Northwestern finds itself in a familiar position — answering questions about whether this will be the season it wins its first bowl game since 1949.
For the second straight year, Texas Tech players are talking about how long they think their coach is going to stick around.
Meeting for the first time, the Wildcats and the Red Raiders face off in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl on New Year’s Day in Dallas.
Northwestern has lost all seven bowl games it has played since winning its first one — the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats (7-5) are making their third consecutive postseason appearance despite losing five of seven games after starting 5-0 for the second time in three years.
“(The bowl win drought is) a lone negative, I guess, that you can say about our program and our guys are working to improve and get better on the field,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose Wildcats lost 38-35 in overtime to Auburn in last season’s Outback Bowl.
“I think that’s definitely a monkey we want to get off our backs.”
The Wildcats will be without All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa after he suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury in a 21-17 victory against then-No. 13 Iowa on Nov. 13. Without the junior, who was eighth in the FBS with 310.0 total yards per game, the Wildcats ended the regular season with a 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20 and a 70-23 defeat to co-Big Ten champion Wisconsin a week later.
Redshirt freshman Evan Watkins started those two games, completing 23 of 42 for 258 yards with a TD and four interceptions, and will line up against Texas Tech, with true freshman Kain Colter serving as the backup.
The Wildcats, among the worst in the nation with 3.3 sacks allowed per game, know they have to do a better job protecting their inexperienced quarterbacks.
“Evan and Kain are both extremely talented quarterbacks if we give them the time and I can’t say we did that the last two games,” offensive lineman Al Netter said.
While Watkins will likely target Jeremy Ebert, who led the Big Ten with 919 receiving yards, Northwestern could be without its top three rushers. Leader Mike Trumpy may sit out due to a wrist injury suffered in the Illinois loss, and the Wildcats definitely won’t have Persa or Arby Fields, who led the team in rushing in 2009 but recently decided to transfer.
The Red Raiders (7-5) are dealing with another type of possible defection from their team. First-year coach Tommy Tuberville, hired after Mike Leach was fired before last season’s 41-31 victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, had been rumored as a candidate for the Miami job before the school hired Al Golden on Dec. 12.
Tuberville was a Miami assistant from 1986-93.
“For me personally, and a lot of us seniors, not really,” quarterback Taylor Potts said when asked if the Tuberville rumors were a distraction. “… When I’m around the young guys I just don’t talk about it.”
Potts is a big reason Texas Tech is making its 11th consecutive bowl appearance. He’s completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 3,357 yards with 31 TDs and nine interceptions. He threw for an Alamo Bowl-record 372 yards and two TDs last year despite leaving in the fourth quarter with an injury.
The senior has helped Texas Tech rank eighth in the FBS in passing with 314.8 yards per game while averaging 32.1 points, including 99 over its final two games — non-conference victories over Weber State and Houston.
Northwestern also must contend with Potts’ former teammate at Abilene High School, Lyle Leong. The senior has a team-high 808 receiving yards and is second in the FBS with 17 touchdown receptions.
Potts has another big-play threat in senior Detron Lewis, who has a team-best 79 receptions for 803 yards and six scores. Lewis caught 10 passes for 114 yards and a TD in last season’s bowl win.
While Texas Tech is a pass-first team — this is the 11th straight season it has had a quarterback throw for at least 3,000 yards — running backs Baron Batch and Eric Stephens could have breakout games against the Wildcats, who allowed 848 rushing yards and 10 TDs over the last two games.
“We just haven’t been as gap-sound as we usually are,” defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said.
The Red Raiders also have had their struggles on defense, yielding averages of 30.3 points and 463.1 yards, 116th in the FBS.
Northwestern (7-5) vs. Texas Tech (7-5), Noon Saturday on ESPNU
- Series Record: First meeting.
What’s at Stake
Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since its very first, the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have lost seven straight, all since 1996. At least they’re getting closer, having gone to overtime each of the last two seasons. A victory would be the 35th for the senior class, the most since the early 1900s.
Texas Tech can wrap up a three-game winning streak to end coach Tommy Tuberville’s first season since he took over for Mike Leach. The Red Raiders won their bowl game last year despite the huge distraction of the Leach saga playing out, and are in the midst of another coaching shuffle with defensive coordinator James Willis being sent away Sunday because he was interested in interviewing elsewhere.
The Northwestern defense has allowed 118 points over its last two games and Texas Tech has scored 99 points over its last two games. So Wildcats’ DE Vince Browne and DT Corbin Bryant will need to put pressure on Red Raiders QB Taylor Potts, while CB Jordan Mabin and S Brian Peters will need to prowl the secondary.
Players to Watch
Northwestern: Freshman QB Evan Watkins was thrust into starting the final two games and threw four interceptions. But he’s gotten more comfortable over the 15 practices leading up to this game.
Texas Tech: Potts threw for 462 yards the last time he played in this stadium, the Cotton Bowl, and that was just a few months ago. It was the most ever at the stadium that opened in 1936.
Facts and Figures
This is the first ever TicketCity Bowl, bringing college football back to the Cotton Bowl stadium after a one-year absence. Only the Rose Bowl has hosted more college bowl games … Both schools come in 4-0 against nonconference foes this season … Northwestern has seven players from Texas on its roster … Tuberville is 1-0 at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, having led Auburn past Nebraska in 2007.
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