Did everyone get their laughs at Northwestern’s expense in after the Wildcats started 0-2 with home losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State? Good. Because while neither loss was a good one, of course, they probably didn’t change much about how good, bad or mediocre this Northwestern team was entering the season. From Nebraska’s perspective, this game is as tough as it looked back in August.
We knew the Wildcats where the opposite of the Huskers last year in that Northwestern won a bunch of close games. The roles have (not unexpectedly) flipped early in 2016. Northwestern, according to Football Study Hall, had a 64 percent win expectancy against a good Western Michigan squad but still lost. That’s post-game, based on the stats, not pre-game. The Illinois State loss wasn’t as big of a missed opportunity on paper (26 percent), but losses to FCS foes will always be viewed as total collapses.
Nebraska, on the other hand, won last week with a win expectancy of 18 percent. Husker fans are feeling like it’s about time Nebraska got one of those kind of wins, but don’t discount that part of it either. Fortune may have favored the Huskers last week.
Long intro, short: Northwestern has plenty of issues at this stage in the season, but to look at the Wildcats simply as the team that lost to Illinois State at home probably isn’t the fairest view.
THE LINE: Nebraska opened as a 6-point favorite but the line is up to 7.5 (or thereabouts) now. That extra point-and-a-half could be big as the football computers have this line trending at Nebraska -6.29.
THE RANKINGS: Based on the above, you can pretty safely assume that Northwestern actually is about the 58th-best team in the country. Only S&P+ has Northwestern lower, and that is also the ranking that has the Huskers the lowest. Nebraska took a major jump up in the FEI (drive-based) rankings, but on average a ranking of 20th feels about right for the Huskers right now.
Here are six stats to keep an eye on in this Nebraska-Northwestern game:
1. Protect Pay Dirt
Northwestern’s offense — currently last in the Big Ten at 4.82 yards per play — isn’t doing much of anything well at this point, but it may be struggling the most at finishing drives. An average college football offense can be expected to score somewhere around 4.4 points every time it has a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line (i.e. a scoring opportunity). Northwestern’s currently averaging 3.47 points per scoring opportunity. Based on the scoring opportunities Northwestern has created, the average college football team should’ve scored 66 points through three games but the Wildcats only came away with 52. Nebraska’s defense has done a pretty good job at limiting the damage (3.43 points per opportunity) this season, though that number is bolstered by three missed field goals.
It goes without saying that Nebraska will be better off in this game if it comes away with a few stops in its own end, but it’s better to think in terms of ratios and relationships here. Northwestern is basically as bad at finishing drives after three games as Nebraska is good at preventing scores in the same situation. If the Huskers get one or two stops inside their own 40 — I don’t think it will take many because I don’t expect Northwestern to make six or more trips that deep — and the Wildcats’ average is somewhere around 3.5, Nebraska will be fine.
Anything higher than that and Northwestern’s showing something it hadn’t been able to do very well so far this season. (Note: This stat match up works just as well the other way, too: Nebraska’s offense is good at finishing drives, Northwestern’s defense is great at limiting the damage.)
Stat to Watch: Northwestern’s offensive points per trip inside the 40 (Number to hit: 3.5)
2. Test the Air
Last year’s Nebraska-Northwestern game is perhaps most notable for how the Wildcats stonewalled the Huskers’ run game (2.16 yards per carry). Northwestern is still pretty stout against the run in 2016 from a yards perspective — the efficiency numbers are another matter — and there will probably be some times on Saturday when Nebraska will have to make some tough passes to win. The good news is, that’s a pretty fascinating match up.
Passing downs, so named because a defensive can reasonably expect its opponent to pass, are not an offensive coordinator’s friend. On average, an offense’s success rate in those situations is about 31 percent, meaning the offense gets enough yards to get back “on schedule” or make a first down. Nebraska just happens to be one of the best teams in the country when it’s behind the chains. Through three games, Nebraska has passed it about 75 percent of the time in those situations and the Huskers’ passing-down success rate is at 39.6 percent, 16th nationally. That’s a pretty strong performance in situations when the defense has the edge.
Northwestern’s defense is even better in those situations with a passing-downs success rate of 16.2 percent, which ranks ninth nationally. The Wildcats are dealing with some injuries in the secondary, but this should still be a strength-on-strength battle and one of those hidden things that could decide the game. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if Northwestern remains stout against the run, so Nebraska’s ability to keep hitting via the pass could be the Huskers’ best path forward. One of the ways Nebraska gets into trouble in this one is if Northwestern is winning on passing downs.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s passing-downs success rate. (Number to hit: 34 percent)
3. The Big Red Run
Nebraska has had an efficient run game, which I assume pleases Mike Riley, but it sure hasn’t been explosive. The Huskers have hit teams for plenty of 10- to 19-yard gains, but Nebraska has just two gains of 20-plus yards (100th nationally) and neither has come from a running back. Snapping that streak against Northwestern will be a tall order. The Wildcats are one of just six teams nationally that has yet to give up a run of 20-plus yards.
Can the Huskers hit one? Can it come from a running back? That will be mostly a curiosity, though, if a couple of those gains do happen, it might be a sign that Nebraska’s cracking the game open a bit. For that reason, explosive running plays probably aren’t essential for the Huskers to win, but it should be fun to monitor.
And if they don’t come in the run game, Nebraska will more than take them via the pass as Northwestern is still really good at preventing the big play overall. In fact, it’s the one thing it does best.
State to Watch: Nebraska’s explosive running plays. (Number to hit: 2)
Three More to Monitor
Nebraska’s Solo Tackles: The Huskers defense has made some gains but there’s still room for improvement. One area, however, that perhaps best represents year one to year two growth, however, is tackling. Mark Banker’s Oregon State defenses often had that 11-men-to-the-ball look; when things were working the Beavers were swarming. Last year 57.4 percent of the Huskers’ tackles were solo tackles. This year it’s down to 51.6 percent. Some of this is offense dependent because certain offenses are better at putting teams in one-on-one tackling situations. Northwestern’s offense, somewhat surprisingly, is doing a good job of getting players in space. It leads the Big Ten actually, with a solo tackles against percentage of 71.43 percent, which can be a good news-bad news scenario. Maybe you’re getting the match ups you want, but you’re still getting tackled.
Tommy Armstrong’s Passer Rating: A strange one and not one I typically pay attention to, but so far this season Armstrong has been better than the (perhaps overly cautious) benchmarks I laid out during the summer. That’s good news for Nebraska, but this is certainly the best defense the Huskers have faced thus far.
Turnovers: Oh, you thought we were done with this topic since the Huskers are comfortably resting in the top five in turnover margin? Nebraska has been a little lucky on that front in 2016. A team can expect to lose/recover half of its fumbles/opponent fumbles and about 20 percent of passes defended should be interceptions. Using those rates, Nebraska’s way ahead of the game so far. Offensively, the Huskers should have 6.2 giveaways. They actually have two. Defensively, Nebraska should have 4.7 takeaways. Instead it has eight, mostly because it’s intercepted 43.75 percent of the passes it has gotten a hand on (remember, the expected rate here is 20 percent). There will be no problems if those trends continue for the Huskers, it’s just unlikely that they will.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.