Opponent Preview: Nebraska

By Nick Magas

Week five of Northwestern’s 2021 football campaign will bring about the team’s first Big Ten road trip of the season. The Wildcats will visit Lincoln in an attempt to beat a struggling Nebraska program for the second consecutive year.

For Nebraska, a handful of talented players return to the roster, including nine consistent starters from their 2020 defense. Fourth-year quarterback Adrian Martinez also returns to run the offense. He will go to work behind a big offensive line and is surrounded by young talent at the skill positions.

The unfortunate truth for Nebraska is that, to this point, the returning group has seen limited success through their careers. Even the fifth-year seniors have yet to contribute to a team that has finished over .500. Nebraska has not made a bowl appearance since the 2016 season. 

Nebraska, backed by a passionate and hungry fanbase, has been known to cycle through head coaches. Scott Frost is in his fourth year at the reins and in desperate need of a winning season to ensure his job security moving forward. Upon his hiring after the 2017 season, Frost was charged with turning the program around and vaulting the Huskers back to their former status as a football powerhouse. For Nebraska, a loss to Northwestern at home is the last thing they need amidst their quest for national relevance.

Year after year, the Huskers do manage one of the better home-field advantages in the conference. Winning on the road is never easy, and doing it in Lincoln is no small task. Northwestern needs to do three things in order to escape Nebraska with a win.

1. Contain Adrian Martinez

Northwestern sported a decent run defense in 2020, bolstered by linemen Joe Spivak and Adetomiwa Adebawore. Both guys return to a ‘Cats defensive front that allowed a better-than-average 146 rushing yards-per-game. In last season’s matchup with Nebraska, however, the Cornhuskers burned the ‘Cats with 224 yards on the ground. Quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and now-Louisville Cardinal Luke McCaffery combined for the majority of those yards. What Martinez lacks in his downfield passing ability, he makes up for with his legs, serving as Nebraska’s leading rusher last season. Northwestern’s stud linebackers, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, departed this offseason, leaving Chris Bergin as the only returning starter. Northwestern already had issues containing opposing quarterbacks, and this year’s defensive front will have their work cut out for them in Lincoln.

2. Be Aggressive Throwing the Football

Northwestern has plenty of upside in the passing game, especially with Ryan Hilinski as the presumed starting quarterback. Cam Porter should headline a strong running game, which will give Mike Bajakian’s offense some flexibility in terms of a downfield attack. Grad transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. adds athleticism and experience to the receiving corps. Senior JJ Jefferson, who opted out last season, returns as the explosive presence the ‘Cats were missing. They go up against a less-than-stellar Nebraska secondary, one that intercepted just five passes in 2020. The stars are aligned for Northwestern to take some chances, and if they are successful, they have the ability to run away with the game early.

3. Keep the Pressure On

If Northwestern does manage to get an early lead, their main challenge will be to continue their aggressive approach. Past Northwestern teams have had a knack for giving great teams close games. They also have a history of playing down to less talented competition. In 2020, seven of the Wildcats’ nine contests were one-score games entering the fourth quarter. They rose to the occasion against Ohio State, for example, but let weaker teams like Purdue stick around way too long. On paper, Northwestern is the better team in this matchup. They must figure out how to close the game with the same level of intensity with which they open it. The final result from Lincoln will be entirely within the Wildcats’ control. 

The Prediction

Northwestern is stronger than Nebraska on both sides of the ball. They have a few options in terms of a game plan, any of which can earn them a win if executed correctly. One thing is inevitable: the Cardiac Cats will have us white-knuckling the couch cushions until the final whistle.

Final Score: Northwestern 28, Nebraska 20