- Time and date: Saturday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: Big Ten Network
- Location: Ryan Field — Evanston, IL
- Spread: Northwestern (-7)
- ESPN FPI: Northwestern has 64.4% chance to win
- All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 6-3
- Last meeting: Northwestern 16, Miami (OH) 6 — October 10, 2009
- Current streak: Northwestern, 2 (2006-09)
Setting the scene
A MAC team has defeated a Big Ten team in 15 consecutive seasons, excluding the 2020 pandemic-riddled campaign when both conferences played exclusively within their league for the regular season. That streak is in serious jeopardy as only two MAC vs. Big Ten showdowns remain this year. One is Central Michigan at No. 14 Penn State this Saturday. If the Chippewas are unable to pull off the upset, the final opportunity is Miami (OH) at Northwestern several hours later.
Miami presents the MAC’s best chance at continuing the streak, facing a Northwestern squad fresh off a stunning loss to an FCS squad. The RedHawks haven’t won a regular season non-conference game against FBS competition since 2011, but they’ll have a golden opportunity to end this trend under the lights at Ryan Field this Saturday night.
A win would give Miami its first Big Ten victory since 2003 when Ben Roethlisberger and the RedHawks stormed into the same venue to pulverize the Wildcats in 44-14 fashion.
Miami RedHawks outlook
Through three games under ninth-year head coach Chuck Martin, Miami fields a 1-2 record and remains in search of its first FBS victory since winning the Frisco Football Classic last December. Although it’s just getting started, the RedHawks 2022 season already suffered a devastating blow with roughly three minutes left in Week 1. Down 24 at Kentucky, things went from bad to worse as All-MAC quarterback Brett Gabbert went down with an injury which is set to hold him out for the foreseeable future.
Enter Aveon Smith, who came in relief of Gabbert without significant playing time. Smith emerged victorious in his first start, dishing in three touchdowns passes and displaying solid rushing capabilities in a 31-14 win over Robert Morris of the FCS. In his second career start, he was pitted up against a much more challenging opponent in Cincinnati and the Bearcats’ signature defense put copious amounts of pressure on the new quarterback. As a result, Smith completed just 9-of-21 passes for 116 yards, and he also tallied two touchdown strikes and an interception against the RedHawks’ cross-town rival.
As suggested by the two touchdowns, there were signs of promise early on in the Cincinnati game. He connected with his top wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer on a 36-yard reception to open the scoring effort on the afternoon, and Hippenhammer should remain the most frequented option heading into Saturday. The third-year RedHawk wideout is far and away Miami’s No. 1 receiver, accumulating 199 yards and three touchdowns on 15 receptions.
The next highest reception and receiving yard totals on the team are eight (wide receiver Jalen Walker) and 68 (tight end Nate Muersch), respectively. Walker and Muersch should continue to serve as viable secondary options to the likely All-MAC wideout in Hippenhammer to support Smith in the passing game. Additionally, tight end Jack Coldiron may play a bigger factor in his second game back from injury after recording a short touchdown reception in the first half against Cincinnati.
Miami surprisingly sits at 114th in the FBS passing offense after ranking 21st in the statistic a year ago, but Gabbert’s extended absence certainly limits that output. In a new-look offense, the rushing offense — albeit slightly — has been the relatively stronger unit with a 94th ranking in the FBS in yards per game. Miami employs a rotating stable of five halfbacks, but Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton were held out of the Cincinnati game and could be out longer, likely leaving Kevin Davis, Keyon Mozee, and Kenny Tracy to split carries in the backfield.
The RedHawks’ best player in 2022 has been Ryan McWood. The inside linebacker was limited to one appearance in 2021 due to suffering a season-ending injury in the opener, but McWood is picking up where he left off as the team’s premier run stopper. He averages over 10 tackles per game and has additionally picked up 1.5 tackles for loss, a share of a sack, and one of the defense’s four interceptions in an already-loaded stat-line.
McWood will have a tall task in containing Northwestern’s star running back Evan Hull this weekend, but he’ll receive some assistance from strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid Matthew Salopek. Salopek checks in at second on the unit in tackles and is the lone returning 2021 All-MAC selection to the defense. With those forces leading the charge, Miami exhibits the 12th strongest run defense in college football, holding opponents to an average below 76 yards.
The passing defense hasn’t been as commendable and stops were hard to come by against Cincinnati’s aerial attack. Still, John Saunders Jr. has done a solid job as the team’s No. 1 corner, deflecting three passes and forcing two turnovers in his first three games. Thanks to Saunders’ contributions, Miami’s defense has created routine turnover opportunities. The RedHawks were able to secure a 17-7 lead by forcing two first half fumbles against Cincinnati and cashing them in for 10 points. While opportune takeaways have benefited the team, going forward, they’ll need a more sustainable way of generating stops, especially when facing teams that will try to pick apart the pass defense as often as Northwestern.
