Northwestern takes on Maryland (5-2, 2-2 B1G) in College Park this weekend in a game that should tell us a lot about what kind of team the ‘Cats will be in the second half of the season. It wouldn’t be like a Pat Fitzgerald-coached roster to just roll over for the remainder of a seemingly lost season, and as the Terps might be Tauilia-less, this might just be the ‘Cats’ final seemingly winnable game of the season. It really is. I promise.
So, let’s take a look at three key matchups to watch on Saturday:
Jim O’Neil vs. Billy Edwards Jr. and Maryland’s now three-headed rushing attack
Ah, Jim O’Neil. Everyone’s favorite defensive guru. Overall, it is true that his defense has looked poor this season, giving up the third most points per game in the Big Ten. He rightfully shoulders a good portion of the blame for the ‘Cats' defensive struggles this season, but he did manage to largely hold off a strong Penn State offense before crumpling to the Badgers before the bye.
That being said, he has a lot to prepare for this week, and, despite the bye, hasn’t had a ton of time to do so. Maryland starting QB Taulia Tagovailoa was carted off last week in the fourth quarter with a lower leg injury and likely will not play against NU. In his absence, redshirt freshman Billy Edwards Jr. will start, coming off three drives last week during which he didn’t complete a pass, but did run for 53 yards and led the offense to two touchdowns.
As a clear rushing threat, Edwards Jr. gives the Terps three legit options to turn to in the ground game. Out of the backfield, redshirt freshmen Roman Hemby and Antwain Littleton II have combined for 811 yards, both on 6.2 yards per carry. The offensive line has been a bright spot in College Park as well.
That is a lot for O’Neil and the Northwestern defense to think about. And, the Wildcats’ rushing defense this year has been, quite frankly, terrible. The ‘Cats are giving up 176 yards per game on the ground, good for 103rd in the nation. O’Neil needs to figure out how to turn that around and how to contain Maryland’s potent rushing attack before 2:30 P.M. CST on Saturday.
Evan Hull vs. Jaishawn Barham and the Maryland defense
It is not a stretch to say that Evan Hull IS the Northwestern offense this season. With the unique ability to gain yards through the air and as a runner, Hull has been a bright spot for the ‘Cats all year. Where he goes, they go. Given the fact that Hull is Northwestern’s only truly established weapon, one would imagine the message in the Maryland locker room this week might go a little something like this: “Please, for the love of God, just tackle No. 26.”
Coach Fitzgerald accurately described the Maryland defense as “physical” this week in his press conference. One of its biggest bright spots has been linebacker Jaishawn Barham. The freshman is the team’s second-leading tackler and was Big Ten Freshman of the Week just two weeks ago. He’s really good. And if he and Hull meet in open space, it may not go the way we are all used to when Hull has the ball.
Barham is part of a defense that has the tools to contain NU’s top back. But, other than one very untimely fumble, Hull has refused to disappoint Wildcat fans all season. Saturday will be another test.
Maryland vs. itself
In thinking of adjectives to describe the number of penalties Maryland has taken this year, what comes to mind is a crap ton. It’s been one of those seasons for the Terps where fans are fearfully shouting “no flag” after every single big play. With 59 penalties on the season, the Terps lead the Big Ten by 10 flags and rank fourth worst in the nation. Those penalties have amounted to 522 yards which comes out to 74.6 per game. Maryland is shooting itself in the foot repeatedly.
From the Northwestern perspective, these obscene numbers provide a glimmer of hope. If Maryland gifts the Wildcats opportunities, they must take advantage, just as they did against the Nittany Lions two weeks ago, creating five turnovers. As the second-best team in the Big Ten at avoiding flags, this is one definitive advantage for the guys in purple.