With their eyes set on moving up in the national rankings yet again, the 17th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats will play host to the Western Michigan Broncos in a non-conference bout at Ryan Field.
Western Michigan is 0-2 entering Saturday's contest after taking setbacks against Michigan State (26-13) and FCS foe Nicholls (27-23). WMU trailed by as many as 14 points against Nicholls but did manage to take a 23-21 lead in the third quarter before crumbling in the fourth.
Despite the absence of star running back Venric Mark, the Wildcats once again looked impressive in their second game. Northwestern took care of Syracuse, 48-27, and have now scored 40 or more points in each of their first two games. At No. 17 in the Top 25, Northwestern has matched its high-point from a year ago and is now threatening to attain its highest ranking since 2001.
Though both of these teams hail from the Midwest portion of the country, there has never been a matchup between them previously.
Getting consistently solid play at quarterback has not been a strength for the Broncos this season. Starter Tyler Van Tubbergen has completed less than 50 percent of his pass attempts (30-of-63) for just 327 yards and no touchdowns while being picked off four times. Van Tubbergen's struggles can be partially blamed on an injury sustained during the loss to Michigan State, after which he exhibited concussion-like symptoms. However he took every snap for the Broncos in the loss to Nicholls.
Improved play on the offensive line, which is largely made up of untested players could really help the Broncos' signal caller.
"Tyler got hit a lot. I thought we did a nice job establishing runs, and they made some adjustments. Our outside zone play was also really working, but Tyler is getting hit way too much," Head coach P.J. Fleck said. "We can sit and talk about how four out of five that have never played a football game but who cares? You have a job to do and you need to do it."
There has been little balance for the Broncos even with the passing game struggling. As a team the Broncos have compiled just 121 yards per game on the ground with Brian Fields (31 carries, 127 yards) and Dareyon Chance (26 carries, 132 yards) splitting carries.
Corey Davis has been the lone bright spot in the passing game and arguably the offense as a whole. Davis has caught a team-high 16 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. Davis has twice as many receptions as any other player on the team.
A week removed from holding Michigan State to under 300 yards of offense, the Broncos didn't have as much success against Nicholls. WMU let up 447 yards to the Colonels, while allowing them to score on 5-of-6 chances in the red zone. Pressuring the quarterback has been a real weakness with Johnnie Simon (15 tackles, sack) the only player with a quarterback takedown. Simon is one of five players to reach double-digit tackles already this season, with Kyle Lark's 19 stops leading the unit.
Nothing has seemed to slow down the Northwestern offense this year. Despite Mark missing the Syracuse game and Kain Colter getting slowed during the trip to California, the Wildcats have gone right on piling up the points and yards. Northwestern is posting 46 points and 544.5 yards per game, ranking third in the Big Ten in total offense.
Colter came back from suffering an injury that gave him concussion-like symptoms against California and looked just fine against the Orange. Colter completed 15-of-18 pass attempts for 116 yards and a touchdown in the game and also rushed for 87 yards and a score. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has been using a quarterback combination though as Trevor Siemian, who threw for 259 yards and three scores against Syracuse, has seen plenty of time on the field.
"Two weeks in and I'd like to think we're as balanced as anybody, "Fitzgerald said. :We've got two very dynamic quarterbacks; I've kind of been pounding the drum for years here talking about 1A and 1B, about two championship-level quarterbacks. I think they're really playing well in the framework of what we're doing and are complementing each other well."
Treyvon Green has been the reason that the absence of Mark has not caused the Wildcats' offense to fall off track. Green has rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns while filling in for Mark, while Mike Trumpy (16 carries, 63 yards) has filled in nicely as a backup. Both will likely still be leaned on against the Broncos with Mark's status for Saturday's game still up in the air.
As far as pass-catchers go, Tony Jones has been the most dangerous with 14 receptions for 255 yards and two scores for the Wildcats.
"It's back-to-back weeks that Tony has played at an elite level, an All Big Ten level," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to continue to find creative ways to move him around and make people account for (him)."
Where there is concern for Northwestern, especially once the Big Ten schedule begins, is on the defensive side. Thus far Northwestern has been able to out- gun the competition but giving up 491.5 yards of offense and 28.5 points per game, as the Wildcats currently are, is not a recipe for continued success.
Though they have not been a stout defensive squad the Wildcats have done a good job in disrupting opponents in the backfield. Northwestern is currently tied for fourth in the Big Ten with 13.0 tackles for loss. Tyler Scott has helped in that regard with a team-high in sacks (2.0) while Ibraheim Campbell (13 tackles, two INTs) and Collin Ellis (11 tackles, two INTs) have been dangerous in pass coverage.