This weekend Northwestern hosts Maryland to begin the wackiest season many of us are ever likely to see. When the Wildcats last faced the Terps in 2017, Justin Jackson ran for 171 yards and became the school’s all-time leading rusher in the 37-21 win. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will start the year 1-0 and three reasons why it won’t.
Why Northwestern will beat Maryland
Isaiah Bowser & Co. take advantage of Maryland’s porous run defense
After running for 866 yards and six touchdowns in 2018, junior running back Isaiah Bowser is finally healthy after injuries sidelined him for most of last year. The offseason saw the loss of two starters on the Northwestern offensive line, but thankfully for NU, Maryland team has a tough time stopping the run. The Terps finished dead last in the B1G in total defense last season, allowing 177.9 rushing yards per game and 27 (!) rushing touchdowns.
Northwestern’s defense bends but doesn’t break
Even with the loss of starters Travis Whillock and Samdup Miller, SP+ has NU’s defense ranked as the 6th best in the country. There are a number of new faces that will start Saturday, like redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph at safety, so some early defensive miscues might be inevitable. However, if Mike Hankwitz’s unit can get stops when it matters, the ‘Cats should be in a good position to take home the win.
Maryland has not been very good recently
The ‘Cats and the Terrapins both finished last season with a 3-9 record, but Maryland’s struggles extend to before that. The program hasn’t had a winning record since 2010, despite producing plenty of NFL talent like wide receiver Stefon Diggs, offensive tackle Derwin Gray, running back Anthony McFarland Jr. and more. Expectations are low once again for the Terps as Mike Locksley enters year two of his rebuild. Northwestern comes into this contest as 11-point favorites.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Maryland
The offense can’t create explosive plays
Everyone is holding their breath to see how the Northwestern offense will look, eleven months since they last took the field. After having logged just 27 plays of 20 or more yards in 2019, which ranked dead last in the FBS, the hope is that a new face at quarterback and a new offensive coordinator will rejuvenate the unit. However, if it can’t generate big plays Saturday against a subpar defense, it’s going to be a long night and potentially painfully familiar season.
Maryland’s passing attack is better than expected
With reports of an injured Greg Newsome II, the Wildcats may be without their top defensive back. We saw multiple instances last season where Northwestern corners simply struggled to keep up with the talented wide receivers of the Big Ten, and if Newsome is out, the task to contain Maryland’s passing game becomes even more difficult. Although UMD’s offense wasn’t very good last year, a new quarterback and a group of talented wideouts that includes heralded five-star true freshman Rakim Jarrett are a dangerous combination against any defense.
The turnover margin
Northwestern’s defense was good last season, as it finished the year the 27th best unit in the FBS, according to SP+. However, one thing was painfully absent: forced turnovers. NU forced only 14 turnovers last year, which ranked 16th-worst in the nation. Even though it wasn’t usually the defense that lost games in 2019, it was a marked regression from the 2018 unit that had a propensity for making the right play at the right time. Even if the defense is solid, a lack of big plays could spell trouble.