The glory of Big Ten football kicks off tonight, with upstart Nebraska traveling to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers. However, fans of the purple and white will have to wait three more days before Northwestern takes the field against Rutgers.
After a summer of upsetting details and discussions, unforeseen decisions and overall chaos, it can be reassuring to know that a renewed Wildcats season is just around the corner. At the same time, considerable uncertainty looms over this program — and that extends to the team’s Week One matchup.
NU won just one game a season ago, and hasn’t emerged victorious in America since mid-October 2021. The opponent in that contest? The Scarlet Knights.
Just as that matchup was viewed as somewhat of a toss-up, this year’s beginning truthfully appears to be ripe for the picking; ESPN grants Rutgers a 48.7% chance of victory, with the ‘Cats at 51.3%. A boatload of hypotheticals have assuredly played out in the minds of pundits and supporters alike on both sides of the coin for two squads that are in desperate need of success, but which field teams with considerable question marks up and down their rosters and staffs.
While it’s difficult to reduce a football game’s outcome into just three major concepts, here are some significant reasons why Northwestern will or will not take down Rutgers on Sunday.
Why Northwestern will beat Rutgers
More productivity, and fewer miscues, under center
For the second straight season, Northwestern was the victim of bad quarterback play in 2022, fostering little week-to-week stability at the position. Despite the insertion of then-sophomore Brendan Sullivan into the lineup in Week Six, the Wildcats’ eventual five QBs finished with a combined 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Not one posted a PFF grade above 59.
With the addition of sixth-year Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant this spring, the ‘Cats are optimistic that either Bryant or Sullivan — whichever won the team’s quarterback battle, as we’ll likely find out moments before kick Sunday — will elevate one of the worst offenses in the country. If Bryant does get the nod, he’d seem to be an instant upgrade on paper, boasting an 81.6 PFF grade a season ago.
Regardless of whoever starts for NU, that player must be tasked with generating chunk plays on offense and, critically, not surrendering the ball. The Wildcats had just three games last year in which their gunslingers did not give away the pigskin, and it might not shock you to learn that one was against Nebraska in Ireland.
Not all of the team’s offensive responsibilities are on the quarterback’s shoulders. For example, Cam Porter will need to prove to establish some type of ground game, and the team’s receiving options — notably A.J. Henning, Cam Johnson and Thomas Gordon — need to separate and create explosive plays. But, at the end of the day, Northwestern’s quarterback play might be the single biggest determining factor in deciding this game.
A secondary that comes into its own
On paper, an apparent weakness for Rutgers lies in its receiver room. The Scarlet Knights lose top options from a year ago in Aron Cruikshank and Sean Ryan. Tight end Johnny Langan and receiver Chris Long are the only two opposing pass-catchers to have netted 200+ receiving yards last season.
RU added two productive wideouts in the portal in Naseim Brantley and JaQuae Jackson, but neither has ever suited up in the FBS level, let alone against Big Ten competition. Consequently, Northwestern could swing the tide if its secondary defends tightly against the pass.
The Wildcats experience turnover of their own in the back end sans Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton, but projected starting cornerbacks Garnett Hollis Jr. and Theran Johnson both played over 240 snaps last year. Moreover, David Braun boasts versatility in players like Rod Heard II and Devin Turner, and the return of big-hitting safety Coco Azema should be impactful.
The onus might still lie on NU’s defensive line to control the line of scrimmage much better than it did a year ago, but if the team’s secondary blankets a subpar group of receivers, life on offense could be tough for the Scarlet Knights.
A jolt of energy channeled into Week One
Following the firing of Pat Fitzgerald on July 10, and in the wake of considerable fundamental questions about the status and culture of the program, Northwestern’s players have seemed to rally around a common cause of going out and succeeding on the field. Every press conference in which players have spoken has featured refrains about togetherness, perseverance and a desire to “flip the narrative,” as Bryant put it.
On top of that motivation, Braun will be coaching in his first matchup as NU’s head coach. Across multiple levels of football, teams can certainly become invigorated after a new leader takes over. For instance, the nine interim college football coaches last year combined to post a 5-4 mark in their first games at the helm.
