(Sports Network) - Northwestern has won its last five straight season-opening matchups, but for the Wildcats to make it six in a row they will need to take care of business against the always tough Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium.
The Wildcats are coming off their third straight winning campaign, but the win total has taken a dip each year. After claiming nine wins in 2008, the Wildcats clawed out eight in 2009, followed by seven last year. There is a good amount of talent on the roster for Pat Fitzgerald in his sixth season in Evanston and that win total will have a chance to rise if the team plays up to its potential.
After a mediocre start to the 2010 campaign the Eagles soared through their last five games, finishing with seven wins and another trip to a bowl game. However, the Eagles fell for the third straight time in postseason action. Regardless, the team's run towards the end of the season was remarkable and gives coach Frank Spaziani reason to think big in the upcoming campaign.
These two schools have not squared off on the gridiron since 1993, and that meeting was only the third all-time. The Wildcats took a 2-1 edge in the series with a 22-21 win in 1993.
The Wildcats have improve slightly on offense over the past couple of years, but this could be the season that Northwestern really takes off in terms of producing points. A lot of that will depend on Dan Persa's ability to remain healthy.
The senior quarterback set the Big Ten's season completion rating by connecting on 73.5 percent of his throws. That number is rock-solid, but what makes coach Fitzgerald even more excited is the fact that Persa only tossed four interceptions in 2010.
Persa should have another solid campaign and will likely link up with Jeremy Ebert early on to get back into a rhythm with his number one target. Ebert led the squad last season in receptions (62), yards (953) and touchdowns (eight), and should continue to flourish with Persa under center.
What will make this team even stronger in 2011 will be a consistent rushing attack, something that Northwestern has not had in quite some time. Sure, the Wildcats have averaged over 100 yards per season, but over the past four campaigns they have not been able to claw out more than 3.8 yards per attempt.
Persa is also a mobile signal caller and will supply help in terms of the run game, but coach Fitzgerald really needs to see if sophomore Mike Trumpy can carry the load. Trumpy started the year buried on the depth chart, but ended 2010 as the team's best back, rumbling for 530 yards. Trumpy does not shy away from contact, so look for him to take on Boston College's front line with ferocity.
While the offense has improved over the past three seasons, the defense has gone in the other direction.
The Wildcats were abused for 29.0 ppg in 2010, and for Northwestern to have success in 2011, that number has to go down. There is reason for optimism though, thanks to the return of some key players, including safety Brian Peters. Peters led the team in tackles a year ago, and is one of the vocal leaders for coach Fitzgerald. The secondary is an experienced group and should have much more success this year.
The biggest issue for the Wildcats last year did not come against the pass, but instead came against the run. Opponents gashed this defense for over 180 yards per matchup. Vincent Browne is the anchor of a senior laden unit, and is coming off a seven-sack effort in 2010. Sophomore Tyler Scott will get the nod on the other side, but the two most important players up front will be Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli. If they can slow down the opposition's ground game than this unit will be far better off in 2011.
The Eagles won seven games last year, which isn't an impressive total at first glance, but when noticing that the offense only averaged 18.5 ppg, it makes that win total quite impressive.
The hope for coach Spaziani was to ride his workhorse, Montel Harris. That is not an option though, at least not in the opener, as the 2010 All-ACC First Team selection will be sidelined with a knee injury. The absence of Harris will clearly effect this squad, but coach Spaziani does have a capable back up plan in Andre Williams, who will start in Harris' place.
The biggest obstacle for BC and coach Spaziani is finding a quarterback capable of leading the passing attack, while also giving the team a suitable balance needed to produce a significant amount of points.
As of now Chase Rettig will be the starting quarterback for Saturday's matchup, but he threw just six touchdowns against nine interceptions last year, so it is unclear if he is more prepared for his sophomore season. If he struggles to start the year, Spaziani could make a change.
Even if the passing game has issues throughout the season, the defense is tough enough to hold down the opposition. Boston College has held opponents to under 20.0 ppg in six of the last seven seasons.
There is not much experience returning from a year ago, so it will be interesting to see how this unit performs in the opener on Saturday. The defense does return one of the best linebackers in the nation in Luke Kuechly. The junior was tabbed as a First Team All-American after racking up 183 tackles last season. He was an intricate part to the team's top ranking against the run (82.8 ypg).
Kuechly and sophomore Kevin Pierre-Louis, an Freshman All-American in 2010, will have much more on their plate this year because BC returns just one starter up front in Kaleb Ramsey. Stopping the run has also been the top priority for this defense, so expect for BC to field a front line designated for that sole purpose.
The secondary is also an area that will need to be watched this year. That was a weak link in 2010, but mostly because opponents found little success on the ground and needed to air it out. The addition of true freshman Al Louis-Jean should be a big boost, but it is unclear if the youngster can instantly step in and play. Coach Spaziani will get a good idea of his talent against a quality quarterback in Persa.
Not having Harris really cripples the offense for Boston College. Williams is a capable back, but BC relies heavily on its ground attack and not having him in week one will surely hurt. Once again it looks like the defense will need to save the day for the Eagles, but against the talented offense of Northwestern, BC might fall just short at home.DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 3rd, 12:00 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Alumni Stadium (44,500) -- Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Television: ESPNU.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 24, Boston College 21