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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Preview, predictions and prognostications

When: Sat., Oct. 24; noon ET
Where: Lincoln, NE; Memorial Stadium
TV: ESPN2
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 6-2
Last Meeting: Nebraska Win; 38-17 (2014)
Line: Nebraska -7.5

Until last year’s meeting, these two teams had played the most entertaining series of games for Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. Northwestern has only won the first of these meetings in 2011, but the Wildcats always keep it close and make things uncomfortable for whatever Nebraska wants to do on offense. Let’s count to five and see who wins the battle of the NU’s?

1 Burning Question: Can Northwestern’s defense turn things around like Nebraska did last weekend?

Two weeks ago, Northwestern had a defense rivaled only by Michigan in the national rankings for scoring and yardage surrendered. Then that Michigan team blew up for 38 points against the Wildcats, and a banged-up Iowa offense followed that with 40 points of their own against NU this past weekend. With the identity of this team now in crisis, it may not be the best week to take on a dynamic attack led by Tommy Armstrong.

However, that is the task at hand for Northwestern, and even worse, the game is in Lincoln. Northwestern needs a bounce back to avoid having the season start to swirl about the drain like it did two years ago following a high-profile loss to Ohio State. But can this team do it like Nebraska did last week? The competition is better than that Minnesota team Nebraska recovered against (and the Wildcats blew the Gophers out three weeks ago also), but I have a sneaking suspicion Northwestern will play better.

One factor that may help immensely is that the Northwestern offense shouldn’t be leaving the field so quickly against this porous Nebraska defense. Nebraska is giving up only 91 yards rushing per game, but 342 yards per game passing! That means Clayton Thorson should find his senior receivers much easier to find in gaps and openings this week than he has against stronger defenses in Iowa and Michigan. That takes the pressure off the defense to be perfect, and it should help that unit thrive once again.

That is, if the unit can stop Tommy Armstrong, which is easier said than done.

2 Key Stats

— Northwestern has 37.7 penalty yards per game, Nebraska has 74.6 penalty yards per game. Although it is stereotypical and presumptuous to say, the smart kids at Northwestern play with the discipline you would expect at such a program, while Nebraska is racking up about double the penalties and penalty yardage so far this season. In a game that looks to be close, every little advantage like this could make the difference. So if Nebraska does not clean up the unforced errors, Northwestern could pull the upset.

— Worst B1G Pass Offense (Northwestern, 141 yards per game) vs. Worst B1G Pass Defense (Nebraska, 342 yards per game). The Nebraska statistic was provided above to explain why Northwestern could bounce back on defense, e.g., thanks to help from the offense. But this passing offense with freshman QB Clayton Thorson has a long way to go in the learning department. One of these trends has to break on Saturday, but which one will it be?

3 Key Players

Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska QB — Armstrong accounts for more total offense per game than every other player except Nate Sudfeld, who has missed a game. His 1761 passing yards leads the conference, while his 244 yards net rushing is also the best mark for a quarterback in the Big Ten. This is a dynamic threat that Northwestern will need to contain, likely using a spy or some similar technique to react directly to Armstrong. That makes him a focal point of the more interesting battle between Nebraska’s solid offense and Northwestern’s maybe strong defense.

Solomon Vault, Northwestern KR — Last season Vault nearly led the league with 26.2 yards per kick return and one touchdown. That earned him the same job this year and his numbers have been similar, with 26.5 yards per return as well as another touchdown. In the series of close games these two teams have played, there’s usually been a couple crazy momentum-grabbing plays, typically by Northwestern whenever Nebraska appears poised to pull away. Vault would love to continue that trend to try and swing the game into the underdog’s favor, preferably with the second touchdown return of the season.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB — As impressive as Nebraska has been against the run statistically this year, it’s unclear that the Cornhuskers have played any teams with a running back as good as Jackson. He’s contributed 691 yards in 160 carries, and I expect Northwestern to give him a heavy workload at least until Nebraska cheats up enough to get potentially burned on the long pass. Either Jackson will prove his merit as one of the conference’s best running backs, or Nebraska will legitimize the defensive rushing statistics by the end of this game.

4 Bold Prognostications

Justin Jackson scores TWO touchdowns: This would be notable only because Jackson has completely struggled to find the end zone this season, with only one touchdown so far. I expect Nebraska to give up some points in this game, and probably by tough running game plays when the field gets compressed in the red zone. That should mean Jackson becomes an MVP of this game, at least if Northwestern were to pull the upset..

Anthony Walker has his best game of the season: Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker ranks highly in the conference with 9.5 tackles-for-loss and 54 tackles on the season. He should up this averages this week, as I expect the middle linebacker to be the spy assigned to figure out what Tommy Armstrong is doing so as to slow him down and perhaps sniff out some plays in the backfield. In that role, it’s easy to put up monster stats if played well, which is precisely what I expect from Walker in this game.

Nebraska gets stopped at least once in the red zone: The Wildcats comes into this game only allowing eight touchdowns in 21 total trips for opponents (with scores on 71.4 percent of red zone drives). Nebraska has been one of the better teams at cashing in, with 19 touchdowns in 30 redone appearances, along with a 90 percent score ratio. Paying inspired by the big loud opposing crowd and the need to turn things around, I expect Northwestern to generate at least one outright stop in the red zone for Nebraska. That could make all the difference if this game turns out to be close.

Nebraska still needs a 4th quarter comeback to win: Despite rolling last week against Minnesota, it’s hard to tell if Nebraska is a legitimate team, or just one with a favorable schedule at the right time. Last week aside, every fourth quarter has been wildly entertaining no matter who has the lead or by how much entering the final stanza during Nebraska’s games in 2015. This is one of those weeks like the Miami game where early struggles don’t get corrected fully until the fourth quarter, which is when Nebraska will take the lead for the first time. The question will be, can the Cornhuskers keep that late lead?

5 Staff Predictions (overall season record; record against the spread)

Andy: Nebraska 34-24 (61-14 overall; 33-41 ATS)
Dave: Nebraska 34-31 (61-14 overall; 40-33 ATS)
Greg: Nebraska 42-20 (55-20 overall; 43-30 ATS)
Matt: Northwestern 28-20 (59-16 overall; 45-28 ATS)
Phil: Nebraska 24-16 (16-6 overall; 8-11 ATS) *joined in Week 5

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there’s plenty of B1G running through his blood.

Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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