Game Preview


Memorial Stadium
Saturday, November 1, 2011. 2:30 pm CDT
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Nebraska
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (3-5, 1-4) finally got another tally in the win column a week ago, but now must face what will likely be their toughest opponent of the year as they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-1, 3-1) for their first battle as members of the same conference with Nebraska fresh off of a drubbing of Michigan State to give them full control of the Big Ten Legends Division. Many 'Cats fans remember these teams' last meeting in the 2000 Alamo Bowl as Northwestern was annihilated by the Huskers who certainly looked angry following a disappointing regular season in which they were ranked first nationally in the preseason. Though each team has gone on respective roller-coaster rides since that day, they come in looking eerily similar: Nebraska featuring one of the top ground attacks, Northwestern with a porous defense that has relied upon takeaways to stay in games, and NU with a spread offense that is putting points up on some of the best defenses in the conference. NU fans certainly hope that the outcome is different this time around, though, as NU travels to Lincoln for the first time since 1974 (NU is 0-2 at Nebraska and 1-3 overall versus the Huskers).

While Nebraska will be looking to maintain its control of the Legends Division, Northwestern will be looking for an upset needed for the 'Cats to reach bowl eligibility for the fifth consecutive season (NU will likely be a favorite against Rice and Minnesota, meaning they must beat either Nebraska or Michigan State). The Huskers will also be looking to avoid a letdown after last week's emotionally charged win over MSU that handed them control of the division, something that has seemingly plagued Big Ten teams this year (MSU last week, and the previous week Wisconsin versus MSU).

NU's defense may be overmatched in this game against Nebraska's efficient ground attack, which ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and averages 5.2 yards per carry thanks to the tandem of QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead. Seemingly the only chance NU has is to try and replicate its offensive performance from last week when the 'Cats continually drove down the field and put up a plethora of points; unfortunately, the Nebraska defense is solid and though they lost one of their best players, DT Jared Crick, to a season-ending injury, they still cause opponents trouble, particularly in the passing game where they have allowed opponents to complete just 52.4% of their passes.

On a day relatively devoid of any marquee Big Ten matchups (thanks to Iowa's loss to Minnesota last week they won't be fighting for a spot at the top of the division as they face Legends Division co-leader Michigan at noon) this game could prove to be quite interesting if Northwestern is able to put up points as it's almost a given that Nebraska will be able to score early and often against the porous NU defense. But, the Wildcats have been in every game this season and have the ability to hang around in this one, and almost anything can certainly happen if they are able to do so.

Opening Line

Nebraska by 17.5

Who Should Win

Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have a respectable defense and an offense that can be explosive at times, particularly against porous defenses like Northwestern's. QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead are huge threats on the ground (they are averaging 5.4 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively, and have compiled a total of 21 rushing TDs on the year). And, Martinez is at his best when he can force teams to worry about the ground game and fling it over the defense; the Cornhuskers are averaging an impressive 13.9 yards per reception. Nebraksa is ranked ninth nationally in rushing offense (252.1 yards per game on the ground) and will present a huge challenge to the NU defense that seemingly couldn't tackle lowly Indiana a week ago.

Upset Factor

Northwestern's offense is legitimately good: in Big Ten games only, NU is third in scoring offense (34.6 points per game) despite facing four teams with defenses in the first half of the Big Ten scoring defense rankings (including the two top ranked teams). While Nebraska's defense is solid, they have given up yards and points, particularly to some of the more competent offenses that they have faced (they are allowing 22.5 points per game, ranking 8th in the conference for all games). NU will be able to move the football, but the key here will be if they can avoid costly errors while also taking advantage of good field position by putting points on the board (both of which they did very well last week). The 'Cats would also greatly benefit from keeping pressure away from the QB (last week NU allowed no sacks for the first time this season); while Nebraska has great defenders who will likely wreak some havoc, NU must minimize this to have a shot. And on defense, Northwestern must find a way to tackle guys first while also at least remotely covering wide receivers to have a shot at slowing them down enough to pull off the upset.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Nebraska Defense

If Northwestern wants to win this game, here is where they'll have to continue the productivity they've shown through Big Ten play so far. As mentioned earlier, the 'Cats are putting up pretty good numbers on offense that rank near the top of the conference despite playing some of its better defensive teams. Nationally, NU continues to climb the rankings, coming in at 33rd in rushing offense (187.8 yards per game), 49th in passing offense (244.0 yards per game), and 37th in total offense (431.8), also rounding that out with 31.6 points per game (41st). Most impressively, though, Northwestern is 15th in passing efficiency, as they've excelled under their current 2QB scheme after Persa's return (Persa tends to complete a lot of passes: 75.5% of them, while Colter has also thrown well when he is put in passing situations, completing 75% of his passes for 141 yards and 3 TDs since Persa's return). As noted in the national stats, NU has certainly benefited from a solid rushing threat that stars the aforementioned Colter, who has averaged 6.9 yards per carry (after removing sacks) and leads NU with 6 rushing TDs, and that's without even going into his receiving numbers.

