By Eric Rynston-Lobel
Following an end-of-August trip to California, Northwestern heads home for a somewhat unappealing matchup against the University of Las Vegas, a team that has not had a winning record since 2013.
In a matchup that somewhat resembles the ‘Cats contest against Akron last year, it will be the first football game played in Evanston in 2019 – and like that Akron game, most students will not yet be on campus.
With that being said, we all remember how that game last year turned out, so although a win for NU against UNLV will do little to help the resumé, a loss would be nothing short of devastating for a team with massive expectations this season.
Here’s how the two teams matchup:
Northwestern Defense vs. UNLV Offense
The quarterback for the Rebels will either be Armani Rogers or Max Gilliam, both heading into their junior seasons. According to UNLV’s website, Rogers is “one of the most highly coveted signees in school history” who was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2017. In four games last year, the dual-threat QB had 6 passing touchdowns and 6 rushing. The major difference in the two aspects of his game, though, was Rogers’ poor completion percentage of 41% compared to his 6.9 average rushing yards per attempt and 122 rushing yards per game.
Rogers was the second leading rusher on the Rebels last year, and given the Northwestern defense might need to work hard to contain him, let’s look at how the ‘Cats fared against fleetfooted quarterbacks last season:
Against Akron’s Kato Nelson who averaged 30.5 rush yards per game last year, the ‘Cats allowed him to run for 53 on 15 attempts (2.5 yards per rush) – in this game, Nelson wasn’t a major factor on the ground, but Northwestern LOST.
Michigan’s Shea Patterson, who had six games of 20 or more rushing yards, had 31 against the Wildcats, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, helping the Wolverines DEFEAT Northwestern.
Adrian Martinez of the Nebraska Cornhuskers averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year and totaled 629 yards on the ground. He had 54 of those against the ‘Cats in a dramatic 34-31 NU overtime WIN.
Finally, A.J. Bush of Illinois had 733 rushing yards last year with 67 coming against the ‘Cats and Jason Shelley of Utah had 58 yards rushing in the Holiday Bowl. Both of those games were WINS for Northwestern.
3-2 overall last year against running QBs
The bottom line is that the ‘Cats defense hasn’t necessarily been able to stop these dual-threat quarterbacks, but they also have made sure that they don’t take over the game. Additionally, it should be noted that UNLV did not face a defense anywhere close to the ‘Cats’ caliber last year, so Rogers’ stout rushing numbers might not translate in a game against Northwestern.
Let’s not exclude Gilliam from this discussion either, as he started nine of the Rebel’s games last season. Though he was by no means the same running threat Rogers was, he was much more efficient in his passing completing over 55% of his passes – nearly 11 percentage points more than Rogers. Even if he gets the start, though, I don’t see him having much success against a very strong ‘Cats defense.
Northwestern Offense vs. UNLV Defense
In every game UNLV played last year, its defense allowed more than 17 points. In all but one game, they allowed more than 24, and in seven games, opponents put up 35 points or more.
Using the 24 points as a benchmark for Northwestern’s offense last year, the ‘Cats were 7-2 in such games. Yes, 2019 is a new season with Hunter Johnson at the helm, but that should only mean even better offensive production.
In my preview last week, I said Johnson would struggle in his first three quarters against Stanford, but then turn it on in the fourth to lead the team to a win. I don’t see him having any trouble in this matchup. With lots still to prove, Johnson won’t take a snap of this game off.
Looking at the Rebels’ defense over the past five seasons, they allowed 37.25 points per game last year, 31.75 in 2017, 36.75 in 2016, 33.67 in 2015 and 38.47 in 2014. You don’t need to be a math major to know that that’s very poor.
The only potentially strong component to this defense will be the secondary where UNLV returns two defensive backs in seniors Evan Austrie and Jericho Flowers who combined for 119 tackles last season.
Other than Austrie and Flowers, the other defensive player to watch for the Rebels is senior Gabe McCoy who was tied for second on the team last year with four sacks and led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss.
As a whole unit though, it’s unlikely the Rebels can do much to stop the Wildcat offense that will most certainly use this game to show what its offense is capable of before it heads into Big Ten play.
Hunter Johnson completes 70% of his passes and throws for over 400 yards and four TDs en route to a blowout win and helps improve the ‘Cats to 2-0. Additionally, the defense forces five UNLV turnovers and Charlie Kuhbander converts all three of his field goal attempts.
Contrary to last season when Northwestern was 0-3 in non-conference matchups, they will start off 2019 on better footing before Big Ten play kicks off against Michigan State.