Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, October 20.  2:30 pm CDT
WGN Radio

Game Preview: Nebraska
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern (6-1, 2-1) is headed back to Evanston to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-2, 1-1) in a pivotal game in the Legends Division race where the winner will be a key challenger to Iowa and Michigan, who both currently sit at 2-0 in conference play. The Huskers are coming off of a bye (common theme for NU this season; the 'Cats are 3-0 in those games so far with one remaining after this one) and a bad loss at Ohio State in which they gave up 63 points. Northwestern, meanwhile, got back on track on a rainy day in Minnesota by gutting out a one-possession victory in which they scored three quick touchdowns only to see the offense go to sleep while converting just 1-of-9 third downs. Look out for Nebraska to seek revenge for last year's big upset win by Northwestern in Lincoln when the 'Cats took down the then-No. 9 (AP) Huskers 28-25. Finally, the atmosphere should be great for the game with a 2:30PM CT kickoff, the game televised on ABC, and a sold out Ryan Field.

Expect a plethora of rushing yards in this game as both teams feature strong ground games and somewhat iffy passing (which is surprising for Northwestern). NU ranks 18th nationally in rushing with Nebraska coming in at 5th, and the teams have a combined average of 521.9 rushing yards per game. It will be interesting how the defenses respond; NU's rush defense remains solid at 22nd nationally, yielding 109.9 yards per game which is still on pace for a school record, while Nebraska has a somewhat uncharacteristic issue with run defense at 91st nationally with 189.2 yards per game allowed. The question is: will these trends continue? If they do, NU will be poised for a big win, but as any 'Cats fan knows, nothing is ever that easy.

Look out for a good game and a great atmosphere at a game that may prove to be the turning point in both teams' seasons.

Opening Line: Nebraska by 7.

Who Should Win: Nebraska. Yes, this is not your parents' Huskers blackshirt defense (ranking 91st in rushing defense and 74th in scoring defense) and Northwestern does have a very solid running game this season, but Nebraska will be well prepared for this game after the bye week and has seen plenty of ways to slow down the 'Cats following two sub-par offensive outputs on the road. And, the Huskers continue to possess top flight talent all over the field and have a stellar offense that is now getting solid passing production from QB Taylor Martinez and his notorious shotput throwing motion (he ranks 12th nationally and first in the Big Ten in passing efficiency).

Upset Factor: Just look what happened last season when everyone (myself included) counted Northwestern out as NU rode into Lincoln with a 3-5 record and what looked to be a bowl-less season. If the NU defense continues the trend by containing the run game while the offense continues to produce on the ground, then the 'Cats should be able to take control of this game. Plus, add in the home-field advantage (Nebraska has lost their last 4 games away from home) and this game is ripe for the upset.

NU Offense vs. Nebraska Defense:
NU has had offensive hiccups in the last two contests after churning out a school-record 704 yards against Indiana, but thankfully those issues occurred on the road and the 'Cats are back home this week. Oh, and they're facing a team that has had plenty of issues against the run (189.2 yards per game allowed) and on the road (where they have allowed 49.5 points per game this year, in their two losses on the season). Even with the Huskers having two weeks to prepare for Kain Colter, Venric Mark, and NU's run-heavy spread offense, expect the 'Cats to come out looking to run first and continue what they started in that huge victory last season (in which NU ran for 207 yards and Colter had 2 rushing TDs). On defense, Nebraska seems to be missing some key middle defenders from last season, but they are certainly not devoid of talent: senior DE Cameron Meredith is a touted player, and fellow senior MLB Will Compton leads the team in both tackles (53) and sacks (3.0). Also, the Huskers' pass defense is respectable (15th nationally in passing yards allowed, 28th in pass efficiency defense), so the key will likely come down to if Nebraska can stop NU's ground game. Finally, it will be interesting to see NU's offensive game plan after seeing the two quarterback system's decline over the past two games with some poor passing by Trevor Siemian.

NU Defense vs. Nebraska Offense: This is where things will get interesting, as it is a strength vs. strength matchup: Nebraska's offense is putting up a ton of yards (507.3 per game, 14th nationally) and points (43.7 per game, 8th nationally) thanks to a high powered ground attack (292.0 rushing yards per game), while the Northwestern defense's greatest strength is its run defense (22nd nationally at 109.9 yards per game allowed). Much of this success is thanks to the relatively unheralded but solid linebacking corps, which includes the team's top three tacklers on the season (Damien Proby at 62, Chi Chi Ariguzo at 59, and David Nwabuisi at 51). That trio has combined for some really good stats: 172 tackles, 14 TFLs (including 2 sacks), 2 INTs, 8 PBUs, 2 QB hurries, and 4 fumble recoveries. The defensive line has also contributed by generating pressure in the backfield, while the secondary is still coming along, but Ibraheim Campbell continues to live up to his billing while Nick VanHoose just won Big Ten freshman of the week. They will be challenged by the aforementioned QB Martinez who can tear it up on the ground (5.0 yards per carry with sacks included) along with a duo of solid running backs: the multi-talented Ameer Abdullah (who just barely trails NU's Venric Mark in all-purpose yards per game with 184.3; Mark has 184.6) and the reliable Rex Burkhead (who is averaging 9.1 yards per carry but has been dinged up with a knee injury at points this season, though he is expected to play). If the run game is not enough of a challenge, they compliment that with a home-run style passing attack: leading receiver Kenny Bell averages 23.1 yards per reception and Martinez has improved his passing this season with a 12:4 TD:INT ratio and a 66.4% completion rate. He had his best passing game of last season against NU (albeit most of that came in catch-up mode late in the game). The Wildcat defense will certainly be tested and given issues earlier in the season, this has the potential to be a shootout.

