Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.
Venue: Ryan Stadium, Evanston, IL
Network: Big Ten Network
Nebraska and Northwestern will face off in their first Big Ten game of the year this week. After beating No. 22 Oregon at home last week this will be Nebraska’s first road game.
Northwestern got off to a rough start in their first two contests, losing to both Western Michigan and Illinois State at home. The Wildcats came off a big win last week when they defeated Duke 24-13. Northwestern also got the last laugh last year when they came to Lincoln and won 30-28.
“Leading into Northwestern, we know what we’re going to get here,” said Nebraska head coach Mike Riley. “This team had a rough start and came back with a good win against Duke. Pat (Fitzgerald) does a great job of coaching this team. They are always tough-minded and have won a lot of games. So we’re looking for a team that is on the rise and coming back after a good win.”
Running back Justin Jackson had a big year on the ground last year with over 1,400 yards, but has struggled this year. The junior back will look to get things going early to find a rhythm and momentum for the rest of the year. Their quarterback, Clayton Thorson, played a big role in the Wildcats’ victory against Duke, getting it done through the air with 320 passing yards. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore is a big and fast guy that is mobile in the pocket and can pick up yards through the air or on the ground.
“Don’t take anybody for granted,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. “Not that I did as an individual but this team that we’re about to play embarrassed us last ear. We gave up an early quarterback run with five people chasing him. I know that this quarterback can throw the ball. I know he’s a big, sturdy guy.”
Northwestern’s spread offense with a good quarterback and running back duo is a similar offensive style Nebraska has seen in all three of their former opponents this year. Their focus defensively is to continue what they have been doing for the past three weeks and to tighten up loose ends.
"They're a spread team, a lot like the last three teams we faced, so it will be the same things,” said linebackers coach Trent Bray. “It'll be being in my gaps and when it's a pass, getting the right drops. All the things that really every week those kind of offenses make you do."
After searching for their identity the first two weeks, it seems as if Nebraska finally found their balanced offense attack that we saw against Oregon. With senior Brandon Reilly back in action, it will be important that they can establish their passing game early since Northwestern will have a young and inexperienced group of heirs filling the role of injured starters. By opening up the passing game early, Nebraska can pick and choose when to run on this tough defensive front that is 18th in the country in points against.
Running back Devine Ozigbo found his rhythm last week in the second half against Oregon. He picked up 92 of his 98 yards on the ground in the third and fourth, and also set up two scoring drives, one of which he found his way into the end zone. If the sophomore back plays like he did last week in the 3rd and 4th quarter, the Husker’s balanced attack will be too much for the Wildcats’ defense.
Two important uniform notes for Saturday’s game: Northwestern will be wearing a helmet sticker to honor Sam Foltz and Nebraska will be wearing their new alternate uniforms. The all-white uniforms were announced in the preseason and earned a lot of praise amongst the players. By styling a different look, Nebraska is aiming to give their players some extra motivation to play well and look good.
Nebraska fans are also known to travel very well to away games and with about a seven-hour drive, Ryan Stadium could have a red-infested crowd. With this game being both the first away game and first Big Ten game, and since the Huskers are seeking redemption from last year’s loss, it would be no surprise to see a sea of red in Illinois.
“Our fans are just awesome, play a major role, represent this state really, really well and travel well,” said Riley. “And to have a fan base like that, that does travel with you is always a great lift to a team. Very special, so we’ll appreciate that.”
Dating all the way back to 1902, Nebraska holds the series record over Northwestern at 6-3. Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, the Huskers have just a 3-2 record against the Wildcats. In the most recent meeting, Northwestern came into Lincoln last year and won 30-28.
What A Win Means For Nebraska:
A Nebraska win would push them to 4-0 and 1-0 in the Big Ten. The Huskers would avoid the “hangover” affect after a big win and would show that they can take care of business on the road in their first game away from Lincoln. This would also be Mike Riley’s first win against Northwestern, a series that always provides a close game.
What A Win Means For Northwestern:
A struggling Northwestern team would no longer have a losing record and become a .500 team. A Wildcats’ win would also shift the momentum for the rest of their season heading into Big Ten action and set them at 1-0 against Big Ten opponents.
Nebraska Players To Watch On Offense:
The junior wide out had a so-so game last week but had a big-time play when the Huskers needed it the most. Late in the second quarter, Pierson-EL returned a punt 46 yards to set up a Husker touchdown to cut the Oregon lead to one score before the halftime. ‘DPE’ also bobbled a punt and only recorded one catch against the Ducks. After returning from a season-ending injury, the coaching staff and players have stressed that it is only a confidence issue with the Virginia native. Watch to see if Nebraska incorporates their wide out on more plays, like jet sweeps and slants down the middle. Also, be on the edge of your seat every time Northwestern punts the ball.
