive abilities off in the Syracuse matchup. Kain Colter put his arm on display with a pair of touchdown passes and still has great scrambling ability. Vandy gave up some good runs to South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw in a losing effort and showed it could be susceptible to a running QB.
NU still has probably the best receiving core in the Big Ten and the wideouts didn't disappoint, particularly Demetrius Fields. NU had five wideouts that can have a huge game any week and that ability to spread the field is a big advantage.
Vandy does play in the SEC and does have a solid defense, giving up just 273 yards to top-10 South Carolina, but with Colter's running ability, NU shouldn't have big problems moving the ball.
When Vandy has the ball:
The NU defense looked like a new unit from the 2011 struggles early in the Syracuse game... Then a familiar story started as the secondary collapsed and Syracuse rolled to 28 straight points. Shades of 2011 defense are frightening.
NU will absolutely have to step it up. Jordan Rodgers for Vandy has a solid arm and the Commodores can move the football through the air. Rodgers threw for 214 yards and a TD against South Carolina and would have done more if not for some drops from his wideouts.
The 'Cats played decent against the run, giving up 126 yards on 30 carries, and Vanderbilt had next to no success running against SC. But, if the NU secondary plays the way it did against Syracuse, that won't really matter.
Two words: Venric Mark. NU's kick and punt returner is lightning fast and has major big play ability. He averaged 67 yards on two returns, including an 82 yard touchdown. Mark can be an absolute game changer for the 'Cats, as he was last week.
The kicking game is still untested and Brandon Williams averaged just 36 yards per punt, but Vanderbilt's punting numbers weren't significantly better.
James Franklin has the potential to be a kind of Pat Fitzgerald figure for Vandy. He's got great energy and football knowledge and he's brought a real spark to a program generally known as a bottom tier SEC team. Franklin is a class act, complimenting the referees in the opener even after a missed pass interference call cost Vandy a chance to win the game late in the 4th.
Fitzgerald, however, is a known entity. The NU coach for life (assuming he wants to stick around forever, he's welcome) brings passion, knowledge and creativity to the game. He's experienced and not afraid to take chances. Fitzgerald week in and week out does what is necessary to get the 'Cats ready to win.
NU has the benefit of playing at home and it is a night game, but with Northwestern being on quarters there will be few students there to get the usually quiet Ryan Field loud.
Vanderbilt played a night game last week -- though it was at home -- and nearly knocked off a top-10 team, so don't expect the Commodores to be intimidated. NU will be pumped up to be at home under the lights, but Vanderbilt won't buckle under pressure.
Prediction: 'Cats go down early, which most NU fans will probably see as a blessing given the way the team plays with a lead. NU rallies early in the 2nd half and pulls out a close one.
NU 31, Vanderbilt 27