A pair of Big Ten teams looking for their first conference win of the college football season will face off when Northwestern hosts Rutgers on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) are coming off of a much-needed by week after getting demolished by Nebraska two weeks ago. The Scarlet Knights (3-3, 0-3) have also hit the skids in Big Ten play, losing three in a row after starting the season 3-0.
Even though they are in the same conference, these two teams have played each other just four times previously. Rutgers leads these encounters 3-1, but Northwestern won the most recent meeting, 18-15, back in 2018.
Rutgers at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Rutgers -2
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Noah Vedral is the key cog in the Scarlet Knights' offense. He's not stuffing the stat sheet, but he's completing 64 percent of his passes with twice as many touchdowns (six) as interceptions (three). And all of those picks came in one game, the 52-13 blowout loss to Ohio State two weeks ago. Vedral also is second on the team in rushing with 172 yards.
Vedral's top wide receivers are Bo Melton (24 rec., 253 yds., 2 TDs), Aron Cruickshank (20, 244, 2), and Shameen Jones (19, 184). Running back Isaih Pacheco paces the ground attack with 314 yards and three touchdowns on 82 carries (3.8 ypc). Rutgers will try and move the ball and put points on the board against a Northwestern defense that has struggled this season. A year after leading the Big Ten in scoring defense (15.9 ppg), the Wildcats are giving up nearly twice as many points per game (27.2) and are last in the conference in both yards (448.6) and rushing yards (234.2) allowed per game.
If Northwestern wants to break the losing streak, linebacker Chris Bergin (team-high 53 tackles) and defensive lineman Jeremy Meiser (three sacks) are among those who will need to make their presence felt on defense.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
All signs point to Ryan Hilinski getting the nod at quarterback for the Wildcats again on Saturday, as he's steadied the offense since taking over against Ohio three weeks ago. Starting with that win over the Bobcats, the South Carolina transfer has completed 60 percent of his passes for 344 yards and a touchdown. He's yet to throw an interception, but he has fumbled three times over his last two games and was sacked four times in the loss to Nebraska.
Northwestern's top targets thus far are Stephon Robinson Jr. (23 rec., 309 yds., 2 TDs), Bryce Kirtz (19, 203), and Malik Washington (13, 171, TD). Overall, the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing offense (190.6 ypg), so there's certainly room for improvement.
Northwestern has had better success on the ground, averaging 178.6 yards per game to rank seventh. Individually, Evan Hull is sixth in the conference in rushing (509) thanks to a healthy 7.3 yards per carry average. The Wildcats also are hoping that the bye week allowed the offensive line to heal up from some injuries.
Either way, Hull should be able to find some running room against a Rutgers defense that is 12th in the Big Ten (151.3 ypg). Teams also have been able to throw on the Scarlet Knights (212.0 ypg), one of the reasons why they lost all three conference games thus far.
Pass protection has been spotty at times for Northwestern (13 sacks allowed), so the offensive line had been account for Rutgers linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, who leads his team in both tackles (52, tied for second in Big Ten) and sacks (3.5).
Both teams enter this game scuffling, so Saturday may present an opportunity for one of these squads to turn things around entering the second half of the season. Rutgers started the season 0-3 and has already played three ranked Big Ten teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State). Northwestern got destroyed by Nebraska its last time out, losing by 49 points, but that came on the road. Both of the Wildcats' wins this season (Indiana State, Ohio) have come at Ryan Field, so look for them to use that home-field advantage and their run game to get into the win column in conference play.
Prediction: Northwestern 20, Rutgers 17
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.