Northwestern Wildcats outlook
Northwestern is essentially a random number generator of a football team and has been that way for several years. Look no further than 2018 when it lost to a 3-9 Akron squad in non-conference play and wound up 8-1 against Big Ten competition — winning the West division, defeating Utah in the Holiday Bowl, and finishing No. 21 in the AP Poll. Or in 2020 when it fell to a 2-5 Michigan State team that had been outscored 73-7 in its prior two games, but ended up in the Big Ten title game and No. 10 in the nation. That being said, this program hasn’t made games easy to predict in recent years, regardless of the level of opponent.
The Wildcats appeared to be on a promising trajectory after an 11-point second half comeback to defeat Nebraska in Ireland and a near 21-point comeback in Week 2 against Duke, but the entire tone of their season changed last Saturday. Northwestern dropped the easiest game on it schedule, 31-24, to Southern Illinois of the FCS due to a disastrous output in the turnover department. The Wildcats tossed two costly interceptions before halftime to keep their FCS foe in striking distance and then fumbled on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter when attempting to erase an alarming 7-point deficit, ultimately resulting in a demoralizing loss.
The week prior, a high-stakes fumble on the 1-yard line hampered Northwestern’s valiant comeback effort against Duke, so ball security is an essential point of emphasis the Wildcats need to improve going forward. Without extraordinary high turnover outputs, the Wildcats could be 3-0. Only four teams have committed more turnovers than Northwestern thus far, and all four have played a 4-game sample size.
Rampant turnover issue aside, it’s clear that Northwestern is moving the ball at a much more successful rate than it did in 2021. The Wildcats ranked 116th in the offensive production category a year ago by collecting 322 yards per game and that number has ballooned to 473 yards per game so far in 2022 — ranking 38th in the FBS. One reason for Northwestern’s offensive explosion is the premier play of running back Evan Hull.
In Week 1, Hull steadily drained Nebraska’s defense by posting 119 rushing yards and 55 receiving yards. The power back followed that up by accumulating 65 rushing yards and a career-high 213 receiving yards on 14 catches against Duke. Then last week, he added 124 and 33 to his loaded 2022 résumé. Hull is 24th in the FBS in rushing yardage and 19th in receiving yardage (first among all running backs), so his impact in both facets of the game cannot be understated.
One surprising element of Northwestern’s offense this year is the amount of times the unit has dropped back to pass. Pat Fitzgerald teams haven’t been known for proclivity to pass 47 times per game, but that’s where this team stands after three games — the same number of attempts per game as Mike Leach’s air raid offense at Mississippi State. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski typically targets his receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and has a tendency to zone in on the flats — hence, Hull’s impressive receiving numbers. Outside of Hilinski and Hull, other key contributors boosting the Wildcats offense are running back Cam Porter and wide receiver Malik Washington.
In the opener against Nebraska, Hilinski refrained from tossing an interception or taking a sack, but that lack of adversity didn’t last too long in the offense. The quarterback absorbed five sacks and tossed three picks in the last two weeks, preventing the Wildcats from breaking 24 points despite significant yardage outputs. With likely first round NFL Draft pick Peter Skoronski manning the left tackle spot, Northwestern hopes to fortify its quarterback protection going forward in order to replicate Hilinski’s efficient Week 1 showing in Ireland.
On the defensive side, Northwestern has displayed consistency, but not necessarily in an ideal fashion — allowing from 28 to 31 points in all three outings. Last week, the Wildcats snapped the trend of surrendering touchdowns on the opening drive, but the first quarter defensive dominance didn’t last long. Southern Illinois racked up 357 yards on the Wildcats including 261 through the air. Containing receivers has been the team’s greatest issue outside of turnovers thus far, checking in at 118th in the nation by allowing over 285 passing yards per game.
Preventing Miami’s star wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer from going off must be the key emphasis for Fitzgerald and his defensive staff in order to prevent a repeat of last week. Thus, they’ll need a stellar night from cornerback Cameron Mitchell, who has broken up three passes and logged an interception through a quarter of the regular season.
Northwestern has been involved in three close contests this year and Saturday might mark a fourth if Miami carries over its level of execution from the first half of the Cincinnati game. As evidence against the Bearcats, the RedHawks have answered the call as a rushing defense by stifling opponents to 2.6 yards per attempt, which could present problems for Evan Hull and the Northwestern offense.
Also, this game features a Wildcat team prone to committing turnovers against a RedHawk defense which has caused plenty of havoc via interceptions and forced fumbles. The biggest question heading into this game involves how much offense Aveon Smith and Miami can generate. Given the results in Northwestern’s passing defense through three games, wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer could be poised for a big day. But on the flip side, in order to pull this off, the RedHawks must experience more success within the pass defense this week because Ryan Hilinski is going to attempt to pick apart Miami in the short-to-medium throw game with a bevy of attempts.
If at least two of Miami’s aforementioned advantages come into play, Chuck Martin’s team can leave Ryan Field with a momentum-generating victory. In the event that transpires, the RedHawks can have the honors of extending the MAC’s streak of defeating Big Ten competition to 16 consecutive seasons.
Prediction: Miami (OH) 28, Northwestern 23