Game Day: Nebraska vs. Indiana

Weathering the storm

Problems? Nebraska has a few as it starts the second half of its up-and-down season, and Scott Frost, still on the front part of a long journey back to the familiar port where Husker football dominates, has crags and storms to navigate.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Indiana rush defense

The Huskers shed running back Maurice Washington and will lean on those left: Dedrick Mills, Wan’Dale Robinson, Wyatt Mazour, Brody Belt and perhaps Rahmir Johnson, a speedy true freshman who hasn’t burned his redshirt yet. Between those five, Nebraska has to find a back who can pick and slide his way into and out of holes in the zone run game. The Huskers’ offensive line and tight ends will respond against an Indiana front that is tough to move between the hash marks but has weaknesses on the edges. Count on Nebraska coaches knowing that and exploiting it. If Adrian Martinez plays — and that’s up in the air— he’ll add a piece in the quarterback run game. If he doesn’t, come on down, Luke McCaffrey.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Indiana pass defense

There are issues on every unit of the Husker passing game, including quarterback, and it’s hard to see all those weaknesses getting stitched up in a bye week. A better run game should produce open play-action passes, but Washington’s absence and Robinson’s uncertain injury status create question marks. Indiana is pretty cocky in coverage and will try to stuff NU receivers at the line of scrimmage. Can the receivers beat press coverage? They didn’t against Ohio State. Expect pressure. Whether it’s Martinez or Noah Vedral throwing the ball — McCaffrey is likely more of a “Wild Caf” — Nebraska has to make the Hoosiers pay for their aggression.

Indiana rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Hoosiers run the ball as a complement to their pass game. They typically use one guy, bowling ball Stevie Scott, on zone runs out of the pistol and shotgun. Scott is a nice player — a big load — and catches the ball like a poor man’s Le’Veon Bell without the ballet moves. Nebraska would take him in a second. IU’s quarterback run game depends to some degree on whether Michael Penix is healthy enough to start. Penix — slight but quick — is averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Nebraska’s defense should find IU’s run game familiar — it’s similar to NU’s — and slow it down. If Nebraska’s front seven can’t do that, pack it up, IU is winning by double digits.

Indiana pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

IU’s pass game is better than Minnesota’s, which scared NU so much it left six players in the box. UM’s receivers were better individually, but Indiana’s scheme and flexibility of options have stressed every defense but Ohio State’s. Maryland tried press coverage, and Indiana threw over the top. NU can try that, too. Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle are better corners than Maryland’s, but the Huskers also have to generate some kind of pass rush with their front three plus one outside linebacker.

Special teams

Logan Justus has made all nine field goal attempts this season. Nebraska isn’t ready to greenlight the return of Barret Pickering. Would his presence change Indiana’s kick-blocking strategy or something? Is that why his status is a secret? It’s hard to count on NU’s kicking being much better. The Huskers’ return games are average, and kickoff coverage is middling to poor. They haven’t grown on special teams.

Intangibles

Chew on this: Since 2012, Indiana has played back-to-back road games nine times. The defense has allowed an average of 41.6 points per game in the back half of those doubleheaders and IU’s record is 3-6. These double-trouble road trips absolutely stink for defenses, and Nebraska needs to jump all over that. The chemistry for Indiana right now has to be good, but NU’s mood may be better than it’s been since before kickoff of the Ohio State game. Don’t discount Washington’s departure when considering that mood.

Key matchup: First down

Both sides of the ball. Who’s going to win first down? The Hoosiers are terrific, averaging 7.1 yards on first down. Nebraska averages 5.6. More concerning: NU is allowing 6.1 yards on first-down plays. The Huskers have to win that down or they’ll struggle to slow an IU offense that lives on first downs.

Our take

Nebraska’s season may turn on the outcome of a game against Indiana. Did you have that on the preseason Husker bingo card? Neither did we. But here it is: NU off a bye week, IU in its second straight road game. It sets up for the Huskers if they can run the ball and Martinez takes the field and makes two or three wow plays. IU’s defense has some decent numbers, but those were forged against some of the nation’s worst offenses — Rutgers, Connecticut and 0-8 FCS Eastern Illinois — so NU should be able to score. Indiana will put up some points, too. As the dust settles, it may come down to a drive or two late in the game. Which defense holds up? We’ll say Nebraska’s. Perhaps we’re being charitable. If IU wins, it may be the last time we are.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 31, INDIANA 27

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