Northwestern has a phenomenal chance to gain some momentum going into the Big Ten portion of their schedule this weekend. After an ugly loss to Stanford, the Wildcats need to make a statement, and UNLV is the perfect team to do it against. Here are some matchups to watch for on Saturday:
Hunter Johnson vs Rebels Secondary
It was hard to make a positive judgement on Johnson after the Stanford game. He started the game pretty poorly, and ended it worse. However, his QBR of 4.2 doesn’t tell the full story. As Fitz noted postgame, it was not only Johnson’s first outing as a Wildcat, but his first start since high school. On top of that, he was splitting time with a more veteran quarterback.
Now that Johnson is the clear #1, though the reason that the separation that allowed his distinction to happen was unfortunate, he has a chance to show what he is made of. UNLV’s secondary is coming off of forgettable performances against Southern Utah and Arkansas State, allowing 579 yards and four touchdowns through the air, combined, without creating a single interception.
Will we see the confident, accurate Hunter Johnson who had NU driving before a costly holding penalty froze a potentially game-tying or go-ahead drive against the Rebels? Or will we see the Hunter Johnson that we saw in the first few series against Stanford, making poor reads and overthrowing receivers? The answer to those questions may well determine whether Saturday results in the statement win Northwestern could certainly use right now.
Northwestern front 7 vs Charles Williams
Williams is a junior RB, and arguably the strongest part of UNLV’s roster. He comes into week three with four TDs, 155 yards per game, and 9.1 yards per carry in the Rebels’ opening pair of matchups. NU, meanwhile, missed far too many tackles against Stanford, especially in the run and short passing game.
It is crucial that the Wildcats’ line limit the holes that Williams has to run through. Furthermore, it’s important that Bergin, Fisher, and Gallagher make some tackles in the backfield, or at the very least slow their man down enough to keep him from ripping off big gains, and keep Williams from dictating the state of the game. If they do so, UNLV’s passing attack, which has been wildly inconsistent thus far, will need to carry an unsustainable load.
Greg Newsome II vs Randal Grimes
Northwestern has faced some bad luck recently with injuries at the cornerback position. Montre Hartage played most of last year hurt, and now the status of fifth-year senior Trae Williams is uncertain. Facing the injuries to both of these players, sophomore Greg Newsome II has been looked towards early in his career as a potential stopper.
Newsome has played in only seven career games, though he would have probably seen more action last year if not for the decision to burn his redshirt not being made until the postseason. The talented corner has a lot to gain from getting more in-game experience.
If Williams is not in the game (and maybe even if he is), Newsome will likely be on top UNLV receiver Randal Grimes. Grimes, a USC transfer, enters the matchup coming off of a 74-yard performance with a touchdown in last week’s loss, and will likely be the go-to target on Saturday. This provides a solid opportunity for Newsome to gain some experience at CB1, and can potentially be a huge source of confidence.