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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat UNLV

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The Wildcats need to finally secure a regular season non-conference win.

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a disheartening loss at Stanford and a bye week to regroup, Northwestern faces UNLV for the first time since 2001 in its home-opening weekend. The Wildcats will look to pick up a much-needed victory to give them some momentum heading into the toughest stretch of the season.

Why NU Will Beat the Rebels:

Stanford was the wakeup call Northwestern needed

Northwestern’s opener against Stanford was the last way the Wildcats wanted to start their season. Very few positives came out of week one, sending Northwestern into a bye week with a lot to think about. While the Stanford game was demoralizing in more ways than one, the hope is that Fitz and co. were able to learn about the team’s weaknesses early on and make the necessary adjustments during the time off.

Bye Week

When the schedule was first released, a bye in the second week may have raised a few eyebrows, but after the loss to Stanford, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did Northwestern need the bye week to regroup as a team, but it needed the time to heal crucial players. Rashawn Slater, Trae Williams, Isaiah Bowser and TJ Green all went down against Stanford, and while Bowser (and Green of course) won’t see the field this week, it appears as if the others were able to recover to full strength during the week off.

Additionally, while Northwestern was recovering, UNLV suffered a brutal 43-17 loss to a seemingly mediocre Arkansas State team, killing morale from their blowout win in Week 1. Now rested and ready to put their best foot forward, the Wildcats should have a leg up on the Rebels.

UNLV’s QB struggles are worse than Northwestern’s

Like Northwestern, UNLV had uncertainty under center heading into this season. The competition rests between redshirt junior Armani Rogers and redshirt freshman Kenyon Oblad. Both quarterbacks have seen the field in UNLV’s first two matchups. While both put up solid numbers in Week 1, Week 2 seemed to show the true colors of each, as the competition stiffened.

Rogers played all but one drive and finished with a horrendous 42 yards and an interception on 23 attempts. When Olbld entered the game for a single drive (thanks to the lopsided score), he picked things up and finished with 70 yards and a touchdown. Coach Sanchez indicated he was displeased with Rogers’ play, but either way, the team is facing major inconsistencies and uncertainties under center.

Why NU Won’t Beat the Rebels:

HJ doesn’t step up and the offense stays stagnant

As you all know, Johnson has now officially been thrown into the starting role after Green’s season-ending injury. With the preseason hype having fully subsided, he must step up and prove to his teammates, coaches and fans that the high expectations were all for good reason.

His atrocious 6-for-17, 55-yard, two-interception performance will not do for Northwestern this season, and if he cannot get the job done against a struggling UNLV defense, some discussions will certainly be had about the team’s offensive future. This weekend should serve as a confidence booster for Northwestern, but much of the team’s success rests upon Johnson’s shoulders.

Run Game

Northwestern is at a disadvantage on both sides of the run game this week. Yesterday, the team somehwhat unexpectedly announced that hard-nosed lead rusher Isaiah Bowser will be inactive due to injury despite practicing during the week off. Additionally, Northwestern’s run defense—which gave up 132 rushing yards and was seemingly unable to tackle against Stanford—will be tasked with containing UNLV’s greatest offensive weapon: junior running back Charles Williams. Williams charted four touchdowns, 311 yards and nine yards per carry in his opening two games and shows no sign of slowing down.

Playing down to UNLV’s level

Joe Gaziano embodied the sentiments of many Northwestern fans heading into this weekend when he expressed that his greatest concern for Saturday was playing down to the competition. Northwestern has struggled recently against lesser opponents, with memorable examples like Akron and Illinois State springing to the mind of any fan as soon as they read the title of this section.

Last season, Northwestern even had a better record against the spread than with the spread, going 6-3 as an underdog and 3-2 when favored. The ‘Cats will have to bring their A-game against UNLV despite their many holes, especially with their tenuous team health.