by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Beating the Huskers will require a strong effort in all three phases of the game. What follows is my humble attempt at predicting which team you should expect to win each phase.
When Northwestern has the ball…
Two teams, UCLA and Ohio State, have exposed Nebraska’s defense with dual-threat quarterbacks. The Bruins’ Brett Hundley and the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller combined for 99 points in two victories against the Huskers. They ran through, around and behind Bo Pelini’s vaunted defense, and were just as successful through the air. Fortunately for Northwestern, Kain Colter resembles those two quarterbacks, so it would not come as a huge surprise if Colter summoned a similar performance. What’s more, Colter knows what it takes to beat the Huskers. He did it last season, the star figure of the Wildcats’ thrilling road upset in Lincoln. Not only does Colter have the running and passing tool set to exploit this defense. He has the experience, the comfort of already having attacked Pelini’s schemes and blitz concepts.
That doesn’t mean Trevor Siemian won’t see the field, but his playing time should be limited. Colter’s running abilities, coupled with the success of Hundley and Miller, should compel Pat Fitzgerald and staff to keep Siemian on the sidelines more than usual. Schematic advantage aside, Siemian played his worst game of the season last week. Colter probably deserved an increased role anyway. Nebraska’s discernible weakness against running quarterbacks makes playing Colter a no-brainer. The Wildcats will use option sets to get Colter and Venric Mark in space. Establishing the run will force Nebraska to stack the line of scrimmage and allow Colter (or Siemian) to take a few shots downfield, where NU’s batch of explosive wide outs will find plenty of room to make plays. This is not your traditional blackshirts Nebraska defense. That much may have been clear already; NU will only emphasize the point.
When Nebraska has the ball…
Following a weak second-half effort against Penn State, the Wildcats defense made adjustments across the board against Minnesota. It wasn’t pretty, and neither team could establish a consistent flow on offense, but NU looked to have corrected many of the flaws that befelled it against the Nittany Lions a week earlier. Nebraska provides the ultimate test. Through six games, the Huskers lead the Big Ten in total offense and rushing offense at 507.3 and 292 yards per game, respectively. They rank fifth in passing offense at 221.0 yards per game. Those metrics paint a flattering portrait for this offense, though the live product is equally formidable. While Martinez is still ridiculed for his unique throwing mechanics and turnover problems, the Nebraska quarterback has no doubt improved. His development has been helped by the emergence of a host of dynamic skill players, including receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, along with tight end Kyler Reed and tailback Ameer Abdullah. Throw in preseason Heisman contender Rex Burkhead, and the end result is a balanced offensive attack, littered with explosive playmakers and capable of putting up points in a hurry.
The Wildcats will have their hands full; there are few teams in the Big Ten capable of containing, much less shutting down, this explosive attack. My question is which NU defense will show up Saturday. If the unit reverts to what we saw in the second halves against Penn State and Indiana, Nebraska will put this game away early. If the defense recalls its early performances against Vanderbilt and Boston College, NU may be able to do just enough to frustrate this T-Magic-led attack. However it approaches stopping the Huskers, one thing’s clear: NU must, must get pressure on Martinez. If he’s allowed time to go through his progression, read the defense and spot open receivers, the Wildcats are in for a long day. If he’s pressured into hasty decisions and forced to abandon the passing game, the Wildcats can key in on Abdullah, Burkhead and the rest of this potent rushing attack. Still, NU hasn’t shown the consistency to contain a dynamic offense like this one. The best it can hope for is to limit Nebraska.
As you might expect, NU holds a commanding lead in the punt return stats department, ranking first among Big Ten teams with an average of 24.70 yards per return. But don’t overlook Nebraska’s Abdullah, who rivals Mark in both speed and explosiveness, and has made his fair share of big plays on special teams over the last one and a half seasons. NU’s field goal kicking, one of the more underrated aspects of the Wildcats’ 6-1 start, is veritably flawless. Jeff Budzien is a perfect 12 for 12 on the season, while Nebraska’s Brett Maher has hit eight of 13 attempts.
Gauging special teams units as a whole is a flawed concept, though for the purposes of this preview piece, it’s hard to go against the Wildcats. The way Mark has elevated his punt-returning – he was always dangerous, but now Mark’s talents are reaping point-scoring efforts – can’t be dismissed. Budzien’s exploits are no less important. With Mark and Budzien leading the way, and punter Brandon Williams having an improved season, the Wildcats get the nod. Special teams are inherently fickle, but there’s nothing fluky about the way this unit has acquitted itself through the first half of this season.
Nebraska 38, Northwestern 35 – Anything less than a high-paced shootout would be slightly surprising, because when you pit two teams with high-powered offenses and shaky defenses, that’s the most likely outcome. This won’t be a back-and-forth affair, though. I envision Nebraska, fresh off the bye week and hungry after last season’s upset in Lincoln, jumping out to a big lead. NU will storm back in the second half, only to fall just short in the final moments. Martinez and Colter will lead their offenses to prolific outings, but Nebraska will outlast NU with a balanced approach. There is no lack of intrigue heading into this Legends bout, and after last year’s clash we can expect another high-drama ordeal. But that drama won’t end in a favorable way for NU fans. Nebraska will exact some revenge by beating the Wildcats on their home turf.