The senior was a big contributor in scoring last week against Oregon where he finished with three catches and two touchdowns. The 6’0, 200-pound wide receiver’s final catch kept Nebraska’s drive alive on a 4th and 9, which set up a 34-yard touchdown by Tommy Armstrong Jr. Westerkamp continues to climb the ladder in the record books for Nebraska, as he became fourth in career receptions with 137 and fourth in career touchdowns with 17 after last week’s game. The Illinois native returns to his home state for his final game against Northwestern and stated that he will be playing in front of about 200 friends and family. A senior in his home state, he’s bound to make at least one big play.
The senior quarterback had a great performance last week and an outstanding 34-yard touchdown to seal the deal against Oregon. Armstrong Jr. battled through cramps and injuries and even received an IV on the sidelines to finish the game with four touchdowns, 200 yards through the air and 95 yards on the ground. His teammates and head coach Mike Riley praised his tenacity and competiveness he showed last week. The Texas native leads the University in career touchdowns with 80 and is responsible for 11 this year through three games. It would be no surprise to see if Armstrong Jr. can continue the Huskers’ winning streak with both his arm and his legs.
The true freshman punter emerged out of his shell last week and showed why he was selected as the starter this season. In their game against Oregon, Lightbourn averaged 47.2 yards on his five punts and placed three kicks inside the 20, one of which was inside the five. The Washington native also notched a career-long 58-yard punt in the 4th quarter, and his performance against the Ducks earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
Nebraska Players To Watch On Defense:
In his second game of the year, Gerry led the team in tackles against the Ducks with nine. The senior captain brings the fire and energy to the defense to give them the extra edge they need when they need it the most. In two games, the Sioux Falls native has made 16 tackles and two interceptions. With Gerry back, it shows that he was the missing piece to this defense, and has proven that Nebraska’s secondary may be their strongpoint on defense.
The junior safety had yet another stellar performance on defense as he had seven tackles against Oregon. Williams currently leads the team in tackles with 22, 13 of which are solo. The 6’1”, 195-pound blackshirt is also tied for the most interceptions on the team with his counterpart Gerry. The Gerry and Williams duo has shown to be one of the best secondary’s in the Big Ten and could have another big game this week facing a sophomore quarterback who has already thrown a couple of interceptions on the year.
The senior defensive end has shown why he earned Nebraska’s Most Improved Player just a year ago. After an injured Jack Gangwish allowed Dzuris to fill the defensive end role last year, the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from Plattsmouth made a name for himself when he led the team with nine tackles for loss. This year, Dzuris has already made 13 tackles and 3.5 sacks in just three games. The mustached warrior has another opportunity this week to have a big game since the Wildcats will look to get going on the ground. “[Dzuris] works very hard,” said Banker. “He knows what he’s doing, he has really good technique. He has passion for the game.”
Reasons To Be Concerned:
Nebraska heads into Evanston after a big win against Oregon last week. This hangover game could definitely be a trap for the Huskers as they could overlook their 1-2 opponent. The Huskers and Wildcats always seem to have a closely fought battle against each other, as four of their last five meetings have been decided by three or fewer points. Ryan Stadium is also an all-grass field. The Huskers have been preparing for the Wildcats’ grass field by practicing on their grass field in Ed Weir Stadium.
Quote To Note:
“They are a tough, gritty, fight-to-the-end team, and play good solid football. Way back when Pat (Fitzgerald) was playing, I coached against Pat in the Rose Bowl. What was that, ’96? He was a linebacker there. That defense back then was very similar to how they play now. They are sound. Back in that day, I watched all the film and you couldn’t find big plays on them. They just were a really, really sound defensive team. They don’t let the game get away from them. They compete like crazy, and they’re well-coached and they’ve got some good players.” – Nebraska head coach Mike Riley
Nebraska will start off slow and Northwestern will come out of the gate with something to prove. I see Northwestern starting the game with an early lead but the Huskers will battle back and prove that they are the more talented team. Nebraska will have a balanced attack offensively and have some big plays through the air with an inexperienced secondary defending them. After making their halftime adjustments, something that has been phenomenal so far this year, Nebraska will put the game out of reach late in the third quarter and win comfortably.