Every week 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.
The Big Ten opener pits Northwestern against Nebraska at Ryan Field. We talked to the guys over at Corn Nation to get some insight.
1) Tommy Armstrong still has his ever-present low completion percentage, but he's taken a big step forward not turning the ball over. How do you feel he has developed since last season, and can he continue to avoid the mistakes that plagued him in his early years?
Greg: I think it’s all about his decision-making, which has been light years ahead this season. “Minimizing mistakes.” That’s the beaten drum of the coaching staff. But I also think he’s grown as a player, and it an overall smarter player than he was a year ago. I think he has more faith in himself and will tuck n run when necessary.
Jon: I don’t think he’s actually changed all that much. He still has a tendency to stare down his receivers (Jordan Westerkamp, mostly). He still has a tendency to #YOLOBOMB over throwing to a checkdown. I think the coaches have done a better job of putting him in situations to succeed than anything he’s done himself.
Mike: In other words, the coaches finally realized that Nebraska is going to lose games throwing the ball 50 times a game. Run the ball 60% or more, and utilize Armstrong’s other skills.
Andy: The Oregon game was a nice step in the right direction, but Oregon’s defense is atrocious and after 3 years of some goofy decision-making at bad times, I’m going to need a little more of a sample size this season before declaring that he’s turned the corner. That being said, the Oregon game was fun to watch.
2) After having a very solid defense last season, Nebraska has taken a step back in that area this year. Who's to blame, and who are some names Northwestern fans should expect to be called a lot on the defensive side of the ball?
Jon: LOL Wut. Nebraska’s defense was horrifying last season. HORRIFYING. Maybe it got a little better at the end of season… NO. Perhaps it was a solid as a banana. Bananas can be very solid at -10 degrees, so solid that they can be used as a murder weapon. It was very cold last winter. Perhaps this is the source of your confusion?
Having stomped on that — our defensive secondary overall is young, but has the makings of greatness. Safety Nate Gerry is the established guy. Cornerback Kieron Williams is making waves as a terrific new starter.
Andy: If you considered last year’s defense solid, I would suggest raising your standards just a tad. The 2015 unit dropped off from 2014, most notably in pass defense & gave up over 400 yards/gm. They made some nice holds when needed against Oregon and appear to have a much-improved pass rush. The downside is that Oregon’s O-line started four freshmen and the Ducks still managed to gash us for over 300 yards rushing at 7 yards per carry. So, once again, this is a work in progress, and for now, I remain unconvinced that a corner has been turned. Michael Rose-Ivey appeared to be full speed for the 1st time in a couple years and if that’s the case, he’s one of the best LB’s in the Big 10 – expect to hear his name a few times Saturday night.
3) How on earth is Jordan Westerkamp (NU's least favorite Husker) still at Nebraska? He has been there forever. Anyway, who are Armstrong's top targets, and what do they bring to the table against a young NU secondary?
Greg: Westercatch is the best. He’ll always be Tommy’s go-to, as they are best friends and roommates and all those things the announcers talk about every broadcast. But Alonzo Moore has shown the ability to stretch the field and be a nice downfield threat. Also keep your eyes on Cethan Carter, as he will be a mismatch problem for your entire defense. You can’t cover CC11!
Mike: I haven't found a single NU fan who hates Westy; in fact, Husker fans actually love the guy. If you think Westerkamp has been around forever is because his first big game was against NW. Anyway, I suspect you’ll see him drafted by the Packers or Vikings, so you should remain familiar with him.
Andy: Well, if Westy’s giving off the Buster Rhymes Effect, it’s only because he hit the ground running as our #3 receiver as true freshman – but seriously, this is only year 4. As far as top targets besides his Stache-ness, Northwestern’s secondary is in trouble as the WR corps is hands-down the real NU’s biggest strength. Westy, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, DPE, Stanley Morgan & Cethan Carter are all legitimate targets and are the best receiving unit in the conference. If Tommie can be moderately accurate, they will rack up some yards through the air.
4) What's one thing that you're worried about most in this matchup?
Jon: HOW MANY FRIGGIN’ PLAYERS ARE WE GOING TO LOSE TO INJURY ON THAT DAMNED THING YOU CALL A FOOTBALL FIELD?
Greg: Well, Jon took my answer.
Andy: Three things – 1) A letdown on the road after the euphoria of the Ducks win. 2) A lack of respect for 1-2 Northwestern because of a failure to realize that Oregon just isn’t that good and, Illinois St. loss aside, the Wildcats aren’t that bad. Offensively challenged, yes, but the defense looks very tough and that can sometimes be enough. 3) You guys almost always play us tough regardless of records.
5) What's Husker fans' general opinion on Mike Riley? Did the Oregon win finally validate him in the eyes of supporters?
Jon: He’s validated for a week. Then he has to win again. When he finally loses, it will be as if he’s never won a game at Nebraska in his life. That’s how it is at Nebraska - one week you’re a god, the next week you’re roasted alive.
Greg: I think the hot seat cooled considerably after the win over UCLA. Helped cleanse the palate. Topping Oregon was I think more for Riley than it was for Nebraska. But it’s always nice to start 3-0 and head into conference play undefeated.
Mike: He used his mulligan last season. Nebraska fans aren’t necessarily about winning specific games, but winning championships, and Mike Riley has to get Nebraska moving in that direction very quickly.
Andy: Opinions are still split. The Oregon win was nice and I think everyone was happy to see him get that monkey off of his back. But he’s still got to navigate a Big 10 schedule in winning fashion before validation happens. The Big 10 West is arguably the weakest of any Power 5 division and last year’s 1-5 mark against those foes was unacceptable. While a division title RIGHT NOW may not be necessary, he needs to mount a strong challenge for it this season, or the heat will turn right back up.
6) Prediction time: Who's walking out of Ryan Field with a victory on Saturday night and why?
Greg: Huskers. They will be one shiny, white blur of light and you can’t stop what you can’t see. Plus, let’s face it...you’re not good at the football this year.
Jon: Nebraska. 42-28.
Mike: The team that hasn’t already lost games to MAC and 1-AA teams.
Andy: A fairly boring affair in the ankle-high weeds of Evanston before a crowd that is 65% dressed in red. Nebraska fakes an extra point at the end of the first overtime and Zach Darlington hits an uncovered 6’9” RT David Knevel for two as NU stuns the Wildcats 28-27.