By: Bo Bowen
After two straight weeks of overtime home wins for Northwestern football, Pat Fitzgerald’s team will go on the road to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won this matchup last year in Evanston. However, circumstances have changed for both teams. Northwestern finds themselves at 5-3 overall, second in the Big Ten west at 3-2 in conference. This season has been a bit disappointing for Big Red, who are only 4-4 overall and 3-2 in division. With both teams coming off exciting wins last week, here are 5 things to watch for this weekend with the Wildcats coming to town.
1. Can Justin Jackson break loose? The bell cow for Northwestern flipped the script this weekend and passed for a touchdown to Bennett Skowronek. The ball carrier was only able to run for 41 yards on 17 carries versus Michigan State. Jackson came into the season with high expectations and has underperformed for his standards, amassing only 644 rushing yards through 8 games. Nebraska has the third-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten this year. Look for Jackson to have a breakout day versus the Huskers.
2. Northwestern’s defensive progression: There were questions to be answered for Northwestern’s defense after Anthony Walker Jr.’s departure for the NFL. The Wildcats have found an answer in linebacker Paddy Fisher, who totalled 17 tackles and 2 forced fumbles saturday versus Michigan State. Fisher is currently third in the Big Ten in tackles as well. There are still questions in the secondary, however. Tanner Lee, Nebraska’s quarterback is second in the Big Ten in passing yards, so Northwestern’s secondary will face a true test in Lincoln this weekend.
3. Quarterback duel in the making: Tanner Lee of Northwestern was able to connect with Stanley Morgan against Purdue for a last minute game-winning TD. Lee is second in the Big Ten in passing yards this season, with a passer rating of 128.7. Clayton Thorson currently sits at 4th in the Big Ten with 2044 yards. Despite occasional accuracy issues, Thorson has shown improvement this season. Both teams have below-average pass defenses, so there is potential for this game to become a shootout.
4. Will Nebraska’s running game get going? Nebraska has been utilizing a committee backfield this season between Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon with Tre Bryant injured.The Huskers are second-to-last in the Big Ten in rushing offense with a poor 975 yards through 8 games, averaging only 121.9 yards per game as a team. Northwestern’s front seven has been solid this year, posing a big challenge for an already weak Nebraska run game.
5. Red Zone Play: Northwestern is 30-32 on scoring in the red zone, while Mike Riley’s Nebraska team is second to last in the Big Ten at 24-31. The weather is getting colder and big plays happen less and less often this time of year. Converting in the red zone is crucial down the stretch. Watch for Pat Fitzgerald’s team to play the field position game and set themselves up in the red zone.