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Northwestern vs. Western Michigan: Three Key Matchups

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These head-to-head battles could go a long way in determining who wins the season opener.

Western Michigan v Toledo Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Yes, football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Western Michigan.

Matthew Harris vs WMU WR Corey Davis

This is going to be fun. First of all, if you haven’t heard of Davis by now, look him up. The senior wideout is easily the most talented player on Western Michigan’s roster and is an extremely difficult assignment for any cornerback because of his combination of size and speed. Davis is 6-foot-3, 213 pounds and runs a 4.48 40-yard dash. He caught 90 passes for 1,436 yards in 2015 as QB Zach Terrell’s most explosive target and is being talked about as a potential second round pick in next May’s draft. With Terrell’s other top receiver last year, Daniel Braverman, gone to the NFL, Davis will be the main focus of the Broncos’ offense. We’ll have a film study on him coming tomorrow, but trust us when we say Davis is a big play waiting to happen. Luckily for Northwestern, it has a very talented cornerback to try and slow him down. Matthew Harris is entering his senior season as the supposed “shutdown corner” of the Wildcats’ secondary with fellow CB Nick VanHoose having graduated in 2015. Harris was a third-team All Big Ten player as a junior and led the team in interceptions and pass breakups. Going up against Davis in his first game of the season will be a big test of whether or not Harris is going to step up and become elite. If the big receiver can get open for a few long scores, Western Michigan will have a much better chance of sticking around at Ryan Field.

Justin Jackson vs WMU LB Caleb Bailey (and the rest of the Broncos’ run defense)

Even though Clayton Thorson is thought to be improved heading into his sophomore season, Northwestern’s offense still runs through Justin Jackson. The junior is one of the best backs in the Big Ten and is a durable, consistent workhorse at the position. When he has success, it becomes that much easier for Thorson and the rest of the Wildcats’ offense to run effectively. However, Western Michigan has a run defense that is expected to be improved this season. The guy to watch in the Broncos’ front seven is junior linebacker Caleb Bailey. Bailey was the second-leading tackler on last year’s team and led Western Michigan in tackles for loss. His versatile skills will make him a tough debut assignment for Northwestern’s offensive line, which struggled at times last season. That unit needs to provide running lanes for Jackson, and the Wildcats’ best strategy for winning this one will be to let him lead long scoring drives and chew up clock with his legs. Sound familiar?

Clayton Thorson and Northwestern special teams vs WMU CB/KR/PR Darius Phillips

In a game that should favor Northwestern at home, Western Michigan may need something special to pull off the upset. One prime candidate to create that is Darius Phillips, who is the No. 1 corner for the Broncos and also returns kicks and punts. Phillips picked off five passes, including two against then-No. 1 Ohio State, in his first season at defensive back after converting from wide receiver. Thorson had problems with decision-making in his redshirt freshman season. He threw nine picks against just seven touchdowns. Thorson avoiding Phillips’ hands—and turnovers in general—would be a major boost to Northwestern’s chances of claiming a relatively easy victory. However, if Phillips is able to snag a Thorson pass or two, he is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands. Phillips showed that speed and agility several times while returning kicks for Western Michigan last season. Against Michigan State, he had lightning-fast returns of 85 yards and 100 yards for a touchdown. Take a look at the first two clips in this highlight video:

He nearly scored twice, all by himself. Northwestern’s ability to eliminate big plays from Phillips in the kicking and passing game should be very interesting to watch on Saturday.