Northwestern looks to keep things rolling and maintain its hold on first place in the Big Ten West Division when it travels to Piscataway, New Jersey, to face a Rutgers team that hasn't won since Sept. 1. The Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) are coming off of back-to-back victories against Michigan State and Nebraska to claim a slim lead in the division while the Scarlet Knights (1-6, 0-4) haven't won since beating Texas State in their season opener.
Northwestern has been competitive in every game thus far and has plenty to play for entering the second half of the season while Rutgers has been outscored 245-71 during its six-game losing streak and is simply playing for pride at this point.
Northwestern at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -20.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Rutgers' quarterbacks
Even though Northwestern enters this game with momentum, the Wildcats have had their issues on defense. They enter this game ranked 10trh in the Big Ten against the pass. Every quarterback the Wildcats have faced this season has had some degree of success. While the overall numbers (1,527 passing yards, eight TDs) don't jump off of the page, the one number that does is 65.1 That's the completion percentage compiled by opponents against Northwester. It's the worst in the conference and ranks near the bottom (120th) of the entire FBS. One of the reasons for this is an ineffective pass rush that has generated just nine sacks in six games, tied for the second fewest in the Big Ten.
That has to be music to the ears of Rutgers' quarterback duo of freshman Artur Sitkowski and senior Giovanni Rescigno, who have struggled from the pocket. They have combined to complete less than half of their passes for fewer than 142 yards per game. But the stat that really jumps out is the three touchdown passes compared to 17 interceptions between them. The numbers are not pretty and the Scarlet Knights' offensive issues go beyond the quarterback, but if Rutgers is going to have any success moving the ball against the Wildcats it needs to start with the quarterbacks.
2. Clayton Thorson is back at full strength
After being on a “pitch count” in his return from a torn ACL to start the season, Northwestern’s senior quarterback has played every snap in each of the last three games. He’s put up decent numbers through the air, completing 88 of his last 138 pass attempts (63.8 percent) for 1,002 yards and six touchdowns, along with three interceptions in those three games. Running the ball however is another story as he's totaled -51 yards on 18 carries. Getting sacked nine times in those three games doesn’t help matters in that regard. But the important thing is that Thorson is moving the ball downfield and is starting to look like his pre-injury self again.
3. Flynn Nagel's emergence
The main reason why Thorson has had such big numbers over these last few weeks is because of the hands and route running of Nagel. In the last three games, the senior wide receiver has recorded 28 catches for 396 yards and two touchdowns. He’s averaging 13 yards per catch and has made several big grabs during this recent stretch, including a 61-yard touchdown last week against Nebraska. Nagel has been beating just about everybody downfield and figures to draw plenty of attention from Rutgers defenders.
For all of the Scarlet Knights' issues, they have done a decent job, at least on paper, against the pass. Rutgers is second in the Big Ten with 188.3 passing yards per game allowed. Nagel had 220 receiving yards on (12 catches) all by himself last week.
Rutgers actually leads the all-time series 3-0, but this is the first time that these teams are meeting as Big Ten foes. These teams last played in 1991 when the Scarlet Knights were members of the Big East. But that was nearly 30 years ago and a time when Rutgers was in better shape as a program compared to Northwestern. But much has changed since then.
The Wildcats are one of the more consistent programs in the nation with eight winning seasons since 2008 under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern is a top-10 academic institution that has made significant strides as a football program, both in terms of facilities and NFL exposure. On the other side, the Scarlet Knights have not enjoyed much success since joining the Big Ten in 2014 (7-31 in conference play) and are struggling to find a solution.
Northwestern has its own flaws, but the Wildcats should have little trouble beating Rutgers to maintain their hold on the Big Ten West Division lead.
Prediction: Northwestern 21, Rutgers 10
— 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.