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Northwestern-Maryland preview: Three key matchups

Northwestern's undermanned first-half defense will be tested.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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 Maryland.

Nathan Fox vs. Ty Johnson

Johnson is having a another good year for the Terrapins, averaging 8.1 yards per carry on 58 attempts. He has a solid frame and is tough to bring down, which makes the role of the Northwestern linebackers crucial in Saturday's contest in College Park. The player with the most important role in stopping Johnson — at least in the first half — might be Nathan Fox. Fox has missed the Wildcats' previous two games due to injury, but will be forced into action Saturday because of Paddy Fisher's first-half suspension after a targeting penalty. With Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson eating blocks in front of him, Fox will have to be sound with his tackling and make sure the defense gets aligned correctly. He hasn't played a ton in his career, but Saturday will be a major opportunity.

D.J. Moore vs. Montre Hartage

With Trae Williams out this week, Montre Hartage will likely handle D.J. Moore, Maryland's top receiver. Moore has twice as many receptions this season as any other Terp, and he's been consistent throughout the year. Because of how thin the NU secondary is, especially with Godwin Igwebuike also suspended for the first half because a targeting call, Hartage will have to hold up in coverage. There will likely be some younger players in the mix in the first half, so Pat Fitzgerald will need to rely on his proven talents to step up. Hartage is one of those, and a shutdown performance out of him will go a long way toward helping a depleted secondary make due.

Maryland's D-line vs. Northwestern's O-line

Wait, did you know Northwestern has had trouble on the offensive line this year? Ok, so it might be cheating to put such a broad matchup on here, and this specific head-to-head is a key matchup every week, but it's really true. Northwestern has to be able to protect Clayton Thorson against Kingsley Opara, Cavon Walker and Chandler Burkett and others, or else it'll have a similar offensive output to last week's. Maryland isn't Wisconsin or Penn State, and NU needs to take advantage. D.J. Durkin's team ranks 11th in the Big Ten in sacks this year with nine. If Northwestern is going to make a bowl game, the line needs to hold up, starting now.