Following Northwestern’s 21-7 loss to Duke last weekend, concerns have risen about the team’s ability to have a successful season amidst one of the nation’s toughest schedules. However, the Wildcats get a respite in Week 3, facing Akron in a matchup that should be an easy win and an opportunity to iron out some of the kinks we have seen so far. NBN Sports breaks down what to watch for on offense and defense under the lights on Saturday night.
Is it time to worry about this offense? The Wildcats have scored just seven points in their last six quarters, and were frustrated by a Duke defense that shut them down after the opening drive. The team entered the red zone just once after the lone Jeremy Larkin touchdown, in which they decided not to get momentum with a field goal but instead let Clayton Thorson get sacked on 4th & Goal. It was a nightmare of a performance for a team that is looking less and less likely to be any threat to Wisconsin’s grasp on the Big Ten West.
Thorson went 5/13 on 3rd and 4th downs, with six of those eight incompletions coming on the pass-rush. The O-line has three of its starters listed as questionable against Akron, which means that quarterback pressure will be a key focus if none of them see playing time. The other big uncertainty on offense continues to be Thorson’s drive count, which is still under medical discretion. How much his health may be affecting his play is not clear, but one thing’s for certain: it’s time for him to get a touchdown. His lone significant stat so far has been an interception on an ill-advised long pass into Duke double coverage.
Flynn Nagel saw a lot of targets against the Blue Devils as Ben Skowronek had a quiet game. Expect both of them to more evenly share receptions alongside Cameron Green, who is back from an ejection. For Northwestern’s ground game, Larkin should continue to see solid results. He’s been doing a nice job so far as the starter and has quieted concerns regarding the running back situation.
While it would’ve been nice to see the Akron-Nebraska game to get a better understanding of the team’s play versus a solid Big Ten team (and an FBS team, for that matter), this is still a game that the Wildcats will expect to win. If the offense can’t get things going, then this season is in trouble.
To be quite frank, not many pundits can give you an idea about what identity the Northwestern defense will emulate. Will the D post shutouts led by a stout pass rush that doesn’t give the QB enough time to decimate our inexperienced secondary, as we saw in the second half against Duke, or will Greg Newsome, Montre Hartage and the rest of the defensive backs get torched en route to a blowout, as last Saturday’s second quarter performance provided?
This weekend will probably not shed much light on the defense’s true identity: Akron is the only non-P5 opponent the ‘Cats have on their schedule, and their offense was downright putrid last year. The Zips ranked 10th in the MAC in scoring offense and 11th in total offense. This year, Akron is led by sophomore QB Kato Nelson, who threw for 232 passing yards and 3 touchdowns against Morgan St. last weekend. Nelson is wildly inconsistent, as he proved late last season during a nearly-immaculate 322 yard, 4 TD performance vs. Ohio to clinch Akron’s spot in the MAC championship game followed by duds against Toledo and FAU.
Even if Nelson plays up to his potential, the Zips lost seven of eight leading receivers from last year’s squad. Akron’s flashiest player is receiver Kwadarrius Smith, who paced the Zips with 726 yards and 7 TDs last year. Given how Rondale Moore torched the ‘Cats defense in the first half of the Purdue matchup and the shaky play of our secondary, Smith could do damage on Saturday night. Either Newsome or Hartage needs to step up to cover the Zips’ sole vertical threat. At running back, Van Edwards Jr. is the only returner from last year’s three-headed committee, and he joins freshmen Keyondre White and Abraham Alce as well as oft-injured Deltron Sands to form an inexperienced backfield looking to improve on last year’s conference worst 3.2 YPC. Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall have started the year strong, and there’s no evidence that they will slow down against a young O-line that lost its only all-conference player in Jovann Letuli. As long as Northwestern keys onto Smith like how Newsome, Hartage and co. shut down Moore in the second half of the opener, the ‘Cats should cruise defensively.
Jacob Munoz (1-1) - Northwestern 35, Akron 13
Jono Zarrilli (2-0) - Northwestern 28, Akron 14
Shreyas Iyer (1-1) - Northwestern 35, Akron 13