With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Next up is Northwestern’s first Big Ten opponent of 2016, Nebraska, which will travel to Evanston after the Wildcats eked out a 2-point victory in their matchup in Lincoln last season.
Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
2015 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Coach: Mike Riley, 2nd year (6-7)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 48th
2015 S&P+ Offense: 36th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 57th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 26th (20 spots above Northwestern)
Northwestern’s 30-28 victory over Nebraska last October was emblematic of the difference between the two NUs in 2015: Nebraska was awful in close games, and Northwestern was excellent. The Cornhuskers finished 48th in overall S&P+ in 2015, eight spots ahead of the Wildcats at 56th, but had four fewer wins, which can largely be pinned on their 1-5 record in games decided by seven points or fewer (Northwestern went 5-0 in those games). Nebraska went 2-2 in nonconference play, losing by 5 to BYU (a 9-win team) on a Hail Mary and by 3 in overtime at Miami (an 8-win team). Surely it had to get better from there, right? Nope. Nebraska lost 3 of 4 to open Big Ten play, with the three losses coming by a combined FIVE points. Then, in consecutive weeks, the Huskers somehow gave up Purdue’s only Big Ten win in 2015 and inflicted Michigan State’s only Big Ten loss. After shocking the Spartans, Nebraska split its final two regular season games to finish 5-7. Due to there being 80 bowls, the Huskers still got into one, and finished the campaign on a high note by taking down UCLA 37-29 in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Offense was Nebraska’s strong suit in 2015 and that should remain the case this year. Nebraska put up almost 33 points and 447 total yards per game, led by the second-most prolific passing game in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior, although he was plagued by 16 interceptions, some of which were of the head-scratching variety. Armstrong Jr. gets virtually all of his receivers back in 2016, including studs Jordan Westerkamp (yes, he’s still there) and Brandon Reilly and tight end Cethan Carter.
The running game wasn’t as effective as the aerial attack, but a drop-off was inevitable after back-to-back 1,600 yard seasons from current Detroit Lion Ameer Abdullah. Terrell Newby ran for 765 yards on 5.2 YPC last year and is back for a second season as the starter. The depth behind him is a major question mark, as unproven sophomore Devine Ozigbo will be second in line for carries. Armstrong Jr., who has 1,300 career rushing yards, is always a threat on the ground as well.
The offense’s biggest losses occurred on the line. Three starters graduated, including All-Big Ten LT Alex Lewis. Breaking in three new starters on the O-line is rarely easy, and this will be a key storyline for a team that needs to improve its ground game and protect its quarterback.
In 2015, Nebraska’s defensive identity was very clear. The Huskers were stout up front, with star DTs Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine leading the ninth-best rushing defense in the country, and very shaky in the secondary, ranking 121st nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
This season, that’s all gone. Collins and Valentine left school a year early, and justifiably so, as both were selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. Two weeks before the draft, DE/DT Greg McMullen announced he was foregoing his final year of eligibility. Overall, Nebraska lost all four starters on the defensive line, and will need to form a new identity in 2016.
The Huskers do have some talented pieces to build around. Safety Nate Gerry and cornerback Joshua Kalu lead a secondary that can’t be worse than it was in 2015, and inside linebacker Josh Banderas is primed for a big senior season. It will be interesting to see what kind of a defense Nebraska develops this year.
Three players to know
QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.
In Lincoln, hope starts and ends with Tommy Armstrong Jr. Experience isn’t an issue for Armstrong Jr., who has 33 career starts in three seasons. Neither is athletic ability. Armstrong Jr. has a big arm and is a dangerous runner from the quarterback position. What will determine his success in 2016 is whether or not he can hang onto the football. After throwing 16 picks last season (and completing just 55 percent of his passes), Armstrong Jr.’s career total is up to 36. If he can cut down on the mistakes in year two under Riley, Armstrong Jr. has the potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the nation.
