After the Nebraska Cornhuskers dropped last weekend's game to a Minnesota Golden Gophers team down 33 players, the Big Ten had a choice to make: Which narrative do we shoot for during Champions Week? Scott Frost versus Michigan State and Mel Tucker, who Frost fell to last season when he was the head coach at Colorado, or the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and his former quarterback?
Going with the latter was probably a pretty easy decision.
The series dates back to 1920 when Nebraska shut out Rutgers 28-0 at New York's Polo Grounds. The Cornhuskers lead the series 4-0 with the last meeting in 2017 resulting in a 27-17 victory in Lincoln.
How will this one play out? Let's break it down.
Nebraska at Rutgers
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 18 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Nebraska -5.5
When Nebraska Has the Ball
At this point, it's apparent what Scott Frost has in his offense. Adrian Martinez continues to lead the charge, occasionally giving way to Luke McCaffrey. There are deep-ball receiving threats in Wan'Dale Robinson and Zavier Betts but neither Martinez nor McCaffrey has shown the ability to connect regularly. Tight ends Austin Allen, Jack Stoll, and Travis Vokolek provide a few other short-distance options through the air.
The Cornhuskers' run game continues to lack consistency with Dedrick Mills getting limited carries while those behind him can't find creases. Robinson remains the Big Red's premier offensive talent regardless of position and per usual, he'll play several roles. The going only gets rougher for Nebraska as starting left tackle Brendan Jaimes — who has 40 career starts to his name — is moving on to prepare for the NFL draft.
Martinez, Robinson, and anyone else who shines can expect to see plenty of Rutgers linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg. The Scarlet Knights' entire defensive front isn't flashy but — like many of Nebraska's opponents — they play soundly enough and that's proven effective in stifling the Huskers' attack. Likewise, Rutgers' secondary isn't full of world-beaters but as Minnesota (and others) proved, they don't need to be.
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Maryland defensive lineman Ami Finau put the Scarlet Knights' quarterback situation in doubt as he twisted Noah Vedral's ankle in the third quarter of Rutgers' eventual overtime win last week. If he can't go, expect Artur Sitkowski, who went 14-of-21 throwing for 108 yards and a touchdown versus the Terrapins, to get the nod.
If Vedral is taking snaps, the intrigue factor jumps exponentially. Nebraska fans know him well. The former UCF quarterback transferred to play for Scott Frost and started twice following an injury to Adrian Martinez in 2019. With Martinez returning as a junior along with Luke McCaffrey and Logan Smothers waiting in the wings, Vedral found a home in Piscataway as head coach Greg Schiano gives reviving the Rutgers football program another go.
Vedral's 2020 stat line won't wow you. The Wahoo, Nebraska, native has connected on 63 percent of his passes for 1,183 yards, nine touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Vedral also provides a modest ground threat as the Scarlet Knights' second-leading rusher. But his stats should be thrown out the window in this scenario. He knows the defense he might go up against well.
Running back Isaih Pacheco (4.3 ypc) leads the way in the backfield while receivers Bo Melton, Aron Cruickshank, and Shameen Jones provide the Blackshirt secondary with as big a challenge as any they've seen. Tight end Jovani Haskins only has four catches on the season, but tight ends continue to see the potential for chunk plays against Nebraska.
For Nebraska, if there's a silver lining to Cam Taylor-Britt's controversial targeting call last week against the Golden Gophers, it happened during the first half. This means defensive coordinator Erik Chinander's best lockdown cornerback will be available.
The pupil vs. teacher storyline in Vedral versus Frost is a fun one, but as mentioned, we might not get to see it. Regardless, several quarterbacks who are good but not great (let alone backups) have gotten the job done against Nebraska this season.
On paper, there's not much either team does exceptionally well and both are prone to penalties ranking 101st (Rutgers) and 105th (Nebraska) nationally. As has become a frequent theme over this season and the two prior, if there's one thing the Huskers most certainly will do, it's make life difficult for themselves.
Even in their two wins, Nebraska didn't so much outplay Penn State and Purdue as the opponents were more frequently shooting themselves in the foot. Both Nebraska and Rutgers bring plenty of ammunition, but the Huskers have been opting to use it when least convenient. There's no reason to think that trend doesn't continue.
Also, Nebraska is 1-13 under Frost when losing the turnover battle. The Scarlet Knights sit at plus-two with the Huskers at minus-eight.
Prediction: Rutgers 27, Nebraska 17
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks