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Why Northwestern will/won't beat Howard

We all remember the last time NU faced off against an FCS school.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, even after a 28-point loss to Penn State, it feels as if Northwestern has some momentum heading into its homecoming matchup against Howard. The Wildcats have already doubled their win total from last year — in convincing fashion against UTEP and in tenacious fashion against Minnesota — and despite last week’s final score, the ‘Cats can say they competed neck-in-neck with a playoff contender (albeit for only two quarters). Nearing the season’s halfway point, a win over Howard would push Northwestern’s record back to the .500 mark, and here’s the best part: Northwestern is a heavy favorite. ESPN Analytics has given the ‘Cats a 98% chance of emerging victorious on Saturday, putting David Braun and his squad in a position they haven’t been in too often this year.

In the final matchup of a three-game home stand, Northwestern looks to seize the unlikely momentum and win a very winnable game. Here’s what the ‘Cats have to do to win on Saturday, and what they would have to do to lose.

Why Northwestern will beat Howard

Tight Pass Coverage

There were quite a few factors that kept last week’s Penn State game so close at halftime. Some of it was grit, some of it was pure luck, but a lot of it was the impressive showing from Northwestern’s defense — especially the secondary. Drew Allar, one of the top QBs in the Big 10, was held to a mere 50% completion rating by the end of the first half. For the duration of that first half, Northwestern DBs were keeping him locked up — his reads were taking longer than usual, and oftentimes, he struggled to find an open man. While much of that fell apart after the half, Northwestern showed what it was capable of on defense against top-tier competition. This may remind some fans of the DB unit’s play last year when the Wildcat secondary was ranked top 50 in the nation. A similar play from the secondary tomorrow would put Northwestern in a great position to win on Saturday.

Let the playmakers make plays

As this season has progressed, we have seen different playmakers emerge for Northwestern’s offense. Against Minnesota, it was Bryce Kirtz with a monster game, putting up over 200 yards receiving with two touchdowns. Last week, it was Cam Johnson, who amassed season highs in receptions, with six, and yards, with 81. When Northwestern has had success on offense this year, it has been getting its best athletes in open space and letting them go to work. Michigan transfer A.J. Henning, arguably the best athlete on the team, has yet to have his breakout game as a Wildcat — maybe he can be the star against Howard.

Take advantage of Howard’s mistakes

The very first play of last week’s Penn State game shows the significance of pouncing on opportunities when they are presented. On the opening kickoff, the ‘Cats forced a fumble, setting up a score and skewing the momentum in their favor for the entirety of the first half. Those are the types of plays that define football games, and luckily for Northwestern, Howard is a team that has given its opponents plenty of opportunities.

In its opening week matchup, Howard’s performance was riddled with avoidable mistakes that gave Eastern Michigan chances to seize control of the game. A punt snap flew into the back of the endzone for a safety, and the Bison surrendered not one, but two kick return TDs during the game. They found themselves in a deep hole early — one that would prove to be insurmountable. If the Bison make similar mistakes in Saturday’s affair, the Wildcats need to strike.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Howard

Quinton Williams

Coming off of his most efficient game this year, Howard’s veteran quarterback Quinton Williams has been very reliable for the Bison all year. He was second-team All-MEAC in 2022, and in 2023, Howard has been able to trust him with the football. He’s only thrown one interception, but he has also been able to flaunt his prowess with the deep ball. He won’t be a game-breaker, but he certainly has the experience and talent to keep his squad in the game.

Lackluster run defense

Northwestern’s run defense ranks in the bottom 30 of all FBS schools and has allowed a total of 524 yards in the three games the Wildcats have lost. Howard has a deep running back room — led by Jarrett Hunter and Ian Wheeler — that has explosive potential. In their win over Morehouse State, the Bison rushed for nearly 400 yards. They probably won’t run for nearly 400 yards against Northwestern, but if the ‘Cats don’t tighten up their ground defense, they may have to pay the price.

Not taking Howard seriously

While usually accustomed to playing the role of the underdog, Northwestern sits on the other side this week, as a heavy favorite to beat Howard. Many teams claim to prepare similarly regardless of opponent, but Northwestern is going from being a 26.5-point underdog against Penn State to having a 98% chance to beat Howard. It is safe to say that the mental approach between the two is vastly different. Northwestern cannot underestimate Howard — a team with some talent and experience that would love to knock off a power five opponent.