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Nevada Wolf Pack vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview and Prediction

Pat Fitzgerald

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern was able to overcome a 1-3 start in 2016, rallying to achieve bowl eligibility and a 31-24 win over Pittsburgh in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl. Behind talented offensive players such as quarterback Clayton Thorson and stellar running back Justin Jackson, as well as a strong defense returning seven starters, the Wildcats look to be a factor within the Big Ten West Division in 2017.

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Nevada will be starting fresh with new head coach Jay Norvell. A former defensive back for Iowa in the 1980s and a former assistant with Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona State, Norvell has his first opportunity to lead his own program.  Nevada will be looking to implement an up-tempo offensive attack that will feature a pass-first Air Raid approach, a departure from the ground-bound approach the Wolf Pack has used in previous seasons.

Nevada at Northwestern

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2  at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

Spread: Northwestern -24.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Northwestern's offensive line vs. Nevada's defense

Northwestern's offensive line, which returns four starters, gave up 39 sacks in 2016. In addition to opening holes for Justin Jackson to run through, the line must improve its protection and keep Clayton Thorson upright in order for the Wildcats to effectively compete throughout the season in the B1G West.

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Northwestern Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson

Nevada is planning on implementing an attacking defensive scheme under Jay Norvell. While the Wolf Pack may not yet have the personnel on hand to run such a scheme effectively, it will bear watching to see how disruptive the Pack's pressure schemes will be.

2. Nevada's passing game vs. Northwestern's secondary

Nevada's best wide receiver is Wyatt Demps, who caught 53 passes for 686 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016. Northwestern will counter with an experienced secondary led by safety Godwin Igwebuike. With Nevada's move to an Air Raid approach, will Northwestern be able to substitute effectively against a pass-oriented attack that will move at a faster tempo?

3. Northwestern's defensive line vs. Nevada's offensive line

In its new Air Raid attack, Nevada will be throwing the ball frequently. Northwestern has returners along the defensive line in Xavier Washington, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson, but will the Wildcats be able to keep those players fresh with the Wolf Pack throwing the ball repeatedly?

Final Analysis

The home crowd, plus the return of experienced players such as Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, will be enough for the Wildcats to emerge victorious from this opener. Nevada may keep this interesting for a while, but look for Pat Fitzgerald to rely on the Jackson-led running game to move the chains and burn the clock in this one. Playing keep-away from Nevada may not be exciting, but it will be effective and should lead to a victory for Northwestern.

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Prediction: Northwestern 35, Nevada 21

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for www.theozone.net. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.