What transpired in the last two months can be funneled into countless expressions on diametrically opposite ends of the scale. But, if Northwestern can translate that sense into putting forth everything it can into winning this game — and starting a new era on the right foot — then a victory is well within sight.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Rutgers
Kirk Ciarrocca’s experience against the Wildcats
For the second straight season opener, Northwestern will go toe-to-toe with a new offensive coordinator at a Big Ten school — and a seasoned one at that. This offseason, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano added former Penn State and Minnesota OC Kirk Ciarrocca to his staff in the hopes of bolstering an offense that averaged just 17.4 points per game in 2022.
Having spent four years in Minneapolis since 2019, Ciarrocca has gameplanned for Northwestern more than the average offensive coordinator, especially in the Big Ten East. The focal point of his units has, effectively, been running the ball: last year, UMN averaged a prolific 207.5 yards on the ground per game, which was second in the conference.
More specifically, mitigating the run has dictated NU’s recent matchups with the Ciarrocca-led Gophers. Take a look at these numbers from the past four games, which illustrate a clear trend.
New Rutgers OC Kirk Ciarrocca is no stranger to facing Northwestern. Here are some rushing yardage totals from his games coaching against the Wildcats:— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) August 29, 2023
NU won the last two games, and it's no secret why. Stopping the run will be paramount.
To what extend Ciarrocca will seek to implement a run-first approach in Piscataway is unknown, especially with the development of former four-star Gavin Wimsatt close to the top the program’s hierarchy of needs. Early in the year, though, expect plenty of carries for Scarlet Knight RBs Samuel Brown V, Kyle Monangai and Aaron Young — if nothing else but to test the Wildcats’ revamped defensive line.
A sound Scarlet Knight defense
The superficial numbers on Rutgers’ 2022 defense were not outstanding, as it allowed 29.2 points and 349.7 yards per game, and ranked ninth in the conference in EPA/play. But, there’s still considerable talent on the Scarlet Knights’ defense, which second-year DC Joe Harasymiak hopes will translate better into on-field results.
RU’s defensive line boasts two formidable presences in Aaron Lewis and Wesley Bailey, both of whom collected 32 or more pressures a season ago. Against a Northwestern offensive line likely to field three new starters at four nascent positions, the war in the trenches would lean in Rutgers’ favor based on those two pass rushers alone.
Additionally, Rutgers’ linebacking corps includes redshirt senior Deion Jennings, who posted 91 tackles and a team-high 8.5 tackles for loss last year. Fellow ‘backer Tyreem Powell accumulated three sacks, 18 pressures and six TFL of his own.
The Scarlet Knights will lose several veterans in their secondary, highlighted by Christian Braswell, Christian Izien and Avery Young. Nonetheless, the team returns veteran cornerbacks Max Melton and Robert Longerbeam, who combined for 16 pass deflections and four interceptions last campaign.
Whether or not Rutgers’ defense jumps to above average will drive much of its season success, but there’s noticeable skill in all three levels of Harasymiak’s unit. That could create havoc for a Northwestern offense that not only was futile last year, but which has little-to-no familiarity with most key starters.
Inexperience across the board
This concept will be critical for Northwestern’s entire 2023 season, and particularly so in the opener.
In terms of returning production, the ‘Cats will lose all of their offensive players to see 600 or more snaps last year — breaking down positionally into four O-linemen and two receivers — and four of the eight defenders to play 545+ snaps in 2022. Whether through the NFL Draft or the transfer portal, considerable gaps were created on this roster, with younger and/or less experienced players needing to replace veteran producers.
Altogether, Northwestern will likely have six new starters on offense and at least four on defense. That’s nearly half of the projected 22 starters.
Beyond those on the field, the Wildcats’ coaching staff has also largely not been exposed to coaching in a Big Ten game. That starts at the top with Braun — who will be in his first ever FBS game on Sunday — but extends to key assistants like Chris Foster and LaMarcus Hicks.
In August, Braun expressed a greater sense of comfort regarding gameday operations following the team’s two scrimmages in Ryan Field. But, those intra-squad matchups won’t fully simulate being in enemy territory in an actual, meaningful contest. Key logistical questions — such as how Braun challenges a play with Skip Holtz’s input, or how Braun communicates with Mike Bajakian to determine a fourth-down decision — will only be fully realized for the first time on Sunday.
Nerves for an opener are a very real thing; they’re likely magnified for those who have never coached in a Big Ten environment. While a revamped core and staff could generate positivity, it also poses an extra, considerable challenge that Northwestern must encounter.