Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.
This week, Northwestern heads to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers (11 a.m. CT, ESPN2). The Huskers, despite their 3-4 record, are 7.5-point favorites over the Wildcats. To help get you prepared, members from the staff over at SB Nation Nebraska site Corn Nation — Jon Johnston, Brian Towle, Husker Mike, ranchbabe and Greg— take our questions:
1. So seven games into his tenure at Nebraska, and with a cruel amount of bad luck already under his belt, Mike Riley... how are Huskers fans feeling about him?
Greg: I'm probably (or definitely) on the optimistic side of things. Mistakes were made, but the four losses have been decided by 11 points. I sure as hell would rather lose in heartbreaking fashion than, say, the way we lost to Wisconsin every other time we faced them.
Ranchbabe: Fire everyone! Okay, not really. The mood has gone back and forth a bit. In the Illinois game, the boneheaded coaching and loss (to freakin' Illinois!) brought out some of the worst negativity. After the Wisconsin loss, I think everyone just resigned themselves to a very long season. Beating Minnesota convincingly helped but with most of the big goals out of the window already (division title) most fans will settle for a decent bowl (which is not a given) and messing up somebody else's season. If the team shows improvement as we finish the season, and we haul in a top 15 (or 20) recruiting class... bring on the spring ball kool-aid.
2. On the field, what's the biggest difference so far between Riley's Nebraska and Bo Pelini's Nebraska?
Husker Mike: Pelini's defenses struggled with stopping Wisconsin's running backs. But Riley's defenses seem to turn every quarterback (even Minnesota and Wisconsin's) into Peyton Manning. Offensively, Riley has implemented a much more sophisticated passing scheme into the offense, which has worked really well most of the time.
Ranchbabe: Husker Mike, Peyton Manning is not the comparison you want to be making right now. NW fans might be interested to know that with Peyton's struggles, there is a small (but vocal) minority of Denver Bronco fans that are not only ready to bench Peyton, but move right past Elway's hand-picked QB of the future (Osweiler) and go right to Trevor Siemian. No disrespect Wildcats, but I watched Siemian play. Whatever those folks are smoking, it must be the good stuff.
Now, to answer the question, Riley's Nebraska seems intent to get their required four losses out of the way quickly. Pelini had a tendency to wait until championship games, bowl games, and big games against marquee opponents before losing in spectacular fashion. Riley has opted for close, last-second losses (hey, we wanted the blowouts to stop — sometimes you get what you wish for).
3. One of the offseason narratives, if I remember correctly, was that Riley's offense wouldn't suit quarterback Tommy Armstrong. But Armstrong is on pace for basically identical numbers to last year's. How has he adapted?
Greg: I don't think Tommy Arm-So-Strong gets enough credit for the strides he has made. Are Riley and co. making it easier for him in this transition year? I would assume so. But I think he's making better decisions in the passing game as well pulling the ball down to run at the correct moments.
Brian: Two games vs. Illinois and Wisconsin did in Armstrong's numbers up to this point, but the coaching staff, to hell or high water with some people, will still probably go with a 60/40 pass/run split, which makes Tommy the one that carries the team. That was not a great thing vs. Illinois, where the Huskers stuck with the pass when 1) Illinois couldn't stop water if you ran with it, and 2) the weather was pretty miserable. Armstrong will get his numbers as the season goes on, and he has shown improvement at times, but there are some things that he simply cannot do well enough to take the next step, no matter who is coaching him.
4. What clicked for the offense last week, other than the whole "Minnesota is bad" thing?
Husker Mike: I think Nebraska found that a 60/40 run/pass mix is pretty close to optimum. Also, Nebraska tried to be a little more diversified in their passing game; against Illinois and Wisconsin, Nebraska tried to exploit deep routes that it thought were there. But they weren't. Last week, Nebraska made sure to threw intermediate routes, and got the offense flowing much better.
