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2023 Know Your Opponent: Howard Bison

After being slayed by Southern Illinois in 2022, can the ‘Cats find some success against FCS competition?

Howard v USF Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Having already taken a deep dive into five of Northwestern’s 2023 opponents, let’s keep chugging along with NU’s only FCS opponent this season: Howard.

The Basics

2022 Record: 5-6 (4-1 MEAC)

Head Coach: Larry Scott (4th season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly’s model. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2022 SP+ Overall (FCS): 87th

2022 SP+ Offense (FCS): 86th

2022 SP+ Defense (FCS): 102nd

2022 Capsule

Following a 2-8 season in 2021, the Bison looked to bounce back in 2022 under Scott’s second full season in charge.

But, the season started off poorly with three straight losses to Alabama State, Hampton and USF by a combined 96-61 margin. The only close game out of the trio was against Hampton, where the Bison trailed 21-6 heading into the final frame before a 22 point stampede made things interesting. Nonetheless, Howard couldn’t convert a crucial onside kick late, letting Hampton walk away victorious.

In their fourth game of the year, the Bison found their stride against Morehouse in the HBCU NYC Classic. After a gritty first half ended scoreless, Howard exploded for 31 second-half points thanks to a tenacious defensive effort and the connection between QB Quinton Williams and now former WR Antoine Murray, who hauled in eight catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

But even with the dominant win in the rearview mirror, Howard found more struggles against Ivy League competition. Trailing by two scores heading into the fourth quarter against Yale, the Bison’s 13 points in the fourth weren’t enough to get the job done. Adding insult to injury, Howard’s home opener was spoiled after a 24-8 second half push by Harvard killed any hopes of the Bison getting a second tally in the win column.

Against MEAC competition, though, the Bison started to look dangerous.

Thanks to 272 yards on the ground, Howard beat Delaware St. 35-17 to capture its second win of the season. A game later against Norfolk State, the Bison continued to ride their running backs, storming for 146 rushing yards en route to a dominant 49-21 win, while taking the crown as the only unbeaten team left in MEAC play.

Despite the back-to-back wins, Howard fell 50-21 against North Carolina Central before closing out the season with two wins against South Carolina State and Morgan State. In the Bison’s last two wins, Jarrett Hunter and Williams were standouts, with the former tallying 192 all-purpose yards against SC State and the latter tossing two touchdowns, rushing for one and catching another against Morgan State. The tandem helped the Bison earn a share of the MEAC regular season title, their first championship since 1993.

Offensive Overview

Last season, a balanced offensive attack, switching between the run and the pass based on opponents’ strengths, was the Bison way. Expect more of the same, with Howard’s starting quarterback Williams and second-, third- and fourth- most prolific pass catchers in Nah’shawn Hezekiah, Kasey Hawthorne and Richie Ilarraza returning. Add in a strong three-headed punch of Jarrett Hunter, Eden James and Ian Wheeler in the Bison backfield this season, and Howard has three rushers that combined for over 1300 yards on the ground last year.

But, against Northwestern, expect to see more of the pass. With the losses of Cam Mitchell, A.J. Hampton and Jeremiah Lewis in the offseason, the ‘Cats are much thinner on the back end. Plus, with the struggles of linebackers Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller in pass coverage, the Bison would be smart to move the ball through the air.

Specifically, look for the Bison to target Hezekiah and Hawthorne. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Hezekiah has the frame to go up and make plays. Finishing with 26 catches, 299 yards and three touchdowns last year, look for the South Carolina native to get a fair share of Williams’ red zone targets.

Hawthorne, a 2023 preseason All-MEAC First Team selection, racked up 31 catches, 293 yards and a touchdown in 2022. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Hawthorne’s speed and athleticism provide a nice complement to the length of Hezekiah for Williams through the air.

Defensive Overview

Defensively, Howard struggled last season, giving up over 25 points a game, good for fourth in the MEAC out of six teams. Plus, the defense only mustered 21 sacks in 11 games, leaving more to be desired in terms of getting to the quarterback.

Howard’s run defense wasn’t much better, allowing 4.9 yards on the ground per attempt and 167.5 yards per game. Even without Evan Hull in 2023, the ‘Cats have capable runners in Cam Porter and Anthony Tyus III, who’ll look to be effective against Howard’s porous run defense.

The good news for the Bison, however, is they boasted the MEAC’s best pass defense, surrendering only 11 touchdowns through the air, while holding opposing quarterbacks to just 54.9% accuracy. Plus, Howard returns four of its five best tacklers from last season in Kenny Gallop Jr., Terrance Hollon, Christian White and Jevin Jackson. Hollon also led the team in interceptions, hauling in two from his home at linebacker in the heart of the Bison defense.

Three Players to Watch

QB Quinton Williams

Williams, now a graduate student, was named an All-MEAC Second Team selection as a senior last season. Playing in 10 games, the Maryland native threw for 1906 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions on nearly 65% accuracy. Not only did he throw for 200 yards five times, but also had at least two touchdown tosses in six games too.

Williams also has the ability to run the football, rushing for 172 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2022. A true dual threat signal caller, Northwestern will need to keep close tabs on Williams’ versatility under center.

DB Kenny Gallop Jr.

A star in the making for Howard, Gallop Jr. earned a spot on the 2022 Phil Steele FCS All-MEAC First Team and was named to the 2023 Preseason All-MEAC First Team after finishing second in the MEAC last year with 89 total tackles from his spot in the secondary.

Gallop has a nose for the football, ending 2022 with at least six tackles in every game, 7.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and four pass breakups. Simply said, the Virginia native not only does everything, but is everywhere for Howard’s defense, making him the Bison’s best defensive asset.

OT Anim Dankwah

Listed at 6-foot-8, 362 pounds it’s a little hard not to know who Dankwah is when he’s on the field. Another Preseason All-MEAC First Team selection, the behemoth of a left tackle is trying to build off an All-MEAC First Team season in 2022 where he started all 11 games.

With excellent size and strength, Dankwah is a force in the run game. A people-mover, look for Howard to run behind its mammoth left tackle on the ground. In pass protection, Dankwah is still raw with his footwork and hand placement, but has improved every year of his collegiate career. However, don’t be surprised if Northwestern tries to attack him with speed, something the Ontario native has struggled with in the past.