Michigan State's 27-22 victory over Nebraska from two weeks ago provides a good outline on how to beat the Cornhuskers. Score early. Stop the run. Force some turnovers. Northwestern isn't Michigan State though, and they will need some tweaks to the gameplan to get a W on Saturday. Here are three big things for Northwestern vs. Nebraska:
Northwestern has 43 points off turnovers this season. That's exactly one third of its points. Its opponents have yet to score off a turnover. In their three victories, the Wildcats are up 10-3 in the turnover margin. In the three losses, they're down 3-4. Northwestern doesn't just rely on turnovers; they live off them. Obviously, there's some luck involved in this department, and it's not totally in the team's control, but it's truly vital to NU. The 'Cats haven't even put up 30 points in one game yet. They haven't given us any reason to believe that will change against a stout Cornhusker defense, so Northwestern will need some turnovers to light up the scoreboard at Ryan Field.
2. Defensive looks
We know by now the Northwestern defense is really good, one of the best in the conference. However, it's not perfect. The last two weeks have featured two different Northwestern defenses. Wisconsin couldn't muster anything in the passing game as Melvin Gordon ran wild for 259 yards. The following week, Northwestern contained David Cobb and held the Gophers to 3.1 yards per rush. But the emphasis on stopping the run helped Mitch Leidner average more than 10 yards per pass. The Wildcats need to find a middle ground against Nebraska. Ameer Abdullah is one of the best backs in the country, and Tommy Armstrong is efficient when passing and throwing the ball. The main focus will be on the run, but NU is not going to shut down Abdullah like Michigan State did. The 'Cats should change up their defensive looks to confuse Nebraska's offensive line and young quarterback. The play variation should give Northwestern the best chance of limiting the Huskers offense and winning that all-important turnover margin.
3. Be aggressive
If I had one word to describe Northwestern football so far this season, it would be "conservative." They protect the ball and try to move three yards at a time. Until the last couple weeks, Fitz punted nearly every fourth down. He trusts his defense, but the defense alone cannot win games. Now, the 'Cats enter the most important game of the year, a game that will determine if they have a shot to win the Big Ten west. It's time to lay it all on the line. Take some shots downfield. Go for it on 4th-and-short around midfield. Dial up some blitzes. Maybe pull out some trick plays. They've worked so far this season. Nebraska is significantly better than Wisconsin and Minnesota. If Northwestern uses the same conservative ideology, attempting to win by just one score, they'll be outplayed and edged by a better Nebraska squad. It's time to put everything on the table.