When: Sat. Oct. 14, 2017; 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT
Where: College Park, Md.; Capital One Field (51,802)
All-Time Series: First Meeting
Last Meeting: First Meeting
Line: Northwestern (-4.5)
The Northwestern Wildcats are licking their wounds a bit.
Even if Northwestern had survived its Wisconsin-Penn State gauntlet with a split, the team probably would have been a bit wounded heading into their first-ever battle with the Maryland Terrapins. The Wildcats probably did not expect to feel so mentally wounded though.
Northwestern lost both games to Wisconsin and Penn State, all but eliminating the team from Big Ten West contention. But not only did the team lose those games, but the team lost them in seemingly soul-crushing ways. The problems that arose throughout the non-conference season continued to plague the Wildcats.
The offensive line was still a sieve, giving Clayton Thorson little time to throw and Justin Jackson few holes to squeeze through. The offense could never get itself going, over-relying on a talented, but hardly dominant defense.
The conclusion is, more or less, teams from a decade ago with dynamic offenses would kill to have a defense this good — essentially if the Northwestern offense was as good as it was in the 2007-09 range with a defense this talented, maybe that team would have been the team. That is getting into some hypotheticals that are only going to make Northwestern fans a bit frustrated.
The reality is the Wildcats’ offense has underperformed. Dramatically underperformed. The team has a multitude of problems dating back to the non-conference season with few outbursts of strong play. The second half against Penn State was the team at just about its worst on that end, unable to get any running room and keeping Thorson on the run and unable to set his feet to throw. He struggled to throw under pressure.
Northwestern is still trying to figure itself out. The team will welcome an opponent that is not in the national championship picture, but the team still has a lot of questions.
Maryland is not going to be mourning Northwestern’s problems. The Terrapins lost their first- and second-string quarterback in the first three weeks of the season. Third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager is questionable for the game after an injury in last week’s game against Ohio State.
Northwestern might be going up against a fourth-string quarterback (a talented one).
These are two banged up teams meeting in Maryland this weekend. One team is going to get the medicine and confidence boost they need.
1 Burning Question: Can Northwestern’s defense take advantage of Maryland’s quarterback problem?
Northwestern’s defense has been the saving grace for the team this year. It is a young group that has shown its talent in flashes and seemingly improved every week. The Wildcats’ overall defensive performance against Saquon Barkley was sensational and is a good sign of things to come for this group.
But there is always a catch. And this week, it is a big one.
Thanks to second-half targeting penalties to Paddy Fisher and Godwin Igwebuike, the Wildcats are down their top linebacker and leading safety for the first half of the game. There are capable backups and other capable players on the defense to step up, but this is not the first step the Wildcats wanted to have in this important game to set up the rest of their season.
Fisher leads the team with 43 tackles and has 3.0 tackles for a loss. He has gotten better every game and Northwestern has to feel good about what the can do for the rest of his career. Igwebuike is second on the team with 40 tackles, including an interception. Both are leaders on this team.
Nathan Fox should capably handle the middle linebacker role until Fisher can return to the game. And J.R. Pace has been promising in his freshman year. But he is a freshman and prone to mistakes. Others will have to pick up the slack without the Wildcats’ two big playmakers.
And the Wildcats will be without them, giving the Terrapins a chance to establish themselves early in the game and get a rhythm before halftime.
To be sure, Tyler Pigrome and Kasim Hill are better quarterbacks than Max Bortenschlager and almost certainly Caleb Henderson. Bortenschlager has 306 yards and three touchdowns in five games this season (three starts). He does not have nearly the dynamic running ability that Pigrome or Hill have. Maryland’s offense becomes a bit one dimensional.
But any talented quarterback with some confidence can burn a defense like Northwestern’s. The Terrapins are going to have to strike early no matter who the quarterback is and force the Wildcats to catch up.
That puts the pressure on the Wildcats’ defense to set the table for their offense. The quarterback situation is a precarious one for Maryland. There are a lot of questions around the team. Even shorthanded, Northwestern has to establish itself early, win field position and give its offense every opportunity to win the game.
2 Key Stats
31: So who will Northwestern rely on defense to step up considering all the key players out for the team before halftime? That is going to fall on Nate Hall. The veteran linebacker will be the Wildcats’ leading tackler with 31 tackles this season. Hall has played well as the strongside linebacker, but will need to take on a larger role with so many players out. There is question about who will step into the middle linebacker role for the first half. Hall might be someone who has to fill that void and make some key plays.
120.0: So what do the Terrapins have on offense? Like the Wildcats, their offensive line has been a bit of a mess and they obviously have some issues with their quarterback to sort out. But if they can protect their quarterback they have some dynamic playmakers like D.J. Moore. The junior wide receiver is averaging 120.0 all-puprose yards per game for the Terrapins this year. He is their best receiver by far and a game-changer on punt returns. In a game with two struggling offenses, his ability to flip field position could be key for the Terrapins.
3 Players to Watch
–Macan Wilson, Northwestern WR: The Wildcats have struggled to get senior wide receiver Macan Wilson going in the last few games. He has just 10 catches for 137 yards. Certainly, he has to do a better job getting separation and making his presence felt against the secondary. Maryland has given up 259.0 passing yards per game this year. Their secondary is capable of making big plays, but also giving up a lot of yards. that is the task ahead of Northwestern’s quarterbacks and receivers. The team will need its senior to step up.
–Jermaine Carter, Jr., Maryland LB: The Terrapins routed the Longhorns in Week One thanks to some hard hitting from their front seven and big plays from the secondary and special teams. Maryland can create some pressure, collecting nine sacks in five games. No one does more on the pressure front than Jermaine Carter, Jr. Carter leads the team with 34 tackles, 4.0 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He also has defended a few passes and has forced two fumbles. This is a guy the Wildcats will have to be aware of all afternoon. Especially considering their offensive line issues.
–J.R. Pace, Northwestern Safety: Through the first five games for Northwestern, J.R. Pace has shown a lot of promise. The team’s early-season injury troubles in the secondary pressed him into duty early. And he showed plenty of promise. He held his own on the field and did a little bit more. This will be a big challenge for the first-year player. Pace will likely start in Igwebuike’s place in the first half. No one is asking him to do everything Igwebuike does for the team. he just has to be solid and keep Maryland from making big plays and tackle when called upon.