Opponent Preview: Nebraska

Northwestern looks to notch its first conference win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers as the ‘Cats travel to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. CT on BTN.

By Ryan Choe

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his program head into this matchup looking to play spoiler on Homecoming night for the Huskers. Although the ‘Cats enter the game with a 2-2 record, it is less than desirable that their two victories came over teams that are a combined 2-6. Northwestern enters the game as a hefty underdog (10.5 points), but it won’t be the first time the team looks to prove the experts wrong.

1. QB1 Questions

After four games into the season, the Wildcats arguably have more questions at this position now than at the beginning of the year. After a solid performance in week 1 against Michigan State, Hunter Johnson’s play regressed in each game since. A particularly atrocious first half against Duke may have been the final collegiate snaps for the senior quarterback. Johnson failed to see any action against Ohio last weekend, and barring any injuries to Andrew Marty and Ryan Hilinski, finds himself stuck in the third-string position.

Meanwhile, sophomore Ryan Hilinski will start for the second game in a row. With such a small sample size of regular-season action, it’s difficult to predict how much of an upgrade Hilinski will be over Johnson. The numbers aren’t overly inspiring and neither was the dropped pick-six the sophomore transfer threw in the second quarter against Ohio. Senior Andrew Marty injected a spark into the Northwestern offense during the second half of the Duke game, scoring all three touchdowns for the ‘Cats before suffering an upper-body injury that sidelined him for the fourth quarter and the entire Ohio contest. Now active and ready for the Nebraska matchup, Marty will be eager to prove his electrifying performance two weeks ago was not a fluke. No matter who is at the helm, the recipe remains the same: the team only goes as far as its quarterback play.

Season StatsHunter JohnsonAndrew MartyRyan Hilinski
Completion Percentage60%68.8%51.9%
Avg. Yards-per-pass5.79.44.5
Source: CFB Stats

2. The Northwestern Defense

With high hopes heading into the season, the results up to this point are underwhelming at best for first-year coordinator Jim O’Neil. After giving up over 20 points in just two games last season, the Northwestern defense has already equaled that four games in. Much of the blame can go to an unfortunate mix of bringing in a new coordinator and losing a significant amount of production, talent and leadership. However, fans and viewers can only be patient for so long. While there have been some bright spots (such as the second half of the Duke contest along with the performances in the two victories), the defense is off to an overall slow start. Against Michigan State and Duke, the ‘Cats looked completely overwhelmed and unprepared, surrendering bundles of plays of over 30 yards. It will be crucial for the defense to start fast against Nebraska in order to give more opportunities to an inconsistent offense. Luckily, standout safety Brandon Joseph recorded his first interception of the year against Ohio, linebacker Chris Bergin has emerged as a tackling machine and junior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore already has 2.5 sacks. Adebawore and the defensive line, in particular, must capitalize this week against one of the worst offensive lines among Power Five teams. More important developments include the promotions of cornerback A.J. Hampton and safety Coco Azema, who replace Rod Heard II and safety Bryce Jackson, respectively, as starters.

3. Evan Hull and the Wildcat Running Backs

One of the few bright spots this year has been the group led by position coach Lou Ayeni. After beginning the season with the loss of Cam Porter due to a season-ending injury, the Northwestern backfield hasn’t missed a beat; in fact, they may have sped up the tempo. Leading the three-headed rushing monster is sophomore Evan Hull, who is enjoying a breakout career year. After rushing the ball 71 times for 495 yards (6.97 average yards-per-rush) and 6 touchdowns combined in his first two seasons, Hull has nearly equaled that production with even greater efficiency in just four games. First-year running back Anthony Tyus III has fans thinking deja vu with his significant impact as a true first-year (similar to Porter last season) while graduate transfer Andrew Clair rounds out this dangerous three-man band. The ‘Cats are counting on this group to spearhead the offense, and successful performances from its members will go a long way in opening up Mike Bajakian’s play-calling.

Season StatsEvan HullAndrew ClairAnthony Tyus III
Avg Yards-per-carry7.67.44.8
Source: ESPN

Heading into this duel, both programs find themselves in an early season-defining moment. Northwestern and Nebraska each have two dominant wins over non-Power Five conference teams but also agonizingly close defeats. The Wildcats and Cornhuskers enter the contest hungry for a win, and many signs point to this being a defensively dominated game. The ‘Cats will need to get to a fast start on offense (most likely through the legs of Evan Hull) and take advantage of a lackluster Nebraska offensive line if they hope to notch their first conference win of the season and prove to be the true “NU.”

Score prediction: ‘Cats lose, 17-14
Bold prediction: Northwestern’s defense gets 6+ tackles for loss, including 3 sacks.