Drake Keeler, senior sports editor: Northwestern 23, Nebraska 20
The Big Ten West is a mess.
To be honest, it’s hard to get a read on any of these teams at this point. Two of the top three teams in the division from 2019, Iowa and Minnesota, are a combined 0-4 through two weeks.
All that is to say that Northwestern’s undefeated record hasn’t yet sold me on the Wildcats. Regardless, both the Huskers and Wildcats are better than they were last year. For Northwestern, this has been evidenced by a dominant win over Maryland and a comeback against Iowa. For Nebraska, it’s a bit more subjective given the only time we’ve seen the Huskers was against a top-three team in the country, but the offense seems to have taken a step forward.
The last three matchups between these teams signal that this contest will be close, but it’s unclear who has the advantage. The argument for the Huskers is strong. They beat the Wildcats last year on a last-second field goal while relying on a backup quarterback and emergency kicker.
Barring injury, Nebraska won’t be in that situation again. Between junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, sophomore receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, senior running back Dedrick Mills and junior wide receiver Omar Manning, the Huskers have enough weapons to do some damage to a stout Wildcat defense.
On the other hand, the Northwestern offense has been up-and-down. The Wildcats like to run the ball, regardless of how much success comes from it. Against Maryland, they had 53 carries and averaged 6.1 yards per rush. However, they ran it 60 times against Iowa and averaged 2.4 yards per carry. I’m guessing that number will land somewhere in the middle this week.
For me, the difference will be graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey. Ramsey played very well against the Blackshirt defense last year while at Indiana in the Hoosiers’ 38-31 victory. Keep in mind that Nebraska was only in a position to beat Northwestern last year due to a bad throw from then-junior Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith that fell right into the hands of then-Husker cornerback Lamar Jackson.
The Blackshirts will have two starting defensive backs out for the first half this week due to targeting penalties that carried over from the Ohio State game, meaning Ramsey has a better chance to get things going early.
I flipped back and forth for a while choosing this game, but I think Ramsey and the Northwestern defense will do just enough to get the win.
Landon Wirt, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24
I’m also not completely sold by Northwestern’s undefeated start.
Let’s quickly take a look at the Wildcats’ first two victories. Yes, Northwestern blew out Maryland 43-3 in week one. The Wildcats forced four Terrapin turnovers, but Maryland’s subsequent 45-point performance in its win over Minnesota shows me that its week-one dud can be attributed to the Terrapin offense not quite getting the kinks worked out yet.
Northwestern’s 17-point comeback against Iowa was impressive, but after rewatching last Saturday’s game, it appears that Iowa collapsed more than Northwestern won. The Hawkeyes moved the ball seemingly at will in the first half and capitalized on Wildcat mistakes. In the second half, Iowa sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras’ inexperience was on full display, tossing three interceptions as Iowa’s offense stalled.
All of this is to say that, even though we only have a one-game sample size, Nebraska is far and away the best offense that Northwestern has faced thus far. Martinez, and to a lesser extent McCaffrey, are more experienced than both quarterbacks that Northwestern has faced, and the Huskers boast a better set of skill position talent than the Terrapins and Hawkeyes.
This isn’t to say that Northwestern’s defense isn’t very good. The Wildcats are one of the better units in the Big Ten, and are led by senior linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin. On the offensive end, the Wildcats start Ramsey, who threw for a career-high 351 yards against the Huskers as Indiana’s quarterback last year.
Northwestern hasn’t asked Ramsey to do too much through two games, but he is mobile enough to extend plays against a Nebraska secondary that will be without senior safety Deontai Williams. Another key absentee is junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who will be out for a half due to outstanding targeting penalties.
Saturday’s game, like so many others between the Huskers and Wildcats, figures to come down to the wire. I’m backing the team with more time to prepare in what I believe will be a big road victory for head coach Scott Frost and the Huskers.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 30, Northwestern 14
I think a few factors break kindly for Nebraska assuming that the performance against Ohio State was not a mirage.
First, Northwestern’s offense is strongly predicated on the ground game. Against Maryland, for example, four of Northwestern’s touchdowns were scored on rushing attempts, three by running backs. Fast forward to Iowa, and every one of Northwestern’s touchdowns were scored by running backs.
Against Ohio State, Nebraska did very well stopping the run. While sophomore running back Master Teague III did score two touchdowns, it was on a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. Against Penn State a week later, Teague managed 4.8 yards per carry, and many expected the Penn State defensive line to be better than Nebraska’s. Junior quarterback Justin Fields is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, and even he only averaged about 3.6 yards per carry against the Nebraska defense.
If we project this against Northwestern, the Wildcats’ offense will be completely crippled and their lack of a significant air attack will mean the Blackshirts can frustrate them throughout the afternoon. 14 points, while low, makes sense if one assumes the Blackshirts can do on the ground against Northwestern what they did to Ohio State.
Also, Nebraska has the edge in the age-old “rest vs sharpness” debate due to having not played last week against Wisconsin. While team cohesion is relevant, I’m personally an advocate for rest ensuring positive results far more than any concept of match sharpness, and thus will give the edge to Nebraska here.
Northwestern’s secondary will be particularly concerning for my prediction. Over the last two games, the Wildcats forced six total interceptions from the Hawkeyes and Terrapins. This is part of the reason why Northwestern was able to overcome relatively poor offensive showings, due to the sheer volume of possessions the Wildcats were able to manufacture around enemy territory.
This is concerning, because for Nebraska to hit that 30 mark set out by the prediction, some dynamism must be included through the passing game. Despite having a relatively competent receiving core, generating big plays in the air is not the first strength of either of Nebraska’s quarterbacks. And furthermore, if Northwestern is able to force a number of turnovers from the Huskers, it may be able to outproduce its offensive ceiling.