Scott Frost is trying to push Nebraska into a new era, but he still knows his program’s recent history well.
That’s why he called Saturday’s matchup with Northwestern (1-3, 0-2) the most important game of the season for his team, just as it is for the Wildcats.
“Looking at how this season’s played out, this is probably as important a game as there is all year for [Northwestern],” Frost said. “I just got done telling the guys I think it’s the same for us. I know they’re going to come in ready to play with where their season is. We have to be ready to play with where our season is. I expect it to be a physical game.”
For Northwestern, Nebraska presents the first chance to potentially rise up for air after facing three suffocating defenses in the first four games of the season. The Wildcats hung tough with Stanford, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but were unable to produce enough offense to win any of those games.
With matchups at home against No. 4 Ohio State and No. 14 Iowa looming after a bye week, upsetting Nebraska may be their best path to making a bowl game. For Nebraska, Saturday is a chance to avenge one of the most painful losses from last season and keep progress moving forward after taking a step back with a 48-7 loss against Ohio State last week.
“The thing you always respect about Northwestern [is] they play hard, they’re physical and they don’t make mistakes,” Frost said.
A win over the Wildcats would move the Huskers to 2-0 against divisional opponents this season, but history has shown that beating Northwestern at home is easier said than done.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Northwestern holds a 3-1 record at Memorial Stadium, as well as three wins in the past four meetings overall. The largest margin of victory in Lincoln was a seven-point overtime win in 2017 by the Wildcats. The other three meetings were decided by three points or less.
The Huskers nearly picked up their first win of the Frost era in week seven of last season, but let a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter turn into a 34-31 loss to the Wildcats in overtime. The win propelled Northwestern to win its final five conference games of the season and the Big Ten West Division.
Nebraska is hoping for similar momentum from Saturday’s game, but still has to face frontrunners Wisconsin and Iowa at home in November. Before the Huskers shift their focus to the bigger picture, they must solve their turnover problems, which have been debilitating to this point in the season.
Following a four-turnover showing at Illinois two weeks ago, sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez threw three interceptions in the first half against Ohio State. The turnovers led to an insurmountable 38-0 halftime deficit.
"We need to win the turnover battle, and that's a two-way street," Frost said. “I really think the key to the whole game is going to be turnovers. If you look back at last year’s game and everything that happened, if we just hadn’t given them a strip-sack-fumble on defense, we most likely would have won the game. That was the difference in the game.”
The Wildcats limited Martinez better than any other divisional opponent did last season, holding him to 251 total yards and one touchdown in the contest. Their own quarterback, Clayton Thorson, led them to a comeback win with 455 passing yards and three touchdowns.
However, Thorson graduated and quarterback play has been a significant problem for Northwestern this season. Senior starter TJ Green was injured in Northwestern’s season-opening loss at Stanford and is out for the remainder of the season.
Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson took over the starting job, but has struggled mightily. He has completed 48.3 percent of his passes for 367 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. He was knocked out of last Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin with a knee injury and is questionable for Saturday.
If Johnson is unable to play, junior quarterback Aiden Smith will get the start. Smith has seen playing time in each of Northwestern’s last two games. He has completed 12-31 passes for 137 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Whoever starts Saturday for the Wildcats will catch a break, as senior defensive lineman Khalil Davis was suspended by the conference on Wednesday for unsportsmanlike conduct in last Saturday’s game. Davis currently has 17 tackles and leads the team with three sacks.
“We don’t condone what he did on the field,” Frost said. “So I support and agree with the decision.”
Starting in his place will be junior Ben Stille, who started 11 of Nebraska’s 12 games in 2018.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 3 p.m. and can be viewed on FOX.