What to Watch for Northwestern

Nebraska football takes on an undefeated Northwestern squad this Saturday in Evanston, Ill., after the Huskers’ home opener against Wisconsin was canceled last weekend. 

The Wildcats are favored by a field goal, a reasonable prediction considering both of the two previous matchups between the Huskers and Wildcats have been decided by three points. 

Northwestern defeated Nebraska 34-31 in 2018 after Nebraska blew a 10-point lead with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and eventually lost in overtime. Last year’s matchup ended with Nebraska kicker Lane McCallum kicking a 24-yard field goal as time expired for a 13-10 victory.

Here are some things to watch out for in what could be another close contest between Big Ten West foes.

The ground attack

Nebraska’s offensive line is not yet established and Northwestern’s defense, the No. 1 rushing defense in the Big Ten, will force results. Northwestern’s first two opponents, Maryland and Iowa, combined to average 70.5 rushing yards against the Wildcats’ stout front seven. 

Nebraska will need to be strong up front in order to get yards on the ground. Its running backs will need to produce after senior Dedrick Mills and redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins gained just 47 rushing yards in Nebraska’s 52-17 loss against No. 3 Ohio State. 

Head coach Scott Frost’s run game struggled against Northwestern’s defense last season, earning 133 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per carry. Behind then-senior running back Devine Ozigbo’s 159-yard performance in 2018, Nebraska rushed for 213 yards. A big day from Mills is needed for the Husker ground game to find success.

Nebraska relied heavily on the run against the Buckeyes, as Nebraska produced 210 of its 370 total offensive yards on the ground. 

Meanwhile, the Wildcat offense has averaged 235 rushing yards per game. The Huskers defensive line will need to shut down junior running back Isaiah Bowser and sophomore running back Drake Anderson to limit Northwestern’s ground game. 

Saturday’s game will be determined in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and Nebraska’s offensive and defensive lines will get a chance to prove themselves.

Turnovers

In Nebraska’s lone game this season, it turned the ball over twice due to a fumble from junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey. On the other hand, Northwestern’s defense has forced seven turnovers — six interceptions and one fumble — in its two games. 

Northwestern fumbled twice in the first six minutes of its 21-20 victory over Iowa last Saturday, the first a muffed punt recovered at the Northwestern 7-yard line followed by an Iowa touchdown on the next play. The Wildcats’ second turnover, a fumble by Bowser near midfield, also led to an Iowa score.

Nebraska’s quarterbacks need to take care of the football against Northwestern both on the ground and through the air. Senior defensive back JR Pace, who intercepted Martinez twice in 2018 and earned his eighth career interception against Maryland this season, and the Wildcat secondary are able to punish quarterbacks’ mistakes.

Both of Northwestern’s and Nebraska’s last two matchups were decided by a field goal opportunity that was the result of an interception. Last season, Nebraska’s then-senior cornerback Lamar Jackson caught an interception, the only turnover of the game, with a minute left in the fourth quarter to give the Huskers a chance to kick the game-winning field goal. In Northwestern’s overtime victory in 2018, Martinez threw an interception in overtime, eliminating the Huskers’ chance to score. 

Turnovers in evenly-matched games like this will be one of the main determinants in who walks away with the victory.  

Finishing strong

The other critical factor in Saturday’s game will be which team finishes stronger. 

To come out on top, the Huskers need to play intelligently and aggressively all 60 minutes, but especially in the final quarter. 

Nebraska kept up with the Buckeyes in the first half two weeks ago and headed into the locker room for halftime down 24-14. However, Ohio State dominated Nebraska in the second half, and the game was out of reach by the end of the third quarter. 

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad responded to a 17-0 deficit in the first quarter against Iowa with touchdowns on back-to-back drives. In the fourth quarter while ahead 21-20, the Wildcats picked off Iowa sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras twice within the game’s final six minutes. 

Northwestern has experienced adversity on the field this season and came out victorious, while the Huskers have yet to do so.

Saturday’s matchup will test Nebraska’s ability to go blow-for-blow with Northwestern and could potentially result in the Huskers’ first win of the season.

sports@dailynebraskan.com