As Week 6 of the college football season concludes, there’s good news and bad news for Rutgers fans. The bad news is that Rutgers lost again and now sits at 3-3, winless in conference play. The good news is that Rutgers has a very realistic shot to win nearly every game they have left on their schedule. Next week, Rutgers will travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on the Northwestern Wildcats. Just a year removed from a Big Ten Championship appearance, the Wildcats are struggling to start the 2021 campaign, as they sit at 2-3.
Northwestern’s subpar record includes a few embarrassing losses, including a loss to Duke, and a 56-7 blowout loss to Nebraska. Their only two wins came against an FCS opponent in Indiana State, and a 1-5 team in the Ohio Bobcats. However, the truest form of comparison between Northwestern and Rutgers is their respective efforts against Michigan State. Northwestern lost by 17 and put up 21 points in a 38-21 loss, while Rutgers fell to the Spartans by a score of 31-13, an 18 point margin.
The Knights’ performance against MSU was not pretty yet again, as Noah Vedral looked lost for the majority of the game. He went 15-30 with 208 yards and struggled to connect with a number of wide open receivers. One of these bad misses includes a 57 yard pass that would’ve allowed Aron Cruickshank to walk into the endzone, cutting the Michigan State lead to two. Instead, Rutgers was forced to settle for a punt later in the drive. The only Rutgers TD came just 8 minutes into the game, from a Johnny Langan pass to Cruickshank for 4 yards. Valentino Ambrosio added two field goals, one from 26 yards, and one from 29 yards.
It was the Spartans’ offense, however, that stole the show. MSU wide receiver Jalen Nailor accumulated 221 yards and 3 touchdowns, all of which were over 60 yards. Quarterback Payton Thorne finished with 340 yards, 3 touchdown passes, and an interception, as he led the Spartans to the decisive victory. MSU running back and early Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III helped the cause with 232 yards, including a 94 yard touchdown run. The Spartans are now 6-0, their best start since 2015 when they made the College Football Playoff.
Northwestern is an entirely different team than they were last year, and while facing the reigning Big Ten West champion is typically not an easy task, this is a matchup the Scarlet Knights are definitely looking forward to. The Wildcats have played some very poor defense to date, having allowed 448.6 yards per game, the worst in the Big Ten. Rutgers has to find a way to take advantage of this opportunity, something they failed to do against Michigan State.
The Wildcats have also struggled offensively, as they rank 12th in the Big Ten in points per game at 22.0. Rutgers sits at 8th in the conference, as they have scored 27.0 points per game. While we’ve seen the Knights’ offense have multiple lackluster performances over the course of the season, it’s safe to say that it could be worse. Northwestern has used 3 quarterbacks this season and accumulated just 953 passing yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Running back Evan Hull has rushed for 509 yards and 4 touchdowns on 70 carries.
For the first time in a while, the Rutgers defense will not be tasked with stopping a top offense, and we may finally get to see the great defensive play we saw early in the season. The Knights defense may just be the best defense Northwestern has faced this season. It is vital for this unit to have a big game, and a Northwestern team that struggles to throw the ball presents a great opportunity for that to happen. With a solid defensive performance, Rutgers will have every opportunity to win this football game.
I am predicting a decisive 45-21 Rutgers victory, as this team will finally get back on track. The defense will come up big, and like the Temple game, the offense will be given short fields time and time again. Noah Vedral will finish with 210 yards and 3 TDs, posting a much better performance than he did against Michigan State. The rushing game will add 2 more touchdowns, and we will see another Cruickshank punt return touchdown. The Wildcats will not amount to much and will struggle to take care of the football.
Tune into Big Ten Network on Saturday 10/16 at noon to watch the Rutgers Scarlet Knights take on the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois