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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Nebraska

The Wildcats look to claim sole possession of first place in the B1G West with Purdue off this weekend.

Northwestern takes on Nebraska at Ryan Field at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Huskers beat the ‘Cats 13-10 on a game-winning field goal last season in a contest that featured a total of 19 punts. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will continue its undefeated start and three reasons it won’t.

Why Northwestern will beat Nebraska

Northwestern contains Wan’Dale Robinson

When Northwestern last faced the Cornhuskers in 2019, then-true freshman wideout Wan’Dale Robinson dominated the Wildcat defense for a total of 167 yards from scrimmage, with 44 on the ground and 123 through the air. He caught six balls in Week One, four more than any other wide receiver on the team. Although Northwestern could be without top corner Greg Newsome II for the third straight week, the play of its secondary has been admirable so far, particularly that of redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph. Keeping Robinson in check is critical if NU wants to win defensively.

The Wildcat backfield finds success on the ground

Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson were extremely effective in the season opener against a weak Maryland defense, averaging a combined 5.2 yards per carry. But they struggled last week versus a stronger Iowa front seven, averaging a measly 2.7 yards per attempt. The two should have ample opportunities to go to work again this Saturday. The Husker rush gave up an average of 188 rushing yards per game in 2019 and allowed 215 rushing yards to Ohio State two weeks ago. Establishing the run game is clearly an important factor of Mike Bajakian’s offense, and when Bowser, Anderson and Jesse Brown can find success, so does the rest of the unit.

The defense continues to force turnovers

The Wildcats have already recorded seven takeaways in just two games this season, tied for most in the Big Ten. That’s half of their total from all of 2019. Led by strong play from the veteran linebackers and the new-look secondary, Mike Hankwitz’s unit has looked elite so far and will look to keep that trend going against the Huskers. Nebraska likes to establish the run in several different ways, meaning turnovers through the air might be harder to come by, so it’ll be up to the front seven to disrupt quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey and running back Dedrick Mills.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Nebraska

Nebraska’s running game is too much to handle

Despite putting up just 17 points at Ohio State, the UNL offense ranks 23rd in ESPN’s latest SP+ rankings. Its combination of dual-threat quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, along with senior running back Dedrick Mills and redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins, ran to the tune of 6.3 YPC on 35 carries against the Buckeyes. The ‘Cats have been solid against the run thus far, allowing just 70.5 yards rushing yards per game, but they are in for a tough matchup this Saturday.

Northwestern’s offensive play calling gets complacent

After scoring their third touchdown of the game against Iowa with 6:05 left in the third quarter, the ‘Cats failed to put together a drive of more than seven plays. The defense bailed them out with three key interceptions, but holding your opponent scoreless in the second half is not a sustainable strategy for success. Against a more dynamic offense in Nebraska, the offense will need to keep its foot on the gas throughout the entire game. As we’ve learned after years in the McCall era, things can easily end in heartbreak and disappointment when play calling becomes repetitive and overly cautious.

Nebraska’s rest and preparation pays off

In Monday’s press conference, Fitz said that facing the Huskers coming off of a quasi-bye was “a big advantage for Nebraska.” Even though Scott Frost may have said otherwise, having extra time to rest up and prepare, especially during an abnormal week as a result of no practice on Election Day, certainly doesn’t hurt. While it remains to be seen how Nebraska will come out in the first quarter, its added rest and preparation could make all the difference in this one.