It’s hard to believe, but it’s true, both Northwestern and Nebraska are still technically fighting for the Big Ten West Division title. Granted, both teams are 3-2 in conference play and would need a minor miracle to catch 5-0 Wisconsin, especially since they have both already lost to the Badgers.
Nonetheless, the Wildcats sit at 5-3 overall, one game from bowl eligibility, which would be their third straight trip to the postseason. The Cornhuskers are in serious trouble of missing out on the postseason with a 4-4 overall record.
Well let’s not jump off the cliff yet, there is plenty of football left to play here folks. But the Wildcats look to be a bit more of a charmed team, having won their last two games over Iowa and Michigan State in overtime. Nebraska had to rally from behind to beat Purdue, which the boys in Vegas tabbed as an “upset.”
These teams look pretty even on paper. We’ll see how they shake out on the field.
Northwestern at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Is there anything left in the Wildcat tank?
Man, could the Northwestern Wildcats use another bye week about now, or what? The last two games they have played were overtime white-knucklers that both turned out their way, beating Iowa 17-10 and then taking down Michigan State 39-31 in triple OT. While the Purple Crew and the Big Red seem to be pretty even in most measurements, the fatigue factor has to favor the Cornhuskers, who enter the game still needing two more wins to get to the post-season. The last two times Nebraska played at home it was taken to the woodshed by Wisconsin and Ohio State. With the Huskers’ offense clicking a bit better and the Wildcats being torched for 445 yard through the air vs. MSU, the home team needs this one more
2. Whoever is less “giving”
Both quarterbacks have a knack of being a little too generous when it comes to handouts (i.e., interceptions). Nebraska’s Tanner Lee has thrown 10 to the opposite uniform and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has thrown nine. But it’s hard to completely blame Thorson, he has been running for his life and been sacked a Big Ten-high 24 times this season. Lee is second in the conference with 268 passing yards per game, but has hit on just 56 percent of his throws. Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley said Lee is getting more comfortable with the offense and he’ll now face the second-worst pass defense in the conference this week. The Huskers must take advantage and stay out of long down-and-distance situations. Which brings us to the third point...
3. Crank up the ground game
Somewhere out there, I.M. Hipp, Jarvis Redwine, Mike Rozier and Roger Craig are hanging their heads. Nebraska’s running game is ranked No. 106 in the country, running for a measly 121 yards a game. Aye-yaye-yaye. Even Northwestern runs the ball better – though only slightly – gaining 128 yards a game, though Justin Jackson (right) is fifth in the conference averaging 81 rushing yards per game. Neither rushing attack strikes fear into their opponents but the Wildcats have a solid run defense, giving up just 118 yards per game on the ground. Nebraska’s offensive line is a far cry from the Husker Pipeline days and has actually been more of a weakness. It gets even worse with center Michael Decker and guard Tanner Farmer out for this game.
As mentioned above, these two teams are pretty similar on paper. None of their statistics really stand out as dominant. So this will be a huge game of momentum and energy. The Wildcats got beat pretty soundly in two of their three road games this year. And coming off of two draining overtime games, you have to wonder if their luck is going to hold up.
Tanner Lee has a trio of really talented receivers in Stanley Morgan Jr., J.D. Spielman and the dynamic De’Mornay Pierson-El (above, right), who all took a big step forward in the confidence department as the Big Red pulled off a big rally in a road game at Purdue. That and an energized Memorial Stadium crowd should help put the Cornhuskers in a good position to get a win. That is, of course, if they can stop the yo-yoing hot-and-cold style of play and not succumb to the occasional bonehead play. Which is, of course, a big if.
Prediction: Nebraska 28, Northwestern 24
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.