Northwestern is no stranger to facing talented quarterbacks. During the regular season, the Wildcats faced Army’s versatile Trent Steelman, Illinois’ accurate Nathan Scheelhaase, Michigan’s mobile Denard Robinson, and Michigan State’s all-around impressive Kirk Cousins, among others.
Each quarterback presented a difficult, yet different challenge for Northwestern’s defense.
Northwestern’s may be facing its toughest challenge yet in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. That test comes in the large, but athletic frame of Texas A&M senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“(Ryan) Tannehill is one of the more dynamic quarterbacks that we're going to see from the standpoint of he can do it all,” said NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
As a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-4, 222-pounder battled for, but eventually lost out on the starting quarterback job. Instead, Tannehill was moved to wide receiver, becoming quarterback Stephen McGee’s go-to target.
Tannehill would play the first 30 games of his Texas A&M career at wide receiver, moving his way into the Aggies’ Top-10 receiving yards list.
Midway through the 2010 season, Tannehill moved back to quarterback, becoming the Aggies’ starting signal-caller. In 2011, Tannehill’s senior season, he started each regular-season game, and threw for 3,415 yards and 28 touchdowns, while being named a Semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award.
Tannehill is the only player in FBS history to record 4,000 passing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in his career.
“He’s a very, very athletic young man from the standpoint of what he was able to show playing multiple positions—playing wide out,” said Fitzgerald of Tannehill. “To watch his development as a quarterback has been really impressive. He’s a very highly-rated, highly-regarded guy in the NFL’s eyes.”
However, in the eyes of Fitzgerald, the Aggies’ standout quarterback doesn’t resemble any of Northwestern’s Big Ten foes, but rather, a former Wildcat star.
“He probably reminds me a lot of Mike Kafka,” said Fitzgerald. “He has a big-time arm, a guy that makes great decisions with the football, athletic enough to make really you pay, and I think he understands their system inside and out.”
Tannehill is ranked 17th in the nation in passing yardage (285 yards per game), presenting a great challenge for Northwestern’s 91st-ranked pass defense, which will be without starting cornerback Jordan Mabin.
On an Aggie offense which averages 39.6 points per game—good for 11th in the nation—Tannehill is the leader. Any success Northwestern hopes to have on defense relies on holding the senior quarterback in check.
“He’s big, he looks like a solid player,” said NU senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt. “It will definitely be tough to contain their pretty potent offense.”