Breaking it down: No. 17 Northwestern set to continue dominant defensive start
Who: Ball State vs. No. 17 Northwestern
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. CT
Where: Ryan Field, Northwestern
Spread: Northwestern -20
Matchup to watch: Anthony Walker vs. Riley Neal
The Ball State true freshman is making his first career start. If you haven’t heard, he’s a local kid who jump-started the offense last week against Eastern Michigan. Muncie is all aboard the Neal bandwagon. That’s all well and good. But he’s going up against arguably the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Walker. The Northwestern linebacker has been at the center of Pat Fitzgerald’s dominant defensive revival. Neal isn’t your typical 6-5 signal-caller. He can move, which means Walker might spying Neal. If Walker plays like he did last week in his 19-tackle effort against Duke, Neal will get quite acquainted with the Northwestern linebacker.
Thing I’m excited for: Northwestern’s two-headed rushing attack
To be clear, Justin Jackson is still the guy in Evanston. But Warren Long is carving himself out a role in the offense. We saw his breakaway speed when he broke a 55-yard touchdown run to add to the Northwestern lead at Duke. The Wildcats’ short-yardage back may be more than that, which would be important in preserving Jackson. Now, Jackson did out-touch Long 35-2, and Clayton Thorson runs enough to where carries might not come in bunches for Long. In a game that the Cats should jump out early, we should see Long get much more work than he got last week.
Number to remember: .140
That’s Northwestern’s defensive third-down conversion rate, which is currently the best in the country. For a group that isn’t loaded with household names, the Wildcats have done the basics as well as anybody. They don’t miss tackles. They don’t commit penalties — Northwestern has the fourth-fewest penalty yards in the country — either. On the flip side, Northwestern is 23rd in the country in offensive third-down conversion. They don’t always make the big flashy plays. Sure, the Wildcats have had a couple of non-offensive touchdowns, but this is a team that’s making its living by converting in key situations.
Prediction: Northwestern 28, Ball State 10
On paper, it’s a true freshman making his first career start against one of the best defenses in the country. I get that. But the word on the street is that Neal doesn’t function like a true freshman. He could make more plays than the oddsmakers think. Keep in mind, Northwestern has also has a freshman quarterback, and one who completed just 9-of-23 passes last week. Having said that, Ball State isn’t Duke. Jackson and Long fuel another comfortable Northwestern victory and the Wildcats keep moving up those polls.