Balk: After dismal start, Big Ten opener pivotal for Wildcats


Tim Balk, Managing Editor

It may only be Northwestern’s first Big Ten game of the season, but Saturday’s battle with Nebraska may still prove to be the program’s biggest in 2016.

Pat Fitzgerald knows what the Cats are up against in Nebraska. He uses words like “outstanding” and “consistent” to describe the No. 20 Cornhuskers, who enter this week fresh off a win over then-No. 22 Oregon. Those two words could hardly have described Nebraska last year, coach Mike Riley’s first in charge of the program, when it lost seven games, fell in an ugly defensive battle with Illinois and later — embarrassingly — dropped a defense-optional game against Purdue in which the Boilermakers scored 55 points.

Nebraska also lost to NU at home in a game that, in significant respects, defined the seasons of both teams. The Cats came out on the winning side of a back-and-forth battle, as a big afternoon from Clayton Thorson got NU to six wins, bowl eligibility and back into the Top 25. For the Cornhuskers, it was an unconscionable fifth loss of the season (their first at home) and ensured the season would be considered a bad one by the standards of a proud program.

This year the tables have turned: like NU last year, Nebraska is on the road, but enjoying a high after a non-conference win not unlike the Cats’ over Stanford a year ago. Like Nebraska last year, NU is desperate.

The Cats’ win over Duke helped stop the bleeding after NU’s nightmare start to the season, but for the second straight year, the Nebraska game is likely to determine the path of the Cats’ season.

A loss could be catastrophic for the team’s bowl aspirations. NU will follow the Cornhuskers with a brutal four-game stretch including road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. (A home game against No. 11 Wisconsin bookends the stretch.) Entering that gauntlet with a 1-3 record would all but guarantee the Cats’ third sub .500 record in four seasons.

Moreover, it would wipe away the good feelings from the Cats’ 10-win 2015 campaign and cement non-conference disasters as the defining moments of the team’s September.

Avoiding such a result won’t be easy. Nebraska boasts a potent rushing attack led by a gifted dual-threat quarterback in Tommy Armstrong. The Cornhuskers defensive secondary is also much improved after often getting torched last year.

“(Their) secondary jumps off the tape,” Fitzgerald said at his Monday press conference. “It’s a veteran group. … You can just see them playing real, real fast.”

Not good news for an NU team that has experimented with a more pass-heavy approach this season to mixed results. Unlike a year ago, these Cats will have to throw the ball successfully to keep their season afloat.

The lights will be rolled up to Ryan Field on Saturday, and, unlike the Duke game last week, the prime time vibe won’t belie the game’s importance. This one’s a biggie. Under the lights and against a ranked team.

“The season’s really just 12 different opportunities to go 1-0,” junior running back Justin Jackson said before the Duke game.

This week, it’s particularly crucial the Cats do exactly that.

Tim Balk is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.