They say that home is where the heart is. And in the case of the Northwestern Wildcats (1-1), home cooking is exactly what they needed after a disastrous season opener at Stanford nearly three weeks ago. This past weekend the Wildcats played their first game at Ryan Field this season, and they sent the fans and student body home happy after easily dispatching of UNLV (1-2) by the score of 30-14. This was the first of seven home games for NU, and Pat Fitzgerald's team looks to improve upon last year's home record of 3-4.
In defeating the Rebels, the Wildcats showed improvement in some areas, but they still need work in others. And they'll need to become a more complete team this week as they finally begin Big Ten play on Saturday at home against Michigan State (2-1). Here are five observations from the Wildcats' first victory of the season.
1. Hunter Johnson is settling in
With TJ Green done for the year, it's Johnson's team now. And the former Clemson transfer showed that he can operate in Northwestern's system by completing 12-of-25 passes for 165 yards and touchdown, but he also threw an interception. Johnson had more command of the Wildcats offense against UNLV than he did against Stanford (also pitched in 55 rushing yards with an additional score), and he looked more composed as well. The Rebels managed to sack him once, but the offensive line kept him upright otherwise. As long as he keeps these steady performances going, Northwestern will be in good shape offensively.
2. The emergence of Drake Anderson
The Wildcats are the embodiment of the "next man up" philosophy. With Isaiah Bowser (knee) currently sidelined, the sophomore from Arizona put the Cats' on his back by rushing for 141 yards on 26 attempts. He also added a touchdown run, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and showcased his speed, acceleration, and elusiveness.
How fitting that NU's leading rusher against UNLV is the son of the program's No. 2 rusher all-time. Anderson is the son of Damian Anderson (1997-2001), who finished his Wildcats career with 4,485 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns and is right behind Justin Jackson in the record books.
3. The pass rush has come to life
After only registering one sack against the Cardinal in the opener, the Wildcats posted five against the Rebels this past weekend. Defensive ends Joe Gaziano (1.5) and Earnest Brown IV (1.5) combined for three of those sacks, which is a very good sign as these two anchor NU's front line. There were defensive improvements across the board as the Cats' also posted nine tackles for a loss, five pass deflections, and forced four UNLV turnovers. They'll need a repeat performance this weekend as Michigan State is quarterbacked by Brian Lewerke who's one of the more efficient signal-callers in the collegiate ranks (63.2 completion percentage, 797 passing yards, 4 TDs).
4. The run defense is a concern
After giving up 132 rushing yards to Stanford, the Wildcats had even more trouble stopping the run on Saturday. UNLV finished with 210 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.8 yards per carry for the game. The Rebels also had gains of 65 and 30 yards. Michigan State certainly isn't afraid to the run the ball (103 rushing ypg), so this is an area Northwestern will need to tighten up as Big Ten play begins.
5. The offensive line needs to step their game up
In two games, the Wildcats' o-line has already surrendered four sacks, nine quarterback pressures, and opposing defenses have recorded nine tackles for a loss. Michigan State won't make it any easier as the Spartans have already filled up the stat sheet with 13 sacks, 26 tackles for a loss, and 14 quarterback pressures in their first three games. Michigan State is a team know for its defense, unlike UNLV or a Stanford team this year that just gave up 45 points to UCF. If NU's guys up front aren't on their P's and Q's, the Spartans will better their chances of breaking their three-game losing streak to the Wildcats.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.