Location: Evanston, Ill.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (11th season)
Record: 1-2 (0-0 Big Ten)
(National rank in parentheses)
Points: 17.3 (117)
Total yards: 334.0 (108)
Rush yards: 98.3 (118)
Pass yards: 235.7 (63)
Offensive rating: 4
Points: 14.7 (18)
Total yards: 394.7 (74)
Rush yards: 133.3 (54)
Pass yards: 261.3 (101)
Defensive ranking: 6
Kickoff returns: 24.4 (30)
Punt returns: 7.0 (65)
Net punting: 40.1 (33)
Special-teams rating: 5
By the numbers
You have free articles remaining.
Northwestern averages 42.3 yards in penalties per game, which ranks 20th nationally. Nebraska is 108th (76.0).
Opponents have reached the Northwestern red zone (inside the 20) 12 times, but have scored only five touchdowns.
Northwestern is 53-16 when leading at halftime under Pat Fitzgerald.
Why you may need Rolaids
1. Remember that Thorson guy who took off for runs of 68 and 49 yards last year in Lincoln? Yeah, Clayton Thorson (18). The sophomore quarterback was a thorn in Nebraska's side last year, and he's coming off a career day against Duke in which he threw for 320 yards and had touchdown throws of 26, 44 and 58 yards.
2. Speaking of a thorn in Nebraska's side ... Four of Nebraska's past five meetings with Northwestern have been decided by three points or less, and a Hail Mary is all that separates the Cats from owning a 3-2 mark against NU in Big Ten play. Fitzgerald's teams are known to play tough. "Last year, they never gave up," Nebraska center Dylan Utter said. "They had a lot of high-motor (guys), every single guy on the defense, so playing longer than they do through the whistle is going to be a big factor." Nebraska would like to make an early impression in this one to take the wind out of Northwestern's sails. The Wildcats are 23-41 under Fitzgerald when the opponent scores first.
3. Anthony Walker (1) was problematic last year for the Huskers. The All-America linebacker had 13 tackles in the Cats' 30-28 win. There's a reason why Walker is nicknamed "The Franchise." He can single-handily change a game, though Fitzgerald said earlier this week that Walker had been slowed by injury during fall camp. Walker had five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Duke, a sign he's likely rounding back into form.
Why you may chill
1. Northwestern's defense gave up 416 yards to Western Michigan, 372 to FCS Illinois State and 396 to Duke. The Wildcats lost two of those games. Oddly enough, the Wildcats rank third in the Big Ten in points allowed (14.7), but they're giving up 5 yards per play. The Cats' rush defense, however, has tightened up, and linebacker Jaylen Prater (51) had 30 tackles. Three of Northwestern's four starting defensive backs entering fall camp have been sidelined by injuries.
2. Northwestern has given up 11 sacks in three games, including five to Duke. The Blue Devils used a variety of blitzes to get to Thorson, and Nebraska has done the same in the early going. Before the win Saturday, Northwestern lacked big plays in the pass game, and while Thorson has limited his mistakes (two interceptions), he's completing just 49 percent of his throws.
3. The Wildcats have struggled to put together a complete performance on offense. After scoring on the opening drive against Duke, Northwestern's next five drives ended in a punt, punt, punt, interception and a missed field goal. And after rushing for 69 yards in first quarter, Justin Jackson (21) was limited to 29 yards on 19 carries over the final three frames. Fitzgerald this week called the offensive line play "consistently inconsistent." The Wildcats will rely heavily on Jackson, who has 63 carries this year. The rest of the team, not counting Thorson, has a combined 16 carries.
Louie Vaccher covers Northwestern football for Wildcat Report.
In what area(s) has Clayton Thorson improved since the last time he played Nebraska?
Vaccher: "Thorson has definitely improved his mechanics. That was the focal point of last offseason, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall told me that he was happy with his improvement in the spring. However, McCall thought that his improved mechanics would translate to better accuracy, and that really hasn’t happened yet. He is completing just 49 percent of his throws this season, which isn’t going to cut it for the Wildcats. Against Duke last week, for example, he completed just 18 of 39 throws and threw two interceptions. He did show some very encouraging signs, though."
Thorson has been sacked 11 times already. What’s been the biggest factor in that number increasing, and how will the Cats’ line do against a Nebraska defense that has gotten more creative with blitz packages?
Vaccher: "Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled all season. They were physically manhandled up front by Illinois State in Week 2, which set off alarms in Evanston. That said, not all of those sacks were on the OL. Teams have been bringing a lot of pressure against the Wildcats, and sometimes they send more defenders than blockers. Thorson, too, still lacks pocket presence and doesn’t feel the rush very well. He also tends to hold the ball too long at times. All of those factors contribute to Northwestern leading the Big Ten in sacks allowed."
Are Northwestern’s struggles in the ground game a surprise?
Vaccher: "Not really, considering the types of defenses the Wildcats have been seeing. Teams are cheating their safeties down into the box and then blitzing on almost every down. As head coach Pat Fitzgerald joked this week, defenses are putting '25 people in the box.' There is just no way the Wildcats are going to be successful running the ball when they are outnumbered, so they’ve been throwing it. Thorson burned Duke with those long throws, and if he continues to do that, the safeties will drop back and you’ll see more of Justin Jackson."
Northwestern ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, but 13th in yards allowed. In what ways can the Wildcats hurt offenses, and in what ways have offenses been hurting the Wildcats?
Vaccher: "Northwestern’s defense had a dreadful opener, allowing Western Michigan to hold the ball for more than 39 minutes. The unit has been solid over the last six quarters and are beginning to show a propensity for making big plays when necessary. Last week, the Wildcats thwarted potential Duke scoring drives by coming up with turnovers in the red zone. So they bent, but they did not break. The concern on defense is a banged-up secondary."