The Northwestern Wildcats kick off the 2016 season against the Western Michigan Broncos at Ryan Field on Saturday morning, looking to build on last season’s 10-wins. Kickoff between the ‘Cats and Broncos is at 11:00 CST and our coverage on 89.3 FM Evanston-Chicago starts at 10:30 with the pregame show, followed by the opening kickoff at 11:00.
Here’s how our broadcasters think the ‘Cats will fare against Western Michigan:
Ryan Fish (@RyanMFish): Northwestern 27, Western Michigan 21
The ‘Cats look sluggish again on offense, but the defense makes enough key plays to seal the deal late.
Player to Watch: Montre Hartage, CB, Northwestern. With Keith Watkins II out for the year, Hartage and the remaining Wildcat corners must step up to cover opposing wideouts opposite Matthew Harris. If they struggle, the deep ball could be the defense’s Achilles heel.
Western Michigan could be poised to have the best season by a directional Michigan since Central Michigan finished 12-2 and won the MAC back in 2009. The Broncos could not fit the definition of a week one trap game any more perfectly.
Player to Watch: Zach Terrell, QB, Western Michigan. The redshirt senior finished seventh in the nation a year ago in quarterback efficiency. The Broncos will certainly have the QB advantage Saturday, and if Terrell can play to his full potential, that advantage will be magnified and could define the game.
Ari Ross (@aross50): Northwestern 24, Western Michigan 20
This has all the makings of an early season non-conference loss for the Wildcats, similar to their loss to Northern Illinois two year ago. Western Michigan is a dangerous team led by Corey Davis on offense who could give the ‘Cats secondary all sorts of fits. But against a team that allowed 5.3 yards per rush last year, Justin Jackson will give the ‘Cats an edge on the ground as they eke out the win at home.
Player to Watch: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan. The Wildcats secondary had all sorts of trouble with Jordan Williams of Ball State last season, and Davis, at 6’3” 216 lbs, could give The Sky Team plenty of fits as well.
Josh Burton (@josh_burton1): Northwestern 20, Western Michigan 10
The Broncos are a formidable MAC foe but Northwestern will ease by thanks to a strong game from workhorse Justin Jackson. Western Michigan’s defense was lackluster against decent offenses in 2015 and will be hard-pressed to find a way to stop both Jackson and Warren Long, who provides a much needed change of pace to the backfield. The NU defense, as usual, will hold serve and force a few turnovers.
Player to Watch: Matthew Harris, CB, Northwestern. The Wildcats’ secondary is now without Nick VanHoose (graduation) and Keith Watkins II (injury) so how Harris, the most experienced corner left on the roster, plays will be vital to this team’s success. Western Michigan needs to go through the air to get the ball to star receiver Corey Davis, so if Harris plays well, the Broncos’ offense will be scrambling for alternatives.
Sam Brief (@sambrief): Northwestern 34, Western Michigan 24
I see this as a high-scoring affair – Western Michigan’s offense can be potent. Corey Davis, a senior wide receiver, racked up 1,436 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last year. The Broncos also had a very porous rush defense last year – I expect Justin Jackson to run over them, Clayton Thorson to demonstrate a leap forward and the defense to hold strong against an over-matched offense (expect for Davis), but he can’t win it alone. Wildcats by 10.
Player to Watch: Matthew Harris, CB, Northwestern. Harris is Northwestern’s number-one lockdown corner, and he’ll be charged with covering Davis. That’s a tall task, which is why I’ll be paying special attention to Harris.
Henrique DaMour (@henrydamour): Northwestern 27, Western Michigan 16
While WMU is definitely a capable team with a capable defense and will make some noise in the MAC this year, Austin Carr and Clayton Thorson will team up for at least on TD in the air to give the NU’s defense some breathing room. Corey Davis will probably get away for a big score, but not more than once, as it will take little time for the defense to adjust. Lots of field goals for the Broncos late in the game.
Player to watch: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan. One of the top receivers in the country and a high draft prospect for this next year, he’s like a mini Megatron at 6’3″, 213 lbs, and runs a 4.48 40-yard dash. Davis had 1,436 yards on 90 catches last year, and could single-handedly put the pass defense on their heels.
Amit Mallik (@upper90shot): Northwestern 24, Western Michigan 19
The ‘Cats grind out a tough early season victory behind a dominant run game and a defense up to the task.
Player to Watch: Matthew Harris, CB, Northwestern. The defensive success of NU starts with Harris’ battle against the touted Corey Davis. Even if everything else goes smoothly, this matchup being a problem would lead to an unsavory shootout for Northwestern.
Adam Braunstein (@braunstein_adam): Northwestern 24, Western Michigan 17
Despite playing in the MAC, Western Michigan is a good team that will likely keep the score close in Evanston. However, I expect sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson to start the season well, and make the key plays to get the win.
Player to Watch: Austin Carr, WR, Northwestern. Northwestern knows it has to be more aggressive through the air this season, and I expect Carr to be on the receiving end.
Ari Levin: Northwestern 27, Western Michigan 17
Northwestern fails to get the offense going early, but comes together in the second half. Western Michigan is unable to keep up and struggles against Northwestern’s strong defense.
Player to Watch: Clayton Thorson, QB Northwestern. This game likely revolves around how much Thorson has developed after an inconsistent season last year. A strong start would free up the run game, and open the doors for a Northwestern blowout.
Austin Miller (@austin_james906): Northwestern: 49, Broncos (not Trevor Siemian ones) 0
You can’t spend more than five seconds around the Western Michigan program before you hear about “Rowing the boat.” It’s literally all PJ Fleck talks about. Now, I get what PJ’s trying to do here. He wants his team to buy into this mantra, something about teamwork, togetherness, blah blah blah. However, there’s one problem: FOOTBALL ISN’T PLAYED ON A BOAT PJ. I feel like the Broncos will be quite surprised when they show up to Ryan Field and it’s not a lake, but rather a strip of grass. Needless to say it’s difficult to imagine that a Western Michigan side used to only rowing the boat will stand any chance in a game played on grass, with the nearest body of water several blocks away. The ‘Cats will roll.
Player to Watch: Tom Flacco, QB, Western Michigan. Is Tom Flacco an elite quarterback?