The college football season is a remarkably difficult three-to-four month grind, and, sometimes, you just need a break. That was certainly the case for Northwestern, coming off five straight losses, including a 42-7 blowout defeat at home to a Wisconsin team that had just fired its head coach. Statistically, teams off the bye haven’t gained any significant advantage, but, hey, I’m sure nobody is complaining that the week off came when it did.
To finish off the year, the ‘Cats will play four of their final six games on the road, starting with a two-hour flight to College Park, Maryland to do battle with the 5-2 Terrapins. As 13.5-point underdogs, Northwestern is seen as having just a 6.3% chance to win, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, which is quite bleak. Nevertheless, without inserting in the infamous Jim Carry GIF, those odds aren’t 0%, which means that anything is possible. After all, we’re talking about football — when does anything go as expected?
The last time the Wildcats were 13-point underdogs, they shocked the world with their lone victory in Dublin. Looking back on it now, it’s probably safe to say that Nebraska wouldn’t be regarded in such a high regard, though results minus expectations equals happiness. So, will your Saturday feature a shining rainbow of excitement, or will you remember just how cold the Chicago winter will be? Let’s take a closer look.
Statistics via Pro Football Focus.
Why Northwestern will beat Maryland
The Terps start a backup quarterback
When on the field, it’s been a fantastic year for the Tagovailoa brothers. While Tua leads the NFL with nine yards/attempt in a high-octane Dolphins offense, Taulia has not only led Maryland to the third-highest scoring offense in the Big Ten, but, per Pro Football Focus, is the highest-graded quarterback in the conference. Yes, that’s ahead of future top-five pick CJ Stroud; in his senior season, Tagovailoa has certainly made a name for himself as a legitimate NFL prospect.
The problem? As was the case with his brother, Taulia might be on the sidelines for at least a week after being carted off with a knee injury in last week’s win against Indiana. Alas, that’ll mean backup Billy Edwards Jr. may fill in under center, which could have a notable effect on Maryland’s passing attack. Now, we essentially have zero statistical information about the redshirt freshman, yet, on his 23 dropbacks, he’s displayed some troubles with accuracy (60% adjusted completion rate) and has a propensity to hold onto ball (3.21-second time-to-throw), which has led to an enormous 21.7% sack rate.
A major strength for Maryland’s offense with Tagovailoa under center is the ability to stay on schedule and limit negative plays, but with Edwards Jr., they’ll be forced to play in a much more volatile way. Generally, volatility should be embraced by underdogs; more unpredictability is a good thing.
Strong pass protection against a struggling pass rush
From a pure sacks perspective, Maryland ranks third in said category and has had plenty of success rushing the passer. Yet, this can be a bit misleading. Based on Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade, which better isolates the effect that a team’s pass rushers has on the course of a play, only Indiana has a lower-rated pass rush in the conference; edge rusher Durell Nchami is the only Terrapin to earn an above-average grade rushing the passer. So far, it’s been a notable struggle for Mike Locksley’s team to generate any sort of interior pressure: no interior defensive lineman has a pass-rush win rate of 7% or higher, making UMD more reliant on cleanup sacks as opposed to instant pressure.
That’s great news for Northwestern, considering that pass protection is its lone offensive strength. Specifically, no offensive tackle in the country has a higher PFF pass-blocking grade (93) than Peter Skoronski, who has allowed just TWO pressures on 279 dropbacks. Folks, that isn’t normal. There aren’t many other bright spots for this offense, yet simply being able to count on the ability to operate from a clean pocket at least brings upon some sort of fighting chance.
I know, I know, we’re digging deep down the well here, but that’s what you have to do as nearly two-touchdown underdogs. Generally, a team pulling off an upset comes as much from the other team self-deconstructing as anything else, and that’s something that could be in the cards for this game.
