By Kevin Sweeney
Northwestern gets a break from the week-in, week-out rigors of Big Ten football in the middle of November when FBS Independent UMass comes to Evanston. After success at the FCS level, the Minutemen have struggled mightily since the move up to FBS, going just 18-66 over seven seasons and never finishing better than 4-8 in a season.
UMass will have a new face roaming the sidelines this season in Walt Bell, who comes in as a well-regarded young name in the business who orchestrated dynamic offenses at Arkansas State, Maryland, and Florida State in recent years. Bell has gotten off to a solid start on the recruiting trail, but likely doesn’t have the personnel necessary to get UMass to a bowl game in year one. By every measure, Northwestern should win this game going away. However, the ‘Cats can ill afford to overlook any team on the schedule, especially as they jockey for position in the national rankings late in the season.
Let’s see how the teams match up:
UMass Offense vs Northwestern Defense:
The Minutemen played a two-quarterback system last season under former head coach Mark Whipple, and neither remains in town for the beginning of the Bell era in Amherst. Three quarterbacks remain in contention for the starting spot: Redshirt seniors Michael Curtis and Randall West and JUCO transfer Andrew Brito. Curtis is the favorite as the experienced voice in the QB room: he’s the only one to have taken a snap for the Minutemen and preformed well, completing 65% of his passes and averaging over 10 yards per attempt in limited action last season.
Whoever plays quarterback will have to adjust to life in Amherst without Andy Isabella, who flew under the radar at times due to the team he played for but was one of the best wide receivers in the nation last season. The speedy slot guy posted close to 1,700 receiving yards, including a 303-yard outburst against Liberty and 15 catches for 219 yards against an elite Georgia defense. He was the one player that every team had to circle on the scouting report, and now he’s running routes for Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury, and the Arizona Cardinals.
Where Northwestern should be able to dominate in this matchup is in the trenches. The Minutemen simply don’t have the positional size to deal with the Wildcat front seven. As long as Mike Hankwitz’s defensive unit can avoid giving up multiple explosive plays, Northwestern should be able to suffocate this UMass offense.
UMass Defense vs Northwestern Offense:
To say that UMass was bad on defense last season would be an understatement. The Minutemen gave up a whopping 42.9 points per game last season, a mark that ranked 127th out of 130 FBS teams. Those struggles were mostly due to how porous the UMass run defense was, conceding almost 290 yards per game on the ground last season. That number looked even worse against the two power conference teams they played last season, giving up an average of 350 yards and 4.5 touchdowns over the two games against Boston College and Georgia. Northwestern should be able to run absolutely wild, whether that be with Isaiah Bowser, John Moten, Drake Anderson, or even Jesse Brown. Ideally, Northwestern is able to keep Bowser off the field for most of this one and keep their star back healthy.
Through the air, Bennett Skowronek has the size and physicality that smaller programs tend to struggle with. If Northwestern needs to stretch the field, Skowronek should be the guy they look to. He has consistently had big games against non-Power 5 opponents throughout his career, posting seven catches for 88 yards against Akron last season in addition to big performances against Nevada and Bowling Green during the 2017 campaign.
As I wrote at the beginning, the ‘Cats are simply too talented to lose this game. Yes, we’ve seen Northwestern lose games in inconceivable fashion in the past. Yes, UMass will be hungry to steal a “buy game” and it will be easy for Northwestern to overlook this team. But no, Northwestern will not lose this game.
Prediction: Northwestern 48, UMass 14