If you're a newcomer to the Big Ten series featuring the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, you are likely in for a treat this Saturday. The margin of victory in the series has been in double digits only twice over the past eight contests. Statistically speaking, you’re probably going to see a game decided by seven points or fewer.
Yes, the Battle of NUs has been full of heartache. The teams have split their last eight meetings, with the past two games heading into overtime, both Northwestern wins. In fact, the Huskers haven’t won in Lincoln since 2013, and that game was decided on a last-second Hail Mary. Fun times.
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses with one, of course, admittedly far more embarrassing than the other. Northwestern hung around with Wisconsin but ultimately fell 24-15. Meanwhile, Nebraska was pummeled 48-7 by Ohio State in a game that few in the Cornhusker State will speak about again for a while unless paid to do so.
Northwestern at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -7.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Where to start when it comes to the Wildcats' putrid offense? They’re 77th in the nation in rushing (151.25 ypg), 121st in passing (141.5 ypg) and 128th in scoring (15.5 ppg).
Starting quarterback Hunter Johnson has an amazing stat line for all the wrong reasons. He's 43-of-89 with 367 passing yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions. The Wildcats' second option, Aidan Smith, isn't performing much better at 12-of-31 with 137 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
The ground game is tepid with running backs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser combining for 408 yards and three touchdowns (all of which are Anderson's).
Nebraska has no reason not to trot out the same Blackshirts it did versus Ohio State, although defensive lineman will miss this game after being suspended by the Big Ten for his actions last week against Ohio State. The Wildcats are not the Buckeyes. Despite this unit's deficiencies, it should be able to cause havoc and pressure whoever takes snaps into making costly mistakes.
However, if Ohio State did nothing else, it gave Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall a blueprint on how to exploit Nebraska's weaknesses. While that's a great start, the huge question is whether or not the talent he has can actually do that consistently.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
The Wildcats defense has been a point of pride. Led by linebacker Paddy Fisher, this bunch gives Northwestern a chance to win games that, given the offense, it has no business hanging around in.
Take last week, for example. When Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor puts up only 119 rushing yards and a single score, you're allowed to do a double-take.
After smashing then-No. 19 Michigan into the Madison dirt 35-14, the Badgers welcomed Northwestern, and the Wildcats wouldn't go down without a fight. In fact, if Wisconsin hadn't scored twice defensively, Northwestern might have won. How insane is that?
For Nebraska, no amount of coachspeak can immediately and completely put a 48-7 home loss behind a team. The Huskers need to come out confident, work efficiently and impose their will. The only problem is that Nebraska has turned the ball over an eye-popping 14 times. That’s tied for second worst in FBS.
With the 18th-best pass defense in the nation, you’d better believe the Wildcats will be happy to take their chances stuffing the Nebraska running game.
If Adrian Martinez is handing out interceptions like Halloween candy, why assume he's going to stop until he can prove you wrong? It should also be pointed out that Northwestern is tied for first place in the conference when it comes to picking off quarterbacks.
Nebraska has the talent to make this a good, old-fashioned "Get Right Game." But no matter how much skill the Huskers have on offense, if they can't get into a rhythm and doubt lingers from last week, Northwestern is in a great position to pounce on its inevitable opportunities.
That brings up another problem. If the Wildcats defense is in the right place at the right time, the offense may not need to score. Fisher and his crew may do the honors instead.
This should be another fascinating matchup between these two teams. It wouldn't be a shock if we saw the third straight overtime battle between them. Ultimately, it comes down to defense.
Nebraska is still struggling with snaps, Adrian Martinez still isn't in sync and blocking is hit or miss. Northwestern's offense is ... well, they try. It wouldn't be a shock to see defensive scoring on both sides decide this one as the Huskers' kicking game is still largely MIA and the Wildcats can't be trusted to put up points in the first place.
If the Huskers can get out of their funk and put a few scores on the board early to boost morale, there's probably not much Northwestern can do to pull off a win. Martinez is the biggest X-factor here. If he looks like he did against Illinois and keeps his run against Big Ten West teams going, the Huskers win comfortably.
If not, the Wildcats have a good chance of knocking Nebraska's confidence down even further (if possible) and serving Scott Frost a .500 record six games into 2019. Either way, the forecast looks ugly.