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Three Matchups to Watch: Nebraska

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This week offers Northwestern a chance to build a two-dimensional offense.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern earned a much needed win in East Lansing this past weekend, leaving the Cats’ at 2-3 on the season and 2-1 in the Big Ten. Although they may seem unrealistic, the goals for the season are still very much in play. To achieve them, however, Northwestern must beat their foe this week, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska and its first year head coach Scott Frost are off to a brutal start to the season, having yet to pick up a win. Here are the key matchups that will play a part in the outcome on Saturday.

Adrian Martinez vs. the Northwestern secondary

Despite the poor results in terms of record, Adrian Martinez has been a bright spot on the season for Nebraska. The freshman has played in four out of Nebraska’s five games (he missed the game against Troy due to injury), and has showcased why he’s capable of becoming a key player for Scott Frost. This past week, Martinez threw for 384 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions in a loss to Wisconsin. After the game, Frost had a glowing remark for the quarterback.

Man, is he going to be a special player.

Martinez is also very capable of running the ball. He has 253 yards and three touchdowns on the season, including this 41 yard TD scamper against Colorado.

He’s a talented player, and while the Northwestern secondary showed some promise against MSU, it also displayed its vulnerabilities, giving up 329 yards and one touchdown to a combination of 10 different receivers. It’ll be paramount on Saturday to be able to contain Martinez and his legs.

Northwestern’s running backs vs. Mohamed Barry and Dedrick Young

Fitz categorized the NU running game as “yuck” in the weekly Monday press conference.

We kind of suck at it right now. It’s amazing we go from the all-time leading rusher to yuck.

He’s not wrong. Since losing Jeremy Larkin, NU has ran the ball 54 times for 36 yards, including sacks. The offense is extremely one-dimensional right now, and that’s something that NU will have a chance to address this week. Nebraska has the No. 109 run defense in the country, giving up over five yards per carry. This is a prime opportunity for Northwestern to find some rhythm in the running game.

The main factors that stand in the way of establishing the run go by the names of Mohamed Barry and Dedrick Young. Barry is an inside linebacker that is incredibly efficient. He has 45 tackles in 5fiveweeks, 13 more than the next leading tackler for Nebraska. On the outside is Young, who has 32 tackles on the season. If Adam Cushing & Co. can find a way to contain the impact of the two linebackers, there’s a good chance NU will be able to find the running game that it has been missing.

Northwestern’s receiving corps vs. Creating separation

This applies to the Nebraska game, but is also key for the rest of the season. Leading up to the game against MSU, Northwestern’s receivers did not do a great job of creating separation beyond the line of scrimmage. This left Thorson with awkward and tight throws to make. Against MSU, NU receivers began to create the separation needed to give Thorson comfortable throws.

Thorson still had to make tight throws against MSU, such as the TD throw to JJ Jefferson, which could not have been placed any better.

Nebraska’s leading cornerbacks, Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson, are solid but not special players, and Nebraska as a team has given up 231 yards per game in the air. It is a secondary that has plenty of vulnerabilities, so, much like the running game, receivers will have an opportunity to further the separation they’re getting on the secondary. It is imperative for the Nebraska game, as well as in upcoming weeks, that Northwestern pass-catchers create separation and give Thorson safe throws to make.