Nebraska vs. Northwestern preview: Can the Wildcats slow down the Huskers’ high-octane offense?

College football Week 0 is often a teaser for the real action, but our preview and prediction reveals why Nebraska vs. Northwestern is the real deal

DUBLIN — College football Week 0 often has something of an exhibition feel to it, but despite taking place across the pond in Dublin, Ireland, Nebraska vs. Northwestern is anything but.

The all-Big Ten conference clash has an air of the must-win for both teams, despite coming before the calendar has even flipped to September. Our Nebraska vs. Northwestern preview and prediction attempts to uncover who will have the luck of the Irish on Saturday.

Nebraska vs. Northwestern Week 0 preview

“I’m sure if I wasn’t coaching, I would be dying to watch college football, and I’m sure there will be a lot of eyes on it.”

Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost provided the perfect soundbite on Sunday. College football is back, baby! Amongst a bumper Week 0 slate, his Nebraska team vs. Northwestern is truly an eye-catching game.

It’s an all-Big Ten clash that carries more weight than perhaps any other game on this opening weekend schedule. There are two teams looking to refresh and rebuild after disastrous 2021 campaigns. For Northwestern, there’s an element of revenge to be had after a shellacking at the hands of the ‘Huskers last fall.

“They are a much better team than that score indicated,” Frost insisted during his Sunday press conference. “I don’t know if we were as good as that score indicated.”

That 56-7 scoreline was a damning indictment of Northwestern’s season. It was also incredibly flattering to a Nebraska offense that struggled to punch the ball into the end zone despite finishing behind Ohio State in the Big Ten in terms of total offense. Only one other team allowed the Huskers’ offense to put up more than 30 points last season.

Furthermore, it was out of character for this Nebraska vs. Northwestern fixture. Since the Wildcats joined the Big Ten, eight of the 11 games have been decided by eight points or less. Northwestern has emerged victorious in five of those eight games. Two of their meetings in the last five years have gone to overtime.

So, was last year just a flash in the pan, an anomaly? What can we expect when Nebraska vs. Northwestern kicks off in Dublin?

Can a new Nebraska offense take the heat off Frost?

One of the major talking points ahead of this clash is, ironically, the hot seat that Frost surely finds himself on. The former Oregon offensive coordinator and UCF head coach was famed for his high-octane offenses and the success that they brought him.

Five years into his tenure with Nebraska, and Huskers fans are still waiting for that offense to catch on. They’re still waiting for results; 15-29 isn’t what they signed up for. A defeat in a game where there’s an expectation of a comfortable win — the Cornhuskers are 13-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook — adds even more fuel to the fire that is threatening to set from a hot seat.

Nebraska’s big win last fall — a record-tying margin of victory over Northwestern — could possibly be a factor in the expectation of a sizeable win on Saturday. However, there’s something more to it than that.

While the head coach remains the same, the times they are a changing in Lincoln, especially from an offensive perspective. There’s hope. There’s excitement. Subsequently, there’s expectation.

Big arrivals from big programs are fueling an expectation of a return of Nebraska football to the big time. Former Pittsburgh Panthers offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, whom a lot of the credit for Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison’s success last season has been placed upon, arrives as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

He’ll be coaching former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, the odd man out in an ever-growing Longhorns QB locker room, who arrives to replace the Kansas State-bound Adrian Martinez. Thompson led the Big 12 in passing touchdowns last fall, despite splitting reps with Hudson Card. For an offense that managed to put together drives only to see them stall out or end in a turnover, that represents a major boost.

That’s a sentiment shared by Frost. Ahead of Nebraska’s matchup vs. Northwestern, the Huskers’ head coach said: “Casey’s played a lot of football and he’s plenty talented to do everything that we need a quarterback to do, in the run game and in the pass game. I think that’s going to be important for us early on here in the season.”

Whipple will also have former LSU wide receiver Trey Palmer at his disposal. The 6’0″ pass catcher might have been a bit-part player in a stacked Tigers receiver rotation, but he averaged over 10 yards per catch during his career in Baton Rouge and snagged three touchdowns last fall. Between Palmer, Omar Manning, Alante Brown, Oliver Martin, and another transfer — Marcus Washington — Nebraska has an exciting and diverse wide receiver room.

You can expect them to be used too, and this is part of the excitement building for Nebraska fans ahead of their clash with Northwestern in Dublin. Last season, the Huskers’ offense threw the ball less than 29 times per game on average. Meanwhile, Whipple’s Pitt team averaged just shy of 40 pass attempts. Even when a running play might have been more advantageous last fall, Whipple stayed committed to the pass.

How does Northwestern stymie the Nebraska offense and emerge with a win?

Pat Fitzgerald has become the master of the comeback during his tenure with the Wildcats. His first season with Northwestern ended 4-8. Two years later, the team went 9-4 and had featured in the AP Top 25 during the season.

Following the 6-7 season in 2011, the Wildcats then went 10-3 the next year. The last time they went 3-9, they followed up with a 10-3 campaign that saw them scare Ohio State in the first half of the Big Ten Championship Game and finish the season as the 10th-ranked team in the nation.

Fitzgerald knows how to engineer a comeback season. He knows how to get the best out of his team. Furthermore, there’s plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Yes, they lost their best defensive player in Brandon Joseph. Yes, there are some very real question marks at the quarterback position to answer. The Wildcats also lost their leading receiver from last fall in Stephan Robinson.

There’s no escaping the fact that the offense was turgid last season; 313.8 yards per game was bad enough for 11th in the Big Ten, marginally above ridiculed units like Rutgers and Iowa. Embarrassingly, Northwestern averaged just 16.6 points per game, ranking 125th out of the 130 FBS teams.

Nevertheless, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re looking for an offense to improve year over year, returning offensive linemen is a good place to start.

nebraska vs. northwestern
Nov 27, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski (12) hands the ball to Northwestern Wildcats running back Evan Hull (26) during the first half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive line that steps onto the field for Nebraska vs. Northwestern will feature four returning starters. Of them, left tackle Peter Skoronski is the linchpin, with first-round NFL draft attention already adorning his name. His ability as a pass protector should buy Ryan Hilinski some time to pick apart a Nebraska defense that has several notable playmakers amongst it.

Meanwhile, Northwestern boasts a double-headed backfield monster that could hold the key to the Wildcats’ chance of victory. Evan Hull rushed for over 1,000 yards last fall, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, he posed a touchdown threat by land or air with nine total TDs. He’s joined in the backfield by Cam Porter, who missed all of last season injured. Porer’s return will help unlock a Northwestern offense that simply has to be better.

If the Wildcats can get the ground game going, Nebraska vs. Northwestern might not be the walkover win for the Huskers that many are predicting. If you’re dealing with a high-octane offense, the best way to stop them is to keep them on the sideline. Drain the clock with the ground game and ensure that the defense holds firm when it’s on the field.

The latter element is truly key for the Wildcats as they prepare to face Nebraska in Dublin. For all the talk of offensive improvements, the best Northwestern teams under Fitzgerald have been tough, gritty, hard-tackling defensive units that simply sapped the will of their opponent. That’s something that they simply weren’t last season. Does this Wildcats defense have what it takes to go into battle and succeed on Saturday?

They certainly have star power at cornerback in A.J. Hampton Jr. and Cameron Mitchell. Described by some inside Northwestern as being better than first-rounder Greg Newsome, Mitchell brings fluidity and physicality to the Wildcats’ secondary. Meanwhile, Hampton combines length and explosion to be a catch-point threat. They boast a retooled defensive front led by returner Adetomiwa Adebawore who has the pass-rush skills to put pressure on Thompson. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher is more than capable of forcing his will on a game.

Nebraska vs. Northwestern prediction

Although the oddsmakers are predicting a near-two-score game, there is definitely the potential for this Nebraska vs. Northwestern clash to mirror the close games of previous years rather than last season’s slaughtering of the Wildcats. If Northwestern can get ahead early, get the ground game going, and frustrate Nebraska’s offense, then an upset could be on the cards.

That is, however, a big if. The Huskers certainly have the advantage from an offensive firepower standpoint. In the likes of Caleb Tannor, Ochaun Mathis, Nick Henrich, and Luke Reimer, they have the players to impact Northwestern’s offense in both the passing and ground games. Northwestern might have the advantage in recent close games, but Nebraska head coach Frost might just need this one a little bit more than ever before.

Prediction: Nebraska 29, Northwestern 24

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