The Big Ten is having a rough 2012 campaign, and the news only got worse with the first release of the BCS standings. The conference failed to have a team inside of the top 25 and only one squad is ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. While the Big Ten has seemingly dealt with only bad news this year, the battle to win the conference title should be one of the nation’s most intriguing races. The Legends Division is a wide-open battle, with Michigan and Iowa undefeated at 2-0. Northwestern and Nebraska each have one loss, while Michigan State isn’t out of the mix at 1-2.
Considering how tight the battle is at the top of the Big Ten, Saturday’s matchup between Nebraska and Northwestern should be a crucial game to sort out the pecking order in the division. The Cornhuskers are coming off a bye week but lost 63-38 to Ohio State in its last appearance. Northwestern won 21-13 at Minnesota last week and is 10-2 in its last 12 regular season games.
These two teams have met only five times and once as Big Ten foes. Northwestern upset Nebraska 28-25 in Lincoln last year, which was its first victory over the Cornhuskers since 1931. The Cornhuskers claimed an easy victory in the 2000 Alamo Bowl against Northwestern and won the only matchup in Evanston (1931) between these two teams.
Storylines to watch in Nebraska vs. Northwestern
Can Nebraska stop Northwestern’s rushing attack?
Stopping the run has been a huge issue for the Cornhuskers this season. The off week should have allowed Bo Pelini and his defensive staff a chance to examine his team’s performance in the first half of the season and find a few answers. Will it make a difference? Nebraska’s defense is uncharacteristically ranked 91st nationally against the run and is giving up 27.7 points a game. Northwestern’s rushing attack ranks 18th nationally and has found a spark behind Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. Mark has 797 yards and eight scores through seven games, while Colter ranks second on the team with 421 yards. Considering Northwestern rushed for 207 yards last season, an improved Wildcats’ ground attack is a bad sign for Nebraska’s defense.
Can Trevor Siemian get back on track for Northwestern?
Siemian and Kain Colter form a dangerous one-two combination for the Wildcats at quarterback, and both will be expected to see significant snaps on Saturday. Northwestern’s offense seems to be at its best when Colter is used in an all-purpose role, while Siemian starts at quarterback. In last week’s win over Minnesota, Siemian completed only 1 of 7 throws for four yards. Although it’s just a one-game struggle, the sophomore is a key piece in the Northwestern attack and needs to be sharp on Saturday. However, Nebraska ranks 15th nationally against the pass and won’t give the Wildcats many easy opportunities through the air. The Cornhuskers are generating 3.5 sacks a game, so Northwestern’s quarterbacks (Siemian or Colter) needs to get rid of the ball quickly and on target.
Which Taylor Martinez will show up for Nebraska this weekend?
There’s no question Martinez is a much-improved passer. The junior is on pace to set a career-high in passing yards and is just two touchdown passes away breaking his total from last season (13). Despite his improvement, Martinez has struggled in Nebraska’s two losses. He tossed one interception and threw for 179 yards against UCLA, while throwing three picks on 25 attempts against Ohio State. Martinez is completing 72.2 percent of his throws at home but only 57.1 percent on the road. The Cornhuskers don’t need 300 passing yards from their junior quarterback, but he needs to be more efficient than he has in his career on the road. Northwestern’s secondary is allowing 270.9 yards per game, so the opportunities for big plays will be there. As Martinez goes, so goes Nebraska. Hitting some easy throws and allowing Martinez to make plays with his legs early on should help the junior ease into the game and erase some of the road demons.
Is Rex Burkhead 100 percent?
Rex Burkhead’s senior year hasn’t gone according to plan, as he suffered a knee injury in the opener and missed the next two contests. Burkhead reinjured his knee against Ohio State but is expected to play against Northwestern. However, it’s fair to wonder if Burkhead is at full strength or if he can handle 25-30 carries. Against the Buckeyes, the senior averaged 8.5 yards per carry and appeared to be close to 100 percent. Even if Burkhead isn’t at full strength, Nebraska has depth in the backfield. Ameer Abdullah leads the team with 514 yards and seven rushing scores, while averaging six yards per carry. Imani Cross and Braylon Heard are also capable of contributing, while quarterback Taylor Martinez is averaging five yards per carry this season. Even though Burkhead is ready to assume 20 carries, don’t be surprised if Abdullah gets a share of the touches.
This is a crucial game for positioning in the Big Ten Legends Division and there should be no shortage of points with two of the conference’s top offenses. Nebraska is also out for revenge after Northwestern won in Lincoln last season, but there’s also plenty of focus to get things pointed in the right direction after losing at Ohio State on Oct. 6
Both offenses should be able to move the ball, with a turnover or late defensive stop likely deciding this game.
Nebraska should be motivated after losing to Ohio State, and the Cornhuskers make a late defensive stand to win and remain alive for the Big Ten Legends Division title.
Final Prediction: Nebraska 34, Northwestern 31
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