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Three reasons to Watch Northwestern-Western Michigan Saturday

Even for Northwestern diehards, Saturday night’s game against Western Michigan may be tough to watch past halftime. If the guys in Vegas have it right, Northwestern will obliterate the visiting Broncos; the game could get out of hand faster than you can spell “Row The Boat.” But there are a few reasons to keep your TV’s fixed to WMU-NU, something deeper than any sadistic MAC-hating desires you may or may not wish to disclose publicly. Here are three:

1. Will Northwestern overlook Western Michigan?

Probably not. But if it did, it would not be hard deduce the reasons why. Fresh off two convincing wins against AQ opponents, the Wildcats may be tempted to take P.J. Fleck’s team lightly – particularly after the laughable home loss it suffered last week against FCS middler Nicholls State. The point was raised in a column by the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein earlier this week. Finding the motivation to adequately prepare for WMU, and maintain a winning-level of focus throughout, will be a challenge. The Wildcats sound like they’re ready – redshirt freshman offensive guard Ian Park, for instance, said this of the Broncos. “They’re going to be hungry.” Coach Pat Fitzgerald stressed the notion that his team is far from reaching peak form, and that nobody is “feeling like we have arrived, I can promise you that.”

That’s the attitude I would expect Fitzgerald and his players to have. There shouldn’t be any lapse in preparation or in-game focus. Fitzgerald is a fiery gameday motivator, and I don’t suspect he’ll treat this game (or let his players treat this game) differently than others against tougher competition.

2. Second-stringers in action

Late in the second half last week against Syracuse, we saw some of Northwestern’s backups step in and play well. This week, expect more of the same, only the second-teamers should pop in a bit earlier, if Northwestern dominates the way most expect. There are a couple of guys I’m particularly interested to see.

1) Matthew Harris – Cornerback depth looked like a big problem in the preseason, and only became more glaring once former starter Daniel Jones was lost for the season after tearing his ACL against Cal. Redshirt freshman Dwight White Jr. has stepped in capably, but clearly needs more repetitions and experience, and should improve over time as he gets them. Nick VanHoose was viewed as one of the Wildcats’ most reliable defensive players entering the season, but it’s not unfair to say he has performed well below his potential to date.

Those are Northwestern’s two starters – what’s behind them? For one, Harris, the first true freshman to see the field for the Wildcats this season, who played well in preseason camp and could earn a bigger workload as the season rolls on. Saturday is a perfect opportunity to show he’s ready to enter the first-team mix with more regularity. I suppose I should have discussed my expectations for C.J. Bryant, Northwestern's other backup corner, in greater detail, but any Northwestern fan not just joining the party already knows what Bryant is capable of. The possibility of Harris getting extensive playing time – even against a lesser opponent – is much more intriguing

2) Zack Oliver – We rarely wrote about Oliver in the preseason, because, well why would we? He’s a third-string quarterback, and barring injury, probably won’t play much at all this season in competitive game situations. Let it be known: Oliver played really well in preseason camp. He flashed great arm strength, a good feel for pressure in the pocket and managed the second-team offense deftly.

Oliver won’t be the starting quarterback next season – Trevor Siemian is all but guaranteed to takeover the position (unless coordinator Mick McCall and Fitzgerald decide to go with some weird double-pocket-passing two-quarterback rotation) – but he should battle highly touted redshirt freshman-to-be Matt Alviti for the backup job. Alviti looked impressive in his own right, but if Oliver can play well in the limited snaps afforded to him this season, he'll have the benefit of not just experience, but successful experience, recommending his candidacy for the No. 2 QB spot next year. Saturday offers Oliver an excellent opportunity to showcase the strides he made this offseason.

3. Will Venric Mark play? 

This is the least intriguing of all three storylines. Northwestern has no reason to play Mark if the nagging muscle injury that limited him to 11 carries in the Cal game and kept him out of the Syracuse game continues to bother him. Northwestern has plenty of depth at running back, and the recent emergence of Treyvon Green has made his absence almost negligible through two games. Once Northwestern’s schedule toughens, starting October 5 with a visit from Ohio State, the Wildcats will need Mark at his best. It makes little sense to risk compromising his rehabilitation by playing him in a game Northwestern can easily win without his services. The Wildcats would be wise to rest Mark this week, rest Mark next week and get him up to speed for when the Buckeyes come to town the first weekend in October.

Having Mark on the field is an obvious bonus, but his long-term health is far more important than anything he could possibly provide in limited touches against two cupcake opponents. Mark should, to his chagrin, watch from the sidelines Saturday night.