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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Akron

What should eagle-eyed fans be looking for as the Wildcats take on the Zips?

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a tough loss, Northwestern matches up with Akron on Saturday. While the Zips lost many key components entering this season, a few influential players will be on the Wildcats’ minds as they prepare for Saturday’s game. Here are the most important matchups to watch.

Kwadarrius Smith vs. Montre Hartage

Akron’s offense entered a significant rebuilding phase this season, especially in the passing game. Senior Kwadarrius Smith will carry much of the offensive weight on his shoulders this season as pretty much the only experienced college receiver on campus. After a slow start to his career, Smith impressed in 2017, finishing with 34 receptions for 726 yards and 7 touchdowns. He is the primary deep threat for Kato Nelson this year and could prove to be a challenge for a Northwestern secondary that struggled at times against Duke. In the Zips’ matchup against Morgan State last week, Smith had just one reception but turned it into a 35-yard touchdown, the longest play of the day for either team.

The NU secondary, on the other hand, had a tough week. Hartage and company gave up a couple of long plays against Duke, and though Hartage largely succeeded against TJ Rahming and Jonathan Lloyd, he gave up a couple of uncharacteristically long completions. Rahming’s speed is significant, but Smith is arguably faster, and staying with him will be no easy feat. Even still, Northwestern’s stud senior corner is certainly capable of shutting him down.

Kato Nelson vs. NU Linebackers

Dual-threat quarterbacks, as we saw last week, tend to challenge the Northwestern front seven. The linebackers will have another speedy signal caller on their hands this week with Akron sophomore Kato Nelson. While Daniel Jones’s rushing yards were not the primary issue for the Wildcat defense against Duke, the constant threat of his mobility helped keep the linebackers on their heels and led to them being a step behind on most major plays.

Nelson’s talent is far from Jones’s, but he impressed last season after stepping in for Thomas Woodson. Despite not throwing the ball for great numbers against Division 1 competition, Nelson has shown that he can use his elite speed to create plays against virtually any defense. Northwestern hasn’t faced a quarterback as fast as Nelson in a while, and the whole defense will need to find a way to contain the new dimension he brings to the role of the dual-threat quarterback.

While the defensive line is coming off a tough week, one of the only positives to come out of the Duke game was Joe Gaziano, who finished with 2 timely sacks and 5 total tackles. Dual-threat quarterbacks, especially one with Nelson’s speed, always test the linebackers, but if they take away his running lanes and force him to make tough throws, Northwestern will have success.

Akron Secondary vs. Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel

We so often focus on Bennett Skowronek in these analyses, but after Flynn Nagel’s performance last week, it would be unfair to leave him out. Nagel was one of the only effective weapons on offense against Duke, finishing the day with a career-high 12 receptions for 133 yards. Skowronek’s average day of 4 receptions for 37 yards added to the mix, but he is due for a breakout game soon.

While Akron’s offense is depleted this season, the defense returns many major weapons, especially in the back four. With three ball-hawking veteran defensive backs leading the way, Wildcat receivers will have to find a way to actually get separation for Clayton Thorson and TJ Green. While Duke’s secondary excelled last weekend with two interceptions from the safeties, Skowronek and Nagel showed that they can get open and make plays, and should find success against a slightly less stingy back four.