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Nebraska football (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) will look to match last season’s win total in half as many games this weekend as it takes on Northwestern (1-3, 0-2). The Wildcats have struggled so far this year, as they lost their starting quarterback in week one and currently have the worst offense statistically in the Big Ten. 

However, the Huskers can’t take Northwestern lightly. Nebraska lost in overtime to a 2-3 Wildcat team last year that went on to win the Big Ten West. That being said, this Northwestern team has lost some key contributors from last season. 

Here are three things to watch for:

Can the Blackshirts step up in conference play? 

Nebraska’s defense has had an up-and-down season this year. The Blackshirts had strong showings against South Alabama and Northern Illinois, but also have struggled against Colorado and most recently, Ohio State.  

The Husker defense has especially struggled in conference play. Coming into their matchup with Illinois, the Blackshirts allowed 82 rushing yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry, good for 20th and 12th in the nation, respectively. 

Two games into conference play, that number has plummeted. The Huskers now allow 167 rushing yards per game, good for 88th in the FBS. Nebraska has also forced just one turnover in conference play after forcing nine in the first three games.

Last week, the Huskers went up against the best statistical offense in the Big Ten, Ohio State. This week’s matchup will be more favorable, as Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in total offense and 126th in the country.

The Wildcats’ quarterbacks have struggled so far this year. Starting quarterback TJ Green is out for the season with an injury suffered in the first game of the year. Since then, sophomore Hunter Johnson and junior Aidan Smith have handled quarterback duties and both have played poorly, combining for two passing touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

Johnson took over as the starter in Green’s absence, but has also struggled with injuries and is questionable for Saturday’s game. No matter who starts, the Blackshirts have a good chance to play well and force some turnovers.

Freshman running back Drake Anderson has been one of the most impressive offensive players for the Wildcats, with 305 rushing yards and three touchdowns through four games. The Blackshirts have failed to stop talented running backs the last two weeks, so containing Anderson will be key to a win.

The Nebraska defense was a weak spot last season for the Huskers, and looked strong this year up until conference play. If the Blackshirts can’t play well against a struggling Northwestern offense, it will confirm that its defense has not improved much from 2018.

More offensive wrinkles

Last week, the Husker offense tried something different for a drive when they lined up under center and ran the triple option. Nebraska has rarely ran plays out of that formation under Scott Frost, so seeing that type of offense caught everybody by surprise, including Ohio State. 

Coaches and players were reluctant to talk about how much they would use the new formation in the future, but Frost confirmed it wouldn’t go away for good. 

That kind of versatility may be good for the Husker offense, as they have struggled to find their footing to begin the year. 

Northwestern’s strength is its defense, meaning that Frost might need to pull some more tricks out of the bag to get things going. Whether this means more plays out of the I-formation or something else fans haven’t seen before, it will be interesting to see what the offense does on Saturday against another tough Big Ten defense.

A close game

For years, Northwestern has been one of those teams that will always keep the game close no matter the opponent. Against a top-10 Wisconsin team last week, the Wildcats lost by nine points and held the Badgers to seven points in the first half. 

“Northwestern’s a team that I think everybody respects in this league because they’re never going to beat themselves,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “They’re a disciplined team, they’re a tough team, they’re going to be where they’re supposed to be, and for the most part they operate what the coaches want them to do.”

The Huskers have been no stranger to close games this year, as three of their five games have been within two scores. Nebraska has played close games with Northwestern as well, as the last two matchups have gone to overtime. 

Nebraska’s 2018 game against Northwestern was hard-fought, and this year’s contest promises more of the same. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com