When: Sat. Sept. 16, 2017; 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Bowling Green leads 2-0
Last Meeting: Bowling Green won 28-24 (Dec. 26, 2003)
Line: Northwestern (-21.5)
The Northwestern Wildcats almost certainly spent their week looking at themselves and trying to do some soul-searching. Yet again, a Week Two disappointment has Northwestern evaluating everything about itself and coming to the reality that expectations are illusory without action to meet them.
For sure, like last year’s loss to Illinois State, Saturday’s loss to Duke does not matter as much in the long run as it might seem today. The team is still 0-0 in Big Ten play and can still win the Big Ten West title. Nobody was about to pick the Wildcats to make the College Football Playoffs. A loss does not harm as much at this point of the season.
But the loss to Duke exposed some deep rifts. It created uncertainty. And while Pat Fitzgerald surely is working to minimize that and put the blame on himself, the reality is there are legitimate questions that sprung up.
The offensive line again struggled to create much running room for Justin Jackson or give Clayton Thorson time to throw. The defensive line struggled to create pressure and get to quarterback Daniel Jones. A depleted secondary, that will once again be without Marcus McShephard although Brian Bullock was not listed on Northwestern’s injury report, struggled to hold steady. And Clayton Thorson fell into bad habits again, missing throws and throwing interceptions.
It was a confluence of everything that could go wrong for Northwestern. It is still early enough in the season to give believe they can fix all those things. And early enough in the season to conclude Duke was better than everyone anticipated — the Blue Devils should certainly believe so.
The question Northwestern has to ask itself this week as it prepares to play in front of the full student body for the first time under the lights at Ryan Field is just who are they? And what kind of team they want to be.
The Wildcats are still figuring that out at this point. They know where their strengths are, but there are undeniably weaknesses they have to plan around. This is the veteran team everyone believed could compete for a Big Ten title. They just have to go out and show it.
Of course, they have only one more opportunity to do so before the games really start to count in a few weeks. The Wildcats will want to have a good showing against a struggling 0-2 Bowling Green team to prove they have put that loss to the Blue Devils behind them.
A win — and a blowout win — would ease some nerves and show the team is moving in the right direction. But it may not completely erase the doubt the devastating 41-17 road loss caused in Durham.
1 Burning Question: Does talent matter if the offensive line cannot block?
Northwestern is undoubtedly the talented, better team up and down the roster. Sorry, to offend Bowling Green.
The Wildcats are 21.5-point favorites and should expect to win this game comfortably. Of course, nothing is ever easy with Northwestern. And the first two weeks of the season have not exactly inspired confidence.
In both games, the same fundamental problem popped up. And popped up in a way that seems worse than anticipated.
Northwestern’s offensive line was a point of concern before the season. It is a veteran group but one that largely unimpressed last year. The Wildcats added more questions as they are starting freshman tackle Rashawn Slater. He is performing admirably, but it is clear he is still young.
The work elsewhere on the line has been concerning. Against both Nevada and Duke, the offensive line struggled to communicate and struggled to open up run holes. There were at least one or two plays in both games where a defensive lineman came through the line unblocked to gobble up Justin Jackson or Clayton Thorson.
It is still a major concern. And one that does not have much time for resolution before that murderer’s row of Wisconsin and Penn State to open Big Ten play.
The Wildcats should be able to get some confidence and beat Bowling Green in all phases. But, as the team learned last year against Illinois State, if the team cannot protect Thorson or give Jackson room to run, the gameplan devolves quickly and it does not how much talent you have in the skill positions.
Northwestern’s whole season rests on the offensive line finding some measure of consistency — and Mick McCall scheming around it. It has to start this week. Because without the offensive line as a foundation, what Northwestern does elsewhere will not matter.
2 Key Stats
217.0: If there is a measure of good news, it is that Bowling Green is not a very strong defensive team. The Falcons have given up 217.0 rushing yards per game so far this year, including 214 rushing yards to FCS South Dakota. They nearly gave up two 100 yard rushers. That should be a good sign for Northwestern to clear some lanes for Justin Jackson, John Moten IV and Cameron Green to run. The Wildcats will want to see their offensive line create the push to get these three going. It will help them control the game.
1: Like the offensive line, the defensive line could use some work too. They have to do a better job creating pressure and forcing opposing quarterbacks to hurry in the pocket. That has not been the case for either Nevada or Duke. And the defense got torched for it. The big sign of this lack of pressure is that Northwestern has just one sack in two games — veteran defensive end Joe Gaziano is the only to record a sack. The Wildcats like what they have seen from freshman end Samdup Miller and Tyler Lancaster has made his presence felt too. But this is a group that needs to do a better job creating pressure for the linebackers to clean up and putting the quarterback on the ground.
3 Key Players
Kyle Queiro, Northwestern Safety/Cornerback: Bowling Green’s offense has been . . . it has not been good this season. Quarterback James Morgan has completed just 37.5 percent of his passes this year for 456 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions. Last week against South Dakota he was 20 for 49 for 311 yards. That certainly suggests the secondary can lock down his receivers and force him into poor throws. Queiro will be all over the field. He started last week at cornerback with the team carrying only two full-time cornerbacks on the roster. If Bowling Green comes out passing, the Wildcats may need Queiro to fill in again.
Brandon Harris, Bowling Green Linebacker: The Falcons have struggled to start the year. Michigan State ran all over Bowling Green and then South Dakota hung 34 points on the team. The defense is a little wounded right now. But it still has its playmakers and athletes. So far this year, linebacker Brandon Harris has stepped up and stood out. He has 16 tackles, including two for a loss. He has shown versatility in the pass game too with three breakups and three passes defended. Not to mention a fumble recovery he took for 30 yards.
Lisa Byington, Big Ten Network: For those watching the game on TV, they will hear a familiar and pleasant voice. Lisa Byington will become the first woman to do play-by-play for the Big Ten Network. It has become very commonplace to hear women calling men’s games — from Doris Burke in the NBA on ESPN to Beth Mowins taking a turn as play-by-play for ESPN’s Big Ten coverage and on Monday for Monday Night Football. Still, it is worth recognizing the first when it happens and getting excited to hear these voices and this expertise added to the broadcast. Byington will do her best not to let her inner Wildcat out. The former Northwestern women’s basketball and soccer player attended the school during the Rose Bowl run. But she has been a professional in all her other endeavors and this is an honor well deserved.