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.
First up for Northwestern are the Western Michigan Broncos of the MAC. Coach P.J. Fleck’s squad went 8-5 last season, with two of those losses coming against top-5 teams, and returns a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats will be fired up when they run out of the tunnel and onto Ryan Field to start the season, but this is far from an easy victory. Northwestern will need to play a solid game in multiple facets to come away with a W and start 2016 off on the right foot. Here are the reasons why NU will or won’t win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Western Michigan
1. The Broncos’ passing game will give the “Sky Team” fits all game long
Western Michigan’s biggest strength is its high-powered aerial attack, which will be a tough test for a Northwestern secondary that lost Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry to graduation, Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese to the offensive side of things and Keith Watkins II to injury since it last took the field. The Wildcats led the country in opposing passing touchdowns allowed last season, surrendering just five, but will need new starters Montre Hartage and Kyle Queiro to start strong against Bronco QB Zach Terrell. Terrell threw for 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 2015, and his 9.0 yards per attempt was good for eighth in Division I. His top target is Corey Davis, whose matchup with Northwestern’s Matthew Harris will be one of the most interesting to watch on Saturday. Davis will use his height advantage to go off for a big game against Harris and Terrell will take advantage of Hartage’s inexperience while finding his other targets. Western Michigan, which averaged 36 points per game last season, will put up too many points for Northwestern’s offense to match.
2. Northwestern will lose the turnover battle
Having a positive turnover margin is a pretty good indicator of success in any game and this one will be no different. Unfortunately for Northwestern, there are a few troubling signs that suggest it will have a difficult time achieving that. Since fumbles tend to be somewhat unpredictable, let’s focus on the battle for turnovers through the air. Sure, Terrell and Clayton Thorson each threw nine picks a season ago, but that stat is misleading. Thorson got to nine on nearly 100 fewer attempts than Terrell, whose INTs came while leading a spread offense centered around his arm. Western Michigan’s passing game will stake it to a lead in the second half, forcing Northwestern to air it out more than usual, and Thorson will make one or two costly mistakes. Bronco CB Darius Phillips snagged five interceptions a season ago and is a decent bet for another one in this game.
3. Western Michigan’s running backs will gash Northwestern on the ground
Rushing defense was a major problem in all three of the Wildcats’ losses in 2015. Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee each racked up more than 200 yards on the ground, keeping Northwestern’s defense on the field for long stretches and using up a lot of clock. The Broncos will present a challenge in that department, as they have a talented, versatile group of running backs. Jamauri Bogan, who ran for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015, is the more explosive, smaller back. Jarvion Franklin is the more physical option; he ran for over 1,500 yards and 24 scores as the bell cow in 2014 but split carries with Bogan last season. Oh, and third back LeVante Bellamy averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season and will get touches again this year. Western Michigan will use all three effectively against Northwestern, and once the passing game opens up running lanes, Northwestern will be unable to get off the field.
Why Northwestern will beat Western Michigan
1. The Wildcats will dominate up front
One of Northwestern’s key advantages in this game is its size/strength/physicality, which generally is the main advantage Big Ten schools have against non-Power 5 opponents. This will be apparent all game long, regardless of which team has possession. When the Wildcats have the ball, their offensive line will be able to generate good push against Western Michigan’s front four. This will give Justin Jackson plenty of running room and make it hard for the Broncos to slow Northwestern down. Rushing the passer isn’t a strength of Western Michigan’s defense anyways, so Thorson will have plenty of time to throw the football. When the Broncos are on offense, they’ll have their hands full with Tyler Lancaster and the rest of the Wildcat defensive line, meaning running backs Bogan and Franklin are going to have a tough time finding space to gain chunks of yardage. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington will supply pressure against an offensive line that allowed 31 sacks last season, sacking Terrell several times and regularly disrupting his rhythm and progressions.
2. Northwestern will always have the best player on the field
Stars help teams win games, and the Wildcats have a couple of them in Justin Jackson and Anthony Walker Jr., a preseason first-team All-American. Jackson will be the best player on the field whenever Northwestern is on offense and should be in line for a big day to open his junior season. A 100-yard game for “The Ballcarrier” seems like a safe bet. Speaking of nicknames, Walker Jr., aka “The Franchise” will be the best player on the field when Western Michigan has possession (although Davis won’t be too far behind). The versatile linebacker will be flying all over the field on all three downs and will play a big role in getting his team the victory.
3. Pat Fitzgerald is 9-1 in season openers
When Northwestern lost by a touchdown to Jared Goff and Cal in the first game of the 2014 season, it snapped an 8 game streak of victories in season openers for Fitzgerald since taking over as head coach in 2006. That must not have sat very well with him, as the Wildcats got back on track by upsetting Stanford last year. Fitzgerald has had all offseason to get his coaching staff and players ready for Western Michigan and isn’t taking the Broncos lightly. He knows how important this game is for Northwestern’s season. He’s going to find a way to win it.