It’s no secret where Saturday’s game will be won when Nebraska and Northwestern square off: the trenches.
Northwestern aims to impose its will on the defensive side of the ball, where it silences a team’s running attack and forces the opposing quarterback to beat it by completing passes. On the offensive side of the ball, Northwestern relies on a host of running backs to tire out opposing defenses. This allows the team to not ask too much of graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
The Wildcats’ blueprint for slowing down Big Ten opponents has worked to perfection thus far this season, as head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team finds themselves 2-0 after defeating Iowa and Maryland in their first two games. Additionally, Northwestern holds the No. 1 rushing offense, No. 1 rushing defense and No. 1 passing defense among Big Ten teams that have played two games.
There’s no real secret to beating Northwestern, according to head coach Scott Frost. He said at a Thursday press conference that the Wildcats are a sound team, and that the Huskers have to limit their mistakes if they want to leave Evanston, Illinois, victorious.
“You've got to account for [Northwestern’s] good players, good scheme and good coaching … [Northwestern] doesn’t give up anything easy,” Frost said. “We just have to execute well, we have to block, tackle, run routes, get open, cover and try to limit mistakes because they will probably limit theirs.”
Iowa capitalized on Northwestern’s mistakes last Saturday en-route to building a 17-0 first-quarter lead. The Wildcats muffed a punt, lost a fumble and committed three critical penalties. Northwestern’s defense responded in a big way, cutting the Hawkeye lead to 20-14 at halftime and shutting Iowa out in the second half to secure a 21-20 victory.
While the Wildcats enter Saturday’s contest on a tear, Nebraska enters it extremely well-rested. The Huskers’ home opener against Wisconsin was the first Big Ten game canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, as the Badgers are dealing with a program-wide outbreak. Frost conceded that it’s just another quirk in an unusual season, but also said that his team is as prepared as it can be.
“We need to play, it's hard to get better as a football team if you're not on the field playing,” Frost said. “We're in November and we haven't had a home game yet, and this is only game two ... So it's just been unusual circumstances but our guys are as ready to play as I know how to make them.”
Nebraska’s first game may not have gone exactly how it wanted — a 52-17 blowout at the hands of then-No. 5 Ohio State, but the Huskers did some things well in what appeared to be a lopsided season-opener.
For starters, Nebraska defended the run well, something that bodes extremely well entering Saturday. Ohio State did rush for 222 yards against the Huskers, but a good chunk of those came in garbage time when the Buckeyes had put the game well out of reach.
The Blackshirt front seven figures to be boosted by the return of sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer, who should provide some much-needed depth at the position after missing the Ohio State game with an injury. Reimer totaled 11 tackles in his freshman season and also contributed on special teams.
“Reimer's a guy that I've been impressed with since the first day he stepped onto campus ... He had a little bit of an ankle injury, but I expect him to be fine Saturday and ready to go,” Frost said. “[Linebacker] is one spot where we don’t have a ton of depth, so it'll be nice to be able to rotate those guys and have several good players leading the way.”
On the flip side, the Huskers were able to run the ball well against a team that is able to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Huskers gained 217 rushing yards on the Buckeyes, buoyed by strong rushing performances from junior quarterback Adrian Martinez (77 rushing yards, one touchdown) and redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey (87 rushing yards).
The Huskers will need more from senior running back Dedrick Mills, as he totaled just 37 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, but a good portion of that can be attributed to Nebraska playing from behind for a majority of the contest. Mills should be featured in more of a “bell cow” role against the Wildcats.
Still, Frost said he was pleased with how both lines operated against the Buckeyes, and knows that both will need to replicate that success against a senior-led Wildcat defense. Specifically, Northwestern’s senior linebacking trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin could pose problems for a developing offensive line, but Frost hopes more game action will elevate the play of the Husker offense.
“I thought we played solid on both lines, even though the score wasn't what we wanted. I felt like we held our own,” Frost said. “I thought it was a major step forward for us, especially after getting pushed around by Ohio State the year before. I was really impressed with some of the young guys on both sides, they came in and looked like they belonged.”
Nebraska’s most important key to the game, though, could be a player on the outside looking to make an impact in his first Husker appearance. Junior wide receiver Omar Manning, the nation’s top junior college wide receiver in 2019 at Kilgore College, is set to make his Nebraska debut this weekend, according to Frost.
If Manning is truly “ready to play” as Frost says, he could provide a deep threat to complement sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Iowa had success in the intermediate and play-action passing game against Northwestern last weekend, and Manning’s presence should help the Huskers succeed in that area as well.
No matter how Nebraska and Northwestern fare entering a matchup between the two squads, one thing is for certain: the contest will be close. The Wildcats and Huskers have played a one-score game in four of their last five meetings, and Northwestern is favored by less than a touchdown entering Saturday.
It doesn’t matter if Saturday’s game is won in the trenches, the secondary, with skill position players or on special teams, Nebraska’s time off means it should be more than ready for anything Northwestern throws at it.