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

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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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Huskers Football

Northwestern Wildcats vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

The Northwestern Wildcats try to extend their win streak to four games as they take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in an odd game of mirror images.

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Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Nebraska Cornhuskers

When: Sat. Nov. 4, 2017; 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT
Where: Lincoln, Neb.; Memorial Stadium (85,458)
TV: BTN
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Prediction: Northwestern 24, Nebraska 21

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Every Big Ten West division team’s biggest question following spring football

Spring camps are finished, what questions remain for teams in the Big Ten West division?

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Michigan has arrived back in Ann Arbor, meaning spring football is finally and officially done across the Big Ten. College football’s annual rite of passage is also done, and there is plenty of curiosity to go around.

That means it is time to take stock of where things sit heading in to the summer workout sessions and the season ahead. It is also the perfect time to really dive deep in to what we did and didn’t see this spring.

Let’s start with the Big Ten West division, which had two new head coaches and another head coach with his first real spring camp in the books. Minnesota got the P.J. Fleck era under way and Purdue welcomed Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offensive attack to the division. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Love Smith finally got to run a full spring practice without rushing things.

Which teams answered questions, which ones have big-time questions to answer this fall? Let us take a look at every Big Ten West division teams’ biggest question post-spring football.

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Every Big Ten West team’s biggest recruiting battle before national signing day

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It seems like only yesterday that a Big Ten team was hoisting the national championship trophy, but we’re actually inching closer to the biggest day of the offseason — national signing day.

That means recruits are taking last-minute visits, coaches are crisscrossing the country to visit players and offers are going out on a nearly daily basis. To say these next few weeks will be crazy is a bit of an understatement, however the Big Ten is in on some major battles nationally and regionally as we head down the homestretch of the 205 recruiting cycle.

That means every team is putting out maximum effort to get the guys they want to sign to actually sign and fax in national letter of intent on the first Wednesday in February.

It also means that battles are heating up all over the country. Which battles are the Big Ten involved in? Let’s start by looking at the biggest battles for the Big Ten West.

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