Every game hinges on a few critical "things" -- players, schemes or specific plays that could play a big role in deciding the winner and loser. It's an important concept with a blunt title; "things" are important, however vague they might sound. InsideNU will attempt to identify the three biggest ones in advance of Northwestern's game each week. This week's matchup: Nebraska.
Northwestern's Running Game vs. Nebraska's Defensive Front
I'm almost confused. Week after week, it has been the other way around. I am usually writing about Northwestern's ability to stop the run. But last week, Northwestern's defense returned to form, holding Iowa to 136 rushing yards, 54 yards below the Hawkeyes' season average. But Nebraska's front seven has struggled to stop the run. The Cornhuskers' defense has given up an average of almost 174 rushing yards per game this season, including a whopping 271 to Minnesota in a 34-23 loss last week. Since Big Ten play started, this is the weakest front seven Northwestern will play. It will be imperative that they continue to use both Kain Colter and the running backs often to control the game in what should be a fairly hostile environment in Lincoln. Stephen Buckley looked really good last week averaging just under six yards per carry and I wouldn't be surprised if, like last week, Northwestern throws Colter out there for 90 percent of the snaps and for Buckley to get about 75 percent of the carries. Along with Dan Vitale, Colter and Buckley were Northwestern's only productive offensive weapons and they should be able to do even more against Nebraska's shaky defense.
Taylor Martinez's Health
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is one of those players who seems like he's been playing college football for the last eight seasons. In reality, though, he's now in his senior season after starting the previous three. The past few seasons, running quarterbacks like Michigan's Denard Robinson and Ohio State's Braxton Miller have taken most of the headlines in the Big Ten. But Martinez has put together a fine career both on the ground and through the air. Last season, Martinez rushed for over 1,000 yards, threw for 2,871 yards and accounted for 33 touchdowns. This year, though, Martinez has struggled with injuries. After missing three straight games with a foot injury, Martinez returned against Minnesota, but only to suffer a hip pointer in that contest. Right now, Martinez's status is questionable for this weekend. Similar to how having Colter drastically improves Northwestern's offense, losing Martinez would be a major defecit for Nebraska to overcome, especially with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong as the back up.
Penalties and Blocking
Last week, Pat Fitzgerald was especially disheartened by the number of penalties Northwestern committed. Northwestern was penalized five times for 55 yards (all on the offensive side of the ball). All but one of those penalties – a false start by Dan Vitale – were blocking infractions. There were two holding calls and one personal foul to go along with Vitale's illegal low block on a crucial run by Kain Colter late in the fourth quarter with Northwestern driving in Iowa territory. The penalties have led to Fitzgerald making some changes on the depth chart this week, promoting Matt Frazier to co-starter with Ian Park at right guard. Frazier replaced Park against Iowa. As mentioned above, Nebraska's defensive front isn't too daunting, so Northwestern's offensive line could be able to get back on track with a solid performance on Saturday.