By: Ben Krieger
The last time the Wildcats were in Lincoln, they upset the Cornhuskers 30-28 in what would become an impressive 10-win season. That was in 2015. In 2016, Nebraska flipped the script, coming into Evanston and dominating Northwestern in a 24-13 victory that was much more lopsided than the final score indicated.
This year, the game is back in Lincoln, and the week nine tilt could have major bowl-game implications for both teams. Let’s break down the intriguing matchup.
Nebraska Defense vs. Northwestern Offense
The Nebraska defense is in a lot of ways an unknown heading into the 2017 season. For starters, the Cornhuskers graduated most of their top contributors from last year. Of Nebraska’s 855 tackles on the season, 237 came from a trio of seniors: Linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, plus safety Nathan Gerry. On top of those losses, the Cornhuskers lost their top two pass rushers in defensive end Ross Dzuris and defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, who combined to produce 9.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in their senior season.
As if trying to replace that production was not difficult enough, Nebraska is also implementing a new system on defense. Rooted in a 3-4 concept, the new defense has received good reviews thus far in Fall Camp. That said, execution becomes exponentially harder when a team wearing different colors lines up across from you.
The main bright spot for the Nebraska defense is the secondary, which returns all the major pieces outside of Gerry. The safety duo of Kieron and Aaron Williams (no relation) recorded five and three interceptions in 2016, while both starters at cornerback return for their senior season in Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones.
On the Northwestern side of the ball, there is no mystery. Senior running back Justin Jackson will shoulder the load for the ’Cats. The Ball Carrier has been the lynchpin of Northwestern’s offense for his entire career now, carrying the ball just a hair under 900 times for more than 4,000 yards in his first three years in Evanston. Although he struggled against the Cornhuskers last year, Jackson should enjoy an especially productive day in Lincoln against Nebraska’s relatively inexperienced front seven.
The real question in this one will be the Wildcats’ passing attack. At this point in the season, it will be clear whether Northwestern has succeeded in replacing Austin Carr’s production from last season. The responsibility will fall mostly on junior Flynn Nagel, graduate transfer Jalen Brown, and sophomore Bennett Skowronek. If they succeed, then the offense will be a balanced and efficient attack led by a quality NFL prospect in quarterback Clayton Thorson. If they haven’t, then the offense will flounder against the quality secondary in Lincoln.
Nebraska Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
While the Nebraska defense will look different from last year, the Cornhuskers’ offense will likely undergo an even more dramatic change. Dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is gone, and with him go the Nebraska records for career passing completions, yards, total touchdowns, and total offense.
Replacing Armstrong is a nearly impossible task, but junior Tanner Lee will step up to the challenge in 2017. Lee sat out last season after transferring from Tulane, but he brings two years of starting experience and was named the team offseason MVP. More of a pocket passer than Armstrong, Lee does not provide nearly as much of a threat running the ball as his predecessor did. That may not hurt the Cornhuskers all that much though, as the team is transitioning fully to a pro-style offense predicated less on read-option concepts and more on drop-back passing schemes.
Making Lee’s job a little bit tougher are the losses of top running back Terrell Newby and #1 receiver Jordan Westerkamp, who combined for 14 touchdowns last season. At this point in the offseason it is still too early to predict who will emerge at the skill positions to replace them, but whoever does will certainly have big shoes to fill.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has major questions to answer in the front seven of the defense heading into 2017. Gone to the NFL are “The Franchise” Anthony Walker Jr. and star pass rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo. Also gone are defensive linemen Xaiver Washington (suspension) and C.J. Robbins (graduation), who were third and fourth on the Wildcats in tackles for a loss behind Odenigbo and Walker. That leaves a lot of holes to fill on a defense that has been excellent the last couple of years.
Luckily for Northwestern, these issues do not exist on the back end. With cornerbacks Keith Watkins II and Montre Hartage as well as safeties Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike all returning, the Northwestern secondary should be one of the best in the nation. Don’t believe me? Here’s a reminder of what they can do:
And another one:
With the SkyTeam™ on duty, the Wildcats should be able to send plenty of pressure at the Cornhuskers’ new quarterback.
This is the one phase of the game where the Cornhuskers do not have to deal with major roster turnover. Last year, special teams were an area of strength for the Cornhuskers, with De’Mornay Pierson-El averaging 7.3 yards per return on punts and Tre Bryant averaging 22.1 yards per return on kickoffs. Meanwhile, Drew Brown went 12-14 on field goals and a perfect 38-38 on extra points while Caleb Lightbourn averaged a solid 39.7 yards per punt. Expect more of the same in 2017.
Closing Thoughts and Prediction
Last year, Nebraska thrashed the Wildcats in Evanston, rushing for 310 yards as a team to go with Armstrong’s 246 yards through the air. If the Cornhuskers hadn’t fumbled at the goal line twice in the first half, Northwestern would have lost by a lot more than 11.
That said, this is a drastically different Nebraska team on both sides of the ball. If Northwestern controls the game the way they can, things will go well for the ’Cats in Lincoln. Thorson will continue to improve his draft stock with an efficient game that keeps the defense honest, giving Jackson plenty of room to produce another 100-yard rushing performance. The Wildcats’ defense will get the job done against the Cornhuskers’ new-look offense, and Northwestern will prove too much for a young Nebraska team to handle, winning 28-24.