Football: Northwestern returns to Big Ten action against Nebraska on the road

Player+in+purple+jersey+makes+hand+motions

Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Ryan Hilinski calls out signals under center. The quarterback is starting his second consecutive game of the season against Nebraska.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Football


So far, Northwestern has had its hands full preparing for its first four opponents.

Indiana State didn’t have a season in 2020. The Wildcats hadn’t played Ohio since 2008 and Duke since current New York Giants starter Daniel Jones was the Blue Devils’ quarterback in 2018. Even Michigan State, NU’s Big Ten East foe, had radical roster turnover in the offseason and didn’t announce its starting quarterback until just before kickoff.

However, when the Cats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) roll into Lincoln to take on their first Big Ten West opponent of the season in Nebraska (2-3, 0-2), NU will face a known commodity in the Cornhuskers. But that familiarity won’t make the path to a victory at 85,000-seat Memorial Stadium any easier. 

“From the minute you get in the building, they put the pressure on you,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to put together a good game plan and we gotta execute it, we’ve got to find a way to be there in the fourth quarter and find a way to win.”

Two of Nebraska’s familiar faces — junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and coach Scott Frost —  have been with the team since 2018. Last season, the dual-threat Martinez rushed for 102 yards on 13 carries in the Cornhuskers’ matchup against NU, but struggled against the Cats’ secondary with no passing touchdowns and an interception courtesy of safety Brandon Joseph. 

“Adrian’s a human highlight reel, he has been since he’s gotten there,” Fitzgerald said. “Adrian’s gonna make his plays, we’ve just got to make sure we don’t make those mistakes for explosive (plays) or even more deadly touchdowns.”

Along with Martinez’s knack for big plays in both the passing and rushing attacks, the Cats are alert to the strong play of the Cornhuskers’ defense. Nebraska held No. 6 Oklahoma to 23 points, then prevented No. 17 Michigan State — a team that ran for 326 yards against the Cats in their season opener — from picking up a first down in the second half of their matchup. 

Even though the Cornhuskers lost both games, dropping below .500, Nebraska’s stout defensive showings against ranked opponents have the Cats preparing for a challenge in the trenches.

“(The Cornhuskers) throw a lot at you so it’ll be tough for us,” sophomore offensive lineman Peter Skoronski said. “We’ve got to be great in our preparation and our intensity this week and be physical because you know they’re going to bring it.”

Another priority for NU’s offense will be preparing sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski in his first Big Ten start. Hilinski took a backseat in the Cats’ 35-6 win over Ohio with just 88 passing yards on 12-20 passing. While NU has reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Evan Hull in the backfield, Nebraska is no FCS defense. 

Still, Hilinski demonstrated chemistry with the Cats’ starting receivers — 86 of his 88 passing yards went to NU’s top three targets — and played nearly mistake-free football, a priority after NU’s nightmarish loss to Duke. After a tumultuous opening month for the Cats’ quarterback room, Saturday will be a prime opportunity for Hilinski to solidify his grasp on the starting job. 

Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has played the Cats ten times, with each squad taking five games. NU boasts more recent success, winning two Big Ten West titles in the past three seasons while Frost has yet to lead the Cornhuskers to a winning record. But the matchups have been characterized by physicality and have been decided in the final minutes. 

NU is expecting a similar contest for this year’s primetime matchup. 

“You’ve got to up your level of physicality and really make sure that (the games) are some of your most physical of the year,” sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher said. “I’m excited.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

Related Stories:

—  Football: After offensive success against Ohio, Northwestern prepares for test of Nebraska’s defense

Northwestern’s Big Ten-leading punt return unit may be X-Factor against struggling Nebraska special teams

“It had a Super Bowl-feel”: Remembering Northwestern’s 28-25 victory over No. 9 Nebraska 10 years ago