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, or it could stick to its spread roots — funny words to read, huh? — 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, who seems to need those to get going. 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 slight, quick freshman running back Drake Anderson, who gets through a hole fast. You’ll watch Anderson — who starred in the same Phoenix league where current Huskers Javin Wright and Noa Pola-Gates played — 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. It did in 2014 and 2018, too. The Wildcats procrastinate, in a sense. They’re not very good at passing — awful in 2019, displaying Rutgers-level futility — 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. The relatively conservative passing scheme — short crossers, lots of out patterns — contributes to the modesty. Nebraska has to attack, attack, attack Northwestern’s pass game. Feast. Blitz. Get the crowd juiced.
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.
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. How does a team that nearly lost at Illinois because of turnovers come out against Ohio State and have three turnovers in its first four drives? 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.