In 2015, Nebraska’s Big Ten season began with a disastrous 14-13 loss at Illinois.
It only got worse from there.
The 23-21 loss to Wisconsin, the 30-28 loss to Northwestern and, of course, the 55-45 loss at Purdue.
The Illinois game, though, set the trend.
So, with the Big Ten season beginning at Northwestern on Saturday, does coach Mike Riley think this season could be different? That a win over Northwestern could jump-start Nebraska’s chance to run the Big Ten table?
“I don’t really look at the table,” Riley said after practice on Thursday. “I’m looking at Saturday evening, and we’ll go from there.”
Let’s do the same. Here’s how the Wildcats and the Huskers match up.
When Nebraska has the ball
Nebraska will roll into Evanston, Ill., with the fourth-best total offense ranking in the Big Ten.
The Huskers average 43.3 points per game, 461 total yards of offense and rank third in rushing attempts in the conference.
On Saturday, Nebraska will likely lean on the run game to open up the passing game. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 261 yards through the air through three weeks.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will likely try to capitalize on the Northwestern secondary, which will be missing three starters due to injuries.
Nebraska is dedicated to the run, so expect senior Terrell Newby, sophomore Devine Ozigbo and senior QB Tommy Armstrong to run frequently to open up the deep balls to the Huskers receivers.
Northwestern’s defense is gritty and is near the middle of the charts in the Big Ten in terms of run defense and total defense, but it will have a hard time slowing the Nebraska attack.
When Northwestern has the ball
Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 334 yards per game and scoring just 7 touchdowns in three weeks. The Wildcats average just 17.3 points per game and average 2.8 yards per rushing attempt.
The main test for Nebraska will be keeping that rushing average around 2.8 yards per carry.
After becoming one of the league’s best statistical run defenses in the first two weeks, the Huskers gave up 336 yards on the ground against Oregon. Northwestern’s running game will count on sophomore RB Justin Jackson, who ran 28 times for 94 yards in Northwestern’s 24-13 win over Duke.
Nebraska will also need to keep an eye on QB Clayton Thorson, who torched the Huskers for 126 rushing yards on 9 carries last year.
Thorson throws a lot (38 times against Duke) but isn’t necessarily efficient. Expect a battle in the trenches when these two groups are on the field.
Nebraska’s special teams played a big role in last Saturday’s win against Oregon.
Nebraska kick returner De’Mornay Pierson-El looks like himself again after his 45-yard punt return last week. And freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn earned the Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor after averaging better than 45 yards on five punts and putting three inside the Oregon 20-yard line.
On the road, especially, special teams are huge. The edge goes to the special teams that are hot.
Two of Nebraska’s worst losses last year were on the road. The first to Illinois, the second to Purdue. Part of that falls on the Nebraska coaching staff.
On the other side, Pat Fitzgerald seems to have Nebraska’s number. Four of the teams’ five meetings have been close. In those five games, Northwestern has two wins at Memorial Stadium, one loss on a Hail Mary, one loss on a last-minute drive by Nebraska and one 38-17 loss at home.
For whatever reason, Northwestern always shows up for Nebraska, no matter its record. Northwestern is 1-2, and in this situation, Fitzgerald has the chance to put the season back on track with a win, which can be a powerful motivator.
Northwestern is going to try to make this a boring game for three quarters. That’s how the Wildcats roll.
The Wildcats will try to slow the game down and force the Huskers to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
Nebraska kicker Drew Brown will be essential in this game, as will Ozigbo running inside the 20-yard line.
If Nebraska can get out to an early lead, the Huskers should be fine. But if Northwestern hangs around for three quarters and keeps the game in the trenches, Nebraska is in for a long day.
Chris Heady’s prediction: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13