History under Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald:
With Fitzgerald holding the reins of the Northwestern football program, they are six for six in as many seasons in season openers. One of those victories came against the Orange, back in the 2008 season, when the Wildcats ran away with a commanding 30-10 outing.
Last season, Northwestern finished the regular season one game above Syracuse at 6-6. They were 3-5 in the Big Ten Conference. The Wildcats did something Syracuse failed to do last season: advance to postseason play. But, Northwestern did not come up with a victory, losing to Texas A&M 33-22 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
On the road, dating back to the 2008 season, the Wildcats have shown success at 14-8. Against non-conference foes, such as Syracuse, Northwestern has also registered more results in the win column, going 19-5 with Fitzgerald as the head coach. The Wildcats will have an opportunity to improve each of those records when they face the Orange for both team's first game on September 1st at the Carrier Dome.
Offensively for Northwestern:
Holding the reins. Junior quarterback Kain Colter has only started at the helm of the offense three times going into this match-up with Syracuse. He had a completion percentage of 63.7% to go with six touchdowns to two interceptions in those three games, winning twice. When Syracuse faced a quarterback last season with a completion percentage better than Colter's, they won a mere two times out of six contests. The two victories both came off of field goals, versus Toledo and Tulane, with the Orange needing overtime to defeat Toledo.
Colter is also multi-dimensional, rushing for at least 100 yards twice in those three games. Colter has also been placed at wide receiver in the past. As a wideout, Colter has four career starts.
Last season, Colter was atop all other Wildcats in yardage for passing (673 total yards), rushing (654 total yards), and receiving (466 total yards).
Colter has been used in wildcat formations before, so the Orange defense needs to be on watch for this.
Syracuse has struggled as of late to contain multiple threat quarterbacks. Quarterback B.J. Daniels of South Florida ran through the Syracuse defense for 117 yards on 24 carries, including one touchdown in a 37-17 victory last season for the Bulls.
The defensive line of the Orange has been unsuccessful more often than not at getting to the quarterback quickly, and with a running quarterback, are typically left chasing, rather than coming up with the sack. Only two returning starters from Syracuse registered a sack last year: Nose tackle Jay Bromley and defensive tackle Deon Goggins each were credited with 1.5. None of those sacks came against mobile quarterbacks. Syracuse has struggled as of late to contain multiple threat quarterbacks. Quarterback B.J. Daniels of South Florida ran through the Syracuse defense for 117 yards on 24 carries, including one touchdown in a 37-17 victory last season for the Bulls. There were no sacks recorded by the Orange in that game.
Best position. Wide Receiver. The Wildcats come in with a rotation that is six to seven players deep. Some players will not see the field or have few opportunities not because of a lack of talent, but rather because of the depth of the wideout position. In that rotation will be Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Tony Jones, and Pierre Youngblood-Ary.
Fields, Lawrence, and Christian Jones all had experience in gameplay for the Wildcats last season. Kyle Prater caught one pass for six yards in his lone game for USC last season before transferring to Northwestern.
Size will be an issue for Syracuse's secondary with the seven receivers in Northwestern's rotation all 6'0" or taller. Fields and T. Jones are 6'0"; Lawrence is 6'2"; Dickerson, C. Jones, and Youngblood-Ary are 6'3"; and Prater is 6'5".
The Orange secondary boasts of only one starter that is 6'0": Ri'Shard Anderson. Free safety Jeremi Wilkes is 5'9", strong safety Shamarko Thomas is 5"10", cornerback Brandon Reddish is 5"11". Possible cornerback in rotation, Wayne Morgan, is 5'10".
Syracuse's best cornerback at Fall camp, as far as playing above themselves in coverage, was Jaston George. George (5'10") is not listed on the first or second teams on the depth chart going into their face-off with the Wildcats.
Offensive Line Similar to Syracuse. The left side is the stronger piece of the line going into this game, which is true for Syracuse also, with left tackle Sean Hickey and left guard Zack Chibane looking the best at Fall camp. Northwestern Left tackle Patrick Ward played on the line for the past two years at right tackle and has moved over this season to the left side. Ward's weaknesses, however, lie in footwork and he can be beat by a good rusher off of the edge. If freshman running back Ashton Broyld is given time in the Northwestern game, he would Syracuse's best threat to attack the edge, along with junior Prince-Tyson Gulley because they both have speed once they get to the outside and begin to head upfield.
At left guard is Brian Mulroe for the Wildcats, regarded as the best linemen they have. Mulroe has started for the past two seasons at that position.
