by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Texas A&M (6–6) vs. Northwestern (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 12 noon ET
Location: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
Texas A&M is arguably the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. A consensus top 15 team in the preseason, the Aggies went 4–5 in the Big 12 — their final year in the league — due to their inability to protect a lead. A&M held a double-digit lead in five of its six losses, including halftime leads of 20–3 vs. Oklahoma State and 34–17 vs. Arkansas in back-to-back games early in the season. Mike Sherman was dismissed after going 25–25 in his four seasons in College Station and has been replaced by former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who was recently hired to be the head coach at Fresno State, will serve as the Aggies’ interim coach in the bowl game.
Northwestern suffered through a five-game losing streak — including a defeat at Army — earlier this season but bounced back to win four straight and is headed to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. The Wildcats only beat one team with a winning record (Nebraska, on the road), but they have some quality pieces on offense, and they improved on defense as the season progressed.
WHEN TEXAS A&M HAS THE BALL:
The Aggies had plenty of issues this season — scoring points was not one of them. They currently rank 11th in the nation in scoring (39.6 ppg) thanks to their ability to move the ball on the ground (208.1 ypg) and through the air (287.9 ypg). Ryan Tannehill, in his first full season as the starter, has thrown for 3,415 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions (12 of which came in the Aggies’ six losses). Tannehill has three receivers — Ryan Swope, Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu — who caught at least 45 passes.
The A&M rushing attack will not, however, be at full strength. Christine Michael, who averaged just under 100 yards rushing per game, was sidelined in early November with a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Gray, who has five 100-yard games on his 2011 resume, is questionable with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go, sophomore Ben Malena will get the bulk of the carries.
Northwestern has struggled to stop the run and the pass for the majority of the 2011 season. The Wildcats gave up 30 points or more in six of their nine games against BCS opponents. It will be a surprise if A&M doesn’t score at least 35 points.
WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE BALL:
When healthy, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has been among the most dynamic playmakers in the Big Ten in the past two seasons. He isn’t as much of a running threat post-Achilles injury, but Persa is still able to tuck it and run. Where he really hurts a defense is with his accuracy; he has led the nation in completion percentage in two straight seasons, 73.5 percent in ‘10 and 74.3 percent this season. The Cats don’t have a ton of big-time playmakers on offense, but they do have a solid corps of pass-catchers who can move the chains.
The leading rusher is quarterback/receiver/super back Kain Colter, who has 660 yards and five scores on 79 attempts. He saw significant action at quarterback early in the season when Persa was making his way back from his Achilles injury.
Don’t expect to see Northwestern running the ball out of conventional alignments too often. The Wildcats’ tailbacks are average at best, and stopping the run is something the A&M defense does well. Northwestern will lean on Persa to make plays in the passing game.
Texas A&M senior kicker Randy Bullock leads the nation with 25 field goals (in 29 attempts), and he has made 10-of-12 from 40-49 yards and 1-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. He is a big weapon. Northwestern, on the other hand, has only made six field goals all season. Sophomore Jeff Budzien is 6-of-10, with a long of 47 yards.
Texas A&M was arguably the nation’s biggest underachiever in 2011. You have to question this team’s motivation, but there are some key seniors who would love to go out with a win in their final game. Northwestern will be scrappy, as usual, but the Wildcats will have a tough time slowing down the Aggies’ offense.
Texas A&M 37, Northwestern 28