Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Calmer waters

The sun started peeking out around these parts Wednesday before a full blast of sunshine Thursday. And with it came something curious in advance of Nebraska’s Saturday morning game at Northwestern. A coach with a smile on his face despite an 0-5 record

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

The Huskers have twice bulldozed opponents on the ground — Purdue and Colorado — with a diverse run game that prioritized the backs. In losses to Michigan and Wisconsin, NU merely dipped its toe in the water with backs Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington. Northwestern, with its hard-nosed front four, may be the second-best run defense the Huskers have faced and will force them to decide if they want to commit to the run. Northwestern’s defensive line, anchored by Joe Gaziano, will gum up the middle of the field. Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are great coming downhill. Laterally, they’re not quite as good, so perhaps Washington and JD Spielman can make hay on sweeps or reverses.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

Nebraska sliced up Wisconsin’s defense for more than 400 passing yards. Northwestern’s secondary, healthier than the Badgers, has allowed opponents to complete 63.8 percent of passes for 7.3 yards per pop. Northwestern plays its share of zone, so Adrian Martinez will have to drop a few in between defenders. Nebraska should have the advantage in space, and Northwestern struggles to cover the whole width of the field. Martinez could eclipse 300 passing yards for a third-straight game.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Wildcats lost their best overall skill player when running back Jeremy Larkin retired in September due to a neck condition. His replacement, John Moten IV, doesn’t have the same speed or elusiveness, and Northwestern sports the Big Ten’s worst rushing offense with 2.36 yards per carry. The Wildcat linemen lack lateral movement and get beat easily on stunts and pressures. Even if Nebraska’s run defense has taken it on the chin in recent weeks — giving up at least five yards per carry in each of the last three games — the Huskers’ front seven should have a good week. Keyword: Should. Getting outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson back will help.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson faces Nebraska for the fourth time. He’s had success, especially as a runner. Thorson has completed 62.1 percent of his passes this year as the Wildcats almost solely rely on him and his receivers to score points. He can throw on the move and deliver dimes on sideline routes like fades and wheels. Northwestern’s top three receivers — Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green and Bennett Skowronek — aren’t burners, but they have good size, especially the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Green, who plays superback. Nebraska’s pass defense has been so-so all season due to cornerback depth and performance and diminishing returns on its pass rush. Thorson will throw the ball into traffic, so perhaps Nebraska can snag an interception for the first time since Michigan.

Special teams

It’s strange to write, but Northwestern’s special teams might be worse than Nebraska’s. The Wildcats’ net punting average is better than the Huskers, but that could change now that Nebraska has switched punters to Isaac Armstrong. Northwestern kicker Charlie Kuhbander has made 2 of 5 field goals. Northwestern is better at punt returns, kick returns and return coverage, so on second thought, Northwestern is better. But Nebraska could make it interesting.

Intangibles

It’s a weird phenomenon, but the road team has won six of the seven Nebraska-Northwestern games since 2011. The Wildcats are 2-3 this season — 2-0 on the road, 0-3 at home. Weird, isn’t it? Northwestern’s home-field advantage largely disappears when opposing fans pour into Ryan Field, as Husker fans have three times. Nebraska seems closer as a team and has more clarity on how it wants to play and win games. Northwestern has the senior quarterback and one of the Big Ten’s best coaches in Pat Fitzgerald. Tough call here until you consider Northwestern is the least-penalized team in the Big Ten while Nebraska is the most-penalized.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s skill players in space vs. Northwestern’s linebackers and defensive backs

It’s taken some time to figure out the trajectory of the Huskers’ offensive gameplan, but it would seem that Nebraska’s top pass-catchers — Spielman, Morgan and Washington — have a speed and quickness advantage over the Northwestern guys covering them. Since Nebraska tends to take a lot of momentum from the play of its offense, it’d seem likely that the Huskers’ chances are bound up in how well that trio, plus Martinez and Ozigbo, makes plays in space.

Our take

Several factors line up in predicting, for the first time in a month, that Nebraska will win a game. First, the Huskers are getting better on offense, and in a hurry. Second, the one thing Northwestern can’t seem to do — run the ball — is helpful to the Huskers’ defense, which should be able to force more punts and potentially more turnovers. Third, it just seems possible. Nebraska won’t have the pressure of playing at home but it’ll still have plenty of fans, and Northwestern has an odd way of peaking early in games before wearing down. Look for a tight game that results, at long last, in a Husker victory.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 31 NORTHWESTERN 27

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