Key matchups for Northwestern vs. Nebraska

    Kain Colter

    Kain Colter (No. 2) could play a significant role against the Huskers due to his versatility. Photo by Natalie Krebs / North By Northwestern.

    After losing five straight relatively competitive games, Northwestern finally earned a victory this past Saturday against a weak Indiana team. However, even with momentum finally in their favor, the ‘Cats will have perhaps their toughest test this season on the road against No. 10 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are currently tied for the lead in the Legends division with Michigan, while a Northwestern win would greatly assist the ‘Cats in their pursuit of a bowl game appearance. Below are the key matchups that will determine the outcome of what looks like a potentially one-sided game.

    Rex Burkhead (Nebraska IB) vs. Northwestern front seven

    Burkhead is the key component of the Cornhuskers offense, piling up rushing yards while racking up touchdowns. In Nebraska’s big 24-3 win last week against No. 11 Michigan State, Burkhead ran the ball a season-high 35 times, collecting 130 yards and two touchdowns. The 210-pound junior has scored in every game this season with a total of 12 rushing scores. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is also a threat on the ground (he’s rushed for 659 yards and nine touchdowns this year), creating an explosive ground attack for the Huskers, who at 252 yards a game have the top-ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten.

    Meanwhile, Northwestern is ranked 10th in the conference in rush defense, allowing 193 yards per game. Though the ‘Cats beat up Indiana last week, the Hoosiers still collected 319 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, as both Stephen Houston and Tre Roberson ran for more than 100 yards. Burkhead is a talented back looking to go over the 1,000-yard mark on the season (currently, he has 882 yards) and the ‘Cats rush defense can’t allow him and Martinez the big days they allowed the less talented Hoosiers. The ‘Cats won’t be able to shut Burkhead down, but they will need to at least contain him if Northwestern is going to keep it close.

    Kain Colter (Northwestern QB) vs. Carl Pelini (Nebraska defensive coordinator)

    Colter has done it all for Northwestern the last few weeks, frustrating defensive coordinators and creating a new dynamic for the ‘Cats offense. The sophomore maximized his versatility last week against Indiana when he threw for two touchdowns and caught six passes for 115 yards. Adding to the challenges for Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini is the fact that Colter is a talented runner. Colter leads the ‘Cats in rushing with 459 yards and six touchdowns. With his role continuing to evolve, Colter has become a sort of X-factor for the ‘Cats offense. Coach Pelini will need to neutralize the Colter element of surprise and have his defense ready for No. 2 to catch, run or throw at any time, a difficult task given Colter’s flexible style.

    Taylor Martinez (Nebraska QB) vs. Northwestern secondary

    While Martinez is dangerous on the ground, he has struggled this season in the air, throwing seven interceptions to go along with his eight passing touchdowns. He has a poor completion percentage (54.9 percent) and is coming off one of his least effective games all season against Michigan State, completing just seven passes for 80 yards (though Nebraska did get the win). The ‘Huskers average 160 passing yards a game, 109th in the nation. However, Northwestern’s pass defense has been one of its biggest struggles this season. The ‘Cats rank 11th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (238 yards per game) and have been lit up in several losses this season. With an opportunity to exploit a weak passer in Martinez, the 'Cats could force the Nebraska offense to stick solely to the run, though this may not be a good thing considering the Huskers’ excellent ground game. Either way, Northwestern’s secondary has a big opportunity to force mistakes from Martinez through the air.

    Jeremy Ebert (Northwestern WR) vs. Alfonzo Dennard (Nebraska CB)

    Despite a weak performance against Indiana last week, Ebert has been outstanding this season, serving as the only consistent target for quarterback Dan Persa. However, Dennard is probably the best cornerback in the Big Ten (many experts predict he will be one of the first cornerbacks selected in the 2012 NFL draft) and has shut down opposing receivers all year. The ‘Huskers boast the 12th-ranked pass defense in Division I football and only one receiver (Washington’s James Johnson) has collected over 100 yards in a game against Nebraska this season. Still, while Nebraska’s defense is one of the best in college football, Ebert is a savvy veteran who has had big games this year against top-flight opponents. If the senior receiver can beat Dennard a few times, he will give the ‘Cats a chance and help them take a huge step toward going bowling in the winter.


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