As we put the thrilling Oregon game in the rear view, the Northwestern Wildcats come into the windshield. If history is any indication, this will be a fun game. Since joining the Big 10 in 2011, the Husker/Wildcat games have been incredibly close. Take out the second half drubbing of 2014, and the rest of the contests have been decided by three points or less. In five games, the home team has won just once (the Hail Mary game in 2013). This year’s Northwestern squad is 1-2 with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State by a combined total of three points. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is always tough on defense. But this offense, led by sophomore QB Clayton Thorson, has not been good. Despite having a terrific RB in Justin Jackson, the Cats are 118th in rushing yards per game with 98.3. They only put up 17 points per game despite playing an FCS team, a MAC team and a basketball school out of the ACC. ALl that may not matter. You can throw out the trends and record books when these two get together. I expect a Northwestern team that will be ready for a brawl. NU had better buckle their chin strap for this one. The Huskers will need to focus and give their best effort to walk out of the windy city with a W. Here are a few things to look for.
*Focus Focus Focus- Too often in college sports there is a tendency to overlook an opponent. This is especially true when a team is coming off a big win. Nebraska must put the Oregon game behind them and focus on Northwestern. The nice words from around the country and top 20 ranking are terrific, but they are meaningless if you blow this one. Coach Riley and company are saying all the right things this week. We will see if Northwestern really has their full attention.
*Zone Read Defense-Oregon gave NU fits with their zone read game last Saturday. The Husker defense really had no answer for it all day long. That’s not surprising considering Oregon’s personnel. Dakota Prukop and that stable of speedy backs will cause their fair share of heartburn this fall. Rest assured, Northwestern saw that tape and will attempt to have similar success. Unlike Oregon, if it is working, they will stick with it. Clayton Thorson is not nearly as slippery of a runner as Dakota Prukop, but he torched the Huskers last year to the tune of 126 yards. Justin Jackson is a terrific RB, particularly when he gets some space. I expect the Cats to go to the zone read early and often and to stick with it if they find success.
*Pass Rush– The Nebraska front four was significantly better against the pass last week compared to the Wyoming game. While this group didn’t record a sack on a four man rush, they also didn’t let Dakota Prukop get comfortable. Let’s hope for a similar improvement this week. Last week against Duke, Northwestern allowed five sacks. I expect similar productivity from the Blackshirts. While getting pressure and sacks with the blitz is great, its not ideal. I would like to see this front four wreak havoc in the pass game. This week is a real opportunity to make an enormous difference in the game.
*Beleaguered Northwestern Secondary– The Cats will be without three of their top four cornerbacks and a starting safety. That kind of bad luck in the defensive backfield should have Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley salivating. Covering these Nebraska wideouts is a chore with all of your top personnel available. Without it, the Big Red are at a substantial advantage. Then again, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore are both questionable for the game. Look for Stanley Morgan and Jordan Westerkamp to have big games. This would be a great time to get Demornay Pierson-El going. Lets not forget Cethan Carter. The options are many for the Husker squad. Northwestern does not have that luxury.
*Prediction– A close game early, Nebraska breaks out in the 2nd half. 31-10.