Football: With key ingredients missing, Cats hope winning recipe remains

Jonah L. Rosenblum

Welcome to another week of college football. It’s hard to imagine things getting any more exciting for the purple and white after last week’s Opening Day thriller against Boston College. After barely holding on for the win in Chestnut Hill, Northwestern plays its first home game of the season against Eastern Illinois. Here is the scoop on this Saturday’s contest:

WHO: Northwestern (1-0) is coming off a 24-17 win over Boston College. The Wildcats rode a surprisingly effective rushing attack to victory, averaging 4.2 yards per carry against an Eagles team that led the nation in rush defense last season. Sophomore running back Mike Trumpy led NU with 85 rushing yards on just 15 carries, while sophomore quarterback Kain Colter finished with 71 yards scrambling as well as a rushing touchdown. The Cats won the rushing game on both sides of the ball, as their defense stopped the Eagles in their tracks. After Boston College running back Andre Williams started the game with a 69-yard sprint down the left sideline, NU allowed just 35 rushing yards for the duration of the contest. The Cats are receiving votes in both FBS polls as they enter the season’s second week. Meanwhile, Eastern Illinois (1-0) is coming off a 33-26 win over an Illinois State team that NU demolished 37-3 last season. The Panthers are receiving votes in both FCS polls after their victory over the Redbirds, despite the sloppiness of a game that featured two safeties and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

WHAT: With Trumpy doubtful and senior quarterback Dan Persa questionable for Saturday’s game, NU will again have to rely on players like Colter and sophomore running back Adonis Smith, as well as a suddenly resurgent rush defense. As for Eastern Illinois, the Panthers will have to figure out some way to launch a rushing attack that recorded just 63 yards on 1.8 yards per carry last week. Not that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t capable of putting a team on his back. He completed 25 of 34 passes for three touchdowns and 304 yards last week.

WHEN: Saturday, September 10, 2010 at 2:30 pm Central Time

WHERE: This will be the Cats’ home opener, and Ryan Field will be dressed for the occasion, with several small improvements visible on the outside of the stadium and along the sidelines. In the past, Ryan Field has struggled to draw fans, particularly during the non-conference portion of NU’s schedule. But last season, the Cats drew 25,471 fans in their home opener and 30,075 fans in their second home game of the season against Central Michigan. With students still on summer break, however, NU will be lucky to draw 25,000 fans to this game.

WHY NORTHWESTERN WILL WIN THIS GAME: Persa and Trumpy might not play Saturday, but that doesn’t change the fact that NU is still a far better team than Eastern Illinois is. Colter and Smith are more than capable backups and the Cats will roll in this one.

WHY I’M WATCHING: First of all, this match will be closer than some fans realize. With Persa and Trumpy out, NU will be at less than full strength. And Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is nothing to sneeze it. He’s the real deal, and is plenty capable of keeping his team in the game. Saturday also serves as an excellent chance to watch several pivotal youngsters continue to grow. Expect ample playing time for guys like Colter and Smith who will define the purple and white for years to come. And I still think it’s possible that Persa might play a series or two on Saturday, just to get his arm fresh before NU travels to West Point. That possibility alone is enough to keep me watching. Finally, it’s Heroes’ Day at Ryan Field and I expect the Cats will do it big in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. As part of the ceremony, the only rescue services truck to emerge from the attacks relatively unscathed will be parked outside of the stadium. It was the only rig available to canvass the streets of Manhattan in the days immediately following September 11th, and is a sight worth seeing for fans who make it out to Ryan Field on Saturday.

REMINDER: Although the Big Ten Network will be bringing Saturday’s game to a national television audience, we urge you to follow our live blog as well. Gameday editor Robbie Levin and I will keep you appraised of all the action from Ryan Field, with play-by-play, analysis and some of the best inside information available anywhere. Our live blog can be accessed from the Daily website, and we will begin blogging precisely at 2:15 pm.

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