Northwestern vs. Western Michigan prediction and game preview for the opening contest of the 2016 season. Find out who’s projected to win the matchup between the Wildcats and the Broncos.
Northwestern vs. Western Michigan Game Preview
When: Saturday, Sept. 3 – Noon ET
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Matchup to Watch
Pat Fitzgerald vs. P.J. Fleck
Two of the country’s most animated and enthusiastic coaches have good reasons to be excited. Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to a surprising 10-win season in 2015 and won’t stop until the Wildcats are considered an upper-tier team in the Big Ten. A potential problem with taking another step toward that this season: they play at Iowa, at Michigan State and at Ohio State.
Fleck, the 35-year-old Illinois native and 2014 MAC coach of the year, led the Broncos to a second consecutive 8-5 campaign last season, and the program’s first bowl victory. He has Western Michigan as the favorite to win its first MAC title since 1988.
Clayton Thorson took his lumps as a freshman in 2015 for the Wildcats, tossing seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He did, however, add five scores on the ground for a running game that returns junior Justin Jackson, who finished second in the Big Ten with 1,418 yards last year.
The MAC’s second-best rushing attack returns the trio of Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 TDs), Jarvion Franklin and LeVante Bellamy. Although the Broncos lost receiver Daniel Braverman to the NFL, Corey Davis comes to back to provide a quality target for Zach Terrell, who threw 12 of last season’s 29 touchdowns to Davis.
It shouldn’t be a shock that Fitzgerald, the national defensive player of the year for Northwestern in 1995 and ’96, focuses on defense. The Wildcats ranked 13th in the nation in fewest yards allowed per game last year, and bring back stud linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.
As for the Broncos? They’ll need vast improvement on that side of the ball after allowing the third-most touchdowns from scrimmage and giving up an average of 413.7 yards per contest.
Edge in Special Teams
Darius Phillips averaged a MAC-best 26.4 yards on 30 kickoff returns as a freshman last season.
Jack Mitchell missed nine field goals and three extra points for Northwestern a season ago and has been inconsistent.
Advantage: Western Michigan
It’ll come down to whether or not Fitzgerald’s solid defensive core will be able to contain Fleck’s experienced offensive group.
Northwestern is 23-4 in non-conference home games under Fitzgerald. The Broncos have dropped their last three non-conference road contests by an average of 23.3 points.
Aside from that, Fleck is dealing with off-the-field issues after linebacker Ron George and fellow freshman Bryson White were arrested last weekend for allegedly robbing a woman. They have since been kicked off the team.
Northwestern vs. Western Michigan Prediction
The Wildcats do just enough defensively to pull out a victory.
Final Score: Northwestern 27, Western Michigan 21