The right tackle position features a newcomer, Jack Konopka, who spent last season as a tight end. He was originally recruited as both a tackle and a tight end, but his inexperience at the line and inconsistency may work against him going into this game. Alongside Konopka is Right guard Chuck Porcelli, a fifth-year senior who has never started or seen meaningful reps on the offensive line.
The decision to make Konopka and Porcelli starters was made late in Fall camp and based on their play on the right side of the line, their may be a rotation at their positions.
Syracuse defensive end Brandon Sharpe could really take advantage of a struggling right side of the line if he is placed at that end after having success getting through at Fall camp and having experience on the line.
Inside, Bromley and Goggins' experience versus the inexperience of Porcelli is also an area for Syracuse to exploit. Goggins has proven that he can get through and attack the backfield, so if he is indeed opposite Porcelli, that looks to be a win for the Orange at that position.
Sizeable Difference at the Line. Northwestern's offensive line includes two players at 290 pounds (center Brandon Vitabile and right guard Chuck Porcelli) and three players at 295 pounds (Left tackle Patrick Ward, left guard Brian Mulroe, and right tackle Jack Konopka).
Conversely, Syracuse's defensive line boasts only one starter 290 pounds or above: Bromley. Defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster is 257 pounds, Goggins is 275 punds, and Sharpe is 253 pounds.
Lack in the Back. Starting running back, junior Venric Mark, spent last season atop the depth chart as both a kick and punt returner, not a running back. He only ran 15 times last season for a total of 104 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Syracuse's linebacker unit struggled with rushers in the open field last season, with redshirt-senior Dan Vaughn being the quickest to the ball. Vaughn has remained the linebacker involved in the majority of tackles through Fall camp, but has to get there faster. Ahead of him at middle linebacker is Siriki Diabate, who has shown quickness and hard-hitting. Fellow starters, strongside linebacker Marquis Spruill and weakside linebacker Dyshawn Davis could both improve on their tackling when it comes to taking down running backs, but Mark will not be their toughest test of the season.
Overall. Northwestern runs an up-tempo offense. They have a non-stop mentality, which is visible in their inclusion of a no-huddle offense.
During practice, the Wildcats do not run gassers. There is no sprinting outside of play as well as no running for punishment.
The drill situations in practice, which utilize a fast-paced offense, help prepare Northwestern to be used to constant motion, which has proven beneficial in keeping players on the field. When the fourth quarter approaches, the Wildcats will not be seen asking for a substitute to give them a breather.
Their offense, with a triple threat quarterback and plenty of wide receivers who have value on the roster is a high-scoring type of unit, looking to put 30 to 40 points on the board per game.
Defensively for Northwestern
The Line. The Wildcats have a lot of unknowns at defensive line, with only one returning starter, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who is merely an okay pass rusher.
The notables for Northwestern come in rotation. One player to watch in rotation on the defensive line is Defensive tackle Chance Carter who upped his weight from last season from 260 to 295.
Another player featured in rotation is right defensive end rotating in Deonte Gibson, who put on size like Carter and is known to be a great edge rusher.
Though Hickey has never been a starter for the offensive line for Syracuse, his ability to lock up defenders on the left side made him look like he was at the line for the Orange last season. His match-up with fellow newbie Scott of Northwestern is one to watch.
Chibane should fair well against another newcomer to the Wildcats' line when he sets up opposite Hampton. Fall camp put Chibane on the other side of the Goggins, John Raymon's, and Zian Jones'. This group placed Chibane against tenacity, power, and speed to the ball, which will help him against any opponent, especially one who has not had a lot of time on the field during an actual game.
Right guards Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo, who may split time with one another during the season, will have the toughest task, going against the lone returning starter, Arnfelt, after each not having a starting role last season.
Senior right tackle Lou Alexander is the biggest question on Syracuse's offensive line, due to his technical issues, such as where to place his hands and where his shoulders need to be, and inability to lock up defenders. Though Williams on the other side has also never been a starter, Syracuse could have trouble running on the right side if Alexander fails to contain pressure, which got the best of him at times in Fall camp.
Linebackers. Like the defensive line, there is only one returning starter for Northwestern at the linebacker position, senior weakside linebacker David Nwabuisi. Also like the defensive line, players of note are behind the starters. The linebacker core has a five-to-six-player-deep rotation. Behind Nwabuisi is Collin Ellis, an aggressive linebacker who has to stay in the game more mentally. Also in the mix behind strongside linebacker starter Chi Chi Ariguzo is Drew Smith, who has gained size going into this season.
