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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Bowling Green

Northwestern will need to be firing on all cylinders, even against a MAC team.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

For the second year in a row, Northwestern football has not had the start it envisioned just three weeks ago. The Wildcats now face a must-win non-conference game at home against a struggling Bowling Green team. Why will they win? Why won’t they win? Can either team win anything? Let’s find out.

Why Northwestern will defeat Bowling Green

Clayton Thorson plays much, much better than he did last week, especially in the 1st quarter.

This is a totally obvious statement, but I’ll try to dig into the nuances of this situation. Most importantly, Northwestern needs to get off to a quick start to put Bowling Green out of the game quickly. The Wildcats let Nevada and Duke take all the opening initiative, and it didn’t work whatsoever. Thorson needs to get the offense going immediately and put together two or three extended drives to burn clock and keep the defense rested. An early turnover or a 30-second three-and-out will not do.

Northwestern plays better on third down.

Northwestern converted on 1-of-10 third downs against Duke. That’s terrible. Northwestern was constantly in third-and-long all day. When they were in convertible situations, there were drops and poor play calls. Northwestern needs to at least get to 33 percent on third down conversions to win this game. Another 1-of-10 day could very well lead to a loss.

Please, for the love of the ‘Cats, do not let Bowling Green’s rushing attack get going.

So, in two games, Northwestern’s averaged yards per carry allowed is 4.7 yards. That’s pretty bad. Northwestern is not going to win many games if opponents can do whatever they want on the ground. Unfortunately, a suffocating ground attack is exactly what Bowling Green will be planning for Saturday night. Running backs Josh Cleveland and Donovan Wilson are the Falcons’ most experienced offensive players, and with an inconsistent passing game, Bowling Green would very much like to average 4.7 yards per carry.

Why Bowling Green will defeat Northwestern

Everything remains bad.

Yeah, I don’t have any fancy rhetorical flourishes here. If Northwestern continues to play like total garbage, Bowling Green could win this game. Bill Connelly’s S&P metric has Bowling Green ranked higher than Nevada, and we all know how close the Nevada game was. On the bright side, Bowling Green could be a much more predictable team than Nevada or even Duke, as proven by the Falcons’ losses to South Dakota and Michigan State. There’s a lot of game tape on the Falcons from last season, and nothing has really changed.

Bowling Green’s experienced secondary comes to play

One of the key components of this Bowling Green team in 2017 was its experienced secondary, which improved at the end of 2016 and looked decent against Michigan State. But against South Dakota, that secondary was picked apart on big plays downfield. Bowling Green will need to have its secondary hold fast on deep balls and capitalize on any mistakes Clayton Thorson makes. While BGSU’s pass rush should also be important, this game will hinge on whether Thorson, Nagel, Dickerson and Co. can hurt the Falcons in the vertical passing game.

Northwestern’s offensive line gives Thorson about 0.5 seconds to work on every play.

This tactic, also known as the “Illinois State strategy”, usually works pretty well for underdogs who face Northwestern. BGSU has the pass rushers to make this work. Kyle Junior (a sophomore) looked good against South Dakota, and veteran lineman David Konowalski should also get some opportunities against Northwestern’s shaky offensive line.