Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Shouldering the load

As the Huskers lean on Tanner Lee’s rocket right arm heading into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game with Northwestern, coach Mike Riley sees the quarterback’s growth and perseverance. He appreciates it.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

Nebraska’s run game is less productive than it’s ever been in the Big Ten era, and 40 measly yards at Purdue did nothing to change that. Other than a few good moves from freshman Jaylin Bradley, NU’s power game was stopped in its tracks, and the Huskers only attempted one fruitless jet sweep. Northwestern, meanwhile, has shut down some pretty good rushing attacks and held five teams to fewer than 100 rushing this season. Nose tackle Tyler Lancaster is hard to move and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher looks like one of the Big Ten’s best middle linebackers with 75 tackles. Northwestern’s safeties and corners pursue and tackle well.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

The Wildcats like to rush four guys and play zone coverage behind them. It’s pretty smart and safe stuff, but Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee — off the 431-yard, two-touchdown gem at Purdue — should be able to hit some short, quick passes to receivers Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El outside the numbers. Then, if he gets some time, Northwestern has shown some vulnerability on longer crossing routes down the field. The Wildcats have one excellent pass rusher in sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano, whose bull rush is hard for tackles to handle. If Nebraska can block him, it should be in business between the 20-yard-lines with its passing game.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Nebraska’s defenders struggled to get off blocks and make tackles at Purdue, giving up 199 rushing yards in the process. It might have been the Huskers’ worst tackling performance of the season, and that’s saying something. Northwestern's Justin Jackson is one of many excellent Big Ten backs, and he’ll be tough to tackle in the open field. He’s easier to corral near the line of scrimmage before he gets a head of steam going. Northwestern’s offensive line, annually a weakness of the program, is again leaky. Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall tries to get creative with the run game, using read-option and speed-option looks; those may work against the Huskers.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Wildcats average 40.6 pass attempts per game, which says something about their run game; it also speaks to the confidence coach Pat Fitzgerald has in third-year starter Clayton Thorson, who manages Northwestern’s ball-control, short-passing offense well. Thorson doesn’t get much help from his offensive line — which has given up 24 sacks — but his diverse group of receiving targets (slot Flynn Nagel, wideout Bennett Skowronek, tight end Cameron Green and superback Garrett Dickerson) can create mismatch problems. Nebraska’s pass defense could have been burned a lot worse at Purdue if PU receivers hadn’t dropped several long passes. NU’s secondary has health and performance issues — four corners and four safeties played at Purdue — but Nebraska’s pass rush should get after Thorson. Watch Thorson’s scrambling, though; it gives defenses fits. He’s especially good right up the middle of the field.

Special teams

Northwestern’s special teams was a bona fide grease fire just a few years ago, but it’s much better this season — competitive, even. Wildcat punter Hunter Niswander (6-foot-5, 243 pounds) is even bigger than Nebraska’s Caleb Lightbourn (6-3, 235), and both have made big strides this season. Nebraska has the better returners in De’Mornay Pierson-El and JD Spielman, and the better kicker in Drew Brown.

Intangibles

Northwestern loves playing on the road and loves playing at Nebraska, where only a Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary prevented the Wildcats from being 3-0 in Memorial Stadium in the Big Ten era. But the Wildcats also come off two straight home overtime wins against physical teams — Iowa and Michigan State — that may take some of the wind out of their sails. Nebraska coach Mike Riley is fighting for his job, and players want to fight for him. NU gets a rare — for this season anyway — mid-afternoon start.

Key matchup: Northwestern’s red-zone offense vs. Nebraska’s red-zone defense

The Wildcats have the Big Ten’s most efficient red-zone attack, scoring on 93.75 percent of their trips. They’ve scored touchdowns on 75 percent of those trips. Nebraska’s red-zone defense, the baby of Bob Diaco’s defensive philosophy, has been so-so and struggled at Purdue. The Husker home crowd should help.

Our take

If Northwestern’s offensive line and running game were better, it’d be hard to pick against the Wildcats. But there are just enough scuff spots on the armor for Nebraska’s defense — bedraggled as it has been in recent weeks — to make something happen. If the Huskers can nab a turnover or two and cobble out 80 to 90 rushing yards, they can steal a win over the better team. Tanner Lee is not likely to back down from any challenge at this point.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 23, NORTHWESTERN 21

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Game notes

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