By: Ethan Fore
After leading UCF to a 13-0 record, an AAC championship, a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn and a self-proclaimed “national championship,” head coach Scott Frost left the Knights for his alma mater, Nebraska.
And while he was able to turn a winless 2015 UCF team into an undefeated one in 2017, his next task figures to be much tougher than his last. Once a college football powerhouse, Nebraska has slowly fallen from grace over the past two decades. Though they’ve had mildly successful seasons recently, the Cornhuskers haven’t been able to reclaim the glory of the storied Tom Osborne and Frank Solich years. They haven’t won their conference since 1999, and 2017 saw former head coach Mike Riley’s squad suffer Nebraska’s first 8-loss season since 1957.
Northwestern will return to Evanston for homecoming weekend to face Nebraska after a road visit to East Lansing, and they may be in need of a win after two tough matchups against Michigan and Michigan State. If the Wildcats want to compete for a Big Ten West title, this one is a must-win.
Nebraska Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
In order for his explosive offense to function well at UCF, Frost relied on a quarterback that could handle the fast tempo and varied responsibilities that come with the spread offense. But following 2017 starter Tanner Lee’s decision to leave for the NFL Draft after one year under center at Nebraska and backup Patrick O’Brien’s transfer to Colorado State, Frost and his coaching staff will have to choose from three completely untested quarterbacks: junior walk-on Andrew Bunch, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez. Gebbia and Martinez are both former four-star recruits, but they may need a bit more seasoning before either are ready to face Big Ten defenses.
Senior and sophomore receivers Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman return to Nebraska after each finished in the top five in receiving yards in the Big Ten in 2017, which should help whichever signal caller gets the nod. In the backfield, the ‘Huskers have three options: seniors Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, and junior Tre Bryant. While Wilbon and Ozigbo rushed for more yards, Bryant was far more explosive, rushing for 599 yards on 51 carries before blowing out his knee. Bryant has told reporters that he is healthy, but the offense may still use a three-back rotation.
The offensive line was probably the brightest part of Nebraska’s offense last season, as they ranked eighth in Adj. Sack Rate and 23rd in Adj. Line Yards among all FBS teams. They return six of the eight lineman that made at least three starts, including senior all-conference guard Tanner Farmer and senior honorable-mention all-conference guard Jerald Foster.
Last year, Northwestern’s defense was suffocating at times, especially during the team’s eight-game win streak, allowing 3.5 points per scoring opportunity (drives inside the opponent’s 40-yard-line) for the season, and 3.0 points per scoring opportunity during the win streak. On average, this gave Northwestern roughly a 61.5 percent chance to win games, according to S&P+ creator Bill Connolly. Up front, the ‘Cats are expected to be just fine, returning 12 of 15 primary defenders on their front seven, including junior defensive end Joe Gaziano (12.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks), sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher (9.0 TFLs, four forced fumbles) and senior linebacker Nate Hall (17.0 TFLs, five sacks).
But in the secondary, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have to replace three starters (Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Marcus McShepard) in a unit that was quite mediocre in 2017 (ranked 62nd in the FBS in Passing S&P+). Cornerbacks like senior Montre Hartage and juniors Alonzo Mayo and Trae Williams should help the newcomers transition to the starting lineup, but don’t be surprised if there’s a drop in production.
One key matchup to look for is between Nebraska’s inexperienced quarterback and Northwestern’s thin secondary. A stellar performance by either group could be the game’s deciding factor.
Northwestern Offense vs. Nebraska Defense
Nebraska’s defense really struggled in 2017, as they ranked 110th in defensive S&P+, 128th in rushing success rate and 122nd in passing success rate, which measures how efficient (or in this case, inefficient) a defense is at defending passes, among all FBS teams. But this season’s Cornhuskers will at least have more experience, as they return every starting defensive lineman, five of seven primary linebackers and six of eight defensive backs. They lost key players in linebacker Chris Weber and safety Josh Kalu to graduation, and the secondary needs to improve (the returning players combined for 3.5 TFLs and nine passes defensed). But, given how much the defense struggled last year, it can’t get much worse. Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Stille (9.5 TFLs, three sacks) and junior defensive back Aaron Williams (two interceptions, 48 total tackles) should anchor this unit in 2018.
Northwestern returns most of its high-production players on offense, but they have a Justin Jackson-sized hole to fill at running back. Fortunately, sophomore Jeremy Larkin looks ready to take the reigns after rushing for 503 yards on 84 carries as a freshman. Backups John Moten IV (junior), Jesse Brown (sophomore) and Isaiah Bowser (freshman) will also factor into the ground game and should take some of the pressure off of Larkin. If Northwestern’s experienced offensive line can create holes, Larkin could have a big game.
At quarterback, Clayton Thorson finished his junior year with a 121.3 passing rating, which is decent, but lower than his 125.9 passer rating as a sophomore. He played exceptionally well against Bowling Green and Nevada, but struggled against tougher opponents like Wisconsin and Penn State before tearing his ACL against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. If Thorson can stay healthy and bounce back to where he was at the end of last season, he should be able to progress and take advantage of a porous Nebraska defense.
One thing missing from this offense is the ability to make big plays, as demonstrated by finishing 120th in IsoPPP (measures the magnitude of a team’s successful plays). If receivers such as Bennett Skowronek, Flynn Nagel and Riley Lees can improve and Thorson can increase his downfield accuracy (he only averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, good for ninth in the Big Ten among qualified passers), Northwestern can expose a shaky Nebraska secondary.
Last year, Northwestern beat Nebraska 31-24 on the road in an overtime thriller, the Wildcats’ third straight overtime win. Northwestern is favored in this game (66% chance to win, according to S&P+ projections), and rightfully so. They have more talent and more experience on both sides of the ball. But don’t count out Scott Frost. It is no accident that UCF won 13 games and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl. If Frost wants to pull off a statement road victory in his first season at the helm, this might be the perfect opportunity. And if Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats want to prove they’re legitimate contenders in the Big Ten, they must take care of business on homecoming weekend. This one will kick off at 11:00 am CT on October 13 at Ryan Field.