Chicago Sun-Times
with Tina Akouris

December 2011 Archives

Aggies dominate second quarter vs. Northwestern

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It didn't take the Texas A&M offense too long to figure out that Northwestern's secondary defense has some holes.

With 1:31 to go in the first half in the Meineke Car Care bowl, Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill found receiver Jeff Fuller for a 26-yard touchdown. Fuller beat out Wildcats cornerback Mike Bolden to the end zone and the Aggies took a 17-7 lead. A&M increased its lead to 20-7 right before halftime on Randy Bulock's 40-yard field goal.

At this point it looks like the Wildcats need to do a whole heck of a lot more to get that 63-year old monkey to die.

The Wildcats showed some life when they scored at the 10:12 mark of the second quarter. Dan Persa tossed a soft pass to Venric Mark just as Persa was getting hit. Mark scampered in from two yards out and the point after put the Wildcats ahead 7-3.

But the Aggies owned the rest of the second quarter. They scored 17 unanswered points: on Ben Malena's one-yard run, Fuller's catch against Bolden and Bullock's field goal.

Persa also is shooting for the NCAA Division I all-time completion percentage record and needs just 19 attempts to qualify for the mark. If Persa can get it, he will overtake Hawaii's Colt Brennan who holds the mark with 70.4 percent. At halftime, Persa is 11-of-18 so he's almost there.

A&M takes early lead on Northwestern

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So Northwestern calls a timeout during its first possesion of the first quarter Saturday in Houston during the Meineke Car Care bowl against Texas A&M. No big deal, except that Jeremy Ebert had just made a stunning catch right in front of the NU sideline that would have been a first down. Instead, the Wildcats take the timeout and on third-and-10 quarterback Dan Persa is sacked. A potential scoring drive is over.

The Aggies get the ball and drive downfield, ending with Randy Bullock's 24-yard field goal.

A&M 3, NU 0

Reliant roof closed for Meineke Bowl

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The roof at Reliant Stadium in Houston is closed for the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Even though Saturday morning's heavy fog lifted about 90 minutes before game time, an official said the roof is closed because the grass field needs to be protected for Sunday's Texans-Titans game and too many shadows may affect the ESPN telecast.

Pat Fitzgerald wows 'em in Houston

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When Pat Fitzgerald decides to retire from coaching, he may have success as a stand-up comedian after watching and listening to the reaction of the audience at Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl luncheon at Houston's Westin Galleria hotel. Among his quips, Fitzgerald teased the five Houston natives on the Wildcats' roster -- apparently he's tired of hearing about "H-town" -- and when Houstonian Venric Mark was introduced the 5-8 kick returner stood on a chair and waved. Fitzgerald pretended he couldn't see him.

And Fitzgerald's good sense of humor continued into the bowl press conference following the luncheon. He referred to the bowl drought as "embarassing" but something that the Wildcats have embraced -- "unlike that team from the North Side of Chicago." Fitzgerald, a South Side native and White Sox fan, was obviously referring to the Cubs.

But on a more tragic note, the Wildcats and Texas A&M will wear stickers on their helmets Saturday in honor of backup offensive lineman Joe Villavisencio, who was killed in a car accident Dec. 22 when he was driving home to Jacksonville, Texas for the holidays.

"We initially reached out to A&M to see if [decals] were appropriate," Fitzgerald said. "Jim Phillips and I had a discussion about that and [A&M] felt that it was appropriate. There was no question we were honored to do that."

"One of the first calls I got on Friday when the news broke was from coach Fitzgerald," Aggies interim coach Tim DeRuyter said. "It was an extremely classy move by him and the university. It speaks about what is good about college football."

In other NU news:

Safety Brian Peters had the cast removed from his left hand this week. He broke the hand in the first half of the Nebraska victory Nov. 5 and had played with a club-like cast on it ever since.

