Northwestern didn't do much right in its season opener against Cal, and they certainly didn't succeed in last week's three big things. Northern Illinois is a much different opponent though, and with one week in the books, Pat Fitzgerald should have a good idea of what the Huskies will bring to Ryan Field Saturday. Here are three big things for Northwestern's match-up with NIU:
1. Come out strong
The worst thing that could happen for Northwestern on Saturday would be another first half disaster. Cal's 24-7 dismantling of NU last week couldn't have been uglier. Between sifting through my Twitter feed and chatting with colleagues at halftime, I had never heard so much pessimism about NU football. The feeling fit the performance. The 'Cats clawed back in the second half, but it wasn't without some luck. A dropped pass-turned Collin Ellis interception and a miraculous Trevor Siemian touchdown helped swing the score. The big plays did not alter the result, and the team's demeanor has to be low after the loss. Fitzgerald can swing the momentum by creating a gameplan that works starting at kick-off. Northwestern needs more than a close victory. Coming out strong and leading wire-to-wire is what NU needs to start this season's turnaround.
2. Stop the run
77. Northern Illinois ran the ball 77 times last week. Sure, the Huskies were playing Presbyterian, an FCS team from the Big South. And yes, they won 55-3. NIU was going to have their way no matter what they did on offense, but it's evident that running the ball is their forte. They had 45 more carries than passing attempts last Saturday. It's not all on one guy either. Five different players got seven or more carries in week one for the Huskies while Akeem Daniels and Joel Bouagnon led the way for NIU. Bouagnon is a tank at 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds and should get touches around the goal line. He had four touchdowns last week, including two one-yard scores. Daniels is only 5-foot-7 but can be just as productive. The senior went for 118 yards on just 15 carries against Presbyterian. NIU's quarterbacks can run too, not nearly as well as Jordan Lynch, but they are capable of moving the ball with their legs. Northwestern was caught off guard by Cal's rushing game last week. There's no reason for that to be the case this time around.
3. Field Position
Based on the results of week one and a look at these teams's strengths, this game will be a low-scoring affair. Northwestern played great defense after making some halftime adjustments against Cal. NIU held Presbyterian to three points, which again isn't saying a whole lot, but the Huskies seem solid defensively. Plus, NIU may milk plenty of clock with their run game. I think this game will have less possessions and less points than the Cal game. Northwestern and Northern Illinois will take points when they have the opportunity, so field position is going to be huge. Too often Chris Gradone punts left Cal with a short field, sometimes even in field goal position, last week. On top of that, the 'Cats didn't return any Cal punts. They may seem like little things, but improvement from Gradone and better coverage for Shuler and Campbell on punt returns could make a world of difference for NU.