Football: Wildcats looks to gain edge in Big Ten West race against Nebraska


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Peyton Ramsey holds the ball out for Drake Anderson on an RPO. The graduate quarterback will lead the Cats in the next step of their chase for a Big Ten West title against Nebraska.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor


On election night, the road to the presidency ran through Nebraska. So too, it appears, will Northwestern’s race toward a Big Ten West title.

The Wildcats welcome the Cornhuskers to Ryan Field on Saturday, looking for their first 3-0 start to Big Ten play in 20 years and to cross another name off the list of obstacles standing between them and a trip to Indianapolis.

The third game of a season isn’t usually seen as very consequential, but this is 2020. The race for the crown in the West is already tightening: Preseason Top 25 teams Iowa and Minnesota are 0-2 on the year; Illinois is winless and managing a number of COVID-19 cases; and No. 10 Wisconsin’s entire season is in flux after two cancelled games because of a COVID-19 outbreak of its own.

NU (2-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is tied with Purdue at the top of the division, and will face the team next week on Nov. 14. That matchup in West Lafayette could determine the fate of the division, but it won’t be as important for the Cats if they can’t take down Nebraska.

And the Huskers are coming in hungry. Nebraska was the school most openly calling to play a fall season all the way back in August, but has already seen its 2020 campaign dealt a number of hurdles. The Huskers lost their opener in a 52-17 drubbing to No. 5 Ohio State, and then saw their Week 2 matchup with Wisconsin canceled, meaning they’ll come into Evanston with a full extra week of preparation under their belt.

“It’s a big advantage for Nebraska,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. “They had a week off to rest up, they obviously got a chance to watch us play. We were in a four-quarter war and a really physical game (against Iowa) … we just have to get recovered.”

The two NUs have an exciting recent history. Nebraska holds a 5-4 edge in the series since joining the Big Ten in 2010, and the two most recent matchups have ended with their fair share of dramatic field-goal flare. The Huskers clinched a 13-10 win in Lincoln with a walk-off 24-yard kick in 2019, while the Cats won it in overtime with a Drew Luckenbaugh game-winner at home in 2018.

Saturday’s contest should be just as interesting. Despite having only played one game, Nebraska owns the country’s 23rd-ranked offense in ESPN’s SP+ rankings, while NU claims the country’s third-best defense.

“They kind of whipped us on that (defensive) side of the ball last year, and they look the same or better this year,” Huskers coach Scott Frost said Monday. “Their offense, I think so far through two games is doing a lot better than they did last year, and looks to be pretty good to me. They’re always going to be a smart, physical, disciplined team on both sides of the ball.”

Nebraska’s biggest threat comes in the form of its two-quarterback system. Junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey split time in the loss to the Buckeyes. Martinez, a three-year starter, finished with 85 rushing and 105 passing yards, while McCaffrey — the younger brother of former Stanford running back Christian and current Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey — added nine carries for 80 yards and four completions.

NU last faced a two-quarterback system of this style against Indiana in 2019, when one of those signal-callers was none other than current Cats quarterback Peyton Ramsey. The team’s defense struggled against that attack, allowing the Hoosiers 34 points and more than 400 total yards of offense.

“It’s going to be a challenge most definitely,” said senior linebacker Paddy Fisher. “They’re both tremendous athletes and passers, so it’s going to be difficult for us to come up with a game plan to stop both of those two and really limit them.”

Nebraska’s defense allowed 52 points to Ohio State, but Fitzgerald still sees it as a threat. The Huskers will be down two starting defensive backs, junior Cam Taylor-Britt at cornerback and senior Deontai Williams at safety, after they were both ejected from the Oct. 24 game for targeting.

That could give Ramsey and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian an opportunity to test their air attack after a run-heavy week at Iowa. Ramsey threw 27 completions for 351 yards — his second-most of the 2019 season — and added two touchdowns when beating the Huskers 38-31 with Indiana last year.

“They play with tempo, they attack you schematically with formations and shifts and motions, and they do a great job from a talent standpoint,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s as good as anybody we’ll play all year. We’re going to have our hands full Saturday morning.”

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