Casey Thompson spoke to the media for the first time since being named Nebraska’s starting quarterback on Aug. 18 during Sunday’s game week press conference.
While fielding questions on topics about himself, his teammates, the offense and Nebraska’s first opponent of the year, Thompson gave a clinical breakdown of Northwestern’s defense.
The Wildcats predominantly play in a four-man — also known as even — front. Returning All-Big Ten honorable mention lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore anchors that front. (“He is really good,” Thompson said.) Then come the transfers. They also have lineman Ryan Johnson, who transferred from Stanford. There’s also linebacker Wendell Davis from Pittsburgh and lineman Taishan Holmes from Umass.
Next level. Northwestern’s star safety from last year , Brandon Joseph, transferred to Notre Dame. That opens the door to a new safety.
“They play a cover four. And they rotate a little bit,” Thompson said. “They will mix it up, one go high, zone and man. They bring pressure occasionally. There are certain situations where they like to bring pressure.”
Then there’s A.J. Hampton Jr., who played corner for Northwestern last year. He’s got the best speed in purple.
“I think he was a 10.6 100 meter track guy,” Thompson said. “He has good speed on the outside, so I think they have good talent and it’s a good defense and I am excited to line up against them.”
He was speaking on Sunday when he was still studying certain formations and situations. That included their defensive red zone packages. But, Thompson said he was “pretty confident” they had the right game plan in place to take advantage.
On the other side of the ball, there’s a hungry defense ready to prove itself once again. Head coach Scott Frost said the edge rusher position has materialized into one of the team’s stronger spots. Junior edge rusher and team captain Garrett Nelson said he’s excited for the challenge of going up against guys like Northwestern junior tackle Peter Skoronski, who’s been an All-Big Ten selection in his first two years on campus and enters this year as an All-American candidate.
“That’s why you play in this league,” Nelson said. “In the Big Ten every week you’re going to have the best offensive linemen in the country. I’ve always been talking about how much I’ve improved my pass rush. This is a great test out of the gate. It’s been on my mind for a while.”
In addition to Skoronski, the Wildcats will play behind big, imposing bodies with the intention of running the ball. Some of them carry experience (Ethan Wiederkehr and Charlie Schmidt) while others look for opportunity (Colorado State transfer Vince Picozzi). Evan Hull was a 1,000-yard rusher last year and will be joined in the backfield by Cam Porter, who comes off an ACL injury. Reserve backs emerged in fall camp to give the Wildcats even more depth.
“That’s a really special group of guys,” Fitzgerald said of the running back group earlier this year. “They’re going to give us a chance to be highly competitive.”
The Huskers are aware of that group’s potential.
“They are always a well-coached team, and we are expecting a downhill run game and a lot of things out of them,” Nebraska’s Nick Henrich said on Sunday. “We will be ready to go, and we know they are going to bring their best, so we need to bring our best.”
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he likely wouldn’t name the starting quarterback until game day. The Wildcats were led by Ryan Hilinski last year, who enters his second season in the team’s system this year. Northwestern’s receiver group is as much a mystery. No significant deep threat emerged last year even before injuries took out Malik Washington and Bryce Kirtz. But with a year to heal and learn, the Husker defense is taking the passing game seriously.
“These guys are very good at what they do and are very smart,” Nebraska defensive back Quinton Newsome said. “They know exactly what they want to do against certain coverages and things we’re doing, so we just need to be prepared and stay locked in.”
Nebraska and Northwestern have split wins since Nebraska joined the conference over decade ago. The last time the two teams played at a neutral site — the 2000 Alamo Bowl — Nebraska set the bowl’s margin of victory record in a 66-17 result.