Though not obvious to onlookers outside of the Big Ten West, Nebraska and Northwestern have developed a nice little rivalry since the Cornhuskers joined the nation's oldest conference back in 2011. Nebraska leads the series during that stretch 3-2. Four of those games were decided by three points or fewer and four of them were won by the visiting team.
The two will meet again Saturday night in Evanston in what should end up being a critical divisional matchup when we look back at the end of the season. The 2016 records of the teams can be tossed out of consideration when projecting the outcome of this one. Nebraska could easily be 2-1 right now, while Northwestern is three points away from being undefeated. Instead, the Huskers come in with the unblemished resume and the Wildcats are 1-2.
Nebraska at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: BTN
Spread: Nebraska -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clayton Thorson's Scrambling Ability
The Northwestern quarterback displayed decent mobility in 2015, rushing for nearly 400 yards. He's negative in that category through the first three games of the 2016 campaign, but that can be blamed on him holding the ball longer and taking more sacks (11 total this season). Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop nearly rushed for 100 yards against the Huskers last weekend, thanks largely to shoddy containment by Nebraska's ends and a concerted effort to limit any big plays in the passing game. Thorson has the ability to do the same sort of damage against Nebraska, although he has fewer weapons on offense for the Huskers to account for. If Nebraska decides to roll with a similar defensive philosophy it employed against the Ducks, Thorson has the ability to control the tempo on the ground and take some pressure off of Northwestern running back Justin Jackson to be the workhorse.
2. Nebraska's Passing Game
Mike Riley's Huskers had nearly a 60/40 run-to-pass ratio at Oregon. Devine Ozigbo set the tone carrying the ball between the tackles and was able to move the chains all day. Nebraska may need to go away from that approach — at least early on — if they want to take control of the football game. Pat Fitzgerald's defense — led by outstanding linebacker Anthony Walker — has been decent against the run this season and should be able to match up well in the front seven with Nebraska's single-back-oriented rushing attack out of the shotgun. The Huskers have a clear advantage in both talent and experience when they line up their receivers across from Northwestern's secondary. Look for some big plays downfield early to the likes of Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore to open up a Nebraska lead on the scoreboard and loosen up that Wildcat front seven on the field. If Tommy Armstrong can't find his receivers early and often, that could spell trouble.
3. Time of Possession
This isn't rocket science. Northwestern is 0-2 this season when losing the time of possession battle. Not surprisingly, Nebraska won the time of possession battle in all three of its contests and sits at 3-0. The easiest way to control and win the time of possession battle is with a solid rushing attack. Both teams have that. Nebraska's win over Oregon was a bit of an anomaly given that they gave up 336 yards on the ground in that game. Oregon tends to score quickly, so that negated the statistic altogether in that particular contest. Realistically, the difference in that game was the four failed two-point conversion attempts by Oregon. Northwestern and Nebraska are both teams with offenses built to sustain drives and control the clock to preserve the lead. If Northwestern can put together long drives and get points out of most of their possessions early, all bets are off.
Nebraska is the more talented team at nearly every position on the field in this game. That said, Northwestern has just enough pieces in the right places to make life difficult for the Huskers all night long. Look for Nebraska to come out with a balanced offensive attack early to keep the Wildcats guessing on defense. Even with linebacker Anthony Walker roaming the field for Pat Fitzgerald's bunch, Nebraska should not have a difficult time moving the ball and putting points on the board — both through the air and on the ground. When Nebraska goes on defense, look for defensive coordinator Mark Banker to draw up a scheme that keeps Clayton Thorson — a 50 percent passer — in the pocket. From there, look for the Husker secondary to pay extra attention to Northwestern wide receiver Austin Carr. The senior wideout has caught 18 of Thorson's 50 completions in 2016 and is far and away the favorite target. That will likely render the Wildcats one-dimensional on offense. As good as Justin Jackson is, he's not capable of beating Nebraska on his own.
Prediction: Nebraska 30, Northwestern 16
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.