After... um... let’s just call it a long night in Lincoln...
Why Northwestern will beat Rutgers:
Rutgers’ offense continues to struggle
In its past three games, Rutgers has faced Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. All three of these teams currently rank in the AP Top 10 nationally, but both the Buckeyes and Spartans have defensive units that rank in the bottom third of the conference in total yards allowed. Despite this fact, head coach Greg Schiano’s squad has sputtered offensively.
Against OSU, the Scarlet Knights struggled to move the ball outside of a 75-yard touchdown play in the first half. Against Michigan State, the RU offense failed to score in the second half to throw away their chance at a potential upset. The Scarlet Knights scored a mere 13 points in each of the three conference losses, having a notably difficult time to developing any offensive momentum. Now, facing another subpar defensive unit in Evanston, Rutgers’ downward momentum may continue, and Northwestern could see an offensive collapse that allows the Wildcat defense to bounce back from their rough seasonal start and claim a victory.
The Scarlet Knights’ injuries catch up to them
Rutgers is an incredibly experienced team, but may be without some major playmakers on Saturday. Its top two receivers — Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank — are both questionable to play with shoulder injuries. Melton did not play a week ago against Michigan State, along with starting left tackle Raiqwon Jones and linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams.
Additionally, starting quarterback Noah Vedral and safety Christian Izien left last week’s matchup against the Spartans early. The two are expected to play, but Rutgers has the potential to come out the gates slow with so many starters not at 100 percent. Rutgers’ offense suddenly becomes much more reliant on the run if Cruickshank, Jones and Melton are inactive on Saturday. The ‘Cats rank last in the Big Ten in run defense, but the narrative may be different if Jim O’Neil’s unit comes into the game aware of the Scarlet Knights’ dependence on the ground game.
The trio of Hull/Clair/Tyus will break out
With all the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, it has become clear that Northwestern’s formula for winning games is through pounding the ball in the run game. Against Nebraska, NU was forced to move away from that scheme and air the ball out after going down 14-0 before the blink of an eye. Now, up against a below average offense that may possibly be without some of their main contributors, Northwestern has the chance to dictate how this game goes early.
Rutgers ranks 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game, so expect to see Evan Hull early and often. If Northwestern is able to hold its own defensively in the first quarter, it will allow offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to dial up a scheme surrounded by controlling the clock and moving the ball through the legs of their three productive backs. If the ‘Cats can do that, it will set them up for a homecoming win.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Rutgers
Rutgers’ veteran leadership prevails
The Scarlet Knights came into 2021 with 21 returning starters and 92% of their total production from 2020, according to The Score. Veteran leadership and in-game experience are some of the most valuable commodities in college football, things that Northwestern has little of. Even in the middle stretch of the season, new starters are still getting their feet wet in Big Ten play for Northwestern.
Even with injuries lurking over New Jersey’s Big Ten team, its experience as a squad trumps that of Northwestern with great emphasis. Coupled with a head coach that has the program on an upward trajectory, the intelligent playmaking and discipline of an experienced football team like Rutgers may overmatch a Northwestern team that is unrecognizable from a season ago.
The Scarlet Knight defense makes plays
The Rutgers defense may rank in the bottom half of the conference in most statistical categories, but there are standout individuals on the unit that can be game wreckers. Fifth-year senior Olakunle Fatukasi is one of the best linebackers in the nation and a tackling machine. Through six games, he has racked up 56 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Also in the front seven are Julius Turner, who leads the team with three sacks, and Mike Tverdov, who has not put up numbers this year, but had 11.5 tackles for loss in 2020 and can break out at any moment.
The secondary is headlined by Izien, who is a do-it-all safety that flies around the field. He already has five tackles for loss this season and had four interceptions in 2020. If he is on the field alongside Fatukasi, Northwestern will have their hands full on offense. The Rutgers defense is not one of dominance, but has the potential to make critical plays and force turnovers. For a Northwestern team that has the worst defense in the conference, it’s important for the offense to be productive with the ball each possession. If Rutgers’ playmakers are on the field and causing chaos, it could be a long day for the ‘Cats.
Not the same ol’ Rutgers
The tide is turning in New Jersey. Rutgers had a grand total of seven conference wins in its first five seasons in the Big Ten, including zero in 2018 and 2019. In Schiano’s first season, the Scarlet Knights took home three conference victories and showed signs of progress towards becoming a competitive program in the forthcoming years.
As previously mentioned, Rutgers returned 20 total starters from 2020. While some have gone down with injury, this number is still staggering. Schiano has his team playing hard week in and week out, and they are surely hungry for their first conference win in 2021 after playing three top squads in a row. A previously uninspiring program appears to have found new life. Northwestern must come out hungry and play with a fire beneath them, because Rutgers surely will.