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Huskers Will Have a Challenge Against Northwestern 2.0

November 01, 2020

There are two version of Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald. The first version is a .500-ish football team. The second version is good for nine or 10 wins and is a division title contender.

Both versions play excellent defense. That part isn’t even in question. As a player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald won most of college football’s defensive awards—Nagurski and Bednarik among them—twice. He knows what he’s doing on that front and has made Northwestern a recognizable football brand through that expertise.

You know you’re working with the upgraded version 2.0 of Northwestern if the offense is competent and the Wildcats are winning close games. Fitzgerald’s good at winning one-score games in general, but in 2.0 seasons his Wildcats are 28-8 in games decided by fewer than eight points.

On Saturday, Northwestern (2-0) beat Iowa (0-2) 21-20 in Iowa City. It spotted the Hawkeyes a 17-0 first-quarter lead thanks to two fumbles in its own territory. Last year’s Wildcats would’ve been dead in the water right there; 2019 Northwestern averaged just 16.3 points per game (126th nationally). This year’s Northwestern is averaging 32 (38th).

It’s nothing magical, to borrow a Bo Pelini phrase. The Wildcats are maximizing their opportunities, averaging 5.4 points on drives that cross the opponents’ 40-yard line (fourth-best nationally). A year ago, Northwestern averaged 2.9 (119th). Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, is doing what he’s always done—complete passes. His 70.8 completion percentage ranks ninth in the nation. The run game is only marginally improved from forgettable in 2019, but Ramsey has taken the passing game from atrocious to efficient. Northwestern’s 47.9% success rate on passing plays this season ranks 20th.

There’s little question Nebraska’s getting Northwestern 2.0 when it heads to Evanston on Saturday for what will be the Huskers’ second game of the season. You don’t even have to squint that hard to see the Wildcats as maybe the favorite in the West after two weeks.

Wisconsin deserves that title until further notice, but who knows what the Badgers’ season looks like now? Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said Saturday that there are now 22 positive cases on the team and that Wisconsin would decide by Tuesday if it was able to play Purdue.

Iowa’s 0-2 with a head-to-head loss to the Wildcats. Minnesota’s 0-2 after losing to Maryland on Friday. Northwestern hammered the Terps 43-3 in the opener. Purdue? The Boilermakers are 2-0, too, but haven’t looked quite as impressive as the Wildcats.

After the Big Ten announced its return to play and new eight-plus-one schedule, everyone in the country got their jokes in about Nebraska’s tough start to the season. The Huskers had the three best teams in the league—Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State—plus a trip to Northwestern. Comparatively, that characterization made sense. Northwestern, even if you knew it was going to operate at 2.0 levels, isn’t the Buckeyes, Badgers or Nittany Lions.

But I never really looked at that game as much of a reprieve. The Huskers and Wildcats have played nine times since 2011, the Huskers winning five. Six of those games have been decided by a field goal or less and another was a seven-point game.

ESPN’s updated Football Power Index ratings would make Northwestern about a touchdown favorite in Saturday’s game. Close could be in the cards again.

Before it was canceled, Nebraska had a high-stakes opportunity against Wisconsin in Week 2. Given the way things have unfolded, this Saturday’s trip to Northwestern doesn’t have drastically lower stakes.

Beating Northwestern doesn’t carry the same clout for Nebraska as beating Wisconsin would have. The history, context and series record are different.

But I’m not sure beating Northwestern is any easier than beating Wisconsin would have been. My first real indication last year that Nebraska might be in trouble was the Huskers’ 13-10 win over the Wildcats. Most of the feedback I received from that column was that it was too pessimistic for a win, which on its own may have been true.

Beyond the final score, however, I saw it as an opponent the Huskers should’ve handled with a bit more ease at home. It was clear at that point that Nebraska was facing something even less than Northwestern 1.0, and that’s only really happened twice in Fitzgerald’s 15 years as head coach. The Huskers won one game, 54-7 over Maryland, the rest of the way.

There will be no such between-the-lines reading necessary on Saturday. If it wasn’t viewed that way four weeks ago, it should be clear now—this is Northwestern 2.0 again.

No easy outs here. Nebraska will have to play well to win.

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