(Sports Network) Northwestern is off to a 2-0 start following last weekend's 37-3 win over Illinois State, which came on the heels of a two-point win at Vanderbilt in the opener. The 34-point difference was NU's largest margin of victory in nearly five years. The Wildcats will return home next week to host Central Michigan before the Big Ten schedule gets underway.
As for the Owls, they evened their record at 1-1 with last week's 32-31 win at North Texas. Rice opened its season with a 34-17 loss to Texas two weeks ago. The Owls haven't played a Big Ten foe since a 27-10 loss at Michigan State in 2002.
Rice holds a 4-1 series edge over the Wildcats, although this marks their first meeting since 1998.
Wildcats' first-year starting quarterback Dan Persa has looked the part thus far of a capable collegiate QB, and he is coming off a fine performance against Illinois State. In last week's win, he completed 19-of-23 passes for 240 yards and two TDs before sitting out most of the second half. Surprisingly, he even leads the nation in passing efficiency (212.06) entering this weekend's tilt. Thanks to Persa's pinpoint accuracy, NU jumped out to a 30-3 halftime lead and never looked back. Wideout Jeremy Ebert has been a dependable big-play target, and he is averaging a team-high 20.8 yards per catch through two games. The Wildcats haven't established much of a running game, as Persa actually leads the team with 95 rushing yards on the year.
Defensively, Quentin Davie notched a pair of interceptions last week as he became the first Northwestern player since Herschel Henderson in 2005 to record two picks in the same game. Overall, the Wildcats came away with three interceptions and a fumble recovery in last week's lopsided win. They also held ISU to 5-of-15 on third downs. Redbirds quarterback Matt Brown managed just 138 yards through the air, while the NU defense limited the ground attack to a combined 92 yards on 30 carries (3.1 ypc). While Davie grabbed the headlines with his interceptions, he and the rest of the secondary benefited from an effective pass rush. Vince Browne had five tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries, while Justan Vaughn registered a team-high nine tackles.
Rice pulled ahead of North Texas on Charles Ross' two-yard touchdown run with 6:22 to play in the fourth quarter last week. It wasn't exactly a banner day for the Owls' offense, but they got the job done. Sam McGuffie, a transfer from Michigan, was held to 18 yards on 14 carries although he did catch four passes for a team-high 91 yards and a touchdown. Backfield mate Tyler Smith had 92 yards on 12 carries with a long gain of 48 yards. Nick Fanuzzi completed 12-of-23 passes for 189 yards with one touchdown and one interception. In five trips to the red zone, the Rice offense managed just one touchdown and three field goals. While it was enough to pull out the narrow victory last week, a repeat performance in the red zone against Northwestern likely won't yield the same result.
Travis Bradshaw headlines the Rice defense with 19 total tackles through two games. He amassed nine stops in last week's win over North Texas, and that also included a forced fumble and recovery. In all, the Rice defense forced three fumbles and recovered two of them. Phillip Gaines chipped in with six stops, while Corey Frazier had five tackles and an interception. North Texas did manage to move the ball and rack up 420 total yards against the Owls, but the aforementioned turnovers proved costly. And unlike Rice, the Mean Green converted three of their four red-zone trips into touchdowns, with the other resulting in a field goal. UNT quarterback Nathan Tune carved up the Rice secondary for 285 yards and three touchdowns, while running back Lance Dunbar rushed for 105 yards and a score on 17 carries.
Since the start of the 2008 season, NU is a healthy 8-3 on the road. With Persa firing on all cylinders, the Rice defense will almost assuredly give up some points. The question is, can the Owls score enough to keep up?
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 41, Rice 21