Football: Northwestern continues 2010 campaign with trip to Rice

Colin Becht

While Northwestern’s matchup with Rice is listed on the schedule as an away game, for many of the Wildcats players, the game will be the closest they come to home.

The (2-0) Cats will travel to Houston this Saturday to take on the (1-1) Owls of Conference USA at 6 p.m., bringing with them five players from the Houston area.

“I couldn’t wait to go back home,” sophomore cornerback and Houston-native Demetrius Dugar said. “I saw that game on the schedule and my eyes lit up.”

With the game close to home, players such as Dugar and freshman wide receiver Venric Mark have been dealing with many extra ticket requests. With those friends and family members in the stands comes added pressure.

“Of course I’m going to have family and friends there,” said Mark, who went to high school about 20 minutes from Rice. “I’ve just got to stay focused. That’s obviously going to be a distraction. I can’t get too high, can’t get too low.”

Mark said that between family, friends and high school coaches, he would likely have between 20 and 30 people attending.

Fearing a distraction from having to deal with many ticket requests, coach Pat Fitzgerald set a deadline on his Houstonians.

“I told them their business had to be handled by (Monday) or I might not take them,” Fitzgerald said. “How about that? They weren’t very happy about that.”

Beyond distributing tickets, the local players also face the pressure of trying to come up with a breakout game in front of their friends and family.

“I’m just making sure that I stay focused,” senior cornerback Justan Vaughn of Pearland, Texas, said. “I’m trying to take care of my business during the week when it comes to gameplan-wise, and go out there and put on a good performance in front of my home crowd.”

The five Houstonians on NU’s roster is nothing new, despite the more than 1,000-mile distance. Each year since 2001, there have been between four and nine players from the Houston area on the Cats roster.

Fitzgerald said this trend was established by increased efforts to recruiting in the area.

“We hard-target some cities outside the (Chicagoland) area where we have a footprint,” Fitzgerald said. “Houston is one of those cities.”

More recently, NU, and the Big Ten in general, has benefitted from increased national exposure provided by the Big Ten Network.

“The Big Ten Network has helped,” Fitzgerald said. “All of our games are aired down in Houston.”

For the players from Houston, they face the decision between playing for local schools such as Rice, and branching out to the Midwest.

“I really didn’t want to stay home,” Vaughn said, who was recruited by Rice. “I wanted to get a chance to go and develop in another city. So, I didn’t end up going to Rice.”

Vaughn chose NU even though his father had gone to Rice.

Rice was the first school to offer a scholarship to Mark, and he made his first official visit to the school. He has attended camps with Owls running back Sam McGuffie, played in high school with linebacker Cameron Nwosu and shared his official visit to Rice with punt returner Andy Erickson.

Vaughn said he too was familiar with McGuffie after watching McGuffie play during his senior year.

“He seems like a pretty good back, a good athlete,” Vaughn said. “I’m looking forward to playing against him.”

The biggest challenge facing NU will be stopping a Rice offense with plenty of potential for a big play. The Owls already have had 10 plays go for 20 or more yards, including nine pass plays.

Three of Rice’s five touchdowns this year have come from plays outside the red zone.

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