David Braun has yet to announce his starting quarterback for this weekend’s game at Nebraska, but regardless of who’s under center, the ‘Cats will look to stay in the win column against the Cornhuskers. A victory would pull Northwestern’s record above .500, something many fans thought was impossible going into this campaign. Here are three reasons why they’ll pull it off, and three reasons why Nebraska will get its revenge.
Why Northwestern will beat Nebraska
Ben Bryant, if he returns
I’m a believer again! Call me crazy, but Bryant (whose injury might keep him sidelined this weekend) is a quarterback who can win games for the ‘Cats, especially games like this one. Nebraska isn’t a dominant force like Penn State, or even a tough draw like Duke. The Cornhuskers aren’t a team to take lightly, but they’re beatable, and it would help Northwestern immensely to have QB1 back under center.
Northwestern is 3-3 coming off the bye week, but the last time we saw this team on the field ,it was barely eking out a win against Howard. NU narrowly avoided disaster, but it was way too close to comfort and felt way too much like the loss to Southern Illinois last year. Some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of Brendan Sullivan, who was starting in place of the injured Bryant.
It may seem harsh to blame the backup quarterback, especially one who didn’t turn the ball over and won the game, but Sullivan offers so little in the passing game. And if you are going to be a running quarterback, you have to do better than 38 yards on 15 attempts. Braun has been noncommittal this week on Bryant’s return, but his presence would give the ‘Cats a much better chance to win.
Nebraska’s horrific pass defense
This somewhat hinges on Bryant playing as well, but even if Sullivan is under center, the ‘Cats have to exploit the Nebraska secondary. The Cornhuskers are by far the worst passing defense in the Big Ten, allowing 247.2 yards per contest in the air. That is really, really bad. For context, Northwestern itself only gives up 189.7, and most would consider NU’s secondary to be decent, not great.
If Cam Johnson, Bryce Kirtz and the rest of the Wildcats’ receivers are able to find space as easily as I’m expecting, then Northwestern cannot sit back and run the football all day. It is not the winning strategy against this defense. If Sullivan wants to prove himself as a Big Ten starter, then he’s going to have to learn to throw the ball eventually. If he’s the starter on Saturday, Northwestern has to cut him loose a little bit. It’s what’s best for him, and for the team’s chances of winning.
Confidence and rest
As always, some external factors will impact this game, and two notable ones work in the ‘Cats’ favor. The first is confidence. Northwestern won a singular game last season, and it was against Nebraska in Ireland. I’m sure that loss is lighting a fire underneath the Cornhuskers this week, but it should also provide NU with a boost. The ‘Cats can win this one because they’ve done it before. It’s up to the coaching staff to make sure the players know that.
Northwestern will also benefit from having a week off. The ‘Cats should have good legs after the extra rest. Granted, Nebraska had a bye week as well, but NU needed time to allow injured players to recover. The bye week is possibly the only thing giving Bryant a chance to go on Saturday.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Nebraska
The ‘Cats’ defense doesn’t match up well with Nebraska’s offensive attack
Nebraska has the conference’s second best rushing attack, racking up 203.3 yards per game. In large part, that is due to the fact that quarterback Heinrich Haarberg is a big factor in the running game. He leads the team in rush yards with 352. Running back Anthony Grant has also been productive this season.
Northwestern, meanwhile, sports the Big Ten’s worst defense against the run at 172.3 yards allowed per game. The ‘Cats are also horrendous at tackling, and have yet to run into a quarterback quite this oriented toward the run. The linebackers haven’t given any reason to believe they’ll be able to contain Haarberg, so I’m going to predict they don’t. There’s a very real chance Nebraska dominates this game on the ground and Northwestern has no answer.
Haarberg is starting for the first time this year as a sophomore for the Cornhuskers, and he’s had a very good start to his college career. In addition to his 352 rush yards, Haarberg has been efficient with 5.1 yards per carry.
When he’s had to pass, Haarberg has been competent as well. He’s amassed 631 yards, throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions. He’s not lighting the world on fire, but he’s a serviceable thrower of the football. If Haarberg can use his arm to convert on third downs in this one, Northwestern is going to have to watch out. It must prey on his comparatively weak passing ability, or it will fall victim to his high-level rushing skill.
Nebraska has a stifling run defense
The Cornhuskers are second in the Big Ten at defending the run, only allowing 75.8 yards per contest on the ground. Especially if Sullivan is under center, this presents an enormous problem for Northwestern. The ‘Cats have to be able to rely on their run game in order to win football games. We’ve seen this play out all year. If the ‘Cats get nothing from Cam Porter, and they fail to establish the run, they have a hard time getting the passing game going, too.
Northwestern is going to have to find a way to overcome this strength of Nebraska’s if it wants to win on Saturday. Who knows: maybe Sullivan is actually the answer to this problem. Maybe the Cornhuskers won’t be ready for him. But they probably will be. Another high-attempt, low-yardage game is more than possible for No. 6 on the ground.