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Northwestern vs. Nebraska preview: Three matchups to watch

Northwestern’s secondary will have its hands full this weekend.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

The Northwestern Wildcats are now a slight favorite for its trip to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers this weekend. Here are three matchups the Wildcats must win to make that a reality.

Nebraska wide receivers vs. Northwestern’s secondary

Freshman J.D. Spielman and junior Stanley Morgan Jr. are a dangerous combination of receivers. Morgan has put up impressive stats as well, recording 7 touchdowns in seven games and tying for 13th in receiving touchdowns. He is also 35th nationally in receiving yards, with 39 receptions for 652 yard. Morgan is particularly threatening in the red zone, as has tallied a touchdown in every game he appeared in aside from Northern Illinois. He also totaled above 100 yards in four games and averaged double digits in receiving yards each game he’s appeared in this season.

Spielman ranks 38th in the FBS poll for all-purpose yards with 119.88 yards per game, including 394 yards on 14 kickoff returns with an average of 28.1, bringing him to 13th in kickoff return standings. Although neither are used in the rushing game often, Spielman has had at least one rushing attempt in the majority of games this season. Together, the two have combined for 1,197 receiving yards this season.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, although the passing defense has improved, it still hasn’t matched the recent success of the run defense. Nebraska has a pass-heavy offense. The Cornhuskers rank 30th in passing offense with 274.4 passing yards per game, while the Wildcats rank outside the top 50 in team passing efficiency defense as the secondary has battled injuries and struggled to consistently defend the passing game. NU has faced a lot of run-heavy teams and fine-tuned their rush defense, but the secondary will have to rise to the level of the Front 7 if they’re going to limit Nebraska’s offensive yards.

Tanner Lee vs. NU’s front seven

Aside from the interceptions, junior Tanner Lee has impressive stats across the board. The 6’4 Nebraska quarterback is tied for 29th in passing touchdowns with 15 in 8 games and more than one touchdown in all but two games this season, including a three touchdown campaign against Illinois. Lee has totaled 2,140 yards on the season and is the reason for Nebraska’s top 15 passing offense by S&P. However, Lee has been largely unsuccessful on the rush, with negative net yards rushing in all but three games and a maximum of five rushing yards in a game this season.

Given the recent performances of Northwestern’s front, they should be able to contain Lee on the ground, unlike last year’s effort against Tommy Armstrong. The challenge will come from Lee’s arm. If the defensive line can hold strong and the linebackers are able to make the same explosive plays they made against Michigan State last weekend, NU should be able to shut the Nebraska passing attack down. Consistency hasn’t been much of an issue for this defense, particularly for linebackers junior SAM Nate Hall and redshirt freshman MIKE Paddy Fisher. As a whole, the Northwestern rushing defense ranks 17th nationally and 24th in tackles for loss. Paddy Fisher has been incredible. He and Nate Hall have combined for 78 tackles this season and have been consistently excellent. If they, along with the rest of the Front 7, play like they’ve been playing, they’re a tough group for any team to compete with.

Justin Jackson vs. Nebraska front seven

No surprise here. Jackson has outdone himself week after week and has proven that if he doesn’t play well, the chances of Northwestern winning decrease drastically, and vice versa. Luckily for the Wildcats, his recent play should has been nothing short of heroic. The senior running back has 7 rushing touchdowns (and a passing TD) in 8 games. Jackson has come up big in each of Northwestern’s overtime wins, with 93 rushing yards against Iowa and two touchdowns against MSU.

As for his competition, Nebraska ranks outside the top 50 for rushing defense, first downs defense, 3rd down conversion percent defense, scoring defense, and red zone defense. They have allowed far more rushing yards than they’ve gained, with opponents totaling 1,360 rushing yards and the Cornhuskers tallying only 975 rushing yards. Nebraska’s defense has lost a lot of veteran talent due to graduation and injury, and has not played very well. The defense has also allowed far more points than the Nebraska offense has earned, with their opponents outscoring them 240-206. If Jackson can tear through this defense like he’s been doing against higher ranked opponents, that would be a huge boost to the NU offense and give the Wildcats a very high chance of winning.