Four of the last five meetings between Northwestern (1-2) and No. 20 Nebraska (3-0) have been decided by three points or less, including a 30-28 triumph by the Wildcats on the road last year.
But the Cornhusker team that NU will face in this year’s Big Ten-opening game is significantly more experienced and confident than the one that struggled mightily in close games en route to a 6-7 season in 2015.
Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive weapons — including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., running backs Devine Ozigbo and Terrell Newby and receiver Jordan Westerkamp — are back this season and helped the Cornhuskers upset then-No. 22 Oregon 35-32 last week to vault to No. 20 in the national rankings.
The “Big Red” will ride that momentum into Evanston this Saturday in the two Big Ten West foes’ conference opener.
Nebraska’s biggest strength: Dual-threat quarterback Armstrong has been dangerous both on the ground and through the air throughout his career.
Armstrong threw for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and added an additional 529 yards (excluding sacks) and seven touchdowns rushing in 2015, after posting similar stats in 2014. He threw it 48 times against the Cats but completed only half of those attempts for 291 yards.
Now entering his third and final season at the helm for Nebraska, Armstrong has been much more mistake-free in his passing — he’s thrown only one interception in three games after 16 last year — and had one of the best rushing games of his career against Oregon with 95 yards.
Armstrong is complemented by a pair of excellent receivers: longtime No. 1 wideout Westerkamp and emerging deep threat Alonzo Moore (26.4 yards per catch so far).
Nebraska’s biggest weakness: The pass rush struggled to generate pressure and the secondary showed holes in 2015, giving opposing quarterbacks the time to find open receivers and opposing receivers the time to get downfield.
That equated to the 121st-ranked pass defense (out of 127 teams) and 60 opponent completions of 20 or more yards, the fourth-most allowed in the nation.
Those major issues have yet to show themselves so far this season, but Oregon tried to pass just 23 times against them — the Cornhuskers’ coverage hasn’t been tested much.
Only one defensive lineman, end Ross Dzuris, has recorded a sack, and the rest of the line has been largely quiet on the stat sheet. The secondary also lost two of its four starters from a year ago.
Nebraska’s biggest question: Can the Cornhuskers stay focused after upsetting Oregon?
Nebraska coach Mike Riley said at his team’s press conference Monday that it would be the last time he would talk about the Oregon game, and Westerkamp said he was confident he and his teammates would be able to focus solely forward on Northwestern.
But the Cornhuskers haven’t picked up a win as big as Saturday’s triumph over the Ducks in years, and a matchup against the 1-2 Cats might not inspire the same intensity. Nebraska lost at home to NU last year the week after a big 23-point road win over Minnesota.