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When: Sat. Oct. 14, 2017; 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT
Where: College Park, Md.; Capital One Field (51,802)
TV: ESPN2
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.

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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.

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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.

Prediction: Northwestern 28, Maryland 21

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Buckeyes Football

2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know

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What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected. 

It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line. 

All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams. 

5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten

That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game. 

Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame. 

Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play. 

On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.

4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance

It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances. 

Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game. 

OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013. 

A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy. 

3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game

The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting. 

Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having. 

It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season. 

As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year. 

Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…

2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season

One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State. 

Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year. 

Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13. 

Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis? 

1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game

A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time. 

There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016. 

In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team. 

How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day. 

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Widcats Basketball

WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena

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After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season. 

On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener. 

Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside. 

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Football

Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win

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Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. 

The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.

It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program. 

It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football. 

The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.

Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts. 

Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day. 

But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers. 

The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers. 

Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game. 

But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.

But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play. 

Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time. 

Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own. 

It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt. 

This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. 

Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six. 

Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern. 

The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh. 

For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players. 

The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility. 

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Football

Thorson dials up best against MSU once again

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As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing. 

That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans. 

Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games. 

History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes. 

It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite. 

At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense. 

Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game. 

Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for. 

Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too. 

But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game. 

Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter. 

It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game. 

He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19. 

The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play. 

Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well. 

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