So, who has the edge?
When Northwestern has the ball…
The ‘Cats offense has struggled somewhat lately, particularly in the passing game. Venric Mark and Kain Colter continue to dominate the ground game – Mark in particular is the unquestioned star on this offense. The ‘Cats are averaging 228 yards on the ground this season.
This is particularly noticeable as Nebraska is giving up around 189 yards per game on the ground, and was dashed by Ohio State – a rushing attack very similar to Northwestern's – for 371 yards in their last game.
Now, Northwestern has absolutely no pass game this season. The ‘Cats are last in the Big Ten in passing offense, and Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian's arms have all but disappeared in recent games. They will need some balance in this game, but Ohio State put up seven touchdowns on offense with only 127 passing yards. If there's a game where the slow pass attack might not hurt the ‘Cats, this is it.
When Nebraska has the ball…
On the other side, the Norhwestern defense has been very tough against the run this season, only allowing 110 yards per game. The ‘Cats haven't faced a truly tough rushing attack yet, however, and that's exactly what they'll get with Nebraska. Taylor Martinez has the ability to break off big plays, and Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead together average nearly 200 yards per game.
It will be tough to say what happens with Nebraska's offense in this game. Taylor Martinez has been a much-improved passer this year, which has really opened up the offense. But in his last game, Martinez threw three interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown.
Everyone has heard about Northwestern's less-than-satisfactory secondary – a unit that gave up big numbers in near-losses at Syracuse and against Indiana and in the team's only loss at Penn State. If Martinez is the quarterback from the first few games, this could be a long way for the ‘Cats defensive backs. If he has less confidence after their last game, Northwestern could take advantage of mistakes and force the offense to keep it on the ground. Then again, Nebraska can still beat a team on the ground.
In the punt return game, both teams have a big playmaker. Venric Mark, the most electrifying Wildcat on the field, averages nearly 30 yards a return and has two touchdowns. For Nebraska, Ameer Abdullah averages 16 yards a kick and took one 81 yards for a score. Slight advantage to Mark here, especially considering Nebraska has already given up a 76 yard touchdown on a punt return and allows about 16 yards per return.
In the kicking game, it's advantage Northwestern without question. Jeff Budzien has been a rock, going 11-11 with a long of 44 yards. He hasn't been challenged distance-wise, but is 4-4 from beyond 40 yards. Budzien inspires more confidence in a kicker than Northwestern fans have seen in a long time.
For Nebraska, Brett Maher is just 8-13 on the season. He does have a long of 54 yards, so he's got a strong leg, but he's missed two out of three from beyond 50 yards and has missed two others from beyond 40. Consistency is crucial in the kicking game, and the ‘Cats have it. Advantage: Northwestern.
It's a 2:30 start on ABC, a division battle and an absolutely crucial game for both teams. So it's safe to say neither team is looking around trying to find motivation. Northwestern is at home in front of a sold-out crowd (that includes a large Nebraska following, admittedly) and wearing the alternate black uniforms. This is the ‘Cats chance to prove that this team is for real after stumbling at Penn State.
For Nebraska, the Huskers are coming off a beat down at Ohio State where the defense was simply embarrassed. Nebraska still has a strong chance to be the Big Ten's representative in the Rose Bowl, but it simply cannot afford a loss to Northwestern. Plus, the Huskers have the memory of last year's upset loss at home against Northwestern to think about. And that can't be a happy memory.
Naps prove to be inconsequential, as both teams come out to slow starts. Northwestern looks to the passing game early, and it sputters, while Taylor Martinez's accuracy is a bit off early.
Northwestern then gets the ground game going, with Mark and Colter each breaking off a few big runs in the option game. Northwestern takes a lead, but Nebraska comes back as Martinez starts to torch the ‘Cats secondary. It's close towards the end, but Northwestern uses Colter and Mark to perfection on a late drive to seal a victory.
The Northwestern students then inadvisably rush the field after a win that shouldn't even be considered an upset, but the ‘Cats squeeze by in this one, proving they can handle the spotlight.
Northwestern 31, Nebraska 28