But, the 'Cats will be facing a much stouter defense than Indiana's a week ago: this is the Husker "blackshirt" defense that held the previously formidable Michigan State offense to just 3 points a week ago and has seemingly come alive after it began a comeback against Ohio State three games ago. Nebraska ranks in the top third nationally in most defensive categories (33rd in scoring defense, 29th in total defense) and is particularly stout against the pass (23rd in pass efficiency defense, 12th in pass defense) with opponents completing just over half of their pass attempts against them. With the loss of Crick up front, Nebraska hasn't exactly been penetrating the backfield like crazy (111th in TFLs and 83rd in sacks), but they take care of business past the line of scrimmage with senior LB Lavonte David averaging 9.6 tackles per game to lead the unit while featuring a strong secondary led by senior CB Alfonzo Dennard. Up front, their biggest weapon is DE Cameron Meredith, who leads the team in sacks with 4 and also has 33 tackles on the year (pretty good for a defensive lineman).

Despite all of the positives, Nebraska has yielded both yards and points at times this year; early in the season, Fresno State and Washington came in and moved the ball well, scoring 67 points between the two of them. The Huskers also yielded a slew of points at Wisconsin, and then turned around and let Ohio State run up a big lead against them after OSU had looked anemic on that side of the ball early in the year. The Wildcats will present a different threat with their spread offense and 2QB system, and it will be interesting to see how the Huskers respond now with every game's importance amplified.

Northwestern is going to have to be balanced on offense, much like they were last week, since Nebraska is so good against the pass (particularly their coverage) and somewhat vulnerable against the run with Crick out in the middle and their 63rd rank nationally against the run (155 yards per game allowed). While Dan Persa will continue to be the primary QB, expect a good bit of Colter thrown in, and hopefully the 'Cats will get some assistance from what's left in the RB stable (Adonis Smith has been sidelined for the past two weeks, leaving most of the carries to Treyvon Green, who hasn't really broken out at all, and Jacob Schmidt, who had a nice game last week against a bad defense). A wild card is Venric Mark, who carried the ball 4 times against Indiana and quickly compiled 47 yards.

NU will find a way to move the ball with a variety of weapons, and as long as they can avoid the costly turnover and score points when they get within range, they have the ability to keep up in this contest. Nebraska has a solid defense, but they are vulnerable and it seems as though the Wildcats have enough weapons to make this one interesting. The ultimate decider in this game, though, will be the performance of the other primary units.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Nebraska Offense

This matchup is what will ultimately determine the winner of this contest, and, unfortunately for the Wildcats, they have a formidable task in trying to contain the Nebraska offense. The Cornhuskers have experimented with a variety of formations and schemes on offense as of late, but essentially their offense boils down to the double-option run game featuring QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead and the occasional deep pass by Martinez to try and hit some long pass plays. As mentioned earlier in this preview, Nebraska is first of all very successful running the football: they rank in the top 10 nationally and are second in the conference in rushing yards per game, they are averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and their top two rushers are both solid and have the ability to explode (both have 50+ yard runs and have combined for 11 20+ yard runs so far this season). This, of course, sets up their passing game which has completed under 55% of its passes but is averaging 13.9 yards per catch.

Nebraska has put up big offensive numbers on just about everyone (30+ points in six of eight games so far this year) and their ability to control tempo with their run-heavy offense has allowed them to ride out leads like in last week's big win over MSU. Northwestern's defense has faced a similar offense earlier this season: Michigan (an explosive run-based system that loves to throw the home run ball), and that didn't end too well (Michigan punted just once on the evening); though NU held the Michigan run game mostly in check that game (3.6 yards per carry), they got burned in the passing game (362 yards allowed) despite grabbing 3 INTs. Despite the chance of facing a repeat of that game, Northwestern would be best served by forcing a repeat of that performance given that NU cannot afford to let Nebraska ground out a win through the run game (that would look much like the Army game).

