Football: Northwestern looks to find offensive footing against suspect Texas Tech defense

Colin Becht

After consecutive blowout losses to Illinois and Wisconsin, Northwestern might have wanted to just hit the reset button. According to junior offensive tackle Al Netter, that’s exactly what the Wildcats got to do.

“The great thing about bowl season is the 15 practices leading up to the games,” Netter said. “We look at it as a spring-ball-type deal. We go back to our base fundamentals and that gelling that an offense goes through in spring ball and the beginning of camp.”

With an offense that has struggled to find its footing after losing junior quarterback Dan Persa to a ruptured Achilles tendon and a defense that became porous to the run late in the season, the Cats used their extra practices to return to the basics.

“I’ve been here for close to five years but we went all the way back to my freshman year base fundamental kind of stuff, like learning how to run routes, learning how to make breaks, learning how to come off the ball, learning how to catch the ball, see the ball, little things like that,” senior wide receiver Sidney Stewart said. “So we can build and by the time we get down to Dallas, we’ll be able to hit our game plan full stride.”

NU (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) will take on Texas Tech (7-5, 3-5 Big 12) on Saturday in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl, played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

Crucial to the Cats success against the Red Raiders will be the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins, who has taken the majority of the snaps since Persa’s injury. In his two starts, Watkins threw for just 258 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions and three fumbles.

“Mentally he’s obviously further along than he’s been,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Physically he’s further along just because he’s had more reps. Now he’s just got to get the poise.”

Watkins said that through the bowl practices, he’s become more confident in trusting his reads and instincts.

“We’ve been executing clean balls, and that’s kind of just trusting yourself and what you see,” Watkins said. “If I do that, we’re good.”

Luckily for Watkins, he’ll be going up against the Big 12’s worst passing defense as Texas Tech gave up more than 300 yards through the air per game.

“We haven’t been very good on the defensive side of the ball all year,” Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Adding to the disarray of the Texas Tech defense, defensive coordinator James Willis left the program unexpectedly on Sunday to pursue other coaching positions. He will not coach the Red Raiders in the TicketCity Bowl.

“I wish James the best of luck but it is important for football team to keep pressing forward,” Tuberville said. “We have a great defensive staff here that will carry the load along with my assistance as we prepare for Northwestern.”

Fitzgerald said that though Willis’ departure may be chaotic for the Red Raiders, it’s creating more confusion for the Cats.

“The advantage goes to them,” Fitzgerald said. “The guy that we’ve scouted and broken down is no longer there.”

For NU’s skill position players, preparing for Texas Tech’s defense has already been a challenge because of the Red Raiders’ propensity to switch around defensive matchups midgame.

“They move guys around a lot,” Stewart said. “I never know who is going to be playing over me.” Whether it’s 21 (defensive back Jarvis Phillips), whoever it is, five (safety Tre’ Porter), they’ll move him in nickel, they’ll move him around.”

The Cats are looking to create some confusion of their own for Texas Tech by adding to the playbook.

“We’ve got some new packages that I think will make some playmakers get the ball more,” Watkins said.

NU will benefit offensively from getting players back from injuries. Fitzgerald said junior running back Jacob Schmidt is “back in the mix” after suffering an ankle injury against Michigan State while redshirt freshman running back Mike Trumpy will be “a game-time decision.”

“If we have Trump, then that’d be awesome, but if not, we have guys that are going to step up – Adonis (Smith) and Steph (Simmons),” Watkins said. “I’m not worried about that.”

On defense, junior linebacker Bryce McNaul will be ready to play. McNaul‘s return should help bolster an NU defense that gave up more than 100 points and 1,000 yards between the Illinois and Wisconsin games.

“What happened at the end of the year is an anomaly,” Fitzgerald said.

The Cats were especially vulnerable to the run, surrendering 519 yards rushing to the Fighting Illini and 329 yards to the Badgers.

“We just haven’t been gap-sound as we usually are,” senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “A lot of teams are running schemes where they create extra gaps on the outside… We’ve been able to look at the film from the past couple weeks and give guys the information they need to get through those types of things.”

Texas Tech however will present less of a challenge to NU’s run defense than to the secondary. The Red Raiders attempted 46.75 passes per game compared to just 34 rushes.

Asked what to expect from Texas Tech, Fitzgerald said, “Offensively, tempo, tempo and more tempo. They play fast.”

Compared to the Big Ten, in which only Indiana attempted more than 400 passes this season, the Red Raiders will present a new look to the Cats.

“It is a different offense and different weapons than they are used to,” Texas Tech wide receiver Lyle Leong said. “It’s definitely going to be challenge.”

Quarterback Taylor Potts has a plethora of receiving resources at his disposal. In addition to Leong, whose 17 touchdown receptions are second in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Detron Lewis has 79 catches for 803 yards and six other Texas Tech receivers have 25 receptions or more.

The Cats of course have the added pressure of playing with their 61-year bowl win drought hanging over their heads.

“It’s a lone negative, I guess, that you can say about our program,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s definitely a monkey we want to get off our backs.”

For a program that has come a long way since the days of the late 1970s and early 1980 when the Cats lost a Division I-record 34 straight games, NU still hasn’t been able to clear the last hurdle of its dark path by winning a bowl game.

“A bowl win would take the program to another level,” senior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “To win our bowl game our last year would set things up great for years to come, for people to expect great things from Northwestern.”

Adding to the difficulty of that task, NU will be playing a Texas team in the Lone Star State. The Red Raiders have even already played a game in the Cotton Bowl this season, defeating Baylor 45-38 in October.

“We are used to playing there, and we know the field,” cornerback LaRon Moore said. “It is good to end in Dallas where we have a lot of support. Every time we have been there, we have had a good turnout with fans and things like that, so it is going to feel like another home game for us.”

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