What a difference a
week win makes.
After a disastrous 0-2 start, Northwestern got the win it desperately needed over Duke, and suddenly an opportunity to get back to .500 overall while starting off Big Ten play with a victory is on the table.
It won't be easy, though, as Mike Riley has his Nebraska team off to a 3-0 start in his second season at the helm. Here are three reasons Northwestern will beat the Cornhuskers and then three reasons it won't.
Why Northwestern will beat Nebraska
1. Northwestern will be able to make the explosive plays it did against Duke.
In Northwestern's first two games, quarterback Clayton Thorson had exactly three completions longer than 20 yards. Against Duke, Thorson threw touchdowns of 58, 44, and 26 yards and completed two other passes longer than 30 yards. Some of that production is no doubt due to breakdowns in the Duke secondary, and Nebraska is significantly better than Duke, at least so far, but it's an exciting development for an offense that seemed to utterly lack any sort of explosive potential. Thorson still misses too many open receivers and has yet to fully learn when to take something off his throws, but arm strength has never been the problem, and he threw some dimes downfield against Duke. That bodes well for the offense against Nebraska and beyond. And it's not as though Nebraska hasn't let up its fair share of big plays this season. Oregon torched the Cornhuskers for 336 yards (including runs of 46 and 50 yards) last week in a losing effort even without star running back Royce Freeman for the majority of the game—he left with an injury after just five carries. Justin Jackson has to like what he sees.
2. Northwestern will benefit from a legitimate home field advantage.
It's not an excuse, but Northwestern's first two games were played before students started classes or arrived in Evanston. Now, they've done both, and this is a night game against a ranked, conference opponent. It doesn't get much more enticing than that. Additionally, the first day of classes was on Tuesday, so it's nowhere near midterm season, something Pat Fitzgerald pointed out in his post-game press conference. There will be a fair amount of red at Ryan Field come Saturday night—Nebraska historically travels well—but Northwestern students should show up in numbers and provide that extra boost. Every team benefits from a loud crowd, but it's especially helpful to a home underdog in a conference game; the longer Northwestern keeps this close, the more the crowd will be a serious factor and the more students will stick around.
3. The defense will keep Northwestern close long enough and force a late turnover.
If we're analyzing this game from a purely logical standpoint, all signs point to a relatively comfortable Nebraska victory. Yes, Northwestern is coming off a victory, but it was far from convincing, and Nebraska is coming off a victory over a ranked Oregon team. But in the world of college football, literally anything is possible. It's why we love it so much.
As bad as Northwestern's start to the season has been, the defense has shown some signs of the quality that carried the team to 10 wins last year. And while Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has turned it over just twice this year, he's historically turnover-prone, and the pressure of carrying a team with suddenly high expectations will get to him. The defense—led by a resurgent Anthony Walker Jr.— will be able to keep Northwestern hanging around into the fourth quarter, where an Armstrong turnover will be the difference. Northwestern needs to win the turnover battle to have a chance, and it will do just that.
Why Northwestern won't beat Nebraska
1. Nebraska is #actually good.
It's tough to judge anything after only three games, but Nebraska is off the kind of start that has pundits proclaiming that the Cornhuskers are back. Beating Oregon doesn't mean what it used to, but the Ducks were still a ranked team at the time, and anytime you beat a program that's had that type of success in recent years, people notice. It's the type of victory Riley can use as evidence that, after a disappointing opening season, he has the program headed in the right direction. There's a real possibility Nebraska can get to 7-0 (its next four games are at Northwestern, vs. Illinois, at Indiana, vs. Purdue), so this team has every one of its goals in front of them and is a serious contender to win the Big Ten West. And because there's no particularly difficult game on the horizon, don't expect Nebraska to overlook Northwestern. Superior talent will prevail.
2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. will tear up Northwestern's defense.
Armstrong, a redshirt senior who became the starter midway through his freshman season, is off to a sensational start. Interceptions have plagued him the past two seasons—he threw 36 interceptions in his first 33 games as the starter—but those woes might be behind him, as he's thrown just a single interception on the young season. Armstrong has thrown for 685 yards and 7 touchdowns, and boasts 4 rushing touchdowns while averaging 49.7 rushing yards per contest. The offense is built around him and, if the unit's S&P+ ranking of 14th is any indication, he seems up to the task of carrying it. He has two solid wide receivers in Alonzo Moore and Jordan Westerkamp (who has particularly fond memories of playing Northwestern) and faces a Northwestern secondary that gave up 279 passing yards to Duke and will still be without its best corner in Matthew Harris and safety Kyle Queiro. The forecast is clear, so expect Nebraska to air it out.
3. Nebraska's aggressive secondary will intercept Clayton Thorson multiple times.
Nebraska's secondary is experienced and aggressive, with six picks through three games. Thorson still struggles mightily with accuracy and has just a 49 percent completion rate on the season so far. Northwestern needs to win the turnover battle and play a clean game to have a chance to pull off the upset, but a couple of errant Thorson throws will find Nebraska's defenders' welcoming arms. That'll doom Northwestern to a 1-3 start.