If you told me a few months ago that I’d be interested in the Friday night game between Nebraska and Rutgers, I might just have been terrified for my future.
This matchup was expected to be ugly on paper. The Friday-night scheduling, an assumed Scott Frost-led Nebraska team and an average to below-average Rutgers squad was a scenario that was set to provide very little worth watching without an affiliation to either program or a hunger to laugh at Big Ten football.
But here we are. Tonight’s game still doesn’t project to be some matchup of great football teams, but Nebraska brings along an intriguing enough narrative.
Husker interim head coach Mickey Joseph has the chance to bring his team to 3-3 at the halfway point and clear last year’s conference win total. It’d be a big accomplishment for a coach who was handed a 1-2 record just a few weeks ago, even with an advantageous schedule.
A win against the Scarlet Knights wouldn’t exactly sway the masses to want Joseph as head coach, but a second straight victory should at least solidify him as worth watching down the stretch.
Going into the game, the Huskers’ chances look decent. They’re coming off their first conference win in nearly a full calendar year, a 35-21 triumph over Indiana.
The offense has a clear top trio between quarterback Casey Thompson, running back Anthony Grant and wide receiver Trey Palmer. The run game is strong, with Grant compiling four games of over 100 yards and averaging over five yards per carry.
Thompson has been good, taking hit after hit behind an offensive line that struggles in pass protection but still capable of making big throws. Palmer has been the main receiver, on pace to comfortably beat the program’s single-season records for receptions and receiving yards.
The defense looked closer to its 2021 form last week as well, giving up 14 offensive points to the Hoosiers. That’s a big shift from what the unit had shown in the first four games. Indiana made big plays and missed opportunities for more, but it was a defensive showing that should be mostly replicable in this conference.
This is still a very flawed Nebraska team, but you can win while having significant shortcomings, especially in the Big Ten West.
Rutgers will aim to put a damper on Nebraska’s hopes. The Scarlet Knights have opened 0-2 in conference play against Iowa and Ohio State after sneaking through the nonconference schedule undefeated. They bring along a decent defense and a struggling offense that has relied on multiple quarterbacks. The rushing attack is the strength of the offense, ranking better than Indiana’s but still falling in the bottom half of the conference in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns.
It’s worth mentioning that Aron Cruickshank returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Nebraska in both 2019 and 2020, the former coming when he was with Wisconsin.
Rutgers surely has bowl game aspirations too, with the chance to reach five wins through tonight’s matchup and a home game in two weeks against Indiana. The sixth win will be harder to grab, but they’d likely have to take down one of Minnesota, Michigan State or Maryland on the road.
These are two teams playing to avoid extinguished hopes. If Rutgers can’t beat Nebraska, the path to three more wins gets a lot steeper. This also looks to be the Huskers’ easiest remaining game, even while being their first away contest.
Nebraska in particular would still have opportunities in a messy division, but I wouldn’t be counting on anything too noteworthy with a loss in this one.
On the field, these narratives will likely take the shape of another Big Ten game featuring a number of strange happenings. Both teams are well-acquainted with weird football games.
Should Nebraska win, it’s unlikely it’ll be pretty. That’s okay. Anyone wanting that out of either team should probably avoid tuning in.
>> Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s losses not only shook up the Big Ten West, but threw a wrench in my column from last week. In dividing the season into thirds, I presented the Badgers and Gophers as tougher matchups than Purdue and Illinois. I had the feeling that could backfire with them playing each other the next day.
But I’ll mostly stand by what I said. Minnesota having a not-so-great loss isn’t a shock, and barring any further injury, it’ll have Mohamed Ibrahim back when it matches up with Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to be in a far worse spot, but I’m sure it’d feel nice for the Huskers to beat an opponent they’ve lost eight straight against.
That being said, I have to note that the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini look like increasingly tough opponents for the Huskers.