Week One has come and gone for Northwestern, and although we expected some early hiccups in the early stages of the David Braun regime, the 24-7 loss to Rutgers was disappointing nonetheless. Now, Northwestern (0-1, 0-1 B1G) has a chance at redemption against UTEP (1-1, 0-1 C-USA), as the Wildcats and Miners are set to face off for the first time in program history. Here are some crucial matchups to look out for on Saturday:
UTEP’s offensive line vs. Northwestern’s defensive line
The UTEP offensive line has been remarkably up-and-down through two contests, mostly depending on what type of play is called. On designed runs, when the line is allowed to maul forward and set the physical tone, the Miners have seen a lot of success. Last week against Incarnate Word, UTEP ran the ball up and down the field for 329 total yards, in large part due to running back Deion Hankins. However, in pass protection, the unit has struggled to keep pockets clean, an issue that was especially noticeable in the opener against Jacksonville State.
Northwestern’s defensive line struggled against Rutgers. Although run lanes tightened up in the second half, Gavin Wimsatt had all day long to dice apart the secondary, with the boys in purple unable to hurry or spook the quarterback. If Northwestern’s line steps up on early downs, they can force the Miners into less favorable passing situations, where the offensive line will be forced to hold up. The Wildcats are on the hunt to capture their first sack of the season after being held without one in Piscataway.
UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison vs. Northwestern’s secondary
First off, it’s super odd that Northwestern opens the 2023 season facing two quarterbacks named Gavin. But hey, here at Inside NU we have a prominent Gavin on staff, so maybe there was just a boom of babies named Gavin circa 2001. Anyways, I mentioned that the strength of UTEP’s offense has been the run game through two contests, but the Miners’ signal caller is no slouch.
Gavin Hardison possesses what those in the scouting community refer to as a “live arm.” In other words, he can zing the ball like nobody’s business. His arm talent already has him in the discussion as a fringe-late round prospect in the NFL Draft. Check out this beauty from the Jacksonville State game (ignore the fact that the touchdown was later reversed after video review).
What a strike from UTEP QB Gavin Hardison! pic.twitter.com/nlNvDAbB5e— Sidelines - CFB (@SSN_CollegeFB) August 26, 2023
Hardison sometimes relies too much on his cannon of an arm, trusting that he can fit balls into tight windows, which can get him into trouble. That’s where the defense comes in. Against Rutgers, the secondary stood out as a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster performance. Devin Turner was around the ball all day, and with some smart disguises or well-executed zone coverages, it would not be at all surprising to see him — or another member of the defensive backfield — snatch one out of the air to turn the tides of the game.
UTEP’s Dana Dimel vs. Northwestern’s David Braun
In terms of coaching experience, the Miners certainly hold the advantage with Dimel having coached games at Wyoming, Houston and UTEP across 12 seasons. He’s been the man in charge for 128 football games, meanwhile David Braun on the other sideline has overseen just one — last week’s loss to Rutgers.
Braun is surrounded by several assistants with in-game experience, not to mention his own time as a defensive coordinator at North Dakota State, but it is worth watching to see if Braun’s inexperience with some of his new responsibilities shows up in the margins. In a game that analysts project to be close (along with betting markets, who favor the Miners by 1.5 points), key coaching decisions could be the difference. Braun does gain some advantage from his freshness to the position, as a one-game sample size might leave UTEP unable to predict Braun’s decision-making. Unpredictability may be the key to capturing a win for the first time since last year’s opener in Ireland.