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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 6: Nebraska

The Huskers won four games last year but are picked by many to win the West?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Nebraska at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Northwestern travels to Lincoln to face Nebraska on October 5 to cap a three-game stretch that includes opponents Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Cats have won two straight versus the Huskers, both coming in overtime. The Wildcats defeated the Cornhuskers 31-24 in 2017 and 34-31 in overtime in a wild game last year that nearly derailed NU’s season but instead catapulted it forward.

The Basics

Returning production: 59 percent (Offense 55 percent, Defense 57 percent)

2018 record: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)

Coach: Scott Frost (2nd season, 4-8)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2018 S&P+ Overall: 49th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 42th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 55th

2019 S&P+ Projection (Feb. 11): 45th

2018 Capsule

Scott Frost’s first year was no honeymoon period with his squad starting off 0-6, but it was not for a lack of talent. There were plenty of playmakers, especially on offense, but a porous offensive line and defense that struggled mightily against the run derailed any hopes of a fairytale homecoming for the new head coach. However, the Cornhuskers put things together at the end of the year, finishing their final six games with a 4-2 record. Those two final losses came by just a combined eight points.

With a year of experience, Frost is ready to lead his team to bowl eligibility. While the Frost hype was real last year and ended in a 4-8 season, there’s a sense around Lincoln and the Big Ten that the Huskers could be a major player in the conference. Nebraska got 14 votes, tied for the most of anyone, to win the West in the Big Ten Media preseason poll. Here’s why:

Offensive Outlook

Big Red has a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez. The dual-threat signal caller completed 65% of his passes for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns, while he ran for another 629 yards and 8 touchdowns. His mobility and ability to extend plays allowed him to mask some deficiencies of a penetrable offensive line, and Northwestern has struggled with defending QBs with his skillset before.

The offense managed 30 points per game — no small feat — and outgained its opponents by a half yard per play (6.3 to 5.8). Despite losing leading receiver Stanley Morgan (1,004 yards and 7 TDs) to graduation, the Huskers have JD Spielman ready to assume top pass-catching duties. The junior paced the team with eight scores and torched NU with a 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Scott Frost will also need to replace running back Devine Ozigbo, who burst for 1,100 yards flat and 12 touchdowns in 2018. Ozigbo was able to discerningly pick his running lanes and accelerate through. A big body, defenses struggled to get him to the ground once he got to the second level. Georgia Tech transfer Dedrick Mills looks like the plug-and-play option who could lighten Martinez’s load on the ground.

Defensive Outlook

Yuck. Look no further than trying to stop opposing offenses when remembering Nebraska’s 0-6 start. Despite the offense averaging over 450 yards of total offense per game, Nebraska allowed far too many big plays, giving up 31.2 points per game. The real trouble came up front; the Huskers had a tough time stopping the run, ceding 195 yards per game on the ground.

The good news for Scott Frost is that — besides the only place the unit can go is up — his defense has another year of experience and a healthy dose of talent. It is anchored around linebacker Mohamed Berry, who logged 112 tackles last year. One way the run defense should improve is by playing a 3-4 scheme, aided by many 300-pound bodies and the arrival of Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels, Sr. He won’t light up the stat sheet, but he’s the type of player who can wreck an interior game plan.

Penalties on both sides of the ball killed Nebraska, especially on defense. It ranked 116th nationally in flags, giving up 71 free yards per game. The secondary was an oft-targeted group that drew many penalties, and the potential lack of depth behind veterans DiCaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson — who combined for 67 tackles and 22 pass breakups — could lead to more laundry-filled Saturday afternoons in Lincoln.

Three Players to Know

QB Adrian Martinez

Martinez has been well-documented above in this article. Nebraska’s season both starts and stops with the signal caller. There’s not much more to say about his production and Heisman potential, but his success will largely depend on the play of his offensive line.

DT Darrion Daniels

A disruptive body on the defensive line can help turn this defense from pitiful into formidable. Though injuries plagued his last season, he’s reunited with his younger brother in Lincoln and can make his senior year count.

C Cam Jurgens

There’s an interesting story with this redshirt freshman. The coaching staff converted him from a tight end to the likely starting center. Jurgens has struggled with injuries as he’s bulked up for the position change, but he could be an instrumental piece on the o-line for Martinez and whoever is beside him in the backfield.