At this current moment, Maryland has 10 more penalties than the next-highest team in the Big Ten and has committed nine in each of its past three games. In total, that’s 246 yards that the Terrapins lost in those three games — something which could help keep an offense that is scoring the second-fewest points in the conference in a game more than it should. Whether this a trend or a small sample aberration is left to be determined, but the yellow flag may actually be an X-factor for Northwestern on Saturday. It’s only desperation if you say it is!
Why Northwestern won’t beat Maryland
Issues defending the middle of the field against a very productive tight end
At a time where passing offenses tend to be extremely condensed around a few select players, Maryland has taken a different approach — no player has a target share over 16.5%. This is a team that isn’t afraid to rotate its wide receivers, with five players at the position already recording 113 or more routes, making this a very unique passing attack.
The one staple, however, has been at the tight end position. Not only does Corey Dyches rank as a top-five tight end in the Power Five in yards/route run (2.39), but he leads all Big Ten tight ends in said metric as well, impressive for a player lining up as an in-line tight end over 70% of the time. With 76% of his targets being charted over the middle of the field, a major onus is going to be on Northwestern’s linebackers to hold their own, which has been an issue at times this year.
Among linebackers with at least 100 coverage snaps, only Purdue’s OC Brothers has a lower PFF coverage grade than Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller (46.9). From a purely surface-level standpoint, this mismatch is notable, especially when comparing the athleticism of Gallagher and Mueller to Dyches, a former basketball player who initially came to Maryland as a wide receiver. Adjusting to a backup quarterback can always be difficult, yet this is an area you’d expect the Terrapins to try to exploit as much as possible.
UMD could easily run for 200+ yards
Usually, the concept of “replace the loss of star quarterback with an increased focus” is very faulty, but Maryland’s focus on the ground could overcome a decrease in passing efficiency. Running backs Roman Hemby and Antwain Littleton II are each averaging over six yards/attempt this season, with Littleton II averaging more yards after contact per carry (4.98) than three running backs this season.
If that wasn’t enough, in place of Tagovailoa, we already saw Edwards Jr. make an impact as a rushing threat with seven designed carries for 49 yards, which ultimately ended up being the difference against Indiana. Rather than trying to replicate the same pass-heavy, high-efficiency offense that they’ve had under Tagovailoa, we’re likely to see a completely differently structured offense, which works quite well against their opponent.
Nebraska is the only Big Ten team averaging more yards/carry allowed than Northwestern (4.4), and considering Maryland could find itself playing from a favorable game script here, the home squad could be in position to take advantage of that. These are two running backs that have had no issues creating explosive plays on the ground — both rank in the top-five in the conference in breakaway rate — and with less expected efficiency, taking advantage of athleticism to generate chunk plays is the likely best method to sustaining offensive success. Honestly, though, UMD may have their pick of the litter in terms of what matchup to exploit.
Northwestern’s offensive ineptitude
I come to you with good news and bad news. The good news is Northwestern is currently not scoring the fewest number of points in the Big Ten, thanks to Iowa’s offensive struggles. The bad news? With just 17.7 points/game, the ‘Cats currently rank second-lowest in points per game and have scored a grand total of 14 points over their first two conference matchups.
With Ryan Hilinski’s status in doubt, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan could very well line up under center. While his presence could provide a much-needed spark with more effectiveness as a down-field thrower and as a scrambler, there were also plenty of lulls (42.2 PFF grade, an extremely high 3.38-second time-to-throw, multiple plays charted by PFF as “turnover-worthy plays”) to add on to the relative unknown for a young backup quarterback.
On top of that, NU is averaging just two yards/carry in conference play and only has one wide receiver (Malik Washington, 23rd) ranked in the top 30 in yards/route run, putting Pat Fitzgerald’s team in an impossible situation: they’re at a clear disadvantage on both early downs and later downs, which doesn’t usually lead to many points being scored.
Ultimately, when you struggle to move the ball and your defense is likely to be in a bind, that usually means you don’t have a great chance to win. Then again, that’s why Northwestern is essentially a two-touchdown underdog. Now, we’ll see if the lottery balls roll the right way on Saturday.