The Syracuse Orange football program opens its season Saturday (12 p.m. ET on ESPN2) against the visiting Northwestern Wildcats at the Carrier Dome. The Wildcats, led by head coach and alum Pat Fitzgerald, are coming off a 6-7 season that ended with a 33-22 loss to the Texas A&M Aggies in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and enter this season as a sleeper candidate to win the Big Ten Conference's Legends Division.
For those Orange fans curious to know more about the purple and white, here's a brief scouting report:
Junior Kain Colter is the starting quarterback and field general of the Wildcats' spread offense. The dual-threat signal caller took over as leader of the Wildcats' offense for the final three games of last season after Dan Persa ruptured his right Achilies tendon in Nov.
"Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago," admits Fitzgerald.
"Last year, you could defiantly tell it was really his first start in college football, and now he's defiantly settled down, he's settled into the role. And I think what speaks volumes is he was elected as captain by his teammates. That doesn't happen by accident."
Because of last year's experience, Colter (6-foot, 190 pounds), who helped Northwestern finish second in the Big Ten in offensive production, will enter Saturday's game as the main offensive weapon that SU needs to contain. And that will be a tough task, as Colter is capable of beating defenses not only with his arm -- 673 pass yards and six touchdowns in '11 -- but with his legs -- 654 rushing yards (in his three starts at quarterback, Colter averaged 79-rushing yards per game).
"We've faced a lot of (dual-threat quarterbacks) in the past and each one of them are a bit different," said head coach Doug Marrone. "Kain has outstanding speed, he can get outside the pocket. He's been an outstanding wide receiver for Northwestern, so we need to be careful of where he is in the pocket and our rush lane and know what we're doing. We need to make sure we can contain him because if he gets outside the pocket he has shown he can make people miss in the open field."
Colter will have a lot of options to throw to, as returners Tony Jones (6-foot, 185 pounds), Rashad Lawrence (6-foot-2, 185), Demetrius Fields (6-foot, 210), who has a team-high 31 career starts, provided size and speed on the outside, while former USC Trojans' five-star recruit Kyle Prater (6-foot-5, 225), who transferred to Northwestern without a one-year waiting period, gives the Wildcats' exceptional depth at the position.
In the backfield, junior Venric Mark (5-foot-8, 180) and junior Mike Trumpy (6-foot-1, 210) will get most of the carries, but look for Northwestern to rely on the legs of Colter more than Mark or Trumpy.
On special teams, Orange punter Jonathan Fisher will need to make sure punt and kick returner Mark doesn't get open space. If he does, look out.
For the Wildcats to be a factor in the Big Ten, the defense will need to be the unit that steps up. On paper, Northwestern's biggest weakness is its secondary, which graduated three starters and features a returning sophomore, safety Ibraheim Campbell, as its anchor.
On the outsides, senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar (5'11, 180), who started two games last season, and redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose (6-foot. 185) will start, and try to hold down Syracuse wide outs Alec Lemon (6-foot-2, 205) and Marcus Sales (6-foot, 195).
In the past, the secondary fell victim to a weak pass rush from the defensive line. That issue stemmed from the lack of talent upfront, but the assumed progression of senior Quentin Williams (6-4, 255) and junior Tyler Scott (6-foot-4, 265) is expected to fix that.
Also, look for aggressive play-calling from defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who admitted he'd attack more this season.
The linebacking crops is anchored by senior outside linebacker David Nwabuisi (6-foot-1, 240), who led the team with 84 tackles last season.
Like the Orange, the Wildcats will enter hungry for a season-opening victory -- wins in the Big Ten are few and far between. But Northwestern's recent history against the Orange (1-5 in the last six meetings) isn't good and is even worse at the Carrier Dome (0-3).
To change that around, NU will need attack Syracuse's defense using Colter's arm and feet, something Wildcats fans can expect will be done with consistency, and hope its defense can stop Syracuse's offense -- which scored 36 points in last year's season-opening victory against Wake Forrest.