Yes, football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and (new member of the AP Top 25) Nebraska.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. vs. Northwestern secondary
An incredibly athletic dual-threat quarterback, Armstrong can wreck havoc against a Northwestern defense that hasn’t looked great yet this season, even in the Duke win (the Wildcats gave up nearly 400 yards). Interceptions—he threw 16 picks compared to 22 touchdowns last season—have always been a major issue for Armstrong but through three games, he has thrown only one.
The Wildcats are without multiple key performers—including Matthew Harris — in the secondary so it will be up to young, relatively inexperienced guys like Montre Hartage, Trae Williams and Jared McGee to limit Armstrong’s effectiveness through the air. But, considering his ability to get out of the pocket and the Northwestern front seven’s problems with getting pressure on the opposing quarterback, guys in the secondary will have to cover the Nebraska receivers for longer than usual. That could be very bad for this defense. If the front seven improves, that will greatly help this secondary, but Armstrong is a threat regardless.
Jordan Westerkamp vs. Montre Hartage/Trae Williams
Although fellow senior Alonzo Moore is Nebraska’s leading receiver at the moment, Westerkamp is Nebraska’s best pass-catcher and the choice of Hartage or Williams to cover him could be the defining factor in this game. Neither cornerback is particularly experienced and Westerkamp (as Northwestern fans know all too well) is as good a reliable in the Big Ten as any. Covering him will not be an easy task for a beleaguered back line. We’ll show you his best play ever. And no, it’s not the one you’re thinking about.
Justin Jackson vs. Nebraska front seven
Allowing 166 rushing yards per game, the Cornhuskers are 88th in the country in total rushing defense. Nebraska’s defense has been solid overall but was gashed for 336 yards on the ground by Oregon this past weekend, highlighting Mike Riley’s team’s biggest weakness. Northwestern’s offensive line hasn’t been able to give Jackson the necessary space to post big rushing numbers, but the Cornhuskers don’t have the talent up front to blow runs up in the backfield. The gaps should be there for Jackson on Saturday, he just needs to exploit them. If Northwestern can establish some sort of ground presence early, it will be a huge boost.