Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Switching is seldom old hat

Nebraska's Mike Riley and Illinois' Lovie Smith have each been in both the NFL and college, where daily coaching and mentoring of student-athletes differ from dealing with professional players.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

The Huskers have been hitting their stride deeper into games — capped by averaging 5.87 yards a carry in fourth quarters — and it happened again vs. Oregon. The downside is that Nebraska hasn’t been running the ball as effectively from the start, contributing to the first being its lowest-scoring quarter so far. Northwestern threw down a challenge last year when it held the Huskers to 82 rushing yards and dominated the line of scrimmage.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

Northwestern has some injury issues in the secondary to possibly deal with this week, which Tommy Armstrong and the Nebraska passing game can exploit. The Wildcats also have allowed their first three opponents to complete 65.9 percent of their throws, while not seeing the caliber of receivers and tight ends that the Huskers will bring to Evanston. Armstrong threw a pick six last year vs. Northwestern but has just one interception through three games.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Wildcats have one of the Big Ten’s best backs with Justin Jackson, but sub-par line play has kept them from maximizing his threat so far. Northwestern has had a 100-yard rusher four straight years against the Huskers, including last year when quarterback Clayton Thorson got there by killing them on two long scrambles. Nebraska needs to patch things back up after allowing Oregon to go for 336 last week, the most by a Husker opponent since the Wisconsin debacle in 2014.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Thorson already has been sacked 11 times in three games, and his completion percentage (49.0) is the worst among Big Ten starters. Nebraska is getting solid secondary play and already has seven interceptions. If the Huskers take away the Wildcat run game, this will lean even heavier into Nebraska’s favor.

Special teams

Nebraska got a huge boost last week with not only freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn having his best game but De’Mornay Pierson-El breaking his first big punt return of 2016. The Huskers also were good in kick and punt coverage to limit the explosiveness of Oregon. Northwestern has been decent just about everywhere but doesn’t have a sure-footed kicker like Drew Brown.

Intangibles

The first thing you take into consideration is Nebraska transitioning to the natural grass at Ryan Field, and how it might affect or neutralize the Husker speed. But Nebraska also will have plenty of red in the seats to nullify some of the Wildcats’ home edge. No telling if there is any lingering hangover from the Oregon win for Nebraska, but Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald have not backed down an inch from the Huskers since they joined the Big Ten.

Key matchup: Nebraska's O-line vs. Northwestern's front four

Nebraska assistant coach Mike Cavanaugh said the Wildcats did nothing exotic or fancy a year ago, just won battles up front (with help behind them in the box). The result was the Huskers averaging 2.2 yards per carry, their I-backs managing no run longer than 9 and Northwestern having nine tackles for losses. Some names change on the Northwestern side, but the mentality does not.

Our take

It comes down to scoring points, and Nebraska is doing it this season (43.3 a game) while Northwestern is not (17.3). The Wildcats’ hope would be to run the football and shorten the game, but their offensive line is hindering that right now. Unless Nebraska returns to its turnover woes of a year ago, its improved defense and current momentum should be enough to get a win to start Big Ten play.

Our prediction: Nebraska 28, Northwestern 13

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