Nebraska football returns home after a two-game road trip that saw the Huskers fall in close games to then-No. 3 Oklahoma 23-16, and then-No. 20 Michigan State 23-20 in overtime.
This weekend’s opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats, are the defending Big Ten West Champions. In addition, Northwestern has won three out of the last four matchups against the Huskers.
Northwestern and Nebraska both have yet to win against a Power Five team this season, and the victor of this game would give either team a key conference win on the path to bowl eligibility.
Here’s what to watch for when the Huskers and Wildcats battle on Saturday night:
Dominant Nebraska defense faces improving Northwestern offense
Nebraska’s defense has shut down some of the country’s most highly-touted offenses in back-to-back weeks. Northwestern’s offense only mustered three touchdowns against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Indiana State, the same amount as 1-4 Eastern Illinois.
However, despite the subpar early performances, Northwestern’s offense turned in its best performance of the season last week in its 35-6 win over Ohio. The Wildcats’ 373 rushing yards far eclipsed any of their totals from their first three games. Sophomore running back Evan Hull’s 216 yards were more than the entire team had rushed for in a game prior to Saturday.
Northwestern also had success running out of the Wildcat formation, where a halfback lines up at the quarterback position and takes a direct snap. The Wildcats frequently featured the look in both of their victories this season, and scored a fourth quarter touchdown from the formation against Ohio.
Sophomore South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski was named the starting quarterback on Monday, after winning his first career start Saturday. Hilinski had previously split starts with senior Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, but earned the starting spot after Johnson’s 3-interception performance against Duke. Senior quarterback Andrew Marty also played in the second half against Duke, but didn’t see the field against Ohio.
Neither of the three quarterbacks have looked impressive so far, and Hilinski only has 122 passing yards on the season. If the Huskers can take away the ground game similar to what they did against Michigan State, the defense could be in for another stellar performance.
Can the Huskers fix their mistakes?
After losing another close game, with similar errors being the culprit, hosting a lower-tier Big Ten opponent could be the perfect stage to iron out the flaws.
Special teams has been a huge issue for Nebraska, with different costly errors happening nearly every week. Northwestern is no stranger to big special teams plays, having two kick returns of over 40 yards and a 65-yard punt return so far in 2021.
If improvement is to be seen in special teams, holding a team with previous big returns to no big plays would be a huge step in the right direction.
Another looming issue is not finishing red zone drives with touchdowns. The Northwestern defense ranks 72nd in the country in red zone defense, higher than both of Nebraska’s two previous opponents. Nebraska ranks 93rd in the country in red zone offense, setting up an opportunity to show improvement on Saturday.
The subpar offensive line play will also be challenged against Northwestern, which has notched five sacks in its last two games, as well as three forced fumbles. Senior defensive lineman Jeremy Meiser could pose a particular threat, as he leads the Wildcats with three sacks.
Two other members of Northwestern’s front line, junior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore and senior defensive lineman Jeffery Pooler Jr. have notched two-and-a-half sacks each.
Was the Illinois game truly a fluke?
The past two games have seen the Huskers go toe-to-toe with two AP top-20 teams. If Nebraska is really on par with the better teams in the country, it has no business losing this game, especially after Michigan State throttled Northwestern 38-21 in Week 1.
Nebraska has improved every week since its Week Zero loss to Illinois, but it has yet to completely turn the corner from the loss, dropping close games and making similar mistakes since.
The Week Zero loss set the Huskers back in hopes of bowl eligibility, and with seven games left, including three against ranked teams, winning games against the lower half of the Big Ten like Northwestern are vital in getting to the six-win threshold.
If the Huskers are to show that their Week Zero performance is truly an outlier, winning, and particularly winning by at least a few scores, against Northwestern would be the way to do it.
If previous matchups between these two schools is any indication, things are going to get weird on Saturday night. Previous iterations have included a walk-off Hail Mary touchdown, an unprompted fair catch at a team’s own 3-yard line, and a reserve free safety making a game winning field goal.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, only two matchups against Northwestern have been decided by more than one possession, and six have been decided by three points or less. Two games have gone to overtime, and both teams have notched five wins apiece in the annual series.
The talent gap between the teams has mattered little over the course of the series. In the inaugural matchup as part of the Big Ten, Northwestern stunned then-No. 9 Nebraska at home 28-25. In 2017, when Northwestern went 10-3 and finished ranked No. 17 in the country and Nebraska finished 4-8, the game was still as close as ever with the Huskers falling 31-24 in overtime.
The competitiveness of the matchups has only been one-upped by the unpredictability of the play. For college football fans who enjoy passes getting intercepted off an offensive lineman’s helmet, ten-point leads vanishing in just over two minutes and multiple fumbles on the opponent’s goal line, Nebraska/Northwestern has been a treat every year.
With both teams already having inconsistent results so far, another unorthodox game could very well be in the cards.