Northwestern has played eight quarters of football this season and was badly outperformed in six of them. The Wildcats are still licking their wounds after a complete beatdown at Duke last week.
In other words, this team needs a good performance against Bowling Green on Saturday night to build some momentum heading into a bye week, followed by the opening of the always daunting Big Ten schedule. And Northwestern’s conference slate this year begins with a double-whammy that could put its division contention hopes on life support in a hurry: a trip to Madison to take on defending West champion Wisconsin, and then a home date with conference champion Penn State.
Bowling Green was the game that most Wildcat fans penciled in as the surest win before the season. After a disappointing first two weeks, however, nothing seems certain.
The Falcons are 0-2, coming off of losses to Michigan State (35-10) and South Dakota (35-27). Their national ranking of 164th in total yards (344.0 ypg) seems dismal until you realize that they are just six spots and 5.5 yards per game ahead of Northwestern (158th, 349.5). While Bowling Green would be hard pressed to beat the Wildcats, a tight, competitive game could be damaging enough to Northwestern’s psyche.
Here are some things to look for during the game:
Will the Cats be able to run the ball?
The book is out on Northwestern: commit safeties to the run and force the Wildcats to beat you through the air. Both Nevada and Duke were able to take the running game away from the Wildcats, who, save for the third and fourth quarters against Nevada, weren’t able to get into any kind of rhythm offensively. Both Michigan State (215 yds, 4.7 ypc) and South Dakota (214, 4.1) had success on the ground against the Falcons. After two lackluster weeks running the ball, Northwestern’s offensive line needs to flex a little muscle and pound out some yards on the ground, regardless of how many defenders BG puts in the box. Also keep an eye on Justin Jackson. The Wildcats deliberately limited his touches last week because he was dinged up. If he’s not fully healthy, coaches should shut him down early if the game is in hand to give him as much time as possible to recover before the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 30.
Can Northwestern’s receivers force the defense out of man coverage?
Teams can commit safeties to the run because they feel comfortable playing man-to-man coverage on the outside. Duke played a lot of man-free coverage, with only one safety deep and eight men consistently in the box. In order to stop that, the Wildcats’ receivers have to get open and Clayton Thorson has to hit them for big plays. NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the Duke game that his receivers went “0-for-Saturday” in one-on-one matchups on the outside. The onus is on receivers like Macan Wilson, Bennett Skowronek, Jalen Brown and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman to get separation against cornerbacks in man coverage. Once the Wildcats hit a couple plays over the top, those safeties will drop back, opening up room inside for the running game. And make no mistake -- Thorson has to be better too. He is completing 58.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Can the defense mount a pass rush?
Northwestern has one sack through two games. One, in 82 passing attempts against them. Part of that is the run-pass options that Nevada and Duke ran against the Wildcats, and part of it is because defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been afraid of blitzing with such a banged-up secondary playing behind them. But part of the reason is also because the defensive line hasn’t gotten the job done. Defensive end was identified as a concern before the season started, with CJ Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo graduating and Xavier Washington suspended indefinitely. DE Joe Gaziano, who owns the lone sack, against Nevada, has four quarterback hurries on the year, and DT Tyler Lancaster has three. No one else has more than one. Bowling Green could be a good opponent to start a feeding frenzy: quarterback James Morgan is completing just 37.5 percent of his passes and isn’t much of a threat as a runner, with more yards in losses on sacks (41) than rushing yards (33).
What will the secondary look like?
Northwestern was hamstrung by a decimated secondary agaisnt Duke, a situation made much worse when safety Jared McGee was thrown out of the game for targeting on a pivotal play in the first quarter. But the Wildcats should be much healthier this week. Marcus McShepard, the starter against Nevada, is out for Saturday, but his was the only name on the injury report. Trae Williams, who got his first action of the season last week when he was pressed into duty after McGee’s ejection, will start at one corner, and the always reliable Montre Hartage, Northwestern’s best cover man, will start at the other. Kyle Queiro, who started at corner last week because McShepard was out, will return to safety, alongside Godwin Igwebuike, and McGee should return to his customary nickelback spot. We do not yet know the status of backups Brian Bullock, Roderick Campbell and Alonzo Mayo, so keep an eye out for them. The secondary is the strength of this team, so having them at full strength is critical.
Can the Cats build confidence in the non-conference finale?
This is the question that matters the most. Northwestern needs an emphatic win to have something to feel good about heading into the calm (bye week) before the storm (the Big Ten season). After an offseason devoted to avoiding a slow start to the season, as they did in 2016, where do the Wildcats find themselves after two games? In just about the same place as they did last year, albeit with one win instead of zero. The Wildcats have stumbled out of the gate in games, too: they trailed Nevada by 10 and Duke by 11 at the half. Double-digit halftime deficits are a recipe for disaster, even if they are 1-for-2 in climbing out of their self-dug holes. Northwestern would love nothing more than to crank up its rushing attack, seize an early lead, and then coast to an emphatic win. Will that happen?
This isn’t good spot for the Wildcats to be in, as 21.5-point favorites at home. Win big, it’s expected. Win close, it’s a terrible sign. Lose…let’s not even go there. The Wildcats are notoriously bad against the spread as favorites for a reason. Northwestern will get the victory against the overmatched Falcons, but it will be something less than convincing.
Pick: Northwestern 31 Bowling Green 17