Texas A&M-Northwestern Preview

It’s been a disappointing year for Texas A&M, but its first

bowl win in a decade would be a nice lift heading into a new

conference with a new coach.

For Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, this will be his fourth

attempt at leading the program to its first bowl win since

1949.

Playing for the final time as a member of the Big 12 before

joining the SEC, the Aggies will face the Wildcats in the Meineke

Car Care Bowl on Saturday in Houston.

After tying for first in the Big 12 South and finishing 9-4 last

season, Texas A&M was expected to challenge for the conference

title in 2011 and was ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll.

However, the Aggies’ 1-5 record in games decided by seven points or

fewer resulted in a 6-6 regular season and the firing of coach Mike

Sherman on Dec. 1.

With Sherman having gone .500 in four seasons as coach, the

Texas A&M program moves into the Kevin Sumlin era after he was

hired Dec. 10. Sumlin, an Aggies assistant from 2001-02 under R.C.

Slocum, was one of the country’s hottest coaching candidates after

leading Houston to a school-record 12 wins this season and one shy

of a BCS bowl bid.

Sumlin will not coach this game as the Aggies go for their first

postseason victory since defeating TCU in the 2001

Galleryfurniture.com Bowl.

“I would have been a distraction from what they are trying to do

to win a bowl game,” he said during his introductory news

conference. “… I’m not going to come in here and just try to

coach this team in the next two weeks to beat Northwestern. After

that, we’ll move on.”

Interim coach Tim DeRuyter, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator

the last two seasons, also will be moving on following this game

after being named Fresno State’s coach Dec. 14.

While the Aggies closed the regular season by losing four of

five, Northwestern (6-6) heads to Reliant Stadium having gone 4-1

following a five-game skid.

This is the fourth straight year the Wildcats have been to a

bowl game, but they’re 0-8 since winning the 1949 Rose Bowl.

All three losses under Fitzgerald, who took over in 2006, have

been heartbreakers. The Wildcats lost in overtime in the first two,

then fell 45-38 to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl on New Year’s

Day.

Fitzgerald would like nothing more than for senior quarterback

Dan Persa to help end the drought as he makes his bowl debut in his

final collegiate start.

Persa, the nation’s leader in completion percentage (74.2),

became the starter last year but had to miss the bowl game due to

an Achilles’ injury that also sidelined him the first three games

this season.

“This will be a great way to put an exclamation point to his

career,” Fitzgerald told the school’s official website. “Get this

monkey off our back, get the win and really springboard the next

year and put a great bow to the careers of a senior class that is

really special.”

Persa threw for 2,163 yards in nine games with 17 touchdowns and

seven interceptions, ranking 10th in the nation in passer rating at

160.3.

Persa has a number of big-play threats, the best of which is

Jeremy Ebert. He was the Big Ten’s fourth-leading receiver with 71

catches for 1,025 yards and ranked third in the conference with 11

TDs. Ebert needs 110 yards to move into second all-time at

Northwestern with 2,475 and three catches to take over third place

with 172.

Fellow senior Drake Dunsmore is the school’s all-time leading

receiver among tight ends after finishing this year with 43 catches

for 509 yards, winning the Big Ten’s inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight

end of the year award. One of his worst games came in last season’s

bowl – one catch for three yards – but he set career highs with

nine receptions and 120 yards in a 2010 Outback Bowl loss to

Auburn.

Demetrius Fields has caught one TD pass in three straight

contests and also could cause problems for the Aggies’ 113th-ranked

pass defense (280.5 yards per game).

Texas A&M, though, is 13th against the run, allowing 106.0

yards per game.

Northwestern was 4-0 when it had more than 170 yards rushing,

compared to 2-6 when it didn’t.

The Aggies’ ground game was hurt by the loss of Christine

Michael, who ran for 899 yards and eight TDs before tearing an ACL

last month, and would be further weakened if Cyrus Gray can’t play.

The senior had his second straight 1,000-yard, 12-touchdown season,

but his status is uncertain due to a shoulder injury suffered in a

61-7 win over Kansas on Nov. 19.

Still, Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who served

in the same role for the Aggies from 1997-02, faces a tough test

from the Texas A&M passing game. Senior quarterback Ryan

Tannehill is a big reason the Aggies rank seventh in the nation in

total offense (497.0 yards per game) and are 11th with 39.6 points

per game.

Tannehill, a converted wideout, threw for 3,415 yards with 28

TDs and 14 INTs. His favorite target was Ryan Swope, who had 11 TDs

and set program records with 81 receptions and 1,102 yards.

“I’m really impressed by him,” Fitzgerald said of Tannehill. “I

know he’s a young man who early in his career played wide receiver

and to watch that growth as a quarterback, it’s very similar to

some of the young men that we’ve seen that has that dual-threat

capability in our conference.”

This will be the first meeting between Texas A&M and

Northwestern.