The Northwestern Wildcats will look to extend their winning streak to three games as they visit the Rutgers Scarlet Knights this weekend. Kickoff is scheduled for noon EST on Saturday, October 20, at HighPoint.com Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. Fans will be able to watch the game on the Big Ten Network.
Based on the Week 8 college football odds, the Wildcats opened the week favored by 21.5 points. However, that line has dropped slowly with Northwestern now listed as 20.5-point favorites on the road.
Not long ago, Northwestern was in the midst of a three-game losing streak, including a puzzling home loss to Akron. However, the Wildcats appear to have come out of that slump. It started with a road upset of Michigan State and continued last week when Pat Fitzgerald’s team overcame a 10-point deficit late in the 4th quarter to beat Nebraska in overtime.
The Wildcats now sit at just 3-3 overall but 3-1 in Big Ten play. They are among four teams in the Big Ten West with just one conference loss. If they win this week, next week’s showdown with Wisconsin could have massive implications in the conference title race. On the other side of the coin, the Wildcats still need three wins to reach a bowl game. With three ranked teams still on their schedule, Northwestern has little room for error, so they must take care of business this week.
Rutgers, meanwhile, has a whole other set of problems. The Scarlet Knights may have the distinction of being the worst power conference team in the country. After beating Texas State in their season opener, the Scarlet Knights have lost six in a row, including blowout losses to the likes of Kansas and Buffalo that would have looked like winnable games at the start of the season.
Of those six losses, only one has come by single digits. Last week’s 34-7 loss to Maryland may have been rock bottom for Rutgers, as their quarterbacks completed just two passes on 17 attempts while throwing five interceptions. That was the second time this season the Scarlet Knights failed to accumulate at least 100 yards passing, showing how futile their offense can be at times.
Oddly enough, this will be the first time Northwestern and Rutgers have met since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014. The two schools haven’t met on the football field since 1991, a 22-18 win for the Scarlet Knights.
For the record, I don’t like the idea of picking Northwestern to cover three touchdowns. All of their wins have been close, and they’re more of a working-class team than one that wants to play with a little finesse. However, this pick is all about how terrible Rutgers has been this season. I’ll go against my instincts a little and lean toward Northwestern to cover.
As mentioned, the Scarlet Knights have rarely been able to keep games competitive this season. Other than their win over Texas State and a 24-17 loss to Indiana, Rutgers has lost all of their games by at least 21 points. Even if you take out their 48-point loss to Ohio State, the Scarlet Knights are losing by an average of 25 points over their last five games. When Kansas, Buffalo, and Illinois have all blown you out by three touchdowns or more, you have problems.
Rutgers is dead last nationally in scoring, averaging just over 14 points per game. Freshman quarterback Arthur Sitkowski has just three passing touchdowns to 15 interceptions. He’s completed less than 50% of his passes and averages less than five yards per pass attempt. The Rutgers rushing attack is somewhat viable but not nearly enough to make up for such a dreadful passing attack.
To be fair, the Northwestern defense isn’t exactly the gold standard. They’ve been average at best for most of the season, giving up around 26 points per game. But keep in mind they’ve played five of their six games against power conference teams, so they’ve faced some good competition. Based on that, I don’t think they’ll have much trouble shutting down the Rutgers offense.
However, the Northwestern offense does give me a little pause with regard to covering the spread. The Wildcats have been one of the worst teams in the country at running the ball. They’ve not found a replacement for running back Jeremy Larkin, who was forced to retire, and it’s made life a lot more difficult for quarterback Clayton Thorson.
That being said, the Scarlet Knights are yielding 36 points per game. Only Indiana and Texas State have failed to score at least 34 points against Rutgers. As long as Northwestern can hit that mark, they’ll have a good chance of covering the spread. With Thorson at quarterback, I think they can score 30-plus points, even without much of a running game.
Again, such a large spread is not ideal for this Northwestern team. But after beating Michigan State and Nebraska, they seem to be moving in the right direction. The Wildcats should be able to take advantage of Rutgers’ shortcomings and turn this game into a blowout. Ultimately, I’d rather take my chances with Northwestern covering than Rutgers actually keeping a game close.