After a disappointing defeat to Duke, the Wildcats face Akron, their only non-Power 5 test this season. This is the first meeting ever for the two programs, and it will provide NU with the opportunity to work out some kinks and establish momentum before having two weeks to prepare for Michigan.
Why Northwestern will beat Akron
1. Jeremy Larkin will find his form
After a big opening drive, Larkin had a relatively tame game against Duke. He struggled to consistently burst past the front 7. However, that was against a stout run defense. This week, he faces an Akron defense that gave up 218 yards a game on the ground last year, representing the 111th best output in the country. Larkin and the NU offensive line should be able to have their way with Akron’s front, but it would help if Blake Hance and Rashawn Slater could participate. Fitz called both of them questionable on Tuesday.
2. Northwestern has more talent throughout the roster
In 247’s team composite rankings, an evaluation of a team’s talent based on recruiting, Northwestern slots in at 41, while Akron sits at 107. Although this list isn’t fully updated, Akron pulled in the 120th best class this year. They should not be able to compete with the athletes on Northwestern’s team. Usually, NU is on the other side of this battle, but this time they almost certainly have the deeper and more capable squad. Akron sat at 118th in Bill Connelly’s preseason S&P+ rankings, only 12 places from the worst team in college football. Statistically, the ability level of these two teams doesn’t seem to compare.
3. Northwestern got their wake up call last week
Though NU should’ve already been properly motivated to take on a team that embarrassed them last year, they were met with another embarrassing defeat last week. Nonetheless, the Duke game provided evidence of the team’s shortcomings. As Fitz said after the game, the team was out-coached and out-played. Thankfully, the loss doesn’t do much in the form of hurting NU’s season-long aspirations. The Wildcats ought to be able to use the game as a learning experience, which will help them this week.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Akron
1. Kato Nelson is a talented QB that is capable of hurting the NU defense
As we’ve seen, Northwestern’s secondary continues to struggle with consistentpass coverage. The latest example of that was last week when Daniel Jones torched NU despite only 22 pass attempts. He threw for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns with a 73% completion rate. Northwestern simply had no answer for him, especially early on. Greg Newsome was forced to play heavy minutes, and he was burnt for a huge 52 yard touchdown on a post route by Jonathan Lloyd.
Against Morgan State, Nelson both threw and ran the ball well, picking up 232 yards in the air and 42 on the ground. Although Morgan State is not a high caliber team, he flashed the kind of athleticism and poise that could prove to be a problem for the NU secondary.
2. Northwestern’s QB play has been sub-par
In the last 6 quarters, Clayton Thorson and TJ Green have led the NU offense to just a single touchdown drive. Against Duke, the QBs threw 2 picks and struggled mightily in the red zone. No one knows if the two man rotation will continue against Akron, but either way, the QB on the field will need to execute better. Neither of the two have thrown a TD in either of NU’s two games, and the lack of red zone passing success is becoming a concern. This game offers a chance to settle in and work on execution, but if Thorson and Green can’t find a rhythm, it could pose a major issue.
3. We don’t know what this Northwestern team is made of yet
Put plainly, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding this team right now. The defense has the potential to be stellar, as evidenced by the second half against Duke, but it also has the potential to be exploited, which was on display in the Blue Devils’ dynamite second quarter. Similarly, the offense came out firing in the first half against Purdue, but has only been able to finish a single drive off with points of any kind since then. If the wrong side of NU’s offense or defense shows up for a prolonged period of time on Saturday, there’s no telling what the outcome could be.