Syracuse has a plethora of running backs to attack Northwestern's inexperience at this position. Both Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley spent time on the field last season. However, Gulley's injury-effected season only left him with 18 carries, while Smith amounted a little over Mark's output at running back, 137 to 104 yards, with over twice as many carries, 37 to 15. But, Gulley's ability to make people miss in the open field is his strongest suit, as agreed by him, and will pose a problem to a linebacker core with a lack of starter reps. Smith has an inexperienced line to hit, followed by an inexperienced linebacker group. Though Smith does not have any experience either as a starter, he has already shown he can move a pile and according to Syracuse Running Backs' Coach, Tyrone Wheatley, he has gotten faster on the outside, too.
Secondary. Safety Ibraheim Campbell emerged last year as the best player of the entire Northwetern defense, becoming a freshman all-American. Campbell is the playmaker of the defense, establishing success with tackling and knowledge of the game.
Nick VanHoose sat out last season due to injury, but has come back to bring speed as the Wildcats' top cornerback.
As with the first two lines of defense, all but one player in the secondary unit did not start last season. Campbell was alone in the starting lineup and now leads a secondary that has the question of whether or not they will maintain their assignments hanging over them.
Overall. With at least three, if not four, consistently strong blockers on Syracuse's offensive line, the first line of defense for Northwestern will have a hill to climb.
The Orange's arsenal of running backs, including Steven Rene, Adonis Ameen-Moore, and George Morris, III, with the aforementioned Smith, Gulley, and Broyld provide a match-up issue for any team if the rotation is used appropriately. With depth of power and speed, the Orange need to attack from the ground continuously, but middle linebacker Damien Proby, along with Ariguzo and Nwabuisi will not be pushovers.
As far as the Northwestern secondary, if Syracuse shows consistent hands at wide receiver, they will be able to attack a secondary that may struggle in coverage with two progressive tight ends in Beckett Wales and David Stevens and distance target, wide receiver Marcus Sales.
Keys to the Game
Northwestern. The Wildcats need to attack the right side of the Orange's offensive line when blitzing because Alexander is the weakest member, right now, of the line at right tackle.
Northwestern has to test the ground to see if the defensive line and linebackers will collapse faster on the running back. If not, the Wildcats will be able to move the chains via the backfield like teams did against the Orange last season.
Throw the ball. The Orange's starting cornerbacks, Anderson and Reddish, can both be beat in man coverage, with Anderson having a tendency to commit pass interference when he is a step behind.
The offense must provide plays for Colter on the ground as well as through the air. Trick plays and unconventional setups like the wildcat have caused problems for Syracuse.
Syracuse. The Orange have to get tall on the Wildcats' wide receivers. Northwestern has the advantage of the highth mismatch, so the ability of the cornerbacks and safeties to read Colter is vital to getting a jump on the route and make a play for the ball against the Wildcats' receivers.
Run the ball often and with a rotation. Syracuse is playing against a defense without a lot of experience playing together and can feature various backs with different skill sets. Even if the Wildcats figure out how to stop one of the Orange's running backs, there are at least five others capable of gaining yards.
Give Nassib time. Nassib has gotten better at surveying the field and getting the ball out quickly. The team stands a better chance the longer the line can give Nassib. But, Nassib will have to show his quicker release in gameplay because at some points last season, the line provided ample time when Nassib still failed to make a decision fast enough. If the line falters, Syracuse does have the benefit that Nassib's ability to throw on the run has improved.
Get to Colter and take him down. If the Orange allow Colter to have time in the backfield, he could make the September 1st game against Syracuse his next 100-yard game on the ground. He can pass, run, and catch. The less time he has, the better. Also, having at least one player as a backup plan will benefit the Orange because they have gotten beat numerous times by mobile quarterbacks. Have more than one dimension to a stop attempt on Colter, and the Orange will have a better opportunity for success.
Both. Score first. The Carrier Dome has grown more quiet than in years past. If Northwestern scores first, they may not have to worry about the crowd affecting their ability to hear plays. If Syracuse scores first, as well as prevents a quick answer, the "loudhouse" may get back to its roots in establishing a difficult atmosphere for Northwestern.
Syracuse will score first in front of the hometown crowd. After an early touchdown and field goal, the Orange will give up at least one touchdown before the half. Northwestern will come out striking in the second half and Syracuse will match them in the fourth quarter. Late in the game, a field goal will determine it: Syracuse 23-20
PurpleWildcats.com's Chris Emma contributed to this report