After three brutal weeks of playing top-20 ranked teams, the Scarlet Knights begin the more manageable part of the 2021 season. Rutgers and Northwestern on the gridiron are relatively new to each other since becoming Big Ten foes, having only played once with Northwestern edging out the Scarlet Knights 18-15 in 2018.
The Wildcats are coming off their bye week, which could not have come at a better time for Northwestern (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten). The Wildcats gave up the most yards in Fitzgerald’s tenure in the 56-7 loss to the Cornhuskers in their last game. Like Rutgers, Northwestern is currently winless in conference play, which will change this Saturday.
The opening line was a pick em but the Scarlet Knights are currently a two-point favorite with the over/under being set at 47.5 points. Below are the results for Northwestern through their first five games:
Michigan State 38 Northwestern 21
Northwestern 24 Indiana State 6
Duke 30 Northwestern 23
Northwestern 35 Ohio 6
Nebraska 56 Northwestern 7
After winning the Big Ten West last season, the Wildcats are in the process of reloading. One of their biggest assets is quarterback Ryan Hilinski. The South Carolina transfer was rated as a four-star prospect per 247sports out of high school and started the past two games after replacing Hunter Johnson.
Evan Hull highlights the running game and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Hull was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week once this season after rushing for 216 yards, averaging 9.8 yards per carry in the win over Ohio.
Stephon Robinson Jr. has played his best games this season against Big Ten competition and leads Northwestern with 23 catches, 309 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hilinski’s most reliable receiver is Bryce Kirtz. Malik Washington is slowly developing into a reliable number two receiver for Northwestern and Marshall Lang has logged increased playing time. But the Wildcat’s passing game is still a work-in-progress presenting on paper an easier task for the Scarlet Knights defensive backfield, after dealing with Ohio State’s and Michigan State’s passing attacks the past two weeks.
After five games, Northwestern’s rush defense ranks last in the Big Ten and 126th out of 130 teams nationally. The Wildcats are giving up over 234 yards-per-game on the ground. “We need to be better on the perimeter,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday when pressed on his team’s struggling rush defense. “We’ve obviously given up the edge on a number of occasions and not been able to fit it properly. So that starts with us as coaches schematically and looking at how we are teaching it and then most importantly how we are fitting it and what we are asking our guys to do to make sure they are playing to their strengths. And then we need to across the board be more physical as a defense. That is one of the things we have talked about since we have started, and we have not been able to put it all together. So just playing more physical gap-sound defense.’’
ESPN’s Power Football Index gives Rutgers a 54.0% chance of winning on Saturday. While both offenses match up evenly, it is the defensive side of the ball where the Scarlet Knights hold an advantage. Northwestern is currently ranked last in the Big Ten, giving up 448.6 yards per game. A heavy dose of, Isaih Pacheco, Aaron Young and Kyle Monangai will shorten the game and keep the Wildcats offense on the sidelines.
Greg Schiano and Pat Fitzgerald are good friends and have a great deal of respect for each other. Despite Northwestern having a bit of a down year to date, Schiano knows that Fitzgerald will have his team ready and will have a few wrinkles ready for the Scarlet Knights. But the feeling here is that Rutgers will come back to Piscataway with its first Big Ten 2021 victory.