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Northwestern vs. Nevada Preview: Three matchups to watch

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NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Nevada vs Colorado State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is looking to start the season strong after dropping its home opener to Western Michigan last year. In just two days, the Wildcats host the Wolf Pack for its first chance to go 1-0 in 2017. Here are three matchups to watch in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Nevada.

1. Northwestern’s offensive line vs. Nevada’s front seven

One year ago, Western Michigan outgained Northwestern on the ground 198 yards to 123 and converted four times on fourth down. After the Week 2 loss to Illinois State where the Redbirds ran for 85 and Northwestern 86, Pat Fitzgerald had this to say about his team.

“Our inability to run the football is why we had to throw the ball so much,” Fitzgerald said. “Our o-line got out-played. Flat out. We beat ourselves, and they beat us up.”

There’s been an emphasis on the offensive line in training camp, especially on playing the five best linemen. Fitzgerald opted to include only eight linemen on the two-deep with Jared Thomas getting the start at left tackle and Blake Hance shifting over to left guard. Brad North remains the center along with Tommy Doles at right guard, while Gunnar Vogel is getting the start at right tackle

This is the group that will be going up against a Nevada front seven that allowed 297.6 rushing yards per game last year. Yes, that was the most in the FBS by nearly 25 yards. Northwestern’s offensive line should be able to dominate at the point of attack and create gaping holes for Justin Jackson and company. Clayton Thorson was sacked three times in each of Northwestern’s first two games last season. Keep an eye on the offensive line on Saturday. Those sacks from last year should not happen again.

Northwestern’s linebackers vs. Nevada’s rushing attack

This matchup encompasses a lot, but you’ll want to be watching Northwestern’s linebackers on Saturday. The hype about Paddy Fisher is real; he’s a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman middle linebacker with terrific hands that can run sideline to sideline with the best of them. He should be all over the field. Brett Walsh and Nate Hall are as steady as it gets while second team middle linebacker Nathan Fox may be too good to keep off the field. We’ll see Warren Long play on the other side of the ball for the first time and freshman Blake Gallagher already cracked the two-deep. It’s an exciting group.

Nevada ran the ball successfully last season to the tune of 174.0 yards per game. Although lead running back James Butler has transferred to Iowa, it would be surprising to see the Wolf Pack begin the season throwing early or often. Fitzgerald has talked about his competitive depth in the linebacking corps so watch how this group handles Nevada’s running game on Saturday.

Northwestern’s wide receivers vs. Nevada secondary

There are plenty of questions surrounding this group and you have to think they’re eager to show progress from last season. Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson and Ben Skowronek get the start, but who will emerge as Thorson’s No. 1 target? Have Thorson and Jalen Brown established a strong connection yet? Is this the year Charlie Fessler breaks out? Will Northwestern use Jelani Roberts, Riley Lees, or even freshmen Jace James and Kyric McGowan. There’s an exciting amount of depth in this group. They should be able to find separation from Nevada’s defensive backs and have a big day.

Bonus: The special teams battle

Last year, Western Michigan’s freshman kicker Butch Hampton went 3-for-4 in field goals, including a 47-yarder that put the Broncos first points of the game on the board. His lone missed hit the crossbar from 50. One week later, Jack Mitchell missed a 33-yard attempt in the second quarter against Illinois State. Fittingly, Sean Slattery’s game winning field goal was from 33-yards. Special teams helped decide those games.

Now Northwestern has a freshman kicker of its own. Charlie Kuhbander won the starting job with a strong training camp. He has a big leg and could very well be the kicker in Evanston for the next four years. That’s reason enough to keep an eye on Kuhbander.

Fitzgerald had high praise for the freshman, saying “We’ve put Charlie through a lot of things during camp, trying to create crowd noise and distractions and things of that nature, and he’s been really consistent...I was really impressed with the way he handled things here through training camp.”

Kickoff specialist Luke Otto led the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked fourth in the FCS with 31 touchbacks in 2016. He’ll be handling kickoff duties for the Wildcats.

Also, keep an eye on Jelani Roberts, who will be back at kick returner in place of the injured Solomon Vault. Roberts is fast, shifty and should be able to excel in the role.