When the Nebraska Cornhuskers meet the Northwestern Wildcats, you’re usually in for a treat. The unofficial Battle of NUs has featured a win by the visiting team in each of the past four seasons. This year, we find ourselves with two teams in a funk trying to scrape their way to a win.
Nebraska leads the series 7-4 with the first meeting taking place in 1902, a 12-0 Cornhusker victory in Lincoln. Scott Frost will coach against yet another school alum in former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, a disciple of former Colorado head coach Gary Barnett. The Wildcats’ head coach holds an 89-68 record over his 13-year career and has led the Pride of Evanston to two 10-win seasons in the past three years.
Who will walk away as the superior NU in this Big Ten battle? Let’s look at the tale of the tape.
Nebraska at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska’s passing game vs. the Northwestern secondary
While Nebraska didn’t beat the Wisconsin Badgers, the Huskers did show that switching up the offensive line appears to be a step in the right direction. Not only that, but the Big Red’s passing game was able to torch the Badgers’ secondary to the tune of 407 yards.
Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman and the rest of the receiving crew will have another chance to slice and dice through a secondary that gave up 329 yards through the air in a 29-19 win over Michigan State. Allowing 255 yards per game places the Wildcats pass defense at 103rd in the nation.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez has found his groove over the past two contests, going a combined 49-of-84 while throwing for 707 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Should the Huskers’ offensive front continue to jell, plenty of on-the-field fireworks appear to be in store.
2. Northwestern’s run game
The Wildcats did score a touchdown on the ground versus the Spartans but managed a total of only eight yards on 20 attempts. What’s more, they’ve cracked the 100-yard mark only once this season — versus Purdue in their season opener — and are averaging only 55 yards per game. Former running back Jeremy Larkin suddenly retired from football in September due to a neck injury, leaving the Wildcats with little experienced depth and lacking a true running threat.
Duke, Akron, Michigan and Michigan State have all held the Wildcats to progressively fewer yards as the year has gone on. Fitzgerald didn’t mince words following his team’s performance last Saturday. “We kind of suck at [rushing] right now. We’ll keep working at it, I promise you that. It’s amazing when you go from the all-time leading rusher to yuck.”
Indeed. However, if there’s an opportunity for the Wildcats to get their groove back, it’s against the nation’s 109th-ranked rushing defense, but without Larkin, will that matter? Nebraska has given up north of 140 yards in each of its last four games. However, Northwestern boasts the nation's 128th-best rushing attack.
3. Who wins the turnover battle
The Wisconsin game marked the first time this year Nebraska wasn’t on the short end of the turnover margin. In every game prior, the Huskers were at least one in the hole, giving them one of the worst marks in the nation. However, the Huskers’ positive trend may continue, considering that Northwestern ranks 116th in fumbles recovered (one in five games) and 65th in interceptions (four).
Martinez understandably makes freshman mistakes such as holding onto the ball a bit too long and attempting to force some longer passes. Fortunately, Morgan and Spielman are able to bail him out most of the time. However, if he can play nearly as well as he did versus the Badgers and the Huskers keep an even margin — if not end up on the plus side of things — that’ll swing momentum towards a win in a big way.
Ever since the initial spread came out for this game, it has quickly plummeted. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the number bump up slightly in favor of Northwestern as we get closer to kickoff considering where these teams currently sit; don’t let the records fool you. The Huskers have been practicing on grass that hasn’t been mowed for a while to simulate what they’ll encounter at Ryan Field as well.
This is a game between two teams that are trying to get right. Nebraska’s obviously scrambling to find itself, and both teams struggle to get out of their own way sometimes. As mentioned, since joining the Big Ten, the Huskers have never lost in Evanston. Of course, they’ve never started a season 0-6, either.
The biggest challenge for Nebraska will be winning the first half. The Huskers have been outscored 50-14 in the first stanza and trail by an average of 23-7 after two. Northwestern has started its games outscoring opponents by a combined 40-17 in the first quarter but trails 51-31 in the second, bringing the Wildcats' average halftime score to 14-14. If the Huskers can keep things tight through the first half, their opportunity to pounce arrives as the Wildcats have been outscored by a combined 74-26 in the final two quarters (a 14-5 average).
Since this is a standard 2018 Nebraska football game, penalties must be addressed. Nebraska is literally the worst team in the nation in this category, averaging over 10 per game and giving away nearly 100 yards. On the flip side, Northwestern is one of the most disciplined at sixth overall with 16 penalties all year, or just over three per game.
This ultimately comes down to who can move the sticks and how they do it. If the Huskers gift the Wildcats easy field position as they have every game thus far and offer the Northwestern passing attack (23rd in the country) multiple chances to strike for six, that could easily be the dagger.
However, should Nebraska take to the air and force a shootout, a one-dimensional Wildcats team has to contend with two major problems: a dynamic dual-threat quarterback coming into his own and the fact that they have one of the worst pass defenses in FBS.
The nod has to go to the more disciplined team, but the Huskers look ready to turn the corner at any time. Hold onto your seats. This should be a good one.
Prediction: Northwestern 28, Nebraska 27
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) plus keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts and stat-filled features on his Patreon page.