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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Miami (OH)

A game that’ll test the ‘Cats’ resolve.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Why Northwestern will beat Miami (OH)

Evan Hull exists

In an otherwise grim start to the season (ah, where did that Nebraska showing go?), Northwestern has had the privilege of starting Evan Hull. Whether he’s gulping handoffs or snatching passes, the junior running back has been an electric go-getter for the Wildcats’ offense in its first three outings. Against Miami, Hull will need to stay the course in order to hold afloat the deflating lifeboat that is a recently lackluster NU offense.

Through Week Three, Hull is averaging 4.8 yards a carry on a heavy workload that has earned him 609 total yards. In an impressive leap from his performance last year — which was, by no means, unimpressive — the running back has asserted himself as the centerpiece of the offense and the primary threat to all upcoming opponents. For more reason for optimism, look no further than the fact that Miami has allowed over 100 rushing yards in both of its games against FBS opponents. Granted, one of those teams is now ranked eighth in the country. But, to add another caveat, that Kentucky team does not have Evan Hull digging his heels into the backfield.

Miami has a lackluster attack in the air

Through their first 12 quarters, the RedHawks have averaged a worrisome 162 yards per game. While the team’s running backs have done most of the heavy lifting, moving the ball on the ground against an NU trench defense that’s been one of the team’s best units thus far will be difficult. It’ll be up to Aveon Smith and his pass-catchers to pick up the assumed slack left behind by a likely stifled pair of running backs.

Smith is a redshirt freshman, starting in just his third career game against the ‘Cats. The early season injury to first-string quarterback Brett Gabbert has catapulted Smith into an uncomfortable position. Dealing with an older receiving corps, the 6-foot-1 slinger has been asked to adjust quickly. So far, he’s yet to do that, throwing an interception in both of his starts thus far. Though Northwestern’s pass defense is far from special, it’s (hopefully) good enough to contain the RedHawks air raid.

Pat Fitzgerald can stabilize a locker room

“Even year” Northwestern is the talk of conspiracists on Twitter. At least one would think. Yet, in their successful, top-25 campaign in 2018, the ‘Cats dropped games to Duke and Akron in their second and third games, respectively. The team went on to win eight of their next 10 matchups, including a win against Iowa — a future top-25 finisher.

In a similar sequence, having dropped games to Duke (again) and Southern Illinois early on, NU has the opportunity to put itself back on the map, starting with a win against Miami. Pat Fitzgerald has been at the helm of the volatile ship for nearly two decades. In his postgame presser after the SIU loss, his tone was neutral, assured and focused. Familiar with the position the Wildcats find themselves in now, Fitz certainly has the experience and confidence that his players can latch onto. Miami is a team Northwestern should beat. That doesn’t mean they will, evidenced by multiple upset defeats already this season, but this looks to be a game Fitz’s coolheadedness can capitalize on.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Miami (OH)

Miami is a takeover machine

The Miami defense has forced four interceptions and two fumbles in just three games, solidifying itself as an offense’s predator. In games against quarterbacks who hold higher regard than Ryan Hilinski in most circles, the RedHawks have proved they are not a team that will let opposing quarterbacks get away with misplaced and poorly timed balls.

Place a hawkish predator on Ryan Field against a turnover-prone offense, and a recipe for carnage is brewing. In just three weeks of competition, Hilinski and Co. have turned the ball over seven times, having upped the number of giveaways in each consecutive game. Against Southern Illinois, the Wildcats’ wideouts struggled to create separation, seemingly velcroed to the Saluki defenders’ hips. The velcro could very well turn into glue on Saturday, so it’ll be important for Hilinski to return to that not-so-distant, yet nostalgic Ireland form.

The Wildcats are too injured

Versus Nebraska, Northwestern’s secondary played with more rhythm and harmony than any outing since. Void of Coco Azema and A.J. Hampton’s presence in the middle of the field over the last two weeks, NU has been exploited by its opponents. Even against the Blue Devils, who only totaled 240 yards through the air, the defensive backs often let up in the moments that mattered.

Pat Fitzgerald has kept Azema and Hampton’s status close to the chest since they went down with their injuries in Week Zero. On Saturday, he did reveal that the two starters would likely be sidelined at least for this weekend’s matchup. Azema appears to be closer to a return, but speculative, masked press conferences aren’t the best way to gauge the safety’s health. With no imminent help from the duo, it’ll be up to the ‘Cats’ second-stringers to pick up the slack — a task that hasn’t been completed with ease the last few weekends.

The RedHawks boast a stout pass rush

Northwestern’s offensive line has hammered its way into the foundation of this team, proving to be a relatively reliable unit week after week. Still, it’ll face a tough challenge against a Miami pass rush that’s averaging 2.33 sacks a game this year. Already burdened by a receiving corps that’s still trying to find its footing, the last thing Ryan Hilinski needs is to evade pressure all day.

Caiden Woullard, one of the younger starters on the defense, leads the RedHawks in sacks with three on the year. On his tail are Ty Wise with two takedowns and five others who have been credited with a half sack or more. Such a diversity in quality edge defenders gives Miami the opportunity to substitute frequently, keeping their players fresh and revving. Assuming this position room ravages Ryan Field like it has in previous games, Northwestern could be in trouble.