There might not be a more lopsided match-up in this game than this one, as Nebraska's unquestioned offensive strength goes up against one of Northwestern's biggest weak points. The Huskers have been dominant on the ground all season, but especially so over the past three games. They come in ranked second in the Big Ten Conference and ninth nationally in rushing offense at 252.1 yards per game, and junior running back Rex Burkhead has led the way as the league's fourth-leading rusher at 110.2 ypg.
Now pair that against the Wildcats' dismal rushing defense, which has given up 193.6 yards per contest on the season to rank 10th in the Big Ten and 95th nationally. Even in their lone conference win of the season last week over Indiana, the Hoosiers racked up 319 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 49 attempts. On the year, Northwestern has given up 150 or more rushing yards in five of its eight games so far.
The biggest wildcard here is Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez. While he's been relatively quiet over the past few weeks running the football, Northwestern has been gashed by mobile quarterbacks all year. Michigan's Denard Robinson put up 117 yards and two touchdowns, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase had 70 yards gained and a score, and Army's Trent Steelman rushed 28 times for 108 yards and three touchdowns.
NU Pass Offense vs. NW Pass Defense
Nebraska has seen Martinez evolve into a different passer over the last three games, as he's gone from making poor decisions with the football to a conservative, efficient quarterback more apt to make the safe play than risk a turnover or negative play. Since the second half of NU's win over Ohio State, Martinez has completed 60 percent of his passes with four touchdowns to just one interception.
If you thought Northwestern's rushing defense was bad, it's passing defense has been equally poor if not even worse. The Wildcats rank 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense at 238.0 yards per game, and have a pass efficiency defense rating of 144.22 to rank 10th in the conference and 101st nationally.
It's likely that Northwestern will do all it can to slow down Nebraska's running game and make Martinez beat them with his arm, so today could be a chance for the sophomore to put up a big game through the air. The Huskers' receivers have also started to find their groove over the past few weeks, so Martinez should have plenty of capable options to throw to when does drop back to pass.
NW Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Northwestern might be known for its spread offense, but that doesn't mean the Wildcats don't know how to the run the football. Averaging 187.8 rushing yards per game to rank fifth in the Big Ten and 33rd nationally, Northwestern has been very effective moving the ball on the ground. Multi-purpose threat Kain Colter leads the Wildcats with 57.4 yards per game and six rushing scores, while running back Jacob Schmidt has been productive in the red zone with four touchdowns. Both Colter and Schmidt are averaging over 5.0 yards per carry.
Nebraska's front four has done well following the loss of senior defensive tackle Jared Crick for the season two weeks ago, as a heavy rotation up front has kept the d-line fresh and active against the run. Despite primarily using just two linebackers the past two games in favor of the peso defense, senior Lavonte David and junior Will Compton have played extremely well, allowing NU's secondary to focus more coverage responsibilities.
The Wildcats do some unique things in the running game with Colter as the Wildcat quarterback, but it's nothing Nebraska's defense didn't see before back in the Big 12. Northwestern might be able to move the ball with the run a little bit early on, but it will likely have to rely more on the pass in order to keep up with the Huskers' offense on the scoreboard.
MSU Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
This is the one match-up where Nebraska may have some problems today. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa possesses all the traits of quarterbacks who have burned the Huskers' defense this season. He's fast, elusive, smart, and is arguably a better passer outside of the pocket than inside. Persa rarely makes mistakes, as he's completed 75.5 percent of his passes on the year.
He also has receiving targets that are as disciplined as they get in terms of route running and catching the football. Wide out Jeremy Ebert is Persa's go-to guy, as he leads the Wildcats with 45 receptions for 569 yards and seven touchdowns. Then there's tight end Drake Dunsmore, who is a match-up nightmare for defenses with his speed. Dunsmore has six touchdown catches on the season, with four of them coming last week against Indiana.
Even as good as Ebert and Dunsmore have been, Northwestern doesn't really have any real deep threats in the passing game. Still, the Huskers will have to avoid mental mistakes at all costs, as the Wildcats are notorious for capitalizing on opponent's slipups and breaking off big plays.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior kicker/punter Brett Maher, who was named as one of 20 semifinalists for the Groza Award last week, is 14-of-17 on the season with all three misses from 50 yards or beyond. Maher is also perfect on 34 extra-point tries and tied for fifth nationally in field goals per game at 1.75 per contest. His 9.5 points per game places him 18th nationally.
In the return game, freshman Ameer Abdullah leads the Big Ten in kickoff returns at 27.9 yards per return and ranks fourth in punt returns. Burkhead has fielded a few more punts recently because Abdullah has had issues holding onto the football.
Because Northwestern's defense has been so bad, the Wildcats have returned just six punts all season long, though they've averaged 12.8 yards on those few attempts. Kickoff returner Venric Mark has shown the ability to break off big returns, as he posted a 63-yard runback earlier this season.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the ball effectively for four quarters and keep Northwestern's offense off the field as much as possible. The last thing the Huskers want is to get into a shootout with the Wildcats, so grinding the ball and wearing down NW's questionable defense should go a long way in preventing any chance at an upset.
Northwestern Will Win If:
Persa can make some plays and the defense can find a way to slow down Nebraska's running game, especially in the second half. The Wildcats have the talent on offense to give the Huskers all they can handle today, but it's going to take a stellar defensive effort to keep the score close.
Nebraska has been at its best in the second half over the past two and a half games, as the Huskers have been able to wear down defenses and take big chunks of time off the clock in the process. Northwestern, on the other hand, has been absolutely terrible after halftime. The Wildcats have outscored their opponents 152-113 in the first half, but have been outscored 139-101 in the second half, including 87-49 in the fourth quarter.