Three Things To Watch in Northwestern's Opener

Joe SlowikCorrespondent ISeptember 2, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Kafka #13 of the Northwestern Wildcats rushes against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first quarter at the Hubert H.Humphrey Metrodome on November 1, 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

NU will open the season this Saturday at Ryan Field.

After a 9-4 season that ended with a trip to the Alamo Bowl, Northwestern fans are excited about the start of the new season and another potentially successful season.

They didn't exactly schedule a tough first game. Towson isn't even a good FCS team and the 'Cats should win convincingly.

However, there are still some things I will be watching for, things that could tell us what kind of year NU will have.

1) Mike Kafka's passing

We all saw what the new starting quarterback can do on the ground in 2008 against Minnesota; the big question now will be his production through the air.

While he had a higher quarterback rating than the departed C.J. Bacher last season, the team didn't exactly throw the ball all over the field when he was in the lineup. Kafka only had sixteen pass attempts against Minnesota and twenty seven against Ohio State, despite trailing for most of the game.

If NU can have a successful season throwing the ball, they could have a big year.

Kafka is dangerous on the run, and if teams stack the line trying to stop him the Cats have to be able to make them pay. If they can't, it could be a rough season offensively.

I don't expect Northwestern to throw the ball 40 times and rack up 300 yards passing in this game. However, I do want to see Kafka make some solid reads and throws, especially in third and long situations when the opponent expects the pass. His progress as a passer is a big key to their season.


2) The running backs

It appears that Stephen Simmons and Arby Fields are going to get the bulk of the chances early in the season. They will probably get a lot of work against an inferior opponent and we may see some other players before the game is over.

I really hope the backs have a strong game. The offensive line should be able to handle Towson's undersized line, leaving some big holes for them to run through.

It will be a bad sign for the season if NU's halfbacks struggle to consistently gain ground in this game. The rest of the teams on their schedule will be much tougher defensively and it will put far too much pressure on Kafka if they can't be productive.

We saw how much the offense suffered last season when Tyrell Sutton missed the last four games of the season. While I don't think they need their backs to be quite that explosive, they do need to consistently grind out yards on the ground. Their offense will be a lot more balanced and dangerous if teams have to respect the running game.


3) The health of the defensive line

I don't think we're going to be able to make any kind of meaningful observations about the defensive production from this game.

Towson is by far the weakest opponent the Cats will have faced in several years, so I wouldn't get too excited if they are in the backfield all day and force numerous turnovers.

The only thing I am anxious to see is the health of Corey Wootton, Vince Browne and Corbin Bryant. All of those players are returning from injury, and all of them will be extremely important to their defense. They will need to be 100 percent for the defense to reach their potential.

If they all are bursting off the line and seem to be able to change direction with ease, the team will be in good shape.

The play of the defensive line was a huge reason for their success last season and they have a chance to make just as much of an impact, even with the loss of John Gill inside.


These three things will likely determine the course of the season.

If the line is healthy and they get production from their backfield, they will probably be going to a New Year's Day Bowl.

If they don't, the Cats will likely have to win a lot of close games to qualify for a bowl game.