Injured defensive lineman Niko Mafuli will carry the team's suffed monkey at the game Saturday. The monkey -- which actually looks more like a gorilla -- wears a No. 63 jersey to represent the 63 years since NU last won a bowl game, the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Implications of a Northwestern bowl victory

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What would winning a bowl game mean for Northwestern?

It has some implications aside from recruiting. Maybe one that most might not think of.

It may help push along a plan to rennovate and upgrade NU's football facilities. Athletic director Jim Phillips spent several weeks last spring and summer travelling to campuses nationwide to get an idea of what top-notch programs have in terms of football ammenities. Phillips presented the recommendations to the Board of Trustees in November, but there hasn't been any action.

Part of Pat Fitzgerald's contract extension includes a stipulation that there will be a football facilities upgrade. Many of those facilities are on landlocked property around Ashland and Central Streets in Evanston that sometimes make you forget you're on a Big Ten campus.

"We're not running from our past," Fitzgerald said. "For the seniors, this has been on the goal board since they got here. It's not that we haven't been in the [bowl] games, but we just have to finish them."

* Reliant Stadium has a retractable roof and Phillips thinks it might be open for the Meineke Car Care bowl Saturday in Houston. Officially, though, it will be a game-day decision.

* Ticket sales were strong for this bowl game, maybe a bit stronger compared to the TicketCity Bowl last season in Dallas. Phillips said they sold "close to 9,000" tickets.

That may be a good number for NU, but Phillips said he has talked to athletic directors at other schools who have noticed a drop in ticket sales for bowl games.

"Even schools who are going to BCS games are really having a hard time," Phillips said. 

Daniel Jones, Brian Arnfelt tabbed as starters

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Pat Fitzgerald said Thursday that Daniel Jones has won the starting cornerback spot, vacated by the injured Jordan Mabin and start in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M on Saturday. Fitzgerald also said that Brian Arnfelt will replace Niko Mafuli on the defensive line. Mafuli broke his leg during practice Dec. 10 and Mabin tore his right labrum and pectoral muscle during the Wildcats' loss to Michigan State on Nov. 26.



Cobb's thoughts on Ohio State

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Northwestern guard JerShon Cobb is feeling much better after offseason hip surgery sidelined him for four games this season. And as the Wildcats make their way to Columbus for Wednesday afternoon's Big Ten opener at No. 2 Ohio State, Cobb said the Buckeyes are a very different team from the one NU almost beat twice last season.

"Ohio State didn't lose a lot but the makeup of their team is different and I think we're a better team than we were last year," Cobb said. "We are going into Ohio State expecting to win. Their offense is different because they are relying more heavily on [sophomore Jared] Sullinger than they did last year. And last year they shot more threes, but they are getting to the hole more this year."

Tre Demps out for the season

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Northwestern freshman guard Tre Demps had season ending shoulder surgery Tuesday and is eligible for a medical redshirt. Demps tore his labrum over the summer, but played in four games for the Wildcats and averaged 14.3 minutes and 2.3 points.

Wildcat safety Campbell nets two honors

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Wildcat redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell earned first-team freshman All-American honors by Yahoo! Sports and was named to the's All-Freshman defensive unit on Monday.

Campbell is the only Big Ten representative named to the first team by either entity.

The 5-11, 205-pound Philadelphia native started all but one of the Wildcats' 12 games this season and led the 'Cats with 89 tackles, ranking him 11th in the Big Ten.

Campbell also had a season-high 13 tackles in the Wildcats' 28-25 upset victory at Nebraska on Nov. 5.

Evan Watkins, a superback?

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           It was an odd sight: backup quarterback Evan Watkins playing superback during Northwestern's first bowl practice Saturday instead of taking snaps behind center.

            And according to coach Pat Fitzgerald, you'd better get used to seeing the 6-6 sophomore over there for the time being.

            "We're trying to get him on the field," Fitzgerald said. "Evan wants to have a role, and he's really honest with himself and he sees where he's at in his career with his skill set and his body and what he can do on the field.

            "He came to us and said, 'Hey, can I try to play another position?' and said superback. He's been out there for six practices and he looks really good, actually."

