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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat UTEP

Sunday was brutal, but the ‘Cats will look to turn things around this weekend against the Miners.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, Northwestern will play its home opener at Ryan Field against UTEP with a chance to claim the program’s first victory in over a year. To be blunt, if they fail to do so, the ‘Cats are one step closer to extending that streak for an entire season. That’s how bad the Rutgers game looked and felt, and that’s how difficult the conference schedule will be.

While NU is capable of knocking off a non-Power Five school like UTEP at home, it’s far from a sure thing. The Miners already have one win, and they’ll be looking to make that two against a Big Ten school they undoubtedly view as beatable. They will bring everything they have, and an effort similar to last Sunday will not be enough for the ‘Cats to avoid dropping to 0-2.

Here’s three reasons why Northwestern will finally reward its fans with a win, and three reasons why the losing streak will live on:

Why Northwestern will beat UTEP

UTEP doesn’t have the same depth Rutgers had in the passing attack

Rutgers had 163 yards receiving against Northwestern, spread around between a remarkable eight different targets. UTEP has a talented 1,000-yard guy in senior Tyrin Smith, and he’s likely to give the Northwestern secondary trouble, but there isn’t much behind him.

Additionally, if there was one unit that showed at least an inkling of promise last week for Northwestern, it was the secondary. Garnett Hollis Jr. was out there flying around and hitting people hard. Devin Turner, when he wasn’t dropping game-changing interceptions, played a really good game. There were things to like, and things to build upon as the ‘Cats enter Week Two.

If the ‘Cats can make life hard for UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison through the air, they neutralize what he brings to the table. The senior is not at all a running quarterback; 2022 was his first season with a positive number of rushing yards at just 76. If the young talent in NU’s secondary doesn’t lay an egg, it should provide an advantage.

Ben Bryant probably isn’t as bad as his stat line looked

Bryant looked rough in his first taste of Big Ten action, but this is still a guy who threw for 21 touchdowns to seven picks last season at Cincinnati. Coach David Braun said they’ll stick with Bryant against UTEP, and it seems like the right call. Even with Brendan Sullivan waiting in the wings, replacing Bryant this early is essentially giving up on him ever being good in a Wildcat uniform. He deserves a larger sample size.

Against Rutgers, Bryant made some throws over the middle that had some serious zip. They were throws that nobody else in this Northwestern quarterback room is capable of making. The problem was, he was also throwing it behind a lot of receivers, and when the game got away from him, he made some unwise passes that led to interceptions. But Bryant had pressure in his face all afternoon from the Rutgers’ defensive front, and it seems likely that UTEP’s pass rush will be more manageable for Northwestern’s offensive line.

Bryant’s receiving corps is also entirely new to him, and mostly new to Northwestern. He missed Cam Johnson on multiple plays where the Arizona State transfer had created separation and should have been an easy target. Hopefully, Bryant and Johnson have looked at those plays and learned something from them. Because he didn’t seem to have enough rapport with his receivers, Bryant was never in rhythm against Rutgers. Part of that was on him, and part of it was on pass protection, but he needs to figure out how to get in rhythm against UTEP. A better version of Bryant gives the ‘Cats a much higher chance to come out of this weekend with a needed victory.

A.J. Henning

Since the Northwestern offense sputtered so much, it was hard to get a good look at a lot of the new skill position talent. However, one guy who did manage to stand out was receiver and return specialist A.J. Henning who transferred to NU from a crowded Michigan receiver room. Henning had a 26-yard reception on the first drive of the game. He also took a hand off on the second drive for a seven yard gain, showcasing his versatility.

His numbers weren’t gaudy, but the offense was so stagnant that it would have been hard for him to put up an impressive stat line. He passed the eye test, though, and we didn’t even get to see him show off his most proven skill: returning kicks. There were quite a few fair catch situations on Sunday. Henning is an electric returner, but he wasn’t given a chance to shine in that regard. Look for him to do so against UTEP.

Why Northwestern won’t beat UTEP

The defensive line created virtually zero pressure against Rutgers

Northwestern had no sacks in its opener against the Scarlet Knights, and the pass rush was truly awful. Gavin Wimsatt had all day in the pocket, and it didn’t matter how long the ‘Cats’ secondary could lock up his receivers. He always had time to wait until someone popped open. Northwestern rotated through linemen a lot, but nothing worked.

While Hardison doesn’t have a ton of receiving talent to rely on, it won’t matter much if he’s under no pressure for the entire game. He can just wait until Smith works his way into open space. Theoretically, this UTEP offensive line should be an easier matchup, but the pass rush was so abysmal last week that it’s still a huge concern headed into this week.

This unit doesn’t feel like something that can be turned around in one week, and it’s a glaring weakness.

Cam Porter and the non-existent running game

As a team, the ‘Cats have 12 total rushing yards on the season (that does include Bryant’s -15 from getting sacked). The team leader is Sullivan, who played only one drive against Rutgers, and starting running back Cam Porter finished with just eight yards on six carries. Yeesh.

You don’t win football games, especially as a bad team, with that kind of production from your running game. The offensive line is poor, yes, but it feels like the numbers are starting to stack up against Porter. The senior had a middling to concerning junior campaign last year backing up Evan Hull, rushing for 286 yards on only 3.3 yards per carry.

But he’s a big, physical back, and the glass-half-full thought process was that he’d show improvement when he was handed the starting job this offseason. Unfortunately, it looked like more of the same from Porter on Sunday. He wasn’t hitting holes, and he also had some head-scratching missed blocks.

In his defense, only giving your starting running back six carries is also not a winning formula, or conducive to his success individually. For that reason, it’s not time to write off Porter or the Northwestern running game just yet, but it’s certainly time to be concerned about it.

UTEP will be hungry for a win

Northwestern is desperate for a win, but that’s different than being hungry for one. The Miners aren’t stupid. They’re headed into this one knowing they have a chance to knock off a Big Ten team. They’ll be motivated and ready to go come Saturday.

The ‘Cats have to find a way to win the mental game. Desperation isn’t going to trump motivation. It’s up to Braun and the rest of his staff to wipe away the Rutgers game, and forget about all of the losing last year. They just need to focus on winning this one. If they can’t, UTEP is going to come into Evanston with all the swagger and all the energy, and the game will be over before it starts.