Game Day: Nebraska vs. Rutgers

Signs of life

A clean bill of health for Nebraska's defense will be vital for a win against Rutgers on Saturday. home against Iowa. “We’re still not totally there, but we’re close,” coach Mike Riley said this week. “Now we’re still on the edge with a couple guys after this last game of being healthy, but we certainly are in better shape and, yes, I think it does make a difference.”

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Rutgers rush defense

Nebraska's run offense has been inconsistent for the entire season, producing surprisingly good numbers against Wisconsin (196 yards) and Michigan State (179), while bottoming out against Northwestern (82) and the worst rush defense in the Big Ten, Purdue (77 yards). NU's lack of consistency can be traced back to average line play, an inability for one back — be it Terrell Newby or Imani Cross — to really own the starting job and a diminished focus on quarterback Tommy Armstrong's wheels. Rutgers defense allows 4.51 yards per rush, sandwiched in between Northwestern and Purdue. Because the Scarlet Knights like to stunt and junk it up a lot, NU will have to communicate well.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense

Rutgers is an overmatched team when it comes to pass defense. How overmatched? It has a lower pass efficiency rating than Nebraska's pass defense. So there you go. The Scarlet Knights have only notched 11 sacks this year, may start three freshman in the secondary and have given up nine yards per pass attempt this season. In the Big Ten, this number balloons to 10.1 yards. No Power Five team has been north of ten yards allowed per pass since 2012. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong and his wideouts are a little beat up, but also hitting their stride.

Rutgers rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Rutgers makes a concerted effort to run the ball, averaging 38 carries per game and a serviceable 4.38 yards per carry. Nebraska makes a more concerted effort, however, to stop the run, which serves the Huskers well. Nebraska's front seven is perhaps healthier than it has been at any time since the season opener.

Rutgers pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

When healthy or not suspended, Leonte Carroo is probably the best wideout in the Big Ten. He has 24 catches in five games — with nine touchdowns. He's a big play guy. He's also missed the last two-and-a-half games because of a high ankle sprain. He's scheduled to return to play against Nebraska, but it's hard to tell how close he'll be to 100 percent. Nebraska's pass defense hasn't stopped anybody in the Big Ten. Not when it counted, and not when the opponent actually tried to pass. Rutgers may have a mediocre quarterback in Chris Laviano, but he'll have some success against Nebraska. Every other quarterback does.

Special teams

If Drew Brown (on kickoffs) and Sam Foltz (on punts) can keep the ball away from the nation's best kick returner, Janarion Grant, then Nebraska should be fine. But Grant has four return touchdowns for a reason. Count on him breaking at least one against the Huskers. NU's own return game is getting better thanks to kick returner Stanley Morgan, but Grant is the real X factor.

Intangibles

Rutgers has to win out to make a bowl — Nebraska, in theory, only has to win five to have a good shot — and Nebraska is the key game in the final stretch. Beat the Huskers, and beating Army and Maryland look pretty easy. Rutgers clearly didn't want to risk Carroo for road games at Wisconsin and Michigan, so the Scarlet Knights have circled this game. Nebraska circled Michigan State and won it. Now the Huskers will be right back where they were against Illinois and Purdue. NU flunked both those tests. There's no particular reason to think they'll learn their motivation lesson at Rutgers.

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

The Huskers pushed Rutgers all over the field last year, racking up 7.12 yards per carry. The Scarlet Knights are ground down to bits by three punishing games in a row. NU needs to come out, establish the ground game and make Rutgers want to quit. It's questionable, however, whether this bunch is capable of that.

Our take

Just like Northwestern and Purdue were traps for Nebraska, so, too, is Rutgers. The Huskers have to manage their emotions and expectations the right way. If they do, they'll be fine, because they'll wear down Rutgers with superior talent and depth. If they get complacent or lazy, they'll lose, blunting all of the good energy they gained from the Michigan State game. We're in a charitable mood.

Our prediction: Nebraska 35, Rutgers 31

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Game notes

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