WR Jordan Westerkamp
This name brings back some bad memories for Northwestern fans, thanks to a certain catch Westerkamp made way back in 2013 (We couldn’t seem to find a link, though. We hope you can’t either). Westerkamp was just a freshman then, and has since turned into Nebraska’s go-to receiver. After recording 747 yards as a sophomore and 918 last season, Westerkamp seems like a decent bet to reach the 1,000 yard plateau in 2016. He’s an outstanding route runner with great hands, and has a ton of chemistry with Armstrong Jr.
S Nate Gerry
The guy to watch out for on Nebraska’s defense is Nate Gerry, one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. Gerry led the Huskers in both interceptions (four) and tackles (79) in 2015, and will take on more of a leadership role as a senior. Gerry also led Nebraska in picks in 2014, with five, and Clayton Thorson would be wise to stay aware of him at all times when the Huskers come to Evanston.
Behind enemy lines
The writers over at SB Nation’s Nebraska blog, Corn Nation, take our questions:
Best case scenario
Jon Johnston: No one knows what Nebraska will do in 2016. There were so many close games last year, and that was with a team that really didn’t rally fully behind new head coach Mike Riley until late in the year. You could assume those problems are over, the team will move in the same direction, and our offensive and defensive lines will magically come together, losing only to Ohio State on the road and to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game. 10-2 regular season, then a win a bowl game against an SEC team.
Brian Towle: Win the West and make a whole lot of noise in the Big Ten title game against Michigan or a rematch with Ohio State. Some would think that’s unattainable, but if the defense gets a touch better with Tommy Armstrong cutting down SOME MY GOD of the INTs, it’s feasible.
Worst case scenario
Jill Heemstra: A repeat of last year seems like worst case around here. I know it can get worse, but I refuse to imagine that world.
Husker Mike: Just before spring practice, Riley mentioned that he hoped not to have to run the ball more, as he’d prefer to simply run the ball better. If you look at the players he’s recruiting and how he coached last season, you can make the case that he prefers to throw the ball. If he falls back into that trap with this group of players, you can see another sub-.500 season out of Nebraska.
Prediction for Nebraska at Northwestern
Johnston: Since Nebraska is "Chicago’s Big Ten Team", the Huskers will enjoy home field advantage. Nebraska’s gonna win this one. 30-28.
Heemstra: My prediction is that Thorson has to go to the silent count at home. Prediction #2? It will be a crazy game with a fourth quarter lead change. I know, going out on a limb here.
Mike: Nebraska finds a way to win in Chicago, just like they always seem to. Nebraska 34, Northwestern 28.
Heemstra: We return to our nine-win plateau and are in the B1G West hunt but fall just short. Middling bowl game against a non-motivated SEC opponent might be win 10.
Mike: I think they’ll go 2-1 in the non-conference, and likely go 8-4. That’ll calm the boo-birds. I can look at this schedule and see anything from 11-2 (losing in Indy) to another 5-7. 11-2 gets Riley B1G coach of the year. 5-7 gets him a westbound Mayflower van in December.
Towle: Nebraska will play 13 football games. They’ll win more than they will lose. Anything past that, it’s a crapshoot right now.
This is a huge early-season game for Northwestern because of its implications on the Big Ten West race. Pulling out a victory at Ryan Field would give the Wildcats a leg up on a team that is also looking to compete for a division title. On paper, a 10-3 team getting a 6-7 team at home seems like a safe bet for a win. In reality, it won’t be easy. Advanced stats (which aren’t entirely for losers) show that Nebraska was better than its record in 2015, while Northwestern was worse, and the Cornhuskers will almost certainly win more games this season. The losses on the D-line hurt, but Nebraska returns a ton of offensive firepower. What will probably decide the outcome of this one is quarterback play, especially limiting mistakes. If Thorson can pick apart Nebraska’s secondary like he did in the second half of last year’s matchup, and Northwestern can limit the effectiveness of Westerkamp and force Armstrong Jr. to make a mistake or two, the Wildcats should be in good shape. Justin Jackson should also have more running room this year after gaining just 40 yards against Nebraska’s now-departed front four in 2015, which would benefit Thorson. Conversely, if Thorson struggles and Northwestern’s secondary — sans Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry — gets torched by the talented Armstrong Jr., Wildcat fans will go home unhappy. This should be a fun one.
Date: Sep. 24
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT