Every Thursday or Friday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, Northwestern travels to Lincoln to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Cornhuskers currently sit with a 3-4 record and are coming off their first conference win of the season, a 48-25 win at Minnesota.
With both Nebraska and Northwestern holding conference records of 1-2, Saturday's matchup will be a make-or-break game for the two teams. But it's even more than the records. A loss would send Northwestern deeper into its tailspin. A win would steady the ship in a time of uncertainty.
Why Northwestern will lose to Nebraska...
1. The offense picks up right where it left off last week
Which is to say it continues to be one of the worst in FBS. Those who attributed the Wildcats' poor offensive performance two weeks ago to the elite play of the Michigan defense were in for a rude awakening last Saturday as the Northwestern offense looked completely incompetent for the second straight week. The Wildcats struggled to sustain any drive, racking up just 198 total yards. They had five three-and-outs and turned the ball over three times. In fact, aside from the 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, the Wildcats failed to mount a drive of over 25 yards the rest of the day.
Since the loss to Iowa, many have tried to diagnose the problem behind Northwestern's offensive deficiencies — whether it be poor run blocking, excessive turnovers, receivers not getting open, Clayton Thorson struggling to hit open receivers or overly conservative play calling. The bottom line is, throughout the season, all of these have been reasons at different times. This week, Northwestern plays a Nebraska defense that excels against the run and will most likely force Thorson to make plays through the air. Which brings us to the next reason...
2. Northwestern could struggle to run the ball, again
Northwestern has ran for a combined 89 total yards in its last two games. Over the season's first five weeks, Justin Jackson played a key role in the offense, receiving over 20 carries in every game and rushing for over 100 yards in four of the five games. However, over the last two weeks, opposing defenses have appeared to devote more attention to Jackson and, as a result, his production has fallen off significantly. The two defenses Northwestern faced (Michigan and Iowa) currently rank No. 4 and No. 6 in the nation in rushing S&P+ defense. Nebraska isn't far behind though at No. 25, the third best mark in the conference. In the past, Northwestern has tended to abandon the run when it falls behind early. If the Cornhuskers' offense jumps out to an early lead against the Wildcats on Saturday, it could result in Northwestern reverting to the normal, inefficient offensive game plan that we've seen the last two weeks.
3. Nebraska will be able to run the ball
Although Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong has registered some impressive passing numbers this season, the Cornhuskers have also had some success running the ball. Lead back Terrell Newby has been inconsistent, but averages 5.7 yards per carry, and turned in his most impressive performance of 2015 last week against Minnesota as he rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Armstrong has also proven he can be an effective dual-threat quarterback, rushing for 244 yards and two touchdowns so far this season.
But the key factor here isn't Nebraska's rushing offense, but rather Northwestern's rushing defense. Iowa ran all over Northwestern last week (294 total yards and five rushing touchdowns allowed, in case you hadn't already heard), and any coach watching that game would be crazy not to try run the ball on Northwestern again this week. Expect Mike Riley to test the Wildcats' run defense early with some concepts similar to those that Iowa used last week.
Why Northwestern will beat Nebraska...
1. Tommy Armstrong struggles
Despite leading the Big Ten in both passing touchdowns (15) and passing yards (1,761) so far this season, Armstrong has had his ups and downs. Armstrong turned in his most impressive performance of the season last week in Nebraska's win over Minnesota, throwing for 261 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while also completing 18 out of his 26 passes.
But Armstrong has also had several underwhelming performances in the Cornhuskers' losses. Against Illinois, he went 10-for-31 while throwing for just 105 yards, and against Wisconsin he completed 11-of-28 passes for 129 yards. In both of those games, Nebraska blew a fourth quarter lead and lost in the final seconds. If Northwestern can hold Armstrong in check and force him into another one of those ugly stat lines, the it'll be in good shape.
The good news for the Wildcats is that, for the most part, the secondary has consistently been a bright spot. Against Iowa, Northwestern held the Hawkeyes to just 198 yards through the air, picked off a C.J. Beathard pass, and never allowed a touchdown through the air. Traveon Henry, Nick VanHoose, Keith Watkins and Godwin Igwebuike have excelled in passing coverage for the majority of the year. But now without both Matt Harris and Kyle Queiro, the secondary's balance has been thrown off a bit The Wildcats will have to recalibrate against some very talented Nebraska receivers in Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, De'Mornay Pierson-El and Jordan Westerkamp.
2. Justin Jackson has a bounce back week
As mentioned above, Jackson has not looked like himself the last two weeks. But, if Northwestern wants to come away with a win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, it will need its star running back to come to play. Due to the lopsided nature of the last two games for the Wildcats, Jackson has seen his carries reduced significantly and, as a result, should be rested and healthy for Saturday. Furthermore, in last year's 38-17 loss to Nebraska, Jackson was still able to register impressive numbers, rushing for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Improvement on offense starts with the running game, and specifically Jackson. Jackson must be able to pick up yards on the ground on early downs. That will not only put Northwestern's offense in better situations, but it'll force Nebraska to key on the run, which in turn could open up the playbook for offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
3. Nebraska has struggled in close games this year
Every one of the Cornhuskers' four losses this season has occurred in the final 10 seconds of the game. Against BYU, Nebraska lost on a heartbreaking 42-yard hail mary as time expired. Against Miami, an impressive 23-point comeback in the fourth quarter forced overtime, but was not enough as the Hurricanes kicked a game-winning field goal to win 36-33. Against Illinois, Nebraska blew a 13-0 fourth quarter lead and lost on a 1-yard touchdown by the Fighting Illini with 10 seconds remaining. And against Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers allowed Badgers' quarterback Joel Stave to lead a 6-play, 42-yard drive in the final minute of the game, capped off by a 46-yard field goal with four seconds remaining. Some of these late collapses are explained by luck. But Nebraska has proven in three of the four losses that it is capable of blowing a late fourth quarter lead, and this could bode well for Northwestern if the game is within one score heading into the final minutes.