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Why Northwestern will/won't win: Nebraska

Setting aside the lopsided, guarantee games many FBS teams often play in the non-conference part of their schedules, every college football game typically allows the possibility that either team could win. Sometimes the odds are heavily stacked in one team’s favor, while other games are more evenly matched. But as this awesomely unpredictable sport has proven time and again, no team’s chances of winning should ever be completely dismissed. There is always a way.

That logic informs a new weekly feature here at InsideNU. It’s called “why Northwestern will/won’t win.” Excuse the bland, clunky title. At least it gets right to the point, which is to explain why the Wildcats – wait for it – will or won’t win their upcoming game. Some arguments won’t be as convincing as others, but that’s impossible to avoid, anyway: not all games have tiny point spreads, after all. There is, but for a few exceptional cases, a favorite and an underdog. Explaining the latter’s (whether that be Northwestern or not) path to hypothetical victory will require some creativity. Some cases will be easier to address.

This week’s matchup: Nebraska 

Why Northwestern will win

It was one of college football’s ironclad truths. Something people took for granted year after year. Nebraska was going to have a good defense, because Nebraska always had good defenses. When the Huskers used to consistently rank among the nation’s best teams, regularly competing (and claiming) for national championships, the connection was practically unassailable: Nebraska was great because its defense (along with its option offense) made it so.

Dating to the Huskers’ first Big Ten season in 2011, Nebraska’s defense hasn’t been Nebraska-like -- more like mediocre or, on more than a few occasions, just plain bad (which is even more shocking when you consider head coach Bo Pelini was once acclaimed for his defensive acumen). Remember last year’s Big Ten championship game? When Wisconsin, in a 70-31 bludgeoning of the Huskers, rolled up 539 rushing yards on 10.8 yards per carry and eight touchdowns combined from Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White?

The “blackshirts,” or so the name goes, don’t appear to have recovered since. Nebraska ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rush defense (allowing an average of 4.42 yards per carry). They yielded 271 yards on the ground to Minnesota while getting dominated along the line of scrimmage last week, and 227 to South Dakota State earlier this year. The Huskers’ front seven is vulnerable, in other words.

That knowledge should make Northwestern fans optimistic about the Wildcats’ chances of pulling the upset in Lincoln Saturday. If the Wildcats can run the ball effectively – and given how weak the Huskers’ run D has looked at various points this season, why wouldn’t they be able to? – they should be able to put up plenty of points.

Not having Mike Trumpy or Venric Mark, the Wildcats’ top two running backs entering the season, will make Northwestern’s run game less effective than it otherwise would be, but the combination of Stephen Buckley and a (now-healthy) Treyvon Green is more than enough firepower to make the Huskers’ front seven pay. If South Dakota State ran through Nebraska, so can Northwestern. It really is that simple.

Running the ball – running it a lot and running it effectively – is a basic, elementary goal, but if Northwestern can accomplish it, there’s no reason the Wildcats can't beat Nebraska. Two possible hiccups are turnovers and penalties, both of which arguably turned the outcome of last week’s game at Iowa (Northwestern committed five penalties for 55 yards and lost two fumbles in pivotal moments). Minimize or avoid both, and the Wildcats, with a run-heavy gameplan, are a sure bet to at least keep things close at Memorial Stadium.

Were Mark or Trumpy available, it would be even easier to feel confident about Northwestern in this game. Without them, Nebraska’s run defense remains a major weakness, something Northwestern can and should exploit. 

Why Northwestern won't win

It’s looking more and more like senior quarterback Taylor Martinez will miss Saturday’s game due to injury. If he can’t go, Huskers will likely use two quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III, to replace him in the starting lineup. Armstrong is a great athlete and is adept at running the zone read, but he’s limited as a passer and his overall understanding of the offense pales in comparison to Martinez’s.

That could make Nebraska more predictable on offense, resigned to using a vanilla scheme, but it doesn’t mean the Huskers, who rank fifth in the Big Ten in offense at 6.17 yards play, won’t be a tough matchup for Northwestern’s defense. Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell are one of the best receiving tandems in the conference. Ameer Abdullah ranks behind only Melvin Gordon among Big Ten running backs in rushing yards per game (140.14). Imani Cross, Nebraska’s specialty power back, would probably start for most other league teams.

This is a good offense…in case you weren’t paying attention.

With an agitated, impatient, arguably bloodthirsty pack of screaming red-and-white-clad maniacs at their backs, the Huskers can rack up points in a hurry. Northwestern’s defense has played well throughout most of its losing streak, and the adjustments it made last week after Iowa’s dominating first drive were impressive, but Nebraska – as long as Armstrong can merely operate the offense without making too many mistakes – has the ability, the requisite amount of perimeter playmaking talent, to get back on track this week.

The Huskers can’t lose this game – not with Pelini feeling the heat and a toughing closing schedule on tap. Nebraska is reeling, and it’s clearly not the Big Ten title contender most envisioned entering the season, but it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Northwestern isn’t entering this game with any trace of positive momentum. It’s flailing just as much, if not more than Nebraska is.

Both teams have failed to meet expectations this season. One remains in good shape bowl-wise, but its coach might be in trouble if the losing continues. The other’s coach has more job security than most head men could ever hope for, but his team, with a loss, is in huge jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since the 2006 season.

If the desperation factor cancels out, if the extra motivation both teams have because of their respective unexpected tailspins is an equal and opposite force, Nebraska still has a home field advantage working in its favor. That, plus an offense that could explode at any minute, is what makes the Huskers reasonable 7-point favorite in this game.

The Huskers are expected to win this game. And they should.