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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Nebraska

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Containing Adrian Martinez will be key, as will just the general ability to complete passes.

Nebraska v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Sitting at 0-2 in conference play and 1-3 overall, the Wildcats travel to Lincoln to take on Nebraska. It should be yet another intriguing contest between two teams fighting to turn their seasons in the right direction. Here are three reasons Northwestern is going to leave Memorial Stadium with its first B1G win, and three reasons it will be unable to:

Will

Northwestern forces Adrian Martinez to turn the ball over

Nebraska’s sophomore quarterback was a preseason Heisman candidate, but he hasn’t reached that level or anywhere close to it so far in 2019. Though the Huskers have averaged 31 points per game this season, Martinez has been careless with the football and has made some poor decisions.

He has already thrown five interceptions and lost four fumbles on the year, and he was picked off on three of UNL’s first four drives against Ohio State, effectively putting the game out of reach by the middle of the second quarter. The Wildcats’ defense did its job last week and forced a key turnover from Jack Coan against a Wisconsin team that was trying their best to avoid them, and making Martinez make mistakes to potentially set up shorter fields for the offense is key against an opposing offense that is more willing to take chances.

Someone in the wide receivers room steps up

The ‘Cats have averaged 151 yards per game on the ground, which isn’t phenomenal but also isn’t the obvious point of needed improvement it was at this time last year. Through the air, though, 141 yards per contest (most of which seemingly come in garbage time) just isn’t going to cut it.

NU has struggled to throw the ball, and that can be attributed to many factors, be it youth and inexperience, poor play calling and coaching, or just a lack of execution. But I’m looking at the wide receivers room Saturday.

Bennett Skowronek is out for at least a month with his ankle injury, and there needs to be somebody who is going to step up and make himself a safety blanket for Hunter Johnson. Riley Lees has made big plays at times, and so have Kyric McGowan, JJ Jefferson and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. If one of them steps up to consistently make plays, à la Flynn Nagel against these Huskers last year, NU can take advantage of a still-developing Nebraska secondary.

The Wildcats win the special teams battle

Northwestern’s special teams game has steadily improved from the beginning of the season. Charlie Kuhbander looks like a confident kicker, Daniel Kubiuk has provided solid punts and the kick return unit, led by Lees, has been more dangerous than ever.

On the other side, Nebraska has had major kicking troubles — three placekickers are a combined 2-for-7 on field goals — and we saw NU pull out a miracle win last year by winning the kicking game. In what could very well be another down-to-the-wire contest, it may be the third phase that gets Northwestern its first conference win.

Won’t

The offensive line struggles with protection again

Nebraska doesn’t boast nearly the defensive line or pressure that Wisconsin has, but there were too many free rushers coming at Hunter Johnson last week, and it cost Northwestern dearly. Avery’s film study earlier this week shows that a combination of the inability to either recognize and communicate the protections as well as a failure to execute them has doomed the offense in recent contests.

It helps that Khalil Davis, one of the Huskers’ starting defensive linemen, is suspended for this Saturday, but regardless, if the offense can’t pick up simple pressures and make the right blocks, it’ll be another paltry showing.

Adrian Martinez uses his dual-threat ability to run free

We highlighted Martinez’s penchant to turn the ball over, but there is a reason he was so highly regarded. Northwestern fans saw him torch their defense both on the ground and through the air last year, and his ability to extend plays with his legs and execute designed runs makes Scott Frost’s offense dangerous.

NU has struggled at times in the recent past with containing dual-threat quarterbacks, and if they can’t keep Martinez in the pocket it could be a long day full of RPOs, zone reads and read options.

Mick McCall refuses to call pass plays of 20+ yards

At the top of the ‘Cats’ offensive struggles (and fans’ complaints) is the play calling by offensive coordinator Mick McCall. His offense has shown little creativity or potency. Only against the porous defense of UNLV did the Wildcats show any kind of big play threat through the air.

It is hard to dial up deep shots when protection by the offensive line isn’t great, but the lack of them against MSU and Wisconsin certainly doesn’t scare defenses. Nebraska’s defense, while susceptible, is improved and would also be comfortable against a dink-and-dunk scheme. Hunter Johnson could use the rhythmic fourth-quarter playbook that Aidan Smith got in Madison. If not, we will see more of the third-worst offense in the country.