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Quarterback Play Should Define Nebraska-Northwestern in 2021

July 17, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffalo, and Oklahoma, and Michigan State. Northwestern is up next.

The Boring Info

Time: The Battle of the NUs is set for a 6:30 p.m. CT kick on Saturday, Oct. 2. No TV designation has been set for the game yet, but this figures to be one of Nebraska’s more interesting night games in a while. That weekend features some big games around the sport—notably Michigan-Wisconsin, Auburn-LSU, Alabama-Ole Miss, Oklahoma-Kansas State (OU has lost two straight to the Cats), and the Florida-Kentucky rivalry game—so the TV spot remains to be seen.

Line: No early line for this game from Vegas. FPI gives Nebraska a 48.7% chance to win. SP+ “hates” Northwestern this season, as the reigning Big Ten West champs take a tumble down the rankings (more on that later), and would have the Huskers favored by 15 points on a neutral field. 

Records: Northwestern went 7-2 last season, with a late-campaign slip-up against Michigan State and a 22-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats’ notable wins last season featured a 21-20 win at Iowa, a 17-7 upset of Wisconsin, and then a 35-19 win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. 

Series history: Perhaps no opponent has provided Nebraska with more pure entertainment since joining the league than Northwestern. Though the Huskers own the all-time series lead 8-6, the pair has split the 10 games since Nebraska joined the league. Northwestern won the first game in Lincoln by three, Nebraska won the next three games by one, three, and 21 points. Northwestern then won by two, then Nebraska by 11, then Northwestern by seven and again by three, then Nebraska by three in an absolutely bonkers 2019 meeting, then Northwestern by eight last year. There have been overtimes and collapses and safeties hitting game-winning field goals and hail mary touchdowns and an average margin of victory of 6.2 points. It’s written into Big Ten law that one fanbase leaves the grounds pulling literal hairs from their heads after the game when these two meet.

What This One Means

In the larger context of the Big Ten West title race, probably not a ton. That’s not to say we can’t get into the season and one (or both) of these teams surprises folks and mounts a run equivalent to what Northwestern just did in 2020, but there’s enough there to wonder if these might not end up just being two middle-of-the-pack West teams in 2021. 

Surely, though, that won’t lower the stakes for either side. This is something of a benchmark game for Nebraska. And Northwestern lives by the motto Scott Frost has tried to instill in Lincoln that the most important game on the schedule is the next one (even if that’s not as fun).

Nebraska has felt unyielding jubilation after one of these games and been crushed by the endings of the other two. In 2018, the Huskers had their first win of the season yanked away by a last-minute, full-field march to force overtime. In 2019, a walk-on safety hit the game-winning field for Nebraska and was carried off on his teammates shoulders. In 2020, Adrian Martinez hit what was perhaps the low point in his career. 

Husker quarterback coach Mario Verduzco confirmed this offseason that Martinez’s late-third quarter interception—back over the middle, late, into coverage—was the reason for his benching.  Martinez was picked off while going for it all on a deep shot to Austin Allen in the end zone. Backup Luke McCaffrey took over for the final drive of the third and all of the fourth quarter. He played the full game against Penn State and then started against Illinois before being replaced late by Martinez, who took the job back for good at that point. 

Verduzco said the throw didn’t need to happen, and for a quarterback who has been looser than his coaches would like with the football over his career, that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. 

From a narrative perspective, it’s fitting for a few reasons. 

One: Martinez had made the kind of mistake that Northwestern routinely avoids under coach Pat Fitzgerald—the self-inflicted wound. Nebraska lost by a score in the game. Specifically because of the Martinez throw? No, but with under two minutes left in the third and Nebraska sitting five yards shy of the red zone down just one, it was a crucial moment.

When you look at this year’s Northwestern side, even if there’s lots of stuff to replace in lots of areas, we just kind of assume they’ll have a relatively high standard of competitiveness because though the pieces change out every few years the team remains one of the toughest outs in the Big Ten because of their clinical approach.

Two: quarterback play defined that game last year, and will likely define both this year’s game and this year’s campaign from the Wildcats perspective. 

Northwestern has been riding the SP+ seesaw for nearly a decade. A strong year precedes a down year, then vice-versa, then repeat. The defense has been among the country’s best for a few years, but the Wildcats have won Big Ten West titles in two of the last three years with a 3-9 campaign sandwiched in-between because the quarterback play has fluctuated that much. 

Clayton Thorson had his best season in 2018. Then 2019 featured arguably the worst offense in football behind a rotating cast of characters at quarterback who threw 15 interceptions and completed 50.1% of their passes. Last season, Peyton Ramsey stepped in as a grad transfer from Indiana and stabilized things. 

Northwestern wasn’t anything special offensively (93rd in offensive SP+ rankings to close the year), but its defensive strength (third) meant it didn’t need to be. 

As the defense looks to replace star players like Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher and Greg Newsome II, there’s likely to be a slight step back. Linebacker Chris Bergin (78 tackles) and defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore (six TFLs, two sacks) and safety Brandon Joseph (six picks) are all strong players, though. 

If there is a dip, the offense has to make up the difference. 

Cam Porter and Evan Hull looked good down the stretch at running back, but this comes down to the quarterback play. 

South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski is the favorite to win the job, making three transfer quarterbacks in three straight years. For Ramsey last season, he had the benefit of a new offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian, that tied the scheme closely around what he did well. Lots of quick-developing actions and motions to capitalize on Ramsey’s short-range accuracy, mobility, and decision-making. 

Hilinski is more confined to the pocket than Ramsey was and he’s not the efficient player Ramsey was when he arrived in Evanston (a career 58% thrower with 5.8 yards per attempt). And beyond Hilinski, Northwestern has a completely different kind of quarterback in Andrew Marty who will be hoping to win the job in fall camp. It’ll be interesting to see what Bajakian cooks up for this season.

The Guy to Know

It’s funny that a preseason opt-out is what paved the way for Brandon Joseph to start as a redshirt freshman in 2020. And then he turned in a season that earned him a Big Ten Newcomer of the Year award, a first-team selection to the all-conference team, and a first-team All-American selection. Joseph led the Big Ten in interceptions with six. He refused to be beaten deep. He was able to anchor single-high coverage, walk down into the box, or cover in the slot. In having to replace Newsome, a corner gone to the draft this past year, Northwestern could lean on Joseph more for his coverage abilities—good ball-tracking skills, sideline-to-sideline athleticism—but expect to see him all over the field. Joseph was the one who picked off Martinez last season.

The Number to Know

Northwestern’s defense ranked third nationally in yards per point last season, meaning teams had to march to score on the Cats. The lack of penalties helped there, but Northwestern wasn’t doing that because it was constantly forcing teams to go backwards (it was 112th nationally in sack rate). 

No, Northwestern was just a gigantic pain in the behind once you got into scoring range. In terms of points per scoring opportunity (drives that got past the Cats’ 40), they were the second-best defense at preventing points. Opponents averaged 2.1 points per trip, an absurd number. They were also the best defense in the country at preventing red zone touchdowns, giving up only eight in 27 trips (29.6%). When the field gets condensed, you have to be clean. Northwestern has made that tough. Can it do it again?

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