Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Northwestern

By Brian Rosenthal

Nebraska’s next football opponent needs little introduction.

Anybody who has watched the Huskers play Northwestern since 2011, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten, now knows to expect a back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire game, sometimes with dramatic finishes.

Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game (BTN) at Memorial Stadium has all of the makings of a similar outcome.

Northwestern (5-3, 3-2) faces Nebraska (4-4, 3-2) having won two of the three meetings between these teams in Lincoln. Of course, the Huskers’ only victory in that stretch came when Jordan Westerkamp caught the miraculous Hail Mary pass from Ron Kellogg III on the game’s final play in 2013.

And guess what? The Wildcats come town with a recent history of dramatic, close games.

Northwestern has won in overtime in back-to-back weeks for the third time in program history after defeating No. 16 Michigan State in triple overtime last week, 39-31. The last time the Wildcats won back-to-back overtime games prior to their victories over Iowa and the Spartans was in 2007, when they defeated Michigan State, 48-41, in overtime on Oct. 6 and Minnesota in double overtime, 49-48, on Oct. 13.

We’re not saying the same could happen on Saturday. We’re just saying.

“I’ve appreciated Pat’s (Fitzgerald) teams for a long time,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I have a lot of admiration for him and their program. He does a great job, and his teams are always well prepared."

Here’s a closer look at the Wildcats, who can gain bowl eligibility with a victory Saturday in Lincoln:


Wildcats on Offense

From the “Is he still there?” roster department, we remind you that running back Justin Jackson is indeed still playing for Northwestern, but finally a senior. He’s had a remarkable career, already ranking eighth in Big Ten history with 4,7773 career rushing yards. Jackson and Nebraska have had some good, tough battles, with Jackson rushing 58 times for 247 yards, an average of 4.2 yards. His least productive game of the three was two years ago in Lincoln, when Nebraska held him to 40 yards on 14 carries, although Northwester won, 30-28.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson has also become a familiar name in the Northwestern series, and he’s only a junior. He’s the one largely responsible for that victory in Lincoln in 2015, when ran nine times for 126 yards.

“I’ve liked him for the years that I’ve seen him, and it’s a real bonus for Northwestern to have a veteran quarterback like that who has seen it all,” Riley said. “I’ve admired him through the time that I’ve been here.”

Lately, Thorson has been a threat with his arm, having completed 33 passes on 48 attempts for 356 yards and two touchdowns last week against Michigan State. That was his third 300-yard passing game this season, and the fifth of his career. Northwestern is unbeaten in those five games.

Junior receiver Flynn Nagel caught a 22-yard touchdown for the game-winning score in triple overtime to defeat Michigan State. He set career highs with eight receptions and 87 receiving yards, and is tied with Jackson for the team lead with 33 receptions. Nagel is second on the team with 338 receiving yards.

Sophomore “superback” Cam Green matched his career high with six receptions, set a career high with 76 yards receiving, hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass in the first overtime and caught the two-point conversion in the third overtime of the victory over Michigan State. After catching nine passes in his first 18 career games, Green has caught 15 for 135 yards over his last three games.

Northwestern went 5-for-5 in the red zone against Michigan State, improving to 30-for-32 on the season. The Wildcats lead the Big Ten and rank 11th in the country – converting at 93.8 percent in the red zone – with 24 touchdowns and six field goals.

“Coach Fitzgerald is a hard-nosed guy who’s smart and tough and disciplined,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “His team plays just like that. His offense plays like that. They’re a staff that’s been together a long time, so there’s a great depth of knowledge of a system of plays and the plays they’re going to call and all the little nuances that go along with it.”


Wildcats on Defense

After surrendering 375 yards rushing in the first two games of the season, for an average of 187.5 per game, Northwestern has allowed 569 yards over its last six, for an average of 94.8 per game, while holding each opponent under its season average.

In Big Ten play, the Wildcats have faced five of the top 100 running backs in the country in terms of yards per game this season – Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin; Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Ty Johnson, Maryland; Akrum Wadley, Iowa; and LJ Scott, Michigan State. Against Northwestern, those backs averaged a mere 56.2 yards per game and just 3.55 yards per carry. None surpassed 90 yards rushing.

That, obviously, is a concern for a Nebraska offense that’s averaged only 64.6 rushing yards over its last three games.

“They are physical and fast, and we are going to have to do a great job,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “My dad told me you block with your feet, not with your hands, and I told my guys that.

“We have to do a good job of covering them up. We can’t be late with our feet; at times we’re on blocks and then we get beat outside or beat out and under. We have to do a great job of positioning and getting the play started, and then our backs have to do a great job of really pressing the holes and then reading off it."

 The Huskers have been without starting running back Tre Bryant (out for the season) since the third game of the season, and freshman running back Jaylin Bradley (ankle) is questionable to play Saturday.

Does that mean Nebraska will or can lean heavily on the improved passing of quarterback Tanner Lee? He’s completing 60 percent of his passes over Nebraska’s last four games, with only one interception, and is coming off a career-high 431 yards in a come-from-behind road victory at Purdue.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is allowing teams to complete 59.3 percent of their passing attempts, for an average of 270.8 passing yards per game.

Sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano recorded his team-leading sixth sack of the season against Michigan State. He now has sacks in four of his last five games, and his six solo sacks this season tops the Big Ten. Of his 10.5 career sacks, nine have come in Big Ten games.

Junior linebacker Nate Hall has been a “one-man wrecking ball” the last four weeks, according to the Northwestern weekly pregame notes. Hall has made 33 tackles over the last four games, with 6.5 coming for a loss.

Also of note: In their five wins this season, the Wildcats have allowed a mere 20 second-half points.


Wildcats on Special Teams

First-year kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 35-yard field goal in the second quarter against Michigan State was his eighth consecutive make after he missed his first attempt of his career in the season opener, from 21 yards. His longest make, twice, has come from 40 yards.

Kuhbander has also made all 26 of his extra-point attempts this season.

Senior Hunter “The Punter” Niswander sure helped his 42.6-yard average when he boomed an improbable 80-yard punt two weeks ago against Iowa. The punt landed over the returner’s head at about the 25-yard line and rolled to the 2-yard line in a scoreless game late in the first half.

Niswander has had 10 punts of more than 50 yards this season. Opponents have fielded 11 punts on fair catches, and returned 14 punts for 96 yards.

Reach Brian at or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.


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