Location: Evanston, Illinois
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (65-55, 10th season)
Record: 5-2 (1-2 Big Ten)
Series with Nebraska: Nebraska leads 6-2
OFFENSIVE RATING: 5
Offensive averages / national rank
19.6 / 117
331.6 / 115
190.4 / 44
141.1 / 119
DEFENSIVE RATING: 7
Defensive averages / national rank
16.1 / 12
301.3 / 18
154.6 / 54
146.7 / 7
SPECIAL TEAMS RATING: 7
Special teams averages / national rank
25.4 / 18
9.1 / 56
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37.4 / 72
Kickoff return defense
22.0 / 82
Punt return defense
-1.6 / 1
Why you may need the Rolaids
1. Northwestern defensive ends Deonte Gibson (13) and Dean Lowry (94) can be a nuisance to handle. Gibson leads the Wildcats with five sacks and four quarterback hurries, and Lowry has 4½ tackles for loss and four hurries. “We’ll have to do a good job of taking good angles, chipping the edges,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. Northwestern has started the same defensive front all season, but plays at least eight and sometimes as many 11 linemen, keeping the defense fresh.
2. Stanford averages 226.3 rushing yards per game and likes to impose its will running the football. The Cardinal mustered a mere 85 rushing yards against Northwestern. The Wildcats have exceptional speed at linebacker, led by Anthony Walker (18), who has a team-leading 54 tackles. Such speed, Langsdorf noted, will make getting to the second level difficult. Stanford also didn’t have many open throws against a Wildcat secondary led by veteran cornerback Nick VanHoose (23). “They changed up coverage a lot on them,” Langsdorf said, “and gave them some tough looks.” But Northwestern will likely play without cornerback Matthew Harris (27). He has a team-best three interceptions but suffered broken bones in his face Oct. 10 at Michigan and is out indefinitely.
3. Sophomore Solomon Vault (4) has become an accomplished player on kick returns. He’s second in the Big Ten with 371 kick-return yards, for an average of 26.5. Vault has two kick returns for touchdowns in his career, including a 98-yarder this season against Duke. Also, Northwestern has allowed only five punt returns all season, for a total of minus 8 yards, a mark that leads the nation.
Why you might chill
1. Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) seems the least likely of Big Ten quarterbacks to make Nebraska’s downtrodden secondary look any worse. Then again, Joel Stave and Mitch Leidner weren’t exactly Joe Montana and Dan Marino before facing Nebraska, either, and then had record or career days. Yet Thorson hasn’t thrown for more than 128 yards against a Power Five conference team, and the Wildcats are more apt to highlight running back Justin Jackson (21) in their offense. Nebraska cannot miss tackles on this guy.
2. As good as Northwestern’s defense was against Stanford and Duke, it was as bad against Michigan and Iowa. Why? That’s difficult to determine. While some will say the last two games were a step up in competition, Michigan actually has the lowest-ranked offense, nationally, of the bunch (No. 90) and Stanford the highest (33), while Iowa (54) and Duke (62) are comparable. Personnel changes aren’t the issues, as Northwestern has started the same player at every position every game, except for Keith Watkins (3) replacing the injured Harris at cornerback last week against Iowa. Walker, a very talented linebacker, is excellent against the run but not as strong in pass coverage.
3. Northwestern is lacking continuity along its offensive line. The Wildcats have gone with six different starting lineups involving nine different linemen in seven games. A team still searching for its best combination up front could have a difficult time against the likes of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Also, while the Wildcats lead the nation in fewest punt returns allowed, punter Hunter Niswander (96) ranks 97th nationally in punting with an average of 38.1 yards. He had punts of 18 and 28 yards last week against Iowa.
By the numbers
National rank of Northwestern’s schedule, according to the NCAA. The Wildcats’ first seven opponents have combined to go 23-8 for a .742 winning percentage. Four of those teams are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 — No. 10 Stanford, No. 13 Iowa, No. 15 Michigan and No. 22 Duke.
Solo tackles in three Big Ten Conference games by sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike (16). Only Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa, with 21, has more. A starter in 12 straight games, Igwebuike ranks second on the team this season with 43 tackles.
Yards sophomore running back Justin Jackson (21) needs to crack Northwestern’s top 10 for most rushing yards in program history. Jackson has run for 1,878 yards in 19 career games and has led the Wildcats in rushing in each of those games.
Louie Vaccher covers Northwestern football for Wildcat Report.
1. What do you make of Northwestern’s drastic turn of fortunes after such a strong, unexpected start? Is this reminiscent of the 2013 season, when a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, after a 4-0 start, began a big slide? Or does this have a different feel?
“This definitely has a different feel. In 2013, Northwestern suffered a rash of injuries and had a string of bad luck like I’ve never seen, including the famous Hail Mary loss at Nebraska. All but two of the Wildcats’ seven straight losses were tight games that could have gone either way. This team, though, is fairly healthy, and the Wildcats have gotten pounded two straight weeks. Michigan and Iowa are good teams; there’s no shame in losing to either one. Losing those games by 38 and 30 points, respectively, is the problem.”
2. Northwestern has allowed more than twice as many points (78) over its last two games than in its first five games combined (35). Were Iowa and Michigan simply that much better than previous competition, or have there been other factors for the dents in the defense?
“Michigan and Iowa were both able to run the ball on Northwestern, especially the Hawkeyes, who piled up 294 yards. The Wildcats have also allowed some big plays. Last Saturday, the Hawkeyes hit them for four runs of more than 20 yards and five passes of at least 18. Another critical factor has been time of possession. The offense’s ineptitude has left the defense on the field for far too long.”
3. This weekly Q&A wouldn’t be complete without a question about the opposing quarterback’s ability to complete passes. So, is Clayton Thorson capable of falling in line with Joel Stave and Mitch Leidner and having a record/career day against the nation’s worst pass defense?
“I don’t know if Thorson has a 300-yard day in him, but the Wildcats could certainly use a breakout game to jump-start their anemic passing game. Thorson has been up-and-down this year, but I doubt he can win a game with his arm at this point. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman has all the tools, so he’s certainly capable of it. But thus far his best passing day against a Power Five opponent was 128 yards against Minnesota.”
4. What makes running back Justin Jackson difficult to stop, and in what ways does Northwestern use him?
“Jackson is a special player for the Wildcats. He’s not too big and doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he can make a tackler miss in a phone booth. As Jackson goes, so goes Northwestern’s offense. He has been held to 55 yards on 22 carries over the last two weeks, and the Wildcats will have to get him untracked to win on Saturday.”