Landon Wirt, senior sports editor: Nebraska 28, Northwestern 20
With regards to Saturday’s matchup between Nebraska and Northwestern, I firmly believe that a couple of things are true.
The Huskers, on the whole, have a more talented roster than the Wildcats. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, senior wide receiver Samori Toure and any one of Nebraska’s running backs make up a more dynamic offensive trio than anything Northwestern’s offense possesses.
Nebraska is a more tested team than the Wildcats, even if the teams’ overall records don’t show it. Both schools have beaten a Football Championship Subdivision opponent and a school from the Mid-American Conference, but the Huskers took No. 17 Michigan State and No. 6 Oklahoma to the wire while Northwestern was blown out by those same Spartans and lost to Duke.
Still, despite the perceived advantages the Huskers have across the board, I have a hard time counting out Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s crew. Only two of 10 Nebraska-Northwestern matchups have been decided by more than a score since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, and I think the Wildcats have the pieces to keep the game competitive throughout.
Despite losing several pieces from a stout defensive unit that carried Northwestern to a Big Ten West division title in 2020, the Wildcats still have a quality linebacking corps led by fifth-year senior Chris Bergin. Sophomore safety Brandon Joseph is one of the best secondary defenders in college football, and appears to be rounding into form after snagging his first interception of the season against Ohio last Saturday.
Offensively, sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski is a proven starter at the collegiate level, and is more than capable of moving the offense if the Husker defense can successfully silence Northwestern sophomore running back Evan Hull. Nebraska’s defense has proven its mettle against a variety of different schemes, so the Blackshirts should be confident ahead of a matchup with the reigning Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week.
I think Northwestern has plenty of pieces to make Nebraska uncomfortable at times on Saturday, but the Huskers will emerge victorious. With the four-game stretch Nebraska has upcoming, every game is vital on the road to bowl game eligibility.
That road starts on Saturday with, what I think, is a wire-to-wire triumph that the Wildcats make close in the late stages of the game.
Martin Herz, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 14
This game won’t be like the previous three iterations of the Northwestern-Nebraska rivalry, which have all been decided on the final play. The Wildcats enter Saturday at 2-2, are already on their third quarterback and have completely folded in their two previous games against Power Five opponents.
Northwestern was down 21-0 to Duke in the first half, and although almost made a comeback, lost senior quarterback Andrew Marty in the process, who was leading that comeback. On top of losing a ton of production from last year and not being able to replace that production so far in 2021, the Wildcats’ offense doesn’t appear to be in good shape.
The one thing Northwestern has going for it is its defense, which returns Joseph and Bergin. The defense will remain sound and rarely beat themselves, making Nebraska’s offense life a little harder.
This should be a low-scoring game because the Wildcats, like Michigan State, can create havoc on the Huskers offensive line. Joseph and Bergin can make some plays here-and-there, but not consistently enough for the Wildcats to win. Even in last week’s loss to Michigan State, Martinez led drives down the field despite being pressured many times.
The fault is not all on the Huskers’ much-maligned offensive line as Martinez’s pocket awareness was iffy last weekend, but Nebraska has shown it can overcome pressures and sacks to create big plays. That ability, which was missing in 2020, shows the Huskers can work off-schedule and overcome some mistakes.
On Nebraska’s offense, the ability to hit big plays is usually what damages defenses that are much more technically sound than its opponent but lacks the athleticism to match-up with opposing offenses. This should be no different with Nebraska wide receivers like Toure, junior Omar Manning and freshman Zavier Betts are already well-established as deep threats and explosive playmakers.
On the other side, the Wildcats offense has more questions than answers and a swarming Blackshirt defense will make life miserable for Hilinski, Northwestern’s new starting quarterback. The secondary held up fine against Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler and then sophomore quarterback Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne, leading to the conclusion that Hilinski will struggle on Saturday.
Hilinski is a significant downgrade from those two quarterbacks. The Blackshirts, barring bad field position, should be consistently getting the Wildcats offensive drives to stall out. The Wildcats’ rush attack will be the focus but Nebraska’s defense ability to adapt to various offensive looks this season can help slow down the Wildcats’ ground attack.
The one thing holding back Nebraska is obviously special teams, who have turned into an unfortunate liability. If the Huskers hit their big plays and defense plays up to its 2021 standard, there should hopefully not be too much of a worry about a special teams breakdown this week.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 34 Northwestern 7
It’s easy to imagine the last few weeks have mostly been set up for a kind of titanic fall, or at the very least some notable disappointment. A few weeks of quite competent Husker football have been met with nothing to show for it beyond moral victories. So, either a narrow Nebraska win or a Northwestern victory seems to be on the cards.
That being said, this matchup is known for being odd and unpredictable, so let’s be optimistic.
The Wildcats have had a torrid start to the season, handily beaten by their classier opponents, while Nebraska have shown a propensity to good gameplanning (only on defense, though) along with a dynamic quarterback in Martinez.
Nebraska’s offensive line is woeful. The play of the unit has been mentioned in just about every prediction, review, recap and rumination available on the Huskers. But, with that being said, Northwestern’s defense is a little worse than the likes of Oklahoma and the Spartans, so that may give the Nebraska offense some sort of edge.
But that’s not really the point, to be honest. The thrust of what will win Nebraska its first Big Ten game this season is defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense, just as that same defense was the basis of Nebraska’s challenge to its ranked opponents over the last two weeks.
Chinander has proven himself to be an exceptional gameplanner, particularly in his ability to nullify the sharpest edges of the opponent’s game. That’s part of what makes his defense so dangerous — it doesn’t target weaknesses, but strengths.
Oklahoma’s dangerous air attack? Barely took off. The Spartans’ run game? Stopped.
Arguably the defense played worse against Illinois, a team without a distinct identity which Chinander could scheme against. While the Wildcats are perhaps just roundly a worse team overall, they are not a faceless one. Expect Chinander to work his magic again come Saturday.