After three weeks of non-conference play, Northwestern returns to Big Ten country to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln this Saturday. The two teams are no strangers to one another, as they have played each other in every season since 2011. The Wildcats won the matchup last year in a low-scoring contest at Ryan Field, but both teams have looked drastically different in 2021. That being said, here are three things to know about Nebraska ahead of Saturday’s clash:
The Huskers’ record is not reflective of how they have played
At first glance, you would think that a Power Five team that is 2-3 is not very good. After all, Northwestern is 2-2, and many would agree that Northwestern has not been very good.
However, despite Nebraska being 2-3, and it has looked pretty darn good so far. After its season opening loss at the hands of Illinois, the Cornhuskers have blown out Fordham and Buffalo, have come within a score of No. 6 Oklahoma and took No. 17 Michigan State to overtime this past weekend. UNL’s defense has looked stellar against some very stiff competition and quarterback Adrian Martinez has been making some excellent plays on the field (despite some less-than-glamorous stat lines).
Given all of this, it is not surprising that Nebraska enters the week as double-digit favorites over Northwestern, despite having a worse record than the Wildcats. The Cornhuskers are still by no means a proven team that knows how to win games, and no moral victories or silver linings will change their three losses. But they have been playing better football in recent weeks than their record shows, and no one should be surprised if they can make some noise in Big Ten play.
Their defense looked elite last week
Michigan State has been one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten so far this season. Despite a new face at quarterback, MSU has burst onto the national scene behind Payton Thorne and running back Kenneth Walker. And unlike the Michigan State of years past, it has been the offense that has carried the Spartans into the AP Top 25.
However, the Nebraska defense was able to shut all of that down in the second half of their game against Sparty last weekend. After the Spartans were able to put up 13 points in the first half, the Cornhusker D downright dominated the Michigan State offense in the second. Not only were the Spartans unable to score in the second half, but they did not register a single first down in five drives.
Here is the #MSU drive chart in the second half. Hold onto your beers folks…— HuskGuys (@HuskGuys) September 26, 2021
3 plays, 8 yards, punt
3 plays, 5 yards, punt
3 plays, -1 yard, punt
3 plays, -7 yards, punt
3 plays, 9 yards, punt
0 1st downs.
And we lost.
While it’s unlikely that such a dominant defensive performance will be replicated again anytime soon, it goes to show the sky-high ceiling of Nebraska’s defense. The program is still struggling to execute in certain aspects of the game, but the defense has been a strong suit for Scott Frost’s team.
Head coach Scott Frost needs to start winning games
After losing to Michigan State 23-20, Nebraska’s record under Scott Frost in games decided by seven points or fewer dropped to 5-13. Even when his team has been playing well, it still has not found ways to win. Last Saturday, it was blunders with special teams that cost his squad the victory, as the unit averaged just under 33 yards per punt attempt on seven tries and gave up a punt return touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Regardless of the reasons why Nebraska continues to lose, Scott Frost has faced growing criticism for the lack of results produced while at the helm of the program. Since taking over in 2018, Nebraska has had three straight losing seasons and is on its way to a fourth after an 0-2 start to conference play this year. There is an urgency to win in Lincoln and an expectation for them to beat a Northwestern team that has looked vulnerable. If Nebraska is unable to capitalize yet again, then Frost’s time as the Huskers head coach might be coming to an end soon.