After a week-long hiatus, Northwestern football is back and hoping for a second straight win to be above .500 for the first time in three years. But for that to happen, a lot needs to go right for head coach David Braun and Co. Northwestern travels to Lincoln to face Nebraska (3-3 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten), which is coming off a big win over Illinois. The two squads are currently tied for third in the Big Ten West, making the outcome of this game consequential for the final standings. Given how evenly matched the two teams are, the game will likely depend on who can exploit these important matchups.
1. Ben Bryant vs. Nebraska’s secondary
Although he remained sidelined for Northwestern’s homecoming game against Howard, the bye week should have given the ‘Cats’ QB1 ample time to rest up for Lincoln this Saturday. Bryant has been by far the Wildcats’ most productive quarterback, with 926 yards and six touchdowns (good for a 115.9 passer rating). Despite some offensive struggles for the ‘Cats, they hope to get back on track with Bryant at the helm, as they face a Nebraska defense that is currently allowing the most passing yards per game (247.2) through its six contests. Though NU is throwing for just over 200 yards per game this season, a breakout performance against a bottom-tier Big Ten secondary may help the passing game get in a rhythm and be what stands between the Wildcats and their first true away game win since November 2020.
2. NU O-Line vs. Nebraska D-Line
It’s a common saying in football that games are often won in the trenches. In this matchup, Northwestern’s offensive line faces a prolific Nebraska front seven that is giving up just 75.8 rushing yards per game (second in the Big Ten) and has recorded 16 sacks (sixth). On the other hand, Northwestern’s offensive line hasn’t exactly been extraordinary: the Wildcats have the least efficient run game in the Big Ten, averaging just 103 yards per game on 3.1 average yards per carry — both qualifying for dead last in the conference.
If NU hopes to see an established run game and consistency from its passing game, the biggest improvement can be broken down into four words: time in the pocket. The Northwestern backfield has seen a whole lot of the opposing team this season, as Northwestern ranks second-to-last in pressures allowed (78), trailed only by Illinois among conference teams. For Bryant to exploit Nebraska’s defense through the air, he will need to rely on the guys meant to protect him, who have been lackluster so far. Similarly, the matchup between the big bodies on the NU and Nebraska sides will affect if Wildcats stars, like Cam Porter and A.J. Henning, can make a real impact offensively.
3. Heinrich Haarberg vs. Xander Mueller
On the flip side, the biggest matchup between the Cornhusker offense and Wildcats defense will be quarterback Heinrich Haarberg and the NU linebacker corps, including starting inside linebacker Xander Mueller. While Haarberg has struggled passing-wise this year, posting a completion percentage of just 52.1% through five games, he has done much of his damage on the ground. He is currently the Cornhuskers’ leading rusher, with 352 yards and three touchdowns on 69 total carries.
Haarberg being a dual-threat quarterback leaves Northwestern reliant on its linebacking unit, and more specifically, Mueller. The Wheaton, Illinois product has been incredibly important as the QB spy and is a pest in the backfield for opposing offenses. Mueller is the second-highest tackler (41 total tackles) on defense and leads the team in sacks (3.5), but he will be more valuable than ever in this matchup, as he will be tasked with containing Haarberg and slowing Nebraska’s offense. The “winner” of this one-on-one is likely to be the ultimate factor in how things play out when the ball is in Nebraska’s hands.