Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, Ball State comes to Ryan Field. The Cardinals are 2-1, having won their Mid-American Conference opener on the road at Eastern Michigan on Saturday. As power-conference teams around the country have found this season, the MAC has produced a bunch of upsets, meaning NU has to be on its toes this weekend. Still, the No. 17 Wildcats should be able to take care of business and finish their non-conference slate with a 4-0 record.
Here are the reasons NU will or won't win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Ball State
1. Clayton Thorson continues to struggle (and turn the ball over)
Northwestern's freshman quarterback has had a rough time of it in the first three games of his first college season, even as his team has gone 3-0. His worst performance came in Saturday's win over Duke, as he completed 9 of his 23 attempts for only 70 yards. He also threw two interceptions. The Wildcats, with their strong defense and multi-faceted running game, probably could withstand another sub-100-yard effort from Thorson, but they'd be playing with fire if he throws multiple picks again.
2. Darian Green and James Gilbert dominate the Northwestern front seven
One of the biggest and nicest surprises of the first three games for Northwestern has been the play of the defensive linemn and linebackers, especially Dean Lowry and Anthony Walker. Against Stanford and Eastern Illinois, those two units allowed basically nothing on the ground, which played a big role in victories. However, Duke was able to run for 177 yards on 35 carries (5.1 average) last week, and things won't get much easier versus Ball State.
The Cardinals boast a very good two-back system, with sophomore Darian Green (334 yards and 4 touchdowns) and freshman James Gilbert (170 yards, 5 touchdowns) leading the way. Both backs — each standing at 5-foot-8 — are small and shifty, which could lead to problems for the Northwestern defense. Ball State, currently tied for 11th in the country in rushing yards, emphasizes the ground game, which has caused more problems for NU this season than the passing game has.
3. Justin Jackson isn't able to get it going on the ground
Even as a sophomore, Justin Jackson has already developed into a formidable running back in the Big Ten. He has an advanced ability to read his blockers and the opposing defense, and has shown an innate ability to bounce off of contact and break tackles with ease. However, at times, he has shown signs of fatigue and ineffectiveness, which came to the forefront during his 35-carry, 120-yard game against Duke. From the start, he had trouble rushing for more than three or four yards, which allowed the Blue Devils to be more aggressive against the passing game.
Sure, Warren Long was able to contribute with a long touchdown run in the second half, but the NU rushing attack starts and ends with Jackson. If he can't start off strong, even facing a less-than-stellar Ball State front seven that has allowed over 165 yards per game this season, the Wildcats will be at a major disadvantage, since Thorson has yet to prove himself and Long (and Solomon Vault) don't have experience leading the running game by themselves.
Why Northwestern will beat Ball State
1. The Cardinals' passing game is not strong...
And they'll likely be starting a true freshman who has a grand total of zero career starts. Ball State coach Pete Lembo is expected to start Riley Neal as the team's starting quarterback for their Week 4 game at Ryan Field this week. Neal has seen time so far this year, but most of it came in relief of Jack Milas.
Let's just say this isn't a defense you'd want to be making your first career start against. Northwestern has only picked off two passes in three games, but the Wildcats have allowed just 327 yards through the air through three games, and a meager 5.1 yards per attempt. Clearly, this secondary is top-notch, and deserves the national praise it has been garnering.
This seems like a recipe for disaster for Ball State.
2. The Wildcats have an explosive kick and punt return game (and Ball State doesn't)
One of the biggest plays of the Duke game was Solomon Vault's 98-yard kick return touchdown at the start of the second half. The score was the Wildcats' first on special teams of the season, and it came at a perfect time. And overall, Northwestern was really strong in the kicking game Saturday.
Ball State, on the other hand, has yet to post a kick or punt return touchdown this year, and has been pretty weak in that aspect of the game, especially on punt return defense. The Cardinals have allowed an average of 21.8 yards per punt return which, when added to the fact that their punters are averaging only 38.4 yards per punt, doesn't bode well for them in terms of both field position and a potential Northwestern special teams score. Field position could be a determining factor in this game if it turns into a punt show like NU's meeting with Duke did (21 combined punts between the teams).
3. NU just might actually be the 17th-best team in the nation
Ball State may be from the same conference as Toledo (which has beaten both ranked Arkansas and Iowa State), Bowling Green (beat Maryland) and Northern Illinois (shocked NU in 2014), but if these Northwestern Wildcats are for real and actually a top-25 team in the nation, the Cardinals shouldn't present much of a challenge. It's certainly a team with talent and potential, but is very inexperienced and unbalanced, so the Wildcats match up well.
At home, in a hyped-up night game, the Wildcats should — and will — come out of the gates strong as they look to sneak into the top-15 and head into Big Ten play without a loss. It would be hard to believe this team could come out flat in such a vital game, especially with how much is potentially at stake. You might think this will be a trap game for the Wildcats, but Pat Fitzgerald won't let them overlook the Cardinals.