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Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 4

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 4
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and the other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

1. Will Justin Jackson run for more than 100 yards?

Max Gelman (half-full): Jackson has an excellent chance to break the century mark against the Cornhuskers. Though he only tallied 40 rushing yards at Nebraska last season, Jackson is still the elite running back we all know him to be.

Last week against the Blue Devils, Jackson had nearly 70 rushing yards in the first quarter as the Wildcats opened the game with a near-perfect drive. That has been a common theme for NU throughout the first three games — good opening drives and then a faltering offense. I don’t believe the offensive line troubles will last the whole season and if the line improves, which should be the case going forward, then Jackson should reach 100 again this week.

Tim Balk (half-empty): With the exception of a three-game lull in the middle of the season, Justin Jackson was almost a lock to hit triple digit rushing yards each week in 2015. Through three games this year, those days seem to be over.

Jackson missed the mark for the second straight week against Duke in Week 3, as offensive line problems continued to dog NU. With those problems unresolved, and the Cats’ offense forced to lean pass-heavy, it’s hard to imagine Jackson putting up big numbers against Nebraska, particularly in light of the fact that the Cornhusker defense was one of three — along with Michigan and Iowa — that managed to shut down “The Ball Carrier” during his mid-season slump last fall.

Against a quality defense that will gameplan for the run, it’s unlikely Jackson will be a major factor.

2. Will the Cats out-possess Nebraska?

Balk (half-empty): This one is easy.

Nebraska has out-possessed all three of its opponents. NU has been out-possessed by two of its three. Nebraska managed to chew up clock against Oregon. The Wildcats’ offense struggled to stay on the field against an FCS team. You get the picture.

NU can beat Nebraska even without controlling possession if the defense bends more than it breaks, and the big offensive plays that materialized against Duke keep on coming. But, more than likely, Nebraska’s multidimensional offense will spend a majority of the night on the field.

Gelman (half-full): In order for NU to beat the Cornhuskers, it will need to sustain lengthy drives and keep the defense on the field. With the recent play of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, that will be entirely possible.

In the first three games of the season, Thorson has averaged 6.9 yards per attempt — not overwhelming by any standard but enough to get the job done. He spread the ball around beautifully, completing passes to eight different receivers, and has the deep ball working. It would be a shock if Thorson can’t move the Cats down the field against Nebraska.

Furthermore, NU currently has the second-best punter in the Big Ten in Hunter Niswander. Pinning the Cornhuskers within their own 20 repeatedly will be key to a Wildcat win.

3. Will Hunter Niswander punt like it’s the Western Michigan game…or the Duke game?

Gelman (half-full): I am all in on the Niswander for Heisman campaign.

After finishing 2015 with the most punts in the Big Ten but the lowest average yards, Niswander has vastly improved his game so far this year. NU and Nebraska always manage to play close games, and Niswander’s punting could play a huge role if this game turns into a battle of field position.

Against Western Michigan, Niswander averaged 51 yards per punt, easily the highest of his career. All he has to do to continue that progress is get a nice stretch before the game, and he should be golden.

Balk (half-empty): Max has taken to tweeting #Heiswander after punts from the junior punter. And, at least so far, it hasn’t been good luck. After kicking the leather off the ball on each of his three punts Week 1, Niswander has come back to earth. Against Duke he managed a respectable but unspectacular 42.9 yards per punt and lofted two into the end zone for touchbacks.

Which is not all that surprising, because Niswander appears to have developed into a respectable but unspectacular punter. That’s still good news for NU, which has struggled in the punting game in the past; Niswander will likely have to punt plenty this week. But it’s more likely he’ll be solid than Ray Guy worthy.

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

During a 2015 season defined by close wins, Northwestern’s performance often came down to the play of the special teams units.

The Wildcats’ conservative ground-and-pound offense led to an abundance of three things: punts, field goals and a desperate need to squeeze points out of the return game. Despite a 10-3 record last year, NU has plenty of room to improve on all three fronts coming into this season.

The biggest bright spot, of course, was the play of then-sophomore running back Solomon Vault. The speedster returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015, and saved each for a big moment.

The first came against Duke, when Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half to flip a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 lead. The Cats didn’t trail for the remainder of the game. The second came against Penn State, when NU needed every point it could get after starting quarterback Clayton Thorson left the game with an injury. The Cats went on to win on a last second field goal.

Vault, now a wide receiver, will still be the guy on kickoff returns, and there’s every reason to believe he can muster a repeat performance. Fans should hope that he does, because the rest of the special teams lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence.

The speedy Vault will not be returning punts, leaving a position of glaring need wide-open heading into NU’s opening week contest against Western Michigan. Then-senior receiver Miles Shuler fulfilled the role for much of last season, but chose to run back only 11 punts in 12 games.

Sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel is the presumptive favorite to win the job, having returned two punts in 2015 before suffering an injury. Diminutive sophomore wideout Jelani Roberts would also be a good option. As long as the Cats put somebody back deep who actually tries to catch the ball, they should see improvement.

In the kicking game, senior kicker Jack Mitchell and junior punter Hunter Niswander both return to their respective roles this season. Though Mitchell earned a reputation for being clutch after his game-winning boot against Penn State, his overall performance ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.

He attempted 27 kicks, tied for second in the conference, but finished tied for ninth among 12 qualifying kickers with a 67 percent success rate. Even more frustratingly, he missed three of his 28 point-after attempts.

The dismal offense that may have hindered Mitchell should have helped Niswander, who instead turned in the worst punting performance in the Big Ten. Niswander led the conference with 85 punts — 11 more than any other punter — and finished dead last among qualifying players with an average of 38 yards per punt.

NU will still be a team reliant on a steady run game and a dominant defense, meaning Niswander will have to be better.

At the very least he’ll have the consistency of senior long snapper Chris Fitzpatrick in front of him. Fitzpatrick, entering his third season as the starter, is remarkably unremarkable – a perfect quality for a long snapper.