After two straight disappointing losses, Northwestern travels to Lincoln, Nebraska and will attempt to right the ship against an underachieving Cornhuskers squad. Nebraska is 3-4 on the season and new coach Mike Riley has been under fire from many vocal fans who are calling for his head. However the Cornhuskers are coming off a 48-25 rout of Minnesota and look to be turning their season around.
Here are three things to know about Nebraska heading into Saturday's matchup:
1. Nebraska is better than its record suggests
If you only looked at its record, you would assume that Nebraska has played pretty poorly this year, but that's not really the case. The Cornhuskers' four losses have come by a combined 11 points. For comparison, Northwestern's two losses have come by a combined 68 points.
First, in Week 1, the Cornhuskers led BYU 28-27 with mere seconds on the clock when BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum completed a 42-yard Hail Mary to win the game as time expired. This was something that Northwestern fans were all too familiar with. Then, in Week 3, they came back from being down 27-3 to the Miami Hurricanes only to lose on a field goal in overtime.
Once Big Ten play started, things didn't get much better. Leading by 13 to start the fourth quarter against Illinois, Nebraska gave up two touchdown drives, including a game-winning score with only 10 seconds left on the clock. Then finally against Wisconsin, Nebraska took the lead with three minutes left on a 55-yard Andy Janovich run, only to eventually see Wisconsin to march down the field and hit a game-winning field goal with four seconds left on the clock. It's a stretch of losses that rivals the one put together by Northwestern in 2013.
However, things appeared to have turned around this past Saturday. The Cornhuskers scored 48 points on Minnesota, and won by a comfortable 23 points. And all the close losses suggest Nebraska wasn't nearly as bad as its record indicated. The Cornhuskers have a second order wins differential of +1.1, and there's a reason they opened as a 6.5-point favorite, and are now a 7.5-point favorite in Saturday's game.
2. The Cornhuskers' offense is actually pretty good
They won't blow you away with skill or speed, but Nebraska's offense can get the job done. Led by a trio of juniors in quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., running back Terrell Newby and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, the offense is ranked 39th in offensive S&P+, and averages around 32 points per game.
The biggest threat on the offensive side of the ball is Armstrong, a dual-threat signal caller. Even though he only completes about 54 percent of his passes, Armstrong has still managed to string together 1,761 yards and 15 touchdowns through seven games. He'll also beat you with his feet. He's got 53 carries for 244 yards to the tune of 4.6 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
Armstrong's main target is longtime Northwestern favorite Westerkamp. Westerkamp leads the team in nearly every receiving category with 35 receptions, 443 yards and 4 touchdowns. The only receiver with more touchdowns is 6-foot-2 red zone target Alonzo Moore, who has five. The combination of Westerkamp and Moore could give smaller Northwestern defensive backs fits all day.
Finally, there's running back Newby, who highlights the other side of a very balanced Cornhusker attack. Newby averages 5.7 yards per carry, and will almost certainly see a steady workload all day after what DeVeon Smith and Akrum Wadley did to the Wildcats. Due to the talent in both the passing and running game, Northwestern's defense will once again have its work cut out for it this week.
3. Nebraska is getting healthier
Nebraska's defense hasn't been terrible this year, but it also hasn't been great (ranked 53rd in S&P+). However, it's starting to get some key pieces back, possibly as early as this week.
First is former Big Ten All-Freshman team linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey. After missing the entire 2014 season with a knee injury, Rose-Ivey played earlier this season before going down again. He's just about ready to return to the field and would help bolster an okay linebacker group.
More importantly for the Cornhuskers is the return of cornerback Daniel Davie who improves the secondary, especially after cornerback Jonathan Rose had trouble against Minnesota
Also returning is defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun (Big Ten All-Name Team, see below) who was a pass rushing force before going down (7 TFL, 4.5 Sacks).
On the other side of the ball, Newby will be good to go after suffering a stinger against Minnesota, and speedster De'Mornay Pierson-El will once again see his number of snaps increase.
We already know that Northwestern's offense isn't good, but if Nebraska's defense continues to get healthier, NU's attack may get worse before it gets better.
BONUS: The Roster is filled with Big Ten All-Name Team players
To go along with Michael Rose-Ivey, De'Mornay Pierson-El, and Freedom Akinmoladun (!!!!) from above, there's also: Byerson Cockrell, Ryker Fyfe, Taariq Allen, Boaz Joseph, Glenn Irons, Mikale Wilbon, Jared Afalava, Bo Kitrell, Imani Cross and my personal favorite Chongo Kondolo. They've also got some celebrity cameos with Courtney Love and Dwayne Johnson Jr.
The Cornhuskers got the name game on lock.