Coming off a huge overtime win over a ranked Michigan State team, the Northwestern Wildcats (5-3, 3-2 B1G) now take on Mike Riley’s Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-4, 3-2 B1G) in one of the toughest environments in college football.
1. Nebraska’s defense has not played well.
Out of Big Ten schools, Nebraska currently ranks 13th in scoring defense. They are last in pass efficiency defense. They are 12th in rushing defense, third down conversions allowed, and number of first downs. The entire unit has been injured and ineffective. Senior safety Joshua Kalu missed three games with a hamstring issue. Kalu has returned, but he hasn’t been quite up to speed. As for the linebackers, Marcus Newby has been banged up, as well as Tyrin Ferguson.
Overall, the Nebraska defense has been poorly coached and completely shredded by opposing offenses. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor ran for 249 yards and two scores in Week 6. Ohio State put up 56 points, 42 first downs, and 633 yards of offense in Lincoln. This is a good matchup for Northwestern’s offense, which has proven it can actually do things in recent times.
2. Nebraska’s offense is above average, but inefficient.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Tanner Lee and the offense have shown some signs of life. The passing offense is 15th in S&P+, and while the offensive line has been injured and cannot seem to run block, Lee has been able to find Stanley Morgan and J.D. Spielman down the field. When it works, the passing offense can be explosive, as seen by Nebraska’s drive to beat Purdue last week, in which Lee threw the ball eight times and marched down the field in under a minute.
Unfortunately, Nebraska has been extremely loose with the football. Lee has thrown 10 interceptions (to 15 TDs), and Nebraska has also had 13 fumbles this year. Luckily, only two fumbles have been recovered by the opposition, but those are still not great numbers. Lee has been much better since his abysmal three-INT performance in a loss to Northern Illinois, but the team’s struggles to establish the run game (106th in rushing, yikes) have not been good for Lee’s efficiency numbers. Nebraska is going to have to throw the ball a lot against Northwestern, which could work out well for the Huskers, as Northwestern’s secondary continues to be shaky.
3. Nebraska’s receivers are quite good.
I like to focus on the positives, so we’ll ignore the mediocre Nebraska offensive line and return game to examine Nebraska’s wide receiver corps of Stanley Morgan Jr., J.D. Spielman, Tyler Hoppes and De’Mornay Pierson-El.
These numbers are all really solid. Morgan Jr. is the standout, and he is well on his way to a 1,000-yard season. Morgan could become the first Nebraska receiver to hit the millennium mark, and he’s really good.
Morgan Jr. will probably draw Hartage, but Northwestern’s depth will also be tested by Spielman, a redshirt freshman who has burst onto the scene. Spielman is the successor to the “Nebraska slot receiver whose name shall not be mentioned” who dominated Northwestern for four years. He’s only 5-foot-9, but he’s fast and makes catches. Even Pierson-El, the nominal third option, has more receiving yards than anyone on Northwestern this year. Northwestern’s secondary will have its hands full this weekend.