As we head into the weekend before Halloween, Northwestern will look to get its season back on track against a scary Maryland team. For the ‘Cats, there are more questions than answers, including the status of Ben Bryant and the potency of the defense, which stepped up last week even as the offense took a step backward. So, heading into Saturday, here are three reasons why Northwestern will shock Maryland, and three reasons why UMD will overpower the ‘Cats for a second consecutive year.
Why Northwestern will beat Maryland
A Strong ‘Cats Defense
Last weekend’s defeat had one silver lining for Northwestern: a much-improved defensive performance. The ‘Cats held Nebraska to 17 points, keeping the Huskers to just 248 yards from scrimmage. They also limited Heinrich Haarberg to only 85 passing yards, alongside two interceptions and a sub-50% completion rate. This performance marks vast development for a lagging Northwestern defense, which has been near the back of the pack in the Big Ten this year.
Another strong showing could prove pivotal for the Wildcats against Maryland. Holding Nebraska to such a bare stat line is an encouraging start and should only serve to motivate this Northwestern defense to come out aggressively this week. The Terps have an explosive offense, and stopping it could open the door for the ‘Cats to swing the momentum in their favor and outduel them.
Ben Bryant’s Potential Return
The word “potential” is italicized, and for good reason. Ben Bryant was ruled out only a matter of hours before kickoff. At Monday afternoon’s press conference, David Braun struck a more cautious tone, saying that the graduate quarterback will return “at some point this season.”
If Bryant comes back this week, the ‘Cats’ offense should receive a boost. The unit was dormant last weekend, scoring only nine points and failing to capitalize on a myriad of scoring opportunities. Bryant has proven his resilience on numerous occasions and has separated himself as the starter above Brendan Sullivan, who has been lackluster in his past two starts. Should Bryant start, Northwestern’s offense should be able to get something going and maybe do just enough to best the Terps; defense.
Indeed, I’m not too optimistic about NU’s prospects against Maryland, so I’ll give the Ryan Field faithful a shout here. The ‘Cats have played decently at home, registering a respectable 3-1 record in Evanston so far. I don’t entirely know if this is an advantage as much as it is Northwestern playing well against inferior competition, but the results are telling nonetheless.
The Terrapins are a more challenging opponent than the three teams the ‘Cats have bested, so this might be a bit of a stretch. Yet, this Maryland team fell short against a considerably weaker Illinois in College Park two weeks ago, so anything is possible. Especially given that Maryland is playing this game on the road, perhaps there is a chance for the “Home-Field Advantage” to strike once again.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Maryland
As much as Northwestern fans root for Sullivan to succeed, it’s been hard to find satisfaction with his performances thus far. The Howard game was too close for comfort, with Sullivan’s performance nearly driving the ‘Cats to a catastrophic FCS loss. Last week was simply a repeat of that showing, with the Sullivan-led offense proving inept at delivering when the opportunities repeatedly presented themselves.
Given Braun’s noncommittal remarks, I’d go into this game assuming it will again be Sullivan at the helm. That is worrisome and could make victory against the Terps even more of an uphill climb. With Bryant under center, I see this game as a contest that favors Maryland but will be hard-fought. As for Sullivan, the game feels unwinnable with him starting and could end in a result that mirrors Penn State’s blowout slightly less than a month ago.
Inadequate Pass Protection
I won’t be the first to say it, but Northwestern’s offensive line was horrendous against Nebraska. The line collectively allowed eight sacks, the most allowed by a Northwestern team since 2000. To make matters worse, the ‘Cats have permitted 30 sacks through their first seven games this season, averaging more than four per game.
Against a robust Maryland front seven, this offensive line could be in for a long afternoon. The stats indicate that the Terrapins are a slightly worse defensive team than Nebraska, but that shouldn’t make too much of a difference. They can still tear down Northwestern’s offensive line and leave Sullivan helpless. Don’t bet on another eight-sack affair, because that should realistically never happen. However, with the state of this offensive line, nothing is out of the question.
An Explosive Maryland Pass Attack
Watch out for senior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Even though the ‘Cats’ defense largely held Haarberg in check, Tagovailoa is a different beast. He’s not necessarily his brother (who’s currently a frontrunner for NFL MVP), but he still has plenty of ability as a signal-caller. Many experts see him as a mid-to-late Day Three NFL Draft selection, further indicating his breadth of talent.
The performance of Tagovailoa often dictates Maryland’s entire offense, which has been overwhelmingly successful through seven games this season. The loss to Illinois was an anomaly, as Tagovailoa had his second-worst QBR rating of the season at 70.2 — a number that isn’t bad in the first place. Expect him to bounce back this week against the ‘Cats, and potentially give Northwestern’s defense a few too many headaches.