Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

A lot on the mind

An up-and-down season finds Nebraska at a pivotal point in the schedule. Coming out of a devastating loss at Minnesota, the Huskers face a team with its own roller-coaster campaign in the Northwestern Wildcats. Can Nebraska overcome key injuries, defensive breakdowns and distractions to get back on track? Husker linebacker Michael Rose can think of one way to put the questions to rest: "We just gotta go out there and make plays."

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

Nebraska strayed from its ground game last week, calling only about two dozen run plays, but I-back Ameer Abdullah still carried for 165 yards. Northwestern is going to be a little more susceptible up front than Minnesota — and who knows if they load the box as the Gophers did — but you have to wonder at least some about the Huskers’ absence of Spencer Long at right guard. Also take note of Northwestern holding Iowa to 3.3 yards a carry last week. Edge: Nebraska

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

NU barely went over 50 percent last week with the combination of some drops and missed throws by Taylor Martinez. It will try to get back in sync with Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg at quarterback, with Kellogg the more accurate thrower. Teams have thrown on Northwestern (59.2 percent, 245.8 yards per game) but the Wildcats do have a Big Ten-best 14 interceptions. Edge: Nebraska

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Hard to give the Huskers the defensive edge here after Minnesota became their fifth opponent to run for 195 yards or more (271, 5.0 per carry). The problem for Northwestern is that it again won’t have tailback Venric Mark, and the health of quarterback Kain Colter is a little iffy. Still, the Wildcats have had decent success running the football on NU the last two years. Edge: Northwestern

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Wildcats have cut back on the snaps taken by Trevor Siemian, and Siemian is a better passer than Colter. Northwestern also hasn’t protected very well with 28 sacks allowed, by far the most of any Big Ten team. Nebraska’s last three opponents have completed just 45.2 percent of their passes, but Minnesota needed only eight completions last week to rack up 159 yards on the Huskers. Edge: Nebraska

Special teams

Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in net punting (33.0 yards) and Nebraska is last in punt returns (4.0), so that might be an ugly standoff. The Wildcats have one of the league’s top kickers with Jeff Budzien, who has made 32 of 35 field goals the last two seasons, although Pat Smith connected on three last week for NU. The Huskers rank third in net punting (39.4), lead the league with 33 touchbacks on 51 kickoffs and probably have just a little more explosive capability on kickoff returns. Edge: Nebraska

Intangibles

Northwestern has no fear of the Huskers, beating them two years ago in Lincoln and leading them 28-16 last season before Nebraska rallied. You wonder about the psyche of both teams: Nebraska has a wounded feel to it after last week and Northwestern hasn’t won since Sept. 21. Injuries on offense have hurt both, but the Wildcats are just a little bit better with things such as penalties (fewer than five per game) and forced turnovers (18), and the Huskers are coming off a game where they failed to finish some key drives. Edge: Northwestern

Key matchup: Kain Colter vs. the Nebraska defense

Yeah, his ankle is hurting and the senior hasn’t put up the huge numbers this season, but the Nebraska defense — all levels of it — surely remembers what Colter did as a runner, passer and receiver two years ago. If he mostly sticks to quarterback Saturday, containing his run threat will be the highest priority for NU.

Nebraska wins if ...

Its struggling defense can take advantage of Northwestern already hurting offensively from some injuries and ineffective weeks.

Northwestern wins if ...

It can return to the offense that was clicking in September and maybe dial up some of that Kain Colter magic from 2011 in Lincoln.

Our take

Northwestern has been a vastly better team in November than October the last few seasons, a nod to head coach Pat Fitzgerald holding his teams together no matter the circumstances. Nebraska also showed it could finish strong when it was in a similar position a year ago and won its last six. It’s a little hard to tell which team might be poised to piece things back together Saturday, so we’ll say it stays close.

Our prediction: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 23

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Listen: BRT Podcast

In this week’s edition of "The Big Red Today Podcast," Jon Nyatawa and Sam McKewon analyze the fallout from Nebraska’s surprising loss to Minnesota. Why couldn’t NU stop the Gophers’ plan? And what will future opponents take from last week and use against the Huskers going forward? The staff writers also try to determine what Nebraska’s offensive strategy will be going forward. Click here »

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