Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Hold onto your seat

About the only thing Northwestern and Nebraska once shared in common was the “NU” acronym. Until 2011. And 2012. And 2013. The combined scores of those games? Huskers 81, Wildcats 80, Hail Mary 1. When Husker wideout Jordan Westerkamp caught that perfectly tipped pass for a memorable 27-24 win last year in Lincoln, Northwestern players collapsed as if they’d been hit by a tranquilizer dart. Yes, Nebraska fans don’t seem to do “rivalries” anymore. But this series, which renews Saturday at Ryan Field, is officially a thing. It is most definitely a thing.

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2-Minute Drill by By Jon Nyatawa

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

One would expect Northwestern to sell out to stop Ameer Abdullah, which won’t be easy against a guy motivated to bounce back from a 45-yard performance at Michigan State. Tommy Armstrong, averaging 7.0 yards per carry, should find open windows. The Wildcats have avoided giving up explosive gains on the ground in the series with Nebraska.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

Kenny Bell returning to the field will open things up vertically and side-to-side. He’s tied for the team lead with 35 targets from Armstrong, despite missing considerable time with a groin injury. Jordan Westerkamp may find mismatches against linebackers and safeties as well. Nick Van Hoose ranks sixth nationally in passes defended.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Nebraska’s defensive line has made it difficult for opponents to establish their ground game inside the tackles, holding teams to an average of 3.28 yards per carry on interior runs this year. The emergence of Trevor Roach has helped as well. Northwestern will try to run it, though. Justin Jackson is off to a strong start, averaging 83.7 yards per game.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Quarterback Trevor Siemian isn’t considered a run threat, so this could be a contest where the Huskers unveil a few of their complex blitz looks. Northwestern will try to neutralize that pass rush with quick throws short (only 15 of its completions have gone for 20 yards or more). Spreading the ball around should be part of the plan.

Special teams

Northwestern’s last in the Big Ten in net punting, averaging just 31.8 net yards per kick. But short punts, if executed well enough, may not be a bad idea against De’Mornay Pierson-El, who still leads the country in punt return yards (334). The Wildcats gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota, what ended up being a go-ahead score.

Intangibles

You wouldn’t think that Nebraska could overlook Northwestern — not after last year. But you probably assumed as much in 2013. And in 2012. Yet the Wildcats, in each game, have dictated tempo from the start, seizing control early and hanging around late. A large contingent of Husker fans made a difference in Evanston, Illinois, two years ago.

Key matchup: Northwestern tight end Dan Vitale vs. Nebraska's defense

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior is a tough cover for most of Northwestern’s opponents. He leads the team with 24 catches. The Huskers have made him an emphasis in the past, holding Vitale to a total of three catches the past two years. Assuming David Santos is fully healthy, he’ll likely draw the assignment. But he’ll have help.

Our take

The three games between the Huskers and Wildcats have been decided by a total of seven points. Why expect anything different this time around? Some may question Northwestern’s credentials this year — but Nebraska should have learned its lesson by now. The Huskers could easily be 0-3 in this series. It’ll be a grind, but Nebraska will survive.

Our prediction: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 20

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