The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up are the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who have a roster filled with talent, but their records in the past few seasons haven’t matched up with that talent.
Returning Production: 72 percent overall (Offense 56 percent, Defense 88 Percent)
2020 Record: 3-5
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.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 31st
2020 S&P+ Offense: 32nd
2020 S&P+ Defense: 37th
With Scott Frost, a two-time national champion as the QB of the ‘Huskers back in the 1990s, entering his 3rd season at the helm in Lincoln, many were expecting him to help Nebraska reach a bowl game for the first time in his tenure at the very least. After all, this was the same guy who had taken UCF from 0-12 to 13-0 in just two seasons, with that perfect season culminating in a self-proclaimed national championship. Thus, taking a team that finished 5-7 in 2019 to .500 shouldn’t have been an unreasonable expectation.
Nebraska and Frost proved must have thought otherwise. The Cornhuskers opened their season on the road facing the eventual conference champions in Ohio State and were demolished 52-17, as they were outdone in almost every facet of the game. They then traveled to Evanston to face the ‘Cats, and while they outgained Northwestern by over 100 yards and picked up twice the amount of first downs, they lost late 21-13 thanks to some untimely turnovers. While an 0-2 start wasn’t ideal for Scott Frost’s squad, they had faced two of the best teams in the conference, so it was excusable.
Nebraska got back on track at home in Week 3 with a 30-23 victory over a very injury-laden Penn State, only to turn around and get massively outclassed by a very poor Illinois team. The Fighting Illini put up almost 500 yards of offense and forced 5 takeaways in what would be Nebraska’s worst performance and result of the season — a 41-23 loss. The lack of defense and ball security were the two defining traits of the ‘Huskers’ 2020 season, and that Illinois game was a paragon for their team’s identity.
After the Illinois defeat, Nebraska headed to Kinnick Stadium to create another edition of their Black Friday rivalry with the Iowa Hawkeyes, but disappointingly fell 26-20 in another close game. A 37-27 win at Purdue kept the dream of a bowl game alive, but it didn’t last for very long, as they came up short in a close game once again, falling to Minnesota by a score of 24-17. In their final match of the season, despite turning the ball over 4 more times than their opponent, the Huskers’ offense put up over 600 yards of offense and won 28-21 at Rutgers.
For the fourth straight season, Nebraska would fail to be bowl eligible, and the ‘Huskers had two players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
As was previously mentioned in this article, one of Nebraska’s biggest issues last season was turning the ball over, and their 1-3 record in one possession games exemplifies how costly turnovers can be. The Huskers were a middle of the road squad in yards per game and well below average in points per game, but ball security can be a remedy for other offensive struggles.
Entering his fourth season as the starting quarterback, Adrian Martinez hasn’t been the savior for Nebraska’s offense that many were expecting him to be when he won the starting job as a true freshman. The California native has had problems with his downfield accuracy and holding onto the ball when he’s gotten out of the pocket, which led to him being benched in favor of Luke McCaffrey for part of the 2020 campaign, although he did win the job back and finish the season well. With McCaffrey now at Rice, the success of the offense will come down to his play and decision-making, and if he can clean up areas of his game, they could be a major problem for opposing defenses.
There’s a significant lack of experience at the running back spot, with as many as of five players being in contention to start in Week 1. Marvin Scott III, who rushed for 62 yards as a true freshman last year, is the frontrunner right now, but that could still change during preseason practices.
As far as pass-catchers go, Martinez still has a sure target from the tight end position in Austin Allen, who is their leading returning receiver with 18 catches for 236 yards. Dynamic playmaker Wan’Dale Robinson transferred to Kentucky, so the Huskers face significant question marks in their wide receiver room, with much of their projected production coming from transfers Oliver Martin, Omar Manning and Samori Toure.
The Huskers had two offensive linemen selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but despite those losses, there is still optimism that the unit that was one of the best in the conference last year will be even better in 2021. Overall, the offense will have to take a major step forward for Frost to have success this year, and by the time the ‘Cats have to travel to Lincoln at the start of October, we should have a clearer picture of whether last year’s problems have been properly addressed and solved.
The “Blackshirts” weren’t the most dominant version of themselves in 2020, but they still were above average nationally in yards allowed per game (50th) and average points allowed per game (65th). With almost all the key contributors back from last year, Nebraska’s defense might be able to return to that true “Blackshirt” form.
In the trenches, the ‘Huskers have an extremely seasoned rotation, headlined by ends Ben Stille, a sixth-year senior, and Casey Rodgers, now in his fourth year. DT’s Damion Daniels and Ty Robinson will look to clog up the middle, and generating more pressure on the QB could be one of the factors that takes this defense to the next level.
Nebraska is very strong in the linebacking corps, but a serious knee injury suffered in spring practice by Will Honas, the leading returning tackler, will weaken the group slightly. Luke Reimer, a third-year, will be expected to become the leader of this defense, while sixth-year JoJo Domann will supplement the experience lost following the departure of Honas.
Safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke headline the Nebraska secondary, while cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who snagged two interceptions last season, will be the top dog out wide.
The Huskers have a copious amount of experience in their defense, but the biggest question still remains: will their experience translate into results on the field?
Three Players to Know
QB Adrian Martinez
Nebraska’s success this season comes down to a few key factors, and Martinez is in control of most of those. To be frank, he hasn’t looked like a QB that could win 8+ games since his freshman year, and if he doesn’t fill the holes in his game, Nebraska’s offense and performance will suffer. He’s extremely talented, throws a nice ball and is extremely mobile, as he’s tricky to bring down once he escapes the pocket. No matter how much inexperience the Huskers have at their other skill positions, good QB play can make up for it. If he’s playing to the level he’s showed that at times he’s capable of, opposing defenses could be in for some long afternoons.
LB Luke Reimer
Reimer had 40 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in eight games as a sophomore last season, and it looks like he’ll be tasked as the heart of the Huskers’ defense in 2021. There’s a lot of excitement regarding his future prospects in the NFL from his coaches and media around Lincoln, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Reimer’s name popped up on one of the All-Big Ten teams when all is said and done.
CB Cam Taylor-Britt
Taylor-Britt is a nightmare for opposing receivers. With Dicaprio Bootle gone, Taylor-Britt will now draw the assignment of covering the number one receiver week in and week out, and as someone who already has an All-Big Ten team designation under his belt, he will be one of the premier corners in the conference. He had 28 tackles and 2 interceptions in 2020, but because he’s such a good cover corner, those stats might drop just a tad as opposing offenses adjust their gameplays to avoid throwing toward his side of the field.