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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern strives for its first win in over a calendar

Micah Sandy/The Daily Northwestern
Northwestern’s defensive line gets set prior to a snap in Sunday’s defeat to Rutgers. To be successful in its home opener, the Cats’ defense will need to prioritize stopping the running game.

When Northwestern (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) took the field against Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey on Sunday, it hoped to put its turbulent summer and poor performances over the past few seasons in the rearview mirror.

However, the 17-point loss to the Scarlet Knights reinforced the team’s unlikeliness to compete for a Big Ten West title in 2023. Interim Head Coach David Braun’s team continued to make national headlines for the wrong reasons, coming in at No. 3 in ESPN’s Week 1 Bottom 10 rankings. 

Returning home for a short week, NU looks to rebound off of last Sunday’s loss on Saturday against UTEP (1-1, 0-1 Conference USA) in its home opener. A victory over the Miners would ensure the Cats do not fall to the bottom of the Power Five rankings and secure a much-needed win to snap their 12-game losing streak.

Here are three things to watch for ahead of the Cats’ contest versus UTEP on Saturday. 

1. Will the Cats’ offense be able to generate momentum early on?

Amid significant offensive turnover on its roster this offseason, NU is still trying to figure out its offense. 

The Cats offense struggled throughout the game against Rutgers. Graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant had a debut to forget, fighting through constant Scarlet Knight pressure. The Cincinnati transfer completed 20 of 36 passes, throwing for 169 yards. However, he was sacked five times, hit an additional two times and threw two interceptions.  Additionally, NU failed to establish the run game, rushing for a mere12 yards. 

At Monday’s press conference, Braun acknowledged that the Cats’ offensive line will need to improve this weekend in order to give Bryant the time he needs to make the right decisions. 

“(The offensive line) knows that we need to improve,” Braun said. “We need to do a better job of protecting our quarterback, we need to do a better job of establishing the run game. And that’s something that they recognize as well.”

While UTEP has faced off against both FBS and FCS opponents this season, it’s had strong defensive showings so far. The Miners’ defense allowed 31 points in its first two contests and let up 67 passing yards in its week zero defeat over Jacksonville St. and 65 rushing yards in its week one victory against Incarnate Word. 

If the offensive line gives Bryant enough time, he will have a better chance at finding his new receivers, feeling comfortable in the pocket and ensuring the offense can string together multiple scoring drives. 

2. Can Northwestern’s defense find its footing and stop the run game? 

Another burden for Braun’s team in Piscataway was the defense’s inability to get off the field early on. Particularly, the Cats had trouble getting third and fourth down stops, allowing Rutgers to march down the field and score two touchdowns off of 16-play drives in the first quarter. Braun noted that NU had multiple chances to force turnovers but failed each time. 

These long drives forced the Cats’ defense to stay on the field for most of the first half and left little time for the offense to go to work. NU’s offense had possession for just over 22 minutes.  

“We’ve got to start faster on defense,” Braun said. “Two 16-play drives to open the game gives no one an opportunity to get into a rhythm, whether that be us on defense creating momentum or giving our offense an opportunity to catch rhythm in the early stages of the game.” 

One area of emphasis on Saturday will be stopping the run game. UTEP’s offense revolves around the run game and has been successful so far. The Miners’ running backs combined for 156 and 329 rushing yards, respectively, in their first two contests Specifically, the Cats’ will need to limit rusher Deion Hankins, who could not be stopped last week, going for 174 yards on 24 attempts. 

3. Can Northwestern save the season early on against UTEP? 

Week two contests aren’t always viewed as a must-win. But if there is any Power Five team that needs it desperately, it’s the Cats, especially with a tough schedule ahead of them. 

Braun emphasized the importance of coming out on the winning side on Saturday, explaining how it can help build momentum towards the games to follow.

“We have a team that can win a bunch of football games this year,” Braun said. “Momentum’s a powerful thing. It’s time to get the momentum going in the right direction and let that thing roll downhill. That starts with — like I told the team in the locker room last night — we’ll have a quick evaluation of the Rutgers film here this afternoon, but a majority of what we’re doing today is focus on UTEP.”

After UTEP, some of the Big Ten opponents NU has on the slate include Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa.  And while its matchup versus No. 13 Duke looked promising ahead of the season, the Blue Devils pulled off a historic upset over then-No. 9 Clemson, making next week’s matchup increasingly more daunting .

Therefore, games like Saturday’s matchup and NU’s Oct. 7 bout against Howard provide the best chances to snap its losing streak. Although NU opened as a 1.5-point underdog to UTEP, the Cats will need to take care of business in their home non-conference matchups or they will be in for a rude awakening.  

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