Nebraska Football: 6 Things to Watch for Against Northwestern
Coming off what some have called the best win of Bo Pelini’s career at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers prepare to face Northwestern in their penultimate home game of the 2011 campaign. The Wildcats, Nebraska’s “new Purples,” come into the contest with a prolific offense and a very suspect defense. Dan Persa, Northwestern’s do-it-all quarterback, is the kind of mobile improviser that has given the newly-minted Blackshirts fits.
So what should Nebraska fans be looking for as NU (the red one) matches up with the Purples? Here’s three things that will make Nebraska fans happy if they see, and three things to make them sad.
Happy: The T-Manager Appears Again
Never forget that Taylor Martinez always has the capability to break a game open with his athletic ability. But with Tim Beck’s new offense, that’s not how Nebraska is going to succeed. The success of NU (the red one) has come when Martinez has made the right decisions, got the ball to the right playmakers and avoided the costly turnover. When that T-Manager hasn’t appeared (cough, Wisconsin, cough), Nebraska has struggled.
Beck has showed the tendency to stick with something when it works. It’s very likely that a power running game against the over-matched Wildcat defense should be fruitful. If that’s the case, Martinez the Manager can keep Nebraska’s offense on the field.
Happy: The Secondary Stays Patient
Dan Persa, Northwestern’s quarterback, is a wizard at improvisation. Many of Northwestern’s home-run plays come from Persa’s scrambling around, and then, just before crossing the line of scrimmage, throwing the ball to a suddenly-open receiver. It will be incumbent on Nebraska’s secondary (including the likely peso/nickel players that should see a lot of the field on Saturday) to maintain their coverage responsibilities until Persa commits himself to being a ball-carrier.
The Purples need to hit home runs to stay with Nebraska and hope for an upset, and it will be the patience of the secondary to stay with their receivers that NU (the red one) needs to keep those home runs from happening.
Happy: Rex Sees the Bench
In eight games, Rex Burkhead has 165 carries. Don’t worry, I did the arithmetic already, and it averages out to just north of 20 carries per game. While Burkhead has emerged as Nebraska’s most important player on offense, there comes a point where concerns about fatigue become an issue.
When Burkhead lay prone on the Memorial Stadium Field turf in the second half against Michigan State, the crowd grew silent. It knew what an injury to Burkhead would mean to the rest of the season.
Other than Northwestern, Nebraska’s remaining opponents are athletically comparable and will require the same kind of grind-it-out effort on offense for NU (the red one) to win. The Purples may provide the best opportunity for Nebraska to phase in its stable of freshman running backs.
Sad: It Was the Opponents
The Children of the Corn have been feeling pretty good about the defense over the last 10 quarters. The Blackshirts have been handed out (a lot of them), and things seem to be back to normal in Huskerland.
But are they? Take a look at the quarterbacks this resurgent Blackshirt squad has faced. Ohio State’s Joe Bauserman is a prototypical statue who faltered badly when called upon. Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray can move, but the Gophers are so bad that he couldn’t pose a real threat. Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins is a pocket passer who isn’t a threat with his legs at all.
Northwestern’s Dan Persa is none of those things. He is a speedy, elusive and smart quarterback who runs an offense that hinges on his ability as a dual-threat quarterback.
While the defensive resurgence of the last few weeks has felt good for Nebraska fans, we’ll know a lot more about how real that resurgence is when we see how well NU (the red one) handles Persa.
Sad: They Aren't What Their Record Says They Are
Northwestern is 3-5 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten conference play. But the Purples have consistently scored, notching no less than 24 points in every conference game. Further, just ask Iowa fans about how Northwestern has an uncanny knack for spoiling an otherwisepromising season with an upset.
The Purples present far more of a danger than their record suggests, and NU (the red one) could be in for quite a surprise if not properly prepared and focused.
Sad: Nebraska Gets Generous
Northwestern does not apologize for its strategy of attempting to outscore its opponents. In conference play, the Purples have allowed no fewer than 34 points. For the most part, in 2011, the strategy has not been successful. But if Nebraska helps Northwestern out with turnovers and penalties, those gifts of possessions and field position could make the difference in the track meet Northwestern will attempt to engage in, and set the table for a trap game upset.
There’s a number of reasons to be worried about Nebraska’s game against Northwestern if you come to the game wearing red. NU is coming off an emotional high and is facing two tough road games and a newly-christened trophy game following Northwestern.
The Purples are 3-5, with only one conference win to show for the 2011 season (and that’s against lowly Indiana). The scenario is set perfectly for a trap game, and becomes even more dangerous with Northwestern’s offense posing the type of attack that has given Nebraska fits.
Having said that, Nebraska is also a really bad matchup for Northwestern. Even against middling offenses, the Purples have given up ridiculous amounts of yards and points. Indiana—1-8 Indiana, for cryin’ out loud!—scored 38 points and put up 488 yards on the Purples’ defense.
And Nebraska’s new-found identity of power running and wearing an opposing defense out would seem to be perfectly suited to attack a less deep and less athletic team like Northwestern. If NU can wear out Michigan State in the fourth quarter, then what will they do to Northwestern?
The 18-point spread is way too generous to lay against an offense like Northwestern, so the Purples are a pretty good investment with the points. But unless Nebraska coughs the ball up and keeps Northwestern in the game, NU should have more than enough to pull away and avoid the trap.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northwestern 31
Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @patrickrunge to track my thoughts and observations about college football—and one or two other topics—throughout the year!
And if you would like to contact me directly to schedule an interview, ask a question or to get my recipe for a killer peach cobbler, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (DISCLAIMER: Peach cobbler recipe might not be all that killer.)