Fortunately, Taylor Martinez isn't a very polished passer (by a long shot) and has certainly taken his lumps when throwing the ball. Though he has completed some bombs to open receivers, he has his faults (stats are from this season): a 54.9% completion rate, 7 interceptions (to 8 TDs). Though the 'Cats continue to have major difficulties against the pass (11th in the Big Ten in pass defense and 101st nationally in pass efficiency defense), they will be best served trying to force Nebraska to put the ball in the air where at least NU can count on some incompletions which will hopefully allow the defense to exit the field of play.

Now, back to how the 'Cats can contain the ground attack. Thankfully, it looks like DE Tyler Scott and LB Bryce McNaul will be ready to return after missing most of the past two games with injuries (McNaul did not start and played sparingly against PSU and was out at Indiana); those two have been key to NU's few defensive successes this year and were major reasons why Michigan was not able to do whatever they wanted on the ground. And, after a rash of tackling problems over the past two games, getting these two back in the lineup will certainly make a difference. Speaking of tackling, that will be the primary deciding factor in slowing the Huskers' run game: NU must get in the right spot and finish off tackles. Against Indiana and Penn State, NU got out of position and also missed tackles, which led to a significant regression against the run (6.1 yards per carry allowed in those two games versus 4.5 in the previous six, after subtracting sacks). The Wildcats must finish off tackles here or else things could get very ugly.

Northwestern's recipe for success here is straightforward but likely difficult to execute: contain the run, force Nebraska to pass, and take advantage by forcing punts (or, optimally, grabbing some turnovers). Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect the 'Cats to be able to shut down a team with so much talent and the ability to run the football well while hitting some home run passes (to which NU is particularly susceptible); the best NU can hope for is grabbing a couple turnovers and trying to get Nebraska off the field every once in a while (they are a middle-of-the-pack 44th nationally in third down conversion rate at 43.9%; NU would do themselves a favor by holding the Huskers near that number).

What to Look for: Special Teams

The 'Cats will be facing one of the best special teams units they've seen all season, and if NU wants to pull off the road upset, they'll certainly have to overcome large odds and somehow find an advantage in this phase of the game. First off, Nebraska once again sports a reliable kicker: junior Brett Maher who is 14-of-17 (82.4%) on FG kicks for this year (and his career) with his only misses coming from 50 yards and beyond; he's also hit all 34 of his extra point tries. Northwestern's Jeff Budzien, meanwhile, is slowly building himself back up after a couple of costly misses early in the year and has hit four of his last five FG tries and is 62.5% on the year (he's also hit all 34 of his XPs, exactly like Maher). But, the edge here has to go to Nebraska even with Budzien's recent improvements.

The return game will be quite interesting, particularly when NU is doing the kicking to the Huskers. Nebraska ranks second nationally in kickoff return yard average thanks to the speedy freshman named Ameer Abdullah, who is averaging 31.7 yards per kick return and has taken one to the house so far this year; he's also a threat on punt returns. But, he'll be tested against solid Northwestern coverage teams: the 'Cats are fifth nationally in punt return yardage defense (allowing just 3 punt return yards all year) and 17th against kick returns. Abdullah will get some return opportunities, but it will be up to these steady squads to get him down early.

On the flip side, though, NU's Venric Mark has seemingly regressed over recent weeks as he's had some issues fielding the football (three dropped kicks against PSU resulting in limited returns and a fumbled punt return at Indiana); though NU is still respectable in both kick returns (21.0 yards per return) and punt returns (17th nationally), Mark hasn't been as impressive as he was earlier in the season. But, he'll have some chances to make a difference here: Nebraska ranks near the bottom in both kick return defense (23.8 yards per kick allowed, 98th nationally) and punt defense (14.4 yards per punt allowed, 109th). But despite that, they have benefitted from some solid punting out of the aforementioned Maher (he ranks 13th nationally with a 45.2 yards per punt average); while NU's Brandon Williams has been relatively inconsistent with an average of just 38.1 yards per punt.

Nebraska holds the edge in the kicking department (both placekicking and punting) while both return games are wild cards: NU has great coverage teams but Abdullah is a great returner, while Nebraska's coverage teams have been unimpressive and NU's Mark has the ability to make a difference. One would expect to see at least one big play in the return game, and whichever team can gain an edge in this phase would certainly get a leg up in an offensive shootout.

