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Northwestern vs. Nebraska: Three matchups to watch

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Nebraska.

1. Northwestern secondary vs. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska receivers

When Mike Riley arrived in Lincoln following his tenure in Corvallis at Oregon State, he brought with him a pro-style passing attack. In contrast to the spread attack run during Bo Pelini's time, Cornhusker quarterback Tommy Armstrong is finding himself under center much more, and it's worked to his advantage. Nebraska's passing game is 25th-best in the nation when it comes to passing S&P+.

Northwestern, though, has been stout against the pass for most of season. Even in Northwestern's back-to-back losses, neither Jake Rudock of Michigan nor C.J. Beathard of Iowa eclipsed 200 yards passing. Now, that comes with a caveat: Northwestern's defense was so porous against the run that there wasn't even a point in throwing the ball. Also, Northwestern's 10th-ranked passing S&P+ defense looks like it will be without starting corner Matt Harris again. But the Wildcats still have enough playmakers to keep Jordan Westercamp and co. from having a big game.

Advantage: Northwestern's pass defense

2. Northwestern's third-down offense/defense vs. Nebraska's third-down offense/defense

As Kevin Trahan pointed out earlier this week, one of the few areas where Northwestern's offense hasn't been awful is turnovers. Another area where the Wildcat offense has actually been pretty good this season is on third downs. Northwestern ranks second in the country in third down S&P+ offense. Clayton Thorson has been really impressive on third downs, completing passes on time and on target to receivers. For some reason, Northwestern's offense seems to click on third down.

But Nebraska's third-down offense isn't half bad either. The 'Huskers are sixth nationally in third down S&P+ offense. The Huskers convert just over 40 percent of third downs, while Northwestern is able to extend drives on almost 45 percent. In what should probably be a close game — provided Northwestern plays a bit more like it did during the season's first five weeks — converting third downs could play a huge role in deciding the outcome. And with a defense that ranks 22nd this season in third down defense according to S&P+, Northwestern appears to have a leg up.

Advantage: Northwestern's third-down offense/defense

3. Northwestern running game vs. Nebraska run defense

I pointed this out in a staff thread published earlier this week, but take a look again at some of Northwestern's rushing performances this season:

Opponent Carries Rush Yards
Stanford 54 225
Duke 54 201
Minnesota 51 184
Michigan 25 38
Iowa 26 51

While Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged following the Iowa game that it's tough to run the ball when his team gets down early, which makes sense to a certain degree, it doesn't explain Northwestern's ineffectiveness on the ground even when the offense did run. The Wildcats rushed for 1.52 yards per carry against Michigan and 1.96 against Iowa. That's brutal.

For Northwestern's offense to get back on track, it starts with Justin Jackson and the offensive line. They've got to get going moving forward, taking some pressure off Thorson.

But Nebraska's defense has been pretty good against the run this season. The Cornhuskers sport the 26th-best rushing defense in the country this season according to S&P+. Nebraska's defensive backs play an aggressive style that has led them (cornberback Joshua Kalu, safeties Byerson Cockrell and Nate Gerry, and cornerback Jonathan Rose) to be the team's top four tacklers. After giving up just 2.5 yards per rush to Minnesota last week, Nebraska's rush defense is looking good.

Advantage: Nebraska's run defense