After a campaign in which each squad won just a single Big Ten conference game, Rutgers and Northwestern will look to turn things around this season. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some predictions for this conference-schedule opener for both sides, where my pick is for under 39.5 points, and Northwestern to cover a 6.5 point spread.
Northwestern Vs. Rutgers Prediction & Pick
Last year, Northwestern got off to a great start with a win over Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland on National television. They came back to the United States, and proceeded to lose every single one of their remaining 11 contests, including home losses to MAC squad Miami of Ohio, and FCS Southern Illinois, who finished below .500 even in the lower subdivision.
To make matters worse, they lost previously highly-respected longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose 17th season in Evanston was his last after he was terminated due to a hazing scandal that happened under his regime. The Wildcats will now be led by interim hire David Braun, who is in his first season with the program after serving as FCS North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator for four seasons.
Rutgers also started the year off well, with a road cross-conference win at Boston College, and then two wins against smaller programs, before going winless the rest of the way outside of a tight home victory over Indiana. The Scarlet Knights had a very competent defense, but much like Northwestern, were unable to accomplish absolutely anything on the offensive end.
These were the two worst teams in the Big Ten last year, each finishing dead last in their division, and it doesn’t look like things will be particularly different this year, although snagging former Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to serve in the same role in Piscataway was a nice move for Rutgers. Neither team got particularly torn apart by the transfer portal, but other than new Northwestern QB Ben Bryant, formerly of Cincinnati, there weren’t too many enormous additions either.
The most definitive pick I’m prepared to make here is the under. Bryant is a good get for Northwestern, as is former Michigan wideout A.J. Henning, but they’re not transformative enough to turn around what was a completely useless offense a year ago. The same can be said on the Rutgers side, with Gavin Wimsatt back to lead the air game at QB after completing less than half of his passes a year ago, while the rushing offense was the nation’s 133rd-most explosive last season.
The spread is a pretty tough one, however. Northwestern is a truly dreadful team, but Rutgers is in no position to be covering 6.5 points against just about anyone, even at home. Although Rutgers has the edge in continuity, Northwestern probably had the more productive offseason, leading many models to pick the Wildcats to cover, or even pull off the outright upset. This isn’t one of my best of the week by any stretch, but I’m picking Northwestern to cover the entirely inappropriate spread, although even an extra half point to get the line to +7 would be very welcomed.
Northwestern Vs. Rutgers Odds
Rutgers is a pretty sizable home favorite here with a spread of 6.5, while both sides of the 39.5 total are set at -110.
Northwestern Vs. Rutgers Key Matchups
Ben Bryant vs. Rutgers Pass Defense
After putting up 21 touchdowns against 7 picks for a solid Cincy team last season, Bryant was a big prize for a program in the state in which Northwestern finds itself right now. PFF considered him the 16th-best passer in the nation last year, before a foot injury ended his campaign. It’s going to take a team effort for Rutgers to slow him down, especially the pass rush, as Northwestern’s o-line is actually fairly strong, and pressure really puts a damper on Bryant’s game. Of course the anchor of that line, Peter Skoronski, is now in the NFL, but it’s still a relative strength for the team
Rutgers was nearly top-40 in PFF’s grades for both pass rush and coverage last year, as they allowed just 153.9 passing yards per game on a completion percentage barely over 50%. Top corner Christian Braswell is off to the Jaguars, but edge rusher Aaron Lewis is back to lead the pass rush after garnering a PFF grade of over 90 in that area. Rutgers’ solid safety duo is gone, leaving cornerback Max Melton as the best remaining player from last year’s unit, although a handful of transfers could help out on the back end.
Rutgers O-Line vs. Northwestern Front Seven
Football games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and while Rutgers doesn’t have a particularly dominant run game, competing at the point of attack and controlling the football is their best path to picking up the win at home. The good news is that they bring back Hollin Pierce, whose overall grade of 63.4 was a team-best across the line, and his 73.6 pass blocking grade was easily the top score any Rutgers lineman earned in any area. The interior line is also intact from last year, headlined by center Ireland Brown, the only player in that group with an offense grade over 50, so everyone will look to improve together with some good continuity.
Northwestern lost star d-lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore to the NFL, but linebacker duo Greyson Metz and Bryce Gallagher are both back after a competent 2022. Xander Mueller will also be in that group, and needs to step up after a dreadful season a year ago. Edge player Sean McLaughlin was near the team’s best in both pass rush and run defense, and will look to improve further as a key piece in this year’s squad.