Jon: Nebraska had success early; Terrell Newby scored on a 69-yard run on Nebraska's third offensive play and on the subsequent Minnesota possession forced a three-and-out, and that gave them a big boost of confidence. That and the Nebraska offense didn't take a quarter off, but scored in every quarter.
5. What's the best way to attack this Nebraska defense (not that Northwestern will be able to do it)? What has it's biggest weakness been this season?
Greg: The secondary is disturbingly inconsistent. The pass defense is among the worst (if not the worst) in the country. And that's a shame, because the run defense is stout. If we could ever get a healthy front seven and a secondary that tracked the ball on occasion, the defense could be really, really good.
Ranchbabe: This is gonna be so awesome. Watching the 119th ranked pass offense go against the 127th ranked pass defense. Sigh. The Husker rush defense does appear to be legit, and not just a product of every team abandoning the run against Nebraska. Northwestern is averaging 48 rush attempts vs. 27 pass attempts per game. You will have to flip that script at last somewhat to win. The good news for you is that your QB can probably count on a career passing day. Will it be enough? (Spoiler: I don't think so)
Greg: We hope not. By that I mean, I wish we had a Jordan Westerkamp on the roster every year. But there may be hope for Big Ten opponents going forward: The Westerstache is gone!
Brian: If you think Westerkamp is gonna give you a pain in the ass, can't wait till you meet both De'mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr. With Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore, the Huskers (according to Pro Football Focus) have one of the top WR groups in FBS.
Ranchbabe: The Westerstache may be gone, but the defensive ends have picked up the Husker ‘stache game. (Ross Dzuris and Jack Gangwish) You still need to watch out for Westerkamp. Anytime the Husker offense has a 3rd down - make sure you keep an eye on him. He has been absolutely clutch on 3rd down catches.
6. A year or two ago, it kind of seemed like Northwestern-Nebraska was developing into a rivalry. Is this a mini-rivalry, kinda sorta maybe? Or is that a dumb question?
Jon: It's closer to a rivalry than most Husker fans would like to admit, but you have to realize that we're a fickle group. Kansas State, Colorado and Missouri once considered us rivals but we wanted nothing to do with them.
We would only marry up, and that's why Oklahoma is the only real rival a lot of Nebraska fans still recognize, even though we haven't played them on a yearly basis since the Big Eight died. Damn shame.
Brian: It's not a terrible thought, to be honest, that this is trying to become a rivalry. If NW can get on the level of NU, then maybe. But, until then, NW will just have to take on Illinois in Wrigley. Looks like Wrigley is free for the rest of the year though.
7. Prediction for Saturday?
Greg: Who makes the fewest mistakes? I don't think either team is good enough to overcome an abundance of errors. Nebraska fans ride a wave of momentum (is that possible following a win at Minnesota) and help the home team to a double-digit win.
Brian: I do think that Nebraska wins here, but more along the lines that, even though the Huskers have been just flummoxed in close games this year, they haven't quit and answered the bell every single week. Northwestern has got some doors slamming in their head, even if Thorson will get to 300 yards because Nebraska's secondary. That being said, Justin Jackson is going to get some yards, but nothing great. Nebraska by 13, they get back to .500 and start ramping up for their final four games.
Jon: Nebraska is rising, Northwestern is reeling. This won't be another game decided by a few points at the last minute... because we've already used our quota on close games decided in the last minute. Nebraska will win because the Wildcats don't have much of an offense. Nebraska 31, Northwestern 20.
Ranchbabe: So far, the Huskers have won every game in which we rushed for more than 200 yards and lost every game in which we did not. The 1995 Husker national championship team will be in the house (honored at half time), and I expect OC Danny Langsdorf to release the Janovich early (the fullback - a beloved figure in Husker lore) to keep the crowd loud. This team has not folded despite the gut-punching losses and swirl of negativity that could have really sent the season off the rails. I also don't think the Wildcats can do enough to take advantage of the Huskers' glaring weakness. Neb 35 NW 24.