Miscellaneous Notes

Memorial Stadia

Northwestern will be visiting a Memorial Stadium for the second consecutive week (last week at Indiana) and for the third time this season (Illinois), which will complete the tour of all three Memorial Stadia currently in the Big Ten (the only Big Ten team to do so this season). NU is 1-1 in thus far in the tour.


In Big Ten games only, NU QB Dan Persa is running away from the competition in a number of categories: passing yards (1,251: 201 yards above the next closest competitor), passing TDs (9, leading two others tied at 8), completion rate (75.5%, next closest is 66.7%), pass completions (114, 30 above next closest), and passing yards per game (250.2, 26 ahead of the next closest competition). Persa is a huge reason why Northwestern is third in the conference in scoring (conference games only) and has been effective against even some of the most formidable defenses in the conference (including teams ranked second and third in the conference in total defense versus all competition).

More Coaching Highlights

Both Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and NU's Pat Fitzgerald have 37 wins in their current positions (this is Pelini's fourth year at Nebraska and Fitz's sixth at NU). Fitz is also tied for second on Northwestern's all-time head coaching wins list (with Randy Walker) and is currently 12 away from the all-time record (held by Pappy Waldorf).

Road Underdog & November Games

The Wildcats are 7-5 as underdogs in true road games since the beginning of the 2008 season (1-2 this year). Also, NU is 7-4 in November since that season (including a 4-2 road record).

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), DE Tyler Scott (probable, shoulder), LB Bryce McNaul (probable, back), S Jared Carpenter (questionable, concussion), S David Arnold (questionable, unknown), CB Demetrius Dugar (questionable, concussion), RB Adonis Smith (questionable, leg).

Northwestern is suddenly facing a rash of injuries, particularly on defense (which certainly isn't helping NU's cause on that side of the ball). The loss of Scott up front has been an issue over the past two games and has led to some issues stopping the run; McNaul being sideline also isn't helping there as he provides the presence of a consistent tackler while the 'Cats have had issues bringing down the ballcarrier the past two games. Secondary depth was also a huge issue at Indiana with Carpenter, Arnold, and Dugar all out: NU will need at least a couple of them to get back to help out against a Nebraska team that loves to throw the long ball to compliment their strong ground attack. Northwestern's chances here may very well be determined by their health on defense.


DT Jared Crick (out for season, pectoral), OL Jake Cotton (out for season, knee).

In addition to the injuries listed above, the Cornhuskers have little depth behind Martinez at QB with two of their top players leaving the program before the season: Bubba Starling to play professional baseball, and Cody Green transferring to Tulsa after being clearly passed over in favor of Martinez. If Martinez does need to leave the game, they have just one remaining QB on scholarship (sophomore Ron Kellogg), though this has not been an issue to date. Overall, while they have lost a key playmaker in Crick, the Cornhuskers are doing fairly well in the injury department, which has certainly helped them work their way to the top of the Big Ten Legends Division standings (in which they control their own destiny, having already defeated one of the co-leaders: MSU, and with the other co-leader: Michigan still on the schedule).


Northwestern 28, Nebraska 38

While the Wildcats will be able to move the ball and put up points, they likely won't be able to keep up with the Huskers thanks to their notoriously porous defense that looks like it just won't be able to shut down both Nebraska's running and passing games. I do expect Northwestern to keep this one close until near the end, though, thanks to their offense and some mistakes from Nebraska (i.e. Martinez turnovers).

If Northwestern wants to pull off an improbable upset here, they'll have to avoid any mistake on offense (no big turnovers, get touchdowns when in scoring range), get some kind of an edge in special teams (a big return would help), and somehow force Nebraska to punt a handful of times while getting more than one turnover. Also, a big enough early lead forcing Nebraska out of their offense would help, though that advantage would only be noticeable later in the contest and if the 'Cats can get pressure on the passer while covering receivers (two things they sure haven't done consistently well this year).

I do think the 'Cats have some shot in this game, unlike most observations floating around, and it will be interesting to see how this team responds after a win but with their bowl hopes still on the brink. Nebraska, meanwhile, is the frontrunner in the conference which certainly hasn't worked out too well for the team sporting that honor over the past two weeks, and in each season under Pelini the Huskers have certainly had their share of clunker games at home (last year's home loss to a sub-.500 Texas team, 2009's home loss to a bad Iowa State team, 2008's home drubbing at the hands of Missouri). I fully expect yet another entertaining contest - something the Wildcats are very good at putting on.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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