When: Sat. Nov. 4, 2017; 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT
Where: Lincoln, Neb.; Memorial Stadium (85,458)
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 7-3
Last Meeting: Nebraska won 24-13 (Sept. 24, 2016)
Line: Northwestern (-2)
The Northwestern Wildcats, at the end of the day, are right back where everyone thought they would be heading into Lincoln. The team at 5-3 and 3-2 in the Big Ten are in second place in the Big Ten West. Their losses to the Wisconsin Badgers and Penn State Nittany Lions have likely knocked the Wildcats out of the Big Ten title picture. But the team is still in line for a strong season and a likely bowl berth.
The debate among Northwestern fans is how to measure success. Can this program be disappointed with a solid bowl game — possibly the Citrus Bowl but more likely the Holiday Bowl or Foster Farms Bowl in California? Has this team reached that point where there is such a thing as a “bad bowl season?”
That narrative is quickly taking hold among Northwestern fans. This was supposed to be a year to compete for a Big Ten championship and aim for something bigger. Falling short of that before the end of October was surely disappointing. No matter how much Northwestern recovered.
This is a space Nebraska fans are more than comfortable in. The Cornhuskers themselves have continued to stumble and look very much like the 4-4 team they are. Losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State preceded last week’s come-from-behind victory at Purdue. But that will hardly placate fans. Nebraska fans demand much more and the team has failed to deliver.
The Cornhuskers run game has been unspectacular. Tanner Lee has had his moments of good and bad. The defense hardly resembles the Black Shirts of old — giving up 391.4 yards per game. This is a team that has struggled to find its identity. And that has the Nebraska faithful very restless.
The hounds are out for Mike Riley for sure. And it does not seem any result this season for Nebraska will spare him. At least to the hungry Cornhuskers’ fan. Another loss to the Wildcats? That will not sit particularly well. Especially with bowl eligibility on the line.
Nebraska has the passing attack and can explode offensively. But the Cornhuskers have not done so consistently throughout the year. And certainly not against some of the better opponents they have faced this year. It leaves Nebraska facing a tall order against Northwestern — even at home.
1 Burning Question: Who stops the pass?
By this point of the season, everyone is familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. There is a lot of tape on everyone at this point. And the statistics are fairly significant.
That could mean there are going to be some fireworks in Lincoln if these two teams go after each other’s biggest weaknesses.
Northwestern is giving up 270.8 yards per game through the air and gave up a Michigan State-record 445 passing yards to Brian Lewerke last week.
The Wildcats were supposed to have a strong secondary but injury has greatly reduced their ability to defend the pass. And teams have taken advantage, often targeting the Wildcats defense through the air.
Nebraska has been strong through the air, throwing for 221.4 yards per game. Nebraska’s Tanner Lee is throwing for 267.5 yards per game. About his only problem is his 10 picks to go against 15 touchdowns. He has had his accuracy issues and can succumb to pressure. But he has weapons to spread the ball around.
Northwestern knows that feeling.
Clayton Thorson has found his rhythm but is still susceptible to a turnover. He has nine picks against 10 touchdowns. But Thorson is in rhythm, throwing for 255.5 yards per game, including last week’s 356-yard performance in the win over Michigan State.
The Cornhuskers are giving up 221.4 yards per game through the air. That is not terrible, but they have given up some big passing games.
Both Northwestern and Nebraska have had their good games and bad games through the air. But it is not looking like anyone is going to stop the pass in this game. It will always be a weapon.
2 Key Stats
38.9: Staying on the passing theme, Northwestern would figure to be a big running team with Justin Jackson. Instead, they are a very pass-heavy team. Clayton Thorson is averaging 38.9 pass attempts per game this year, up from 36.8 per game last year. He has not thrown fewer than 35 attempts since the week three win over Bowling Green. Northwestern like to speed up the tempo so it makes sense there are a lot of pass opportunities. But the Wildcats have often struggled if Thorson has to throw a lot. Balance is key to this team.
975: Amazingly, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are not a running team. Through eight games, Nebraska has only 975 net rushing yards this season. Their leading rusher, Devine Ozigbo, has just 359 rushing yards. This is not your father’s Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have become fairly one dimensional this season. It is a big deal for Nebraska as the team has struggled to find its footing and protect Tanner Lee.
3 Key Players
–Joe Gaziano, Northwestern DE: The Northwestern Wildcats’ defensive line has been one of the most impressive turnarounds of any unit on the team. Gaziano has not been a big part of that, but he is a constant source of potential pressure off the edge, even if his statistics are not up there. Northwestern has totaled 16 sacks this year after a slow start. Nebraska’s offensive line has struggled there, giving up 12 so far this year. Gaziano will be key to generating pressure in this game.
–Stanley Morgan, Jr., Nebraska WR: Northwestern has struggled zeroing in on opposing wide receivers, giving up some big passing games. That should have Stanley Morgan licking his lips. He has 652 yards this year — 93.2 per game. The Wildcats will have a significant amount of attention on him, but with other weapons for Lee to throw to, it feels like a matter of time for Morgan to break free.
–Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB: Where Nebraska can become very one dimensional, Northwestern will always have balance so long as they are in the game. It is hard to talk about Northwestern for long without some mention of Justin Jackson. Jackson needs to pick himself up to get to 1,000 yards again at 644 yards rushing so far this year. But he is capable for a big game. And he gets stronger as the game goes on. If Northwestern has a lead, the team will be able to milk the game on Jackson’s back. And he has improved as a receiver this year, making several big plays in the passing game.