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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Nebraska

Two reeling teams meet in a game that both need to win. Here’s what to look out for.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite getting shellacked by Ohio State, Nebraska enters this contest as a touchdown favorite, and Northwestern hasn’t showed us much to argue with that line. Both squads are coming off of a loss, but the real NU enters on a two-game skid. Here are the matchups to watch as the ‘Cats take on the ‘Huskers.

Northwestern’s QB vs. the Nebraska secondary

Justin Fields and the Buckeyes had their way with a Cornhuskers defensive backs group that has gotten torched all year. Nebraska has given up over 400 yards per game this season, and has conceded 35+ points on three occasions already. But this is the Northwestern passing game we’re talking about, and it may even be without Hunter Johnson.

No matter who starts for the ‘Cats at quarterback, it won’t be Justin Fields, but it will be the weakest passing defense Northwestern will see since UNLV. In that game, Johnson was able to find his rhythm to an extent and play his best game of the year. Either he or Aidan Smith will have to perform at an equal or better level if NU is going to have a good chance to win this game, because it will be difficult for a run game averaging 3.6 YPC to do it alone.

Northwestern’s defense vs. creating turnovers

While this isn’t a direct matchup, it will have a profound impact on Saturday’s result. The Ohio State secondary was able to force Adrian Martinez into three interceptions, allowing the Buckeyes to stifle any momentum Nebraska created. Northwestern must prey on an over-eager Martinez to allow the offense to start possessions with better field position.

If the Wildcats aren’t able to generate turnovers from Martinez and the rest of the team, the offense will find itself in a similar spot to the past two weeks: handcuffing an already struggling group by making them start without solid field position. And for a team like this, that just won’t work. When Ray Niro III recovered a muffed punt in plus territory, NU was able to capitalize and get in the endzone for a momentum-changing score. By contrast, it only reached pay dirt on one occasion when starting on its own side of the field.

Northwestern’s defensive ends vs. containing Adrian Martinez

Another key aspect of Martinez’s game is his ability to get outside of the pocket and scramble. He currently leads Nebraska in rushing and is one of the most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Northwestern also has a propensity for struggling to contain running quarterbacks. It’s not a great combination.

It will be imperative for Joe Gaziano, Samdup Miller, and Earnest Brown IV in particular to set the edge when rushing the quarterback, forcing Martinez to remain in a collapsing pocket. Northwestern may also opt to use a spy on Martinez, but it would be a massive boost if the defense didn’t always have to allocate an extra player to defending Martinez’s running ability. Being able to disguise Paddy Fisher’s whereabouts has proven to be a vital weapon for this NU defense, and a smart pass rush will be crucial in allowing the linebacker to do that.