For the first time in over a month, Northwestern football has momentum.
After a resilient, important win against Michigan State in East Lansing, the Wildcats must take care of business against a reeling Nebraska team at home. But, as this NU team has shown this season, that’s no given.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who don’t necessarily understand what it takes to win every week,” Pat Fitzgerald said at his Monday press conference. “And every week is its own season.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get consistent, this team,” he later added.
Northwestern shuffled its depth chart this week, opting to give younger players like Kyric McGowan and Nik Urban starting nods. In a constant search for the best 11 on each side of the ball, Fitzgerald is looking for the right combinations.
This week, Northwestern faces a Nebraska team that desperately needs its first win of the season in Scott Frost’s first season as head coach in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers have struggled, but Adrian Martinez, a rookie dual-threat quarterback, presents a difficult challenge for a NU defense that has struggled against athletic signal-callers this season and in past years.
“He’s a magician right now,” Fitzgerald said of Martinez.
A win this week is important for a few reasons. First, even after beating the Spartans last week, bowl eligibility is no guarantee. S&P+ still gives NU just a 47 percent chance to become bowl eligible, so losing a game to winless Nebraska would put Northwestern behind the eight ball again, and would represent a major step backward after a good performance last week.
Plus, winning this week would put the Wildcats a week closer to a dream scenario: being 4-1 in Big Ten play (theoretically after beating Nebraska and Rutgers) and entering a huge game against Wisconsin, with the inside track in Big Ten West on the line. It’s crazy to think that Northwestern — after losing to Akron and getting beat down by Duke — has a chance to win the division, but the path is there. Obviously, beating Nebraska is a must for that to be a possibility.
The Wildcats also need to win this week because they’re the better team. Nebraska has some talented playmakers offensively, but nothing Northwestern’s defense can’t deal with. Clayton Thorson got back on track last week against a defense stronger than Nebraska’s, and this is a prime opportunity for the running game to get going. The Cornhuskers rank No. 126 in rushing marginal explosiveness defensively, meaning they give up a lot of big plays in the running game.
Northwestern started last season in funk similar to this season’s, but got in a rhythm and ripped eight straight wins to close the season. The schedule is much more difficult this season, but now would be the right time for NU to get on a roll.
Nebraska may be winless, but this game won’t be a cakewalk for Northwestern. That shouldn’t even have to be said after a loss to Akron, but the line has moved to just NU -3.5, and Nebraska is hungry. There probably won’t be much of a home field advantage for the Wildcats either. Despite Saturday being homecoming in Evanston, expect Nebraska fans to invade Ryan Field in large numbers.
Regardless of the outside circumstances, Northwestern has proved itself to be a better team than Nebraska this season. But, none of that matters Saturday. Northwestern needs to prove it at Ryan Field come 11:00 a.m. CT.