Sure, the Wildcats are 6-1 after the victory in Minnesota last week, but everything about the game other than Venric Mark’s performance was lackluster.
The passing game was abysmal; Siemian’s struggles from the Penn State game carried over in week seven. He threw seven times and completed one pass for four yards. Colter was more accurate, but he only totaled 63 yards.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers come into Saturday’s meeting with a 4-2 record. Their up-and-down season saw a high with a victory against Wisconsin, but last week was a definite low as Ohio State rousted the 'Huskers in Columbus.
Over the next four weeks, both teams will face three opponents who either used to be or are currently ranked in the AP Top 25. In a tight conference battle, one more loss against a Legends Division opponent could dash Northwestern's hopes of playing in the Big Ten Championship.
For the past couple of years, a staple of Nebraska football has been effective defensive line play. In 2012 the tradition continues; the Cornhuskers’ 3.5 sacks per game is seventh best in the nation.
The ‘Cats offensive line needs to watch out for two players in particular. One of the most feared players in college football is linebacker Will Compton, who leads the team in tackles. His companion, senior defensive end Eric Martin, leads the team with 5.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. Both players have the ability to get pressure through the line and stop the effective Northwestern run offense.
Lately, the quarterback play for Northwestern has been sub-par. Over the last two games, Trevor Siemian has barely completed 50 percent of his passes; the ball came out with poor timing and many passes were often overthrown. In the last three weeks, Northwestern quarterbacks have only been sacked once, so an improved pass rush might create even more problems for the ‘Cats passing game.
Colter proves to be a more accurate quarterback – the quarterback/receiver/running back completes over 70 percent of his passes – but he averages only 5.54 yards per attempt.
Through the air, Nebraska is not stellar, but the Huskers are still more effective than Northwestern. Wide receiver Kenny Bell amassed more yards this season than Northwestern’s top two receivers combined. Bell's longtime friendship with Kain Colter will only entice the sophomore to perform at his peak on Saturday. Nick VanHoose faces a tough challenge against the sophomore speedster.
While Nebraska allows a lot of points, they also score a lot, averaging close to 44 points per game. The Wildcats haven’t had to come back from any sort of large deficit so far this season, so if Nebraska jumps out to a big lead, the 'Cats could be in heaps of trouble.
Home field should be huge for the 'Cats week eight game. On the road this year, Nebraska’s quarterback Taylor Martinez has thrown for one touchdown and four interceptions. The entire offense struggled on the road too, converting only 24 percent of third downs. Northwestern sports an undefeated record at home, and Parents' Weekend means more fans and noise when the Nebraska offense has the ball.
The special teams for Northwestern continues to shine. Venric Marc has scored two touchdowns on only eight punt return attempts. The fear opposing kickers have for Mark’s return ability often causes directional kicks, which are shorter in distance.
Budzein's perfection continues at 11-11 in field goals, and Brandon Williams has pinned teams inside of their 20-yard line 12 times.
Nebraska allows about 28 points per game, so just a little defense will go a long way if Northwestern can score often. In their last 16 red zone appearances, the 'Cats came away with 11 touchdowns and four field goals.
For the entire season, the linebacking core for the 'Cats has proved to be stout. Damien Proby, Chi Chi Ariguzo and David Nwabuisi lead the team in tackles with 62, 59 and 51 tackles respectively. Nebraska rushes for the fifth most yards per game in the entire FBS, so look for seven or eight players in the box at all times. The linebackers will have a huge responsibility to corral the rushing attack.
Game Prediction: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 24
Both teams know what the other wants to do: run the ball. Nebraska just does a better job coupled with a more effective passing offense. Northwestern’s second half defense has just been dreadful lately; in the last three games, 68 of opponents' 81 points have come in the second half. Look for the game to start off close before Nebraska pulls away in the second half.