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How Northwestern can maintain its top play against better opponents

Can they?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 UTEP at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Saturday, Northwestern Football had one of the best days in recent memory: not only did they capture their first win in America since 2021, but the Wildcats had an offensive field day in a 38-7 win over UTEP. It was a much-needed day for NU, who has obviously struggled over the past few years.

While Saturday was a big day for a program, it was a win over UTEP, a non-power five team that finished under .500 a year ago. Northwestern has to buckle up, as their schedule is only going to get harder. Next up is No.21 Duke, who already beat a previously-ranked top-ten team this season at home. More formidable teams are on the way too as Big Ten play kicks into full swing in two weeks. So, the question is this: how can the Wildcats maintain their competition against better opponents?

It comes from playing complimentary football with contributions coming from offense to defense to special teams. Starting with the offense, who has a tough three weeks coming up, including squaring off against Mike Elko’s star-studded Duke defense, Minnesota, who had the number two defense in the Big Ten last year, and Penn State, who has gone under a defensive transformation with second-year coordinator Manny Diaz.

Like every offense, it starts with the quarterback position. Ben Bryant is day-to-day, and assuming he is the starter on Saturday, it’s about consistency. This means making the throws necessary to win ballgames and limit turnovers. Also, against these elite defenses, he needs to make one, two, or even more “wow’’ throws that move the offense forward.

Of course, to make these throws, the offensive line needs to give him the time to. The offensive line did not perform well against a decent pass rush in Rutgers, and the Wildcats will face much better pass rushes. The line needs to perform, or else Bryant or whoever is back there will be eaten alive.

Last is skill positions — between A.J. Henning, Cam Johnson, Cam Porter and others, Northwestern has some talent. Is it more talent than many of their opponents? No, probably not. But, they have the capability to make plays, and they will need to.

Switching to the defensive side of the ball, David Braun’s unit has shown flashes of potential over the past few weeks to be an average or even good defense for the rest of the season. At the same time, the group needs to take steps forward.

What was noticeable against Rutgers was the defensive struggles in the trenches, one of the main reasons Northwestern lost that game. Scarlet Knights’ QB Gavin Wimsatt had tons of time to throw. The Wildcats need to disrupt quarterbacks, and it starts by getting back there. Whether it is Anto Saka, Richie Hagarty, Sean McLaughlin, or someone else, the D-Line needs to get pressure, or they are going to leave the ‘Cats’ secondary out to dry.

The main place the defensive line struggled with last season was rush defense, and obviously, this needs to change against better opponents. Braun has stated he likes the potential in the room, and the question now is whether results will show.

Last is pass coverage, which was probably Northwestern’s only not-below-average category in the Big Ten last season. While there was a lot of turnover in the secondary, including the losses of A.J. Hampton, Cam Mitchell and Jeremiah Lewis, there is also a lot of talent. Devin Turner, Garnett Hollis Jr., Rod Heard II, Coco Azema and Theran Johnson have all had their moments through two games and the starting secondary has been good.

It also comes down to pass coverage by linebackers. One of the struggles in Jim O’Neil’s scheme was linebackers not being able to matchup with speedy tight ends and running backs. There have already been positives in Braun’s defense: Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller both had interceptions Saturday. There is clear potential in pass coverage.

Last is the coaching. David Braun, a first-year head coach, has no easy slate, and he is aware he has to make adjustments depending on the opponents and performance.

Going forward, Northwestern will be facing MUCH more talented teams, and as listed above, every position will need to contribute for David Braun’s team to be competitive. The challenge will change each week. The same question remains: will the Wildcats remain competitive like so many in the program think they can? Time will tell, starting Saturday in Durham.