            Watkins had dropped from second to fourth on the depth chart at quarterback after Dan Persa returned from his ruptured Achilles Oct. 1 at Illinois. Ahead of Watkins were Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and Watkins could see the writing on the wall -- he had to do something.

            The Glenbard North product had been participating in practices at quarterback, and during games he was that tall guy on the sidelines holding up placards so Persa or Colter could call plays.

            Now, Watkins is giving hits instead of getting them.

            "It was on my mind a lot and it was something I wanted to do to help the team out next year and in the future," Watkins said. "I've never played side end before, but I played a little receiver in high school. I'm having a blast out here and I'm enjoying it a lot."

            Watkins said it was difficult at first to play at superback because he wasn't used to hitting or the fundamentals of that position.

            But the idea of being a quarterback is still on his mind.

            "I've been a quarterback my whole life," Watkins said. "So it was difficult, but it gets to the point where you realize the reality and if that's what it takes [to help the team and play], then that's what I want to do."

            Fitzgerald also addressed Jordan Mabin's replacement at cornerback for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas  on Dec. 31 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Mabin suffered a season ending "upper extremity" injury during the Wildcats' 31-17 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 26. Mabin had surgery on the injury, first reported to be his right shoulder, earlier this month. Fitzgerald said he has a couple of weeks to name a replacement.

            "It's frustrating for [Mabin] and you feel for him," Fitzgerald said. "He's working through the rehab process and hopefully will run on pro timing day or an [NFL] combine if he gets invited."

            Initially, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones took over for Mabin against the Spartans. But blown coverage on two touchdowns and a long pass play was indicative of Jones' inexperience, and he knows that part of his game has to improve.

            "During the game I felt horrible, because I gave up two or three plays that really hurt us," Jones said. "But I feel like I still competed and played hard when I was out there. Those three plays will always stick with you and ruin whatever else you did in the game."




Storylines to watch during Wildcats bowl prep

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Texas A&M is located about 90 miles or so from Reliant Stadium in Houston. So when Northwestern plays in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31, it won't feel like a neutral site. It's going to feel like an Aggies home game. Kind of like what happened last year at the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas when the Wildcats faced Texas Tech.

"It's going to be a road game for us," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The Wilcats are going to be facing an Aggies team that has been through the drama of a coach's firing in Mike Sherman, who was let go last week after the Aggies finished the regular season 6-6. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has taken over as an interim coach.

Those storylines aside, here's a few more nuggets that came out of the NU press conference Sunday night:

* The Wildcats have five Houston natives on their roster in cornerback Demetrius Dugar, defensive lineman Will Hampton, receiver Christian Jones, kick returner Venric Mark and linebacker David Nwabuisi.

Did those ties to Houston and the Wildcats' strong fan base in the area help put the Wildcats' over the top in the eyes of bowl executive director Heather Houston?

"I hope so," Fitzgerald said. "I think the brand of football that we play is pretty entertaining and we've been pretty salty in bowl games. We haven't won, but we've been pretty entertaining, to say the least." 

* Considering that bowl projections had the Wildcats going anywhere from Detroit's Little Caesar's Bowl to a non-Big Ten bowl as an at-large team, atheltic director Jim Phillips deserves high praise for getting the Wildcats in at Meineke. NU leaped ahead of Penn State, Purdue and Illinois in the Big Ten pecking order for bowl bids.

* "We're four practices in and we're not very pleased with the way we played this year and I think I made that crystal clear after the Michigan State game [a 31-17 Wildcat loss]," Fitzgerald said. "We're going to get some things fixed and we're going to get some guys playing more consistently or they're not going to play.

"I'm tired of sitting here and talking to you [the media] guys after games when we don't play and coach the way we are capable of. The only way to get those things fixed is through consistent execution and effort and practice."


Northwestern will bowl in Houston

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Northwestern will play Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas Dec. 31 in Houston, NU sports is reporting. 

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