Special Teams: Although Nebraska has a good kicker/punter/kickoff man in Brett Maher (8-of-13 FGs with a long of 54 this season), Northwestern's Jeff Budzien has been money this year, hitting all 11 FG tries in 2012 along with all 77 career XP attempts. According to Football Outsiders' Brian Fremeau's FEI advanced statistics, Northwestern's special teams efficiency ranks 11th nationally, including 14th in FGs and 6th on punt returns. Speaking of punt returns, NU return man Venric Mark is, of course, electric, and has boosted the 'Cats to a 3rd place ranking nationally in punt returns (24.7 yards per return); meanwhile, Nebraska ranks 115th nationally in punt return defense (15.9 yards per return allowed). Nebraska also ranks 96th on kickoff return defense, which should give NU a shot to break through there where it has had issues this season (118th on kickoff returns). Nebraska's net punting ranks 103rd thanks to their issues against returns. On the flip side, NU coverage teams remain respectable: the kickoff team is 57th despite allowing a TD return against Indiana (which seems to have been corrected over the past two games), while NU ranks 24th in punt return defense. The Wildcats should have a good edge on special teams which NU should try to use to gain an advantage in this otherwise pretty well matched contest.

- Northwestern has lost its last 8 games televised on ABC, although it was an underdog in the last 6 of those (by a combined 104.5 points). But, NU is 2-2 in home games televised on ABC since 2000.
- Since 1995, NU has had 17 sellouts at Ryan Field and has been an underdog at 15 of those (this game will make those numbers 18 and 16, respectively); NU is 9-8 in those previous games.
- The 'Cats have won 4 of their last 5 home games (in Evanston) with a 2:30PM CT kickoff; NU is 4-3 in such games under Fitz.
- NU RB/KR/PR Venric Mark is fourth nationally and first in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards per game with 184.6. He has led all players in all-purpose yards in 6 of 7 NU games this season (he has only been beaten out by Kain Colter against Indiana).
- Northwestern has a 1-0 home record against Nebraska, with its win coming on October 3, 1931 by a score of 19-7. NU has a chance to even the all-time series between the teams as it currently stands at 3-2 in favor of Nebraska.
- The Wildcats rank 29th in the first BCS standings (although only the top 25 are officially published); NU has garnered votes in all major polls (31st in the AP, 26th in the Coaches, and 28th in the Harris; the latter two are included in the BCS formula), and currently has a BCS computer average of 32.
- Under Fitz, Northwestern is 22-0 when allowing 16 or fewer points on defense. NU is 8-0 when scoring 40 or more points in a game under Fitzgerald.
- NU is 23-6 at home versus unranked teams (Coaches Poll), under Fitz, good for a 0.793 winning rate. NU has won 5 of its last 7 home games (at Ryan Field) in which the 'Cats were underdogs against an unranked opponent (AP).
- The Over/Under for the game opened at 62. Under Fitz, NU has a 0.607 winning rate when the total is less than 62 and a 0.409 winning rate when the total is greater than 62 (NU is 0-1 in games where exactly 62 points were scored).
- For the first time since the inception of the AP Poll in 1936, Northwestern will face an unranked Nebraska team. NU has faced the Cornhuskers three times since then, and each time Nebraska was ranked in the top 10 (10th in 1974, 9th in 2000, and 9th in 2011). Note that the 'Cats faced Nebraska twice before the creation of the polls: 1902 in Lincoln and 1931 in Evanston.
- In its first three Big Ten games, NU has allowed just 1 sack (NU had 88 combined pass attempts in those games). Under Fitz, NU is 13-1 when it out-sacks its opponent.

Prediction: Nebraska 47 - Northwestern 38
Northwestern will be able to move the ball and put up a good amount of points against a Nebraska defense that continues to struggle against the run, and the special teams will allow the 'Cats to keep this one close. Unfortunately, Nebraska's offense is running very well, NU's defense is vulnerable, and Martinez is throwing the ball well. The Huskers will unfortunately move the ball well all day long while the NU offense will have a hiccup or two which will leave it behind. Expect a lot of running and a lot of points in what should be yet another exciting contest.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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