Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. 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.
Ask any Nebraska fan, player, coach or administrator, and they’ll likely tell you that their team is the reason that the Big Ten decided to play this fall after initially postponing the season to 2021. Whether or not they’re right is up for you to decide, but with football back, UNL will have a chance — albeit a slim one after drawing Ohio State and Penn State in cross-divisional play — to prove their doubters wrong and post a winning record for the first time under program legend and third-year head coach Scott Frost. Led by dual-threat QB Adrian Martinez, let’s take a look at the Huskers.
Returning Production: 76 percent (Offense 92 percent, Defense 59 percent)
2019 record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Scott Frost
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.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 55th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 41st
2019 S&P+ Defense: 63rd
The Huskers entered the 2019 season as the Vegas favorites to follow Northwestern as Big Ten West Champions but ultimately fell far short of expectations and a division title. Their season started much more successfully than their last, though, going 2-1 in nonconference play with wins over South Alabama and Northern Illinois and a loss to Colorado to start the year. In their first Big Ten game of the season, the Huskers eked out a comeback win against Illinois in Urbana-Champaign on the back of QB Adrian Martinez, who posted nearly 450 total yards and three touchdowns.
Their 3-1 record to start the season was enough to bring ESPN’s College GameDay to Lincoln for their duel with Ohio State. With anticipation high for Lee Corso and the crew’s first visit to UNL since 2007, the Huskers put up a disappointing performance, getting pummeled in primetime by the Buckeyes, 48-7. Next, they capitalized on a litany of miscues from Northwestern to defeat the Wildcats 13-10 on a last second field goal before suffering another beatdown at the hands of Minnesota a week later.
The remainder of UNL’s season consisted of a few close losses to Indiana, Purdue and Iowa, another double-digit loss to a ranked opponent against Wisconsin, and a rout of Maryland, which all combined to bring the Huskers’ final record out to 4-8. Nebraska’s offense and defense were both fairly average among FBS programs, ranking 72nd and 66th in points scored and allowed per game, respectively.
If the Huskers are going to have a stronger side of the ball in 2020, it’s likely to be the offense, which as of February, retained the second largest chunk of its production in the nation at 92 percent. While this data doesn’t take into account the transfer of JD Spielman — the receiver who posted over 800 yards receiving in each of his three seasons in Lincoln and ranked third in program history in receiving yardage before straying for TCU — several key pieces remain from the 2019 season that could make Nebraska difficult to defend in 2020.
At the center of UNL’s offense is Adrian Martinez, who is entering his third season as the Huskers’ starting quarterback. Martinez took a step back from his freshman year success in 2019, passing for over 600 fewer yards and seven fewer touchdowns last season while adding an additional interception to his stat line. With Spielman gone, Martinez will have to find a different primary target than he has had in his first two seasons, a role that will likely be assigned to sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson.
Much like Spielman, Robinson is a smaller-sized receiver, coming in at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds compared to Spielman’s 5-foot-9, 167 pound frame. However, unlike Spielman, Robinson’s game is rooted entirely in his speed, which he’s shown time and again he has plenty of. For starters, he ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at a recruiting combine in high school, and when he wasn’t busy receiving last season, he put up 340 yards and three touchdowns running the football.
Speaking of running the ball, the Huskers’ go-to running back Dedrick Mills is back for his senior season. A former transfer from Georgia Tech, Mills carried for 745 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, in addition to catching 15 passes for 123 yards. A power back, Mills finds most of his success on runs up the middle. His style of play compliments Martinez well and allows for reliable short yardage gains when his quarterback elects not to keep the ball on option plays.
While the offense is set to return many key starters that found success in 2019, UNL’s defensive front will be looking for new playmakers after losing six key starters and seven of their top-14 leading tacklers. These losses come on top of the fact that defense has been the main source of disappointment thus far in the Scott Frost era. All too often for Nebraska fans, the Huskers couldn’t make key stops against opposing offenses — at least non-2019 Northwestern offenses — leading them to allow the 10th most yards and the 11th most points in the Big Ten last season.
The biggest area of concern for UNL is the defensive line, where a relatively strong starting group of twins Carlos and Khalil Davis and nose tackle Darrion Daniels have departed. Redshirt senior Ben Stille will now be the line’s anchorman after finishing third on the team in tackles for loss last year with 6.5. Elsewhere on the defense at linebacker, a position of need for the Cornhuskers over the last few seasons, last year’s leading tackler Mohamed Barry is also gone, along with former starting OLB Alex Davis. Will Honus, who leads all returning players in tackles, will need to fill Barry’s shoes as best he can with support from JoJo Domann on the outside.
In the defensive backfield, leading cornerback Lamar Jackson is the main departee. Dicaprio Bootle will step into an enhanced role while Cam Taylor-Britt and Marquel Dismuke also provide veteran experience and hard-hitting ability. Peyton Ramsey started Indiana’s game against Nebraska last year and had himself a day, throwing for a career high 351 yards and adding three total touchdowns, so he’ll look to have similar success once again should he be named Northwestern’s starter.
Three Players to Know
Adrian Martinez, QB
Offensively, Nebraska will go as far as Adrian Martinez will take them this season. He’s exhibited the ability to put up big performances against quality teams, such as his freshman year game at Ohio State, where he put up 338 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. In his sophomore season, though, Martinez displayed less consistency, going a stretch of four starts last season with only one total passing touchdown. Supported by a likely weaker defense this year than in seasons prior, Martinez will have to avoid mediocre outings if Nebraska wants to finally break their streak of losing seasons.
Wan’Dale Robinson, WR
Greg Newsome II will be tasked with trying to slow down a receiver whose highlight tape often looks more like track and field footage than football clips. The only remaining receiver from last year’s team, Robinson will likely garner plenty of targets against all of Nebraska’s opponents this year but perhaps especially against Northwestern, who allowed Robinson 123 receiving yards in 2019 — his most in a game that season.
Cam Taylor-Britt, CB
On a defense that is replacing more starters from the previous season than it is returning, Taylor-Britt will need to be a reliable pass defender. After receiving All-Big Ten honorable mention at safety last year, he is now listed on Nebraska’s website as a corner, perhaps an indication that he’ll schematically replace Lamar Jackson instead of keeping his old position. Regardless of where in the secondary he lines up, Taylor-Britt will have to limit big plays while maintaining his knack for generating turnovers after forcing a total of seven last season.