Nebraska vs. Northwestern football, 11.5.2011 25

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter runs out of an attempted tackle by Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford in third-quarter action at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011.

1. Able to stop Kain?

There was plenty of talk about consequences the past two weeks. The videotape showed Husker defenders that even seemingly minor missteps could turn a 3-yard play into a 30-yard play for a quarterback who knows how to run the zone-read. Do it enough and you meet the king of consequences — 63 points and 14 days to think about it. So, here we go again. Kain Colter isn't quite Braxton Miller. But Colter certainly falls into the category of "mobile quarterback" Husker fans have come to dread. Add to it that Northwestern has actually been able to pull off a two-quarterback rotation, with sophomore Trevor Siemian also getting snaps, and the Wildcats give a defense plenty to think about. But Northwestern hasn't exactly lit things up lately. The Wildcats are just 61st in total offense, coming off a 21-point performance against Minnesota. But the stat that jumps off the page: Northwestern is 18th in rushing offense, the Huskers are 91st in rushing defense. The skeptics are out in force. Time for the Husker defense to show it can stop a spread offense. Because it gets no easier. Denard Robinson is waiting in the wings.

2. Don't step on your own feet

You want to smell roses? Ranking 104th in turnover margin makes it difficult. And, quite frankly, the Huskers have had fortunate bounces that have kept them from adding to their 15 giveaways. It's been a pattern. Look at last year's loss to Northwestern. The Huskers had two critical fumbles inside the Northwestern 30-yard line, including one inside the 5, and a failed fourth-and-1 in Wildcat territory. Execute on just one of those failed drives and it's a different game, different season. There's no doubt the Husker offense has weapons. Nebraska is first in the Big Ten and eighth nationally in scoring offense (43.7 points a game). But consider turnovers in NU territory set up 21 points for the Buckeyes and 14 for the Badgers. If a cure is found for the turnovers, the Huskers are likely to enjoy the outcome. But based on what we've seen, that's a big if.

3. On your Mark ...

There's been nothing special about it. Not when Ohio State's Philly Brown returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown. "That shouldn't happen and won't happen again," Bo Pelini said. The Huskers are 115th in punt coverage. And Northwestern has a dangerous return man. Venric Mark, who made Penn State's special-teams unit appear stuck in quicksand, has two punt returns for touchdowns. With the Nebraska defense trying to find its way, special teams is not an area of the game where the Huskers can afford to give up ground.

4. Things to learn in Evanston

You could make a strong case this is on the short list of most important games so far in Pelini's tenure. A win helps calm the waters, puts this team on that first of six steps to climb after Pelini publicly expressed the importance to win out. Win and the talk around town will be that next week's Nebraska-Michigan winner is the favorite to go to Indianapolis, which could be a connector flight to Pasadena. A loss ... oh, Husker fans shudder at the thought. That'd be two straight to ... Northwestern. A loss and Nebraska is 4-3 and some people start to do more than whisper about dreary years like 2002 or, even worse, 2007. Such negative momentum would be tough to overcome. Better to avoid that road. The season's goal remains there to be taken. We'll learn Saturday afternoon whether that goal is realistic or a distant dream.

Brian Christopherson


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