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Three matchups to watch against Rutgers

What to watch in the ‘Cats’ first game of 2023.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been just over a calendar year since the last time Northwestern won a football game. It’s been even longer than that since they won a game on American soil. But the ‘Cats will take the field with a chance to break the losing streak this Sunday at Rutgers in the first game of the 2023 season.

The glass-half-full attitude? New quarterback Ben Bryant offers a glimmer of hope for Northwestern fans, potentially giving interim head coach David Braun a passer who can actually sling it at a high level. Nobody’s certain of anything, but Bryant should at least be better than Ryan Hilinski or Brendan Sullivan were last year. He hasn’t officially been announced as the starter, but it would be a surprise to see anyone else line up under center on Sunday.

The glass-half-empty attitude? Northwestern is probably a pretty bad team. It’s hard to ignore the holes on the roster, especially up front after the departure of key lineman on both sides of the ball. The weapons are all unproven, and there’s totally a world in which nobody emerges as a big threat to opposing defenses.

We’ll start to get a sense for just how successful this team can be on Sunday against the Scarlet Knights. Here’s three matchups to watch when the ‘Cats take the field.

Kirk Ciarrocca’s new offense vs. David Braun’s new defense

Both teams have had some turnover in their coaching ranks this offseason. The ‘Cats’ defensive philosophy will be dictated by David Braun, the interim head coach who was initially hired to be the new defensive coordinator. Braun was the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State for three years prior to this opportunity. Before that, he bounced around as a position coach for about 10 years.

Braun’s defensive unit will be going up against a Rutgers offense that is also under new management. Kirk Ciarrocca has taken over as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator for 2023 after a year of serving as the OC at Minnesota. The coach is in his second stint at Rutgers, having worked as a co-OC for the program from 2008-2010.

Both units are suspect. Braun’s defense simply lacks talent and upside. The line is young and unproven against Big Ten-level competition. The secondary features guys like Garnett Hollis Jr. who you think could be good, but also will likely be a major step down from Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton. Similarly, Ciarrocca’s offense lacks firepower, and it will be heavily reliant on the run game coming to life.

Because the two units are similarly uninspiring, this matchup may very well be a coaching battle between the two new coaches.

A.J. Henning, Cam Johnson and Bryce Kirtz vs. the Rutgers secondary

The Scarlet Knights have a promising group in the secondary this season that projects to be one of the team’s strengths. Robert Longerbeam and Max Melton return at corner for their junior years. Both had two interceptions in 2022, but will not have to contend with current Jacksonville Jaguar Christian Braswell for snaps this season.

At safety, the team’s fifth-leading tackler from 2022 — Desmond Igbinosun — returns for his junior campaign alongside senior transfer Flip Dixon from Minnesota. There isn’t an obvious weakness in this group, so it seems safe to expect the Rutgers secondary to be serviceable.

Northwestern’s receivers, on the other hand, are incredibly difficult to predict. Henning and Johnson are both transferring in from other Power Five schools, where they didn’t get enough playing time to show their full capacity. But that also means that both of them are toss-ups as to whether they actually perform at Northwestern. Kirtz’s improvement between last year and this year also remains to be seen. If he’s the same player he was in 2022, that won’t be good enough against this formidable Rutgers secondary.

JaQuae Jackson vs. Northwestern corners

Jackson is a fascinating target for Gavin Wimsatt and the Rutgers offense. It isn’t often you see a guy transfer to a Division I program from a Division II program and immediately have a shot at claiming the top wide receiver slot. But that’s exactly what’s happening at Rutgers with Jackson.

The senior racked up 1,178 yards and 13 touchdowns last season at PennWest California and was a Division II All-American. Obviously, a promotion to the Big Ten means significantly more talented defenders will be covering Jackson this season, but NU’s corners seem like they might provide him with a soft landing in the conference.

Hollis Jr. is long and rangy, but we haven’t seen him in a full-time role yet. It’s unclear what his ceiling is. Theran Johnson is similarly unproven, and the group doesn’t have significant depth to fall back on. Jackson is an interesting story to watch out for this season, and he has a chance to do big things Week One.