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Rapid Reaction: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13

Rapid Reaction: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13
(Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer)

Northwestern just didn’t have enough on Saturday night.

Its offense struggled with efficiency, its defense struggled to get off the field, and No. 20 Nebraska’s offense, led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., put up 556 total yards in a 24-13 Wildcats defeat.

The game started with a strange play on the Cornhuskers’ first drive, as Nebraska running back Terrell Newby broke free for a 49-yard run but fumbled the ball as he dove untouched for a touchdown. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and NU possession.

The Cornhuskers eventually drew first blood, however, after nailing a 23-yard field goal to take a 3-0 opening lead early in the second. The Cats struck back, though, when Thorson got to the edge on a designed quarterback run and turned on the afterburners on a 42-yard touchdown to give NU a 7-3 lead.

That lead stood briefly after a goal-line stand ended with junior safety Godwin Igwebuike ripping the ball away from Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo and the Cats recovering the fumble. But on the ensuing drive, the Cornhuskers finally broke through for a touchdown after a 59-yard reception by receiver Alonzo Moore set up a short Newby run for six. NU had a chance to tie with a 40-yard field goal at the end of the half but instead chose to attempt a fake, which was unsuccessful.

The Cats got the ball to start the second half, but a Thorson interception on a throw to the end zone stopped a promising drive. Nebraska marched back down the field on the next drive, and Armstrong hit on a four-yard touchdown pass to Cethan Carter on third down to take a 17-7 lead.

NU responded quickly, with Thorson hitting senior wideout Austin Carr for a 24-yard touchdown, but senior kicker Jack Mitchell missed the extra point, leaving the score at 17-13. Mitchell continued his nightmare start to the season after a missed field goal in the first quarter.

From there, Nebraska controlled the game, constantly finding holes in the Cats’ defense through the air and wearing it down on the ground. An end-around touchdown by receiver Jordan Westerkamp late in the third quarter gave Nebraska an insurmountable lead, as NU’s offense couldn’t find a way to score for the rest of the game.

Stats to know

Northwestern:

  • Thorson: 24-for-37, one touchdown, two interceptions; 10 carries for 43 yards and one touchdown.
  • Justin Jackson: 20 carries for 79 yards
  • Austin Carr: Career-high eight catches for 109 yards and one touchdown; 392 yards for the season is more than any NU receiver had in 2015
  • Igwebuike: 15 tackles, forced fumble
  • Mitchell: 0-for-1 on field goals, 1-for-2 on extra points; now 1-for-4 on field goals for the season.

Nebraska:

  • Armstrong: 246 yards passing with one touchdown, 132 yards rushing
  • Newby: 10 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown
  • Kevin Maurice: Two sacks

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.

Advance Scouting: Nebraska

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Nebraska
(Daily file photo by Bobby Pillote)

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.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Northwestern football ranked No. 50 in all-time AP Top 100

by Tim Balk 0 Comments

In the first ever AP ranking of the top 100 all-time college football programs, Northwestern came in at No. 50.

Big Ten peer Ohio State topped the list, and Nebraska and Michigan clocked in at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively. Seven Big Ten programs made the list’s top 25, including Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Rutgers was the lowest ranked program from the conference at No. 86.

The ranking is based on a formula taking into account the AP’s rankings going back to the poll’s creation in 1936. Ohio State has appeared in more than 77 percent of all AP polls since the ranking’s inception and has topped the ranking 105 times. The Wildcats hold an all-time record of 14-60-1 against the Buckeyes. 

NU finished last year ranked No. 23 in the AP poll having peaked at No. 12 before its bowl loss to Tennessee. The Cats landed ahead of academic peers such as Duke (No. 53), Boston College (No. 57) and Vanderbilt (No. 89) in the all-time ranking. They also finished one spot ahead of in-state rival Illinois.

NU kicks off its season Sep. 3 against against Western Michigan. The AP will release its preseason rankings on Aug. 21.

Morning Roundup: May 9, 2016

Morning Roundup: May 9, 2016
(Keshia Johnson/The Daily Northwestern)

A busy weekend took place for Northwestern sports teams. Here’s what happened…

  • The lacrosse team made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game but ultimately fell to Maryland.
  • Dan Waldman discusses how a big second-half run by the Terrapins ultimately sunk the Cats.
  • Despite the loss, the lacrosse team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and will face Louisville in the first round on Friday.
  • Joe Wilkinson recaps a successful run for the women’s golf team, which won their NCAA Regional bracket by 18 strokes.
  • In September, the Northwestern football team will host two prime time games against Duke and Nebraska.
  • Former baseball captain Kyle Ruchim had his contract with the independent Schaumburg Boomers purchased by the Chicago White Sox.

And here’s a look at Monday’s back page:

59 back

Northwestern football to get two prime time games

Northwestern football to get two prime time games
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Two of the Wildcats’ September games will be slotted for prime time, the program announced Monday morning.

On September 17, Northwestern will host Duke at 7 p.m., and on September 24 the Cats will kick off their Big Ten schedule against Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be shown on the Big Ten Network.

In 2015, NU defeated Duke in Durham, North Carolina, 19-10 and narrowly escaped from Lincoln, Nebraska with a 30-28 victory.