The ‘Cats put forth a valiant effort on Saturday, sticking with Penn State for the first half and heading into the locker room tied 10-10. Things unraveled from there, but if a moral victory ever existed, it’s this one. Nobody expected Northwestern to be able to contain the Tigers’ rushing attack. Nobody expected the ‘Cats’ frisky special teams play to give them an advantage. There were positives to carry forward, and the even better news is, theoretically, this week’s matchup is very winnable.
Northwestern will be at home for the third straight week to take on the Howard Bison on Saturday. Howard is 2-2 so far on the young season and is a team Northwestern should beat. After losing to Southern Illinois last year, though, nothing is ever a gimme. Here are three matchups to watch as the Wildcats look to climb back to a .500 record:
Quinton Williams vs NU’s secondary
Quinton Williams, Howard’s senior signal caller, is having a career year so far in his fifth season at the university. In four games, he’s amassed 842 passing yards, thrown eight touchdown passes and only thrown one pick. He’s not a particularly notable threat as a runner (though he’s not afraid to pull the ball down and take it himself if he has to), so the natural matchup to watch here is with the ‘Cats’ secondary.
Garnet Hollis Jr. had another good game against Penn State, and I feel comfortable saying he’s made real strides since last season. The rest of the secondary has continued to be a solid unit under David Braun, surrendering the sixth least air yards per game in the Big Ten.
One would think the Wildcat unit has an opportunity to dominate this matchup, but Williams definitely presents a problem. If he shrinks under the pressure of a Big Ten game, Northwestern should be able to severely limit Howard in the passing game. But if Williams plays like he has all season, he’s a player to watch out for in this one.
Howard run game vs Northwestern defensive line
The Bison support their talented QB with a rushing attack that doesn’t feature any game-breakers but is incredibly deep. Four different players have over 100 yards for Howard, the leader being Ian Wheeler with 262. Jarett Hunter, however, paces the roster in carries with 45.
Northwestern has had a difficult time stopping the run all season, giving up 174.4 rush yards per contest. That’s good for second worst in the Big Ten behind Illinois. But the defensive line was better against Penn State. The Wildcats gave up just 134 total yards on the ground against a vaunted running back duo in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
Should Williams struggle, and even if he’s effective, Howard is likely to lean on its running game in an attempt to take advantage of what is viewed as a weak aspect of Northwestern’s game. The defensive line needs to prove that its improvement against Penn State wasn’t a fluke with a weaker opponent.
David Braun vs Larry Scott
The head coach battle will also be a factor on Saturday. This is sort of a strange game to prepare for. From the ‘Cats’ perspective, conference play is very much in full swing, and playing an unfamiliar non-conference foe is a weird detour. For Howard, this game (theoretically) is a sudden step up in competition.
Braun seems to have full control over this locker room, and players seem to want to play for him. He has to make sure his players don’t get complacent or show immaturity as they prepare for a team they think they can beat. It happened last year against Southern Illinois. It could happen again. Northwestern absolutely can not allow this type of loss in back-to-back seasons.
From Scott’s side of things, he has the advantage of the underdog mentality. But, there are enough negative opinions and press out there about this Wildcat roster. Howard can’t make the mistake of forgetting it’s still facing a power-five opponent. How both coaches manage this matchup throughout the week will play a role in the on-field product on Saturday.