5 things to watch in NU vs. Neb
By Ryan Choe
The ‘Cats gave fans a Halloween treat in their comeback against Iowa this past weekend. Here are five key things to watch this weekend as Northwestern (2-0) takes on Nebraska (0-1) at home.
1. Northwestern’s defense
The defense gave up two touchdowns in the first quarter against Iowa after a pair of costly fumbles by the Wildcat offense and special teams. However, from then on the ‘Cats defense only gave up two field goals the rest of the game and held the Hawkeyes scoreless in the second half. Redshirt first-year defensive back Brandon Joseph recorded the first two interceptions of his career in the second half while the senior linebacking trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin each recorded double-digit tackles. Gallagher also sealed the game with an interception on Iowa’s final drive.
Iowa marked the second consecutive game where Northwestern forced three interceptions and held their opponents under 100 rushing yards. Nebraska’s junior quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t pose much of a threat passing the ball in week one against No. 5 Ohio State, but has proven to be a dangerous runner (he ran for 85 yards against Ohio State and was Nebraska’s second-leading runner last season). It will be vital that the Northwestern defense keeps the Nebraska running game contained and dare Martinez to throw the ball this weekend.
2. Running game battle
After running the ball for a total of 325 yards and four touchdowns against Maryland, the ‘Cats ran for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns against Iowa. While back-to-back games of over 140 rushing yards is impressive, the Bajakian-led offense saw its yards per rush drop from 6.1 in week one to 2.4 in week two. After running the ball 113 times through two games, it’s no secret by now that the ‘Cats’ offense is run-heavy. However, Nebraska’s run defense has ranked in the bottom half of the country over the past decade, so Northwestern has a good opportunity to run with more efficiency this week.
Meanwhile, Nebraska ran for an impressive 210 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State in week one after averaging over 200 total rushing yards per game last season. Much like the Iowa game, the team with the more potent running game will likely win the game.
3. The ‘Cats’ late-down efficiency
So far this season, the ‘Cats have converted 18 of 35 third downs (51.43 %) and all five of their fourth-down attempts. This is especially impressive considering how they only converted 35.75% of third downs and 39.29% of fourth downs last year. While these current third- and fourth-down percentages might not be sustainable for the entire season, Northwestern’s chances of winning games should remain high if the offense continues to convert third and fourth downs at the level it has been.
4. Which offensive skill player(s) will have a breakout game?
In week one it was sophomore running back Drake Anderson, junior running back Isaiah Bowser, graduate transfer tight end John Raine and redshirt first-year running back Evan Hull who had big games. In week two it was senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan and senior running back Jesse Brown who delivered the biggest scores of the game. So far this season it doesn’t look like there are only a couple options for breakout offensive skill players; instead, the ‘Cats’ offense is spreading the ball and getting high-quality contributions from multiple different players each week. This makes the offense that much more dangerous and unpredictable since opposing teams need to account for a lot of offensive threats.
Besides the aforementioned players from the first two games, senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman will be a name to watch this week. Chiaokhiao-Bowman leads the team in receptions and receiving yards this season, but has yet to find the endzone.
5. How involved will Peyton Ramsey be?
The quarterback wasn’t called upon very often against Iowa as the offense ran the ball 60 times and passed 18 times, and Ramsey threw a late-game interception that could have been costly. However, the windy conditions in Iowa City may have played a role in Ramsey’s limited passing attempts, and he has still proven to be an integral part of the offense. It was the third-and-long situations where Ramsey has delivered and proved to be especially poised. It will be interesting to see if Ramsey throws more than 25 times this game or if the bulk of Bajakian calls are runs.
The ‘Cats showcased an incredible effort by rallying from 17 points down to beat Iowa this past weekend. Nebraska is coming off an unplanned bye week after their matchup with Wisconsin was canceled, and the Cornhuskers could potentially show some rust early on. If the Northwestern running game has a successful day and the defense continues to stifle opposing offenses, Northwestern should improve to 3-0. My prediction is that the ‘Cats ride the running game to victory in a close game.
Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 28-20
Bold prediction: The defense records an interception, sack and forced fumble this game.