Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

A GAME OF RUNS? NOT TO THESE GUYS.

With Northwestern visiting Saturday for an 11 a.m. game at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 91 yards a game. Only two backs have finished a game with more than 100 yards against the Huskers, and in three games no opponent has exceeded 30.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

According to his handful of Internet critics, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf doesn't call enough running plays, but the Huskers have run the ball with pop and efficiency this season, as evidenced by 5.35 yards per carry on the ground. Nebraska has found a rhythm to its running back rotation of Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, Imani Cross and Andy Janovich. Northwestern's run defense gives up 4.24 yards per carry — 11th in the Big Ten. Michigan and Iowa proved teams can run right at Northwestern's front seven.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong played his most efficient game at Minnesota, completing 69.2 percent of his passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns. The Husker wide receiver corps is close to full strength with the return of De'Mornay Pierson-El. Northwestern's pass defense ranks second in the Big Ten in overall efficiency. The Wildcats are deadly in the red zone, where they've allowed just five completions and intercepted two passes. Nebraska needs its pass game to produce something, but Northwestern, with an experienced secondary, may be the toughest challenge yet.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

No team in the nation has faced fewer rush attempts per game than Nebraska, which should drop a major hint as to how Northwestern will fare. The Wildcats are most likely to stay committed to the run game — quarterback Clayton Thorson is a mediocre passer at best — but backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault are unlikely to get too untracked against a team bent on stopping the run with two defensive tackles — Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine — suited to do it.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Wildcats' fervent desire to prevent Thorson — who was benched in the Iowa game for backup Zack Oliver — means that Northwestern's pass game is limited and mostly a complement to the ground game. But Nebraska's pass defense hasn't bowed up against any other team this year, and Northwestern's collection of receivers — Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, Dan Vitale and Austin Carr are among them — are probably better than what Wisconsin and Minnesota put on the field against the Huskers. Both of those teams topped the 300-yard mark.

Special teams

This category almost always tends to favor the team with more depth and talent, which means that it will favor Nebraska. The Huskers' punt and kickoff coverage — aided by punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown — have been solid, but the return units have been inconsistent-to-awful, especially on kickoff returns. Northwestern kick returner Solomon Vault is dangerous. The Wildcats' punter, Hunter Niswander, gets good hangtime on his punts, often forcing returners into fair catches.

Intangibles

Which team is hungrier to win? Well, Northwestern, which is coming off of two humiliating losses. The Wildcats know why they lost so badly to Michigan and Iowa and are determined to reverse the trend. For whatever reason, Nebraska has been a hot-and-cold team — often in the same game — in 11 a.m. starts. The Husker crowd should be juiced for alternate uniforms. Of course, they didn't do Northwestern much good in 2012 and 2014, when the Wildcats wore them against the Huskers.

Key matchup: Northwestern's offensive line vs. Nebraska's defensive line

Of all the teams Nebraska will face, Northwestern is the least likely to take advantage of the Huskers' bad pass defense. The Wildcats have to run the ball well on first and second down or face the consequences. But if they do, Nebraska's defense could be in for a long day.

Our take

This game seems like a trap for Nebraska. The opponent is hungry and stingy against the pass. Nebraska has just won a game and is perhaps looking to build on that momentum. Further, there's a sense that Husker coaches are worried — perhaps too worried — about Northwestern's run defense in a way that makes you wonder if Nebraska will try to pass too much. But the Wildcats are not a hard bunch to figure out. Stop the run, force the pass, grind clock, go home with a win. We'll bet on Nebraska doing that — just barely.

Our prediction: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 20

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