We originally expected the Nebraska Cornhuskers to be halfway through an impressive early-season ringer having faced Ohio State and Wisconsin by now. Unfortunately, the Big Red (0-1) had to settle for a bye week instead of the Badgers because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Now, they face one of the few remaining undefeated Big Ten teams in the Northwestern Wildcats (2-0).
Nebraska leads the overall series 8-5. However, since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, this now-annual tilt has been decided by double digits only twice (both Husker wins in Evanston) making the winner rarely obvious. The past three years alone have seen final scores separated by a total of 13 points including last year's slog of a 13-10 Big Red win.
Every game the Huskers play is crucial considering a season shortened even further, but a win over this Northwestern team would be telling. The Big Red has often become sloppy when the going gets good during Scott Frost's tenure. With even a relatively clean 60 minutes of football and a win regardless of the score, Nebraska gains badly-needed confidence. A Wildcat victory makes Pat Fitzgerald's second Big Ten West division crown in three years a legitimate possibility.
Nebraska at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -4
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Expect two quarterbacks to take the field again as Adrian Martinez takes snaps more often than not with Luke McCaffrey subbing in at various spots. While Wan'Dale Robinson remains a key part of Matt Lubick's wide receiver corps, it's a mystery as to which others will join him and how often. Kade Warner is a sure bet as team captain, but this week may feature more of Alante Brown or the debut of Omar Manning.
Some shifting of personnel took place on the interior offensive line against Ohio State with left guards being shuffled and center Cameron Jurgens taking a rest. This is important to note as the Huskers need to fire on all cylinders for Dedrick Mills and Ronald Thompkins to rack up chunk plays on the ground.
Getting to the Northwestern defense, linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are absolute terrors to game plan around. One will be constantly spying Martinez and both play exceptionally well in coverage.
Safety Brandon Joseph broke out against Iowa last week and will be a pain when Nebraska attempts the deep ball unless Husker speedsters can get significant separation.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Peyton Ramsey has indeed given the Wildcat offense life. With Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams sitting out the first half due to targeting penalties, expect him to attack the Blackshirts' secondary early and often. Wide receivers Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan give him two major targets to irritate the Nebraska second and third levels with. Tight end John Raine could see extensive work as a play-action threat as well.
Running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson will give what appears to be an improved Nebraska defensive front a challenge but so, too, will Ramsey himself. This is where we see both how disciplined the Huskers' interior linebackers can be and just how effective guys like Ben Stille and Ty Robinson can be off the edge.
Obviously, how Taylor-Britt and Williams' replacements perform in the second half will be key here. Look for Myles Farmer and Quinton Newsome to get the opportunity to show how deep Travis Fisher's room truly runs.
It's tough to predict who's going to come out on top here as is tradition. Should Northwestern take the seemingly obvious path and spread out Nebraska's linebackers while bullying inexperienced defensive backs, the Wildcats may very well ride an early lead to victory. If Martinez, McCaffrey, and a fresh crew of receivers show the Wildcats speed they've yet to experience, the Huskers could easily find themselves on top in a hurry.
Regardless, if either team jumps out to a significant lead, expect this contest to be a marathon. Northwestern has momentum as of kickoff. But we don't know how much of the Nebraska offense we saw versus the Buckeyes will show up or how long it sticks around. It's no wonder the odds point to this being a relative toss-up.
However, when it comes to choosing between two teams that match up this well, it's good practice to go with the one that makes fewer mistakes. That holds especially true when these two teams meet. Nebraska has had more penalty yardage in every game during this series while Big Ten members. They've also lost every game when Northwestern wins the turnover battle.
With a plus-four turnover margin that only looks to grow as 2020 moves along, the Wildcats are the pick here.
Prediction: Northwestern 31, Nebraska 28
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)