A trip to Nebraska might be just what Northwestern needs right now. Before the season — a season in which the Huskers and Wildcats were supposed to be Legends Division title contenders — who thought we'd be saying that? But then again, before the season, nobody saw Northwestern losing to Minnesota and Iowa, either.
At this point, both teams are reeling. NU has dropped four straight after a 4-0 start to fall to 4-4, while Nebraska is 5-2, but with a struggling defense and without a good win. At this point, NU might be worse off from a record standpoint, and it might be a 7.5-point underdog when the two teams meet on Saturday, but looking at the matchup, the Wildcats might have an edge.
Nebraska's run defense, if you aren't already aware, is terrible. The Huskers gave up 271 rush yards to Minnesota in a 34-23 loss last week. Earlier in the year, they gave up 227 yards on the ground to South Dakota State. Jackrabbits running back Zach Zenner had 202 yards at 9.6 yards per carry against Nebraska — he has only topped that total once all season and had just 4 yards on 8 carries against North Dakota State the week after the visit to Lincoln. Overall, the front seven is bad. There's no other way to put it.
That sets up perfectly for a Northwestern team that seems set on running the ball as much as possible. The entire Nebraska front seven needs work, and it appears it's getting a shakeup. More from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald:
Pelini wants his defense to better respond to wrinkles from the opposing offense, so he’s moving Michael Rose back to Mike linebacker, where he’ll play with Josh Banderas. David Santos, meanwhile, will move to Will linebacker. It would appear Santos’ days at Mike are over.
Maybe the move will work, but it doesn't look good for a Nebraska front seven that appears to be in somewhat of a disarray. To defend the zone read and mobile quarterbacks like Kain Colter, defenses have to be disciplined and have to seal off running lanes. With a lot of moves on defense, the inexperience could spell trouble for Nebraska and help the Wildcats expose a weakness to get their running game going. Both parts of that statement sound crazy — that it's Northwestern's offense that needs to get its mojo back, and that the Blackshirts are the best team to allow that to happen. But if the Colter-led NU offense could rush for 225 yards against Iowa, it can certainly top that total against Nebraska.
Defensively, Northwestern has actually shown a lot of improvement over the past two games. Aside from the first drive, the Wildcats' defensive tackles held their own against the Hawkeyes' power running attack. That's a continuation from a solid overall effort from the defense against Minnesota:
NU's defense might be getting some help on Saturday. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez looks highly questionable due to injury, and that could mean the Wildcats see a lot of backup Tommy Armstrong, who has been inconsistent in two games against FBS competition — he went 8-for-13 with 2 touchdowns against Illinois, but was 6-for-18 with a rushing touchdown and 3 interceptions against Purdue. He may very well be a star someday, but right now, he's certainly not a juggernaut that NU can't deal with.
Put everything together — a good matchup for the NU run game and a freshman quarterback possibly starting for Nebraska — and a trip to Nebraska could be just what the Wildcats need to get into the win column for the first time in over a month.
Two months ago, who would've thought? But then again, who would've thought the Wildcats would so desperately be needing a win in the first place.