Seemingly, every season there’s something.
A Hail Mary. A fourth-quarter comeback. A shocking upset in Memorial Stadium. Northwestern vs. Nebraska has become a must-watch matchup come Big Ten play, and this season is setting up for more possibilities for craziness.
Northwestern is on the decline, with two embarrassing losses already this season. Nebraska is on the rise, riding momentum off of its win over Oregon last Saturday. Could this set up for another upset? Or the first real blowout in this series?
Here are some key storylines to watch this week.
1. The Oregon hangover
Mike Riley said Monday that this week might be tougher than the previous one.
Because after the monumental win over No. 22 Oregon, it’s natural that Nebraska might relax a bit and put its feet up. The Huskers are not going up against a ranked team this Saturday. They’re not even playing a team with a winning record. So how could Nebraska be as enthused about the game Saturday against Northwestern?
That’s Riley’s main focus this week. Keeping enthusiasm high and keeping his players engaged. Nebraska will have four lull weeks with Northwestern, Illinois, a bye, Indiana and Purdue, all teams that on paper Nebraska should beat.
So starting this week, Nebraska is going to have to manage the Oregon hangover, and find a way to not regress from the win.
2. Northwestern defense will be Nebraska’s first real test
Oregon’s defense had holes all over. Wyoming and Fresno State’s defenses weren’t anything special either. Saturday will be Nebraska’s first true test on offense.
Despite two losses, Northwestern is third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 14.7 points per game. The Wildcats don’t have great numbers but they do hold teams to field goals rather than touchdowns in the red zone.
Nebraska’s biggest strength will be the passing game. Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 261 yards per game, though they’ve only allowed one touchdown through the air.
The spotlight will again be on senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong and if he can deliver through the air to his receivers.
3. Another close call?
More often than not, this game is closer than expected.
There was the shocking Northwestern upset in Memorial Stadium against No. 10 Nebraska in 2011, Nebraska’s comeback win late in the fourth quarter in 2012, the Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary pass in 2013, and last year’s Northwestern win that kicked dirt on an already beaten down Huskers squad.
Now, Nebraska is back on the rise after a six-win season, and Northwestern is on the decline after a 10-win season. Both teams have found their ways of ruining the other’s day, or season.
Could it happen again in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, or will Nebraska finally assert some dominance?
4. Nebraska 0-2 when opening Big Ten play on the road
Nebraska will start on the road in Big Ten play for the third time since joining the conference. In the two other road matchups, Nebraska is 0-2.
In 2011, Nebraska was introduced to the Big Ten with a 48-17 walloping by Wisconsin. And last season, Nebraska couldn’t convert on a third-and-7 to beat Illinois and lost 14-13.
If Nebraska wants to become a real contender in the Big Ten, year after year, they need to curb that trend quickly and get a road win to start conference play.
5. Northwestern’s new season
The Wildcats followed up their 10-win season in 2015 with two embarrassing losses.
First there was the 22-21 loss to Western Michigan, then a 9-7 loss against Illinois State.
But last week, Northwestern got back on track a bit with a 24-13 win over Duke. So with No. 20 Nebraska coming to town, this could be looked at as a fresh start for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern.
Nebraska is coming in after a win over Oregon a little banged up, with Armstrong still sore after a physical game, senior WR Brandon Reilly still out and a few other Huskers banged and bruised. This might be the perfect time for Northwestern to salvage some part of its season.