No. 9 Huskers Expect Test

Northwestern brings its spread offense to Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the kind ninth-ranked Nebraska used to go against week after week in the Big 12.

It's like old home week for Big Ten newcomer Nebraska.

Northwestern brings its spread offense to Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the kind ninth-ranked Nebraska used to go against week after week in the Big 12.

Nebraska (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) has won three straight to move into a three-way tie for the lead in the Big Ten's Legends Division. Northwestern (3-5, 1-4) is playing its final road game and needs to win three of its last four to become bowl eligible.

The Huskers' familiarity with the spread won't necessarily make the task easier against a Northwestern team led by one of the nation's most prolific passers in Dan Persa.

"I think he's close to if not the best quarterback we've faced this year," said defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, who also has strategized against Wisconsin's Russell Wilson.

Persa missed the first three games as he finished healing from last season's Achilles tendon rupture. He's been sharing time with the versatile Kain Colter, and the pair has combined to throw for 289 yards a game in Big Ten play.

Persa passed for 261 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a season-high 41 yards in last week's 59-38 win over Indiana, which ended a five-game losing streak.

"It looks like his mobility is still pretty good," coach Bo Pelini said. "He is elusive and does a nice job when things break down. The thing that makes it hard is that he finds ways to escape inside, outside, up the middle."

The Wildcats scored on nine of 10 possessions against struggling Indiana and recorded its highest point total in 11 years. Nebraska has been playing some of its best defense the last two-plus games, holding Minnesota and Michigan State under 300 total yards.

The Huskers' offense also has found some consistency, with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead the big playmakers. Nebraska has built its three-game win streak after a devastating 48-17 loss at Wisconsin.

"It was such a heartbreaking loss for us for the first Big Ten game," Martinez said. "After we lost to Wisconsin it brought us a lot closer together. And I think ever since the Ohio State game we're just on a roll right now."

The Huskers aren't lacking for motivation now that they control their fate in the division race.

"We have come a long way," receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "I think that loss drew us closer together as a team. Knowing that we could still reach our goal of the Big Ten championship made it that much better."

Burkhead scored three touchdowns and carried a career-high 35 times for 130 yards in last week's 24-3 win over the Spartans.

"Rex embodies everything that their program's about," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's physically tough. You saw him get dinged around a little bit on Saturday and he came right back. He does the dirty work."

As good as Northwestern's offense has been, it has had difficulty putting up more points than the Wildcats' defense has allowed. The offense averages 31.6 points a game; the defense surrenders an average of 31.5.

"We're a little bit young and we need to keep coaching those guys to get better," Fitzgerald said. "When we've been consistent in technique and consistent in communication and effort, we've been pretty salty."

Northwestern will have to beat Nebraska, Michigan State or both to become bowl eligible for the fourth straight year. The Wildcats also play Rice and Minnesota.

"It's a big month for our program," Fitzgerald said, "if we want to send our seniors out the right way."


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