Game Day: Nebraska vs. Northwestern

NU seeing NU

With all the close games over the last eight years, plus the beloved alums as head coaches and NU abbreviations, Nebraska and Northwestern have a lot more in common than Husker fans might realize — or care to admit.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Northwestern rush defense

Lost amid the blowout loss to Ohio State was the Huskers’ 184 rushing yards, including a long scramble from Adrian Martinez and 67 yards from Dedrick Mills. Anything over 150 yards in a game like this would be advantage Nebraska, and it’ll be tough for the Huskers to get there unless Martinez is heavily involved in the attack. Look for that to happen. Nebraska could use more of its I-formation and double wing material and attack Northwestern’s edges, forcing linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher to run laterally.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense

The Wildcats are gettable in the pass game. They’ll run zone quite a bit behind a four- or five-man pass rush, and they’ll probably allow some quick, rhythm passes for Martinez. It might be a nice tight end game for Jack Stoll and Austin Allen, who may need to get more involved if the Huskers can’t get one of its receivers not named JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson going. Robinson will likely spend some time in the backfield anyway. Isolating Maurice Washington on a safety or linebacker would be nice. So would protecting Martinez long enough to make that play work. The pass protection this season hasn’t been consistent or up to snuff.

Northwestern rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Wildcats stick, stick, stick to the run even when it doesn’t bear much fruit, flipping the switch to the pass game when needed in the fourth quarter. Northwestern’s run game isn’t bad, either, anchored by freshman running back Drake Anderson, who gets through a hole fast. You’ll watch Anderson and wonder how he went to Northwestern. Here’s the answer: His dad is Damien Anderson, who rushed for 2,000 yards on the 2000 Northwestern team that played Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. Drake’s pretty good — better than most backs in the Big Ten — and if the Wildcats can get their zone read game going, he’ll be a handful.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Northwestern throws more fourth quarter passes than any team in the Big Ten. The Wildcats procrastinate, in a sense. They’re not very good at passing and even if they get better, they’ll still be among the worst passing teams in college football. This is only a little bit on quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith, both of whom need to sense pressure and read defenses better. It’s a whole team issue, down to the receivers who don’t get open and the offensive line that gives up nearly three sacks per game. Nebraska has to attack, attack, attack Northwestern’s pass game.

Special teams

Can this category be a push in the name of futility? Nebraska’s special teams issues are well-known — no proven field goal kicker, no proven kickoff specialist, another season of peculiar play on the kickoff return. And Northwestern, well, it’s not cheap to go there, so populating special teams with key walk-ons can be an adventure. The Wildcats' punter, Daniel Kubiuk, ranks last in the league in yards per punt, and he’s allowed 11 returns, which tells you eventually some opponent will break one. Spielman may be that guy.

Intangibles

Northwestern always gets better as the season progresses. September is typically a messy month, and it was again with a 1-3 record, but the Wildcats tend to follow a well-worn path of struggles followed by surprising wins over more talented, seemingly superior teams. They don’t tend to beat themselves much — strategic conservatism is part of why — whereas Nebraska is more prone to bouts of self-destruction. The Huskers are more talented, but still fitting into their identity. Northwestern beat Nebraska in Memorial Stadium in 2011, 2015 and 2017. Only a Hail Mary kept the Wildcats from winning in 2013.

Key matchup: Northwestern’s third-down offense vs. Nebraska’s third-down defense

When the Huskers get offenses off the field quick, it fuels their offense. Nebraska’s offense is bound to blast sooner or later in a game, but it’s not quite efficient, so it needs more opportunities. That’s the gift Nebraska’s defense can give: More chances. Northwestern’s offense is converting just 33.82% of its third downs. One out of three. That should give the Huskers’ offense more chances at scoring.

Our take

Watch Big Ten football, over any period of time, and you'll notice Northwestern’s peculiar ability to win games it has no business winning, such as the 2018 game over the Huskers. The Wildcats scratch and scratch, waiting for opponents to itch and make a mistake. They often do. Northwestern’s success is often more a referendum and commentary on the opponent than Northwestern itself. That said — the Wildcats are really struggling on offense. They’re no better than Northern Illinois, which wasn’t any good at all against Nebraska. You put Northwestern and NIU on a field, and that’s a 13-3 Northwestern win. Nebraska has enough juice on offense to quiet the Wildcats in Lincoln. Northwestern is going to upset some team in league play. It won’t be the Huskers.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 27, NORTHWESTERN 17

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Game notes

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