When Nebraska and Northwestern meet you may as well throw all predictions out the window. There is no saying what could happen this weekend. That being said, Nebraska is favored this weekend, and should walk out with their sixth win and here is why. (I would like to reference Ameer Abdullah five times, but as the new kid on the block, I feel like that wouldn't fly too well. So, I'll go with a few less obvious choices.)
Northwestern gives up big plays
Northwester's defense has been a solid unit this season, but they do have some weaknesses. The Wildcat defense has given up six plays of 50 or more yards, (108th nationally) while the Husker offense has six plays itself of over 50 yards. (16th nationally) and they rank fourth nationally in plays over 40 yards. Oddly enough, Northwestern has given up two rushes of over 50 yards, and four passes of over 50 yards, which is identical to what the Nebraska offense has done. Look for Nebraska to attack downfield early via the play-action pass to try and send a message and loosen the Wildcat defense up.
Northwestern's punting game.... Sucks
This may be the biggest advantage for Nebraska. Northwestern averages 37.74 yards per punt which is "good" for 123rd in the country. I repeat, Northwestern has the FIFTH WORST punt average in college football. Well, it doesn't stop there. Northwestern punts the ball on average 6.5 times per game which is the 15th most in the country, and allows 9 yards per return, which ranks 78th in the country. The Wildcats cannot punt. Now, pair that with one of the most dangerous returners in the country in De'Mornay Pierson-El, and you have a potential nightmare matchup for the Wildcats. The Huskers are averaging 14.95 yards per punt return (18th) and have two punt return touchdowns this season.
The Northwestern Offensive Line
Northwestern has found success on the ground with running back Justin Jackson, but can't seem to keep Trevor Siemian on his feet. The Wildcat offensive line has given up 14 sacks this season. The Husker defensive line has not been stellar at getting to the quarterback, with only 12 sacks on the season. But, when you have a guy like Randy Gregory going up against a struggling offensive line, there is potential for a huge game.
The Northwestern Offense is not scary, at all
The Northwestern offense has struggled the majority of the season. They rank 105th in total offense with just over 361 yards per game. Breaking that down further, they are 69th in total passing yards and 103rd in total rushing yards. Northwestern averages a Big Ten worst 4.71 yards per play (116th nationally). When you look at the Northwestern schedule, they have only played two teams with a top 25 defense, Penn State (5th) and Wisconsin (6th). Outside of those teams, they have played nothing but average to bad defenses.
The offensive struggles don't stop there either. Northwestern is 69th in the country in third down conversions, which is huge because Nebraska's defense is the seventh best third down defense in the country, allowing only 27% of third downs to be converted. Moving to the Red Zone, the struggles continue. Northwestern has been average in overall Red Zone conversions, ranking 49th, but ranks 84th in Red Zone touchdown percentage at just 57.14% compared to Nebraska's 73.08%. When you break down all of the numbers it looks like it could be a huge day for the Nebraska defense, and if Northwestern does struggle to move the ball like they have, chalk this one up as a win for Nebraska.
Nebraska will be as healthy as they have since the start of the season on Saturday. They get a huge weapon on the outside in speedster Brandon Riley back, and both Kenny Bell and Daniel Davie should be healthy enough to play. Couple that with Northwestern losing their third leading tackler and team captain Collin Ellis, and Nebraska has that much more of an advantage on Saturday. The backup for Ellis, freshman Anthony Walker played well in his first career start. He led the team in tackles with eight and recorded his first career interception. As good as Walker played, the Wildcat defense will certainly miss the leadership of Ellis against one of the better offenses in the country.
This game has the makings of a 20 point victory for Nebraska on paper, but we all know that Northwestern is a feisty team and will not roll over easily. If Northwestern can make this game an ugly one, then I would be surprised to see Nebraska win by more than 10 points. However, if Northwestern tries to get into a shoot-out with the Husker offense, then that 6.5 point spread will not last long.